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Interview: Writer Without Borders (Extended)

Prolific author William T. Vollmann talks about popularity, prostitution, and his book Imperial.

William T. Vollmann contains multitudes. Over the course of his career, the insanely prodigious 49-year-old author has cranked out nearly 20 works of fiction and nonfiction on themes ranging from Native American history (the still-uncompleted seven-volume Seven Dreams) to World War II (Europe Central, which won a National Book Award in 2005) to his experiences hopping freight trains, befriending prostitutes, and smoking crack. He's traveled the world seeking out extremity; he's nearly frozen to death in the Arctic and survived hitting a land mine in Bosnia. And he's not afraid to go long: Several of his books are massive, most notably Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume, 3,300-page exegesis on the morality of violence. While Vollmann has earned critical acclaim and the odd mention as a future Nobel laureate, he may be America's best-known unread author.

When he's not seeking out new stories, Vollmann works out of a former Mexican restaurant in Sacramento, California, that he has turned into an enviably spacious studio. Ringed by concertina wire, the nearly windowless building is a secret clubhouse of sorts; the phone number's listed under an assumed name. Vollmann sleeps in what used to be part of the kitchen; a walk-in freezer serves as a closet. "I keep books and bullets in there," he says, gesturing to a closed door. A nearby wall is plastered with old press passes.

There's a well-equipped darkroom, and drawings, photographs, and photogenic prints line the walls and cover tables in the old dining room. Like his writing, Vollmann's viusual art is driven by his obsessions rather than any desire to please critics or popular tastes. "I'm not sure what this is," he deadpans as he displays a close-up photo of a woman's crotch. "Lots of research necessary."

On paper, Vollmann can be an intimidating figure. First, there's the years worth of books he's written (a few years ago, some lit-bloggers tried to tackle his body of work by divvying it up into more manageable chunks; they're still plunking away). His unsmiling author photos, including one in which he's holding a pistol to his head, add to the aura of an intensely single-minded savant. In person, Vollmann is disarmingly hospitable and humble. He's unconcerned with whether you've read any of his work and often turns questions back on the interviewer in a way that's not ornery but inquisitive. The overall impression is of an artist who’s animated by a boundless curiosity and possessed by a remarkable resistance to jadedness.

After a couple of hours of conversation and a few mugs of scotch, Vollmann's "train-hopping buddy" Steve drops by. Vollmann hands him a copy of Imperial, his forthcoming 1,300-page nonfiction epic that explores immigration, drugs, and water in the borderlands of Southern California and Baja California. (Excerpts from it and from an accompanying photo book of the same name appear in the current issue of Mother Jones.) "Holy shit!" exclaims Steve, who was featured in Vollmann's considerably shorter memoir Riding Toward Everywhere. They head out to the tracks behind the studio, where a long line of empty double-stack cars stretches around a curve, and discuss the finer points of "catching out." Steve says he likes to hop on grainers. Vollman prefers boxcars—they can be tricky to get into, but then you can stretch out and enjoy the ride.

Vollmann spoke with Mother Jones about his latest book, the irrelevance of popularity, his distrust of the Internet, and his adventures along the border.

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Mother Jones: Imperial isn't just about California's Imperial Valley. Could you talk about this concept of "Imperial" that you introduce in the book?

William T. Vollmann: At first, I thought my book was only going to be in Imperial County, and then I realized that there's a county line that goes right through the Salton Sea, so part of Riverside County is really in this whole area, too. And up there is the Coachella Valley: In Imperial County it's called the Imperial Valley; across the border it's called the Mexicali Valley. But it's all one place and it's so bizarre to go up and down the border and see on either side of the imaginary line very, very different landscapes. There are places where the US, "Northside," is just this paradise of hay bales and fields and everything is so green and on the other side it's just barren, and there are places where the Mexican settlements go right up to the border and on the American side is just dirt. It's so bizarre, and it makes you think, How can this happen and what does it mean? I decided that there is really some sort of entity that I call Imperial, and I decided to extend it all the way along the California-Mexico border and into Tijuana and then to the Pacific because it all has a similar feeling.

MJ: You saw stark contrasts along the border, but you also write about Imperial as "the continuum between Mexico and America."

WV: You're right. What does that mean? We're living in what used to be Mexico, and there's this very fluid border feeling. You go a little bit south of Tijuana, for instance, into Ensenada, and it still seems kind of borderlike. And you go much farther, suddenly the prices are lower, the prostitution is different, the commerce is different, everything feels more "Mexican."

MJ: Some people have talked about the border as essentially a third country. It's not the US, it's not Mexico—it's some sort of hybrid of the two.

WV: That makes a lot of sense. There are parts of L.A. that feel very, very Mexican, and there are weird little enclaves of Northside in Mexico—Cancún for instance. So what is a border?

MJ: Talk about the terms "Northside" and "Southside," which you use throughout the book.

"There will come a time when nobody reads my books and no one remembers who I was. And in the meantime, I'll do it my way."

WV: Those are border patrol terms. I never heard anyone who wasn't in the border patrol use them, but I think they're perfect. When they're talking about command apparatus, the border patrol always referred to the US as "alpha" and the Mexicans as "beta." I imagine the Mexicans do it the other way around.

MJ: Well at least it isn't "omega"—that would be really insulting. You write that Imperial was originally going to be a piece of fiction, and then you decided that wasn't the right way to go.

WV: At least for me, it takes more knowledge to write fiction than nonfiction. At least about someplace that I begin with a lot of ignorance about. You could imagine writing about a prostitute, for instance, but if you haven't spent time with prostitutes then you're going to get all these details wrong. But if you have a lot of sex with prostitutes and you're friends with prostitutes and you interview prostitutes, then maybe after many, many years you might be able to create prostitute characters. I feel like I'm almost ready to write fiction about the border. But even after 10 years of writing nonfiction about it, I don't think I know quite enough to do it right.

MJ: You spent at least a decade going down there and talking to people and you still felt that wasn't enough to write fiction about it?

WV: If I was going to write some fiction—and actually I plan to write some border love stories—I'll have to get real stories from real people and try to work those in. Whereas if I want to create a prostitute character now from memories of different prostitutes and inventing stuff, I can say, "this could happen," "this is quite plausible." But I don't feel I know enough about border life to do the latter.

MJ: Does that make you question the fiction you wrote when you were younger and didn't have the same depth of experience to tap into?

WV: No, I don't think so. I think—at least I hope—that the fiction I've written so far has flaws but has mostly been successful. I was either able to create stuff from my head or else I stuck closely to what I knew. Hemingway always said, "Write about what you know." I think you can do that, and if you want to write about what you don't know, you can. It just takes a lot more work.

MJ: That's interesting because so many people assume that fiction has a lower burden of accuracy than nonfiction. It seems like you've turned that stereotype on its head.

WV: I think that we're all, as human beings, so limited. If we want to write about ourselves, that's fairly easy. And if we write about our friends or our families, we can do that. But if we want to project ourselves somewhere beyond our personal experience we're going to fail unless we get that experience or we borrow it from others. When I go train hopping and I look up into the sky, there are always so many more stars than I remember there were. Have you done that? You think you might want to do that sometime?

MJ: After reading Riding Toward Everywhere, it sounds like a lot of fun.

WV: This is a great place to do it.

MJ: So have you caught out lately?

WV: Recently, but I didn't go too far, though. Some friends and I, we went right up there behind the studio and we got on a train, we could tell it was going to go to Roseville. We got off it and got on another train. And we got to Roseville, and it takes hours to get through that yard. It's really big. So we ended up just coming back here. It's like fishing or hunting. You can't always come back with something.

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