We Can Learn Things When We’re Out There: A Conversation with William T. Vollmann
By Hannah JakobsenFebruary 26, 2018
It’s remarkable that someone whose words are so measured can produce an oeuvre as extensive as Vollmann’s. His books are often intimidatingly weighty and encyclopedically researched. 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. 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. Another of his notably long, notably exhaustive works is Imperial, a 1,334-page profile of the eponymous Southern California county.
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. Vollmann doesn’t just bring these subjects into the stark, poetic light of his prose — he genuinely investigates them. 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. Where his words are measured, it is certainly not against social conventions. He speaks — and writes — with a frankness I imagine many would find off-putting. But what he so bluntly articulates is underwritten by reasoned values and an unflinching instinct of empathy.
The set-up of Vollmann’s studio does indicate the type of schedule required to produce his oeuvre. 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. The studio also reveals his less publicized interest in the visual arts. 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. We also discussed what’s next: whether he’d ever write about President Trump, and the possibility of a graphic novel.
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. How have you chosen to do the things you’ve done, and how have they informed your writing?
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: I think there are two reasons to look for experiences. 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. 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. As long as we remember that we’re ignorant, we can learn things when we’re out there in the world. When I’ve ridden the freight trains, I’ve tried to keep that in mind. 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. And then I have some chance of actually learning what reality is.
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. So for instance, are you familiar with my “Seven Dreams” series?
One of them is called The Rifles. In the 19th century, all the Europeans were in a race to try to find the Northwest Passage. 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. So Sir John Franklin tried to complete the Northwest Passage. He made three attempts, and he’d had very difficult times. I wanted to get into Sir John Franklin’s mind, and see what it would be like to be alone, up in the arctic. 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. Does that answer your question?
Yes. You’ve spoken about the importance of promoting empathy through writing.  And you’ve written, for example, extensively about sex workers. I’m curious whether your writing about sex work was strongly motivated by the desire to increase empathy for prostitutes and other sex workers.
Actually, I first got interested in prostitutes because I was a customer. 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. 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. 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. It’s more like the first reason I told you for having an experience, like riding the freight trains. I was a customer, then a friend, and someone who listens. I tried to understand, and then I was able to say, well, this is what I think.
That surprises me a little, because a lot of topics you write about feel so relevant to the big sociopolitical conversations of our time. 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. So it’s interesting to hear the role that pure curiosity plays in your writing.
Reality is always relevant. 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.
What’s been the saddest thing in your life?
I’m not sure. When I’ve felt the saddest in my life, it hasn’t been because anything in particular has happened to me. What about you?
The saddest thing in my life has been my little sister’s death. She drowned when I was a kid. I was nine and she was six. I was supposed to be watching her, and I fell down on the job. That was really hard for me, and for my parents, and I wish it had never happened. 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? 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. I don’t have to like the person. I might even think this person deserves to be put to death. But still, I have to listen and remember that we’re brothers and sisters.
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?
It’s a slippery slope. People always have reasons. What about someone who’s demented? It doesn’t make it right, but you have to listen to these people. Or what about all our soldiers? Right now, all the American people say, “Hurrah for our soldiers, they’re protecting us.” Well, what are they doing? Since the War on Terror began, we’ve killed what — maybe a couple hundred thousand people? To save what — we’ve had people die in September 11, and others since then. But can we say that the situation is right? Or wrong?
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. Have you considered writing about President Trump?
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? I don’t actually know that much about him, because I find him such a dreary person. I guess if he commits enough evil, I’ll have to really think about him, try to figure out where he comes from. It’d be interesting to imagine him as a very sweet little baby, and then what went wrong. How did it go wrong? Where does his identity come from? That’s our job as writers.
It sounds like you think that a big part of who people are is determined by their circumstances.
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? Is it your fault? You wouldn’t know better. How could you possibly be blamed for that? And so to understand what color the uniform is, you know, and what foods you liked — I think that’s helpful. It’s also true that some people determine their own circumstances.
True, but people who come from very similar situations sometimes turn out really differently. I feel like people’s bigotry is often ascribed to their circumstances, for example.
Maybe we’re all haters and racists and misogynists to some extent, you know. 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. And a lot of people don’t have the tools to make that effort. 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. That’s what I think, anyway. 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. What do you think?
It’s hard. 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.
Right, yeah. 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. But then he said, if only they had done it to the Jews … And I was just so sickened. I just got up and I changed my seat and I wouldn’t talk to him anymore. And now I’m thinking, was that wrong? Maybe what I should have done — this is probably what I’d do now — is say, “Oh really, why do you think that? I want to understand why you think that.”
You’ve written that people have a certain responsibility as Americans to understand the Vietnam War.  Do you also feel as a writer and as a person that you bear responsibility based on other factors, like race and sex?
You know the saying, “To whom much is given, from him much is expected”? It’s your responsibility to use that for good. It’s no credit to me that I have a talent for writing. I’ve worked very, very hard, but I’ve always loved doing it, so it’s not even really work. 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. 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. If there were no anti-camping ordinance, and there were something else that I had to do, I would do it. 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. They get moved on, but at least I’m trying to do something good. 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? I can’t take credit — I just have the parking lot. 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?
Of course, yeah. We’re all prostitutes.
I want to ask you about film. I know you’re not a fan of television, but do you like movies?
Yeah, I do.
It originally aired as a miniseries, but Berlin Alexanderplatz is the best movie ever made. It’s like life itself.
And speaking of different media, you told me you were working on a comic book.
I would like to do a graphic novel, and I’ve done illustrated poems. I’ve made a lot of tangent books, and I would enjoy taking it to a different level.
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. And I’ve seen that interplay in some of the work you’ve done.
Yeah. I’ve always felt that the quality of the paper and all that stuff is very important to me. If I were ever going to do the type of graphic novel that I want to do, it would be tremendously labor-intensive.
Do you have the same amount of self-assurance in visual media as you do in your writing?
Oh, sure. But that’s because I’m only trying to please myself.
Hannah Jakobsen is an editor and educator in Los Angeles.
 In a 2002 speech in Sacramento, the transcription of which was printed in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson (Ed.s), Thunder’s Mouth Press: 2004).
 For example, in a review of Reporting Vietnam for Sacramento News & Review, also reprinted in Expelled from Eden.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Matt Sandler on George Saunders's debut novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo."...
Frederick Wiseman's latest film, "In Jackson Heights," raises the question of how his style looks when expanded to a canvas as large as a neighborhood....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.