From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2
Larry McCaffery: In one of your biographical statements, you emphasize your absorption as a kid in books—this sense of riding on the magic carpet with the caliph, and so on. Did inhabiting these exotic places so long and so deeply in your imagination have anything to do with wanting to actually visit them now that you’re grown up?
William Vollman: My primary world is just this one basic “dream world” that I’ve been in from the time I was a kid. All these worlds that I see and write about are equally real and can coexist, so it’s not like I have to leave my own world in order to inhabit them. That’s my ability, I guess. But this also means that these different worlds are also equally unreal, so I can’t take anything too seriously. None of them take precedence over any others. The truth is, I get kind of bored with a lot of ordinary people. It’s not that I think that I’m better than they are (if anything, I think they’re probably better than I am, because it’s easier for them to be happy and just live their lives, whereas for some reason I don’t seem to be happy just living my life; it always feels like I’m looking for something new, not ordinary). Given that predisposition, I try to find people who don’t seem familiar. This oftentimes puts me into something like that dreamworld I experienced as a kid, because the more extreme and exotic the experience and the more difficult the people, the more I learn, and the less remains that’s not ordinary. Then even the process of searching for the exotic becomes a habit. Like a dream.
LM: In order to research your books the way you feel you need to, you’ve placed yourself in demanding physical situations of considerable personal danger that most people would never even consider—entering into Afghanistan with Islamic commandos for An Afghanistan Picture Show, hanging out with skinheads, pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes and other street people in The Rainbow Stories, traveling to Sarajevo recently or the Arctic wilderness for The Ice-Shirt, and then off for an extended period of time alone at the Magnetic North Pole for The Rifles, and so on. What’s your explanation for this? Is this pure self-destructiveness on your part? Do you pursue these kinds of extreme situations because you think they are likely to yield results that are interesting from an aesthetic standpoint (because you think they’ll produce good writing)? Or is it more a matter of finding these challenges interesting from a personal standpoint?
WV: I’m sure there’s some self-destructiveness involved here, but every dog likes his own little corner that be can mark with his own piss. One of the ways I can mark my own comer is by going off to some place where most writers wouldn’t dare to go. That way I don’t have to worry about the competition writing better things than I could. I’m also attracted to the extreme because frequently the extreme case illustrates the general case—and sometimes it can do this more forcefully and memorably than the ordinary is able to. The other thing is, sure, I’m still fascinated by exotic things. I suppose I always will be. And very often, if you want some kind of direct contact with exotic things, you find yourself in a dangerous situation, almost by definition. If there isn’t some barrier between you and the exotic, it’s usually not exotic. What creates this barrier has to be either danger or difficulty, When I have time and I’m feeling like a coward I take the difficult things; when I need to get things done quicker, I do the dangerous things. On the other hand, nothing I do is that dangerous. Others have built a mystique around my activities.
LM: Your books draw from a wide range of sources. Do the epigraphs and other references in your works pretty much indicate the kinds of things you read?
WV: About 95 percent of what I read is done for my work. But since my work is pleasure, I’m also reading for pleasure. The other readings I do are from random things I pick because they happen to look interesting. The day before yesterday I went out to a bookstore and bought a catalogue on torture instruments of the Inquisition, Mishima’s novel The Sound of Waves, an Eliade book on shamanism that I’ve wanted to read, and an artistic-methods book about various ways of painting and drawing and sculpture. That’s pretty typical of the range of what I might be looking at, excluding the stuff I read for my work, which I keep separated in this white box over here. Right now I’m working on Fathers and Crows (the second of my “dream novels”) which deals with the encounter between Europeans (mostly Jesuits) and Indians in the seventeenth century, so mainly what I’m reading now are anthropological works about Indians, along with some religious materials.
LM: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?
WV: By “contemporary” I assume you mean “from the last two hundred years.” Hawthorne may be the best, then Faulkner. Hemingway is usually a wonderful read, especially Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls—that is to say, the grandly suicidal narratives. Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Dreambook for Our Time is beautiful. I also love everything I’ve read by Mir Lagerkvist, Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. Multatuli’s Max Havalaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, Kundera’s Laughable Loves, Andrea Freud Lowenstein’s This Place (which deserves more recognition than it has received), Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (which I had the wonderful experience of finding and reading a few months after completing my own book about Greenlanders, The Ice-Shirt). Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Farley Mowat’s The People of the Deer, the first three books of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy (how could I have forgotten that?), random bits of Proust, Zola’s L’Assommoir. Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai, the first two books of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, Poe’s stories about love, everything by Malraux (especially his Anti-Memoirs), Nabokov’s Glory and Transparent Things and Ada, Melville’s Pierre, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Acturus, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a few of Boll’s short novels (Wo warst du, Adam? and The Train Was on Time), Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy (which is just plane fun); the first three volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and I don’t know what all. There’s lots more. I am sorry not to be able to put down less contemporary things such as Tale of Genji, which is one of my all-time favorites.
LM: What about artists outside the field of literature?
WV: I swim in a sea of blissful naivete, so this list is shorter. I admire the photographs of Kenneth A. Miller (the guy who’s collaborated with me on several of my CoTangent pieces), especially the pornographic ones. I am very impressed with the bookmaking technique of Timothy Ely. I love the Codex Seraphinianus. Picasso and Munch and Max Ernst are terrific. Many documentary photographs I do not consider to be art, but I love them just the same. I’ve been learning to express myself more with things like dock printing and certainly there are a lot of other visual artists I admire, like Paul Klee, who’s given me a lot of intuitions in his work. I’ve gotten a lot of the obsessive love stuff from Klimt (and it’s helped sometimes to look at his faces).
LM: What were the origins of your plan to do the seven “dream novels”?
WV: My idea for the sequence came about in a complicated way. When I went to Afghanistan in 1982, 1 was lured there by the thought of this unknown exotic experience—or by a whole bunch of exotic experiences. I guess what I wanted was to confront this foreign “other.” Later on, I began to realize that it’s pretty hard to know yourself, harder still harder to know the other, and what’s hardest of all to know something that is really foreign. So An Afghanistan Picture Show ended up being basically about the unknowability of their experience. That made me want to focus my interest more on things closer to home and that was one of the connecting threads connecting the different materials in The Rainbow Stories. The simplest way to put it is that in The Rainbow Stories I wanted to understand what America is like. This fascination I have with the exotic experience was also still very much there—I wanted to look at lost souls and marginal people, with the hope that maybe by understanding them I could help them somehow, as I had done with the Afghans. The experience of writing The Rainbow Stories led me to realize that I still didn’t really understand anything about America and that I probably never would. But it occurred to me that one way of starting to understand would be to see where we as Americans have come from and how we’ve changed. So it seemed like a nice idea to go back to the Indians—in fact, go back as far I could, which is to the first recorded contact between Europeans and Indians -and describe everything that’s happened since then in a series of books that winds up covering roughly a thousand-year period. The first book in the series, The Ice-Shirt, describes how the first people that we know of to visit this continent (the Norse) came here around 1000 A.D. and encountered the Indians, and how they tried to stay but weren’t able to. I’ve always been very interested in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and from Ovid I got the idea that there had been a series of different ages on our continent, with each age being a little bit inferior to the age that preceded it. For poetic or didactic purposes I decided that there would be seven dreams and therefore seven ages. In the first dream of The Ice-Shirt the Norse begin this process of degradation by introducing ice into “Vinland” (what they called North America). The other dreams carry on different aspects of this motif until we end up at the present when everything is sort of concreted over.
LM: Your reference there to Ovid seems appropriate given your work’s ongoing fascination with transformation and metamorphosis—it was obvious, for example, in both You Bright and Risen Angels and The Ice-Shirt, where you frequently depicted people, plants, animals, and nature literally metamorphosing into one another. What’s the source of this interest?
WV: Metamorphosis is one of the main activities of human beings. We’re always trying to transform ourselves into things that we are not yet—and may not ever become. We do this either because we’re bored or unhappy with what we are, or because we’re satiated, or because we want to improve ourselves. But whatever underlying motivations are behind this, transformation is a central activity. A lot of creation myths (probably all creation myths) deal with this. In a way, history is basically a description of metamorphosis. As we go from myth to history, people lose a lot of their powers. Suddenly we’re no longer able to change ourselves into birds, or to gain superhuman powers (or we can do these things only very rarely) but we’re still able to change ourselves from one kind of person to another. The Ice-Shirt is partly about that particular barrier between myth and history. In the old days people could change into bears (at least men could), and then suddenly that doesn’t become possible anymore. We actually get into the ken of memory and history. People can imagine that there was such a thing, but whether or not it ever really happened we will never know.
LM: In You Bright and Risen Angels you also described people who are part insect or vegetable at certain moments, but there your emphasis seemed less “mythic” or historical than symbolic- that is, you seemed to use this as a way of literalizing or exaggerating these people’s “insect qualities” or “animal qualities.” In other words, it wasn’t so much that you were showing these people being “transformed” into these non-human forms as finding a way to literalize what they already were.
WV: That’s an important difference. The people in Angels are much more allegorical than the characters in The Ice-Shirt (or really in any of the later books)—so much so that “people” isn’t always the right word for them. But whatever these characters are, there is very little transformation taking place in Angels. In fact, one of the big motifs in the book is that the characters are basically unable to change their nature. Everyone in Angels is imprisoned with a nature, but it’s the worst possible nature. So the “bugs” can’t ever be anything but bugs. The revolutionaries who wanted to respond to the cruelties of the reactionaries by doing something positive become just as bad as the reactionaries. There’s no hope for any real change there. Whereas the characters in The Ice-Shirt see some way of escaping from whatever they are, either by changing their locations and going to Vinland, or becoming the sun, or whatever. That may or may not be an illusion on their part, but at least it’s their hope not to be fixed.
LM: American mythology has always been connected with the notion of being able to change what you are (or who you are) simply by moving on, changing your environment. Have we lost the belief that getting on the river or the road and getting the hell out of some place will allow us to change our lives, change ourselves?
WV: I think we have, yes. Most of this continent’s transformation is over with. What remains can be extrapolated from forces that are now already in place. I’m not trying to make an Hegelian argument that history is coming to end, or suggesting that I know what’s going to happen in the future. Things will continue to change in this country, and perhaps very radically so. But my sense is that the other massive and violent transformations which are going to impinge on us (as they always will, because history is like that) are probably going to come from some outside source.
LM: What sort of thing are you thinking about?
WV: For instance, the possibility that the global balance of power will shift in such a way that we become a very backward country that gets broken up into smaller republics. Or let’s suppose that environmental problems, which we brought about ourselves very directly, continue to operate and cause a lot of death and suffering and transform the country in that way.
LM: We see some of this happening already with the multinationals—they’re already manipulating different aspects of our country (our economy, our relationship to our natural environment, etc.) in ways that aren’t tied to our national identity.
WV: That’s right. A lot of the horrible ecological things that both we and the Japanese continue to do are outgrowths of very predictable technological decisions. That’s another thing which the books in Seven Dreams are going to take up in different ways. Each introduction of a new technological icon or fetish is going to have a rather baleful effect.
LM: The scope of these volumes, and the commitment they require in terms of time, research, and their physical demands—all this strikes me as being a remarkably ambitious and confident undertaking for a writer of your age, and where you are in your career. At what point did you realize the thing was going to be this gigantic?
WV: When I started I wanted to do something more or less along the lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the entire thousand-year period told, vividly and poetically, in one volume. But once I started working on the first part of it, I realized there was no way the thing could be done in a single volume. Since I had already planned on calling the book Seven Dreams, I figured I might as well do the thing in seven volumes. That’s basically how I arrived at the overall conception. As far as starting on this when I’m so young, if I want to do this thing at all, I have to do it now. It’s going to take at least ten years to finish. Maybe longer. And a lot of the research involves traveling to places that require physical hardship. When I go to the Arctic I live in a tent and carry 110 or 120 pounds of food and other equipment on my back. Twenty years from now doing that may be impossible. My only real concern is whether I’ll be able to continue making money from my writing in a way that allows me to travel to the places I need to. As long as that basic precondition is met, I don’t have any qualms.
LM: You Bright and Risen Angels is a long, difficult, obsessive work. Were you aware when you were writing it that it was going to be difficult for this book to attract a large audience? In other words, is audience much of a consideration for you when you’re starting out with something, or do you just write the book you feel compelled to write?
WV: I just make the best book that I can and try to not worry about audience or if it will sell. The odds are against you, so why abuse your talent for the sake of a chimera? The only real pleasure for me in writing comes from pleasing myself. What readers think is interesting and illuminating (and it may even be correct), but that is nothing compared to the excitement of seeing a world develop. Besides, even though I like most individuals I meet, I have a pretty low opinion of people in general. So if I were to write for people in general, I would have to drastically lower my estimation of the intelligence of my reader. Rather than doing that, I write the way it seems the book has to appear. I don’t think that’s egotistic. There are often things I would like to include in my books—things about me personally and other materials—that I feel I have to leave out because they aren’t relevant to the book. I’m fairly ruthless along those lines, because I try to let nothing come in the way of what’s best for the book. If that means that the book won’t sell or that a publisher won’t buy it, then that’s my problem. I’ll suffer for that, but I won’t let the book suffer for it.
LM: Obviously there are a lot of differences between The Rainbow Stories and You Bright and Risen Angels, not so much thematically but in the more straightforward manner of exposition you use in The Rainbow Stories. Was that a conscious shift?
WV: Somewhat so. In The Rainbow Stories I was aware of not wanting to use pyrotechnics when they weren’t appropriate, whereas in Angels, particularly in the first half, pyrotechnics was the whole purpose of the book. I wrote Angels to enjoy myself by letting myself go to invent whatever I could come up with. That pyrotechnic or improvisational approach created the book’s own structure, in effect—although, of course, once I let things loose, I would then go back and try and impose some kind of a story structure on it. But with Rainbow most of the time I was working at something which had a predefined structure, not just something that was creating its own form. For instance, since I was working from a structure of fact with the documentary pieces (which for some reason the reviews have generally focused on) then I wanted to present the fact in a certain way; and I couldn’t take such liberties as to obscure the fact. Even the non documentary stories were also more focused and limited simply because they were stories. The reason I wanted to write The Rainbow Stories after Angels was partly a matter of my wanting to create these discrete artifacts as opposed to something like Angels, which used a sort of “writing by-the-yard” approach and could easily have been ten thousand pages longer.
LM: I’m intrigued with the ways you “appropriated” (or “collaborated with”) the original materials you use as the basis of some of what appears in The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows. What sort of research do you feel is required to write this kind of book? I gather from your elaborate list of acknowledgments that you went around and looked up original materials. Were a lot of these translations of this original Norse material—the sagas, and so on?
WV: Right. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any real professional help for The Ice-Shirt on the Norse side, which was frustrating. There was one guy at the University of Greenland who would have helped me, but by the time a friend put me in touch with him the book was already in proof stage. The Icelanders and the people who specialize in Norse studies in the U.S. weren’t really interested in what I was doing and couldn’t be bothered. I’m sure there are some errors in my portrayal of the Norse, but I’ve been interested in the sagas for a good twelve to fifteen years. I have a bunch of them in translations that I know fairly well, so it was easy for me to sit down and work with them. Visiting some of the places in Iceland and Greenland helped bring them alive for me in ways that just reading about them never could. I’ve always felt that when an original text I’m using says something then I have no right to say the opposite. Say, if there is a recorded speech somewhere, then I’ll try and use that speech in my novel, although I may change it a bit. When novelists are working with original texts, we’re always walking a tightrope between self indulgence (if you don’t try and do something “original” with this material) and plagiarism (if you go too far in the direction of “slavish accuracy”). My own feeling is that as someone who has an imagination I have a perfect right to work from these other sources. But my aim should be embellishing them, not distorting them.
LM: What sorts of “embellishments” do you mean? For example, how much original information did you have about two main women characters in The Ice-Shirt, Gudrid and Freydis, and how much did you supply?
WV: They appear in The Vinland Sagas, which have been published by Penguin in a very slender paperback of fifty pages or less. The sagas are very taciturn and don’t tell you much about the motivation of characters. Gudrid is the real heroine of the two sagas, although, in one of the sagas Freydis comes across as worse than the others (that is, in one of the sagas Freydis murders people and in the other one she doesn’t). But in both versions Gudrid is this steadfast women who is beautiful and fortunate and marries well. Everyone admires her and she seems to be a good person. And that was how I originally wanted to portray her. But the more I read over the sagas the more I felt irritated about Gudrid because she seemed too much like a goody-goody. I also started seeing that everything she was doing was really to her advantage, which to my mind made her actually worse than Freydis. I respect a villain who is an honest villain. In that way the character of Gudrid in the sagas was gradually transformed. If the anonymous authors of the two sagas could read what I have written, they’d probably feel I had very stubbornly and wrongheadedly distorted the character of this virtuous woman they admired. But I feel that everything I’ve done with them is implicit in the tale.
LM: In your acknowledgments to The Ice-Shirt you specifically mention Ms. Andrea Juno, the coeditor of RE/search, as serving as model for the form of Gudrid, and the transvestites Miss J. and Miss Giddings for “a complete presentation on man-to-woman transformations” on which you based a scene in your novel. Most fiction writers don’t present this sort of direct acknowledgment of specific autobiographical basis of a scene or episode, because they’re worried this might either make their works sound “derivative” or destroy the illusion of the reality of the fiction. But all along you’ve never seemed much interested in erecting that illusion—or in maintaining that distinction between fiction and nonfiction, generally.
WV: That’s definitely true. I’m a very visually oriented writer. I have some painter friends who tell me that it’s much easier for them to draw a picture of what my writing would look like than it is with most writers. That is because I’m always taking care whenever I can (particularly in something like The Ice-Shirt or The Rainbow Stories, where it isn’t just a work of the imagination) to try and see real things which then I can describe accurately. To do anything otherwise is an act of disrespect (again, that wasn’t so much the case in You Bright and Risen Angels because there my purpose was to use my imagination solely). It’s just as important and valuable to me to go to Greenland’s Landsmuseum and handle a polar bear skull as to talk to my transvestite friends and see bow they do what they’re doing. I didn’t feel any compunction about putting in the scene with the transvestites because that scene gave me the best access to what a transformation from a man into a woman would really involve. It’s hard these days to find spirit women who’ll go around touching men and making them turn into women. So this was the best I could do.
LM: In all of your books so far you transport readers fluidly from different worlds, times, and reality zones. It’s almost as if you want readers to recognize that their own worlds are more open-ended and more fluid, temporally and spatially, than they realize—that they’re not just sealed off.
WV: People would be better off if they realized that their own particular world is not privileged. Everyone’s world is no more and no less important than everyone else’s. To have as many worlds as possible that are invested with interest or meaning is a way of making that point. I’ve gradually begun to see that I can use even my footnotes and glossaries and other sorts of materials to create some of this sense.
LM: This idea of forcing people to recognize that their worlds aren’t the only ones—and of creating contexts that bring together different perspectives and world views—seems like one of the underlying impulses behind The Rainbow Stories. That is, nearly all the stories deal with people who have been radically marginalized in one way or another (prostitutes, homeless alcoholics, murderers, underground guerilla artists like Mark Pauline and the Survival Research Lab, and so on).
WV: In The Rainbow Stories I wanted to create a context so that people in these different worlds could see each other. I originally had more hope about that than I do today. Now the most I would hope is that people reading the stories would have a moment of thinking, “Oh, they’re people too, and this is kind of nice.” I’d hoped originally that somehow maybe if I described them well enough, then a few people would say, “Oh, they’re people and maybe I should even talk to them.” But I don’t really have that belief or hope anymore that any work of literature can do that.
LM: No matter how well it was written?
LM: What changed your mind?
WV: Getting a bit more experienced. Seeing the way people treat each other. Younger people like to hope that maybe somehow they can change the world—and not just change it in the sense of moving it from one random state to another (which is what is always going to happen), but somehow to make the world better. But at a certain point you see more clearly that the world is obviously no better now than it ever was. My current thinking is that literature isn’t enough to bring people together to produce real understanding. Some sort of action is required, but right now I don’t know what that action might be or how it would work. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’ll never be any better than it is now. Given that, all anyone can ever hope to do is either change a few specific things in a few specific ways (which will probably change again after you finish tinkering with them), or else help yourself and other people accept the fundamental viciousness and inertia of things. Religion does that, for example. Literature can too.
LM: It’s a little like psychotherapy—sometimes it isn’t able to help you change the way you are, but it helps you accept the way you are or at least know yourself, so you don’t feel so bad about it.
WV: And that’s all you can ask really. Being able to change yourself isn’t necessarily going to make you happy. You might be less happy if you could change, who knows? The people in The Ice-Shirt aren’t necessarily happier when they have the power to change from human to animal. King Ingjald wants to be manly so they give him the wolf’s heart to eat; even though that experience changes him, he ends up being this terrible, horrible person. He probably would have been better off if he’d just said, “Well, nothing I can do will ever make me be manly—but that’s all right.”
LM: Even if literature can’t really change the situations you’re describing, or even produce a deep understanding between people, isn’t there some real value in simply opening a window on these other worlds?
WV: If literature is valuable in and of itself (which is something I’m not sure of) then opening windows is one of the most valuable things that it can do.
LM: But of course, these aren’t just any worlds you’ve chosen to open windows onto—most of these realms are going to strike your readers as being particularly grotesque, violent, disturbing. Do you think there’s something particularly useful about confronting readers with things that aren’t just unfamiliar to them but which will likely seem ugly or repellant?
WV: Absolutely. Because in doing that, you’re raising the stakes. Just getting people to accept anything that’s different without being disturbed is a step forward. But it’s a far braver step to accept the presence of dignity and beauty and most of all likeness or kinship in something that is ugly. If more people could do that the world would be a better place.
LM: I’d like to have you talk a bit about the evolution of You Bright and Risen Angels and its relationship to An Afghanistan Picture Show which you had written earlier (or at least a version of it) even though it was published several years afterwards. You’ve said that after you had been involved in the Afghan struggle (which you couldn’t really do anything to assist) you wrote Angels with the objective of creating an optimistic view of revolutionary activity—you wanted “to make things better in my novel because I couldn’t do this in reality.”
WV: That pretty much explains it. I wanted to make things better in the book for angels because I couldn’t make things better in the reality for Afghanistan. That’s where the business about the triumphant revolutionary came from. Before I went to Afghanistan I’d just seen Lawrence of Arabia where (at least during the first half) you have this happy paradigm of the white man going out there and taking charge. On some level that’s what I wanted to do when I crossed the Afghanistan border. Later, when I first started writing Angels, I still thought that if you could somehow put the right person in charge, he could do grand revolutionary things that could turn everything around. Since I definitely had not been able to take charge with the Islamic commandos, I thought, ‘Well, why not have Bug take charge, see what he could do?”
LM: Not much, apparently. Bug and his revolutionary cohorts don’t wind up changing anything in the end—they get sucked in to the same shit.
WV: That’s because it became impossible for me to write the book from an optimistic standpoint. Once I got more deeply involved in describing what Bug was actually up against, I couldn’t honestly imagine any good things that he or any other revolutionary group could do to right the situation. The more I described the situation and how it might have produced a person like Bug, the more I realized that after Bug had witnessed these bad things, he would end up badly. You see this sort of pattern everywhere. The little kids on the playground who are picked on by the bullies don’t grow up being saints as a result of having been martyrs early. They end up taking it out on other people.
LM: There’s a certain ambivalent presentation of violence in your work that reminds me a bit of Burroughs. On the one hand, there’s a sense that your work is anti-violence, that you’re satirizing or commenting upon the violent world we live in; but there’s another sense that you empathize with this violence—almost like you’re enjoying it.
WV: There’s undoubtedly a sadistic undercurrent in my work, just as there is in almost anyone who chooses violent subjects. At the same time, it should also be clear that I think that violence is wrong and that I’d be very happy if none of it was left. So, for instance, in “The Blue Yonder,” it’s my job to empathize with all my characters. That’s what I’m after in all my work. And “The Blue Yonder” is partly about acts of violence. If I wanted to I could have tried not to empathize at all with this mass murderer, the Zombie. That would have let me stay righteous and pure, and the Zombie would have just been this two-dimensional character. What I wanted to do, though, was to get inside the Zombie’s head as well as the victim’s head. The Zombie obviously enjoys killing other people in horrible ways and so if I’m doing my job, that enjoyment has to appear in the writing. In that sense, the enjoyment of violence is definitely in the work. Whether or not that enjoyment is actually within me is something I don’t know how to answer.
LM: Beginning with You Bright and Risen Angels and continuing right up through many of the pieces in The Rainbow Stories and then in the more recent books, violence seems to be a twisted response to love, or lack of love, or love with the wrong kind of thing. I’m reminded of the tattoo on the ass of the Thai prostitute at the end of The Happy Girls:”Hurt in Love.”
WV: I think this kind of thing has happened in most violent people. They had feelings of yearning, or longing, or love, or whatever you want to call it, which couldn’t be realized for some reason. So that love either becomes frustrated and they become violent in certain ways, or maybe the love is just completely burned out of them, so they don’t care what they do to people. The other possibility (which is probably the most dangerous of all) is when these feelings of love become manipulated by someone who’s suffered one of those other two things—someone who can then use that love for his own end. Someone who is a damaged soul, like Eichmann. If Eichmann hadn’t happened to have lived in Germany at a certain time, he would have died unknown. He was such a puppet of his setting that what he wound up doing wasn’t completely his fault. He wanted somebody to love and then when Hitler came along to fill that need, Eichmann had to do what his puppet master made him do. When I was working on Angels probably the writer I was most interested in was Lautremont, not Burroughs. Lautremont’s Maldoror is a beautiful book whose language is some of the most perfect in the world. For Angels particularly, but also some of my later books, I often referred to it as to a dictionary. Poe was another writer who was influencing me. In re-reading Poe recently I was surprised at how limited the poor guy was. Basically his best few stories are almost duplications of each other. I’ve written a fairly long story about Poe, “The Grave of Lost Stories.” I still haven’t read all of Burroughs’s books, but some of them I like a lot. The Ticket That Exploded is terrific, and I liked Junkie a lot, too. I’ve been impressed and influenced by different writers at different times. Overall, I’d say my influences are pretty spread out. Right now, for instance, it seems like I’ve learned a lot from Mishima, Kawabata, and Tolstoy. Danilo Kis’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was a significant influence—it was built up out of these incredible crisp, bitingly comic or heartrending vignettes that finally add up to short stories that add up to a novel.
LM: Sounds like The Rainbow Stories.
WV: Well, I don’t exactly do this sort of thing, but my work tends to be composed of building blocks that aren’t exactly self-sufficient but are at least individually cast and machined. I feel like I learned a lot from the old Norse sagas. What I admired about them most is the way that one event follows another with beautiful inevitability. My biggest weakness has had to do with plotting. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to plot the sagas have no equal on earth. Increasingly, however, I’m being influenced more by people than books. You can learn a lot just by hanging out with people and listening to their stories. And everybody has a story. Whether he or she can tell it or will tell it is another matter. But it is a great joy to me to take the stories of friends or friends of friends and make them into something beautiful.
LM: When you were in college in the late seventies, were you reading the major postmodernists- Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon? I ask this partially because so many reviewers kept using Pynchon as a likely influence on You Bright and Risen Angels.
WV: I had read some of those writers, but I hadn’t read Gravity’s Rainbow until after Angels came out, even though I’d read the other Pynchon books. But I don’t think my stuff is much like Pynchon’s.
LM: Do you have any sympathy with the whole concept of postmodernism? Does it seem to make sense to you that certain things have been happening since the sixties—the various social, aesthetic, even technological things—that have created a situation so that artists growing out of the culture now are in some ways operating differently than they were back in the fifties, say?
WV: I’d say that’s true, but I don’t think “postmodernism” is the greatest name for this new context. It’s like in 1987 the auto dealers come out with the 1988 new car. By the time of 1988 they’ve now got to come out with a car they call the 2000 model. And what are they going to call the one the next year? Obviously postmodernism is bound to have its sequel, and that sequel’s bound to have its sequel too. Every generation of artists is different and new from the one before it. That’s true today, but it’s been true all along.
LM: One of the things that’s usually associated with postmodernism is something you seem to do very naturally or intuitively—that is, the way you problematize all sorts of distinctions that people used to make between fiction and autobiography, or between “realism” and fantasy or science fiction. You seem very comfortable with the notion that all these different worlds or perspectives coexist and provide “windows” onto each other. And in fact, it seems to me that your generation takes a lot of this for granted in ways that, say, the sixties generation of experimental writers couldn’t.
WV: At this point, what you’re describing is probably true throughout the culture, not just in the arts. You see it in advertising, in television, in shop windows, anything. The gain from that is obvious: greater freedom in every way, more available options. The loss is a sense of disorientation, plus when it’s done sloppily (the way it often is) there’s no thought given to context. I honestly believe that most people nowadays, including writers, know less of the body of facts, and aesthetics—the basic core of information about the work and culture and so forth, that makes up our heritage—than people did earlier. That’s very unfortunate because it make it impossible to place these new options or combinations within any context that means anything.
LM: One of the tropes in Angels has to do with the role of the computer in presenting the narration. One of my working assumptions about writers today is that a significant number of them are having their work changed by computers—your work, for example, with all its glossaries and charts and footnotes and so on, seems to aspire to the status of hypertext.
WV: I could write without a computer or electricity, but my writing would not be the same. Like you’re suggesting, the fact that I’ve been writing the dream novels on a PC has definitely made it a lot easier for me to develop the kind of textures you see there—all those materials that sort of interact with the main narrative and give you these different perspectives on things. Like anyone else, I love the startling newness of the presents that technology continually presents us with, and I’m grateful to be able to do my writing on a computer. But I also abhor the dehumanization and waste of technology, as it is only common sense to do. The problem, of course, is not technology itself (I don’t buy that kind of determinism), but the economic system that abuses technology in repellent and deadening ways. I believe that these abuses will eventually lead the world into a crisis in which thousands or millions of people will be killed, and many more species will become extinct. I suspect that the only hope for the earth in general and humanity in particular is a massive decrease in our population. So I applaud the amoral technicians who are making new biochemical weapons. All I ask is that when we are killed, we not leave a mess behind us for hundreds of thousands of years. That is why I also admire the neutron bomb.
LM: You said in an L.A. Times book review that you “admire writers who combine verbal and visual elements.” Over the years you’ve been creating these odd (and exotic!) “book objects” that display your interest in this combination very directly, but even your “regular” books have a fairly complex design component as physical objects that suggests you’re interested in something more than just the book as a medium for print. What kind of a background do you have in painting and drawing—and how do you see your concern with visual components of your narrative relating to the verbal ones?
WV: I have no formal training in the visual arts. Painting or drawing for me is just an additional way of expressing that visual element that I think is so important in storytelling. My feeling is that just as a series of words is more than a random series of letters, a book should be more than a container for the words. Your book is like your body—you’re simply born with it. The covers are your face, your skin, pimpled or hairy or speckled with the moles of irrelevancies. (In both American editions of Angels, for instance, one of my characters’ names was misspelled in jacket copy that I never saw before publication). Inside the covers, you are you. There may be a few misprints or editorial changes that weaken things (though most strengthen the book), but mainly it is you and yours. My publishers so far have generally done a fine job of nourishing the body, and sometimes (as with the typesetting for The Rainbow Stories) the body is beautiful. I’m proud to be the gorgeous bugs and bulb that my publishers brought into being for Angels. There’s always a slight tingle of unfamiliarity upon seeing one’s own book—this product of oneself that has become alien by being born, by becoming separate. For all these reasons, I design my own books when I’m able to, and build them with help from others because I like to collaborate. I’ve also been able to use visuals in some of my limited editions, and you’ve seen some of the book objects that I’ve done through CoTangent Press, like The Happy Girls and The Convict Bird. I enjoy doing the book objects just because I have so much room to explore different sorts of visual and tactile relationships with the printed words. At the very least I like to have my books illustrated. I do the illustrations.
LM: You say somewhere that “Writing or reading a book is always like being a voyeur.” Has the experience of being a “voyeur” in order to write something been awkward for you at times? For example, when you were doing The Rainbow Stories, people who were outcasts and victims in various ways were letting you into their lives and talking with you. Did knowing that you were going to be writing about these situations make you feel uncomfortable?
WV: Reading about characters in any book is always voyeurism. And when you write, you have to develop this internal sense of yourself as a recording machine or video camera that you use to invade other people’s privacy—hopefully with their consent. That part never bothered me, although I know it’s bothered some of my reviewers (especially some of my British reviewers who seemed to feel I’ve shown very poor taste and was just using these people). I don’t see it that way at all, though. The Rainbow Stories got started because I wanted to understand more about love and how these feelings of love get misdirected. So I decided to write stories about prostitutes, and then that gradually began to encompass other lowlifes—street alcoholics, skinheads, and so on. It seemed like all these people really wanted was love, only they didn’t have any idea how to get it, so their lives became more and more miserable. That misery wasn’t something I had to seek out, though—it was right there, on the streets. My purpose in writing about this was to try and learn things about it—and, like I said, I started out thinking that maybe my writing could actually produce some kind of understanding between people who usually hate or ignore each other. I was hoping that maybe I could change the situation. That may have been naive, but I still feel people should be given a chance to see these things and think about why they exist.
LM: “Honesty” seems to be a crucial aspect of your aesthetic stance (I’d say this is true of the majority of significant postmodernists). In fact, your take on this seems perhaps more extreme than just about any other writer I know of—not just in the sense of actually physically visiting places like the Magnetic North Pole so that your descriptions will be accurate, but also in the sense you referred to once when you said that you felt The Rainbow Stories was an advance over Angels because your narrator “gives more away of himself.” That progression is obvious in The Rainbow Stories—and I’d say it continues in your dream novels until we reach the wrenching, almost excruciatingly painful intensity in your forthcoming novel, The Rifles.
WV: Honesty about the beauty and brutality of other people has been a big thing in all my work since The Rainbow Stories. In writing The Rainbow Stories, it seemed very important to be very faithful and accurate about what I had seen—to be as honest as I could be. I’d leave out something if it would obviously hurt someone (or truly hurt me), but I feel the least I owe people is to be honest about myself. So, for instance the scene in “Ladies and Red Lights” where I had a call girl up to my apartment was originally in Angels, except there I had that happen to Frank. Later on, it seemed like describing it that earlier way wasn’t a particularly courageous or honest thing. If I was going to make use of that experience then I should do so in the way I did in The Rainbow Stories. My feeling is that if you do things in that spirit of honesty, you’re not using people. On the other hand, if I were, say, Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood I think I would feel more ashamed of myself, because he must have known that people were going to read what he’d written more out of titillation than to learn something. Maybe I’m being unfair. I didn’t finish that book because it upset me in that way,
LM: Aren’t you worried that people are going to read your books like that? Why wouldn’t they?
WV: It’s OK if they do. I mean, I can’t stop them from reading like that, and I wouldn’t think of trying. It’s just that I know that’s not my intention. That allows me to feel comfortable with what I’m doing. People are free to think anything of me they want. What they think of me doesn’t really matter to me.
LM: Do you ever wonder or worry about suffering the fate of the moth who, as you say in “Scintillant Orange,” “Must die happily in the fire”?
WV: Fire is neither a big attraction nor a phobia for me. But when my time comes to die, I hope I can die like the moth in the flame. That seems like the best way to go.