Between the Lines: A sip and a bite with Sacramento’s William T. Vollmann

Award-winning author William T. Vollmann is shown here in 2009, in his writing studio in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat.
Award-winning author William T. Vollmann is shown here in 2009, in his writing studio in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat. Sacramento Bee file

Iconoclastic novelist-journalist-essayist-moralist William T. Vollmann is Sacramento’s resident literary superstar. If you doubt it, open the latest book about the celebrated author, photographer and painter, “William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion,” edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes (University of Delaware, $90, 382 pages).

The collection of 25 reflective essays includes contributions by National Book Award-winning author (and longtime Vollmann friend) Jonathan Franzen, actor James Franco, rare-books dealer Priscilla Juvelis, literary critic-editor Larry McCaffery, and cultural anthropologist Michael Hemmingson. In part, the book’s promo says it “makes a case for regarding Vollmann as the most ambitious, productive and important living author in the U.S.”

Over pub grub and libations at Hook & Ladder one night last week, I asked Vollmann about it. In typical even-keeled fashion, he said, “I looked at it, but I have to be true to my principles. If a bad review doesn’t ruin my day or even my 15 minutes, a good review doesn’t make me salivate. I’m touched and flattered, but I try not to get a swelled head. If people say nice things about you, you’re still going to go on with your life.”

Vollmann’s last book was published in July, his first work of fiction since 2005’s “Europe Central.” “Last Stories and Other Stories” (Viking, $36, 704 pages) is a collection of 32 ghostly tales connected by “themes of love, death and the erotic” that took “six or seven years of work, on and off,” he said.

His next fiction will be a novel, “The Dying Grass,” the fifth title to appear in his work-in-progress “Seven Dreams” series. Due to hit shelves this summer, it’s an examination of the Nez Perce War of 1877 (Viking, $35, 1,376 pages). In a twist, the central character is not the renowned Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, but his nemesis, Army Gen. Oliver Otis Howard.

On and off over the past few years, Vollmann has shuttled between West Virginia (“It’s like a Third World country”) and the hot zone around Fukushima, Japan, site of the nuclear-meltdown disaster in March 2011. At those disparate locales, he’s been gathering material for a nonfiction book that will examine and compare fossil fuel and nuclear energy, and their relationships to climate change and what he sees as the coming apocalypse.

“If there are people left a century from now, they can read this book if they’re wondering why we didn’t care about our planet,” he said. Then he shouldered his trademark backpack and left the restaurant, headed for his Land Park home.

Lineup of speakers

Food activist-author Michael Pollan, celebrity TV anchor-journalist Jane Pauley, and retired four-star Army Gen. Wesley Clark will headline the Sacramento Speaker Series’ 2015-16 program, which was announced last week.

“For our 11th season, we’ve assembled a group of speakers who will talk on a number of topical issues that intersect with so many facets of what’s going on in Sacramento,” said Mitchell Ostwald, managing principal of the series. “For instance, Michael Pollan will be here during Farm-to-Fork Week. General Clark was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who will appear during the beginning of the presidential primary cycle.”

The series brings top-tier professionals from the arts, sciences, politics, media and other fields to Sacramento to speak about their careers and issues of the day, and answer questions from the audience.

Each of the six events will start at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.) at the Community Center Theatre, 1301 L St., Sacramento. Subscriptions to the community lecture series are priced at four levels, from $210 to $450. For tickets and more information: (916) 388-1100,

Here’s the lineup:

▪ Sept. 29: UC Berkeley journalism professor Pollan is the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food,” “Food Rules,” “Cooked” and “The Pollan Family Table” cookbook.

▪ Oct. 20: Dr. Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist and futurist credited with making the sciences comprehensible to the layperson. His latest book is “The Future of the Mind.”

▪ Nov. 17: Pauley is a contributor to “CBS News Sunday Morning” and author of “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”

▪ Jan. 19, 2016: Clark was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander and director for strategic plans and policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

▪ Feb. 16, 2016: Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five best-sellers, including “What the Dog Saw” and “David and Goliath,” and is a staff writer for New Yorker magazine.

▪ April 5, 2016: Mark Kelly is a retired U.S. Navy captain and NASA astronaut. His wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, survived a 2011 assassination attempt.

Travel tales to be told

Are you burning to tell the world about your personal travel experiences? The eighth annual “Our Life Stories” writers conference could help you get organized.

The “cross-generational” seminar is sponsored by the Hart Senior Center and Cosumnes River College, and will feature authors, storytellers and poets presenting workshops focused on “memoir writing through travel.” Space is limited.

The keynote speaker will be Huffington Post blogger Perry Garfinkel, author of “Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure” and “Buddha or Bust.”

The daylong conference will be April 18 at Cosumnes River College, 8401 Center Parkway, Sacramento. Cost is $35 before or on April 3, and $40 thereafter. The fee includes includes lunch and materials.

Information and registration: :, (916) 808-5462.

Writers in the foothills

Plan early for the 10th annual Gold Rush Writers Conference, May 1-3 at the historic Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill. Award-winning novelists, memoirists, screenwriters, academics, poets and journalists will lead 17 interactive writing workshops, and give readings and talks.

This year’s headliners will be novelists Alex Espinoza and Mary Volmer. The founder and conference director is Antoinette May, whose debut novel, “Pilate’s Wife,” was translated into 17 languages. Her next book, “The Determined Heart,” will published in September.

The $160 fee includes three meals. Register at, or (209) 286-1320.

Author appearance

Maria Kang for “The No More Excuses Diet,” 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 565-0644.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.


If you have information on author appearances or other book-related special events, email it to at least two weeks before the event. To read the online calendar, go to Questions? Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.

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