Conversations with
William T. Vollmann

Edited by Daniel Lukes
University Press of Mississippi ($25)

by Chris Via

At this point, one cannot dismiss William T. Vollmann. Far from being a mere cult sensation with subversive inclinations and a penchant for publishing unwieldy books, Vollmann has in recent years made waves with unassuming reportage (Poor People, Imperial); a National Book Award-winning novel (Europe Central); another installment in his heptalogy about Native-European clashes in North America (The Dying Grass); and a two-volume exploration of the ideologies behind coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energies (Carbon Ideologies). Perhaps the only rival of his staggering prose output is the mythos surrounding the man himself. Conversations with William T. Vollmann offers readers an illuminating portrait of the enigmatic writer through articles and interviews from 1989-2018 that often temper wild assumptions with even more stimulating truths.

The mythos of William T. Vollmann. “He won a scholarship to Deep Springs College . . . that solicits applications from high school students whose IQs are in the top half-a-percent.” He wrote his first novel at night while working for a software company, sleeping under his desk and subsisting on Three Musketeers. He crossed into Afghanistan in 1982 to join the mujahideen in a quixotic blunder. He almost died alone in the magnetic North Pole. He developed Repetitive Strain Syndrome from sixteen-hour days typing his manuscript about Jesuit missions to New France. He smuggled a Thai sex slave to safety while on assignment for Spin magazine. He is intensely private, eschewing the Internet and email. His phone has been tapped and his mail has been opened without consent—due to the Patriot Act, he suspects.

The vision of William T. Vollmann. As he tells one interviewer, “One thing I think is so beneficial to all of us as human beings is that we can set ourselves the mission of trying to identify with and appreciate as many different people and things in this universe as we can.” Or as he puts it to another, “my whole work is an attempt . . . to try to understand the Other.” Vollmann’s mind overflows with curiosity about the world and a concomitant disregard for his own safety and ignorance. His altruistic plight to present the Other in the fullness of their humanity is backed by his famous unwillingness to make editorial trims to his writing, even at the cost of readership and money: “he agreed to a one-third cut in his advance in order to have [The Royal Family] published in its voluminous state.”

The craft of William T. Vollmann. Throughout the interviews Vollmann shares his desires as a craftsman. As he says of himself versus Thomas Pynchon, delivered in winking braggadocio: “I think my sentences are better.” Indeed, he cites poor attention to good writing as his indictment of a lot of American literature. Such invectives gain authority in the volumes of the Seven Dreams series, where his innovative prose matches the time period of each book. It seems Vollmann can take command of any style from at least the tenth century to the present and make it shine.

The selections in this volume are arranged chronologically, highlighting the development of Vollmann and his work, and there is a good balance of pithy banter and slower, more thoughtful conversation. Despite a fair amount of topical overlap, each interview colors in a little more of the author’s portrait—and it is a complex portrait, though one feels Vollmann would disagree. He can be egotistical and humble, reckless and prudent, passive and empathetic, subversive and reverent, evasive and direct—sometimes in the same breath. As such, he is a contemporary writer well worth reading, and Conversations helps get to the meat of why.

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