Author William Vollman Shares Vision
William Vollmann gave me a bullet. It was hand-made, with a black pattern etched beautifully on it through some kind of oxidation process. That he'd have spare ammunition lying about didn't surprise me, but that he'd give a sweet little present to a visiting reporter did. One expects Vollmann, swashbuckling whoredog, war correspondent, quixotic freedom fighter, gun aficionado and fiction prodigy, to be gruff and imperious. After all, this is the man who, at 22, journeyed to Afghanistan in an attempt to join the fight against the Soviet occupation, who trekked into the Burmese jungle to meet one of the world's largest heroin producers and who, on a magazine assignment, kidnapped a child prostitute from Thailand and enrolled her in boarding school. His novels and short stories tend to dwell unflinchingly on the subterranean -- he writes of whores, skinheads, junkies, terrorists, fetishists. Especially whores.
Yet in person, the man who makes Hunter S. Thompson look like Adam Gopnick comes off, at first, like any other suburban dad. Now 40, he lives with his wife, a radiation oncologist, in a big brick house light-filled house in Sacramento with hardwood floors covered in Middle Eastern carpets. Framed dust jackets from his dozen or so books line one wall, and there's a small jungle gym in the backyard for his young daughter. Bearded and dressed in a faded jeans, a milk chocolate brown shirt and white sneakers, he's welcoming and genial. Out of all the many writers I've interviewed, he's probably the only one who, after giving long, considered answers, looks at me and asks "what do you think?"
None of this is to say that Vollmann's settled into middle-class complacency. He continues to report from the most brutal corners of the world, and his obsession with what the culture calls sin hasn't diminished at all. While he's also working on a series of books about the European conquest of the Americas and has recently finished a 4000 page manuscript about the ethics and justifications of violence, his art still gets much of its ballast from the intersection of sex and commerce. In his paintings -- he's an enormously talented visual artist -- lurid, hungry images of working girls recur incessantly. He has stacks of gorgeously done platinum printed photographs of the weathered women who work in Sacramento's Oak Park. He also makes block-printed, elaborately designed art books in editions of ten or twenty. One of them, a faux-children's story called "Convict Bird" has a steel, padlocked cover that needs to be opened with a key. Dedicated to Veronica Compton #276077, it begins, "Because so many children go about their play in ignorance of the true nature of the world, I have designed this little book for them, in sincere hopes that it will remedy this deficiency." An attached bookmark is made of a lock of black whore's hair affixed to a chain.
Finally, there's his new novel, a searing epic of almost 800 pages called The Royal Family. It's the kind of book that leaves reviewers grasping for adjectives, since words like stunning have been bled dry from overuse. The Royal Family follows down and out San Francisco private eye Henry Tyler on his search for the queen of the prostitutes, a search driven, in part, by his anguish following the suicide of his sister in law, who he was in love with. Fevered, obscene and surreal, The Royal Family envelops you, sucking you into its strange moral universe. Party, it's the tale of a failed utopia, as the whores briefly find succor in solidarity with their queen. But its also a parable about consumption -- through John, Tyler's arrogant yuppie brother, Vollmann connects the voracious appetites of the underworld and those of the boardroom. The book resonates with questions about whether one loves people or what they symbolize. Most of all, its an engrossing story with a profundity that slyly creeps up on you while you're being blithely entertained.
Q: I read that when you were preparing to write The Royal Family, you hired whores to improvise some of the characters.
A: BBC radio was doing a little profile on me and how I work. When the reporter came to San Francisco, I was just starting to think about the Royal Family, and I thought it would be sort of interesting to see what people on the street felt about the idea of a queen of the prostitutes. As long as it was BBC's money, I thought why not audition them? So I got set up in a hotel with the reporter in the closet with his microphone and me on the bed with a bunch of beer and wine coolers, whatever the girls wanted, and then my friend Ken would just run out and grab them and bring them up. I asked them, 'If you were the queen of the prostitutes, what would you do?' And it was really interesting and kind of fun. Everybody had a different fantasy. Some of them just thought it meant they were really sexy. This one girl said 'Oh, I'm the queen of the whores cause I can suck a baseball bat through thirty feet of garden hose.'
Q: You gave the character Chocolate that line.
A: That's right. Then there were a lot of them who were very loving and generous, and the way they interpreted the role was they would be nurturing and take care of all the girls and give them whatever drugs they were addicted to. And I started imagining my queen of the prostitutes in that light. Then a couple of them, either because they were naturally mean or because they'd had a really hard time, just loved the idea of using power to be cruel. So then I started thinking about Domino, and decided there had to be a good queen and a bad queen. Then I thought about it a little more and thought well, Domino's not really bad. She does a lot of bad things, but in some ways she's my favorite character. I feel a lot of pity for her. She means well, she wants to trust people and love people but she can't.
That audition helped me. Then I got a couple of those prostitutes together and paid them to act some stuff out. I rented the 441 club for a night, and got six or seven of them just to see what they would do. They had a great time and I enjoyed it too. It was a little bit stilted -- they had never done it before, and they were kind of overplaying to the audience, but I got a few good lines out of it.
Q: Who was the audience?
A: Just some of my friends, whoever wanted to come.
Q: Have you worked like that before?
A: No, that was the first time.
Q: I've read others interviews with you where people ask about your attraction to prostitutes and you seem kind of blasé, saying that having sex with whores is great and that you really enjoy it. At the same time, in this book and others your characters seem to be searching for an illusory kind of salvation in among these women -- there's obviously much more to it than fun. Why do you keep coming back to prostitutes over and over again in your writing?
A: I guess there are lots of things that I'm searching for. I first got involved with prostitutes in my early twenties because the woman I was going to marry decided she didn't love me, and I was very, very lonely. I tried for a couple of years to find another girlfriend and I couldn't. I must have been very unattractive, probably because I was depressed, and depressed people can be a drag to be around. Finally I went to a call girl, and actually I felt so uncomfortable and embarrassed with her that I couldn't even have an orgasm, but after she had left I just felt so happy because finally somebody had let me put my arms around her and lie next to her in a bed. Even though she wasn't particularly nice and didn't like me and just wanted money, she really helped me so much, it was like a kind of therapy. And later when I got into a relationship and I didn't need that, I kept seeking prostitutes out as friends and as people that I could help and as people who could help me by teaching me things. They know so much, they've seen so much and they've felt so much, its like talking to a really old, grizzled war correspondent or police officer or maybe some monk whose been meditating all his life. Often they don't even know how much they know. And what they know sometimes destroys them. They learn some awful things because people can be very mean to them. People do bad things to them, and once I started thinking about that, I thought maybe they are even more elevated and exalted than I imagined. Some of them are almost like saints.
Q: Exalted through suffering?
A: Well, because it's their business to take these awful experiences and put up with these awful people and with things that no one else would put up with. If a psychiatrist is doing a good thing and all he or she has to do is listen to someone say, 'I want to kill myself' or 'I want to kill my husband' or whatever, than to have somebody who is maybe really mean and cruel and gives you diseases and stabs you and burns you, and you live that and accept it, it doesn't necessarily make you better, but it makes you worthy of a lot of respect in my opinion. I respect them so much. And so I started thinking about the queen as somebody who was really, really special.
Q: The idea of the holy whore goes way back.
A: It sure does.
Q: There seems to be a tension in a lot of what you write over the idea of victimization. You've said that you don't believe prostitutes are necessarily exploited. But at the same time, in your fiction there are a lot of rescue fantasies about these women.
A: Does that bother you?
Q: No. I just wonder what you're rescuing them from if they're not being exploited.
A: For one thing, there is a distinction between me and my characters. My characters sometimes do things that I wouldn't do or they do them in more extreme ways. But I guess if I see, for instance, a child prostitute who is trapped, I will feel terrible. One time I did kidnap a child prostitute. That was a very fulfilling experience to be able to go and help somebody. But a lot of people don't want to be rescued and maybe don't need to be rescued.
I've been photographing and making platinum prints of some of the prostitutes in Oak Park, which is about a seven or eight minute drive from here. I'm trying to follow the same women over ten years. I'm now in the fourth year of photographing them, and I've got to know them pretty well and some of them have really, really terrible lives, but I don't feel that there's anything that I or anyone can do for most of them. For a person's life to change, he has to feel not only that his life is bad, but also that he wants to give up whatever makes it bad. In America, I believe that 99 percent of us are responsible for our actions and should be held responsible for our actions. So if somebody decides to be a prostitute for whatever reason and that person is an adult, I have to feel that that's a choice that that person has made.
Q: But you don't mean they deserve what they get.
A: No. What I mean is that just because someone is a prostitute, I don't want to say that she's exploited. And if bad things happen to that person and the person doesn't want to change, its not a question of the person deserving those things, but I would say we have to stand aside and hope that that person will either decide that she can live with them, or else that she wants to change her situation, in which case she can get some help. So much of the harm that has been done in this world has been done by missionary types who think that some aspect of a culture is really awful and that for peoples' own good we have to change it. I object to the people who call female circumcision female genital mutilation. That's what they want to call it, and they're convinced that it's a hundred percent bad and it should be eradicated no matter what anyone says. It might be true, it might not be true, but I think that sort of thinking is very, very dangerous. The people who see a prostitute and say, 'Poor girl, I wonder who put her into this situation, and those awful men who take advantage of her should all go to jail,' I don't think that that's true.
Q: But you've written that a lot of American prostitutes have incest or other horrible abuse in their pasts.
A: It's terrible, isn't it? But you know, I've had some sad things in my past, and that doesn't mean that I'm not responsible for the decisions that I make. I've been thinking about this a lot because I'm a gun owner, and I'm pretty sure that by the time my little girl is my age, handguns are going to be, in practice, banned in this country. When you look at the issue of guns, there are two visions you can have. One thing you can say is, and this is what I believe, that the second amendment is really wonderful. Unlike in other countries, our country trusts us to have guns. It's in our constitution -- we have the right to defend ourselves against others, or even against our own government if it becomes a bad government, and I think that's amazing and wonderful. If that's the case, if I allowed to have a gun and I ever misuse that gun, then I deserve some serious punishment. If I take my gun and shoot the next door neighbors or rob a bank, I should be put in jail for the rest of my life or maybe killed. That's what I believe.
The other way to look at guns is that we should cut people as much slack as we possibly can and try to be kind, and that if someone makes a mistake, then that person should not be held completely responsible and we should try and help that person and protect him from the consequences of his mistake.
Q: And you don't believe that?
A: I don't believe that. Because if that is the case, then the best thing to do to prevent these mistakes from being made is not to let people have guns.
Q: But in the chapter from The Royal Family about bail, you seem outraged over the callous coldness of justice.
A: It's terrible.
Q: So how do those two ideas reconcile themselves?
A: I don't think there's any way to really be very fair or very happy when you think about this stuff. If you look at it honestly, no matter what position you take, its very, very painful and it's cruel and unfair to somebody. I feel tremendously sad for people who can't make bail. I think it's a very corrupt system, and I wish that we could set aside some kind of money to pay skip tracers so that we could let these poor people out and give them the same rights as the rich people.
And obviously I don't think that women should be going to jail in the first place for street prostitution. But if somebody like my character Domino were going to jail because she had brutally slashed somebody's face with a razor, I would feel terrible for Domino and I would really pity her, but I would still think that she should go to jail and be punished. If I could refashion our justice system, what I would do is take all first time offenders and maybe all second time offenders and give them an immense amount of counseling and give them all kinds of options and be helpful and tender and give them every possible chance to understand that they had made a terrible mistake and that that mistake could still be rectified. And then give them another chance. And then, if they kept doing these things, I would be inclined to be punitive.
Q: When you were nine, your six-year-old sister drowned while you were supposed to be watching her. In his family, Henry Tyler a black sheep -- writing about him, you repeatedly use the symbol of the mark of Cain. How much of that is transposed from your experience in your family after what happened with your sister?
A: I tend to think that my parents are disappointed in me and angry at me, and maybe they're not, or maybe they're less so than I think, or maybe they've forgiven me after all these years, but it's very difficult for me to talk to them about it. I guess the difference between Henry and me is that Henry has just started out as kind of a small time loser, and the sin that he commits is to fall in love with his brother's wife, but even before that, he was just not the favorite in his family. Maybe that's one of the reasons he can identify so well with these street prostitutes.
Q: Repeatedly in your writing there are characters who dive into underworlds initially as observers like journalists or detectives, and then get swept up in them far too deeply to ever return to their old lives. Is that something you fear for yourself or feel you've narrowly escaped?
A: Well, you never do really escape that stuff. I've been very lucky because I've been able to limit and control my exposure. I feel very lucky that I'm able to live right here. I never know what the future will bring, but I hope that I will be able to live here for a long time and die in a nice place like this, but you do get emotionally and intellectually damaged a little bit. I don't mind it, actually. I prefer the cost of that kind of knowledge to not having that knowledge and being smug and ignorant. Ignorant people can cause a lot of damage, and in a way they're not full human beings. They haven't experienced everything there is to experience.
Q: But what keeps drawing you back over and over again, now that you have so much experience of atrocity?
A: I want to understand people and I want to do good. There were a lot of reasons that were bringing me to the war zones. I was working on a long essay about violence*
Q: What ever happened to that?
A: So far I haven't found a publisher, but I got an agent last year and she thinks she might have found somebody, so I'm hopeful. It's about 4,000 pages, and it's devoted to the question of when is violence justified. Some of my Spin and Gear trips were to investigate it -- I would write the long version and then they would abridge it and publish the short version.
I've also thought that when people are in extreme situations, somehow their innate character, their essence is X-rayed by the blinding rays of horror. Under extreme circumstances people can be more selfish or more noble or more everything.
Now I've learned a little bit and I'm interested in trying to get practical, and to see what I can learn that can make a difference, because I have not made a difference in my life for other people. I've done a couple isolated things that I'm proud of, but I would like to make a big difference for a lot of people. It's going to take me years and years to figure out what exactly I can and should do and how to do it.
Q: One thing that makes you really different as a journalist is the way you get involved with your subjects. Do you have a problem with the whole pose of journalistic objectivity?
A: Yeah, I think that's really wrong because, first of all, in the case of journalists there is always some agenda, especially if you go to any sort of conflict. If you take a side you have an agenda, and if you don't take a side then you're implying that one side is no worse than the other, which is also often not true. When I was first starting to go to Bosnia, I believed what everyone else was saying at that time, that the Serbs were so terrible and so on and so forth, and it's obvious that they have done a lot of awful things. But what became clearer was that all these journalists I met just wrote off the Serbs as war criminals. I'd be in Belgrade and these Americans and Western Europeans were so rude and obnoxious, and everything the Serbs would say they would try and pick apart. Then some Croatian or Muslim would come along with an atrocity story and they'd write it all down and believe every word. And yet they probably believed they were being objective.
But if someone were to come along and say well, I will be objective and so for every story that a Croat tells me about something bad that a Serb did, I will get a Serbian story about something a Croat did. And that's not fair either, because the Serbs have done more bad things than others. I would say the biggest problem now with journalism is that people are required to sum things up in such a tiny little space, so there's only room for black and white.
Q: In 1994, you were driving to Sarajevo with two friends and they were killed -- you've said either by snipers or by a mine. Did that change your attitude towards going to war zones? Are you more afraid now?
A: No. It happened very quickly, and even if it hadn't the thing to remember is that we had the choice. We decided to go there, and so we have to take the consequences. Of course I will always grieve for my friends. It was really sad what happened, but they might as well have been killed in a traffic accident or something like that. In a way, their deaths are less sad than the deaths of the people who were stuck there. That's how I feel about it.
My biggest fear is of being tortured. I don't want to be tortured. But if I were to be killed quickly -- my friends died in a lot of pain by they died quickly -- it's probably not so bad.
Q: So you're not afraid of death.
A: No. What's the point? We all have to die.
Q: Still, most people are.
A: Yeah, that's right. Everybody is probably afraid of certain aspects of death. I feel bad when I look in the mirror year by year and see a little bit more gray in my hair, and I notice that I can't work as hard or as long as I used to without getting tired. That gives me a sinking feeling. But everything that we have in life is only lent to us and we have to pay it all back at the end, so what can you do?
Q: You're pretty open about indulging in things that other people would consider vices. And yet even more than sex or drugs, the one thing that so many people lust after is fame, and you seem totally impervious to it.
A: Yeah, I'm pretty indifferent to it. The only thing I want, really, is for the books to sell well enough or for the journalism to do well enough financially so I can keep doing what I want. So far I've been able to do what I want, but it's an unstable career. The magazines could get tired of me, and then I'd be in trouble. But each year is a victory, that's all we can say. Otherwise, the only reason to be idolized I guess would be to get girls. I got lots of girls for a while and that was so wonderful for me and it made me really happy, and now I just like being left alone and being able to do what I want.
Q: I read where you said early in your writing career you started hiring prostitutes because it was an easy way to spend a lot of time with women and to get inside women's heads. How much do you think you've learned about them?
A: One thing I've learned is how difficult it is. I've learned a lot about prostitutes and there's a significant improvement from the prostitute characters in, say, Whores for Gloria, who were often based on specific women or were composites of specific women, to the prostitutes in The Royal Family, who I was pretty much able to make up completely.
Q: Has that knowledge translated to creating other female characters, like John's girlfriend Celia?
A: I have some experience with the Celias, but only a reader could tell me which of my characters are successful and which ones aren't. If I wanted to create someone like some of Henry Tyler's mother's friends, I can do it a little bit, but just because I've spent time with prostitutes doesn't mean I can create those characters. The more I meet different kinds of people the more I realize how many kinds of people there are, and it's sort of a lifelong thing to go after one world and the next world and the next world until you have a gigantic palette of things you can draw on.
Q: In certain ways Celia's longings are pretty parallel to the prostitute Strawberry's longings.
A: See, what I think, and I hope that it's not too didactic or irritating in the book, is that we live in such a horribly materialistic, consumer driven world, that what Strawberry wants or what the johns want when they're looking for Strawberry is not that different from what Celia wants when she's shopping for plates.
It's one of the things that really torments me, because I see so many people in America wasting their lives on very unimportant things, going to movies all the time, rushing to stores to buy something new that's not that different from the old thing, and meanwhile people are starving to death in other parts of the world. These people who just consume all the time don't seem to know that much about themselves or other people and I feel really sorry for them in the same way that I feel really sorry for some of these prostitutes. But at least these street prostitutes sometimes have a certain knowledge and self knowledge as a result of all the things they've been through.
Q: There's an aphorism that to understand everything is to forgive everything. I thought of that reading about the pedophile Dan Smooth in The Royal Family, because he's a sympathetic character, certainly more sympathetic than John. This leads to a question that I think applies to your journalism, too -- at what point does relativism and empathy run up against the need to form moral judgements?
A: First of all, journalists and novelists have different obligations than other people. Lets say that Hitler had escaped justice and he were hiding in Argentina somewhere, and I had a chance to interview Hitler with the understanding that I wouldn't reveal his hiding place. I would do it, and I would try to give him a certain amount of respect as a person because he would be letting me into his life, trusting me and trying to open himself up so that I could understand him. If I just said, 'Hitler's a monster," period, we know that, that's not really advancing the cause of knowledge.
And if I were writing about Hitler as a novelist, as I did about Dan Smooth, the biggest mistake I could make would be to just show him as a monster, because then he wouldn't come to life. Obviously most of the people who knew Hitler didn't think he was a monster, they thought he was the greatest. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to do what he did. The most boring writing in the entire world is this socialist realist stuff where the good communist peasant always wins out over the bad landlord who is corrupt and disgusting in every single way. I've never met people like that. If you start thinking that that's how the bad people are, you're not going to recognize them.
Q: Does getting inside someone's head cause you to forgive what they do?
A: Well, the novelist should be at least as generous as God, because the novelist is God to his characters. So the novelist has to forgive them. I made Dan Smooth what he is, so for me to create his character and then not extend any sympathy or forgiveness to him would be very unjust on my part.
If there were such a person as Dan Smooth and I found out he was one of my neighbors, if he invited me over for a beer I'd go and sit with him and I'd be curious about his life. I'd try and understand what he thought about the things he'd done and what his moral system was. It would just be so interesting for me. I'd probably watch my daughter around him a little bit, and if I ever caught him planning to do anything to any kid I'd turn him in. It seems like a pretty simple, common sense thing. Its not like I'd say, 'He's a convicted child molester so I have to judge him and I'm not ever going to talk to him.' I think that's always a mistake. Because not only would I be isolating myself and not learning something from an interesting person, but also by isolating him, I would be strengthening his temptation to be evil, in my opinion.
Q: You've shot heroin and smoked crack without getting addicted to either. Do you think drug addiction is something that simply results from taking drugs, or do you think it's an expression of an instinct for self-annihilation?
A: I think that there might be a biochemical predisposition to addiction, and I also think that addicts can be seekers. Maybe my obsession with certain kinds of things in my writing and drawing is just my own peculiar expression of the same tendency that someone shows in obsessively hunting for crack, for instance. And maybe if you obsessively hunt for anything and you throw your body and soul into it, maybe that's what you were put on earth to do, and you might reach some amazing fulfilling place, even if you can't explain it to other people. If I were, say, a 50-year-old street prostitute selling ten minutes in my vagina and the one thing that I looked forward to every day was shooting myself up with speedball, the fact that I was willing to risk getting AIDS and to endure all this filth and danger and discomfort shows my devotion to the god of speedball.
Q: So you think there is enlightenment to be found in drug addiction?
A: Yes. And I don't want to romanticize addiction. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. But I think that if it is the central part of your life and you're sacrificing everything for it, why not make it into something special?
Q: Have you found any enlightenment in your own drug taking?
A: I've had some powerful drug experiences. There's one story in my book The Atlas about one of those experiences, a mushroom trip that I went on after my friends were killed Sarajevo where I felt that I was talking with God and asking God why my friends had been killed. I didn't get any kind of answer, but I felt that God was listening to me, and maybe someday I will get an answer.
Q: So you believe in God.
A: Yes I do. I didn't used to, but now I do. It doesn't matter whether there's a God or not, but it's a nice thing to believe. When I was in the backseat of that car in Bosnia and my friends were lying dead in the front and I was waiting for the next thing to happen, I was really frightened, but I thought if there is a God I could either beg for my life or I could say thank you for all my life so far, and I just felt like saying thank you. It gave me a lot of comfort. If I had begged for my life I would have felt dependent, but the fact that I was able to say, 'It's been really interesting and wonderful in a lot of ways so far,' it made me feel better about whatever was going to happen next.