William T. Vollmann Interview

photo by Alexander Laurence 1992.

I met Bill Vollmann in 1990. I had read Rainbow Stories and read a few stories of his in Conjunctions. I lived in San Francisco at the time, and except for a few people and friends, nobody knew who he was. Vollmann had lived in San Francisco off and on since 1981, but I had no idea how to contact him. I found out later that he was living in New York City at this time and was writing Fathers and Crows.

I asked a few papers in the Bay Area about doing an article on Vollmann. They weren't interested, because he wasn't part of the PC fads. In 1993 and 1994, I finally got to do some interviews with Vollmann and I saw him a lot during these years. Many of these magazines were apprehensive about doing anything about him, but I soon made them believers.
I remember one time when I met Bill in Noe Valley. We walked down to Mission Street and all the way to the 16th Street Bart Station, talking about the hotels and the people who would later show up in The Royal Family. Today you see articles in the Bay Area newspapers and magazines much as you see articles about lesser writers such as Amy Tan and Anne Lamont, who have been over-praised and had too much attention given. I mean if some lesbian built a table, as long as it worked, as was a nice looking table, I wouldn't care who built it. The Royal Family is a novel about two brothers. Henry a detective who is looking for the Queen of the Whores. John a lawyer who is thinking about the loss of his Wife, Irene.

Enough about me, and more about Bill. He was born in Los Angeles in 1959. He attended a few colleges like Cornell University and Berkeley, but we won't hold that against him. He's won plenty of awards and not enough cash prizes. His journalism has appeared in Spin Magazine, The New Yorker, and Cups Magazine. His novels include You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), The Ice-Shirt (1990), Whores For Gloria (1991), Fathers and Crows (1992), and The Rifles (1994). His short story collections include The Rainbow Stories (1988), 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs (1991), Butterfly Stories (1993), and The Atlas (1996). His only non-fiction book is actually the first he wrote, An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992). His next book will be Argall, part of the Seven Dreams series of novels which include The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows, and The Rifles. Vollmann now lives in Sacramento with his wife and child.

You can see him at Saturday, April 23rd at the LA Times Book Festival. His most recent book is called Europe Central.


AL: The Royal Family book over the past fifteen years. You must be excited?

WTV: Well, a book is a book. Another day, another dollar, Alexander.

AL: By the way, am I speaking to Bill Vollmann or William the Blind?

WTV: Maybe both of the above.

AL: The narration of The Royal Family seems slightly different than the other books. There are coroner's reports and documents. Different characters seem to narrate the book themselves. There are not as many intrusions as there is in the other books where William the blind shows up. So could you talk about the narration and how you handled it with this new book?

WTV: I was trying to describe a lot of life and a lot of people, so it seemed that there was no reason to make it more complicated by throwing in some of the narrative tricks. It was already about all I could handle. I didn't want to make the book unreadable. It's already pretty long so why not let people off the hook for a little bit? The narrator himself is not such a strong presence you know. I guess your right.

AL: Are all these characters like Domino and Dan Smooth in the other books or is everyone a new character?

WTV: They're all new characters I would say.

AL: A few years ago you were talking about a play you staged. It was called "Queen of the Tenderloin" or "Queen of the Whores." Was that the genesis of this book?

WTV: That's exactly right. I did that with lots of different prostitutes and so forth, to get some ideas, to see how they would act out the roles. That was one of them.

AL: One of the last times I talked to you, you said that you were working on Argall, you had a book of poetry, and then there was a long book, an essay called, "Rising Up and Rising Down." Since you had so many other books in the works, how did you find time to write this new one?

WTV: I work on lots of books at the same time. So this is the one that happened to get finished next. It was kind of fun writing it. Yeah, "Rising Up and Rising Down:" some people are looking at it. Who knows? Maybe it will get a publisher too? I have been working on The Royal Family for the past four years, maybe more.

AL: Did you write this book while you waited for the other books to get published or at least get some attention?

WTV: I keep chipping away at all of them, and I try not to think about the publishing. The publishing is like this business thing that I do not have a lot of control over. I do the best that I can. I work on whatever I feel like doing on any given day. That's what I do.

AL: I was reading a few magazines and editorials about prostitution. It's been so many years and I don't think many people understand it. Nothing changes. People have the same attitudes.

WTV: You're so right. It's sad.

AL: People say about prostitutes: what's wrong with these people? Why don't they get a job? Girls think to themselves: sex is something personal, letting someone enter you, how can they take money for that? Prostitution is a closed world unless you want to go in there and see it for what it is. Could you comment on that?

WTV: Well, I still think it should be legalized and regulated. If they were to do that, if they gave the prostitutes a safe place to work, I think that there would be less crime, less disease, and everything would be a lot less hypocritical. It would be a win-win situation for everybody, as long as they let everyone work. If some prostitute got a disease they would have to figure a way for them to still get money. Otherwise she would be out there on the street doing thing for a cut rate. In the long run, everybody would be better off. There wouldn't be people who think that just because they are prostitutes, everybody has given up on them, and they have to be drug addicts and thieves, and everything else, like be covered with lice. It would be so much better. It's very cruel and stupid the way it is now. It really makes me angry.

AL: You talk about the way it is in Nevada where prostitutes are legal as long as they stay in those house. You deal with that in the section "The Feminine Circus." They want the Queen to work there.

WTV: In Nevada brothels it's quite expensive. Presumably more competition would allow there to be more variation in the market. There can always be high-priced and low-priced ones. It's the low-priced ones who I'm concerned about. The high-priced ones already operating. These escort services, these women are doing fine. Some of them have told me that they like prostitution being illegal, because they can go to someone's hotel room, get the money, and refuse to do anything. Or they can do what they want. Or they can blackmail the guy. So it's very convenient for them. But it's the women working on the street that no one seems to care about. They get harassed. It's pretty sad.

AL: You quoted de Sade saying something like "If you create laws, you also create crimes…."

WTV: That's true of prostitution. That's for sure. They should make everything easy and honest. It's such a waste, like the drug war.

AL: Who are some of these characters based on, like Dan Smooth, for instance?

WTV: They're just fictional characters, you know, based on people I've hung out with, or stories I've heard, or people I've read about. They're not based one-to-one on someone real.

AL: The Royal Family is probably your darkest book about San Francisco. Do you think that you are protecting us from all these myths that San Francisco wants to portray itself as, like the land of the Dot.Com, the clean city by the bay where you invest your capital?

WTV: It's certainly going to be more and more that way I suppose. But Henry's life and John's life are similar, you know. Even if all the Henrys are driven out, and all the Johns will are there. They will still be Johns and they will be going to different kinds of prostitutes. Lots of luck.

AL: What do you think about the critical appreciation of your work?

WTV: All I hope is I can get some money for the next book, and I can keep doing what I want. Critical acclaim is a means to that end. But if I don't get it, it doesn't hurt my feelings, and if I do, it doesn't really impress me that much. Because it's really like people talking and saying what they think. I don't think it's that important. The marketing people keep up with that. It's a bad time for the libraries. That's why I dislike the Internet. People think that they can get information just by sitting at a computer terminal. If that information is just a screen length excerpt from a book, as opposed to the whole book itself, some people don't care. There should be places where libraries keep all books and no book should be discarded. Every book is valuable.

AL: It's become very unfashionable to read the Classics, the Greeks and the Romans, and their literature. Some of your books suffer from the fact that a classical education that readers used to have is no longer in place.

WTV: That's right. Fortunately the world is so big and the technology of publication is so efficient, if it turns out, ten years from now, that there's only a handful of people who care about what I care about, maybe there will be enough to support me, and let me do what I want to do. And if there are other people who don't know what a book is, more power to them. Hopefully it won't just be a bunch a priests. Hopefully it will be a bunch of fun-loving people who can pick up some whores.

AL: That's whom you dedicate this book to. Whores, junkies, people who like to have fun….

WTV: People such as yourself….

AL: Yeah, except I don't do any drugs anymore. But when I see you next, we'll have to do a line of bump. In this book there a mention of Doestoevski, and this book, Irene's Cunt, by Louis Aragon. Are you interested in Surrealism?

WTV: Yeah. Irene's Cunt was interesting. It has some pretty sentences in it. Maldoror influenced me, but that's beginning to be an old influence. I read that before I wrote my first book. I wanted to write a book that was searching and was spiritual in certain ways, and Doestoevski was a master there. It was interesting to think about him and The Bible and the good and bad things in that. And to consider Buddhism and addiction. Some of the Gnostic scriptures were important to me in this book, The Royal Family. But the main thing was to be honest and to give some of the characters the drive to understand their worlds and make sense of their selves. The more intellectual ones are going to use Doestoevski, and the others are going to use crack. They're trying to go to the same place whatever that place is.

AL: A few people have compared The Royal Family to a previous book, Whores For Gloria. Are they on to anything there?

WTV: It's the third in a trilogy: Whores For Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Royal Family. They are all love stories. Each one is about a man who gets involved with one or more prostitutes. Each one has a slightly different point of view of that subject.

AL: I just read Fathers and Crows for the first time a few weeks ago. That seemed the most different novel from the rest, and maybe the most heavily researched. Is Argall going to be more like that?

WTV: That's right. It's going to be a little like that. There's going to be a strong Elizabethan narrative voice. There's more research on the Elizabethan mindset, and a little on the anthropology of the Indians. I hope to make Pocahontas come alive. It's more similar to Fathers and Crows.

AL: I had a little minor question about You Bright and Risen Angels. In the table of contents it went on to describe further chapters that weren't in the book.

WTV: If you read that table of contents you can sort of tell other things that happened in the book. It was a fun little trick. At least I thought it was fun at the time. You can see that the Bug's Revolution doesn't really succeed and a bunch of awful things happen and it makes sense and ties together. And having seen that, it makes no sense to have the book go on to describe those things. It's a book about disconnection, alienation, and dwindling away, and death, and so forth. So that's a way of doing it without all the chapters being there.

AL: That book was also about Deep Springs?

WTV: Well, sort of. Deep Spring isn't really like that. But Deep Spring is a great place and the Society of Daniel is a really evil place. Some of the historical settings of Deep Springs were recycled. But some of that Society of Daniel was in fact based on Telluride, Colorado. Telluride was where the founder of Deep Springs first started using alternating current. That was L. L. Nunn.

AL: Have you traveled anywhere in the past year? Have you went anywhere new?

WTV: I returned to Afghanistan. Haven't been there in 1982. I returned to Columbia. First time since '99. And I have traveled all through the United States for a story about guns. I am working on a story about Asian Gangs right now in California for The New Yorker. I have done a little traveling for that but not much.

AL: A character in a few books is Brandi. She's in four or five books. But she doesn't show up in The Royal Family. Are we to assume that she's died by now?

WTV: Hard to say, Alexander. It's a pretty unpredictable world out there. She was in a couple book come to think of it.

AL: And now she's gone?

WTV: I could always resurrect her. If I write any more about prostitutes? Maybe I have written enough. If the spirit moves me I'll write about them. Argall will probably be the next book. And I am working on some short stories about Europe during World War Two. I'm hoping to finish that up in the next year. I'm working on my Book of Candles, which I started in 1995. It's a massive project. I printed a page last week. I hand-color the pages and I got to finish the boxes. It's going to be a few years before I finish.

AL: Are you still making bullets?

WTV: Absolutely. It's gives me something to do in my free time.