verbal
STIM: In The Atlas, as in many of your books, the lines between fiction, journalism and autobiography are blurred. In what sense is The Atlas a work of fiction?
Vollmann: My aim is always to write beautiful sentences and to create something that is a work of literature. The artistic value of the sentences, the paragraphs and the stories is far more important to me than any literal value they have. It's important to me that everything be literally true when I write a work of non-fiction but that's not the case with these stories. [In The Atlas] some of the stories are completely true, some are partly true and some are completely made up. It doesn't really matter.
Truth, then, is only important to you in your journalism?
I'm not so anxious to write my autobiography. People will often assume that because something happened to one of my protagonists it must have happened to me. That's just not true. Sometimes it has happened to me but it doesn't really matter, you know?
You might know me better than you think and you might not know me at all.
However, you, William T. Vollmann, are often present in your stories. Sometimes you even use your first name...
In some stories I do, yeah but how do you know it's me all the time? How well do you know me? (pauses)

You might know me better than you think and you might not know me at all.

Do you like that your readers feel as if they know you, that they feel as though they've somehow entered your mind?
I don't think too much about my relationship with the reader. What's mainly interesting to me is my relationship with the page. I think I would write the same kinds of things if no one bought my books, if nobody read my books.
Blood

Some of the things that people write and say about me sensationalize me and my life. I have no objection to that sort of thing. It's a free country; anyone can say what he or she wants. Besides, every time they talk about me and my life it helps sell my books. If people want to say 'William T. Vollman is a great adventurer', 'William T. Vollman is self-destructive' or whatever, that's OK with me.

I don't think too much about my relationship with the reader. What's mainly interesting to me is my relationship with the page.
That said, does it interest you that people try to psychoanalyze you from your work? After all, that they try to figure out what's going on inside your head has something to do with the act of reading—there is a sense of intimacy when you read a book.
That's very true and that part of it is nice. It's nice that people feel close to me and to the books, that they've somehow been able to put themselves into the books and that has meant something to them. Often, people think that they know me and how I feel from reading my books but they don't. If you had written stories about women who were sexually active and strangers came up and asked you about your sex life, how would you feel about it?
I would think that people try to figure out how it is that you know so much about about the marginalized groups of people you often write about (e.g. prostitutes, skinheads) Also, that curiosity is likely augmented because your tone is never judgmental.
Sure. [But] there is an intellectual component and there's and emotional component, but how would you feel?
But putting your work out in the public is the big step, right?
That's right. I don't mind it really. But sometimes I think, well, people are going to think what they want and I'll just let them. I'd rather do that than tell them what I do or don't.

It is true, I don't make any bones about it, I've had sex with prostitutes in my life. I'm not ashamed of it. If they ask me, do I do those things now, with whom, when and where, I figure that's not anybody's business

It is true, I don't make any bones about it, I've had sex with prostitutes in my life.
Why do you think people want to know?
Because they're interested in me. Maybe not interested in me as a person, because how could they know me—they've never met me. But they're interested in the me that they think they know from my books. There are several characters in the books that could be me and a lot of them are sort of based on me. Some of them are me and some of them aren't.

The story I read last night about the guy in the camouflage jacket who forcibly donated his blood to the Thai prostitute is not me. I don't do things like that. But as it happened, without really thinking about it, I was wearing my camouflage raincoat. If people want to think what they want to think, that's OK. I didn't really know I was going to read that story until I got up there.

All He Had Was Heart
But you do base your stories on the real stories of other people, stories that you've collected. Is there anything different between that curiosity and the curiosity that other people have about you?
Well, people are welcome to write stories about me, true or false at anytime. (long pause)

As I said I'm not at all hostile about the curiousity. I think it's fine although I'm sort of surprised that people have it; when I read stuff by other people I'm more interested in the book than in the person. The book can stand or fall on its own merits. Either my stuff is good or it isn't.

What do you find so compelling about other people's stories? Are there any stories you aren't interested in?
I'm interested in human beings. It's my job as a writer to be interested, to try to find the hearts of other people and let my readers see and understand them. I think a good writer could meet any person in the whole wide world, get to know him or her and write something moving about that person. If you can't do that then you're limited.
I think a good writer could meet any person in the whole wide world, get to know him or her and write something moving about that person.
Is there something more compelling about real stories than made up ones?
No, if I felt that way then The Atlas would not be a work of fiction. And I wouldn't write books like Whores for Gloria, which have a lot of real stories in them but which are novels.
In Whores For Gloria I had this sense that there were stories that were real and stories that weren't. It was interesting to me, then, that the central character was trying to construct this woman though other women's stories.
I think there are a lot of people like that out there. They don't necessarily construct people that they love but people are always sort of burrowing though their memories and bringing up what they conceive to be treasures out of those tunnels and leaving other stuff behind—shaping things—and that's what writers do too.
In the title story of The Atlas there is a sense that memory is at times just too much to bear, that throughout the story [memories] are connected and then expunged. How do you feel about that interpretation? Do you feel like memories are a problem?
For me, not so much. As a writer, it's pretty easy for me to percieve things, feel them, sort of digest them, use them somehow and move onto something else. I don't feel that burdened.

The protagonist of the story The Atlas, however, has had a lot of other problems, some that I have and some that I don't. He definitely feels that life has gone on too long and a lot of these memories can't be processed. There are too many things in the world, so many things that this richness is indigestible, confusing and ultimately, very threatening. He wants to forget. He wants to stop seeing all these things and he can't. That's the way I often feel when I see a television. I try never to watch television for that reason.

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