“Things Like Kidnapping the Sex Slave” — William T. Vollmann Speaks of Women

More from The Paris Review’s vaults. Highlights from William T. Vollmann’s 2000 interview (the entire thing is precious. Just precious) —

VOLLMANN: One of the things that I had to do occasionally while I was collecting information for that prostitute story, “Ladies and Red Lights” from The Rainbow Stories, was sit in a corner and pull down my pants and masturbate. I would pretend to do this while I was asking the prostitutes questions. Because otherwise, they were utterly afraid of me and utterly miserable, thinking I was a cop.

. . .

I kept thinking when I first began writing that my female characters were very weak and unconvincing. What is the best way to really improve that? I thought, Well, the best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. What’s the best way to do that? It’s to pick up whores.

. . .

Also, I often feel lonely.

. . .

I almost never sleep with American prostitutes any more, unless they really want me to—if they are going to get hurt if I don’t.

. . .

Anyway, so when I was in Thailand, I went to a town in the south and bought a young girl for the night. This awful brothel—one of these places hidden behind a flowershop with all these tunnels and locked doors and stuff—was like a prison. I tried to help a couple of the girls but you just can’t get them out. I tried and I couldn’t. I made the mistake of going to the police, trying to have the police get them out—all that did was nearly get them arrested and put in jail, because the police are paid off. I managed to get the raid called off by taking all the cops out to dinner and buying them Johnnie Walker. I bought this fourteen-year-old girl and got her in a truck and drove like hell to Bangkok. I was with this other girl at the time—Yhone-Yhone, a street prostitute, a very happy one. She was my interpreter. She put the fourteen-year-old girl at ease and got her to trust me. We got her set up at a school run by a relative of the king of Thailand. I went up north, met her father, gave him some money, and got a receipt for his daughter. He didn’t know she’d been sold to a brothel. When I met him and told him he said, Oh. I didn’t know that, but, well, whatever she wants. He’s not a bad guy, just a total loser. He’s a former Chiang Kai-shek soldier. They’re all squatters there in Thailand. They can’t read or write. He lives on dried dogs and dried snakes.

INTERVIEWER: You own his daughter?

VOLLMANN: That’s right. I own her. She doesn’t particularly like me, but she was really happy to be out of that place. She loves the school. It’s sort of a vocational school. It’s called something like the Center for the Promotion of the Status of Women. Many former prostitutes are in there.

. . .

The common motif is just prostitution and love.

. . .

I want to take some responsibility and act as well as write. I don’t mean to be an actor, but rather to accomplish things . . . do things that will help people somehow . . . things like kidnapping the sex slave. It would be great if I could make my contribution to abolishing the automobile or eliminating television or something like that.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III

How much you enjoy the third collection The Paris Review Interviews will depend entirely on how much you enjoy reading intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing intelligent and thoughtful subjects. I happen to love reading author interviews–even interviews with authors I don’t particularly like–and hence, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Covering sixteen disparate authors and fifty-two tumultuous years, the interviews here are by turns insightful, hilarious, strange, and at times, infuriating. The first interview (the book is organized chronologically), a 1955 conversation with Ralph Ellison evokes all of these emotions. One can almost feel Ellison’s restraint as he patiently replies to asinine questions like, “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest?” and, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” If anything, these politicized charges prompt Ellison to some of the most salient observations about literature’s universalizing powers that I’ve ever read.

In his 1964 interview, poet William Carlos Williams also sheds quite a bit of light on his art and craft. Interestingly, his wife is also a major part of the interview, discussing at some length her own role in her husband’s writing. Beyond literature, craft, and writing, Williams also sets another early theme that unites the interviews collected here–dissing other writers. He calls T.S. Eliot a “conformist” determined to set poets back twenty years. Evelyn Waugh picks up on this theme in his 1963 interview. Of Faulkner: “I find Faulkner intolerably bad.” And Raymond Chandler: “I’m bored by all those slugs of whiskey. I don’t care for all the violence either.” Zing!

Don’t feel too bad for Chandler, though; he comes off funny and earthy and sad in his 1983 interview, especially when he discusses his alcoholism, and how and why he quit drinking. Apparently, teaching–and drinking–with John Cheever when the two were teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 had a major impact on Chandler’s decision to stop drinking.

John Cheever focuses mostly on the writing craft in his 1976 interview–not much talk of drinking here. He does, however, share this insight: “Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.” I’ve never liked Cheever’s writing, but he’s a great interview. In his 1994 interview, Achebe–an author whose fiction (and essays) I do like comes off as far more insightful and far less pretentious. On why creative writing classes exist: “I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is a valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student.” Lovely. MFAs beware!

The interviews collected here are funny, smart, and very entertaining–whether its Achebe on general misunderstandings of his famous Conrad essay, Salman Rushdie on New Wave Cinema, or Joyce Carol Oates on Finnegans Wake, The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is full of smart people talking about smart things–and what’s better than that? Highly recommended.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is available October 28th, 2008 from Picador.