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Interview: Writer Without Borders (Extended)

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

MJ: Water is a big part of Imperial. There's already a pretty significant body of work about water in California, anything from Chinatown to Cadillac Desert and Joan Didion. I'm curious about how you got into the water question.

WV: I think the Marxists are right when they say that you can't understand the cultural superstructure without the economic substructure. And in Imperial so much of the appearance of the various delineations has to do with water. You can't understand why things look the way they do without understanding water rights and water theft and so on. They say that you can take anything out of water except salt and politics—I think it's really true. And I never understood before the basic self-defeating quality of irrigation. As you irrigate you are passing over soil that has trace amounts of salt in it and so you are gradually salinizing the irrigation water itself. When the water evaporates, it leaves more salt behind and draws more water up through the earth, bringing up more salt. So you need more and more water to irrigate the same amount. It's actually quite frightening.

MJ: Especially when you're irrigating an area like Imperial that is, for all intents, a desert.

WV: Yeah—or any area. In the long run there's a good chance you will make it into a dessert. No one knows exactly how much of California has been removed from fertility as a result of salinity, but probably quite a lot.

MJ: That's so ironic, because that fertility was the basis of so much of the state's economy and expansion—the California Dream.

WV: That's right. You really wonder what's going to happen. In Imperial County now, it's quite ugly the way that some of the so-called "water farmers" are just selling their water rights. And that water is not enough for San Diego and Los Angeles. A lot of people in Imperial County didn't want to sell but they were more or less forced to sell by the Interior Department. And so they're having to fallow fields. I guess that's a typical story of might makes right.

MJ: Do you think there's any way to restore any kind of balance or fairness in how water is allocated?

WV: Swine flu maybe. [Laughs.] I guess all the four American states with the Colorado River Compact want more water than the river has and meanwhile there's still Mexico's share. So as the population increases it's only going to get uglier.

MJ: We're always being told to conserve water and not flush the toilet. Then you realize that our personal usage is literally a drop in the bucket compared to agriculture and industry.

WV: This place was a Mexican restaurant before I bought it. So it's zoned commercial. And my water bill always has an adjustment; no matter how much I use they'll say, "Okay, we'll charge you a little more to bring you up to your minimum." I could probably leave the toilet running literally for a month.

MJ: I want to talk to you about a couple of episodes you describe in Imperial. One of them is boating down the New River, which is the most polluted river in North America.

WV: So they say. It just—it stinks. Although when I had the water tested it wasn't as bad as I expected. But yeah, it was kind of an adventure. No one in Imperial County could think of anyone who had done it recently, you know, maybe in the last 40 years or whenever. My friend Jose Lopez and I, we bought a dinghy at Wal-Mart and we went as far as we could and then the dinghy started to sink. And then we got out, dripping with this awful taste in our mouths for the next few days. And then there was one commercial guide in the Salton Sea—the last one apparently. So we went up and down the stream with him and then we hit a sunken bridge and then we couldn't go down any farther. But it was quite beautiful in a way. Because there was a big flood in 1905 or '06. That's how the Salton Sea was formed; it was an accident. And the Colorado River in its entirety went through the New River Gorge so it just ate and ate through there like crazy. So when you're going down there this canyon sort of rises up over your head. And you almost feel like you're an 18th-century explorer. And after maybe three or four miles it doesn't stink very much. You don't hear any frogs or anything but you do stop seeing dead birds, which is always nice.

MJ: In another chapter, you used a hidden camera to investigate maquilladoras.

WV: Yeah. Homeland Security wasn't too happy about that. As result of that one I was detained for about seven hours. They called the FBI. Idiots.

MJ: So how many times did you get detained at the border?

WV: Oh, three or four. So far.

MJ: You think at some point they'd recognize you…

WV: Yeah, I said, "Wouldn't it save you guys time and money if you just put down that you'd checked me out before?" And they got kind of huffy and they were like, "Well, we're going to do it the way we're going to do it."

MJ: You probably just added two hours to the whole ordeal. I really liked the chapter where you had a satire of hard-boiled fiction from a custom agent's perspective and he's like, "I was going to break this Vollmann guy."

WV: Yeah, they were so helpful. They got some big-time terrorist!

MJ: You've described yourself as a member of the "Society of Fat Books." Do you ever worry that with every additional page you write you're diminishing the number of potential readers?

WV: Everything has a life. We all have lives and everything comes to an end. So I don't think that we should be concerned with making everything we create and everything we do more popular. 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.

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