William T. Vollmann was nursing a cold, so he made himself comfortable on a couch in front of the fireplace in the living room of his Land Park home. A sip of single-malt Scotch would come later, for medicinal benefits.
The two-story house is filled with art, some collected during his global travels, some gifts from friends. The place was quiet. His wife, Janice Ryu, a radiation oncologist, was due home later. Their daughter, Lisa, 19, is at Cornell University, where her father graduated summa cum laude in comparative literature in 1981.
Vollmann, 58, is Sacramento’s resident literary iconoclast and under-the-radar superstar (though he’s a regular at nearby Taylor’s Market). “I try to keep a low profile and go about my business,” he said. “I do like people, and I’ve learned to get along with them.”
He has a new book to promote — "No Immediate Danger" (Viking, 614 pages, $40), out April 10 — hence his receiving a house guest while he's under the weather. It's the latest in a long string of exhaustively researched tomes that have earned Vollmann an international reputation as both a writer par excellence and a professional adventurer.
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Vollmann is so unassuming in person, however, you would never suspect he has been called “the most ambitious, productive and important living author in the U.S." by the Washington Post. Or that he’s a National Book Award winner (for the 2005 novel “Europe Central”) and the holder of awards from the National Book Critics Circle, PEN USA and the Whiting Foundation.
His resume is weighty (journalist, novelist, war correspondent, short-story writer, essayist, historian, moralist, photographer, painter, printer), as are the large-canvas subjects he chooses to explore, always on his own terms. “I'm happy to be a free person, and I hate being told what to do,” he said.
The topics he chooses for his nonfiction and fiction are eclectic (train-hopping across America, ghost stories, global poverty, the history of human violence, cross-dressing, Japanese Noh theater, prostitution), his output prodigious. Typically, he juggles two or three projects at a time, explaining, “If you start to feel bored doing one thing, do another.”
Most of his works are notoriously long, requiring years of on-and-off research and writing on his part and perseverance on the readers’ part. For instance, “Seven Dreams,” the fictionalized story of North America’s colonization by Europeans (five of the seven novels have been published), is a labor of 28 years so far. “Imperial,” his study of the people, politics and sociology of the Imperial Valley, is 1,300 pages and a decade in the making. Its companion book is 200 pages of his black-and-white photos.
“The last couple of books I’ve written had maximum-length provisions in the contracts, and I couldn’t get them stricken,” Vollmann wrote recently in The Atlantic magazine. “So I did the only thing I could: I just ignored them.”
Paul Slovak, his editor at Viking Books since 1992, said the author “just naturally works long, the form that enables him to create complex, multifaceted books. I have realized they’re so densely and wonderfully interconnected that you have to be careful not to disturb the structure.”
Vollmann’s new project is more mainstream and timely than anything he has published in recent years. The two-volume series, collectively called the “Carbon Ideologies,” scrutinizes the causes and effects of climate change, focused mainly on energy extraction (coal, gas and oil) and generation (including nuclear power).
Writing it was a “quick turnaround” of only seven years, requiring excursions to Japan, Mexico, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, West Virginia, Kentucky and Colorado, among other destinations. It’s carried by his insightful interviews, observations and trademark wit and is supplemented with his photographs.
It is not, however, optimistic or uplifting. “It’s a very dreary book about a very dreary subject, and no one really likes to think about it, including me,” Vollmann said. “I was very resistant to the whole idea of climate change, but it’s undeniable that the world is getting more degraded. It really could lead to human extinction – which might be a good thing.”
Before we went further, Vollmann wanted to make something clear: “I take full blame and responsibility for my contribution to global warming. I think about it, yet I continue to do it. Right now we’re sitting here with the gas fire on — fracked gas, very likely. I constantly fly in airplanes, a tremendous source of carbon dioxide. I’m very lucky — I’m one of the ‘haves.’ If I were a better person, maybe I would give it all away and go live in a homeless camp.”
The first 200 pages of volume one, the sarcastically titled “No Immediate Danger,” is a primer that “examines and quantifies” the causes of climate change. It’s heavy with informational graphics, glossaries (what’s a BTU again?), math, lists and sidebars with headings such as “Power Wastage by Devices In Standby Mode.”
That’s the science part, of which he writes in the introduction: “I never before got called upon to quantify peak load capacity or ponder the carbon content of dirty diapers. ... (But) there is nothing like imminent doom for sharpening a person’s interest in practicalities.”
Vollmann devotes the rest of the book to what he does best: “I tell stories of people and places.” He orchestrates that in remarkably moving and disturbing detail as he roams the devastation in the no-go zones of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan over five visits between 2011 and 2014.
The world still shudders over the 8.9 Tohoku earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011. More than 20,000 people died or went missing in the tsunami that followed, with hundreds of thousands rendered homeless. Perhaps worse yet — if such a thing is imaginable — the tsunami damaged the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing the meltdown of three reactor cores. It was the worst incident since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.
Volkmann was on site within weeks. One photo taken at the time shows him ridiculously wearing a pair of rubber kitchen gloves and a cloth face mask. When he returned from that trip, I asked him whether he was worried about having been exposed to radiation. “Well,” he said, “I’ve already reproduced, and we all have to die sometime.”
On that first visit, the radioactive "exclusion zone" didn't look as bad as the tsunami-affected, nonradioactive places he had visited, Vollmann said. "Those were horrendous. There were temporary mass graves, grieving people shivering in ruined houses, and stinking mud everywhere."
The towns within the radioactive zone itself “were deserted and extremely eerie," he said. "It was as though Judgment Day had come and taken away all the people, and I had been late for my own funeral.”
Many of the evacuees had been herded into a stadium. “They were terrified and hardly any of them understood how to measure radiation,” he said. “All I had was a dosimeter badge, but later I got a wand-like scintillation counter, which is more accurate.”
Over return trips, Vollmann witnessed the disaster “becoming normalized. Now people kind of accept it, even though it may be 200 or 300 years before some of those places are completely safe. What the Japanese have done or failed to do with nuclear power, the rest of us are doing with fossil fuels.”
In his interviews, he found that "most Japanese don’t really understand what radiation is," he said. "They’ll ask, ‘Is it a substance or is it invisible? Do you itch when you get it?’ They don’t know because no one tells them. It’s quite heartbreaking.”
The nightmare continues today as groundwater seeps into the basements of the reactors, picks up nuclear contamination and migrates into the Pacific. “Seven years after the explosions, ton after ton of radioactive water is still spewing into the ocean,” he said.
In volume two — “No Good Alternative” (Viking, 688 pages, $40), arriving June 5 — Vollmann centers on fossil-fuel extraction and usage.
In Appalachia, he witnessed “the horrendous devastation from coal mining and fracking," he said. "The drinking water has become acidified to the point where you can taste it. People told me that coal is their heritage fuel, it’s what their parents and grandparents knew. It’s all the more sacred because some of their ancestors died in coal mines, they said. Which makes it all the more stupid.”
In Bangladesh, the coal miners he interviewed had never heard of climate change. In the Arab Emirates, he posed the question, “What should we do about global warming?” “Some said, ‘Why don’t we just have electric cars?’ They didn’t understand the electricity for those cars has to come from something.”
The big-picture problem, he said, “comes when politicians and corporations decide they deserve the freedom to do things their way. They cause irreparable damage and then cover it up, deny it or lie about it. We have to start passing judgment now and worrying about tomorrow.”
But can the information imparted in “Carbon Ideologies” change anything? “It’s too late,” Vollmann said. “Hopefully you and I will be safely dead before things get to be too bad. All I can say is I did my best.”
Having spent years on such a somber subject, Vollmann said he's ready for something new, and he's working on two novels — simultaneously, of course. One is a thriller set in the Delta, the other is tentatively titled “The Lesbian.”
Vollmann does most of his writing in his “studio” — a 3,000-square-foot former Mexican restaurant in Alkali Flat, which he bought and converted into an apartment. It is messy with the detritus of a renaissance man. Papers and books are everywhere, and the walls and part of the ceiling are covered in art and photographs. He often resides there for a week or more at a time.
Over the years, he has developed certain habits that often are perceived as eccentricities but are his way of eliminating distractions, preserving his privacy and living his ethos. “I don’t use the Internet, I don’t watch TV, I don’t have a cellphone, e-mail or a fax machine – or a checking account, for that matter — and most of the time I keep the (landline) phone in the closet so I can't hear it ring.”
Critics heap praise on Vollmann’s books — they’re events, after all. And they credit him for being an advocate for the voiceless and the shunned — immigrants, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes.
Still, he baffled the establishment in 2013 with “The Book of Dolores,” a series of photographic and watercolor selfies in which he was made up and dressed as his “alter ego,” a woman named Dolores. At the time, he explained to me: “Half the human race is the other gender, so I may as well investigate that from time to time.”
That same year, in a piece for Harper’s, he wrote about accessing his FBI file via the Freedom of Information Act and discovering that he had been suspected of being the Unabomber. After Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996, the FBI then considered Vollmann a suspect in the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks.
“I was accused, secretly, and I was spied on,” he wrote. “My worries are not for me but for the American Way of Life.”
For at least a decade, there has been talk among the literati in academia and the publishing industry about Vollmann one day taking the Nobel Prize for literature. “It’s better to talk about scotch,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t make the decision, so it’s certainly not for me to worry about.”
Vollmann was getting restless on the living room couch, a bit fatigued by his cold. Suddenly, we heard keys in the lock and the front door opened. His wife was home from work. It was time for domesticity and for a visitor to leave.
But one last question: If William T. Vollmann has a motto, what is it?
“Well,” the author said, “let’s see ... ” Slowly, the characteristic impish gleam that had been absent all afternoon returned to his eyes.
“Try to be happy and helpful,” he said, “and have a motto you change every day.”