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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?