The Subversion Dialogues… Another Vollmann Interview…followed by the times article about his latest ‘Imperial’
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 21, 2009
The subversion dialogues
Kate Braverman holds a genteel conclave with William T. Vollmann about guns, whores, whiskey, death, and other literary matters
When I moved to the Bay Area a few years ago, I gravitated to the second-hand section of Berkeley’s Black Oak Books. It’s the cult library of books you meant to read but didn’t quite get to. The first year, the novels that most astounded me were Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and the fictions of William T. Vollmann. In particular, Vollmann’s The Royal Family is a savage, glittering novel of the San Francisco underbelly of prostitutes, pimps, private detectives, and drugs written with the audacity, skill, and authority of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the social and psychological issues are more complex and ambiguous. Vollmann’s uncompromising antiauthoritarianism, his daring deviation from conventional narrative into literary criticism asides and essays, the sheer epic scale of the ambition, unhinged me. I felt as if I was in the presence of punk high art, renegade genius, and a contagious subversion I wanted to join.
Kate Braverman Black Oak has a wall of your books. I read your novels and short fiction and inquired about you to other writers. You have an enormous reputation as an outlaw, a recluse, and a profoundly important literary force.
William T. Vollmann I’m sure they’re all making a mistake.
KB Why would serious writers who value your work be making a mistake?
WV They’d do better to write their own. But I’m flattered that people read my books. When they buy my books, that allows me to write new ones. So I can’t complain. But the world doesn’t owe me a living. If they stopped liking my books, it wouldn’t ruin my day.
KB I’ve read Whores for Gloria and The Royal Family and — [Phone rings]
WV That’s all right. It’s always like that around here. It must just be my blue eyes. That’s why I don’t pick up the phone much.
KB Why do you have this barrage of phone calls? Writers find the phone intrusive and delete it from the environment. It’s disturbing. You have a constant phone ringing.
WV I don’t use e-mail. And people use the post less and less. So they communicate with me by phone. Everyone is used to instant contact now. People are put out if I don’t pick up the phone. But I figure they’ll live.
KB Why do you live in this particular city?
WV I’m here because this is where my wife got a job. She’s a doctor, a radiation oncologist. I would have preferred to move back to San Francisco. We have a daughter. Lisa, six years old. We’ve been here 15 years. I’m from Los Angeles originally. I lived there until I was five. I went to high school in Indiana. I spent some time in New Hampshire, Indiana, was in New York for a while, now I’m back here. I’m really from the sidewalk. I’m from everywhere. I’m just a typical rootless American. My father was a business professor.
KB Why do you deal with whores and pimps, the denizens of the Tenderloin? What is the philosophical basis for this?
WV The fundamental intellectual level of humanity has and will always be low. New technological possibilities mean more experimental things can be forgotten in new ways. There are amazing filmmakers, like the Soviet Dziga Vertov. Who knows who this guy is and who cares? Who knows or cares who Joyce was? That means people who want to write at that level, and I include myself, are only doing so because we love it. In the end, what else is there? There is no prize, including the Nobel Prize, which can compensate you for the work you put in. If it’s not a joy, you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t get published, that’s unfortunate insofar as whatever else you must do to stay alive consumes and prevents you from doing what you really must do. When I wrote Rising Up and Rising Down, it took me 23 years, and my publishers all said if you want it to see the light of day, you have to cut it. And I said no. I fully expected that it would never appear. I was fortunate that McSweeney’s agreed to publish it. Now it’s out of print.
KB Continuing to adhere to a Tolstoyan vision of the novel — its immensity, grandeur, complexity, and size — how have you been able to survive in the marketplace with an uncompromising vision completely outside of the mainstream?
WV When I write my books, I don’t care about the marketplace. My father always used to say the reason academics fight so much is because the stakes are so small. When your book is published, the stakes are so low. Whatever they pay you is not enough. Therefore, why should you compromise? In the meantime, we’re all prostitutes. Most of the prostitutes I know keep one little private thing. Some prostitutes won’t kiss. Some of them save the anus for the person they love. Or they might refuse to say “I love you” except to the person they love. Whatever it is, they keep one tiny little broken shard of their integrity. I don’t want to use the word integritybecause it sounds as if they’re doing something bad. They aren’t. They’re just living on the capital they have, which is themselves.
My own way of being a prostitute is that I let magazines damage my work in any way they care to. My strategy is this: Except in cases of severe financial need, I only accept a story that really interests me. I am sure I can write it in a way that will please me, and I can keep it in a book. Then I make money, get my expenses paid, and do it my way. I put my heart into it, and then send it to a magazine. It gets butchered, and I tell them it was excellent. They did a great job. Then they tell me how easy I am to work with. And I cash the check. Then when my book is finished, I’ll cut my royalties in half or whatever is necessary, but you better not even change a comma without consulting me. In fact, the book I’m working on now has spurious commas, and I made them remove them. So that’s my own particular way of selling out. It’s practical. I can’t say it’s noble. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t do any harm.
KB The literary and experimental conviction of your work coupled with the boldness of your subject matter, the vivid and unflinching depictions, suggest a serious passionate political vision and literary agenda.
WV I’m pro-death. I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion. I believe in euthanasia. I believe in anyone’s right to suicide. I believe in capital punishment. I believe in gun ownership. I believe in violent self-defense. That’s the common denominator. The left is disturbed by my belief in capital punishment, and I own weapons. My buddies who go shooting with me are appalled that I’m not a Bush supporter. I believe in freedom of choice for everybody, which entails immense risks. Often people abuse the power that comes with freedom. Either way, society pays a tremendous cost. We pay for our gun violence, and we are paying an ever more immense cost for the repressive policies of our government. I’m not just blaming Bush, either. This ridiculous war on drugs has incarcerated so many, ruined lives and made them violent. I don’t see why it’s anybody’s business if somebody uses drugs or goes to a prostitute. If someone uses drugs and thereby injures or impairs his ability to perform a public function and as a result people are injured or killed, that person should be punished. But let’s punish the person for what he’s done, not what he might do. We are all prostitutes. We all do things we would not otherwise do just to survive. None of us should be too proud. It’s good to remember that the people we see incapacitated, drunk, and lying in the streets are our brothers and sisters.
KB That sounds like religious conviction, a conventional Judeo-Christian belief system operating.
WV Whether or not there is a God, it’s good for me, personally, to be thankful for my life. Whether or not others give thanks or believe in God is irrelevant. I used to despise organized religion. But increasingly I respect its social functions and the basic minimum goodness it forces people to adhere to. I’ve been in Islamic countries where people are kind to me because Islam says they have to. I have to hand it to Islam. My neighbors next door are Catholic. They’re involved in the affairs of the church, the schools. More power to them. I don’t go to church. If there was a Jesus, he was probably not God. He was probably one of these drunk and irreverent homeless people who will say maddening, enigmatic things. You think about it later. Maybe it’s bullshit. Maybe it’s profound.
KB Your characters are compulsive womanizers. Is this autobiographical?
WV If I answered yes to that question, you might think I was a bad person. If I answered no, you might be disappointed.
KB I’m asking this because the conventional reader might think you degrade women in your writing.
WV I have many female readers. They can see that I love women. In America, so many are ashamed of the body and sexuality. What passes for feminism and a defense of gender is Puritanism in a new disguise. I get annoyed when society tells me how I must behave. I feel the need to rebel. It’s an immature and justified rage against authority. The hypocrisy, the idiocy and ignorance I hear offends me. But that element will always be there. I’m beyond being outraged or even engaged with such people. I’m involved with a certain kind of life. Be offended or not. But it’s real; it’s more real than any sort of life that denies the existence of promiscuity or drug use or poverty. I’m trying to say, this is how it is. These people are as good or as bad as everyone else. We should know one another. If you don’t want to know the other, you don’t want to know me.
KB Your depiction of the pedophile [Dan Smooth] in The Royal Family is extremely poignant. He might be the most interesting character in the novel.
WV If freedom means anything, it’s about being repulsive as well as being able to do flower paintings. I believe that we have to focus on the other. I’m not saying pedophilia is right. But I imagined someone who would be, by our culture’s standards, the most vile and repulsive character, worse than Osama bin Laden. But let’s make him wise and a guide or bridge to the Queen. And it’s through somebody like that Tyler gains entrance to the Queen. He endures humiliation and insult from Dan Smooth. That’s the price he pays. In so many ways, this novel is about degradation. One of the questions I’ve often had is, when does self-actualization end and degradation begin? What does it really mean if we’re going to try to be ourselves? We don’t want to be conformists. We don’t want to follow social conventions, but how far do we want to take that?
KB The Royal Family is also the story of two brothers. What do they represent?
WV Cain and Abel. But I decided that Cain and Abel should both have the mark of Cain. When I read the Bible, I always think Cain does the best he can, Abel does the best he can, and God is not fair. We’re never told why Cain’s sacrifices aren’t pleasing to God. Cain is jealous. Abel is smug and flawed. Yet after Cain kills Abel, God, who is so capable of killing for much less all through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, suddenly says, “I’m going to put the mark of Cain on you. And anybody who hurts you will be revenged 77-fold.” And that’s so bizarre. Evidently, Cain fulfills a purpose too. Who is God really for? It’s not clear. But if we do have the mark of Cain, the mark of prostitution, the mark of imperfection, of humiliation and failure, dirtiness and sordidness, then we all have it, whether we’re Cain or Abel. The way I try to present them goes through a number of inversions. First you think John is dimensionless and a caricature. Later, you realize John is the one who consistently tries to help his brother, Henry.
KB The Bay Area has embraced you. What do you think of the San Francisco art community?
WV I’m a loner. I love San Francisco. It’s been very sad for me to leave San Francisco. For years I wanted to return there, though now I feel differently. I have a little girl and was able to buy this house and a studio for myself, which I couldn’t have in the city. San Francisco is not only visually beautiful but is a stunning universe of separate and secret and easily discoverable worlds. The Royal Family is a love letter to San Francisco on some levels. I have an epiphany to Geary Street in The Royal Family. It’s a love song, from the ocean to downtown. I wanted to write something like that for every district, Oceanside and so forth. In the end, I decided I had already tweaked the narrative as much as I could, with the essay on bail. It belongs there. But I didn’t want to overload the book anymore.
KB If you had cut The Royal Family along commercial lines, it would have been a blow-away detective best seller.
WV What good would that have done me? Why would I want that? I have enough money to have all the whiskey and prostitutes I want and buy things for my little girl and travel. So far I even pay the mortgage on my studio and get art supplies. When I consider my books, I’m proud. Not that they’re perfect. I do a lot of rewriting. I wish I could go back and rewrite my first book, You Bright and Risen Angels; I could do a better job. But in the meantime, nobody knows as much about my books as I do. Nobody has the right but me to say which words go into my books or get deleted or edited. When I’m dying, I’ll smile, knowing I stood up for my books. If I die with more money, that wouldn’t bring a smile to my face. Unless I got better drugs or more delicious-looking nurses. You have to look on the bright side. Are my books autobiographical? Sex and drugs and love never hurt anybody. They might have killed a few people. But they didn’t hurt anyone. So the more the better. I’m not a household name, and that’s fine with me. I just did a five-week reading tour in Europe. I’ll read at the New School. I could probably read at Columbia and Yale if I wanted to. Publicists set it up. If I can get some money, that’s nice. I usually don’t. Those trips are basically time deducted from your life. If someone is buying your books, it’s a good gesture to be able to please that person. I am grateful to my readers. But I would never give readings otherwise. I don’t go to other people’s readings. If somebody wrote a good book, I’d rather sit here and read it with the music on and a glass of whiskey in my hand. Do I need any more friends? I have plenty of friends. You see how often the phone rings. The only reason to go on a reading tour is vanity or a sexual purpose. You can always get laid on those trips. But I don’t have the vanity, so that takes away half of the reasons right there.
KB Given your penchant for disappearance, who is part of the real Bill Vollmann circle?
WV My lesbian friend, Michelle. She lives here. She’s a babysitter and works at the hospital. I have a friend who works as a commercial photographer. Sometimes we take each other out for lunch. My little girl. My best friend who lives in San Francisco. He used to be a housepainter, but he got cancer. I have a pal I go shooting with. He’s Jewish. He’s in Jews with Guns. That might interest you.
KB It’s conceptually interesting. But does it have meetings? I don’t want to join anything.
WV No meetings. Anyway, those are some of my friends. I don’t have friends in the neighborhood. I’ve survived without doing the soccer-dad thing. I don’t hang out with other writers. It’s not that I’m a snob. It’s just never really worked out that way. This society makes so many demands on our time. People are used to being interrupted. But I would rather not be interrupted. If you and I were going to be friends and I saw you every now and then, that would be great. Whatever I say I’m going to do, I do. But if somebody dropped in … That’s why my studio is great. No phone. Somebody bangs on the door, and I don’t answer. It’s perfect. It doesn’t have a bed or shower yet, but I put in a 30-foot workbench. It’s got a men’s room and a women’s room. It’s got a meat locker. I had the electrician put a light in the meat locker, and he said, “What’s this for?” I said, “So when I dismember my victims, I can look at them.” He frowned. There was a long silence. Then he put the light switch in and went away. *
Kate Braverman writes poetry, short fiction, novels, and essays. Her stories have won the Raymond Carver Editor’s Choice Award and the Shell-Economist writing prize and have been included in the annual O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories collections. Her new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir, winner of the Graywolf Prize, has just been published by Graywolf Press. She lives in San Francisco. For more information please go to http://www.katebraverman.com/interview.
HERE IS THE NYT ARTICLE ABOUT HIS LATEST ‘IMPERIAL’
July 29, 2009
An Author Without Borders
By CHARLES McGRATH
HOLTVILLE, Calif. — William T. Vollmann, legendarily prolific, writes in a studio that used to be a restaurant in Sacramento. The place is surrounded by a big parking lot where he encourages homeless people to camp out. Inside he runs a one-man assembly line. His bibliography so far includes nine novels, including “Europe Central,” which won the National Book Award in 2005; three collections of stories; a seven-volume, 3,000-page history of violence; a book-length essay on poverty; and a travel book about hopping freight trains, a hobby of his even though his balance is so bad that he has to use a plastic bucket as a stepstool.
Mr. Vollmann’s newest book, “Imperial,” which comes out from the Viking Press on Thursday, costs $55 and is 1,300 pages long — so heavy, he observed recently, that if you dropped it, you’d break a toe. A companion volume, to be published next month by powerHouse Books, contains some 200 photographs he took while working on “Imperial,” for which he also wore a spy camera while trying to infiltrate a Mexican factory, and paddled in an inflatable raft down the New River in California, a rancid trench that is probably the most polluted stream in America. The water, he writes, tasted like the Salk polio vaccine.
Mr. Vollmann, who just turned 50, is a loner, a bit of a recluse, despite being married and the father of a daughter, and a throwback: a wandering, try-anything writer-journalist in the tradition of Steinbeck or Jack London. Some people think he’s a little nuts.
To research “The Rifles,” a novel partly about the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic, Mr. Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole, where he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. But being eyebrowless has its advantages, he discovered more recently, while experimenting with cross-dressing to research a novel he’s now writing about the transgendered. He didn’t have to pluck his brows when getting made up.
Mr. Vollmann collects pistols and likes to shoot them. He has traveled to Thailand, Bosnia, Somalia, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, studying war and poverty, and has a way of picking up prostitutes just about wherever he goes. He has spent considerable time with skinheads, winos, crackheads and meth tweakers, and has ingested plenty of illegal substances himself.
“Crack,” he said recently, “is a really great drug — it’s like having three cups of coffee at once.”
“Imperial,” which is about Imperial County in California, the vast, flat and arid region in the southeastern part of the state, bordering Mexico, is an extreme Vollmann production: brilliant in places, practically unreadable in others. There are lyrical passages, and others edging over into magenta (“And change came; just as the urine of dehydrated people is turbid and dark, failing in transparency, so the evening sunlight, as if heated to exhaustion by and with itself, now lost the glaring whiteness which had characterized it since early morning, and it oozed down upon the pavement to stain it with gold”), along with scientific chapters, complete with graphs, on salinization and agricultural productivity, and 175 pages of notes. A page early on has a title warning of “Impending Aridity.”
The more interesting stuff includes chapters on narco-ballads — songs, outlawed in Mexico, celebrating drug lords — on early California history, on the Chinese-dug tunnels in Mexicali and on Mr. Vollmann’s lingering breakup with an old lover.
The book is a little like the Imperial Valley itself: pathless, fascinating, exhausting. Its two great themes are illegal immigration — the struggle of countless thousands of Mexicans to sneak into the United States through the Imperial Valley — and water, which has transformed the valley, or parts of it, from desert to seeming paradise but at great environmental cost.
Mr. Vollmann’s editors urged him to cut, he said, and he resisted: “We always go round and round. They want me to cut, and I argue, so they cut my royalties, and I agree never to write a long book again.” He acknowledged that the length of “Imperial” might cost him readers but said: “I don’t care. It seems like the important thing in life is pleasing ourselves. The world doesn’t owe me a living, and if the world doesn’t want to buy my books, that’s my problem.”
On a cloudless, sun-baked day last week Mr. Vollmann, with a characteristically bad haircut, toured some of the landscapes that had inspired him, traveling from San Diego across the border to the Mexican town of Tecate, down the mountainous, hairpin road to Mexicali and then back across the border into California, through the Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea, an enormous inland lake that is the region’s agricultural sink, so hyper-saline that it is almost toxic.
Along the way, some of the secrets of Mr. Vollmann’s method began to reveal themselves. Mr. Vollmann doesn’t drive, and his Spanish is only so-so, so he was driven, as he was for most of the 12 years it took him to write the book, by Terrie Petree, who also served as an interpreter. She learned her Spanish as a Mormon missionary in northern Spain, which also prepared her, she said, for having doors shut in her face. Mr. Vollmann sat in the passenger seat, taking in everything and peppering Ms. Petree with questions. Far from manic, he was preternaturally calm and patient, dosing himself with nothing stronger than bottled water.
Mr. Vollmann is almost excessively polite, and in conversation has a salesman’s habit of using your first name in every other sentence. He seems more innocent than worldly, driven by insatiable curiosity. In Mexicali he turned an annoying and time-consuming visit to a police station, occasioned by what appeared to be a traffic-fine shakedown, into an interview with the station’s chief of information. He also charmed a blushing secretary there and learned the name of the best taco joint in town.
In Tecate, he was so polite to Severa Piñedo Valenzuela, a woman sweeping the street, that she invited him to see her indoor garden. Her house is directly across the road from the iron fence walling off the United States border. She had never seen anyone trying to cross over, she said, and added: “They think that if they cross the border, that’s where the money is. But it’s where death is.”
On the way back to the car, Mr. Vollmann went over to the fence and peered through a gap across to a hill where a white border patrol van was parked. “At night, it looks like the Third Reich out there,” he said. “They light it up so you can see every grain of sand glowing in the dark. When we were over there, it was nothing special, but now that there’s a fence here, it feels different. It’s that crazy human thing we do about delineating things.”
He went on: “I think countries have the right to maintain their borders, but on the other hand, think of the thousands or so who have died just trying to get to the United States so they can clean toilets. It seems horrendous that they shouldn’t have a better life, especially if they’re willing to do work we aren’t.”
Mexicali is a major junction for Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross over, and also, to judge from billboards, for Americans looking for strippers, cheap prescription drugs, plastic surgery and dental implants. It was here, Mr. Vollmann said, that he had an early insight that inspired his book.
“I used to think the Imperial Valley was hot, flat and boring,” he explained. “But I crossed over here, stayed in a hotel and realized the place was full of secrets. You’d see a building that looked run-down and boarded up, but inside it was a place of coolness, darkness, life. That seemed like such a great metaphor for this place.”
In Calexico, on the American side, Mr. Vollmann inspected the neon-looking New River, which some foolish would-be immigrants have tried to swim and which he, equally foolhardy, tried to navigate in his rubber raft. “Looking pretty good today!” he said not far from a sign warning “Agua Contaminada. No Entre.” “Doesn’t stink too much and there’s almost no foam.”
On through the valley, where the temperature reached 115 degrees, and the sun gave you a headache, Mr. Vollmann remained curious and upbeat, not even flinching at the stench from an endless feed lot. He explained his preoccupation with the marginal and downtrodden matter of factly:
“When I was a young boy, my little sister drowned, and it was essentially my fault. I was 9, and she was 6, and I was supposed to be watching. I’ve always felt guilty. It’s like I have to have sympathy for the little girl who drowned and for the little boy who failed to save her — for all the people who have screwed up.”
In Brawley he stopped for lunch with Stella Altamirano-Mendoza, who is on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District and had been his tutor in the byzantine intricacies of Imperial water politics. The stuff is so valuable, she explained, that some farmers no longer bother to farm but simply sell their water.
Near Slab City, just north of Calipatria, Mr. Vollmann stopped to pay a courtesy call on Leonard Knight, a 77-year-old local eccentric, who since 1985 has been building out of adobe an enormous, religious-theme folk-art monument called Salvation Mountain, which from a distance looks as if it had been sculptured from cake frosting.
“I sometimes think I have more ambition than brains,” Mr. Knight said, but then beamed while mentioning how many people had visited the Salvation Mountain Web site (salvationmountain.us).
As evening drew near, there was a whisper of a breeze, the shadows lengthened, greenery grew greener, and the Salton Sea almost looked beautiful, until you got up close and saw the abandoned motels and all the dead fish. “I love the desert at night,” Mr. Vollmann said. “That’s when it’s most beautiful. It feels soothing and infinite.”
The day ended with a visit to the Terrace Park Cemetery here in Holtville, where unidentified people who have died crossing the border are buried in a bare, grassless potter’s field. A danger sign warns of possible cave-ins. The graves, laid out in long, straight rows, are each marked with a brick bearing a number and the name John Doe. A few are additionally decorated with homemade wooden crosses that say “No identificado” or “No olvidado” (“not forgotten”).
Mr. Vollmann stood there quietly for a while and said, “You wonder how many are never found and never brought here,” and he added, an edge creeping into his voice: “At least they won’t be stealing our tax dollars anymore. That’s very important.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 3, 2009 An article on July 29 about the author William T. Vollmann and his new book, “Imperial,” about Imperial County in California, and a picture caption with the article referred incompletely to the high level of salinity in the Salton Sea, a lake in Imperial and Riverside counties. Irrigation runoff is one of several factors contributing to the salinity level, not the only one.