Separating Person From Persona: A Review of “Conversations with William T. Vollmann”

"Conversations..." cover

While Daniel Lukes and I faced a number of curious challenges as we worked on the project that ultimately became our 2015 William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, I found among the most vexing the disentanglement of the myth of William T. Vollmann from the reality of his achievement. Both are oversized, so much so that they can stagger belief. The critics who had done the most extensive earlier work on his oeuvre, the great Larry McCaffery and the late Michael Hemmingson, offered both supportive words and helpful insights. Their writings were not just useful critical signposts, but dear companions at a point when it seemed no one else was interested in grappling with the tremendously fertile, book-producing singularity that is William T. Vollmann. Yet, even their wisdom somehow failed to dissever entirely the reputation from the reality. Part of the problem is that so much of the image of the man is indeed both present in the writing and firmly rooted in fact: he is deeply haunted by the death of his sister; he did have an exceptional education, first at Deep Springs College and then Cornell University, where he wrote a thesis on Dante, after which he almost made it happen at Berkeley, before opting out; he does love prostitutes and firearms; he has hung out in homeless encampments and with neo-Nazis; he did liberate a child prostitute in Thailand; he did travel to Afghanistan in the 1980s to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets; his car was attacked and his friends were killed during the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia; he reads faster and writes more, and does the latter better and about more difficult subjects, than just about any serious writer of whom I know this side of Balzac. This list of exceptional soundbites could be much extended, and the fact that it grows so long so quickly speaks to the difficulty one has trying to gain some critical distance, which I have been trying to do for well over a decade, at times, I hope, with some success, and at others, I am sure, with little.

It is in part because of the difficulty of separating the books from the man that the publication of Conversations with William T. Vollmann in The University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversations Series is a such a notable offering for those grappling with Vollmann’s works. A significant part of its value derives from the wise principles of selection and organization that Lukes modestly describes in his Introduction. Widely-available and already-reproduced interviews, even such classic ones as those by McCaffery, Madison Smartt Bell, Tom Bissell, and Kate Braverman, are excluded in favor of unpublished or rare, but revealing, pieces. One or three were new even to this reviewer, who thought he had read it all. In addition, and more importantly, Lukes has chosen interviews that, in one fashion or another, reveal Vollmann’s sensitivity to his own authorial persona. This collection of conversations therefore highlights the degree to and manner in which Vollmann has, across his career, approached interviews as an opportunity for self-creation. I do not mean to suggest an overly-conscious level of artifice or self-promotion is in evidence, but an awareness of and sensitivity to reception definitely is, and that aspect of Vollmann’s career was harder to see before publication of this well-edited collection.

Although the contrary is finally the case, one is at first inclined to declare that this revelation is not really any kind of news. After all, Vollmann’s most recent novel, The Lucky Star, unfolds its action among a troupe of characters who regularly cross the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Their awareness of identity as performed along fluid lines speaks to their, and to Vollmann’s, acute sensitivity to impressions made on others. Too, the novel serves as the third offering in what Vollmann calls his “transgender trilogy,” which also includes his photo-essay The Book of Dolores and the unpublished novel How You Are, texts that likewise present identity as performed. In light of these recent works, we might think it would be obvious that Vollmann would use interviews as an opportunity to construct his reputation, discussing whatever subject matter is at hand primarily as a means to advance a particular picture of himself. Yet, that has not at all been the case: as Vollmann’s readers know, almost all of his work is devoted to the exploration of outward, rather than the expression of inward, preoccupations. This is a writer whose métier is a means of extension rather than contraction, and particularly of extension as a sensitive reaching into the unknown, rather than extrusive colonization or cooptation of difference. When Vollmann does turn the camera upon himself, as he literally does in The Book of Dolores, the ostensible goal of documenting his own experiences attempting to transform himself into a woman remains of a piece with his career-long effort to bridge the gap between self and other. Some readers will, nevertheless, regard these exercises as yet more instances of self-indulgence on the part of a writer who is among the last white American male maximalists. But, such an evaluation highlights by contrast even more strongly the moments of critical self-reflection in the interviews Lukes has collected. 

These moments should be especially valued because they suggest something of the interviewers’ acumen. Vollmann in person is polite and soft-spoken to a disarming degree. Such qualities have, one suspects, become second nature to a writer whose journalistic success in remarkably sensitive and often very dangerous settings depends on putting subjects at ease, but they also seem characteristic of his natural disposition. If Vollmann’s sensitivity to his interlocutors’ comfort is of a piece with the same impulse that makes empathy central to his project as a writer, as he and his critics so often note, then the moments when that effort is put on pause warrant special attention. And, it is such special attention that readers of Conversations with William T. Vollmann are repeatedly allowed.


Conversations with William T. Vollmann
Daniel Lukes, editor
University Press of Mississippi; 252 p.

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