The Beatrice Interview: William T. Vollmann (2000)


William T. Vollmann’s writings have always displayed a fascination with traveling to the ends of the earth–for his novel The Rifles, he set out on a solo trek into the Arctic as part of his research. But over the years, he demonstrated how easy it is to find “the ends of the earth” in its most densely populated sectors. The Royal Family is a sprawling novel set primarily in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the city’s main center for prostitution. Most of the story is centered around the downward spiral of Henry Tyler, a private investigator mourning the dead sister-in-law with whom he was in love as he prowls streets, dive bars, and cheap hotels searching for the Queen of the Whores.

Vollmann is famous for the pace at which he writes. In addition to a massive project we discussed during our conversation, he recently completed the fourth book in his Seven Dreams cycle, a symbolic history of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and colonists, and is currently working on two projects, a book about the Imperial Valley in southeast California and a series of short stories about Europe during the Second World War which will focus especially on Slavs and Jews.

About five years ago, you mentioned in an interview that when you were doing research for Whores for Gloria, you’d gotten some prostitutes together and had them act out what they thought the Queen of the Whores would be like.

It was really interesting because almost invariably, I really brought them alive. I thought they would just think it was stupid, but they found it really exciting to imagine themselves in charge and I started realizing that there were several different kinds of imaginary Queens. There were some that just wanted it to mean that they were extremely sexy, erotic prostitutes, then there were some who would have liked to use their imaginary power to help the others, such as the good queen in my story. And there were others who just would have loved to be able to dominate others with that power.

So the image of the Queen has stayed with you for a number of years, even when you were working on other books. How did the brothers, John and Henry, become part of The Royal Family?

It just kind of happened. I started thinking there should be somebody who’s searching for the Queen, so why not make him a private eye? Then I was trying to figure out what kind of guy he was. Probably something is dragging him down. Let’s make it a love affair. What would be good? Well, how about a love affair with the brother’s wife? So then I had to imagine a brother. Okay, we should make the brother someone who’s very different from him. And I started thinking about the Cain and Abel thing a little bit. But both these brothers ultimately have the Mark of Cain. They’re both damned, but each one, of course, thinks the other one is more damned than he is.

You’ve been spending, what is it, the better part of the decade with the prostitutes of San Francisco and Sacramento.

Yeah, I sure have. I feel like I’ve begun to get a good sense of what they’re about.

What is it about prostitution and prostitutes that makes them so central to your imagination?

Well, it just seems that in our materialistic society, prostitutes do openly and nakedly and honestly what all the rest of us have to do in a more hypocritical or obscured way. So I think if we look at them, we can see more clearly what we are.

As somebody who combines a lot of reportorial research for your fiction, you have to spend a lot of time gaining the trust of your subjects. How difficult was that when you were starting to getting involved with the hookers in San Francisco?

It was a little scary at first, but then I thought, “Well, they want the transaction to happen.” Because in those days, there was money involved. And probably a lot of their customers are really shy, too, because people are embarrassed about paying for sex. So, if there’s some guy coming along who’s just paying for stories and understanding, which is what I was doing at first, then they’ll be happy to do it. It’s easier for them than giving somebody a blow job, you know. So, it was never that bad, and as the years went by, it got easier and easier.

Did you get hassled by the vice cops while you were working? Did they even know you were around?

I never had too much trouble with them. For one of my stories in The Rainbow Stories, I actually went out with them and watched how they busted prostitutes. If you just go up to some prostitute and start talking to her and you’re walking around a little bit, once in a while, the police might come out and hassle you, but there’s only so much they can do. If they really want to get you, they’ll get you, but most of the time, they think you’re not worth it. Once or twice, I pulled out a press card and they left me alone.

As part of the research for The Royal Family, you smoked crack, by your own admission, about a hundred times. Is something like that simply a matter of wanting to be able to write from a more experiential perspective, rather than simply observational?

That’s exactly what it is. Otherwise, you really don’t know what you’re doing. If you want to write about somebody who’s a crackhead, you better understand firsthand the effect that crack has or it’s really going to be hard to do it right. That’s the easiest, simplest, best way. It’s like if you’re doing printing-out process photography–the best thing you can do is expose your negative in the sun. If you want to, you can have an exposure lamp, and it can be calibrated, but it won’t be as strong as the sun, or as even. You won’t give as much UV radiation. Why not just stick with what’s already there for you, instead of having to talk to a hundred people about how crack feels? Just do it once and you’ll know.

You also did a lot of riding the rails, hitching rides on boxcars, as part of your research.

It’s quite exhilarating, and I hope to do a lot more. But they’re making it ever more difficult to do it. They really, really don’t like the hobos riding the rails now, and I can’t entirely blame them because there have been some gangs riding the rails, and they’ve done some vandalism and wrecked some tracks. And then, also, nowadays, somebody could lose a leg and sue the railroad.

For years now, you’ve been working on Rising Up and Rising Down, which was originally going to be a long essay about violence and has since become something much larger in scope.

When I finished it, it was about 4,000 pages of manuscript, excluding the illustrations and index. I found a publisher for it about two weeks ago, and I think the plan is to bring out a three-volume edition all at once.

You mentioned illustrations. Will those include drawings like you’ve often included in your books?

The stuff by me will be mainly photographs. It’s a documentary book, so, I’ve been taking pictures of war zones all around the world. There will be some drawings by people, some maps, things like that.

You’ve witnessed some really horrific tragedies in those war zones over the years. Has there ever been a point at which you said to yourself, “I’ve got to stop doing this”?

Sure. You say it all the time, meaning it then, and then you start thinking it would be interesting to learn more. One time, an old street prostitute said to me, “We just do what we know.” And I just do what I know. I finished up the violence book, but I still go to the places for money. Now I won’t be looking for deep fundamental things to learn so much as just trying to learn specific things about situations in those places in exchange for money. I seem to be relatively good at it and I know how to be careful, so it’s probably not as dangerous for me as it would be for others. And until books like this sell better, it’s the best way for me to keep my economic freedom.

You’ve been lucky to find editors who are willing to underwrite, in a sense, your research. Obviously, there’s something in it for them, because they’re getting good articles about the major hotspots in the contemporary world, but it also made it really possible for you to pursue this subject.

That’s true not only for the money, but also for the access. I couldn’t have easily gone to Serbia during the war without the United Nations’ accreditation, and I couldn’t have had that without a press card.

When you started out on the Seven Dreams, did you have the structure planned out, knowing that you would write the books out of order?

No, I didn’t know–and I thought it would all be one volume. But it just kept getting bigger and bigger. You never know. Who knows? Maybe one of the Dreams will end up being five volumes in and of itself. There’s no way to know until I write it.

Iit also sounds like you didn’t know that there you’d be pursuing all these other stories you’ve done in the meantime.

No, I didn’t know, but now I think that’s really good because I don’t want them to be formula books. So, it’s good to take a break in between two Seven Dreams books to make them more different from each other.

You ended up returning a large portion of your advance in order to have The Royal Family be the book you wanted it to be.

Hopefully, any writer would do the same. I mean, the stakes are so low. In the course of three magazine articles, I can make as much as I made for this book. So I’m not doing it for the money, and, therefore, I can’t see any reason to compromise.

Your editor had suggested cutting the book by as much as a third?

A third to a half, but it wasn’t even his suggestion so much. It was just that, you know, my books don’t sell that well and the cost of paper keeps going up. So they didn’t want this to be a $40 book. But it is. I feel bad about that; in a way, it’s partly my fault. But it just didn’t seem worth making it shorter. I read it though and thought about it. I think I trimmed it by two or three pages, though of course I added about twenty more.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, it seemed like every year Viking and Grove Press would each have a new Vollmann book. Has working with multiple publishers been because you simply write too much–of a type of literature you acknowledge doesn’t sell in large numbers–for any one company to take on the burden of being your publisher?

Yeah, that’s pretty much true. I think it’s unfortunate. I would have loved to have just one publisher for everything, have a uniform edition and work with one editor all the way through. But publishing is sort of a tottering industry. Who knows how it’s going to be five years from now? Publishers might be gone. They can’t do that much; the books come out now with lots of typographical errors, and there’s nothing anybody seems to be able to do about that. The bookstores are partially responsible because they don’t want to keep books on the shelves very long. The tax laws are responsible because they tax the inventory of the publishers in the warehouses, so it’s very expensive for them to keep unsold books. There are all kinds of things conspiring to make it difficult for publishers and writers together, unfortunately. So, I’ve just had to accept that and let the idea of unified collected works go because it’s not that important.

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