William T. Vollmann, Profiled at Newsweek, Suggests “We’re a culture of prostitutes”

Newsweek has published a profile/interview of William T. Vollmann by Alexander Nazaryan. It’s a vivid, engaging read. The first two paragraphs of the profile:

If William T. Vollmann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature – as many speculate he will – he knows exactly what he will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. “It will be fun to give some to prostitutes,” he says, sitting on his futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

He is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollmann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse – especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. His so-called prostitution trilogy – Whores for GloriaButterfly Stories, and The Royal Family – is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machismo of Raymond Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donald Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollmann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. He approached the prostitute like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Whores for Gloria, “The unpleasantnesses of her profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the prostitute must conduct it.”

Read the rest of it.

“He reportedly owns many guns and a flame-thrower” and Other Extracts from William Vollmann’s FBI File

William T. Vollmann has an essay in the newest issue of Harper’s called “Life as a Terrorist.” In the essay, Vollmann details what he finds in his FBI files (after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, an appeal, and a lawsuit to actually get a hold of the thing). He finds out that he was one of the Unabomber suspects:

When I finally received my FBI file, such as it was — namely, two higgledy-piggledy batches of papers, out of order, padded with duplicates, some of which they had forgotten to redact — I learned that I had been Unabomber Suspect Number S-2047:

S-2047 William T. Vollman. Predicated on a referral from a citizen. Investigation has determined that Vollman, a professional author, is widely travelled, however, existing travel records for him do not eliminate him as a viable suspect.

A few more extracts from Vollmann’s FBI file:

  • While VOLLMANN’s appearance varies over the years, New Haven notes strong physical resemblance to UNABOMBER composites. New Haven provided color video prints of book jackets to Sacramento via referenced airtel.
  • UNABOMBER’s moniker FC may correlate with title of VOLLMANN’s largest work, novel Fathers and Crows. That novel reportedly best exemplifies VOLLMANN’s anti-progress, anti-industrialist theme/beliefs/value systems and VOLLMANN, himself, has described it as his most difficult work.
  • [An informant] suggests VOLLMANN has a death wish . . . Reportedly, at age 9, VOLLMANN’s younger sister (age 6) drowned in a backyard pond in New Hampshire while he was supposed to be watching over her. Guilt from that situation may have had a profound effect on VOLLMANN.
  • VOLLMANN’s meticulous nature, as described above, is consistent with manufacture of and presentation on UNABOM devices. Several witnesses have commented that UNABOM packages appeared “seamless” and “too pretty to open.”
  • By all accounts VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.
  • He revels in immersing himself in the seamy underside of life. He reportedly has used drugs (crack cocaine) extensively. He reportedly owns many guns and a flame-thrower.

“I would love to own a flamethrower,” Vollmann wryly adds to this last entry. And thus, new entries for the ongoing chronicles of The Myth of the Vollmann!

Vollmann discussed the article on NPR’s NPR’s Morning Edition with David Greene this morning.


“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max


The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.


Book Acquired, 12.23.2011; Or, I Read the First 2% of William Vollmann’s Enormous Book Imperial


Earlier this week, Biblioklept correspondent A King at Night suggested on this blog that William T. Vollmann, “literature’s own Batman,” may not be entirely real. While Mr. At Night’s post was perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, he did hip us to extremely cheap new copies of Vollmann’s 2009 California opus, Imperial. I bought one, of course, knowing that my chances of actually reading it in full were, uh, slim. It showed up today.

I read the first 25 pages, a little over 2% of the book (not counting Vollmann’s endnotes and bibliography). I read the book in the bathtub, drinking a beer (those of you who fear (or find repulsive the prospect of) visualizing my stubby little birthday-suited body besoaped and besudded, I suggest that that role may be played by Geena Davis, circa early nineties, although, obviously, you can pick whomever you like to imagine reading Imperial in a bathtub). I was cognizant of the fact that I was taking a bath—a luxury of sorts—while reading a book that deals in large part about who controls water. I also managed to get the book wet with both blood and water. I don’t know where the blood came from.

The first few pages thrust us right into typical Vollmann territory, with our protagonist paying a cokehead to guide him through the back alleys of Mexicali (Vollmann takes time to note the “street-whores,” of course). Alternately, Vollmann attends the nocturnal activities of the weary Border Patrol, who regularly catch and release Mexicans heading for the Northside (America).

There’s a great little moment, very early in this first chapter, when Vollmann ponders the Sisyphean task of the men who patrol the border:

. . . I almost pitied the futility of his occupation, as I suspect he did mine (the main purpose of my essays being to line birdcages), but then I fortunately persuaded myself that all vocations and callings are equally futile.

This seems like the prototypical Vollmann moment: earnestness bound in supple irony, self-deprecation glossing the intense pride in work that the contemporary world will be happy to (even sometimes boastfully) ignore.

I enjoyed the first pages of this massive book tremendously. Vollmann’s voluminous scope and strange background often eclipse his powers as a proseslinger, and Imperial, so far, is lucid, clean, sharp, and funny.

So I’ll go for it. I’ll read it. I’ll finish it before this time (id est, late Dec.) next year.