Friday, June 21, 1996

An Interview with William T. Vollmann (my first cover story)

A cover-story interview with William T. Vollmann, discussing his book The Atlas
Published June 21st, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Who in the World is William T. Vollmann?
Violence, Carnage, Prostitution, Drugs… Vollmann Documents Decay and Creates Beauty in The Atlas

By William T. Vollmann
Viking, $25.95

Every generation or so, an emerging writer does something new with the English language. These writers re-teach us how to read, confound our sensibilities, and leave critics scrambling for adjectives extravagant enough to describe their work. In this century, there’s been Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon—and now there’s William T. Vollmann.

Like the rest of these artists, Vollmann is unclassifiable, a peculiar and perplexing mystery. Because of his outrageous style, he’s often pigeonholed as “Pynchon-esque” or “Gaddis-esque” by critics, but Vollmann defies categorization.

When I met him for our interview, he was wearing a buttoned-up plaid shirt, high-top tennis shoes, a backpack strapped snugly on both shoulders, and glasses secured with an elastic band. He almost looked like a child dressed for school. Almost overly friendly, he spoke slowly and smiled a lot as we drove to the Seward Cafe for lunch, chatting about himself, books, the weather—whatever came to mind.

Despite his disarming appearance, Vollmann, like Proust or Kafka, is hyper-observant—a meticulous scrutinizer of people and situations; obviously something was going on beneath our pre-interview conversation. He ate his gazpacho, gripping his spoon like a little kid, and seemed to scan the room for material for his next book.

But it was his current book, The Atlas, that was the subject at hand. The series of fifty-three interconnected stories in The Atlas is, as Vollmann writes in his “Compiler’s Note” at the beginning of the book, “arranged palindromically: the motif in the first story is taken up again in the last; the second story finds its echo in the second to last, and so on.” By Vollmann’s standards, the stories are short—anywhere from a paragraph to twenty pages long. This shorter form, Vollmann says, was inspired by Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I tried writing long things,’” Vollmann said, “‘and I really like these Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. Let’s see if I can do some.’ And I really enjoyed the form.” He added his own distinctive spin, of course, writing a collection with a larger coherence, stories that are, as Vollmann says, “interconnected just the way the world is interconnected.”

Blending autobiography, fiction, self-styled myth, and reportage, Vollmann describes these stories as “a piecemeal atlas of the world I think in.” His range of topics is nearly encyclopedic, writing with equal ease about Native Americans, the Bible, prostitutes, war, mosquitoes, crack, and kickboxing. In one particularly harrowing story, “Blood,” the protagonist has unprotected sex with an AIDS-infected prostitute to prove that he loves her, and “The Hill of Gold” retells the story of the Roman conquest of Masada, using Bible-like chapters and verses to create a new kind of mythology.

In the center of the palindrome is a much longer piece called “The Atlas”: a surrealistic account of a man’s (Vollmann’s?) train ride through Canada. The story portrays an entire lifetime over the course of a few days. The man’s memory drifts all over the physical and emotional globe, calling up wars, first loves, and dead friends, fashioning a panoramic and intensely personal view of one man’s history. The Atlas is meant in part to be a culmination of a lot of themes that Vollmann has dealt with in his career, and the title story is an even more condensed version of Vollmann’s fictional world.

Vollmann combines this compression of themes and concerns with a density of prose that’s rarely found in modern fiction. For example, in the story “The Atlas” he writes:

He brought his lips to the ice, which at first was merely a glittering white surface of giant grains and crystals under the blue sky, but as the purple cumuli drew across heaven like the underside of a metal drawer the ice turned bluer and cooler-looking with a yellow line of evil running across its surface, parallel to the horizon—he had a longing to devour the horizons of the world; and he remembered the white line where the wintry noon ended in Nevada, immense and fluffy, shooting cloud-stuff up into the sky like some defense against falling stars, so vast and triumphant and far away across the plains of tan, rust and beige. His lips did not stick to the ice yet.

As the story builds, its seemingly unrelated narrative threads cross and recross until the reader unwittingly attains a grand, transcendent vision of this character’s life.

Loneliness drives many of Vollmann’s characters—and possibly Vollmann himself—into war zones, crack houses, and brothels. In the afterward of 1989’s The Rainbow Stories, Vollmann claims that most of the stories in that book—many of which deal with prostitution—are true. In the Seward Cafe, Vollmann was unabashed.

“Yeah, I’ve smoked crack. I’ve had sex with prostitutes,” he says. “Have you ever read Stephen Crane? When you read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets you get the impression that he [Crane] might have hung out with these people [prostitutes], but the actual descriptions of her being a prostitute are not very full or very convincing. Either he did it and didn’t feel comfortable writing about it, or else he didn’t do enough of it.”

That night at The Hungry Mind bookstore, Vollmann was equally frank before the packed crowd of cultish fans and curious spectators. “When I travel it’s important for me to make connections in the city,” he said, “to find someone who will take care of me—like a big sister—and who better than a prostitute?”

One angry attendee, who admitted to having never read Vollmann’s work, berated him: “You’re just adding to the literature of prostitution, which just perpetuates exploitation.”

“I’ve done more for prostitutes than you have!” Vollmann answered, resolute. “When I was in Thailand, I kidnapped a twelve-year-old slave prostitute and placed her in a convent. Now she’s learning to sew and can lead a normal life.”

Vollmann’s detractors fail to see that his literary treatment of prostitution is not celebratory, nor is it exploitive or degrading. It’s simply honest. Vollmann feels that these marginalized women deserve representation.

“And,” Vollmann added, “you should write about what you know, just like Hemingway said.”

Like Hemingway, Vollmann works as a war correspondent, a job that recently took him to Sarajevo. There he wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times and did a series of broadcasts for the BBC called “The Yugoslav Notes.”

“All that material,” he said, “will end up in this long violence book that I’m writing.” Vollmann has been working on the book—a nonfictional study of violence that is already 1,500 pages long—for several years. “That’s why I’ve been going to so many war zones.”

“All three of the Sarajevo stories [in The Atlas] are literally true,” Vollmann says. One story, “That’s Nice,” describes the main character’s almost surreal struggle with the owner of a rental car that had been destroyed by shelling. As it turns out, Vollmann and two of his friends were in the car when it was hit. Everyone except Vollmann died. “One of them was my high school friend, my translator,” Vollmann says. “The other was another journalist that we met who was traveling with us.”

Vollmann has often been to southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Cambodia, where, he says, “it’s so easy to meet all kinds of insurgents, politicians, to say nothing of prostitutes who like you.” He had planned on meeting Pol Pot, the former dictator of Cambodia whose Khmer Rouge killed more than one million people. He was believed to be hiding out in China, and an interview with him would have been the crowning achievement for the violence book, but Pol Pot died just a few weeks ago (soon after our interview took place).

Ugliness attracts Vollmann; he immerses himself in it; he befriends it. Often his work is a dialogue with violence. While writing one piece for The Rainbow Stories, “The White Knights,” Vollmann hung out with the S.F. Skinz, a group of San Francisco neo-Nazis. Near the end of the story, he let them read the in-progress work to check its accuracy.

“I think that’s just a decent, human thing that anyone could do,” he says, “because if you’re letting somebody into your world, the person’s studying you like a bug or something, then maybe that person’s gonna get something wrong.” The skinheads liked the story, although they told him that it had “too many run-on sentences,” a line that he included in the story.

This openness and lack of prejudice allows for a closeness to the subject that’s almost terrifying, and maybe not for everyone.

“They weren’t bad people, for the most part,” Vollmann says. “Some of them did bad things. If you just say they do bad things, that doesn’t really let you understand them. Every person deserves to be respected and be listened to and understood. I don’t care whether he’s Jesus Christ or Hitler. And chances are, if we could meet both of those guys right here and sit them side by side and talk to them, we might think that maybe Jesus wasn’t as impressive as he was cracked up to be, and maybe Hitler wasn’t one hundred percent evil either, because it’s hard to imagine somebody being one hundred percent one way or another.”

After our interview, I went with Vollmann to the Uptown store Dreamhaven, where he bought two books on bondage. Later I took him for a drive through south Minneapolis, showing him the action on East Lake Street.

“This is where I live,” I said as I drove him through my neighborhood, pointing out crack houses, prostitutes, and gangsters.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it’s pretty nice.”

—David Wiley