By Dennis Yudt Photos by Scott Duncan
“With writing, all that matters is the word.” -William T. Vollmann
William Vollmann hates cars. That is why he’s taking the train to his beloved San Francisco. Cars have no reverence for space, he has said. But he loves trains and wrote about them in length in Riding Towards Everywhere, his 2008 book on train-hopping and riding boxcars that is equally about the search of a mythic America that is fading fast. We agreed that as far as modes of transport are concerned, the train is the most rock and roll. It has a good rhythm. Grabbing a seat at Temple on 10th, we chat for a bit while he waits for his latte and scone. I ask if he still lives in Land Park with his family and he nods yes. How about you? he asks. Do you have a kid? Where do you live? As I answer, the barista brings out his order and while peeking at my notes I press the ’record’ button on the tape recorder.
And for the record, he also hates television too. No reverence for time.
Considered one of the finest contemporary writers of our time, William T. Vollmann is often included on the short list reserved for the crème de la crème: Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. A National Book Award winning author of 20-plus books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories and essays, in addition to contributing to The New Yorker, Harper’s, and New York Review of Books, Vollmann is admired not just for his breathtakingly eloquent, verbose and luxurious prose, but also for how he travels the world to observe and partake in experiences from the dark, desperate edges of society and reports it back to us in a compassionate and learned voice. The copious amounts of research he does, as an eyewitness, documenter, and participant allow him to experience the extremes of existence first-hand to find the absolute truth. He has enthralled both readers and fellow writers, and it makes his books all-consuming, bringing in subject matter that on the surface seem tangential, and then adds elements of pure reportage, casual asides, fantasy, erotica, autobiography and fiction, sometime all in one paragraph. With so much information at hand, his books are Tolstoy-esque in their depth and sheer length – his take on the history, effects and ethics of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down runs almost 3300 pages over seven volumes and took over 20 years to write.
In readying for this article, I spent the better part of three months reading everything by Vollmann I could get my hands on. But nothing prepared me for one small detail – his eyes. They were the saddest eyes I ever looked into. Eyes that have seen the worst in people and what they are capable of doing while seeking out the underlying beauty and good, the hope of redemption. Eyes that cannot unsee what they have watched.
Here are a few things that his eyes cannot unsee: as a war correspondent in Bosnia, the vehicle he was driving in ran over a mine which exploded, killing his childhood friend and one other person; traveling with Afghani rebels fighting Soviet forces; saving a child prostitute in Thailand by abducting her and bringing her back to her family; two weeks in isolation at the Magnetic North Pole in an abandoned weather station where he got frostbite and started to hallucinate from sleep deprivation just to understand what the British captain at the heart of his novel, The Rifles, went through on his ill-fated journey into the Arctic; interviewing warlords heading up the opium trade in Burma; diving headfirst into the world of prostitution, smoking crack and having sex with many of them as a way of getting to know them better. All of this is called research.
What drives him to these extremes is his need to know the truth first-hand, unfiltered by the media, preconceptions and ignorance – and his compulsion to report every detail back to us. We take for granted that the information that we read in the newspapers or see on the television or the internet is factual; ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ aren’t interchangeable words, but, ideally, they are part of a whole. Vollmann says that he hates the internet because of the quality of the information it contains. An article that will be there one day will be re-edited, or missing altogether the next. It is the transitory state of the internet, all information in a constant state of flux, not like the finite, physical words in a book. He says that the internet is one reason why Americans are so ignorant about politics, religion, and current events. Don’t believe anything unless you see or experience it yourself. The truth is out there for you to find.
“But Americans have always been an ignorant people,” he sighs. “If people really knew what was going on in Afghanistan, our past few presidents, including our current one, would be put on trial for war crimes.”
Vollmann knows Afghanistan well. His experiences there as a 22-year-old during the Soviet invasion in 1982 formed the basis of his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World. Vollmann is adamant about what the real situation over there is, having interviewed Afghanis from all walks of life, including Taliban members. Most Afghanis, women included, want the Taliban to be in power because, he says, despite their shortcomings, such as fundamentalist beliefs and lack of education, they feel safe with them in charge and they unified their country. For as much currency as the cautionary cliché, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” carries, the United States seem to be doing just that, forgetting that the Afghanis have beaten back the British on a couple occasions and successfully fought off the then-superpower Soviets. Now the US attempts where the others have failed. And failed miserably. Vollmann contends that the only sure way we will ever “win” is through wholesale genocide, and in the meantime all we are doing is creating many more Osama bin Ladens.
Currently, Vollmann is working on an essay for Harper’s about the plight of the homeless in Sacramento. His research has led him down to the Sacramento River where he spent several days living and sleeping amongst the inhabitants. He is passionate about bringing light to their situation and putting a human face to their stories. Vollmann talks about how he wanted to set up a safe haven at his own home with fresh drinking water and shelter but that the city wouldn’t allow him. He is disgusted at the contempt shown by our city and by the lack of compassion from a country supposedly founded on Christian values. Given a bad circumstance or two, any of us could be homeless.
The poor and disenfranchised are subjects close to him. In his book Poor People, which came out in 2007, he asks the poverty-stricken in various countries the question “Why are some people poor and some people rich?” or “Do you think you are poor?” Depending on the culture of the person answering, the answers varied greatly:
“For me, poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable.”
Did you always want to be a writer, Bill?
“Yeah, ever since I was a kid. Maybe 7 or 8. My first book was about a spaceship.”
He gives up a rare smile. He is not intense but he is extremely focused, speaking without hesitation on any question asked of him. What brought you to Sacramento? His wife’s job in the medical field back in the mid-‘80s, he replies. Do you like it here? Yes, he says, it’s a beautiful city and affordable. He says it’s a good city to raise his daughter in. Plus, it’s close to San Francisco. He has a very small circle of friends, but he prefers his time alone with his family, relaxing in his art studio and indulging in his love of watercolors, photography and block-printing. His books are often illustrated by his own creations and he has made some very limited editions of poetry made by hand. And before this scenario gets too cozy, he often uses his beloved prostitutes as models.
Always trying to find the truth and beauty in everything, himself included.