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A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers

Listening to writers read and discuss their work at Newtonville Books, the bookstore my wife and I own outside Boston, I began to wonder which living, contemporary writers held the most influence over their work. This survey is not meant to be comprehensive, but is the result of my posing the question to as many writers as I could ask.

Jaime Clarke

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

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 © Kent Lacin

KIM ADDONIZIO: I know William T. Vollmann’s work only through a fewstartling stories and a very short novel. That’s my Vollmann, though for othersit may be his long, ambitious (is there any other adjective for fatnovels?) books that come to mind—The Atlas,The Ice-Shirt, The Royal Family. I did buy TheRoyal Family, a 774-page doorstop of a book, and it sits on my shelf still.I confess to never having read it past the first thirty or so pages. I would have read more, if it had been, say, 374 pages, but I knew I was doomed to defeat, so I stopped. And anyway, with writers who trigger my own work, I tend to put them aside to get something down myself. Vollmann was a trigger sort of writer for me. The short novel, Whores for Gloria, is a vivid, grimy little slice of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, a neighborhood of whores, pimps, refugees, drinkers and drug dealers and addicts, transvestites, and the vulnerable elderly. It’s a world Vollmann knew well, and like other worlds—that of San Francisco skinheads, say, included in The Rainbow Stories—he was embedded there. He worked like a journalist, which he also was, and is. When I was writing My Dreams Out in the Street, a novel set in the Tenderloin, he read a rough draft of the opening pages as a favor, being the friend of a friend, and suggested that I spend the night in Golden Gate Park (my main character was a homeless woman). He also suggested I stay in a res hotel, and offered to stay with me. This might sound calculating, but I’m sure it was genuine. He was just that kind of writer. Now I wish I’d taken him up on it. Instead, I spent time with his work, absorbing the style of his sentences, and my novel was the better for it.

TIM HORVATH: In one section of his sprawling, sui generis, palindromic slab, The Atlas, “Outside and Inside,” William T. Vollmann writes about one of its less extreme, more mundane locales—Berkeley, California, in 1992. He sets the scene thus: 

“Outside the vast squares of yellow bookstore-light, the panhandlers, longhaired and greasy, held out their palms, asking for their dinners, and two started fighting, while inside people turned the pages of picture-books whose flowers smelled like meadows of fresh ink.” 

The description is gorgeous—“bookstore light” designating something so particular, a quality of illumination distinct from butcher light or shoe repair light or greenhouse light, the warmth of the presence of comrades in reading, page-turners. And then he scrambles the senses in a synesthetic burst toward the end, a frolic in a pastoral milieu. Seconds later, though the glass will be shattered, not by a drunk driver or a 2 x 4 or even by a fist, but by a woman’s head, and soon thereafter a book will be deployed as a pillow to stanch her blood. Vollmann is, as they say, unflinching—he does not pull back, as we might, reflexively, from the horror of the scene, and somehow the fact that the book gets the last word in this scene, speaking and feeling, seems less blatantly surreal than the brute fact of the conversion of a glass partition to a flurry of shards.

It is this collision—sometimes gentle, sometimes violent, between the world outside the bookstore and the “meadows of fresh ink,“ the loveliness and lilt of language—that keeps me returning to Vollmann’s work. I am drawn to the range of his reportage, a range carved out by the sheer number of miles he’s covered, the continents he’s traversed,  but also by his stylistic breadth, which goes from Biblical and ornate to plain and unburnished,. And it’s also evident in the people—I shudder to call them "characters"—to whom he seems drawn again and again: the prostitutes and khat-chewers, the children naive but already learning about the power and mystery of sexuality and procreation, the adults grown fatalistic as they move among snipers’ scope. Again and again, he finds ways to braid these characters and language and the world, the strands twining and yielding fresh combinations and keeping the reader guessing where he’ll transport us next.

Indeed, one reason I clutch the Atlas so close to the chest is that it stirs in me a sense of the sprawl of possibility. Vollmann himself is understated, self-effacing, axial with eyes and ears while the world around him spins and shifts. In this book, you feel you are ringside as a Mexican boxer gets clocked, you are next to the “green garbed soldiers with Uzis ready” at the Western Wall, you are at the base of a jungle mountain where “skinny-legged barefoot kids sucked from plastic bags of sugared ice,” you are doing mushrooms and hearing “the mushroom laugh,” “the crowd of raven masks.” Throughout, the bravery and bravura of his writing vouches for the value of simply going, of bearing witness to the widest available array of people and places. He reins in commentary to a bare minimum—elsewhere, in books far more behemoth than this one, he will analyze the history of violence or the sources of poverty or the complications of life on the U.S.-Mexico border—but in The Atlas, analysis is a braid that only the reader may hold. The writer serves up the experiences not quite raw—certainly, language and the poetry of his prose have cooked them a bit, but they are served up rare, the blood still runny, and we are unable to lose sight of the fact that they were recently alive, breathing, panting, jonesing, surviving, yearning. In lieu of analysis, Vollmann offers juxtaposition, pastiche, and arrangement—laid side by side, they allow us a palpable sense of the elemental human tectonics that connect Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territories to Mogadishu, Cambodia to Grand Central Terminal. Leaping across the gaps in the page is the palpable sense of longing for connection, a sense that given the right encounter, the right flash flood of person and circumstance, one will find transcendence, that in the “chapel of animals” one might “bec[o]me the painted lion.”

VICTOR LAVALLE: The contemporary writer whose work meant the most to me as I was really becoming the writer I am now, and the one I return to with some regularity, is William T. Vollmann. Now as soon as I type that name I find myself feeling the need to qualify the statement. The Vollmann I’m talking about, specifically, is the earlier William T. Vollmann. The author of a few specific books. An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs, The Atlas, and Whores for Gloria. I read these four books either at the tail end of undergrad (Whores for Gloria), grad school (An Afghanistan… and 13 Stories…) or in the year or two right after school (The Atlas). I could’ve read more of his books, he’s got plenty, but I kept returning to these four and finding more and more there for me to enjoy, to learn from.

Over the years I’ve done my best to keep up with, and backtrack over, the output of this one-man Death Star of publication. But I must say that nothing else he’s written has ever struck me quite like these four books. Maybe it’s just that I was at the right age. My aperture was entirely open. But for a time there it wouldn’t be too much to say that I treated these four books like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I make this comparison not simply for the blasphemy, but also because they really did seem, in total, to be telling the story of a wild and almost holy man.

The book about Afghanistan is a work of non-fiction while the others are listed as fiction, but with Vollmann—in this period—that line is blurry at best. These books often read like the adventures of an astoundingly well-read, insane and naive artist who is simply trying to understand the world, worlds, that lie far outside the common lives shared by many Americans. These stories are told in often hallucinatory prose, meant to suggest the feeling of a moment more than to simply illustrate the events. I remember reading one story, "Incarnations of the Murderer,” (from The Atlas) again and again, becoming genuinely queasy as I turned each page. The subject matter is rough—as so much of his subject matter is—but the prose itself is also lovely and lyrical and mesmerizing. Check this out: 

“Down the fog-sodden wooden steps he came that night to the street walled with houses, every doorway a yellow lantern-slide suspended between floating windows, connected to earth by the tenuous courtesy of stairs." 

That last bit, "the tenuous courtesy of stairs,” zaps me every time. Now admittedly, too much of this is as bad as not enough. And Vollmann’s later books regularly suffer from the former. But in these four books, for me, Vollmann approaches something mythic while still telling stories about the complicated and every day. This is rare to find and I still return to these four books—large portions of each—to try and understand how he’s done it. While I love many other writers now, and read my contemporaries with pleasure, these four books remain a touchstone for me. To write beautifully about so many ugly things, without becoming precious? That’s miraculous.

KENT WASCOM: The work of William T. Vollmann stands in glorious defiance of that ubiquitously bandied platitude and chief caution of our increasingly timid and herdlike culture: “Everything in moderation.” Now, this foolishness is not limited to those whose knuckles must be taped in order to avoid scraping them on the sidewalk; the literary world is rife with sighs and nods of bovine assent to the god Moderation. How often we read the stoic appreciations of a novel’s “unadorned” qualities, paeans to kitchen-table austerity and an author’s paucity of language and rationing of subject (god help us if there is any action, or even a particularly interesting context within which the mundane events play out) as though she were a Blitz-era matron bravely doling out pats of margarine as the V-2s shriek over her bombed-out London block. Not so our Mr. Vollmann, who has been assailed by the dour legions of the constrained for the very reasons his work has been so influential upon my own. He is immoderate in his subjects—WWII Germany and Russia; a thousand years of North American history; the mujahidin in Afghanistan; Noh theatre and gender mutabulity; prostitution; violence; the Imperial Valley; nuclear power; a war between insects and the forces of electricity; the depths his own fears and desires. He is immoderate in his prose—sentences serpentine or terse but always of staggering uniqueness and beauty. (For Christ’s sake, a novel written entirely in Elizabethan English!) He is immoderate in his habits—consorting with prostitutes, skinheads, warlords, train-hoppers, the indigent; owning firearms, riding the rails, travelling the world; writing more, and more expansively, than anyone else. And he is, perhaps most importantly, immoderate in his empathy, his interest in the welfare and circumstances of his fellow human beings. I came to Vollmann at a time when I was in the clutches of those espousing cautious prose and subject, the smug temptations of the austere and limited abounding. Vollmann’s work swiftly consigned the moderates to the ditch; here was someone who took risks, whose interests were vastly far-flung, who worked until his hands hurt, who truly cared for his characters and subjects, who wore no air of authorial coolness or removal. Of course, to imitate Vollmann would be foolish and useless. The man’s heterogeneity renders him inimitable. Besides, an apprentice writer must soon abandon the emulatory instinct, and instead seek examples, those whose work assuages the fear that you are too obsessive, too consumed in the world of the page, and too disparate in your subjects and interests. Vollmann’s excesses, his grand immoderation, gave me that bolstering, the knowledge that in the face of a cautious and finger-wagging world of moderation-hawks, there are those who revel in excess—expanding, engaging, engorging sentences with image and verve. For those who prefer to wander the white and spotless halls of ascetic prose, head on your pious way. We remain the immoderate, the excessive, the Baroque, the word-whores and the lovers of weighty tomes. And by the way, you aren’t the only ones who like to pare down sentences. I offer you an immoderate’s modification of your maxim:

“Everything! in moderation

Kim Addonizio is the author of the short story collections My Dreams Out in the Street, Little Beauties, and In the Box Called Pleasure, as well as numerous poetry collections

Tim Horvath is the author of the short story collections Understories, and Circulation 

Victor LaValle is the author of The Devil in Silver, Big Machine, The Ecstatic, and Slapboxing with Jesus

Kent Wascom is the author of the novels The Blood of Heaven and Secessia


Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz 

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