Feb/Mar 2007

Boxcars, Shostakovich, and the Poor

William T. Vollmann Talks with Bookforum

Donna Seaman


William T. Vollmann has traveled to unforgiving and turbulent places in search of insights into the human condition, conducted exhaustive research, and written epic works that commingle genres, deepen our perception of history, intensify our sense of empathy, and complicate our moral equations. Feverishly prodigious and protean, Vollmann is fascinated by symbiosis and the pairings of opposites, and he himself projects a complexly bifurcated sensibility. He is saintly in his devotion to people who are marginalized and maligned and is martyrlike in his zeal to write to the point of physical debility and spiritual exhaustion. Yet there are intimations of lustfulness and showboating in his work, as well as the scholar's obsessiveness and the scientist's practiced detachment. Vollmann can sound simultaneously wise and naive. His books, especially the all encompassing, multivolume Rising Up and Rising Down (2003) and his epic historical novel of totalitarianism, Europe Central (2005), are phenomenally erudite and panoramic and at once exacting and impressionistic in their analysis of ethical conundrums and the wilderness of ambiguity. Clearly, Vollmann is tough, intrepid, audacious, and pragmatic. Yet in conversation, he is kind and restrained. Humble, if bemused and curious. Charming. No wonder he can get so many unlikely people in diverse cultures to talk to him and welcome him into their lives.

A year after receiving the National Book Award for Europe Central—an ascension into acceptability that few among the readers of his off-the-radar early works (You Bright and Risen Angels [1987]; The Ice-Shirt [1990]; An Afghanistan Picture Show [1992]) would have imagined— Vollmann presents a concise (for him) work of socially conscious nonfiction titled simply and provocatively Poor People (Ecco). A mix of nervy oral history, candid philosophical inquiry, and self-critical personal reflection ("How could I be fatuous enough to hope to 'make a difference'?"), Poor People draws on Vollmann's sojourns in Thailand, Yemen, Colombia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Bosnia, India, Russia, Mexico, and Japan. In each place, he asks people why they are poor, what the best way is to help them, and what their greatest hopes are. He seeks to understand how oppression, environmental degradation, prejudice, and sexism result not only in deprivation, shortened lives, and illiteracy but also in, to use his terms, invisibility, deformity, unwantedness, dependence, accident-proneness, pain, numbness, and estrangement. As Vollmann attempts to gauge these "dimensions of poverty," he asks himself the always-unsettling and age-old question "What do I owe the poor?"

The author "has no use" for the Internet and consequently doesn't use e-mail. Nor does he carry a cell phone. When we spoke on a land line about scheduling an interview, Vollmann was about to set off on a train adventure. Not only wouldn't he be reachable during his journey, he also wasn't sure exactly when he would return to his hometown, Sacramento. We ended up reconnecting just before Thanksgiving. His parents had traveled to California from their home in Switzerland to visit him, his wife, and their young daughter. As it happened,my parents were also visiting from out of town. And so our conversation was subtly influenced by all the emotions family gatherings arouse and a sense of gratitude for the good fortune that allowed us to talk about books. —DONNA SEAMAN

BOOKFORUM: You just returned from riding freight trains, jumping into boxcars, and all that?

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: You bet. I'm writing a book about riding the trains, and I've been doing it off and on for about a decade. I really enjoy it. It makes me feel like a self-reliant nineteenth century Emersonian. Everything that my grandfather used to do for fun is now illegal. People are now discouraged from doing everything my father used to do. We're ruled by safety nazis and safety monkeys. How nice it is to briefly escape them and to have the illusion of a little personal freedom.

BF: Are you finding kindred spirits out there?

WTV: There are fewer and fewer. In On the Road, Kerouac talks about entire flatcars filled with hobos reading the funny papers. It's not like that anymore. When I go to homeless shelters, I meet old guys who have done it and who tell me great stories about it. But most of the people I meet on the rails are schizophrenic or alcoholic, and even they're few and far between.

BF: You spend time speaking with homeless people?

WTV: Sure. Why not? People who have suffered tend to have interesting stories. That was how Dostoyevsky made his living, writing about suffering.

BF: You examined violence in great detail in Rising Up and Rising Down. In Poor People, you focus on poverty.

WTV: Yes, but more modestly. In Rising Up and Rising Down, I wanted to develop a moral calculus. Although it's flawed, I do think I achieved something. With Poor People, I thought, I don't really have the right or the capability to figure out how to eradicate poverty. I think most other people don't, either. But if I can describe what the experience has been for some people, maybe we can learn something from that. If not, at least we can open ourselves up to people who suffer. We can think about them, and that's probably good for them and good for us.

BF: You make the crucial point that poverty isn't strictly about material deprivation; it also involves the impoverishment of people's inner lives.

WTV: That's one of the really sad things. In speaking with people for Rising Up and Rising Down, I would often hear eloquence. When you talk to poor people, you often meet people whose minds and spirits have been starved like their bodies, and so they're not capable of eloquence.

BF: In 1990, you published a set of rules for writers, and the first is "We should never write without feeling." How do you balance the discipline required to report straightforwardly on the lives of those who are suffering with the urge to express your concerns or your political beliefs?

WTV: Nabokov always used to say that any book that tried to teach him something, particularly some sort of political thing, he immediately banished from his bedside. And whether or not he wrote with feeling, I admire his work very much. Of course, he did end up writing in one way or another about dictatorship and exile. To read Nabokov is to think about some of the problems of totalitarianism and the Soviet Union and class privilege. So it's always there.

BF: In Europe Central, you fictionalize the lives of real-life artists, most extensively the composer Dmitry Shostakovich. Why is Shostakovich at the hub of this novel?

WTV: I admire the guy, and I feel sorry for him. I think he succeeded in most of what was actually possible for him. It's easy to say that he was morally compromised. He joined the party; he denounced Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. That's really, really sad. But at the same time, he survived, and he helped others to survive. And he was able to write this extremely beautiful, complicated, transgressive music that could have gotten him executed. And I'm so glad that he did. It's incredibly beautiful music that repays years and years of listening.

The other fascinating thing about Shostakovich is that, I think, he started off as a true believer. He believed communism was a solution to, at least, the conditions in prerevolutionary Russia, and possibly to the problems of the whole world. After he suffered and got some sense of how horrible Stalin was, I'm sure he lost a lot of his idealism. But it's still very possible, we just don't know, that he still thought that some form of socialism was really the best solution. He never had very many kind things to say about the US or about the other Western countries he visited. While he didn't take a spiteful or jealous tone, there is a sense that he felt that our way of life was a failure. When I think of how he has been criticized for not speaking out more—which probably would have caused him and his family great harm—I tend to think that within his own context, he was very successful and admirable. By keeping his head down a little bit, he was able to get some things done. I can identify with him in some ways—it's impossible not to compromise yourself as you make your way through life. I let magazines alter my articles in ways that I believe hurt the words that I've written. I continue to live in a country that I have always loved but that now has an administration I absolutely despise. What am I going to do? If I can't hold myself up to a higher standard, how can I judge him harshly?

BF: You also portray the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose work is compassionate but was appropriated by the Soviets.

WTV: Yes, I thought a lot about her. Here's someone who was such a great artist and believed in helping others and was so committed, and therefore it was very easy for the Soviets to manipulate her. There's a lesson here: Most of us, if we're lucky, are good at one thing. Maybe we're good at two or three things. So should we be held responsible for the fact that we're not good at everything? Maybe we should be. It's very hard to say whether Kollwitz failed or whether she was taken advantage of. In either case, it doesn't affect the greatness of her work. The art continues to move people. To make us think.

BF: You specialize in ambiguity and empathy. You embrace complexity. You're a walk-a-mile-in-his-shoes writer on an epic scale.

WTV: There's a Turkish proverb: "Whoever says the truth will be chased out of nine villages." I think that's accurate. To truly consider the other point of view is an extremely dangerous, frightening thing to do. We all think, in the abstract, Oh, yeah, there's always another point of view. But what does that mean? Are we really willing to consider al-Qaeda's point of view? Or a child molester's point of view? That doesn't mean we have to say those people are right, but it means we have to ask why they do what they do. But when we try to get that close, we find that we have alienated people close to us. When I wrote The Royal Family, I put in a character who was a child molester. Some of my friends said, "You know, Bill, this time you've really gone too far. This guy is just too despicable and too disgusting. He makes me very, very uncomfortable." Well, in that case, I've probably succeeded.

BF: You've spent a lot of time in the Muslim world. What are your thoughts about the state of our relationship with Muslim cultures?

WTV: Well, I love those people. I would never be a Muslim myself, but I think a religion that enjoins upon you hospitality to the guest and kindness to the poor makes the world a better place. And I've probably received more kindnesses in Muslim nations than anywhere else in the world. Of course, the extremist Muslims and extremists in our own country have definitely ruined the relationship, and I don't see any hope that it's going to get better anytime soon. It's just going to have to burn itself out. That might take a generation, or longer. And that's very, very sad. I was horrified by the events of September 11 and just sickened by our unjust, criminal invasion of Iraq and by what we're doing in Afghanistan, too. No one is paying as much attention to Afghanistan, but our modus operandi there is the same—to gradually increase the pressure and the brutality to get what we want, and that will radicalize the population against us. We'll end up with even more people hating us. That's what we're doing, and that's what we'll continue to do, and that just disgusts me.

BF: What is the connection between your journalism, your real-world quests, and your fiction?

WTV: I think it's extremely good for me to get out into the world as much as I can and vary my experience. That also means going into my head for a while. But not doing just one thing or the other thing. So I have a couple of other nonfiction book projects I'm making progress on. One is a book about the California-Mexico border. In part, it's also about the myth of the family farm, how that has affected what it used to mean and what it now means to be an American. Then I'm looking forward to getting back into fiction for a while.

BF: Will you continue the Seven Dreams cycle?

WTV: Yes, I will write a few more of those. Last fall, my father and I did a little bit of driving and walking around as part of my research. I'm interested in Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, and so we went to the valley in Oregon that was once his home and followed his escape route as far as the first battlefield in Idaho, which is called White Bird Canyon. The Nez Percé went maybe twelve hundred or thirteen hundred miles, depending on how you count their steps. I'd like to cover all of that territory, so that's going to take some time. One of the neat things about the Seven Dreams is that surprisingly often, when I go to these landscapes, I can see that they have not been tampered with much. I can still get a sense of what it would have been like in the past—and that's just a wonderful feeling.

BF: You take a lot of photographs. How important is photography to you and your work?

WTV: Photographs can be very important. One of the things I love about archives is that you can see in great detail ways of life that no longer exist and, of course, people who are dead. There is a certain kind of immortality there. One of the reasons I dislike and distrust the Internet is that you might go on and search someone's website, and a year later, the statement will have been modified, the picture will have been replaced with something else. It's like a memory hole in Orwell's 1984, the little grill in the desk where the documents were dropped down to be burned and replaced with something else. So I don't like digital photography because there is no guarantee of permanence as of yet. A compact disc or DVD has a very limited life. When I was photographing the street prostitutes in Sacramento, I used my 8x10 camera and made some platinum prints that should last for hundreds of years. It makes me happy to think that these poor prostitutes, whom no one ever gave a damn about, whom people spat on and did terrible things to, will have a certain amount of immortality. Long after they're gone, if these prints are taken care of, say, four hundred years from now, people can look at their faces, and they deserve that.

BF: In Poor People, you write about being surrounded by people who can't read your work. You're a writer and also a publisher [Vollmann's CoTangent Press publishes limited-edition artists' books]. What place do you think the book holds in our society?

WTV: I think that readers and writers are now simply an interest group. A relatively powerful interest group, but their influence is waning year by year. The good side of that, I think, is that it becomes increasingly likely that people will read and write only for the love of it. And that's a very, very good thing. It's likely that throughout history, most people have never been particularly well educated, and the world has gotten by somehow. Independent thinking is a category that almost by definition applies to a small number of people, because the great majority of people tends to think alike. So I can't say I even find it that alarming that more and more of the people I know don't read. It's a little sad for me personally, but that's only because that's what I like to do. As I travel all over the world, and I meet people, let's say in Yemen, for whom the only book that is at all important is the Koran, I think, well, they have very rich and interesting lives. Who am I to tell them that they should be any different? The average person is as smart as he or she needs to be. And that if we get in some terrible mess, then people are going to wake up and try to figure out what needs to be done.

I really love the novel World Light by Halldór Laxness. He is a great writer, and in that book he writes about a guy who is a true poet. He's got this incredibly gifted sensibility; he really appreciates all the beauty around him. The only flaw happens to be that he writes terrible poems. So nobody can appreciate any of the stuff that goes on in his head. Maybe we're all that way.

BF: In the new book, you often ask the men, women, and children you speak with, "What is your greatest hope?" What is your greatest hope?

WTV: I would like to continue to have the great life that I have, to be able to investigate the world and try to see and create beauty. And at the same time, I would like to do something of significant service for my fellow human beings. I don't feel that I've done nearly enough, and I don't know what that service would be. I have considered going back to Iraq. I very much admire the late Margaret Hassan [the British head of CARE's Iraq operation who was kidnapped and murdered in late 2004]. Maybe if enough people went over there and let themselves be decapitated or tortured or whatever, that would undo some of the evil things that are being done there. Maybe there is an easier and better way to act. I don't know. I want to live as much as anybody. I don't really want to go over there and put myself in harm's way. But I would consider it.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor of Booklist and host of the radio program Open Books. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books (Paul Dry Books, 2005).

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