An Interview with William T. Vollmann
He has watched his friend shot and killed right in front of him in a war zone, he loves prostitutes (and has a very understanding wife) and has been known to toke on some crack.
His unique voice produces seemingly effortless prose. His back catalogue is massive and includes the seven volume 3,352 page work, Rising Up and Rising Down. That’s like writing the bible. Twice.
I hung out with Vollmann at his hotel room at The Rex on Post St. in San Francisco during the book tour of Europe Central.
Let’s talk about your writing process, your creative process. The material you pump out is a good quantity. You’re writing everyday I assume.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Whenever I can, morning, noon and night.
You definitely have a unique voice. For a beginning writer, how would someone get to that type of unique voice or how did you acquire that yourself?
I guess you have to start by as Hemingway says, write about what you know, which is usually yourself… and trying to have as many experiences as you can and read as widely as you can so that you’re capable of creating different voices and knowing more.
Speaking of experience, you’re the king of experience when it comes to what you’ve been through, your experience in war zones, etc. Do you feel the drive to really pursue the edge?
Well, I feel that I’ve learned enough to be able to write fiction and nonfiction about it. You know Rising up and Rising Down was sort of my life’s work and I went through all those war zones so I could explain what I thought about violence and I’ve done that. When I wrote Europe Central, I was able to imagine myself into the heads of some of these characters in part because I’ve had a few experiences of war myself. I don’t need to do that anymore for those reasons but I would gladly do it if I thought I could make a difference. If I thought that I could help people in the war zones or if I thought I could help Americans understand what I thought our government was doing wrong, then of course I would consider it my obligation to do it.
So your work is really a way of opening up to people who aren’t able to have those experiences and showing them what’s going on in the world.
In a way. You know in Europe Central it’s too easy just to say, "Oh, the Nazis were terrible, the Stalinists were awful." And that’s true, but where do you go from there? If you can realize the deeper truth, which is not only that were they terrible but if I were born in that time and place, I probably would’ve been one. And even if I resisted with all my being, I would still have characteristics of one, no matter what I did.
Just as in this society, everyone thinks that money is the most important value… to such an extent that it’s become invisible. Parents tell their children, you know you have to learn how to sell yourself. Of course they’re outraged by prostitutes selling themselves, but that’s what we are, we’re a culture of prostitutes. It’s a completely different value than is held by so many people in the world. And one of the reasons that we can’t understand other people better is because we can’t possibly imagine that they don’t share that value. But they don’t.
So if you were born in the third Reich, and all you ever heard was that Germany was the greatest and the Jews were very dangerous and poisonous and Slavs were inferior and this and that, maybe you could, if you were really compassionate and brave, throw some of that off. But deep down, you would probably still feel somewhat good about Germany. You know you would still think, oh Germany is a really progressive place and probably the rest of the world is a little primitive. That’s probably the best you could do.
Speaking of prostitution, you did live in the Tenderloin for a while or were you doing research for your…
I spent a lot of time in the Tenderloin, yes.
Especially with The Royal Family, was that for research for that book, and for Whores of Gloria?
Yeah, that’s right.
Was that for research, in your mind, or were you just trying to experience it and then pulled creativity out of it?
Well, I wanted to come there and learn. I didn’t know what the people were going to be like when I first started coming and I tried not to have preconceptions and just go and have the experience and take notes and repeat the process, until gradually over years, I began to be able to create prostitute characters. It’s much harder to create a fictional character than to write about a living person. You have to see lots and lots of living people of these types in order to make up somebody who represents the type. But at the same time isn’t just a concatenation of real people. So you know it’s a real challenge.
What got your writing bug started?
I was always that way even when I was a little kid.
With the immersion and research, was that started young or was that developed over the years?
Well I’ve really enjoyed reading, so I’m sure that’s where it comes from. I’m very happy researching these books; it’s really exciting for me.
You deal with really serious topics, but there’s a lot of humor in there, too.
I do my best.
Do you feel your fictionalization of true historical events, is that a statement to how supposed history is absolute truth, when we read history?
I think literal histories are essential. At the same time I think that a literary portrayal of an historical event can bring out other sides, can make it somehow more immediate to the read. You know we can read any number of buried descriptions of what happened in General Vlasoff’s (a character and historical person from Europe Central) life, but I feel that I make him real. The paradox of fiction of course is you make things real by making them up. The main thing is you remain relatively faithful to the facts and say okay, if I were this person, how would I get from point A to point B and why. Then if nothing else, you can instill a temporary empathy for general Vlasoff and people can kind of follow his career a little bit and meditate of all the paradoxes in it.
I've been trying to figure out how a holocaust can happen, with a whole nation going along with it, but after reading Europe Central, you can see really being in the fever of what's going on and Germany trying to make it's own name and the excitement of that.
Everyone's always looking for someone to blame. It's always easier blaming someone else for your problems than solving them yourself. Right now for instance, if we had a terrorist attack that was, you know, was grander in scale than September 11, say a suitcase Nuke goes off in Los Angeles or whatever, maybe it wouldn't be very problematic for many people in our society if we put all the Arab Americans in interment camps, like we did the Japanese Americans. That can quickly happen. If people can somehow be convinced that al-Qaeda cells are everywhere and these Arab Americans are extremely dangerous, you know, probably a lot of them could be murdered. You can see how easily those things can happen.
A lot of it has to do with lack of information. And most Americans are pretty ignorant, because the media just portrays Americans to America, so that's all we know. So a lot of people can't tell the difference between a Sikh wearing a turban and a Muslim wearing a hajib. So when you don't have information and somebody from this category has done something wicked, it's very human to think that everyone from this category is dangerous.
That just brought to mind your portrayal of prostitutes, because, you know as a whole they're looked down upon, but you bring a lot of empathy towards those characters.
I have a lot of love and respect for prostitutes.
And they're kind of keeping it real at the very core, like you said earlier, we're all kind of prostitutes in certain ways.
Of course they're out to get what they can, and take advantages of the johns occasionally. They rob them, they give them disease, well, that's life, that's how people are. And at the same time, they make their customers very happy, they keep marriages together, they console lonely people. I think they're very, very spiritual in what they do.
Speaking of spiritual, especially reading your latest book, some of it felt like parables from the bible, do you feel that influence in your writing?
Definitely a lot of the stories are parables. I was reading "Operation Magic Fire" (a chapter from Europe Central) last night, at Booksmith, and that's the parable of the guy who takes responsibility for everyone, so you think, oh, he's sort of a Jesus figure in a way, except that he's absolutely vile. I'm very interested in the Bible, not just in the Bible, but a lot of spiritual text.
The way you write is so conversational. Does it come easy for you?
Sometimes I can get a sentence right the first time. Other times it takes 40 or 50 times to get it right. It all depends. It needs to feel easy and look natural. If it's not, then you don't have the touch and you're not doing it right.
As far as editors at the publisher go, do they pull their hair out to try to get you to cut even more than...
Oh, sure, I never cut anything that I don't want them to cut. Sometimes they cut my royalties instead. That's ok.
Were your royalties cut on Europe Central?
No, I was lucky.
They were cut on The Royal Family.
Yeah, and on Argall too. With Europe Central I had a chronology at the end. A very detailed chronology, basically from about a little bit before Hitler’s birthday until about the late 1980's, and just everything having to do with all the characters, and what happened when in World War II, in World War I and so on… all the stuff I thought was important, it was maybe 24 pages or something. Viking asked me to cut it. I thought about it, and my first reaction was just to say no, as I always do, and I knew that they only wanted me to cut it to save paper, and I bristled at that. Then I thought about it and decided that since it wasn't one of the seven dreams, and there are all the source notes anyway, that probably it's not necessary, so it's probably okay to let it go.
I don't feel any regret about it and it does tighten up the book a little bit, but it's very very rare that I agree with suggestions to cut.
Have you been working with the same publisher for most of your books?
I worked with Viking for many of my books.
What are your influences, whether artists or other things?
I like Tolstoy, Lady Mira sake, Lautreamont, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Norse sagas, those are some of my influences.
Any current journalism projects?
I just finished doing something for Playboy, with my button camera in fact, for my Imperial Valley book, we will see what comes next.
What was the content from your button camera?
I went into a bunch of factories, in Mexico, these machiadoras, Ford owned factories, to look for mistreatment of the workers.
There were some bad things but not as bad as I would've expected, so that's good.
Was that when you had the problem getting the button camera back over the border?
I used the button camera off and on several times, and I had a particular problem in January. I was detained at the border for five hours and they called the FBI and I was treated like a criminal.
Did they recognize who you were, were there any fans among the heathens?
No, they went off and after a while they said, “Mr. Vollmann, we found out quite a lot about you." I said, “Oh good, whatever.”
Speaking more of the situations you've been in war zones countries or other similar situations, how do you handle the fear? I know you've been shot at, I'm sure there's a lot of other stories you can go on and on about. How do you handle that?
Well, you just have to make your best plan, like a good boy scout and figure out what might happen and make every effort you can to protect yourself in advance. Buy the best equipment, make the best friends, figure out the best route, know exactly what you're going to do, then once you have all that in place, you have to trust your plan and trust the people you've picked and be open and flexible and submit to the situation and just try to have a positive attitude, because once you're there, you can't control what's going to happen too much, and you have to be ready to be killed. And if that happens, hopefully you won’t have too many regrets. And if it doesn't happen, you squeak through to do it again another time.
It's not so bad. You know really, the people who choose to do that, the journalists, the people like me, if anything happens to us, we are less to be pitied than the people who are trapped and don't choose to go in that situation.
Do you have to be really comfortable with your own mortality?
You bet, absolutely.
Is death not that scary for you?
Well, it's always scary and it'll get you sooner or later, and since it's going to get you sooner or later and it's scary, then why not do what you want to do. You're not going to be immortal by refusing to take chances… I think it's kind of liberating to be mortal and it really it can't be much worse than it already is; therefore, why worry?
Have you had any interest from movie studios trying to get rights to your books?
Yeah, I wrote two screenplays on commission for two different studios, but they were never produced.
Of course, was the money decent?
Yeah it was like 20k for one and 30k for the other so it wasn't bad. It took me five or six hours in each case, so I can't complain.
You busted out a screenplay in five or six hours?
Well, I just cut out all the descriptions pretty much and wherever there was dialogue, I just added some capital letters and colons and it was all set to go.
I have friends who will listen to this and just cringe. Do you write on computer or longhand?
If I go someplace like the Congo or a war zone or something, it's crazy to take a laptop, where it would just get stolen, and there's no reliable electricity. But I'll be going to Japan next month and I'll be bringing my laptop.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
I would say, don't fixate on getting published because that's really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they're thrilled. That's just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put "copyright by" on every page of the manuscript, and they're so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That's like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.
You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you're an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you're going to do that, that means you're willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you're on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?
I run a literary webzine, and when I get submissions that have the copyright on every page, those are always the worst writers.
Yeah, isn't that sad?
How long did you live in the Tenderloin?
I just came in on and off. I would just stay at one of the hotels, sometimes I still occasionally stay there. You know, I like the kind of hotel, where you don't have to buy your own crack because the crack smoke kind of drifts through the walls from an adjacent room, and you can just enjoy the fragrance.
You've smoked crack in the past?
I guess that I would say that I have.
Is it a really great buzz?
It's like if you haven't had coffee for a long time, then you have really strong coffee. It's like that, only more so.
Thanks for talking with me.
Thank you Tony for taking the interest and thank you for your nice comments on my book, I appreciate it.
--Tony DuShane hosts the radio show Drinks with Tony and edits the literary ‘zine Cherry Bleeds.