Interview with William T. Vollmann

Ben Bush


William Vollmann has written many, many books, with most of them clocking in at around 1,000 pages. He recently won the National Book Critics Award for Europe Central, a series of linked short stories dealing with the World War II conflict between Germany and Russia. His 3,500+ page epic examination of the history and motives of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, was published unabridged by McSweeney’s in 2003. His signature topics include crack, prostitution and the European conquest/slaughter of North America, as well as his own feats of journalistic derring-do in the world’s most heinous war zones. Vollmann has lived briefly at the magnetic north pole, interviewed opium warlords in southeast Asia and spent time with white supremacists and militant animal rights activists. His most recent book, Uncentering the Earth, examines the social impact following Copernicus’ discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe. It is a story of the complexities and imperfections of the natural world butting heads with the elegance of ideology. I spoke with him over the telephone from his home in suburban Sacramento.

Q: After completing Rising Up and Rising Down, I’ve heard you say that your research into violence––which you had thought of as your life’s work––was coming to an end and that you wanted to move on to other projects. Is that how you’re feeling still and how are those other projects coming?

V: Hold on one second, Ben. My little girl is here and she is playing with all my old boy scout mess kits. I’m just telling her that it’s okay for her to use them as a drum. I will vacate the room. [laughs] Hey Lisa, spread out that stuff and you can bang as much as you want. I’m going to talk to Ben downstairs.

Anyway, when I think of the things I’m working on now, I’m interested in other aspects of human experience as well. This book I’m writing about Noh theater is a very, very happy book even though many of the plays are tragedies, but it’s focusing on what makes art beautiful and how to best represent feminine beauty. So, that’s something I really enjoy. And then my book about the California-Mexico border, of course, it has some sad moments and so forth but really it’s just very relaxing and tranquility inducing for me to be studying the price of green beans over a hundred year period. It’s a lot of fun to think about and to see parables about America and the way that agriculture has altered and changed over the last century.

For instance, the ideal in Imperial County used to be the small family farm and then pretty soon the homestead itself wasn’t sufficient. People wanted things like washing machines, so they had to raise extra crops and sell them to get the cash to have these conveniences. And now raising the crops and so forth is basically for money and so it’s these huge agrobusinesses involved and the end result is that the land is so fertile and the technology has gotten so successful that there are constant crises of overproduction. During the depression they were taking truckloads of stuff from the Imperial Valley and dumping it in the ocean while people were starving.

Q: I’ve heard these legends of you firing blanks at literary readings. What prompted you to do that and what sort of reactions did you get?

V: Let’s say that writing is the score and the public reading is the performance of the score. If you’re trying to distill a 1000 page book into a thirty or forty minute reading, you take different sections. You’re going to pick sections that possibly contrast with each other or reflect on each other somehow. Since they’re pulled out of context they’re going to create a different impression than if you read them all the way through in a book. Sometimes in the course of abridging and isolating things you want to increase the dramatic tension or you want to punctuate what you’ve done, particularly if the pieces have to do with something suspenseful or violent or whatever. It’s entirely appropriate, I think. There’s this one piece that I used to read called “The Back of my Head” from The Atlas. It was about an experience that I had in Sarajevo where I was constantly being shot at, as was everyone else, going through sniper fire and this and that and I went to the morgue and saw all these awful things––people who had been shot. At one point I was outside, near the front line with a friend of mine and suddenly I felt a very sharp impact on the back of my head. I was sure that I’d been shot. I reached up and I touched the back of my head and my hand came away all wet and I thought, “Oh, this is really bad.” Then I saw that actually the stickiness wasn’t red and I realized finally that someone from a tall apartment nearby had thrown a peach pit down at the back of my head.

When I read the story I often pull the trigger when there are shots. There’s a loud bang from the blank and so on and then for that last experience when I describe that sudden impact, I pick up the pistol and I cock it and people are kind of bracing for the shot and so forth. When I read the part about the peach pit, it turns out nothing happened and I put the gun down and I don’t fire it. So that’s one example of how I think the gun can be effective and helpful to magnify the perception that I’m trying to convey, but for a lot of the books, like for the Copernicus book, there’s no reason to shoot off the gun.

Q: Get an astrolabe out in front of the audience instead?

V: And smash it to bits.

Q: You often seem a little frustrated with the direction of contemporary American literature. What are some of your grievances?

V: Well, the general level of literacy for writers and readers is far below what it used to be. And we now commonly see books in which people can’t get their possessives right. Publishers send out catalogues and you read the copy and it’s full of grammatical errors. In my parents’ generation and in my grandparents’ generation people really were much more connected to the written word. I won’t say that they were more intelligent or better educated necessarily because I’m sure that they knew far less about what’s going on in other parts of the world, and diversity, and tolerance, and the ecosystem and so forth and these are very important things, but there was a sense that most people with a basic education could read and take some pleasure in reading.

Now people like to write and express themselves but they often resent the work required to express themselves well or even to read books by dead people. It’s often been said that we’re midgets standing on the shoulders of giants and if you step off the giant’s shoulder you’re going to be that much shorter. I think it’s pathetic that readers and writers today are as ignorant as they are, ignorant even of foreign writing.

In the seventies, there used to be this Penguin “Writers From the Other Europe” series and I read a bunch of those books; that’s how I got introduced to people like Borowski, Kundera, Konwicki. It blew my mind. I thought they were great. When I talk with my editor at Viking I always say “Paul, why can’t you guys reissue those?” and he says, “It’ll never happen, there’s just no market for those.” And of course, Dalkey Archive had brought a couple of them back and so forth but it’s really sad. It’s really disturbing and it helps explain how people who are fundamentally good hearted and well meaning and sincere, as Americans are, could reelect a president who is a war criminal, who is a torturer, who has dragged and is dragging our name through the mud. And yet we can still find people who think that he’s the greatest and it’s because people here are so ignorant and so isolated. And I blame readers and writers for that.

Q: Almost your entire back catalogue is in print except for Afghanistan Picture Show. I thought that was interesting because Afghanistan Picture Show seems suddenly very topical again. I was wondering if there’s a hesitance to republish that because you were fighting on the side of people who have become associated with the enemy?

V: Yeah, I don’t know why. It was recently published in German and in Italian. Europeans tend to get a kick out of it because the main character is a naïve blundering American and that’s one of the hobbies of Europeans, to look down on Americans, and not always without good reason.

Q: What brought about your interest in Copernicus?

V: Well, I used to like H.P. Lovecraft when I was in high school and I think it was Fritz Leiber who called him “a literary Copernicus.” His reason was that Lovecraft took horror from the human heart, where it was all internal and he moved it way out into outer space, where human beings were insignificant and just the prey of Cthulhu and all these very powerful aliens. I always thought that was interesting and when I got a little older and was capable of thinking about things a little more seriously, I wondered what it was like to suddenly relegate the Earth from the center of the Universe to an orbiting planet.

So I was very curious to learn more about Copernicus and as I looked into it, of course, it turned out that it wasn’t sudden. Like most people in history, Copernicus had predecessors and he did part of the job but not all of the job, but to me that just made him all the more human and believable and a little bit more endearing in a way. I’m very impressed with this shy, reclusive guy who never saw a planet in his life except as a point of light and nevertheless worked out this mathematical system that wasn’t completely right but which was better than anything before and couldn’t really be explained away. So he did this amazing thing and then was kind of worried about what it was that he had done and what the implications might be, probably to himself personally but maybe also to his Catholic faith. He kept quiet until his deathbed and then afterwards people really suffered because of Copernicus.

Q: Did you go out stargazing working on the book?

V: I thought about doing it but then I thought that wouldn’t have been what Copernicus could have done. [The research of Copernicus predates the telescope.] I love astronomy books and for years I had one beautiful book of planets after another and I like looking at those and thinking about those. Copernicus says the moon is perfectly round and made out of perfect imperishable superlunary material–and here’s a picture of the moon with all of its craters and it’s beautiful in a way, but very different from what Copernicus could have imagined. It’s very interesting to think about that stuff.

Q: You sometimes talk about writing for future generations and also sometimes speak of writing not just for American audiences in mind. I’m wondering how writing for translation and future generations affects how you think about your work?

V: I just try to make the most beautiful interesting books that I can and if there is a reference that I think might date, if I can I’ll try to make it clear by context which a lot of people don’t do. But I just hope that the books will speak for themselves. They’re the best books I can make and I take a lot of pleasure and pride in writing them.

Q: What are some experiences that you treasure from your work in journalism?

V: Well, most of the case studies in Rising Up and Rising Down came about because I had a press card and a magazine was going to pay for those things. I’m doing the Noh book mostly on my own nickel and that gets expensive and there’s no way that I could have gone to Yemen and also tracked down the Opium King and also met the Yakuza and so on with my own resources, and even if I’d been independently wealthy, people would have been less interested in meeting me if I didn’t have the press card. So, I have to be grateful that I’ve seen as much as I have.

More of this interview is available on the Poets and Writers website