The subversion dialogues

Kate Braverman holds a genteel conclave with William T. Vollmann about guns, whores, whiskey, death, and other literary matters

When I moved to the Bay Area a few years ago, I gravitated to the second-hand section of Berkeley's Black Oak Books. It's the cult library of books you meant to read but didn't quite get to. The first year, the novels that most astounded me were Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, Don DeLillo's Underworld, and the fictions of William T. Vollmann. In particular, Vollmann's The Royal Family is a savage, glittering novel of the San Francisco underbelly of prostitutes, pimps, private detectives, and drugs written with the audacity, skill, and authority of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But the social and psychological issues are more complex and ambiguous. Vollmann's uncompromising antiauthoritarianism, his daring deviation from conventional narrative into literary criticism asides and essays, the sheer epic scale of the ambition, unhinged me. I felt as if I was in the presence of punk high art, renegade genius, and a contagious subversion I wanted to join.

Kate Braverman Black Oak has a wall of your books. I read your novels and short fiction and inquired about you to other writers. You have an enormous reputation as an outlaw, a recluse, and a profoundly important literary force.

William T. Vollmann I'm sure they're all making a mistake.

KB Why would serious writers who value your work be making a mistake?

WV They'd do better to write their own. But I'm flattered that people read my books. When they buy my books, that allows me to write new ones. So I can't complain. But the world doesn't owe me a living. If they stopped liking my books, it wouldn't ruin my day.

KB I've read Whores for Gloria and The Royal Family and — [Phone rings]

WV That's all right. It's always like that around here. It must just be my blue eyes. That's why I don't pick up the phone much.

KB Why do you have this barrage of phone calls? Writers find the phone intrusive and delete it from the environment. It's disturbing. You have a constant phone ringing.

WV I don't use e-mail. And people use the post less and less. So they communicate with me by phone. Everyone is used to instant contact now. People are put out if I don't pick up the phone. But I figure they'll live.

KB Why do you live in this particular city?

WV I'm here because this is where my wife got a job. She's a doctor, a radiation oncologist. I would have preferred to move back to San Francisco. We have a daughter. Lisa, six years old. We've been here 15 years. I'm from Los Angeles originally. I lived there until I was five. I went to high school in Indiana. I spent some time in New Hampshire, Indiana, was in New York for a while, now I'm back here. I'm really from the sidewalk. I'm from everywhere. I'm just a typical rootless American. My father was a business professor.

KB Why do you deal with whores and pimps, the denizens of the Tenderloin? What is the philosophical basis for this?

WV The fundamental intellectual level of humanity has and will always be low. New technological possibilities mean more experimental things can be forgotten in new ways. There are amazing filmmakers, like the Soviet Dziga Vertov. Who knows who this guy is and who cares? Who knows or cares who Joyce was? That means people who want to write at that level, and I include myself, are only doing so because we love it. In the end, what else is there? There is no prize, including the Nobel Prize, which can compensate you for the work you put in. If it's not a joy, you shouldn't do it. If you don't get published, that's unfortunate insofar as whatever else you must do to stay alive consumes and prevents you from doing what you really must do. When I wrote Rising Up and Rising Down, it took me 23 years, and my publishers all said if you want it to see the light of day, you have to cut it. And I said no. I fully expected that it would never appear. I was fortunate that McSweeney's agreed to publish it. Now it's out of print.

KB Continuing to adhere to a Tolstoyan vision of the novel — its immensity, grandeur, complexity, and size — how have you been able to survive in the marketplace with an uncompromising vision completely outside of the mainstream?

WV When I write my books, I don't care about the marketplace. My father always used to say the reason academics fight so much is because the stakes are so small. When your book is published, the stakes are so low. Whatever they pay you is not enough. Therefore, why should you compromise? In the meantime, we're all prostitutes. Most of the prostitutes I know keep one little private thing. Some prostitutes won't kiss. Some of them save the anus for the person they love. Or they might refuse to say "I love you" except to the person they love. Whatever it is, they keep one tiny little broken shard of their integrity. I don't want to use the word integrity because it sounds as if they're doing something bad. They aren't. They're just living on the capital they have, which is themselves.

My own way of being a prostitute is that I let magazines damage my work in any way they care to. My strategy is this: Except in cases of severe financial need, I only accept a story that really interests me. I am sure I can write it in a way that will please me, and I can keep it in a book. Then I make money, get my expenses paid, and do it my way. I put my heart into it, and then send it to a magazine. It gets butchered, and I tell them it was excellent. They did a great job. Then they tell me how easy I am to work with. And I cash the check. Then when my book is finished, I'll cut my royalties in half or whatever is necessary, but you better not even change a comma without consulting me. In fact, the book I'm working on now has spurious commas, and I made them remove them. So that's my own particular way of selling out. It's practical. I can't say it's noble. On the other hand, it probably doesn't do any harm.

KB The literary and experimental conviction of your work coupled with the boldness of your subject matter, the vivid and unflinching depictions, suggest a serious passionate political vision and literary agenda.

WV I'm pro-death. I believe in a woman's right to an abortion. I believe in euthanasia. I believe in anyone's right to suicide. I believe in capital punishment. I believe in gun ownership. I believe in violent self-defense. That's the common denominator. The left is disturbed by my belief in capital punishment, and I own weapons. My buddies who go shooting with me are appalled that I'm not a Bush supporter. I believe in freedom of choice for everybody, which entails immense risks. Often people abuse the power that comes with freedom. Either way, society pays a tremendous cost. We pay for our gun violence, and we are paying an ever more immense cost for the repressive policies of our government. I'm not just blaming Bush, either. This ridiculous war on drugs has incarcerated so many, ruined lives and made them violent. I don't see why it's anybody's business if somebody uses drugs or goes to a prostitute. If someone uses drugs and thereby injures or impairs his ability to perform a public function and as a result people are injured or killed, that person should be punished. But let's punish the person for what he's done, not what he might do. We are all prostitutes. We all do things we would not otherwise do just to survive. None of us should be too proud. It's good to remember that the people we see incapacitated, drunk, and lying in the streets are our brothers and sisters.

KB That sounds like religious conviction, a conventional Judeo-Christian belief system operating.

WV Whether or not there is a God, it's good for me, personally, to be thankful for my life. Whether or not others give thanks or believe in God is irrelevant. I used to despise organized religion. But increasingly I respect its social functions and the basic minimum goodness it forces people to adhere to. I've been in Islamic countries where people are kind to me because Islam says they have to. I have to hand it to Islam. My neighbors next door are Catholic. They're involved in the affairs of the church, the schools. More power to them. I don't go to church. If there was a Jesus, he was probably not God. He was probably one of these drunk and irreverent homeless people who will say maddening, enigmatic things. You think about it later. Maybe it's bullshit. Maybe it's profound.

KB Your characters are compulsive womanizers. Is this autobiographical?

WV If I answered yes to that question, you might think I was a bad person. If I answered no, you might be disappointed.

KB I'm asking this because the conventional reader might think you degrade women in your writing.

WV I have many female readers. They can see that I love women. In America, so many are ashamed of the body and sexuality. What passes for feminism and a defense of gender is Puritanism in a new disguise. I get annoyed when society tells me how I must behave. I feel the need to rebel. It's an immature and justified rage against authority. The hypocrisy, the idiocy and ignorance I hear offends me. But that element will always be there. I'm beyond being outraged or even engaged with such people. I'm involved with a certain kind of life. Be offended or not. But it's real; it's more real than any sort of life that denies the existence of promiscuity or drug use or poverty. I'm trying to say, this is how it is. These people are as good or as bad as everyone else. We should know one another. If you don't want to know the other, you don't want to know me.

KB Your depiction of the pedophile [Dan Smooth] in The Royal Family is extremely poignant. He might be the most interesting character in the novel.

WV If freedom means anything, it's about being repulsive as well as being able to do flower paintings. I believe that we have to focus on the other. I'm not saying pedophilia is right. But I imagined someone who would be, by our culture's standards, the most vile and repulsive character, worse than Osama bin Laden. But let's make him wise and a guide or bridge to the Queen. And it's through somebody like that Tyler gains entrance to the Queen. He endures humiliation and insult from Dan Smooth. That's the price he pays. In so many ways, this novel is about degradation. One of the questions I've often had is, when does self-actualization end and degradation begin? What does it really mean if we're going to try to be ourselves? We don't want to be conformists. We don't want to follow social conventions, but how far do we want to take that?

KB The Royal Family is also the story of two brothers. What do they represent?

WV Cain and Abel. But I decided that Cain and Abel should both have the mark of Cain. When I read the Bible, I always think Cain does the best he can, Abel does the best he can, and God is not fair. We're never told why Cain's sacrifices aren't pleasing to God. Cain is jealous. Abel is smug and flawed. Yet after Cain kills Abel, God, who is so capable of killing for much less all through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, suddenly says, "I'm going to put the mark of Cain on you. And anybody who hurts you will be revenged 77-fold." And that's so bizarre. Evidently, Cain fulfills a purpose too. Who is God really for? It's not clear. But if we do have the mark of Cain, the mark of prostitution, the mark of imperfection, of humiliation and failure, dirtiness and sordidness, then we all have it, whether we're Cain or Abel. The way I try to present them goes through a number of inversions. First you think John is dimensionless and a caricature. Later, you realize John is the one who consistently tries to help his brother, Henry.

KB The Bay Area has embraced you. What do you think of the San Francisco art community?

WV I'm a loner. I love San Francisco. It's been very sad for me to leave San Francisco. For years I wanted to return there, though now I feel differently. I have a little girl and was able to buy this house and a studio for myself, which I couldn't have in the city. San Francisco is not only visually beautiful but is a stunning universe of separate and secret and easily discoverable worlds. The Royal Family is a love letter to San Francisco on some levels. I have an epiphany to Geary Street in The Royal Family. It's a love song, from the ocean to downtown. I wanted to write something like that for every district, Oceanside and so forth. In the end, I decided I had already tweaked the narrative as much as I could, with the essay on bail. It belongs there. But I didn't want to overload the book anymore.

KB If you had cut The Royal Family along commercial lines, it would have been a blow-away detective best seller.

WV What good would that have done me? Why would I want that? I have enough money to have all the whiskey and prostitutes I want and buy things for my little girl and travel. So far I even pay the mortgage on my studio and get art supplies. When I consider my books, I'm proud. Not that they're perfect. I do a lot of rewriting. I wish I could go back and rewrite my first book, You Bright and Risen Angels; I could do a better job. But in the meantime, nobody knows as much about my books as I do. Nobody has the right but me to say which words go into my books or get deleted or edited. When I'm dying, I'll smile, knowing I stood up for my books. If I die with more money, that wouldn't bring a smile to my face. Unless I got better drugs or more delicious-looking nurses. You have to look on the bright side. Are my books autobiographical? Sex and drugs and love never hurt anybody. They might have killed a few people. But they didn't hurt anyone. So the more the better. I'm not a household name, and that's fine with me. I just did a five-week reading tour in Europe. I'll read at the New School. I could probably read at Columbia and Yale if I wanted to. Publicists set it up. If I can get some money, that's nice. I usually don't. Those trips are basically time deducted from your life. If someone is buying your books, it's a good gesture to be able to please that person. I am grateful to my readers. But I would never give readings otherwise. I don't go to other people's readings. If somebody wrote a good book, I'd rather sit here and read it with the music on and a glass of whiskey in my hand. Do I need any more friends? I have plenty of friends. You see how often the phone rings. The only reason to go on a reading tour is vanity or a sexual purpose. You can always get laid on those trips. But I don't have the vanity, so that takes away half of the reasons right there.

KB Given your penchant for disappearance, who is part of the real Bill Vollmann circle?

WV My lesbian friend, Michelle. She lives here. She's a babysitter and works at the hospital. I have a friend who works as a commercial photographer. Sometimes we take each other out for lunch. My little girl. My best friend who lives in San Francisco. He used to be a housepainter, but he got cancer. I have a pal I go shooting with. He's Jewish. He's in Jews with Guns. That might interest you.

KB It's conceptually interesting. But does it have meetings? I don't want to join anything.

WV No meetings. Anyway, those are some of my friends. I don't have friends in the neighborhood. I've survived without doing the soccer-dad thing. I don't hang out with other writers. It's not that I'm a snob. It's just never really worked out that way. This society makes so many demands on our time. People are used to being interrupted. But I would rather not be interrupted. If you and I were going to be friends and I saw you every now and then, that would be great. Whatever I say I'm going to do, I do. But if somebody dropped in ... That's why my studio is great. No phone. Somebody bangs on the door, and I don't answer. It's perfect. It doesn't have a bed or shower yet, but I put in a 30-foot workbench. It's got a men's room and a women's room. It's got a meat locker. I had the electrician put a light in the meat locker, and he said, "What's this for?" I said, "So when I dismember my victims, I can look at them." He frowned. There was a long silence. Then he put the light switch in and went away. *

Kate Braverman writes poetry, short fiction, novels, and essays. Her stories have won the Raymond Carver Editor's Choice Award and the Shell-Economist writing prize and have been included in the annual O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories collections. Her new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir, winner of the Graywolf Prize, has just been published by Graywolf Press. She lives in San Francisco. For more information please go to