A Conversation with William Vollmann

by Margie Borschke

In front of a full house at the Kitchen in New York City, Vollman read from his new book The Atlas.

All He Had Was Heart
a poem

I wanted to have a conversation with author William T. Vollmann, I really did. For days before our meeting, his writing occupied many of my waking hours and pervaded my dreams. Increasingly, William T. Vollmann himself became as intriguing as his prose.

To label my encounter with Vollmann a conversation, however, is a well-intentioned misnomer. It was an interview. Distinguishing between the two isn't just an exercise in semantics; an interview, I've come to appreciate, is an entirely artifical senario, albeit a beguling one. The interviewee, after all, is brokered by their publicist (or themselves). Held captive by ambitions or goodwill, the subject is forced to talk to their captor. The interviewers job, meanwhile, is to get the subject to reveal parts of themselves they would otherwise hide from a perfect stranger—which genenerally, the interviewer is. It's not exactly the give and take of conversation.


As the interviewer, I strove to be detached and uninvolved. After all, the clock was ticking. But such a pose was difficult to maintain while talking to Vollmann, a skilled interviewer himself: his fiction is often based on the stories of real people (most infamously the prostitutes of both San Francisco and Thailand) and his research is notoriously involved. Vollmann is also an accomplished journalist who goes to dangerous lengths to file his articles. When you try to get personal, Vollmann does the same.

At 36, Vollmann is one of the most prolific writers of his generation. The Atlas, his tenth and most recent offering, is a collection of short stories based on Vollmann's extensive travels and arranged as a thematic palindrome. In The Atlas, as in his other work, the lines between between fiction, autobiography and reportage are blurred. The boundaries between Vollmann's characters and the man himself, are difficult to identify, but important to remember.

We met at the Algonquin Hotel, where Vollmann bought me a beer and we went up to his room to talk. Vollmann speaks slowly and carefully, like someone who has spent a great deal of time speaking English to those who don't understand it. He's oddly affable and, I must add, an incorrigible flirt.

Vollmann and I spoke for over an hour. Afterwards, we took a cab downtown together and parted abruptly, as I had made him late for his next interview. He wanted me to come along and hang out with him and his editor, but I declined.

I wanted to have a conversation with William Vollmann, I really did. Here, instead, is my interview.

An interview in two parts:
Part One
Part Two
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