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
Sunday 20 August 2006
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  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
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