An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer William T. Vollmann

Ben Bush

The author of fifteen books, including eight novels, three short story collections, a memoir, and a ten-volume treatise on the nature and ethics of violence, William T. Vollmann is often associated with his most controversial subjects—crack and prostitution among them. He is also characterized by a few signature stunts, such as firing a pistol during his readings and kidnapping a girl who had been sold into prostitution and turning her over to a relief agency while writing an article for Spin magazine.

But these anecdotes provide too narrow a lens through which to view perhaps the most audacious of contemporary writers—one who defies genres, word counts, and normative morality. In his work, Vollmann has continually focused his attention outward, always going to extremes in order to comprehend the world views of people unlike himself. He has worked as a correspondent from some of the most heated war zones: Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia, and former Yugoslavia.

In 1982, after graduating summa cum laude in comparative literature from Cornell University, Vollmann traveled to Afghanistan to fight alongside the then U.S.-backed Mujahdeen in their efforts to expel the invading Soviet forces. In his 3,500-plus-page epic Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney’s Books, 2003) he details how, while driving through the former Yugoslavia, a landmine detonated beneath his car, killing his two traveling companions: a fellow journalist and Vollmann’s high school friend. The detailed account of his own misperceptions during his state of shock is illuminating and unsettling.

Vollmann won the 2005 National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction for Europe Central (Viking), a collection of stories that examines the German-Soviet conflict of World War II, centering on a series of pieces about formalist composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose reputation amongst the Stalinist authorities vacillated between high honors and threats of Gulag incarceration. In Europe Central the agents of internal espionage become cultural critics as they spend their lives shadowing dissident artists, writers, and musicians.

Vollmann’s most recent work is the nonfiction book Uncentering the Earth (Atlas Books/W.W. Norton, 2006), which examines the discoveries of Copernicus and the transition from an era in which humans could conceptualize their lives as the center of a perfectly ordered universe to our modern cosmology in which the earth orbits the sun.

At his best, Vollmann, who lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife and daughter, is capable of a radical compassion, looking for the best in people we might not otherwise find it in. He discovers not just hookers with hearts of gold, but also skinheads, gang members, war criminals, and heretics.

P&W: One of the things I’ve heard you say is that you consider your journalistic pieces, as they get published in magazines, less true and less beautiful than the uncut versions. But the interesting thing is that the uncut versions end up in books that are categorized as fiction. Some of the stuff in The Atlas—nonfiction, right?

William T. Vollmann: Yeah, The Atlas is categorized as fiction legitimately because some of the pieces in it are short stories and some of them are prose poems and then there are some pieces like “The Back of My Head,” which are reportage. And as the James Frey scandal reminds us, if there’s any fiction in a book, why not call it fiction? But the books that I label nonfiction, Rising Up and Rising Down for instance, contain nothing but the truth to the best of my knowledge, and there were times that it would have been easy for me to make something up. No one would have ever known the difference and the story would have been better and so on, but I’m proud to say I never did it.

P&W: A while back I was reading through Volume Five of Rising Up and Rising Down, and I was trying to figure out what my understanding of the Vollmann approach to journalism might be. Here’s what I came up with: Interview the most villainized people in the world with an open mind, include as much uncut interview as possible so they can defend their cause themselves, and assume people have good intentions until proven otherwise. Don’t believe anything until you see it.

WTV: That’s right and not just the most villainous people, but everybody because everybody is interesting, everybody has a story, and if we go somewhere and we are bored by another person then we have failed…. Each person is all things. And that’s what we need to remember. Hitler was very kind to animals. That doesn’t make him less evil, but it makes him more human. It makes it possible to start thinking about where he was evil, because obviously he had the capacity to be nice in certain areas of his life. So, to me, that’s a fruitful approach and it doesn’t just trap us in some kind of moral relativism.

P&W: You sometimes insert nonfiction sections into your fiction. In The Ice Shirt you put a section on modern drag queens getting ready for a night out in the middle of gender-bending Inuit creation myth. What do you see as the purpose of inserting a nonfiction section in the middle of a fictional story?

WTV: When I wrote The Ice Shirt I could have written something like You Bright and Risen Angels without ever going to any of those places and that would have been okay but the task that I set for myself was to represent reality, but [to] represent it through symbols and [to] be poetic. The main thing was that I knew reality was much greater than I was. That there’s so much out there that my art could only be enlarged and benefited if instead of staying in my head, I went out of my head. So, I felt that I wanted to go to Greenland and Iceland, which I did. I went to Newfoundland, where the Viking settlement was and tried to hike by myself and went to the Baffin Islands, and I felt like I had some understanding of these incredible landscapes that the Vikings must have seen with similar emotions.

P&W: In your journalism, how do you get people to trust you and to what extent do you think of yourself as chameleonic, adaptable?

WTV: I like to think that I have more integrity than many journalists because if it’s a choice between getting the best story and trying to be a good person, I will choose the latter. I don’t betray confidences. If somebody tells me something on the record and then later changes his or her mind, that’s a different story, but I at least think about the person’s reasons for changing his mind. I think the main thing is to be open and generous with people. To be very upfront about your project and to rely on and defer to local knowledge whenever possible and respect local perceptions, which many journalists are not very good at doing. When I was in Serbia I said, “Alright, I need to find out what the Serbian point of view is.” My Serbian interpreter liked me, whereas some of these other Western journalists would come in and in the Foreign Media Center they would be loudly talking about how the Serbs were all war criminals. Well, of course, a lot of Serbs were and are war criminals. But if you say that in front of them and that’s all you say, chances are you’re not going find anything out.

When I was getting ready to go to the Taliban Afghanistan I was thinking, “Well, probably most people hate the Taliban and they’re this awful tyranny, but I’ll just keep my mouth shut and listen.” And I was amazed to hear people, including women, saying the Taliban are the most perfect government ever and other people were saying, “Well, the Taliban are making mistakes. But that’s because they’re ignorant—all they know is war and the little education they’ve had is studying the Koran in the Madrasas so they’re doing the best they can.” And I think there’s some truth in that. If I had just gone over there and said, “I think all the Taliban are assholes,” first of all, I wouldn’t have gotten my visa and no one would have helped me, and second of all, I probably wouldn’t have seen the more complicated picture.

P&W: You take the role of being an active participant in your writing much of the time. Writers being an active participant, I think, in the short view of literature, that’s often connected with New Journalism—Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. But if you look at the big scope of literature, that’s probably some of the earliest stuff around. People reporting on things they had actually done, instead of reporting on other people or imaginary people. I wondered what you thought of active writers rather than observers.

WTV: Well, I think that writers don’t have any obligation to be one way or another. Nabokov was disgusted with activist writers probably because he was a refugee from a very activist regime, the Soviet Union, but I think that it’s possible to make something very beautiful and meaningful in complete isolation. Emily Dickinson is an example. And it’s also possible to seek out political and sociological phenomenon and try to express those. I think that both approaches are equally valid in art and we never want to tell artists what to do or not to do.

P&W: The Royal Family is based on crime novels, and in The Atlas there are sections that imitate the Bible. What do you see as interesting about working within and simultaneously bending these genres?

WTV: The different genres are like different paint brushes you might pick up, which create different effects, and as Hasan the Assassin once said, “Nothing is true, all is permissible.” So it doesn’t really matter whether you are writing a detective story or a science fiction story.