William T Vollmann: What's the meat locker for, Bill?

The reclusive William T Vollmann doesn't give interviews willingly. Matt Thorne entices him to the phone to talk about his fondness for prostitutes and Native American history, and whether his bold new novel will change his life

Conducting a telephone interview with William T Vollmann, the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir and a seven-volume history of violence seems appropriate, given that the telephone plays such an important part in his new novel. In Europe Central, which recently won the National Book Award in America, he describes the telephone as an octopus, a malignantly complex brain that turns Europe into a blank zone of black icons. It's an evil force, to be treated with suspicion, like the car and television, two other technologies Vollmann mistrusts. But the author is warm, open and unsuspicious. Born in LA 47 years ago, currently resident in Sacramento, Vollmann has up to now been known mainly as a cult novelist, revered more than read. I asked him if the success of this new book has changed his career. "No," he sighed, "I'm still a marginal figure living from book to book but, as long as I'm producing labour as a good Marxist prole, I guess I'm satisfied."

Europe Central focuses on the warring authoritarian regimes of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century, focusing on an imaginary love triangle between three real people, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the documentary film-maker Roman Karmen, and their shared lover Elena Konstantinovskaya. "What drew me to the subject was the strangeness and the horror of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, which I've been studying since the 1970s and even before that. We had a film loop of the camps in school as a child and that material has stayed with me ever since."

Vollmann told me the historical liberties he'd taken in constructing his love triangle had led to some criticism from American critics. "I like the idea that the anguish in the book isn't all inflicted by war, it's partly by natural human life too. The two men are connected to Elena as a way of opening up the characters. It's something you find in Norse sagas and Japanese literature, a female character revealed through her effect on men."

Many of the female characters in Vollmann's most important novels are prostitutes. I asked him why that was. "I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for prostitutes. Maybe next time I come to your country I will visit the prostitutes there." I asked him how he avoided suspicion when dealing with prostitutes and pimps. "The best way to deal with a prostitute is to be honest. They're used to people seeking out peculiar gratification. If you want stories from them, that's fine, as long as you're prepared to pay. Pimps I avoid, because all they do is cost me money. My book Whores for Gloria [1992] incorporates real stories told by real prostitutes and I didn't feel I had the right or the competence to change those stories. But by the time of The Royal Family [his 2000 novel about prostitutes in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco], I had the ability to invent prostitutes, putting together different stories."

He's currently working on a number of new projects. One is a non-fiction book about his experiences hopping freight trains across America. "It's really fun to think about the connections with the Beats, rereading Jack Kerouac, but also Jack London and Mark Twain, travelling fast through the country, that solitary, wild American experience."

Another forthcoming book is about Imperial Valley. "I've been working on it for ten years," he told me. "I'm trying to tell the history of the US-Mexican border from earliest times to the present. I'm looking at how a line on paper can change things. When you first look at Imperial Valley it seems hot, flat and dull, but the more you look into it the more secrets you can find. There's a labyrinth of illegal Chinese tunnels, which was considered to be a myth. But I finally got to go into these tunnels and they're fascinating. There's parquet ceilings and I found this velvet nude painting, and some old Cantonese letters I had translated. Some tunnels became brothels and gambling dens and valuables were hidden down there."

Then there's the long-awaited volume five of the Seven Dreams series, his septet of novels dealing with "the repeated collisions between Native Americans and their European colonisers and oppressors", which concerns Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. Vollmann and his father are going to trace the route Chief Joseph followed when he attempted to escape to Canada.

Vollmann wrote his first novel while working as a computer programmer. He slept in the office and lived off candy bars. As a fledgling author, I found this incredibly inspiring and wrote a novel in the same way. I asked Vollmann if he thought an office job could be good for a writer. "To the extent that the writer can borrow the means of production, the desk and the paper. Being a writer seems to work well with being at a desk. If you can work in there, the office can be helpful, and also you have the sense of reclaiming a bit of your own life from a miserable, deadening existence."

Of his working methods, he says: "It depends on the book. I read and write for most of the day, but I do let myself be interrupted by real life. I enjoy going out with friends and try not to take myself too seriously." I told him I'd heard a rumour he had a meat locker in his work studio. What on earth did he need that for? "Well, I was going to turn it into an S&M dungeon, but it's now my walk-in closet. But, in spite of repeated coats of paint, it still smells of old meat and grease, and I do get the occasional cockroach."

In spite of his interest in the seamy side of life, much of Vollmann's fiction is powered by a strong moral sense, prompting him to come up with a moral calculus in his enormous non-fiction history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. Did this come from religion? "I don't subscribe to organised religion. I've travelled enough to see that adherents of organised religion often attack adherents of other religions. I don't believe in a personal God. It's good to give thanks, whether or not there's a god. There's no reason not to live life to the fullest. Morality is all the more important for people who don't expect to get a piece of celestial candy after they die."

I asked Vollmann if only one of his books lived on after he died, which one he'd want that to be. "The most erotic one," he replied. "Perhaps it should be The Rifles. There's lots of nice nature writing and description in there, along with all the love and sex."

'Europe Central' by William T Vollmann is published by Alma Press (£12.99). To buy a copy for £11.50 call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future