We Can Learn Things When We’re Out There: A Conversation with William T. Vollmann

How could you possibly be blamed for that? The studio also reveals his less publicized interest in the visual arts. How have you chosen to do the things you’ve done, and how have they informed your writing? It’s more like the first reason I told you for having an experience, like riding the freight trains. It originally aired as a miniseries, but Berlin Alexanderplatz is the best movie ever made. It’s interesting to think about this idea of relativity in terms of the way that your books — and I’m thinking in particular about Europe Central — humanize characters. One is to go out and have some experience that you’re curious about and keep an open mind and then decide what you’re going to do with it, and that was what Thoreau always recommended. Have you considered writing about President Trump? Actually, I first got interested in prostitutes because I was a customer. Do you have the same amount of self-assurance in visual media as you do in your writing? At 832 pages, it’s a relatively quick read compared to the first edition of Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume treatise on violence that stretches to 3,352 pages. When I’ve felt the saddest in my life, it hasn’t been because anything in particular has happened to me. [2] For example, in a review of Reporting Vietnam for Sacramento News & Review, also reprinted in Expelled from Eden. Right now, all the American people say, “Hurrah for our soldiers, they’re protecting us.” Well, what are they doing? On the other hand, since it has happened, I’ve tried to let it define me, to say, alright, yes, I’m somebody who as a little kid screwed up, so how can I possibly not be empathetic to other people who screw up? But still, I have to listen and remember that we’re brothers and sisters. But what he so bluntly articulates is underwritten by reasoned values and an unflinching instinct of empathy. I remember sitting on a Greyhound bus, once, next to this nice old baker, and we were riding together for five or six hours and we passed Manzanar and he was saying it was so terrible what they did to the Japanese. So I had a plane take me to the North Magnetic Pole, all by myself, and had kind of a rough time of it, which was worse than I’d expected — but great for my book. Here I am in the same room as a rapist or a mass murderer or somebody, and I think, okay, this is my brother or sister, because we’ve both screwed up. ¤
HANNAH JAKOBSEN: You’ve had a lot of unusual experiences — taken up arms with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, been a war correspondent, and hopped freight trains, to name a few. His books excavate beauty from the depths of ugly realities, but they also ask why. 
The philosophical concerns that dominate Vollmann’s writing also recur in his conversations. The saddest thing in my life has been my little sister’s death. It’d be interesting to imagine him as a very sweet little baby, and then what went wrong. That was really hard for me, and for my parents, and I wish it had never happened. It’s hard. I tried to understand, and then I was able to say, well, this is what I think. Or what about all our soldiers? I don’t actually know that much about him, because I find him such a dreary person. And then I have some chance of actually learning what reality is. What do you think? Which ones? Hopefully, if you woke up tomorrow in President Trump’s body, you would say, “There are a lot of things that I’m not going to do.” But what if you woke up and you had the life and conditioning that he has? Maybe what I should have done — this is probably what I’d do now — is say, “Oh really, why do you think that? Bill asked what I most wanted to accomplish in life and his suggestion, offered upon my prolonged hesitation, was considered and earnest. 
It’s remarkable that someone whose words are so measured can produce an oeuvre as extensive as Vollmann’s. We’re all prostitutes. Yes. Maybe we’re all haters and racists and misogynists to some extent, you know. I’ve always felt that the quality of the paper and all that stuff is very important to me. It doesn’t make it right, but you have to listen to these people. But can we say that the situation is right? It was never something I wanted to do, but after I bought this place, I can’t escape it, and so that’s one of the things I’ve been called to do. And so to understand what color the uniform is, you know, and what foods you liked — I think that’s helpful. ¤
Hannah Jakobsen is an editor and educator in Los Angeles. You know the saying, “To whom much is given, from him much is expected”? His most renowned, the National Book Award–winning Europe Central, is a symphonic work whose voices are the major players of 20th-century Germany and the USSR. So it’s interesting to hear the role that pure curiosity plays in your writing. And especially with this crappy educational system and this crappy system of so-called news that we have, where all the poison is reinforced — it’s more and more like the Nazis. Or wrong? He made three attempts, and he’d had very difficult times. Does that answer your question? Like a lot of people, I find myself applying different standards when I think about what certain people say, like older people for example, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Where does his identity come from? Paintings and photographs, most by Vollmann himself, line the walls; many are expressionist portrayals of women he refers to as “goddesses.” 
During our talk, Vollmann gave me insight into the experiences and moral calculations that have shaped his life and work so far. They get moved on, but at least I’m trying to do something good. One of them is called The Rifles. Yes. Converted from a Mexican restaurant, it’s dark, industrial, and includes a bedroom and well-stocked kitchen, where he serves beer and whiskey in mugs. Of course, yeah. I guess if he commits enough evil, I’ll have to really think about him, try to figure out where he comes from. I was nine and she was six. I feel like people’s bigotry is often ascribed to their circumstances, for example. VOLLMANN: I think there are two reasons to look for experiences. I might even think this person deserves to be put to death. How did it go wrong? I don’t know where I’m going, what I’m going to see, who I’m going to meet, and so I just try to be open, like a child. For me, the defining factor of what makes a comic or any other form of graphic literature is that the narrative is built on an interplay of text and images. What about someone who’s demented? Oh, sure. Another of his notably long, notably exhaustive works is Imperial, a 1,334-page profile of the eponymous Southern California county. Vollmann Reader (Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson (Ed.s), Thunder’s Mouth Press: 2004). If I were ever going to do the type of graphic novel that I want to do, it would be tremendously labor-intensive. I was supposed to be watching her, and I fell down on the job. I just got up and I changed my seat and I wouldn’t talk to him anymore. But I know I would be ashamed if I said, “Get out of here, I’m not gonna allow you to lay down your head in my cold, wet parking lot.”
You’ve compared prostitution to a lot of other jobs — do you also see a relationship between writing and prostitution? So we have to stand up in our small way and know that it doesn’t do any good — but that doesn’t let us off the hook. Vollmann and I were sitting on the couch in his Sacramento, California, studio, and the interview had turned on me again. I’m curious whether your writing about sex work was strongly motivated by the desire to increase empathy for prostitutes and other sex workers. She drowned when I was a kid. It doesn’t make a difference to you that what happened in your life was an accident, but raping and committing mass murder are malicious acts? Vollmann doesn’t just bring these subjects into the stark, poetic light of his prose — he genuinely investigates them. Yeah. And a lot of people don’t have the tools to make that effort. I’ve worked very, very hard, but I’ve always loved doing it, so it’s not even really work. If you were to go out somewhere and try to find something out about a place or people that you didn’t know, and you were to write about it honestly and beautifully, 500 years from now, if there are still people, they would want to read what you have to say, and it would touch them somehow. When I’ve ridden the freight trains, I’ve tried to keep that in mind. In the 19th century, all the Europeans were in a race to try to find the Northwest Passage. And I’ve seen that interplay in some of the work you’ve done. He said it’s so important that we never let our knowledge get in the way of what’s really much more helpful, which is our ignorance. The other way to go is when I have some situation in my mind that I’m going to write about, and I want to make it as vivid as I can, and so I want to go out and gather information, or local color, or a whole experience for the thing that I’m writing. I don’t have to like the person. Suppose that you woke up tomorrow and you were in the body of a German boy who was 18 years old and it was 1939, and all you’d ever learned in your education was from Hitler Youth, and then suddenly it was war, and the radio said, “Oh, the British and the Polish and the Jews, they’ve all attacked.” What are you going to do? So then I started thinking about what the whole experience is like, what it all meant, whether it was good or bad, whether these women were exploited or empowered. We live long enough and bad things are going to happen and we have to remember that the person who is maliciously hurting us represents himself or herself and doesn’t represent that gender or racial group or whatever. FEBRUARY 26, 2018

“WELL IF YOU don’t know, then maybe what you most want to accomplish is to be a good person and to have a happy life.” William T. And speaking of different media, you told me you were working on a comic book. What’s been the saddest thing in your life? Is it your fault? I want to ask you about film. ¤
[1] In a 2002 speech in Sacramento, the transcription of which was printed in Expelled from Eden: A William T. As long as we remember that we’re ignorant, we can learn things when we’re out there in the world. Right, yeah. And if there’s some guy or some poor woman sleeping in my parking lot and I let her stay, how much credit can I take? It’s like life itself. When there’s some guy out in my parking lot, I know that the day after he leaves I’m going be out there cleaning up his poop, but I’m out there talking to him and it makes me really happy that I’m defying the anti-camping ordinance and giving him a place to stay for a night or two. He speaks — and writes — with a frankness I imagine many would find off-putting. Since the War on Terror began, we’ve killed what — maybe a couple hundred thousand people? We also discussed what’s next: whether he’d ever write about President Trump, and the possibility of a graphic novel. So I made lots of stories and drawings and photographs of prostitutes, and it took me a long time to actually decide what I thought. Now we have no problem doing that, thanks to global warming, but at that time no one had yet figured out how to go from Europe to Asia, up near the pole, and they thought they could do it by ship. I can’t take credit — I just have the parking lot. But that’s because I’m only trying to please myself. I would like to do a graphic novel, and I’ve done illustrated poems. My fiancée had left me, and I tried and tried to get a girlfriend, and finally I had a call girl come, and it wasn’t even physically that great, but it kind of made me feel like a man again, that I could be with a woman. To save what — we’ve had people die in September 11, and others since then. It’s no credit to me that I have a talent for writing. His books are often intimidatingly weighty and encyclopedically researched. The common thread that binds Vollmann’s fiction and nonfiction is the desire to dig into topics from which it is easier to turn away: war, poverty, sexual violence. But then he said, if only they had done it to the Jews … And I was just so sickened. So Sir John Franklin tried to complete the Northwest Passage. That’s what I think, anyway. True, but people who come from very similar situations sometimes turn out really differently. If there were no anti-camping ordinance, and there were something else that I had to do, I would do it. Yeah, I do. I was a customer, then a friend, and someone who listens. Where his words are measured, it is certainly not against social conventions. Reality is always relevant. I know you’re not a fan of television, but do you like movies? It sounds like you think that a big part of who people are is determined by their circumstances. WILLIAM T. People always have reasons. I want to understand why you think that.”
You’ve written that people have a certain responsibility as Americans to understand the Vietnam War. [2] Do you also feel as a writer and as a person that you bear responsibility based on other factors, like race and sex? You’ve spoken about the importance of promoting empathy through writing. [1] And you’ve written, for example, extensively about sex workers. So for instance, are you familiar with my “Seven Dreams” series? You wouldn’t know better. I wanted to get into Sir John Franklin’s mind, and see what it would be like to be alone, up in the arctic. It’s also true that some people determine their own circumstances. I’m not sure. I’ve made a lot of tangent books, and I would enjoy taking it to a different level. That surprises me a little, because a lot of topics you write about feel so relevant to the big sociopolitical conversations of our time. It’s a slippery slope. It’s your responsibility to use that for good. What about you? And it’s no credit to me that my parents had enough money for me to travel a lot — and so, yes, we can say I’m privileged and you’re privileged, and if we care about our brothers and sisters, it should make us happy to help them. I’m thinking of your portrayal of the experience of the economically disenfranchised in Poor People, or of migrant workers in Imperial, and the work that many of your books do to explore the circumstances of sex workers. That’s our job as writers. The set-up of Vollmann’s studio does indicate the type of schedule required to produce his oeuvre. And now I’m thinking, was that wrong?