This is a “salvaged” Q&A from a telephone conversation with author William T. Vollmann, whose manifold literary work I’ve long admired. A heavily slimmed (for obvious reasons) version ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of the Inlander in anticipation of Vollmann’s appearance at the 2014 Get Lit! festival in Spokane, WA.
There are a few points where my recording software hiccuped, missing a few words or at one point dropping the call altogether. These are duly noted.
It’s often noted that violence is a recurring theme in your work. It’s noted so often, in fact, that we might begin to question its accuracy. Does it hold true?
I think that violence is one of the fundamental expressions of human nature. So of course it’s a recurring theme in my work, and so is sex, so is love, and so is a — normal, let’s say — death. All these things are just human characteristics. My latest bunch of ghost stories, some of them are gruesome, a lot of them are creepy and disturbing; but as Tolstoy said in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, we all come to it in the end. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s any reason not to talk about it. Those people who say that violence is a recurring theme in my work may be right. Because, of course, I’m probably the last person to know my own obsessions.
Discussing Rising Up, Rising Down, you said that violence can be beautiful. You’ve also said, using a violent simile, that “written words are like bullets that I’m shooting at death.” Do those factors work together to make writing itself an act of violence?
I think that would probably give writing more power than it has, unfortunately. Literature is something that speaks only to those who want to listen. There are times, maybe, when a writer can change the world in some political way, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, that those books are acts of violence, that they are used by people to mobilize other people to fight this or that. But mostly I think writing is not really an action. I wish it were, but I tend to agree with [Yukio] Mishima on the distinction between words and deeds. They’re both very, very important, but I don’t want to have the illusion that my writing is even powerful enough to be an act of violence.
If we trace violence to its root causes in your work, it frequently leads back to power and authority — the abuse of power, the indiscriminate exercise of authority. Would you describe yourself as antiauthoritarian?
Yes, I do, and I’m very proud to say that I do. If you’ve ever seen that essay that Steinbeck wrote in the middle of the twentieth century about America and Americans, he said that the average American — and perhaps the average ideal American in his time — has a very, very profound distrust of authority. And therefore if he votes for someone to be president and the president sticks around into a second term, he’ll be getting more and more suspicious and distrustful of this person, and he wants him out. And I think that is wonderful.
I think that one of the best things about American society is that we are deeply suspicious of anybody who is governing us. And one of the most frightening things about current American society is that we are being seduced into thinking that we have to have eternal surveillance by institutions — as opposed to by people — for the sake of safety, and therefore we shouldn’t be complaining about being spied on and about our liberties being abridged, and that somebody like Snowden is a traitor and should be punished. To me, the guy is a hero. If there is anything good in the idea of America, if it still means anything, if it ever did, however imperfectly it might have been realized, it’s this idea that each of us has a home that’s his or her castle, and each of us can do whatever in there that’s not going to hurt anybody else, and each of us can say that the president is a bad person and not got to jail for it, and we can defy people who tell us what to do. And the instant we stop doing that, we’re not going to be Americans anymore.
Which brings us to your FBI file and your surprise at being on the list of Unabomber suspects (documented in the essay “Life as a Terrorist” in the September, 2013 issue of Harper’s). Are you still dealing with the aftermath of that in the form of, say, paranoia and suspicion?
The reality of it is that I wasn’t really a victim in this. In a way, as the saying goes, the system works, because I was never arrested, sentenced to prison, tortured, anything like that, as I might have been in some other country. But, you know, my concerns were never about me. I was thinking about what this means for others, and as I said in my article, maybe if my first name were Mohammed instead of Bill, I might not have had the good outcome that I had. And from perusing what little of the Homeland Security files I was allowed to read — hundreds and hundreds of pages remain redacted — it was pretty clear that they were not particularly accurate or particularly smart or particularly careful, because they don’t need to be. There’s no oversight.
And so, let’s say that it was okay for them to investigate me as a Unabomber suspect. I’m willing to say maybe it was, because I’m sort of an oddball, and I’m not sure I go along with them surveilling and possibly burglarizing my house, which I found out about from the file. But maybe it was okay. However, once they caught the Unabomber, and then I was detained for hours and hours without knowing why until I got my file and found out that I was an anthrax suspect, in part because I’d been a Unabomber suspect, I thought this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. And it’s ridiculous and really a little shameful on their part.
On the other hand, you know, if you take the broad view, you say, well, alright, this is human nature, and so in any bureaucracy, including Homeland Security, there are going to be a whole bunch of time-serving drones. And so if someone says we need a hundred suspects by next Thursday, what are they going to do? Go to the database and pull up 99 old suspects and one new suspect. That way they can go home early. In a way, I can’t really blame them or be disappointed. I have a very low expectation of institutions and groups, and I certainly don’t think that the purpose of authority, no matter what its stated purpose, is to be helpful to us. And therefore how could it be any different than what it was? So I can’t be that upset about it.
At the same time, I think it’s good for the public to know that this is what happens. It could happen to you. If the government tightens the screws a little, if there’s another terrorist attack on our soil, or if some real fascist gets elected, then this machinery that they’ve put in motion may start generating victims. Maybe it already has generated victims and we’ll never know. But it’s certainly an un-American thing to do, and that’s why I call these apparatchiks the un-Americans.
But you thought someone you know might have been the self-appointed informant, no?
I’m not one hundred percent sure that it was someone I knew. I think it could have been in one case. And, you know, I forgive those people. I can’t really get too exercised about it. If you were my friend and all the same you thought there was some possibility that I was sending mail bombs and killing innocent people, and you conveyed your suspicions to the powers that be, maybe I wouldn’t blame you.
But the interesting thing is that you think about these busybodies, these do-gooders and public-spirited people, and you can see how, say, if we lived under a Nazi regime, these would be the first people to helpfully go to the police and say, hey, by the way, I have a feeling there’s a Jew in the neighborhood. So it’s good to remember that and to say that isn’t what is happening right now, but this is the sort of human trend or expression of human nature that can be utilized for evil ends, just as, you know, a lot of the people you meet in the TSA, for instance, are doing their best and you feel sort of sorry for them. They probably are not getting paid very much and they don’t really like being here; they’re just doing it for the money, to get by. And then there are a few others who are bullies, and this is the perfect position for them to be in. And so somebody has to set a tone and say that being a bully is great, we should all be bullies, or, you know, Americans should be left to their devices as much as possible. So I do my best to set the latter tone.
Given your antiauthoritarian leanings, is that why so much of your work aims to give voice to misfits, outliers and fringe-dwellers?
Well, I think that every human being is my brother and my sister. And we’ve all made mistakes. And worse. And if I see somebody who is marginalized, as a result either of his own mistakes or of someone else’s mistakes, then why shouldn’t I try to [recording glitch] that person is my brother or my sister. And if anything it’s easier for me to feel that way about the people who suffer because they’re often more available. If you look at the one percent [call dropped; resumed] … so the so-called successful people, and so it’s easier for me to concentrate on the people who are more available, and I tend to think that the 99% are more interesting, anyway. Although maybe I would think otherwise if I were a billionaire.
You mentioned “mistakes and worse,” and I know your sister’s death by drowning is something that has hung heavy over your work. In giving a voice to the marginalized, is your work a lifelong a process of redemption?
Maybe in some ways. You know, everybody changes. And so I would say that my sister’s death doesn’t hang as heavy over me as it used to. And I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve worked through it a little bit, or it’s been so long, or I’ve suffered in other ways, or I’ve become a less sensitive person, but it has certainly informed a lot of my work. And I will always have empathy for anyone who has lost a young family member or anyone who was in the situation I was in, of making a mistake so that somebody died.
When it comes to your books — the abridgment of Rising Up, Rising Down springs to mind — there seems to be a clear divide between their popular and literary reception. Do you see yourself as a writer’s writer?
Maybe not even that. I try to please myself, and to [recording glitch] sentences I can, and to learn how to work out certain problems. I worked on Rising Up, Rising Down for twenty-three years, and in that time I felt like I taught myself a few things about how to judge acts of violence, and hopefully, then, what I learned will be useful to me in my future books. And of course, if some of what I learned becomes helpful to others, I would be grateful and happy. But I certainly don’t expect that.
Melville said that his aspiration was to create commercial failures, and I don’t even take that point of view; but if it doesn’t speak to others when it comes out, maybe it will speak to them later. At the very least I know I’ve never never betrayed myself by writing something that doesn’t speak to me. And I know from being on the other side of the fence that a great deal of art — visual art and musical art and literature — requires a certain effort or education on the part of the viewer, the reader, the audience, whatever to achieve a maximum appreciation.
When I first started listening to the music of Shostakovich or going to Noh theater, because some of those were somewhat alien to my experience, I had a lot of work to do before I could really come to enjoy it more. And so there might be people who would need to work more to enjoy my work more. Do I want them to that? Not necessarily. They don’t owe me anything. The world doesn’t owe me a living. And if I can keep reproducing my labor a little bit longer until I’m dead, that’s good enough for me.
Apropos of nothing, just to satisfy my personal curiosity, why did you leave the PhD program at UC Berkley?
Because I thought that I was taking up space that someone else could have benefitted from more than I. I felt that that it was good for me to be out in the world and try to learn what I could on the street and by living as opposed to staying in the academy longer. I knew I was going to read books and think about them on my own, and I didn’t feel that I needed to be taught anymore how to think about books. I don’t have any intention of ever getting a PhD myself.
And instead you traveled abroad and rode the boxcars here in the States, which probably trumps a PhD in terms of experience. Do you still train hop?
Every now and then, yeah. Actually, when I was in Spokane a few years ago, I was stopped in the yard and cited, and the railroad bull followed me out of there. But, yeah, maybe someday I’ll come blowing into Spokane again. Probably not this time [for the Get Lit! festival]. But, of course, riding the boxcars is not necessarily a way to save money. If you get a $300 fine, for instance, it’s a lot cheaper to have ridden the Greyhound.
So your most vivid memory of Spokane is getting chased out of the rail yard?
Well, since I never have actually ridden the trains from Spokane, what I can tell you is that it’s a very beautiful old-style city, and I enjoyed that very interesting dam in the middle of the city. The last time I traveled with my father, actually, I was working on a book about Chief Joseph, which I recently finished. And we flew into Spokane and then started from there on the Chief Joseph Trail. My father was particularly interested in that. I enjoyed the old brickwork and, of course, the train yard. There are some great restaurants in Spokane, and I would enjoy sometime coming with my large-format camera and photographing some of those beautiful, old brick buildings.
You mentioned ghost stories at the outset. Have I overlooked a new book?
It’s called Last Stories and Other Stories. It’s coming out in July.
Why ghost stories?
I started thinking about death a lot after my father died. This book is actually dedicated to his memory. One of the nice things about a supernatural story is that you can personify some aspect of death, and that’s what we humans like to do. We understand things more if we give them a metaphorical consciousness and some ability to communicate with us. Of course it can’t really be death that we’ve personified, but our limited understanding of death, and we can’t reach an accommodation with death, but we can reach an accommodation with ourselves about death, some understanding of what we might feel or what we should do or shouldn’t do. And death, after all, is such a rich subject.
So some of my stories are about the legacies that people receive as a result of death, some are about attempts to cheat death, which we like to try to carry out even though we know they’re going to fail, and some of them are stories about attachment in the Japanese sense. You know, many of these Noh plays that I like that are so beautiful are stories about a person who couldn’t let go of her love for her husband or her jealousy for her husband’s cheating on her, or something like this, and so she lives on as a ghost. And I don’t necessarily believe any of this stuff, but it’s an interesting way to look at it. In our culture, ghosts can be sort of frightening, and in this other culture, ghosts are more appealing and sad. It’s kind of interesting to mix the two, and as I said, it’s almost an infinite subject, so why not write a book about it?
But, based on the breadth of your work, you seem to find infinite subjects in everything. Is that kind of boundless curiosity unique to you, or is it a much more common human trait?
I think that human beings like to go beyond themselves and learn about things that they don’t know, and that’s probably why old retired people go on cruises. I guess I’m just doing the equivalent.