When I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing,” William T. Vollmann declared in a 2014 essay in the Atlantic. “For an artist…it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get stuck in any one truth.”
The author of more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, Vollmann is known for placing himself in dangerous situations in pursuit of artistic authenticity. That same quality has made him into something of a cult figure among his fans, drawn to the mythology of a writer whom the New York Times Magazine described as showing “a disregard for personal danger that would shame Hunter S. Thompson or Errol Flynn.” At twenty-two, he traveled to Afghanistan in hope of supporting the mujahideen rebels’ fight against the Soviets; in the early 1990s, he survived a sniper attack in Bosnia that left his companions dead; he also spent two weeks solo at the magnetic North Pole, researching a novel, during which he nearly died of hypothermia. He’s written about smoking crack with prostitutes, riding the rails, and visiting a nuclear hot zone in Japan, among other subjects, but says he writes without an intention to shock his readers. “I don’t shock myself, and I don’t care about shocking others,” he told the Paris Review in 1993. “I’m not an egocentric or a performer.”
Vollmann has traveled widely in his search for knowledge and understanding, writing about subjects as complex as immigration, poverty, war, climate change, racism, prostitution, and others. He also takes photographs, paints, draws, and produces other artwork in his studio. In 2013, he published a book of photographs, a series of self-portraits, cross-dressing as a woman named Dolores. “Not only am I physically and emotionally attracted to women,” he writes in the introduction to the book, “I also wonder what being a woman would be like.”
His novel Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award in fiction, and his seven-volume book on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award. Named by the New Yorker in 1999 as “one of the twenty best writers in America under 40,” he has written for many publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Spin, Granta, the New Yorker, and Outside Magazine.
In 2012, Harper’s published Vollmann’s essay, “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI File,” which recounted Vollmann’s discovery, upon filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI once suspected him of being the Unabomber. In the essay, he details the loss of personal freedom he experienced as a result and criticizes what he sees as an American surveillance state.
Willow Springs spoke with Vollmann during the Get Lit! Festival in Spokane shortly before the publication of his collection Last Stories and Other Stories. We discussed empathy, the importance of story, and his travel to places of conflict.