STIM: The sense of loneliness and alienation in your stories is something people tend to relate to. Do you consider yourself a very lonely person?
Vollmann: Sometimes, Margie. How about you?
(uncomfortable pause)
I guess I'd have to answer yes
When do you feel most lonely?
Hey! I'm asking the questions.
That's right. Well if you're getting personal then I get to get personal too.
We'd be here for hours.
Well, you can give me the short version.
Let's go on to the next question. Do you think loneliness is part of the human condition or something particular to the age we live in?
I guess that depends on your answer, Margie, because if you didn't feel lonely then it couldn't be part of the human condition could it? It would only take one person who didn't feel lonely to invalidate the statement that it's part of the human condition. But since you do, so far it seems to be validated that a lot of people are lonely—maybe not everybody, but a lot of people. I have been lonely—I think everybody has.

The Atlas, in some ways, is a more sad book than many of the others. I guess I'm losing my sense of humour a little bit. That's OK.

I have been lonely—I think everybody has.
Does loneliness in The Atlas have something to do with it being a travel book of sorts? Do you think travel is a particularily lonely activity? Obviously you like to do it a lot. Perhaps I should ask if you like to do it or if you need to do it?
Travel is very lonely. If you go to a new place—which is the essence of travel—then that means you don't have any friends there, you don't know anybody. And at the same time, you're leaving your other friends behind.
Do you like that?
No. I don't like that. I don't like leaving my friends behind.
No no no. Do you like going someplace where you don't know anyone
I don't like the fact that I don't know people. Getting to know people is work. But I do like making new friends and I like going to new places. And no, I don't have to travel. I don't really have to do anything in my life that I don't want to do. I'm lucky.
A lot of people feel emotionally or spiritually compelled to travel. That's what I mean by "do you have to travel?"
Well I'm working on a long book about violence. And that requires a lot of travel.
a poem
Do you want to tell me about the book? It's non-fiction?
Yeah, that's right. It's a long essay about the ethics of violence, about when violence is justified. [I've been working on it for about 15 years.]
When were able to devote your life to writing exclusively.
I guess when I got fired from my computer job.
The one thing that we've sort of talked around but haven't really talked about directly is that your work is semi-autobiographical.
Yes ma'am.
But you maintain a certain distance. I think about the classic creative writing cliché "write what you know" and it seems to me that you specifically go out and seek situations you don't know, that you put yourself in situations to know them.
I do.
But you don't write about yourself or your life very directly, as in 'This is what's happening in my life', 'this is how I feel doing it' etc. You tend to write about yourself in your role as an observer and that's how the reader comes to know about you (or the character that is based on you) rather than the more direct, first person voice.
When I inject myself into a situation it's interesting for me to see the situation and I'm willing to write about myself to the extent that my presence and my makeup bias the situation. When I met the guy called Bo Gritz that some people say is a white supremacist, I thought it was important to say that I was a gun owner and that I believe that some of the things the government has done, like at Ruby Ridge and Waco, are really really bad. People can then look at my opinion and say, "oh well, he's a gun owner. He's a jerk. We'll write him off. That's up to them. But it's important that I give them the option to write me off."
When I met ... Bo Gritz... I thought it was important to say that I was a gun owner and that I believe that some of the things the government has done, like at Ruby Ridge and Waco, are really, really bad.
Do you ever find other people's stories dull? Do you write people off?
Uh, sometimes. Yeah sure. That's a failure on my part.
Is it a failure, or is it just sort of normal?
It's normal but it's also a failure. Sometimes, I'm with people who don't like me, aren't interested in me or aren't interested in sharing themselves. Then, trying to find out what they're all about is a lot of work and I think "why bother," because there are so many people out there who are willing to share themselves. How about you. Do you write people off?
Sure. And often you find out later, after you know more about them, that you were wrong to do so.
If you could pick one question you'd like to ask people when you meet them, what is it?
Boys or girls?
You can give me two answers.
Well, let's see...I guess I would ask girls, "do you want to marry me?" and I would ask boys, "do you know any girls who want to marry me?"

How about you?

OK. I admit that it was a silly artificial question. How about the New York question: "what do you do?" I hate that.
It's easier to ask them "what do you do?", than "what are you?" And that's what you really want to know but its hard to know what the right answer to that is. </end>
Up Talk!