William T. Vollmann, the author of eleven books, all published since 1987, has become known for his highly unusual prolificity, for his extraordinary stylistic pyrotechnics, for the unique engagement of his own personality with his work, and for the quite staggering ambition of his literary projects. He also has begun to achieve a certain notoriety for his parallel career as a professional adventurer.
At twenty-two, Vollmann traveled to Afghanistan in the hopes of aiding the mujahideen rebels in their struggle against the Soviet army. His less than successful efforts are recounted in the tragicomic memoir An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992). In the early eighties, while living in San Francisco, he befriended the prostitutes in the Tenderloin to gather material for his first story collection, The Rainbow Stories (1989).
For over a decade Vollmann has been at work on Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a grand multinovel project to recreate the history of the North American continent. “I’d like to see these books taught in history classes,” he has said. The Ice-Shirt (1990) recounts the brief colonization of a part of the continent by the Vikings; Fathers and Crows (1992) tells of the relationships among the French Jesuit priests and the Iroquois and Huron Native Americans; and The Rifles (1994), the third novel to be written (actually the sixth in the series), focuses on the exploits of British explorer Sir John Franklin, who died on a naval expedition to the Canadian Arctic. To research The Rifles, Vollmann spent two weeks at an abandoned weather station at the magnetic North Pole, where his sleeping bag didn’t warm him and he began to hallucinate from lack of sleep: “Every night now he wondered if he would live until morning,” he writes.
Vollmann’s other works include the short-story collection Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (1991), as well as the novels Whores for Gloria; or, Everything Was Beautiful Until the Girls Got Anxious (1992) and The Royal Family, which was published earlier this year.
Though it was updated this fall, the main portion of this interview took place in New York City in the fall of 1993. Vollmann was traveling to promote his most recent publication, the episodic novel Butterfly Stories. We talked in the small living room of his sister Sarah’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment, where Vollmann was staying while in New York.