In new novel, William T. Vollmann reimagines the Nez Perce War

“It’s a relief when I get good reviews, because then I think the publisher will buy another book,” said Willam T. Vollmann, shown with his art in his studio. His latest novel is “The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War.”
“It’s a relief when I get good reviews, because then I think the publisher will buy another book,” said Willam T. Vollmann, shown with his art in his studio. His latest novel is “The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War.”

Sacramento’s resident literary superstar – iconoclastic novelist-journalist-photographer-painter-moralist William T. Vollmann – has a new book out. “The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War” is the fifth in his seven-title “Seven Dreams” project, 25 years (so far) in the making (Viking, $55, 1,376 pages).

The epic is about the colonization of North America by Europeans and the resulting conflicts between Indians and settlers, a typical big-canvas project for the National Book Award winner.

“The Dying Grass” follows the 1,170-mile fighting retreat of a band of Nez Perce as they were pursued by a U.S. Army hell-bent for leather. The Indians’ main leader, Chief Joseph (whose native name translated to Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain), hoped to find safety across the Canadian border when the U.S. government reneged on a treaty.

After a decisive battle in Montana, only 40 miles short of the border, Chief Joseph surrendered in 1877 to Gen. Oliver Howard and Col. Nelson Miles. In words attributed to Chief Joseph: “Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Eventually, he and the surviving 418 in the band were arrested and confined to a reservation.

Vollmann, who has been called “the most ambitious, productive and important living author in the U.S.,” has written novels, nonfiction books, short-story collections and a memoir, and regularly contributes to national magazines. The paperback edition of last year’s “Last Stories and Other Stories” is now available. I caught up with him at his writing studio in Sacramento’s Mansion Flats.

Q: “Dying Grass” was an on-and-off 10-year project.

A: Yes, and I began by visiting some of the places along the Nez Perce Trail, trying to know as little as possible about what had happened there, so I could (objectively) describe them.

Q: On the literal page, the novel is presented almost as a play.

A: I fooled around for three years before I finally got the typographical scheme I wanted. I decided to consider the page to be like a stage. So as you scan the page, (a series of indented text blocks) takes you from Stage Front to Stage Rear, (allowing) all kinds of characters to talk and think at the same time.

Q: For example?

A: Maybe the soldiers are on horses traveling through the landscape, and the landscape comments on what they’re doing (in one of the indented passages). Or maybe one person is saying something very respectful to the general, and meanwhile mentally cursing him (in another indented passage). Stream-of-consciousness sorts of things.

Q; You did this while simultaneously writing other books?

A: Yeah, that’s the best way, because I never have to get stuck on something. When I didn’t know what to do next on the Nez Perce book, I worked on something else and came back to it feeling refreshed. My mind had been busy rearranging stuff for it while I slept. I’m lucky because I don’t have other things I have to do for money. I do some journalism and some lectures and I sell some visual art, but I would do that anyway.

Q: In a twist, the central character of “Dying Grass” isn’t Chief Joseph, but his nemesis, Gen. Howard, who chased the Nez Perce for months.

A: Yeah, it’s told from the perspective of the soldiers. I originally thought that Gen. Howard would be a bumbling villain. Bumbling, yes. The pursuit of Joseph went on and on, and Howard kept getting sidetracked and outmaneuvered and attacked. He looked ludicrous as the various battles went on.

Then I read his autobiography and other writings by and about him, and the more I read, the more I liked him. He was quite a haunting figure, a good person doing bad things. He was utterly gullible, but he meant well.

He was also an extremely devout Christian who could not connect to the so-called non-treaty Nez Perce, because they continued to believe the Earth was their mother and other non-Christian things. He thought they were satanic and got very impatient with them.

Q: Wasn’t he a military strategist?

A: Howard himself never fought in any of the major battles with the Nez Perce. The first big one was in White Bird Canyon in Idaho, where the U.S. Army got its ass kicked. Howard had sent his soldiers to round up the Nez Perce; he thought it was no big deal. They were slaughtered and didn’t kill a single Indian. More than 30 soldiers died, which was huge for the time.

Q: What about the Battle of Bear Paw in Montana, the last engagement?

A: Howard wasn’t there for that one, either. It looked as if Joseph was going to get into Canada, so Howard had to call on his old subordinate, Col. Miles. Miles took all the credit for the surrender himself. Howard was crushed.

Q: “Dying Grass” is getting starred reviews.

A: It’s a relief when I get good reviews, because then I think the publisher will buy another book. When I get bad reviews, I put them in a box and ship them off to Ohio.

Q: How’s it going with your current project, one about fossil fuel and nuclear energy, and their relationships to climate change?

A: (My research has taken me to) Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Japan, Mexico and Bangladesh, and may go to Saudi Arabia. I don’t want it to be a monster (in length). The climate is changing at such a frightening rate that if I take five years to write it, it will be too late. I’d like to finish it by the end of 2016.

Q: What else is happening?

A: I’m working on a novel relating to the extraordinary torture and rendition in the George W. Bush years. I want to focus on the effects they had on ordinary citizens. (Also) a book about lesbian and transgender sex workers. That one gives me an excuse to go to bars and write it off.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe