by Kate Braverman
When I moved to San Francisco, I gravitated to Berkeley’s Black Oak second hand section. It’s the cult library of books you meant to read, but didn’t quite get to. The first year, the novels that most astounded me were Paul Bowels’ The Sheltering Sky, Don Delillo’s Underworld, and the fictions of William T. Vollmann. In particular, Royal Family is a savage glittering novel of the San Francisco underbelly of prostitutes, pimps, private detectives and drugs written with the audacity, skill and authority of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the social and psychological issues are more complex and ambiguous. Vollmann’s uncompromising anti-authoritarianism, his daring deviation from conventional narrative into literary criticism asides and essays, the sheer epic scale of the ambition unhinged me. I felt in the presence of Punk High Art, renegade genius and a contagious subversion I wanted to join.
As the new girl in town, I identified the most rumor laden and incendiary writer in the area and wrote him a fan letter informed by these impressions. We considered several interviews that our travel schedules, real and imagined on both of our parts I would guess, precluded. Phone negotiations sporadically continued. I wrote a prose poem in stylistic and emotional homage and dedicated to him, “ Autumn Women.”
Autumn is a fiction, an acquired taste like opera and shellfish. Some women need a pimp to open their eyes, show them the ropes, teach them the tricks, turn them out.
They were good girls once, didn’t do drugs or smoke, could not conceive of the hills between Ravello and Amalfi. Big Sur to Mendocino seemed implausible. Athens and Shanghai felt contrived in their mouths. They were afraid of capitals. They were simple as bells. They smelled like glass on October afternoons, didn’t wear make-up, want to speak French or see the Parthenon. Spandex and bronze did not occur to them. Lush are the ladies of the lamps, lit from within, heads dyed copper like coins. They didn’t know they belonged in a shrine. Then came fall. They were terrified. That’s why they needed a razor scar on the cheek, a fractured arm and black eye was all it took. You’d be surprised. Yes, they were autumn women, shy with their wine and yellow fires, their flagrant leaves. The forest turned. They heard the tinny tease of henna rinsed maples flaunting their stripped limbs and practiced tongues announcing the season of renegades. They didn’t know they were looking in the mirror. They remember March. They were still cotton panty girls with aprons and Internet and collections of rocks and butterflies. A drawer just for bows. Then some ersatz celestial trajectory altered her range and hollowed out her vows. The auburn haired women of autumn are breathless as if calling from public phones on boulevards above subways. There’s too much noise. Static on the line, but it’s better than a beeper. Now they bring their accidents with them. Their coats contain a sadness that doesn’t require translation. Even their wool looks contagious. And there’s always a crisis. They don’t know what to OD in, stand at closets, holding torn slips like they were precious ornaments, a crystal bud vase or a new syringe. Let’s shoot up now while we’re both in the mood. I have an apricot silk shawl for you. See how the air becomes charged? Lamplight is calibrated an elegant 14 carat and everything is tinged with pear. Such light can burn in deserted rooms for years with no fear of suffocation or fire. No, I don’t want to know your name. Just lay down. Shut up. Now we can both die here.
This is how artists ring a classmate’s doorbell, say, I’ve just moved in. I’ve seen you around. Want to play?
Finally the interview is scheduled. I call Bill from O’Hare, tell him I’m coming back to San Francisco and intend to drive to see him the next day. Bill asks, “Are you coming alone?” He doesn’t mean in the Tibetan Monk-Sylvia Plath sense of the word. I say, “No. I’m bringing a male body guard who will be armed.” Bill asks, “What will he be packing?” I say, “Probably a berretta. Something he can just put in his jacket pocket. Now give me directions to your house.”
The directions are unnecessarily complicated, as if Vollman sees his current habitation as temporary camouflage. It’s an unnaturally gray day. The land to the east looks veiled and sordid. Brush fires have turned the air thick and the sun is round, as if setting at noon. It’s enormous, like a harvest moon after the dust of just cut barley, perhaps. I don’t expect the suburban street, the brick house, the immaculate lawn with rose bushes and William T. Vollman opening the door with the flourish of a Southern gentleman and giving the appearance of an academic prepared to discuss a student thesis. But then, what is he doing letting a complete stranger with avowed subversive intentions and an armed companion enter his house? Pleasantries are exchanged. Thus we begin.
B: Black Oak has a wall of your books. I read your novels and short fiction and inquired about you to other writers. You have an enormous reputation as an outlaw, a recluse and a profoundly important literary force.
V: I’m sure they’re all making a mistake.
B. Why would serious writers who value your work be making a mistake?
V: They’d do better to write their own. But I’m flattered that people read my books. When they buy my books that allows me to write new ones. So I can’t complain. But the world doesn’t owe me a living. If they stopped liking my books, it wouldn’t ruin my day.
B: I’ve read Whores for Gloria and Royal Family and---
V: That’s all right. It’s always like that around here. It must just be my blue eyes. That’s why I don’t pick up the phone much.
B: Why do you have this barrage of phone calls? Writers find the phone intrusive and delete it from the environment. It’s disturbing. You have a constant phone ringing.
V: I don’t use email. And people use the post less and less. So they communicate with me by phone. Everyone is used to instant contact now. People are put out if I don’t pick up the phone. But I figure they’ll live.
B: Why do you live in this particular city?
V: I’m here because this is where my wife got a job. She’s a doctor, a radiation oncologist. I would have preferred to move back to San Francisco. We have a daughter. Lisa, 6 years old. We’ve been here 15 years. I’m from Los Angeles originally. I lived there until I was 5. I went to high school in Indiana. I spent some time in New Hampshire, Indiana, was in New York for a while, now I’m back here. I’m really from the sidewalk. I’m from everywhere. I’m just a typical rootless American. My father was a business professor.
(It’s a lovely but somehow unconvincing house. It looks like the residence of a senior professor, oriental rugs, wood floors, wedding photographs framed on the walls, and French doors. It has the trappings of substantial habitation, but the air seems somehow synthetic, as if it were a movie set. The props have just been unpacked and arranged. Vollmann might have just moved in. I have the unnerving sense that if I walked upstairs or beyond the formal dining room, nothing would be there. Nothing, no furniture, no walls or floors. It’s a conceptual house, existing by the force of will. The illusion of a house, created by strings and mirrors and acts of misdirection. And the Southern gentleman construct doesn’t quite coalesce. Vollmann wavers into inappropriate invitations. I ignore them. We can discuss chasing the dragon another time. I am a conducting a professional literary interview.)
B: Your books deal with wildly marginalized people, prostitutes, drug dealers, and characters engaging in monumental substance abuse. Your literary fearlessness fascinates me. I think you’re a genius and an original. I’m interested in your background. Where did you go to college?
V: Deep Springs. It ‘s in the desert, in Death Valley. It was a 2-year college. Then I transferred to Cornell University because Telluride House is affiliated with Deep Springs. I graduated from Cornell and started a Ph.D. program at Berkeley in comparative literature. I dropped out after a year and never went back.
B: What comprises your literary framework?
V: The French surrealists. Blaise Cendrares, Prose on the Transsiberian. Maldoror by Lautreament. A Tune for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kis. These two had the greatest influence on me in the beginning. Whores For Gloria is one of the few books that actually benefited from my college education. I studied the Russian formalists. They believed fairy tales are comprised of a finite number of motifs. For instance, the trickster appears. The wise old man or the fox gives the hero a present. The hero marries the princess. This kind of thing. There were 93 or 172 or whatever numbers of motifs. A fairy tale is like a necklace. Just take these motifs and put them on a string. It’s the order and selection that determines the tale. In this way, it’s not unlike a photograph. The only art in a photograph is order and selection. That gave me the concept for Whores For Gloria. It’s a necklace, a narrative necklace; real stories of real women are the beads. And the string, I tried to figure out what would make the beads hold together. I came up with the idea of some guy who wanted to hear stories. Then, why would he want to hear stories? Eventually, I came up with the character of Jimmy. So it’s real stories on a fictional structure. I’ve always been interested in writers like Lady Murasaki and Tolstoy, people who are patient and grand in their ambition and take over all the time and the space they need to say what they need to say. My work is still very dense; it doesn’t flow as transparently as either of those two writers. In that sense I’m still more like Lautreament. But narrative is very important to me. I’ve been accurately described as a character driven writer. Language came first. Then character. Now I’m trying to improve my command of narrative.
B: That’s an issue for me. Narrative. Consider the technological advances in the visual arts, photography and film, yet a book still looks and is meant to behave as if it came off the Guttenberg printing press. The consensual apparatus demands a recognizable story, rather than following up with Joyce or the revolutionary consciousness experimenters of the century. The marketplace doesn’t permit writers the space to explore, with its stringent demands on little accessible stories. The Royal Family is impressive in managing to exist in this diminished climate.
V: I took a huge royalty cut for that. And that wasn’t the first time, either.
B: Let’s address the subject matter issue. Why do you deal with whores and pimps, the denizens of the Tenderloin? What is the philosophical basis for this?
V: The fundamental intellectual level of humanity has and will always be low. These innovations might seem to be a development, but I’m not convinced. New technological possibilities mean more experimental things can be forgotten in new ways. There are amazing film makers, like the Soviet Dzija Zertov. Who knows who this guy is and who cares? Who knows or cares who Joyce was? That means people who want to write at that level, and I include myself, are only doing so because we love it. In the end, what else is there? There is no prize, including the Nobel Prize, which can compensate you for the work you put in. If it’s not a joy, you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t get published, that’s unfortunate in so far as whatever else you must do to stay alive consumes and prevents you from doing what you really must do. When I wrote Rising Up and Rising Down, it took me 23 years and my publishers all said if you want it to see the light of day, you have to cut it. And I said no. I fully expected that it would never appear. I was fortunate that McSweeney’s agreed to publish it. Now it’s out of print.
B: Continuing to adhere to a Tolstoyan vision of the novel, it’s immensity, grandeur, complexity and size, how have you been able to survive in the marketplace with an uncompromising vision completely outside of the mainstream?
V: When I write my books, I don’t care about the marketplace. My father always used to say the reason academics fight so much is because the stakes are so small. When your book is published, the stakes are so low. Whatever they pay you is not enough. Therefore, why should you compromise? In the meantime, we’re all prostitutes. Most of the prostitutes I know keep one little private thing. Some prostitutes won’t kiss. Some of them save the anus for the person they love. Or they might refuse to say I love you except to the person they love. Whatever it is, they keep one tiny little broken shard of their integrity. I don’t want to use the word integrity because it sounds as if they’re doing something bad. They aren’t. They’re just living on the capital they have, which is themselves. My own way of being a prostitute is that I let magazines damage my work in any way they care to. My strategy is this. Except in cases of severe financial need, I only accept a story that really interests me. I am sure I can write it in a way that will please me and I can keep it in a book. Then I make money, get my expenses paid and do it my way. I put my heart into it, and then send it to a magazine. It gets butchered and l tell them it was excellent. They did a great job. Then they tell me how easy I am to work with. And I cash the check. Then when my book is finished, I’ll cut my royalties in half or whatever is necessary, but you better not even change a comma without consulting me. In fact, the book I’m working on now has spurious commas and I made them remove them. So that’s my own particular way of selling out. It’s practical. I can’t say it’s noble. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t do any harm.
B: Is the obsessional writing about prostitutes a metaphor?
V: Absolutely. We worship, or are attracted to, we are trapped by what Marx would call the cash nexus
B. The literary and experimental conviction of your work coupled with the boldness of your subject matter, the vivid and unflinching depictions, suggest a serious passionate political vision and literary agenda.
V: I’m pro death. I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion. I believe in euthanasia. I believe in anyone’s right to suicide. I believe in capital punishment. I believe in gun ownership. I believe in violent self-defense. That’s the common denominator. The left is disturbed by my belief in capital punishment and I own weapons. My buddies who go shooting with me are appalled that I’m not a Bush supporter. I believe in freedom of choice for everybody, which entails immense risks. Often people abuse the power that comes with freedom. Either way, society pays a tremendous cost. We pay for our gun violence and we are paying an ever more immense cost for the repressive policies of our government. I’m not just blaming Bush, either. This ridiculous war on drugs has incarcerated so many, ruined lives and made them violent. I don’t see why it’s anybody’s business if somebody uses drugs or goes to a prostitute. If someone uses drugs and thereby injures or impairs his ability to perform a public function and as a result people are injured or killed, that person should be punished. But let’s punish the person for what he’s done, not what he might do. We are all prostitutes. We all do things we would not otherwise do just to survive. None of us should be too proud. It’s good to remember that the people we see incapacitated, drunk and laying on the streets, are our brothers and sisters.
B: That sounds like religious conviction, a conventional Judeo-Christian belief system operating.
V: Whether or not there is a God, it’s good for me, personally, to be thankful for my life. Whether or not others give thanks or believe in God is irrelevant. I used to despise organized religion. But increasingly I respect its social functions and the basic minimum goodness it forces people to adhere to. I’ve been in Islamic countries where people are kind to me because Islam says they have to. I have to hand it to Islam. My neighbors next door are Catholic. They’re involved in the affairs of the church, the schools. More power to them. I don’t go to church. If there was a Jesus, he was probably not God. He was probably one of these drunk and irreverent homeless people who will say maddening, enigmatic things. You think about it later. Maybe it’s bullshit. Maybe it’s profound.
B: Your characters are compulsive womanizers. Is this autobiographical?
V: If I answered yes to that question, you might think I was a bad person. If I answered no, you might be disappointed.
B: I’m asking this because the conventional reader might think you degrade woman in your writing. Your literary mastery and daring might be obscured behind the mesh of political correctness suffocating thought and criticism. It might deprive you of the legitimate credit you deserve as an experimental writer.
V: I have many female readers. They can see that I love women. In America, so many are ashamed of the body and sexuality. What passes for feminism and a defense of gender is Puritanism in a new disguise. I get annoyed when society tells me how I must behave. I feel the need to rebel. It’s an immature and justified rage against authority. The hypocrisy, the idiocy and ignorance I hear offends me. But that element will always be there. I’m beyond being outraged or even engaged with such people. I’m involved with a certain kind of life. Be offended or not. But it’s real; it’s more real than any sort of life that denies the existence of promiscuity or drug use or poverty. I’m trying to say, this is how it is. These people are as good or as bad as everyone else. We should know one another. If you don’t want to know the other, you don’t want to know me.
B: What are your current literary influences? Who do you read?
V: They just brought out the 3 volume Isaac Bashevis Singer stories. I’m on the middle volume. They’re great, beautiful and interesting. I’m fond of the work of Kawabata, maybe because he’s so different from me. He won the Nobel Prize in the 60’s and then gassed himself. He was very close to Mishima. He wrote a story called “House of the Sleeping Beauties” about a whorehouse just for old men who can’t get it up anymore. They’re allowed to sleep with beautiful girls who are drugged. The girls never even have to see the old men who are snuggling with them. Every now and then they give a girl little too much by mistake and she dies and they just throw her in the river. It’s very powerful. But most of his work is about non-bizarre, non-supernatural things, the ways Japanese relate to each other. And it’s told in a simple way with a lot of material left out. You go back and read the same paragraph 3 or 4 times because you know you’ve missed something essential. I wrote a book, The Atlas, which is a series of, for me, very short stories inspired by his palm of the hand stories. They’re so small, one or two pages, they can fit in the palm of the hand. I’m going to get a glass of whiskey now. Would you care for a glass of absinthe?
B: Yes. Thank you. Your depiction of the pedophile in The Royal Family is extremely poignant. He might be the most interesting character in the novel.
V: If freedom means anything, it’s about being repulsive as well as being able to do flower paintings. I believe that we have to focus on the other. I’m not saying pedophilia is right. But I imagined someone who would be, by our culture’s standards, the most vile and repulsive character, worse than Osama bin Laden. But let’s make him wise and a guide or bridge to the Queen. And it’s through somebody like that Tyler gains entrance to the Queen. He endures humiliation and insult from Dan Smooth. That’s the price he pays. In so many ways, this novel is about degradation. One of the questions I’ve often had is when does self actualization end and degradation begin? What does it really mean if we’re going to try to be ourselves? We don’t want to be conformists. We don’t want to follow social conventions, but how far do we want to take that? The story of Henry Tyler in The Royal Family is a story of failure. In the end he’s on the street saying I hate Irene, I hate Irene. Where did he go wrong? Definitely, he missed his opportunity to completely devote himself to the Queen. Everyone in the book connected to the Queen betrays her and that’s inevitable. Because faithfulness and fidelity is impossible. Even if he had been able to utterly connect with the Queen, he would have still ended up in the same place at the end of the book. Dan Smooth is one of these ambiguous clues or markers. Smooth is not a good or happy person but he’s not completely bad, either. What are you taking?
B: Vicodin. I have Dexedrine, too.
V: Are those Vicodin 10’s? I’ll take some.
B: No problem. The Royal Family is also the story of two brothers. What do they represent?
V: Cain and Able. But I decided that Cain and Able should both have the mark of Cain. When I read the Bible, I always think Cain does the best he can, Able does the best he can, and God is not fair. We’re never told why Cain’s sacrifices aren’t pleasing to God. Cain is jealous. Able is smug and flawed. Yet after Cain kills Able, God, who is so capable of killing for much less all through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, suddenly says I’m going to put the mark of Cain on you. And anybody who hurts you will be revenged 70 seven-fold. And that’s so bizarre. Evidently, Cain fulfills a purpose, too. Who is God really for? It’s not clear. But if we do have the mark of Cain, the mark of prostitution, the mark of imperfection, of humiliation and failure, dirtiness and sordidness, then we all have it, whether we’re Cain or Able. The way I try to present them goes through a number of inversions. First you think John is dimensionless and a caricature. Later, you realize John is the one who consistently tries to help his brother, Henry.
B: Tell me about your relationship with publishing. How are your books received, critically?
V: The New York Times tends to not like my work. Their reviews can be scathing. I get good reviews in Europe. I imagine it’s because of the good reviews that I continue to be published. Because my books don’t sell huge numbers of copies. And I anticipate that sooner or later I won’t be able to publish anymore because publishers are always upping the ante for what they say is the break-even point. They used to say 5,000. Those were the days. Now they say it’s 10,000. And I think why is this? In every other industry, there are economies of scale. They produce more widgets for less. They should be able to tell you that the break- even point is now 10 copies.
B: I want to pursue this from a comp lit perspective. You’re an innovator and a post-modernist in a uniquely confrontational way. Post-modernism is minimal, it lacks scale.
V: When it comes to current critical categories, I feel intellectually inadequate. I don’t read books by people who are alive. I think of myself as a child of the 60’s. I was born in 1959 and when I listen to Jefferson Airplane or the Beatles, I’m always impressed by how subversive they are. I’ve shown my daughter Lisa Yellow Submarine on the video several times. It’s really interesting to see people can still be shocked, offended and uncomfortable. There’s nothing innocuous in there. At the same time, the values of the 60’s, exclusivity, equality, free love and peace are wonderful. It makes me very sad people make fun of those values. Obviously, I was too young to be a hippy. I meet the children of hippies who grew up on communes, and they’re bitter against their parents who didn’t provide for them properly. But I see the 60’s as a tremendous advance. I would rather be living in the 60’s, in an era of love than living now, in an era of hatred and fear.
B: What about this French magazine, Topo, saying you do punk as high art? The Royal Family is a singular punk document on every level. It’s an act of vandalism, an indictment of society done with consummate craft. It’s an incendiary compendium of punk violence against the American agenda.
V: I never know what to make of labels. People can call me whatever they want. I don’t think I’d have the cold heartedness to put somebody up against the wall and shoot them.
The representatives of the establishment in The Royal Family, John and Celia, are characters I feel sorry for. I feel sorry for almost everybody. I don’t mind deconstructing or destroying some institutional sensibility. But when it comes to individuals, I would always try to have compassion. But I would make exceptions for obvious cliché cases. Take Hitler. Let’s say Hitler granted me an interview, to ask and understand him. I would still vote for his execution and probably do it if I was asked to. But if he let me into his life and tried to help me understand why he was the way he was, I would execute him with a minimal amount of respect.
B: OK. The Bay Area has embraced you. What do you think of the San Francisco art community?
V: I’m a loner. I love San Francisco. It’s been very sad for me to leave San Francisco. For years I wanted to return there, though now I feel differently. I have a little girl and was able to buy this house and a studio for myself, which I couldn’t have in the city. San Francisco is not only visually beautiful but is a stunning universe of separate and secret and easily discoverable worlds. The Royal Family is a love letter to San Francisco on some levels. I have an epiphany to Geary Street in The Royal Family. It’s a love song, from the ocean to downtown. I wanted to write something like that for every district, Oceanside and so forth. In the end, I decided I had already tweaked the narrative as much as I could, with the essay on Bail. It belongs there. But I didn’t want to overload the book anymore.
B: If you had cut The Royal Family along commercial lines, it would have been a blow away detective bestseller
V: What good would that have done me? Why would I want that? I have enough money to have all the whiskey and prostitutes I want and buy things for my little girl and travel. So far I even pay the mortgage on my studio and get art supplies. When I consider my books, I’m proud. Not that they’re perfect. I do a lot of rewriting. I wish I could go back and rewrite my first book, Bright Risen Angeles; I could do a better job. But in the meantime, nobody knows as much about my books as I do. Nobody has the right but me to say which words go into my books or get deleted or edited. When I’m dying, I’ll smile, knowing I stood up for my books. If I die with more money, that wouldn’t bring a smile to my face. Unless I got better drugs or more delicious looking nurses. You have to look on the bright side. Are my books autobiographical? Sex and drugs and love never hurt anybody. They might have killed a few people. But they didn’t hurt anyone. So the more the better. I’m not a household name and that’s fine with me. I just did a 5-week reading tour in Europe. Then I have a 5-week reading tour for Echo. I’ll read at the New School. I could probably read at Columbia and Yale if I wanted to. Publicists set it up. If I can get some money, that’s nice. I usually don’t. Those trips are basically time deducted from your life. If someone is buying your books, it’s a good gesture to be able to please that person. I am grateful to my readers. But I would never give readings otherwise. I don’t go to other people’s readings. If somebody wrote a good book, I’d rather sit here and read it with the music on and a glass of whiskey in my hand. Do I need any more friends? I have plenty of friends. You see how often the phone rings. The only reason to go on a reading tour is vanity or a sexual purpose. You can always get laid on those trips. But I don’t have the vanity, so that takes away half of the reasons right there.
B: You write the short story and the novel. Will you address the issue of how you see the two forms?
V: I write every form I can, including poetry. The most important thing I aspire to is being flexible. That means whatever I’m doing, I should also be doing the opposite. Short stories are wonderful because you can conceive of and see the whole thing, not just in general, but in its parts. With a novel you can’t do that, it’s too complex. A novel is like real life, it’s infinite. There are more possibilities of random things, mysterious correspondences and synchronicities, which the writer can’t even see. A short story is like a painting. A novel is like a photograph. You take a loop and look at a photograph and see things the photographer might not have. I deliberately alternate between the short story and the novel. I usually have 3 or 4 books going at once. The bulk of my energy will be in one book but I’ll also be working here and there on other books, too. I wake up and work until the phone rings. Answer the phone, go back to work and the phone rings a few more times. Then I get irritated and stop answering. I work until I get hungry then I have lunch. Then I work until my little girl gets home and I play with her. Sometimes I keep playing with her or go back to work. Then it’s bedtime.
B: What is this project you were describing earlier? You have purchased a restaurant and you’re trying to get hammocks and a TV for the crack heads?
V: It used to be a saloon in the 1890’s. It’s right by the homeless shelter. It’s big, 3300 square feet. It’s where I’ll do my visual arts, my paintings, artists’ books and block prints. It will be a good place to bring the models as well. Do you know the expressionist print maker Kathe Kollwitz? She was in Germany in the 20’s. She did pictures of mothers and children. Often the children were dead. The mother was starving. I want to do some stuff like that about homeless people. So it will be convenient for me. They’re always asking for jobs and they’re right in my parking lot. All I have to do is go outside, give them 5 bucks and they’ll model for me. I don’t think the artist has an obligation to anyone. I don’t feel any artistic obligation. But I’m so worried about the way the world is, I have been for a long time. But I feel I’m good at loving people. Maybe if I can do drawings that reflect my love for people who others despise or fear, that would be my contribution as a world citizen.
B: You have a mysterious reputation, a cult of mystique in the Bay Area. You’re fire walled. You’re a man of high secrecy and you inspire terror. Your name is whispered. You’re keeping a very low profile.
V: I don’t read. I have no vanity. If I were looking for pussy, I’d do it. But why bother?
I’d rather be here getting work done. Honestly, if one of my books made a huge amount of money, I’d continue to publish because it makes people happy and I like to please people and give them things, but then I would completely disappear.
B: The Royal Family is a surprisingly erotic novel. Was that a spontaneous effect when you engaged in acts of passion with the page? Or did you intend to write a scathingly vandalistic punk pornographic epic, using High Art as your tool?
V: I guess the former. But all my books are erotic. I never met a woman I didn’t find beautiful and desirable. I don’t care how old she is, how fat she is, whatever. All women are special and erotic. When I’m with a street prostitute covered with abscesses and soiled, my heart goes out to her. And when it does, I feel desire because I love her.
B: Is this a problem for you in your marriage?
V: Marriage is just a state of mind. That means it’s not a problem for me.
B: In my mythological conception, I didn’t expect you to be living in a totally suburban brick house with the trappings of a professional, in an atmosphere that projects normality in every polished floorboard. The oriental carpets and rolled leather sofas. The rose bushes in the front yard. In actuality, the biggest and most brick encrusted house on the street. An immaculately tended and appointed house.
V: It’s like I’ve already retired. The truth is, it makes no difference to me where I live.
This place happens to please my wife. There might be a period of time when I’m in some 300 dollar a night hotel and the next night I’m in a 6-dollar hotel. It’s all maya and I get a kick out of it.
B: Given your penchant for disappearance, who is part of the real Bill Vollmann circle?
V: My lesbian friend, Michelle. She lives here. She’s a babysitter and works at the hospital. I have a friend who works as a commercial photographer. Sometimes we take each other out for lunch. My little girl. My best friend who lives in San Francisco. He used to be a house painter but he got cancer. I have a pal I go shooting with. He’s Jewish. He’s in Jews With Guns. That might interest you.
B: It’s conceptually interesting. But does it have meetings? I don’t want to join anything
V: No meetings. Anyway, those are some of my friends. I don’t have friends in the neighborhood. I’ve survived without doing the soccer Dad thing. I don’t hang out with other writers. It’s not that I’m a snob. It’s just never really worked out that way. This society makes so many demands on our time. People are used to being interrupted. But I would rather not be interrupted. If you and I were going to be friends and I saw you every now and then, that would be great. Whatever I say I’m going to do, I do. But if somebody dropped in….That’s why my studio is great. No phone. Somebody bangs on the door and I don’t answer. It’s perfect. It doesn’t have a bed or shower yet, but I put in a 30-foot workbench. It’s got a men’s room and a woman’s room. It’s got a meat locker. I had the electrician put a light in the meat locker and he said, what’s this for? I said, so when I dismember my victims, I can look at them. He frowned. There was a long silence. Then he put the light switch in and went away.
B: I notice you have these recent literary awards prominently displayed. They’re not stashed or thrown away.
V: My wife likes them. That’s why she put them on the mantle. She used to have all my book jackets framed on the wall but then she had the living room painted. I don’t know what she did with them. That was like a year ago. Maybe they’re in the closet. Maybe she threw them away.
B: What’s your Dave Egger’s connection. Is he your friend?
V: I don’t think anybody is really Dave’s friend. He’s a very nice guy but he’s so busy. You call Dave and get his answering machine. You’re one of 50 messages. I like him. If I thought he were more available, I would enjoy seeing more of him. He’s kind of a noble guy. I like Bruno Schulz. He’s a prose writer. He was killed in 42 or 43. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, is a great book. Burroughs is a lot of fun. I love his stuff. The Ticket That Exploded is my favorite. Naked Lunch is great. Junky is a wonderful book.
B: If anyone had picked up the Burroughs torch and continued to write with fearless abandon in content and style, it would be you.
V: That’s nice of you.
I finish my second glass of Czech absinthe. He assures me he has a steady supply. This is how we part. The invitation to share narcotics replaces the standard let’s have lunch sometime soon line. Vollmann, in his Southern gentleman at home quoting scripture while fielding phone publishing deals persona, is a generous host in all respects, and he looks tired. He’s had a recent stroke and there’s a residue. I shut off the tape.
Interview concluded. October 14. Vollmann on a day of grass fires burning in the hills outside San Francisco. Grass fires that have turned the sky gray and the sun is blood red. It hangs singular, in a perfect enormous ball, all the way to and from. California scrub oaks and sycamores are changing color for autumn, yellowing over alfalfa fields under this blood meridian sun. Not red, but neon Halloween orange. It’s a singular and frightening sun, transformed by wild flames that burned 38,000 acres to the north. I snap photographs of the sun setting not over but into San Francisco Bay, like a bloated sea mammal returning to the fluid depths. Such photographs appear on the San Francisco Chronicle front page the next day.
I brought the camera to photograph Vollmann, but I don’t. Vollmann elicits the desire to both injure and defend him. You want to beat him and have him arrested and yet, as a magical being, you intuit his vulnerability and do not violate him with a camera. I instinctively feel protective, as if encountering an endangered species at the edge of extinction. We all live our lives on multiple levels simultaneously. For some, the levels are profoundly mutually exclusive and the intensity of the juggling more obvious, in the conceits, sleight of hand and collateral damage ensuring from art lived on a cellular level. For some artists, the creative medium requires ingredients such as molecular scientists use for making mutants and clones, radioactive compounds like I-125 and P-32, lethal and necessary for the enterprise. A. Alvarez said of Sylvia Plath that art of a certain order is a murderous business. He didn’t note that some know this from the beginning and deliberately choose and adhere to this path, writing as they bleed from the eyes and ears. Vollmann, who likes to please people, did not disappoint.
Kate Braverman writes poetry, short fiction, novels and essays. She has won Best American short story awards, the O.Henry, the Carver and the Economist Prize. She is collaborating with her husband, Dr. Alan H. Goldstein, on book about art and science. She lives in San Francisco.
Copyright 2005-2006, Kate Braverman.