William T. Vollmann: I was born in Los Angeles. My dad was a graduate student there, and we didn't have a lot of money. We lived in this slum neighborhood. There were these reconditioned army barracks that got really, really hot in the summertime. There wasn't any air conditioning or anything. It was called Veteran's housing. It was in Westwood. I think a freeway has been built over it since. There were lots of low income families. I was kind of afraid of them. I used to get beaten up a little bit when I went outside, but I made some friends. My family was there until I was about five. Then we moved to New Hampshire where my dad had a teaching job. Then we moved around after that.
AL: When did you think that you would become a writer? Could you talk about your early days?
WTV Real young. When I was about six. Started writing. I didn't think about it. I knew that I really liked to write. So that's what I did. I had a couple of jobs when I got out of college. My first job was being a secretary at this re-insurance company. I took guys' coats off for them when they came in. They would come in and stick out their arms like wings. That meant I had to pull off their coats and ask them what they wanted in their coffee. So this was in 1981. I was living in San Francisco. I did that for eight months. I was making about eight hundred dollars a month. I saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan. I went to Afghanistan with the rebels for a while. Came back. Went to Berkeley. I was going to be in the graduate program, but I dropped out after a year, and never went back. I became a door to door canvasser. It wasn't too bad in the summer. Then, in the fall, it began to rain. Everyone dropped out except all these pimps and drug addicts. I had such a good time hanging out with them. I was a terrible canvasser though. I just really enjoyed how they talked. Some of these were really scary guys.
AL: So you wrote your first book about Afghanistan around that time, which was finally published a year ago. You came back to San Francisco. How did You Bright and Risen Angels come about?
WTV An Afghanistan Picture Show wasn't published for a long time. I kept fiddling with it. I made revisions and rewrites. I added stuff about what I thought now, and what I did then. It has some depth to it. After I was a canvasser, I became a computer programmer. They sort of took me. I don't know why. I kind of fooled them because I didn't really know anything about computers. I lasted about a year or so before they fired me. When I was doing that I would go down there to the office. I don't drive. Sometimes I would stay all week. After everyone else had left, I would still be sitting at my desk, and I wrote Angels on their computer real late at night. I would eat candy bars >from the vending machine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, when it was time to sleep, I would just get underneath my desk. I'd put a big waste basket in front of my head, so the janitors couldn't see me when they were vacuuming.
AL That book was very strange and psychedelic. But soon after that, you turned to more documentary modes of writing with Rainbow Stories. What was the genesis of that much different book?
WTV I guess it was because I was able to meet this guy, Ken Miller, the street photographer. At that time, he was in his heyday on Haight street. He knew everybody. Everybody knew him. He'd just go out, and all the alcoholics would call out "Hey Ken!" He'd just shaved his head, become a skinhead, and he lived with the skinheads. So they kind of liked him. He took all their pictures.
AL With you, traveling and writing come hand in hand. From the beginning, you are going off to Afghanistan doing research. Since then, you've gone to the magnetic north pole. Could you describe some of these adventures?
WTV With Rainbow Stories, I tried to go into all these different worlds, trying to understand what was going on. So it wasn't too much different going to different countries. Going from the Haight to the Tenderloin was like as different as going from Iceland to Greenland. It was very interesting for me, and I've never lost the desire to keep doing that. And now, I have a little more money. I travel to further places: that's all. It's all the same thing.
Going to the North Pole was pretty creepy. To prepare for such a trip I had to take a lot of food, a couple of stoves. You figure that in those temperatures, you can't count on one stove. In fact, when the gas runs out, you can't really replace the gas on one stove because if you take it apart, the O ring isn't going to stick anymore. It's so cold. And if it leaks off the O ring, you don't want gas dripping near the open flame. The main thing is you've got to have lots and lots of clothes. You wear the clothes long enough, and they start freezing with your sweat.
AL You talked about how Rainbow Stories had to do with Ken Miller. Is your new book, Butterfly Stories, also about your experiences with Ken Miller? The main story being about a journalist and a photographer going to Southeast Asia.
WTV Rainbow Stories is strictly a novel. It's based on documentary research with prostitutes over there. It's about something that didn't happen, unlike the skinhead stories in Rainbow Stories. The journalist falls in love with one of the prostitutes in Cambodia. Gets AIDS from her. Can't find her. Goes back. Looks for her. Finally crosses the border into Cambodia just to let himself be captured by the Khmer Rouge, because he figures she's probably dead. He lets them kill him so that he can be sort of with her. Sure. I hung out. I met lots of prostitutes, but I don't have AIDS yet. I haven't been caught by the Khmer Rouge.
AL When were you last tested?
WTV A couple of months ago. How about you?
AL Six months or so....
WTV Maybe you're immune. I always tell these whores on Capp street "Is it true what they say that if you get AIDS, all you have to do is give it to someone else and then you're cured?"
AL You've launched this ambitious project called The Seven Dreams: The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows have been published so far. Can you talk about your experiences writing these books?
WTV That came out of Rainbow Stories too, because Rainbow Stories was all these parking lots, where the whores were doing their business. I thought to myself "What was the country like before all the parking lots were here?" I read a lot of Norse sagas when I was a kid, so that helped me for the first book. For Fathers and Crows, I didn't have any prior preparation. I didn't know anything about 17th century Canada. It was fun to go to Canada and see what was there, read books about it, meet some Indians, work with some anthropologists. I'm real pleased with that book. I think it's a better book than The Ice-Shirt. For that, I went to Iceland, Greenland, and New Foundland.
AL Do you feel that The Ice-Shirt is your weakest book?
WTV It's weaker than Fathers and Crows. It's got some good stuff in it. I'd say that my Afghanistan book is my weakest book. The first three-quarters of The Ice-Shirt are OK. I think that the last quarter I'd do differently. I was still trying to figure out how to mix history and fiction as I went. That was the first attempt at the seven. It was harder with The Ice-Shirt. I wish that I had more money too. For instance, I would've liked to have gone to Norway and Sweden for that one. If I had, that part would have been longer.
AL Is writing an excuse to travel?
WTV I love to travel and I love to write. I don't need excuses. I could stay in one place and write if I had to. Then it would be a different book. That's what I did for Angels when I was stuck in that computer place with freeways on three sides of me and sleeping under my desk. That was pretty awful. So I was just living in my head. If I had to do it again, I would. But I'd rather go to Pat Pong.
AL So has traveling, having eaten all these candy bars, and smoking crack--has all that affected your health?
WTV I feel like I'm in pretty good shape. When I'm at home working, I just sit on my ass, work on the computer, a Mac II. When I travel: the first couple of days are always hard. Then I get back into the swing of things. I just came back from an Arctic trip. I know every time that I go up there, for the first couple of days, I won't sleep very well because I'm not used to the cold and being on the hard ground. I get blisters. Pretty soon I get tough. The mosquitoes or the rain don't bother me so much. I take a notebook with me and write with that.
AL How do you feel about technology? Are things getting out of hand with the growing indebtedness towards computers and technology? Are we heading towards a vortex of insanity?
WTV I think it's really bad. I would like to abolish television and the automobile. Television because it has no reverence for time, and the automobile because they have no reverence for space.
AL But if you abolish cars, where would whores go to do a quick hand job?
WTV Well, I guess they would have to go under horses.
AL Why do you write so much about prostitutes?
WTV Why I'm interested in prostitutes is because they have everything interesting in life all together: there's love, sex, and money. What more do you want? I feel comfortable around women. Paying for sex is always an easy way to get into a woman's life, if she's a prostitute. It's always great for me when I travel some place. If I really want to know what life is really like in one of those countries, just pick up a prostitute and live with her for a while. I see life as she sees it. I feel like I'm doing something and knowing something real fast. In a week, you learn as much as you would if you stayed in a hotel for a year. It's really great.
Whores For Gloria is not autobiographical. I'm not an alcoholic or a veteran. I did go around in the Tenderloin asking prostitutes to tell me stories. I'd ask them to tell me happy stories, and they'd try. They'd always end up being sad stories. It's always sad when you see other people unhappy. It's not that prostitution is bad. I think that many prostitutes in Bangkok and Thailand have a pretty good life: they get boyfriends, husbands, they can go out of it when they want. Over here, there's all this shame we have about our bodies. So when someone becomes a prostitute, she becomes ashamed of herself. And then, it's a criminal thing. It's easier to get hooked on drugs. There's nothing wrong with taking drugs occasionally, but if that's all you do, it's easy to end up on your way out. So that stuff is sad for me to see.
There's one story in Thirteen Stories, Thirteen Epitaphs that I wrote about a guy who goes to Bangkok and marries a prostitute. He would have done anything to stay with her. She felt bad that she wouldn't stay with him. There was a language barrier. She really couldn't explain to him why she wouldn't. Actually she married a couple of people, and kept doing her thing.
AL Is observation as good as raw experience?
WTV I think it depends on what's observation and what's participation. I started doing the crack stuff because these ladies that I was working with were smoking crack.
AL We've talked about writing, research, observation, and so forth. Some people have accused the photographer Joel- Peter Witkin of exploitation. What is the difference between observation and exploitation? This is a culture that pays models 500 dollars an hour for their pictures, yet pays nothing to the poor or the destitute.
WTV That's a good question. When I was writing Rainbow Stories, there was a piece on prostitutes in the Tenderloin called "Ladies and Red Lights." I was very concerned about exploiting them. I'd ask them questions. I'd always pay for the interviews. It was not actually that good a piece. It was a start of getting into that world. It was the best that I could do at the time. Since then, I've realized the best thing to do is that you try to become that person's friend. You do something for them. They do something for you. And everybody's happy. If you write a story about somebody, but in the meantime, she's puking in the sink because she needs her fix.... So you give her some money, and she can get fixed. She thinks you're the greatest. And you think she's the greatest too. You're both helping each other. I have some long-term relationships with some of those people. I feel like I've done good for them. I also feel grateful to them for letting me hang around and share their lives with them. So I don't think that I exploit anybody.
But that's the kind of thing: it's always a matter of opinion. I was interviewed by somebody in Davis a few days ago. She kept telling me "What gives you the right to play God?" She thought I was kind of awful. All I could say was "You can believe it if you want."
For instance, I'm going over to Burma to get this sex slave. I guess they have really young girls there: eight or nine year olds. They raise them like animals. Then they ship them out to whorehouses. Sometimes the Japanese want virgins and they don't want to use rubbers. So it's ideal for them to get one of these young girls. So I was interested to see how the process works, of buying a human being. Once I bought this person, I would have some kind of responsibility for her. I would try to set her up with a fruit stand, or a cigarette stand. I don't see anything wrong with voluntary prostitution, but I think that involuntary prostitution is pretty bad.
So this woman said "Well, you're giving her a taste of freedom, but probably she'll just end up the same way as she was before or worse. You're not doing her any favors." But I disagree. I figure you can't help anybody, but you can give them a chance to help themselves. If they take it, then that's great.
AL Is the process of research crucial for writing a novel or a short story?
WTV I think so. I think all kinds of things can qualify as research. Spending time on the street is research. The results are just as good as spending time in a library. But if you write, you have to do something like that. Or your life can be research. The important thing is you have to have something to draw on. Van Gogh and Gauguin used to frequent whore houses. I'd call that research. They called it a "hygienic outing." I have a lot of respect for Gauguin. In fact, I was just in Madagascar for a month. I was trying to do some of the stuff he did. Not oils, but watercolors. Lots and lots of them. I made a lot of progress. Really exciting for me. Madagascar is a really wonderful place. Very friendly people. They would rip you off or kill you if they could, but they're very friendly.
AL The other night, at Green Apple, you read a new story about crack. You said that "Crack is the only happiness." How does this figure into the new work?
WTV I'm doing these series of real short pieces from all around the world. It's called The Atlas. It's set in Somalia, Sarajevo, San Francisco, and all these places I've been. So that crack story is one of them. Well, crack is certainly the only happiness in that story. Crack is a very American drug, but someone has told me that he's seen it in Belize. They're not smoking crack in Sarajevo but they would probably want it. That would keep them going.
AL What do you think of the comparison to William S. Burroughs? I know that you have said previously that you think you are a better writer than him.
WTV I'm not a big believer in the cut-up method. I think it was an interesting experiment. It's not how I work. I like looking at something, and writing down some notes about it, and correcting my notes, adding more notes, and so on and so forth. I like the feeling like it's totally voluntary and there's this control all the way through.
AL What do you think technically about what you're writing?
WTV When I write a sentence, oftentimes what I do is try to treat it like a kernel of popcorn. I'll keep packing more and more words in there. Sort of refine it, until it explodes. When it does, it has all this surface area. It's kind of complicated to trace the whole shape of the thing. But if you do, you get the whole round shape of it. And that's the way it has to be. Some of the earlier stuff is the most grammatically complex. I just try to come up with the right sentence for the right job.
AL Are there any contemporary writers that you think are good? You already said you liked Lautreamont?
WTV Yeah, I like Lautreamont. I think Cormac McCarthy is really wonderful. He's terrific. Some of the older writers I like better than most contemporary writers. I like some of the real old stuff like the epics and sags. Ovid. Some of the Eastern European writers are neat.
AL Do you write under the influence of anything besides crack?
WTV Oh, that's no fun! Lautreamont helped me out a lot when I was starting off. I just loved those sentences. They were so beautiful, strange, and creepy, and very precise. Hawthorn I liked a lot. I liked his moral aesthetic. The stuff that I'm writing now: I try to listen to how people talk and how they live. Like that story about that crack prostitute. I think it's a good story, but I can't really take credit for it. It's not my story. It's her story. She let me into her life. I still see her. I was able to write some nice sentences. But they were her sentences and everything happened to her.
AL You're a very visual writer and it makes sense that you would be drawn to art and painting. Could you talk about your attraction to art?
WTV It's just another way of seeing, just like writing notes is a way of seeing. I have a whole bunch of watercolors that go along with the crack story. I think that the crack story stands alone, but it's just so much richer with the watercolors. You can see these portraits of women doing crack, spreading their legs on the bed, sitting on broken glass on the sidewalk. It just adds something. I'm doing more and more with the visual arts now. So I'm expecting in the next couple of years that there will be fewer books coming out. I'm doing these CoTangent books and I love illustrating my writing.
AL Will you ever write some plays or do some theater?
WTV I would enjoy doing theater, I started working on this story about The Queen Of The Whores. I actually paid some prostitutes once to put on a skit on what they thought The Queen Of The Whores would be like. I rented a space and let them go with it. I learned some stuff from them. I would really enjoy doing that some time.
AL What would "the queen of the whores" be like?
WTV I imagine her as someone who lives in the sewers underneath the Tenderloin. She has all these pimps or enforcers. Everything is lit up by these trash cans that are full of trash and gas and diesel fuel. So there's these lurid orange flames shooting up all over the place. Some sort of concrete place. They bring people in, and she decides what's going to be done with them. When I was auditioning people for The Queen Of The Whores, I realized there should be a good queen and a bad queen. A lot of them wanted to be the bad queen. They really got into the power. They wanted to torture people and kill them. What made me surprised and happy was that everyone got into it. I didn't even know what it meant. They knew. As soon as I said "queen of the whores." They would say "Oh yeah, I do this, I'll do that."
AL Your novels are attempts to get to know the self, and simultaneously they are about knowing the other.
WTV It's so hard. Everyone lives in his or her own world. You don't realize how small that world is. You exclude all these people in all these different worlds. They're just these featureless blurs that go on. It takes a lot of effort to get into these other worlds. There's an infinite number of them, so you can never know them all. But at least you can see a few of them. You realize that people operate according to these totally opposing value systems.
I remember in Cambodia. It is really bad to touch someone on top of the head or the souls of their feet. There was this one beggar crawling around. He had his feet drawn up against his stomach to make sure he wasn't going to offend anybody. His knees were getting all cut up, crawling around in that broken glass. But he had to do it. He just couldn't point the souls of his feet at anybody. It was strange for me coming back.
AL Are Americans self-indulgent and trapped inside the self? Is the self a prison? Do you feel that through your writing you've broken out of the self towards the other?
WTV I think that I've tried, and to the extent I've succeeded I've become a misfit, because most people don't want to know the other. The more I succeed, the more people here really don't like me. They don't feel comfortable with me.
AL Does that process subvert contentness and happiness?
WTV I think it does. If you see someone that feels really miserable. And before, he was just someone that wasn't human. You go back home and can't be bothered. Then if you keep thinking about that person, it's kind of awful. When I was over in Sarajevo, I tried to get this Serbian girl out. I couldn't do it. I came back and I felt guilty. I'll probably not stop thinking about it. When I was in Kenya, there was one girl who wanted to stop being a prostitute. I got her into an eight-month course learning how to be a seamstress. It was 700 dollars. It was a lot for me. But there was no way she could have done it. I feel good about that. But at the same time, I think about all the people who would also want to take that course. It's harder to be happy when you think about that stuff. You just can't do enough.
AL After all this time and travel, how American do you feel?
WTV I was born here. I feel some identity and some loyalty to the place that I've eaten so many meals in. But I feel like I've become a little unglued. In a way, it's kind of liberating and other ways it's kind of scary.
AL This is a time that we know all politicians are ineffective and mediocre. Can you think of one politician that actually helped anybody? If you really try to help anybody, they kill you, right?
WTV Or if you try hard enough to help, there's a good chance you might get carried away, and kill them. Like when I was in Cambodia. I got to meet Pol Pot's brother. Very interesting guy. He said that when Pol Pot was a little kid, he would never take part in slaughtering any of the chickens. The old people loved him the best, because he was so kind to them. He went off to Paris just to get a better education. He started to learn some Marxist theory. He thought "The greatest good for the greatest number. This whole capitalist superstructure is really rotten. What we have to do is control the means of production." He went further than Marx and Mao. He said we have to get rid of all these specialists. Just get back to primary production. There's a lot of truth in it. Where I think he went wrong was he said I don't trust anyone but myself to do it. It's got to happen in my lifetime. So I have to eliminate all these large groups that will or might oppose my plans. I believe that the guy really, really meant well. That's what so depressing about it.
AL What kind of influence do you want to have on your readers?
WTV Sometimes girls send me naked pictures. Mishima's private army appeals to me. I think he used it for the wrong end. It was stupid and pointless. I would enjoy having a non-violent army to work against the automobile. Something like that. That would be satisfying. I've been working on a long essay called "Rising Up and Rising Down." It's about why I think violence is justified and when it isn't. Sometimes it is! What sorts of things it's right to try and do if you're going to cause some damage or possibly hurt somebody, or when you should get involved at all. I'm still trying to understand it.
AL What is your theory on writing, communication, and meaning? You talk about "honesty" in some of your essays in Conjunctions and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. There is all this Post-Modernism and experimentation going around. You seem to be opposed to all that?
WTV I don't understand a lot of it. I studied Comparative Literature at Cornell. Structuralism was real big then. The idea of reading and writing as being this language game. There's a lot of appeal to that. It's nice to think of it as this playful kind of thing. But I think that another way to look at it is "Look, I just want to be sincere. I want to write something and make you feel something and maybe you will go out and do something." And it seems that the world is in such bad shape now that we don't have time to do nothing but language games. That's how it seems to me.
AL The Seven Dreams is an ambitious project. You've written about half of it. How long is it going to take to finish this? You still have four books to go, right?
WTV Yeah, that's right! A few more to go. Let's see. The fourth one is half done and the last one is half done. So I'll finish it in five or ten years. I'm not in any hurry. I don't know if I'm going to be around because I do some risky things. So maybe it will all catch up with me.
AL Don't you think that there are more important things to do rather than writing? Like enjoying your body or something?
WTV Sometimes writing is fun. But if I didn't have something to say, maybe I would do watercolors or maybe I would improve my shooting skills, so I could be more useful in that way. I'm really interested in guns. When I went to Afghanistan, I didn't know anything about guns. I learned how important guns were in that situation. I spent a lot of time in the Arctic. I have Eskimo friends. They live by hunting. Guns have had some positive effects and done a lot of harm up there too. That's what the next of my "dreams" is about. I'm fascinated by guns. I've used a gun for self-defense a couple of times.
WTV Once in the Tenderloin. I didn't have to shoot it. It was a Sig-Sauer P226 9mm pistol. I had it right here under my arm. Some black guys were going to stab me because I was a white guy in the wrong place. I just pulled out the gun and said "I'm really sorry to point the gun at you. I wish you leave me alone. I don't want to hurt you." They left me alone. It was really nice to have it.