Noted: William T. Vollmann

I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one’s life to a private dream. The probability of failing oneself, either through laziness, incompetence or bad luck, or else, worse yet, through dreaming what one only imagined one desired, is terrifying. All the same, you had no more obligation to public dreams which dreamed you wrongly.—William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere

W.T. Volmann

I believe Vollmann is some kind of genius, as well as being brave and incredibly hard working. Recently I added to my reading stack his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, written about going to Afghanistan in 1982, at age twenty-three, to help the Afghanis fight the Soviets, and his historical novel The Rifles, and Riding Toward Everywhere, about riding the rails with hoboes.

Publishers Weekly called Volmann “a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port.” Booklist said “differentiating between a Vollmann novel and a collection of his stories is often difficult, because, in his hands, the two forms share a similar structure—are surrealistic, sordid, sensational, and terrific.”

Tony DuShane interviewed for Bookslut the prolific journalist, story writer, and novelist Volmann—author of twenty books totaling many thousands of pages—who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

An excerpt of Volmann’s comments to DuShane:

I would say, don’t fixate on getting published because that’s really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they’re thrilled. That’s just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put “copyright by” on every page of the manuscript, and they’re so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That’s like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.

You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you’re an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you’re going to do that, that means you’re willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you’re on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?

Madison Smartt Bell interviewed Volmann for The Paris Review. In it, Vollmann discussed the effects of his sister’s death on him and on his relationship with his parents. He was nine when she drowned, at age six, while he was supposed to be watching her and momentarily daydreamed. Vollmann has typed so much that he suffers from carpal tunnel inflammation and chronically sore hands, and speculates he may have to give up the keyboard for writing by hand in notebooks.

Excerpts of Volmann’s comments to Bell:

When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density. I still do that from time to time, but I’m getting increasingly interested in taking things out as I write. It’s fun for me to try to write concise, compact things. It’s a very good exercise for me. And I think it’s important to try to do different things—change what I write about, and also the way I write. Otherwise, I’d just be repeating myself, which wouldn’t be good for me, or fair to my readers. . . .

The computer really does help. One good thing about having had a job as a programmer is that I learned to look at things on the screen. I don’t really need to hold a piece of paper in my hands to see if the thing works or not. When it’s alive and volatile on the screen, that’s just as good for me. . . . But I think a crucial part to writing, always, is letting it sit; a greater efficiency on the computer can’t really address that problem. Once you’ve finished typing and moving text around and everything else, you have to leave it alone for a while. You do that to see if it stands up, to see if all the loose edges have been trimmed, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent, what shape it really has. You can’t tell that while you’re working on it. The computer also helps in that I work on a lot of books at once—as many as six or seven. . . .

Visual aids are very important to me in my writing. I like to see places that I’m writing about, experience things that I’m writing about. So throughout my career I’ve taken photographs of things, which I can then study. The whole business in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, when he talks about the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility—a photograph can help you do that. . . . For me, at least, it’s easier to create coherence and beauty on a small scale. Organize a block, reread and rewrite from beginning to end. Afterward, the blocks can be arranged in a narrative or architectonic way, rejiggered accordingly. . . .

I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.



Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, syntax, working method

9 responses to “Noted: William T. Vollmann

  1. Fascinating interview. I did not know this author before. Very impressed with his work ethic, sympathetic about his hands and arms (mine are going also), and unsure about whether I would like his work.

    Tell us what you think after you read more. I’m always interested in your opinions.

    • Thanks, Shirley. I do hope to follow up. He seems to be a writer’s writer, greatly admired by the Big Names but too unique, apparently, for mass taste. I have dipped into a little of the Afghanistan book, kind of a journalistic memoir, and so far it’s just fascinating for what he did at 23, a crazy and seemingly almost suicidal act, rather than for the writing itself, which is fine at the start but expository and somewhat indirect, the feeling of easing in rhetorically to a great but half-mad adventure.

      But there’s no doubt that, unlike some writers, he always has something to say.

  2. John Wylie

    The first quote about the private dream is simply wonderful – the best I have ever read.

  3. JB

    Richard, hello. I enjoyed reading your piece on Vollmann. He’s an interesting writer, and I look forward to reading more of him. Thanks for your thoughts, and the quotations.

    You might be interested in this piece I wrote on some of his works —

    — which isn’t written in an academic style.

    Jeff Bursey

  4. I’ve been thinking about this post, which has a lot to think about in it. I think you nailed it, Richard, when you said he’s a genius. Meanwhile, for the rest of us mere mortals laboring in the wordyard, it was interesting to hear his thoughts on various things which, unlike his working on 6 or 7 books at once, I can relate to– such as how you really can’t tell if something is working until you let it sit. It’s so true you just can’t tell when you’re working on it. And it was interesting to me that he can tell if something is alive on the computer screen. I still like to print things but it’s a waste. I try to tell as much as possible on the screen, but I dunno, I like to read a draft with pen in hand. I want to read the interview with him in Paris Review, especially about his sister’s death and the impact. Made me think of Gregory Orr, whom you’ve blogged about, and his brother’s tragic death. Hope to read Jeff Bursey’s piece too. Somehow Vollmann doesn’t LOOK like a guy who has a girl in every port…

  5. Pete Moylan

    Great post. Vollmann has long been one of my favorite writers, having first discovered his work in Gear magazine, and the Bookslut interview played a big part in my continuing to work on my novel, rather than finding a more “comfortable” profession. I’ve always seen him as a writer you either love or hate. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t have a strong opinion, one way or the other, about his writing. For first time readers I would recommend “Europe Central” (National Book Award winner) or “The Rainbow Stories.” I’m about 200 pages away from finishing “Imperial” right now, and your post has me thinking I’ll go straight into another one of his works.

    P.S. – For those who want to investigate a smaller piece before taking on one of his larger books, has a single article for sale which details his trips around the nuclear fallout area of Japan after the earthquake.