A Conversation With Best Debut Short Stories 2020 Author Matthew Jeffrey Vegari
“I wrote much of the story listening to jazz, including the title song, for inspiration on how to shift without imposing too much of a structure.”
Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth. Submissions for the 2021 awards are open now.
Matthew Jeffrey Vegari has published fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Boston Review, and Epiphany. He holds an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard College and a master’s degree in economics and management from the London School of Economics. He is at work on his first novel.
“Don’t Go to Strangers” was originally published in ZYZZYVA.
In the living room, two couples sit on opposite leather couches, one hand-in-hand, fingers laced around fingers, the other slightly apart, shoe heels touching on the shag carpet below. Another dinner party of friends and coworkers has ended, and the couples carry on even as they begin to forget their words. The women finish off tall glasses of champagne; the men gulp down warm bottles of beer. It is after ten. Everyone has gone home for the evening, with the exception of Alice and Trevor Jackson, who do not overstay their welcome. On the contrary, the hosts, Allen and Jane Mitchell, are pleased to have friends linger behind. Between the marriages of the Jacksons and Mitchells there are three girls and a boy, two children per couple, who are upstairs sleeping in the case of the Mitchells, or, for the Jacksons, a few miles east, watching a movie with a babysitter who has been told that things could end at any hour.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
Dinner parties feature regularly (and are perhaps overrepresented) in literature—and I love reading them. They are, however, in some ways better suited to the novel form, because the novel allows more room for character exploration and the buildup of prior conflict. When the dinner then arrives, the reader can hardly wait.
Short stories, by construction, demand compactness. I wasn’t sure how to make the stakes both high and low in a short story, so I opted for something a little more subdued: the end of a dinner party, no longer a dinner, no longer a party. What happens when the bustle (supposedly) dies down and lingering guests let alcohol and fatigue take over?
How long did it take you to write this story?
This story was the last story, and the title story, of my senior thesis in college. If I had to guess, it took a few months during my senior year to write on and off, mainly because it was the first time I had written in the present tense. The opening paragraph alone took so long, but when it clicked, it clicked.
The perspective throughout the story shifts so seamlessly — and almost imperceptibly — between the four main characters. By the end of a single evening, we know each one intimately and how they perceive each other. Can you talk a bit about how you approached constructing these revolving changes in point of view?
When I began writing this story, I knew I wanted to write from the perspectives of different people, but struggled with respect to craft. Coincidentally, I watched the first two seasons of a show called The Affair, which dealt, Rashomon-style, with the perspectives of four spouses. It gave me an idea of how I might portray the same scene but from alternating perspectives. The main difference from the show was that I didn’t want the character transitions to be too neat, i.e. Allen to Jane to Trevor to Alice back to Allen. So, I wrote much of the story listening to jazz, including the title song, for inspiration on how to shift without imposing too much of a structure.
At one point in the evening, Alice observes that “the Mitchells read fiction because their lives need to be thrown into relief.” What do you think is the role of fiction in our lives, and do you think different people read fiction — or nonfiction, for that matter — for different reasons?
People read fiction for many reasons. For distraction, for revelation, for entertainment, for inspiration. It differs from person to person, so I hesitate to provide a single reason why. The same is true for nonfiction. What I can say with certainty is that storytelling itself never loses relevance, and that though media may change (cave drawings, the oral tradition, plays, then prose), fiction stems from constant human desires. In other words, literature may have many roles, but those roles are everlasting.
So much of the dialogue in this story is internal. How did you choose when to make the shift and include what was being said out loud by the various characters?
I was very fortunate—and undeserving—to have Jamaica Kincaid as my writing mentor in college. She is not a teacher of so-called “rules,” and often insisted that I refrain from getting boxed into certain forms of punctuation or prose. One of very few recommendations she did have, however, was to use dialogue to say something that cannot be captured in prose. For example, two people can say “hello” to each other. Or you could just write, “The two greeted each other.” In this example, dialogue might offer very little. Depending on context, you’re almost wasting it.
Dialogue should instead be used to reveal something that is more poorly rendered by descriptive prose: does someone repeat certain sayings? does he say what he’s thinking? does she interrupt people? Dialogue is also, in my opinion, 1) very fun to write and 2) very fun to read.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
On a practical level, it has granted me increased exposure in publishing. On a personal level, it has given me that necessary bit of validation that, ok, maybe I’m not so crazy to love this thing called writing.
What are you working on now?
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
I love reading excerpts on Lit Hub! I also follow several publishers on Instagram.