William T. Vollmann is most relaxed when he’s in residence at his writing studio, a former Mexican restaurant in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat neighborhood. The walls are plastered with his paintings and wood block prints, and with dramatic pictures he’s shot during decades of global research for his eclectic, multi-award-winning body of nonfiction and fiction.
The iconoclastic novelist-journalist-essayist-moralist, 54, shares a Land Park house with his wife, a radiation oncologist, and their teenage daughter. But on July 15 he was reconnoitering at his studio after returning from West Virginia, where he’s been exploring the culture of coal mining for an upcoming book.
At the moment, the subject was his new book, “Last Stories and Other Stories” (Viking, $36, 704 pages), a collection of 32 ghostly tales connected by “themes of love, death and the erotic.” It’s his first fiction since 2005, when his novel “Europe Central” won the National Book Award.
The tales, spanning centuries, are set all over the world and reference both mythological and folkloric templates. They’re based “to some extent” on his travels and “my own working out of what might happen. The presence of real ghosts in the world would certainly make things more interesting.”
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Are any of the stories partly autobiographical, such as “Listening To the Shells,” about an American journalist in war-torn Sarajevo?
“No, none of them,” Vollmann said. “I had fun inventing different characters and inhabiting their consciousnesses. ‘When We Were 17’ is set in an unnamed place in the U.S., but a lot of the marsh scenes are taken from the Cosumnes River Preserve. It’s a life-affirming place that’s lovely at dawn in the summer.”
“Last Stories” took “six or seven years of work, on and off,” Vollmann said, which is typical of his big-project form. He has written plenty, including nine novels, three story collections, a stack of nonfiction and several books’ worth of magazine articles.
Since his National Book Award triumph, Vollmann has published nonfiction works on Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (“Uncentering the Earth”), global poverty (“Poor People”), hobo-style train-hopping across America (“Riding Toward Everywhere”), a scrutiny of the borderland between California and Mexico (the 1,334-page “Imperial,” with a 200-page companion book of photos), Japanese Noh theater (“Kissing the Mask”) and an e-book on 2011 post-tsunami Japan (“Into the Forbidden Zone”).
Last October, he baffled book critics with “The Book of Dolores,” a series of photographs, drawings and wood block prints of himself dressed as his “alter ego,” a woman named Dolores. It’s also a study in photographic technique. At the time of its publication, he told me, “Half the human race is the other gender, so I may as well investigate that from time to time.”
Vollmann always chooses the biggest canvases for his work, and “Last Stories” is appropriately about much more than “ghosts.” In it, he explores the realms of longing, love, regret, second chances, avoidance, remembrance, philosophy and religion, and the nature of consequences of being human, often in ghastly ways.
Still, why ghostly stories?
“All the human race is going to die, and maybe once I get to that part I won’t be able to write about it, though it’s possible my skeleton hand can scribble something in my coffin,” he said, an impish glint in his eyes. “But just in case it can’t, I might as well entertain myself and get a jump on it.”
“Last Stories” offers disturbing glimpses of death and grim versions of what may happen afterward. “The Faithful Wife” is one of the more gruesome examples, involving vampirism and necrophilia.
“It’s a story I tried to make happy, about a guy who gets his wife back,” Vollmann said. “They love each other, but unfortunately she now has certain needs she didn’t used to have. For him to continue to honor their love, he has to become somewhat complicit. Is he better off? Is she? I’m not going to say, but it seems they end up in a rather debased existence.”
What’s Vollmann’s personal take on an afterlife?
“Voltaire said, ‘How is it possible that there are billions of years when we haven’t come into being, and then we come into being for a few minutes so that we can do something bad and God can torment us forever afterward?’ ” he said.
“That makes no sense, but then none of it does. The whole idea that even if consciousness is accidental – as my atheist friends believe – that still doesn’t explain why we’re conscious. When I was younger, that mystery kind of ate at me. ... Now I know I’m not going to figure it out and it’s just going to be a mystery. When I die I’m guessing my consciousness will disappear forever, but I could be wrong. Anyway, death is worth thinking about.”
Typically, Vollmann’s books are met with mixed reviews. Some book critics cite his works as brilliant and encompassing, calling him an “adventurous examiner of human existence.” Others complain about their length and density. Publishers Weekly and Booklist magazine gave “Last Stories” starred reviews, but such praise has not been across the board.
Writing in The New York Times, critic Dwight Garner scathed, “Mr. Vollmann’s sentences are long and winding roads, as encrusted as Klimt paintings. ... This book is humorless, indifferent, close to unendurable, a word pudding seemingly written on autopilot.”
Vollmann doesn’t appear much bothered by such criticism, though he did say the starred notices that appeared before The New York Times review likely helped with the recent sale of the latest installment of his “Seven Dreams” series to Viking Press. Titled “The Dying Grass,” it’s a biography of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe.
“I was very relieved by the order of (the reviews’ appearances),” he said. “After the starred reviews, Viking had the illusion of hope that maybe they would make their money back. Hopefully they’ll have to live by their word (while) facing another dreary prospect of publishing a long book that no one reads.”
The unassuming and self-effacing Vollmann typically works on several books at once, always with a sense of calm control. “I enjoy myself and try not to get too worried about it,” he said.
On and off over the past few years, he 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 his next Big Project, 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.
“My feeling is that 100 years from now the planet will be much degraded,” he said. “If there are any people left in this hot, dark future, I would like them to have this book to read in case they’re wondering why the people in the early 21st century didn’t care about the planet or think about their legacy.
“That’s what I’m asking people in West Virginia and Japan,” he said. “Thoreau always said that it’s important not to let our knowledge get in the way of what’s more important, which is our ignorance. I want to always keep my ignorance so I can be open to what people are saying.”
Also in the works are another nonfiction title and two novels, but Vollmann also works in the short form. For instance, he has published in the New Yorker, Granta, Esquire and Playboy, and is a regular contributor to Book Forum and Harper’s magazines.
Last year, he wrote a piece for Harper’s that told the chilling story of what he found in his FBI file after obtaining part of it via the Freedom of Information Act. He discovered that the FBI suspected him of being the Unabomber. Then, after Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 for mailing bombs that killed and maimed people, the FBI considered Vollmann a suspect in the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks. The key suspect in that case took his own life in 2008.
Vollman wrote in the Harper’s piece, “I was accused, secretly. I was spied on. I have no redress. To be sure, I am not a victim; my worries are not for me, but for the American Way of Life.”
Monday, Vollmann left on a three-state book tour for “Last Stories.” Was he looking forward to it? “The Transportation Security Administration has broken the unlocked zipper on my suitcase three times and they’ve started on the lining,” he said. “If I can get through this trip without having to buy another suitcase, I’ll be very grateful to my government.”