William T. Vollmann is as renowned for the size of his books as the magnitude of his subjects: poverty, the morality of violence, the collision of Indigenous and European cultures. His book Rising Up and Rising Down spans seven-volumes and 3,300-pages. Imperial runs 1,306 pages. But his beautiful sentences, challenging structures, and documentary photography deserve equal attention, and his ten published novels and four story collections often require as much research as his nonfiction.
His newest project is a two-volume series called the “Climate Ideologies” that addresses how the wonders and waste of energy consumption are irrevocably heating our planet. The first volume, No Immediate Danger, covers the effects of manufacturing, farming and nuclear energy, and it took him into the restricted zone one mile from Japan’s ruined Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Volume two, No Good Alternative, covers coal, oil, and natural gas.
Prolific, original and determined, on paper Vollmann cuts an intimidating figure. He famously wrote his first novel You Bright and Risen Angels at the San Francisco office where he worked as a computer programmer, often sleeping there a week at a time and living off of vending machine candy bars. In person, his warmth and humor make for easy conversation. Years ago, when I gave up on a big book project that was tormenting me, I did something crazy and wrote him a letter through his agent, telling him about my idea and struggles. Four months later, a handwritten letter arrived in my mailbox, encouraging me with wisdom that distilled his own approach to writing: read as much as you can about the subject, take the trip as many times as necessary to get it right, then the story will be yours. His words were just what I needed. I booked a flight soon after and wrote a whole book based on that reporting trip. Writers need mentors, and hungry readers need writers like Vollmann.
Aaron Gilbreath: You start No Immediate Danger by stating that it’s too late to stop climate change, so now we can only understand what led our species here so future generations know the details. Did your 2014 book Last Stories, about death, help prepare you for this grave work?
William Vollmann: Yeah. I had been preparing for the worst for a long time, but in Carbon Ideologies I do believe that it’s probably too late, but I’m hoping I’m wrong. Any book is really about its own present, even a science fiction book or a book like this, so it’s always possible that maybe some sort of a plant-based carbon sequestration system could come to our rescue. I’m not counting on it.
AG: I like that it’s dedicated to your daughter since that does add a small sense of hope that maybe salvation is possible.
WV: It would be nice, and if it isn’t then I’m just hoping that her life won’t be too much worse than mine and that there might be a few more generations yet before it peters out. You never know.
AG: One interesting thing about Carbon Ideologies is that it functions as an apology to future generations for the earth that we destroyed. The fact that you’re even hopeful enough to envision future readers makes me want to uses this interview to talk about writing in the same way, as a time capsule message to other writers both alive and unborn.
WV: Why not?
AG: You are one of the most productive writers on earth. A lot of my fellow writers know how hard it is to research, report and write a single-story, so we always wonder how you sustain your pace, publishing so many books at this size nearly every year. People like me picture you sort of living at your computer from morning until night. They wonder if you sleep. What are your writing days like?
WV: Well, I try not to have a schedule. So, I’m pretty much writing every day at some point, but I do other things also. When I get bogged down, there is something that I don’t understand, I set that aside and do something else, whether it’s another writing project or doing a little maintenance at my studio or painting or going on some river adventure to see my outlaw friends in the Delta. I just try to mix it up. So I very rarely feel any boredom, unless of course, I’m on my stationary exercise bike. After about 10 or 11 hours of misery, I get off and realize it’s been about 30 seconds.
AG: That sounds like my gym experience. Is that bike in your studio where you can toggle between it and your computer?
WV: It’s at the home, yeah and maybe I should get one at the studio too, I don’t know. But it’s also so hateful that it might be better just to swell up and die of diabetes or something. We will see.
AG: Did somebody convince you to get a bike, or was that your own decision to start that?
WV: It was my own decision. I have had that bike for 20 years, and once in a great while I will force myself to use it.
AG: The older I get, the more I wonder how exercise fits into the daily routine of somebody with a sedentary profession that involves so much reading and writing. Do you take preventative measures? Are there measures you wish you had taken now that you’re 58?
WV: There was an old guy one time who said, “Bill, in your 50s you start having problems. In your 60s you realize that you have to do something about those problems, and in your 70s you realize that those solutions don’t work.” So, you might as well just have a sense of humor about it and know that it has to end badly one way or another so, why worry?
AG: Smoke a cigar and have a drink.
AG: It surprises me that you don’t have a schedule. Is part of your productivity related to successful multitasking and time management?
WV: I guess so, and also the fact that I don’t want to feel forced to do this or forced to do that. Sometimes I have to for a while, but mostly, if I really don’t want to be working on one particular thing at that particular time I don’t have to do it. That keeps me feeling fresh and gives me the sense of novelty, because once that’s gone you are thinking, Well, why on earth am I doing this? How can you write something interesting if it’s just drudgery?
When I’m researching a book, there is some necessary drudgery, so if I’m working on one of the Seven Dreams books, I try to get up to speed on the anthropology or archeology of those people whom I’m writing about. With Carbon Ideologies, there were a lot of tables I had to put together. At first, that was a rather dreary experience. Then I began getting quite interested. Whether or not the reader will ever be interested, I can’t say. But, once I had those tables, I felt that I was able to start saying things about what the tables implied. So that’s just how I do it.
AG: Making sure that it retains enough freshness to drive your interest?
WV: Yeah, I would say. How about you when you are writing, what do you do?
AG: Sort of the same thing. Since most of the time nobody is paying me ─ I write so many essays on spec ─ that I only write because it’s interesting and not drudgery. I operate almost entirely out of curiosity. I want to know or process my own experience or learn about the world, so I write because those subjects are fresh.
WV: That makes sense to me. If I try not to put limits on the curiosity, then I’m more likely to actually learn something. In Riding Toward Everywhere I talked a little bit about this one thing Thoreau said that I have always found inspirational. It runs something like, “We must not let our knowledge get in the way of what’s far more important, which is our ignorance.” So as long as I keep saying, “Alright, I’m ignorant. I’m ignorant about everything, and I want to learn more,” then I’m more likely to actually learn more, as opposed to saying, “Okay, now I know the answers about climate change.” People knew the answers about climate change a long time ago, and they were wrong.
AG: I saw that you mentioned that in the book that people had suspicions in, was it 1945 or the ’50s?
WV: By the ’70s people really started wondering. At Oak Ridge they were saying, “Well, things probably won’t be too bad until we get up to 400 parts per million of C02, but why worry, because that won’t happen until the 21st century.” So it’s an odd thing thinking about our obligation to the future. We never really had to do that. We probably should have done that, but we never actually considered the possibility that we might be making the future unlivable. Then suddenly here we are forced to decide, “Well, is that our responsibility? Do we want to do something about it?” I hope the answer is yes.
AG: In No Immediate Danger you distilled that sort of frivolity with the phrase “Keeping the lights on.” That seems to summarize the sense of convenience and thoughtlessness. Flicking the lights on and leaving them on, we don’t even think about energy’s effects or waste.
WV: There is something very beautiful in the idea that we have all this electric power at our disposal to make our lives better, and of course, in many ways, it has improved our lives, and will probably continue to do so. One of the real troubling things is that what we’re doing is not entirely frivolous. The fact that someone can do all the cooking and cleaning in the kitchen in less time than they used to. That’s really great. But what about all the so-called vampire power? All the lights on, computers and surge protectors just to keep telling you, “Yes, everything’s good, I’m still drawing current.” There are so many things that we don’t need, and one very dangerous aspect of our economic system is that there’s this notion that one has to keep creating demand. That means we will need more and more power, and no matter how efficiently we use it, if our absolute demand is increasing, most likely so will our greenhouse emissions. That is not very promising at all.
AG: Is that related to the sort of capitalist ideology of constant expansion? Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
WV: That’s right. It is a capitalist pattern, and it was also a socialist pattern. I talk at one point about the Russian’s idea that there have to be more consumer goods. They were doing it differently at a different scale, but what it really comes down to in my opinion is natural biology. A tree is going to try to grow taller and maybe crowd out the competition. A rabbit is gonna have lots of bunnies if it can, and we humans are going to want to have more and more. We want to reproduce and make our lives more comfortable and interesting, and in a sense that’s the natural thing that every organism does. Of course, the problem is that there are not unbounded limits. There are bounded limits, so unless organisms are checked by some means, organisms that obey their natural proclivities will get into trouble. I can’t even really blame capitalism as much as I would like to.
AG: In a sense, it’s a very judicious way of viewing our perilous climate situation. You do an impressive job in No Immediate Danger of not being judgmental of the culprits and instead simply look at why we do what we do, and assess what we have done. Are you are saying we are the victims of our own biology, even if we don’t recognize it or not?
WV: We’ve been very successful. I love being able to plug my laptop into the wall; I’m able to write more books. I love being able to get on a plane and fly to other countries. Probably the single best thing that you or I could do would be to give up air travel. I mean, there are lots of other things we could do. I’m still flying. I want to advance my career. I want to write a book. I want to see this or that, so I’m part of the problem. How can I blame capitalism for that?
AG: You implicate yourself right before the table of contents. You admit that you’ve consumed all these forms of energy and say, “Better an honest muddler than a carbon-powered hypocrite.”
WV: That is right.
AG: I grew up as an environmentalist, so I always felt very conflicted about procreation because of the amount of waste generated with plastic diapers and trash bags and all sorts of things. Once I met the right person, I wanted to have a kid. Then I met my daughter and just thought, To hell with it, this is the right thing to do.
WV: In a way that’s the so-called tragedy of the commons. Are you familiar with that paradigm?
WV: So, we all want to do what’s best for us, and we each take a tiny share of the net detriment to everyone that our choice has caused, so we’re still ahead by getting most of the net benefit.
AG: There’s obviously a moral imperative, but in our very individualistic society, is it possible for us to accept that moral imperative that comes with being a part of the commons in order to make any lasting changes?
WV: I am guessing that you and I as individuals can’t really do very much. We can reach out to other individuals and maybe, if I were lucky and many people read my book, and they all decided, for instance, not to fly anymore. That would make some difference, but my suspicion is that it wouldn’t make enough difference. What we really need are top-down regulatory changes. Why is it that in Japan it takes a lot less coke to make coal than it does in the US? Why shouldn’t we say, “Alright, if we’re going to make steel from coke then we have to at least use the Japanese technology?” And maybe somebody has to decide when we really need to use aluminum and cement and these other so-called big five materials that use 80% of all the energy for manufacturing. Of course, the more of this regulatory or bureaucratic burden you impose, the more we become something like East Germany. It will get less and less pleasant. But it may well be that we are approaching a state of emergency and won’t have any choice. It’s certainly true that the sooner we start figuring out how to reduce demand, the easier it’s gonna be.
AG: The regulatory experiment that Mayor Bloomberg did with the size of sodas in New York was an interesting way of changing people’s perception of what’s required to quench their thirst and what actually qualifies as a “large size.” It seems you’re right: the only way to make these large-scale, long-term societal changes will be top-down regulatory in that same generational way.
WV: I think that’s right, and I think that we are going to have people making cost-benefit analyses of various things. For instance, it takes almost a hundred times more energy to manufacture a pound of aluminum than a pound of cement, which is the lowest energy user of the big five materials. But aluminum, by being so strong, light and recyclable, makes a lot of sense in skyscrapers and bridges, and it may actually be more energy efficient to use that aluminum than to use the vastly heavier, greater quantity of steel that you would need to use. So who is going to figure that out? You want someone who is intelligent, practical and doesn’t have some kind of a bias, someone who is not a show for the aluminum industry or the steel industry. Where are we going to find people like that? I don’t know where to look. Those are the kinds of things that really make me very disheartened about the dilemma we’re in.
AG: It might be easier to create a colony on Mars than to find an unbiased politician who isn’t influenced by industry lobbyists.
WV: Yeah, a colony on Mars would probably be a fantastic boondoggle, and a lot of people could probably get rich supplying and exploiting it.
AG: If we are going to keep creating demand, why not do it on another planet?
WV: That’s right. First, we need to create some Martians that we can sell to.
AG: I did enjoy your comments in previous interviews about the potentially positive effects of swine flu.
WV: It’s all rather bleak. And that would certainly be an effective way to reduce demand, but I would rather we reduce demand in some voluntary and kinder way.
AG: A question for you about the origins of this book. A lot of us nonfiction writers fret about how to come up with ideas: have we run out of ideas? Can we generate more? I remember you saying you came up with the idea for the Seven Dreams Series while researching Rainbow Stories, asking yourself what the continent looked like before all these parking lots. How do you generate ideas, and how did you come up with Carbon Ideologies?
WV: Well, I guess it was my visit to Fukushima in 2011. First, I saw the devastation created by the tsunami. Then I went into the areas that were already abandoned as a result of the nuclear disaster. The tsunami left very palpable effects, but when I first went into the town of Kawauchi, for instance, it seemed as if people might almost still be there. It was very eerie. There were blinds pulled down, a couple of places maybe an umbrella would have fallen down at the front doorway, some potted plants starting to die. Over the next few years, as I kept returning to those parts of Fukushima that hadn’t been reclaimed, they were looking worse and worse and more creepy. But still, the local people kept saying, “Well, I don’t even know what radiation is. I mean, I don’t itch from it, I can’t really see it. It’s invisible.” And I started thinking about how great a metaphor that is for the effects of all these fuels. After a while, you can see indirectly the effects of the radiation contamination by looking at these hideous abandoned places, but you can’t see the contamination directly. Then when you go to nonnuclear fuels, you start seeing certain affects ─ the mountaintop removal and various ugly sites of oil and coal in Bangladesh ─ but you can’t see the emissions. So it’s a more slowly unfolding version of the tsunami or of the radiation contamination. You kind of have to work yourself into understanding it or to feeling it. That’s how I started thinking about Carbon Ideologies.
AG: So you started with invisibility as a metaphor, then in No Immediate Danger‘s Japan sections, you use your dosimeter and scintillation counter to bring this invisible drama to life, both to measure it and to prove that it exists at all. And people in the no-go zones still don’t believe you!
WV: I really wish that I had a lot more money to throw at this problem. I would have liked very much to have had a FLIR camera ─ forward-looking infrared ─ so that in my book I could have pictures of carbon dioxide coming out of smokestacks or people’s mouths, or of methane rising from manure heaps. But I wasn’t able to make those emissions visible in that way. Those cameras cost something like $60,000.
AG: Well, if you were online you would have been able to do some sort of Kickstarter campaign.
WV: That’s right. If I were online I’m sure I could do all kinds of great things.
AG: And be monitored. What about doing that retroactively; has it ever been done before?
WV: Well, maybe you can do it.
AG: I would love to. I’d have to get some money together. But the fact that you work in multiple mediums for different projects and have a photo book to accompany Imperial, you’re obviously the ideal person.
WV: Well, it would really be fun to be able to do it, and it would be nice if they had cameras to show the radioisotope blooms. Maybe they do. Anyway, all we can do is do our best with our limited senses. One of the things that I liked about the pancake frisker, which was the real-time analog to the decimeter, was as one of my friends put it, it’s like an extra sense. It was really fascinating to frisk my daughter’s cat. I was frisking everything for a while, and then I would be a little bit unnerved if something was four or five times more radioactive than something else. Eventually, I realized that that’s all so trivial. You fly to the East Coast or you go out to the granitic rock of the Sierras, and things are 10 times higher or whatever. Then you go to Fukushima and you might find things up to 700 times higher.
AG: What about your health: In one great scene in Japan’s radioactive city of Ōkuma, the protective shoe covers and painter’s suits “manufactured with pride in the United States of America” ripped. Have you been tested for the effects of radiation lately?
WV: I doubt that you could really tell. If I got some kind of cancer maybe there would be a way to track it back to the cesium, or maybe not. We probably all have micro-particles of various isotopes from atmospheric testing and concentration in seafood or whatever, so if I get cancer, maybe I can just console myself that it was as a result of drinking a lot of whisky or playing around in the dark room.
AG: You have made your peace.
WV: I have, yes.
AG: If the idea for this book started with your first visit to Fukushima, how do your other books evolve?
WV: It sort of depends on the book, Aaron. With one of the Seven Dreams books, I know what the story is, or at least what I think the story is. It turned out that what I thought I knew about Pocahontas and Captain John Smith wasn’t exactly true, but still I knew the basic historical events were fixed and my job was not to write a new story but to interpret those events. With something like Carbon Ideologies, the events and their effects are still unfolding and, to some extent, in dispute. My job there would be to take a lot of notes, visit the people and places available to me, read a lot of books and just let my ignorance guide me and hopefully save me from too much prejudice as I started building up judgments about these things.
AG: In your fiction, how do you inhabit other people’s lives in those historical eras?
WV: Well, for the Seven Dreams it’s possible to go to a very particular place. In The Ice Shirt I was able to go to the ruins of Erik the Red’s farm in Iceland and I could stand there and think, Okay, this is not too dissimilar to the view that Erik himself had. So I’m looking out at the water, at the clouds and the birds and grass and flowers and the stones and thinking, How does this make me feel? Is there any way brings me closer to Erik? For him, these things would all have been more quotidian and yet still there must be some kind of a common human response to wet grass and gray sky. That’s one of the ways you can just kind of work yourself back into seeing and trying to feel what those people would have. Then you try to perform some of the acts that you know the historical characters would have. For The Dying Grass, I had a chance to fire a Springfield single-shot rifle of the kind that the US cavalry would probably had fired. So I could say, Okay, this is what it feels to hold something of this weight. This is how you load it and how quickly could a person do this? Not nearly as quickly if one had an AR-15. How steady can you hold it? How difficult is it? What’s it like and here comes this topple white smoke from the black powder out the barrel, and then I have to clean it afterwards; the barrel is quite fouled with this stuff. So I’m doing all of these things relative to one particular action that if I describe accurately, I’m describing something intrinsically true about those US Calvary men. That’s another way of getting into what they might have felt and seen, and that is so much of who you are or who you become I think and what you do.
AG: So research and travel are the essential elements that unite both genres for you. The structures of all your books vary widely, so do you just adjust your approach and the structure of a book according to each project?
WV: That’s right. I think it would be a drag for me and the reader if I were just following some formula for my books. As I get older my options narrow, and I imagine that my books will become a little bit more of a piece, and that’s probably already happening. But the extent that I can resist that and make every book new, I think that’s a win-win for the reader and for me.
AG: So far, mission accomplished. One of the things that I also love about your nonfiction is its dry sense of humor. One of countless examples in No Immediate Danger was, “Let us now celebrate the miraculous smog of Calabar!” What else can humor do besides add levity to certain dark subjects?
WV: Sometimes you can make a frightening or bitter point more effectively through humor. You can actually make it sting a little bit more, and you can also try to sparkle up the page a little bit. If there are a lot of things about agriculture, fertilizers and so forth, it’s really incumbent on me to try to give the reader some little reward every now and then for reading that.
AG: You embrace the exclamation point, which I also like. Is that contentious punctuation also a way to get people’s attention?
WV: Yeah, and often in Carbon Ideologies the exclamation point adds to the ironic pseudo-ingenuous nature of some absurd claim about how wonderfully healthy radiation is or whatever.
AG: No Immediate Danger isn’t a joke, but in the way you point out the flaws of our thinking and denial about nuclear energy and climate change, this 600-page book all seems sort of punctuated by a giant exclamation point.
WV: That’s right. In a way it is, of course, a joke, right? It’s just the joke is on us and we’re not gonna like it, but maybe the beetles that replace us will somehow be able to laugh with their antenna.
AG: That sounds like your first novel brought to life. The fact that you wanted a FLIR camera to document the carbon dioxide and methane and expand the range of your climate change inquiry to a second medium makes me think how you like room to explore your subjects sufficiently. From what I gather, though, there’s been a long-standing attempt by your publishers to get you to cut your books, including page limits in your contracts and lowering royalties for longer books. Can you tell me about your legendary resistance to heavy editing?
WV: What if someone were to tell you, “We think your daughter was born a little bit too tall, so would you mind chopping off her legs?” You might not have the most compliant reaction to that, right?
WV: My books are my children. They’re just like my daughter. She’s turning out the way she’s turning out and that’s just how it is, so people can like her or not, but I love my daughter and I’m not going to chop off her legs. [laughs]
AG: So editing is forced surgery. You try to let the story be what it is, and the people who publish the book have their financial and other concerns? What dictates this chopping of the legs?
WV: Well, wouldn’t it be perfect for editors and publishers and maybe reviewers if all books had to be the same length? They all had to be, let’s say, exactly 124 pages, and the extra 24 pages all have to be ads. I mean, wouldn’t that just be lovely? One of the many reasons that I love the internet is, of course, because that’s how things are there. You can watch something and there’s going to be some wiggly, giggly little ad in the corner the whole time, and also, let’s track your eye movements. How wonderful it all is. As soon as there is any attempt to control creativity for noncreative purposes, we start going down that miserable road. But as I always say, Aaron, the world doesn’t owe me a living, and a publisher could legitimately say, “Well, Bill, we just don’t think you are going to pencil out, so we don’t want to publish your book.” That’s like saying, “Well, your daughter really is too tall, so we don’t want her to date our son.” That’s okay, but how awful it would be if they said, “Your daughter is too tall, so we want to chop off her legs,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” What kind of a father would I be? What kind of an author would I be to go along with that bologna?
AG: So protecting your vision of your book seems to be first and foremost?
WV: That’s right. My strength and my weakness is that I don’t really care about the financial implications. I don’t care too much about whether a book is going to make its advance back, which means I’m not a good team player. I have to be very thrilled and grateful that Viking once again saw things my way and let me publish Carbon Ideologies at the length that I thought it needed to be. It certainly can’t be too good for Viking’s bottom-line, but I think that, like me, they’re worried about climate change. They worked so hard, it was a real thrill to have such dedicated colleagues. I worked really hard too, and we all did our best without cutting off anybody’s legs.
AG: You struck a few of those chords in the “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of No Immediate Danger. You meant for the two volumes to appear as one volume. Your endnotes and citations got cut. I interpreted the “Note” as an apology to readers that the book they hold isn’t the book you intended. There and in the acknowledgements in the back of the book, you weren’t shaming Viking, but you were like letting the reader in on this push and pull between both parties. What was your intent including those?
WV: The main reason is that I’m very grateful. This is to some extent a math/science book, and I’m not a mathematician or a scientist, so I’m doing my best. Even so, it’s a risk for me and a risk for the publisher. So I’m really, really thrilled that they tried to help me and everyone by publishing this. That’s the main thing. As far as the push and pull part is concerned, I think that’s kind of interesting, and it’s probably a good thing that readers who care can learn that I didn’t want to cut the source notes. I wish they could have been in the hard copy. This is the first time that that’s happened, and it was a compromise that I was willing to make because Viking had already done so much for me and this book. Thank God I don’t have to understand their financial imperative, and I guess that’s all I would say.
AG: You do your job and they do theirs, and it seems you are able to meet in the middle.
WV: That’s right.
AG: I just love that there is a couple of places at the beginning of the book where you say, you know, it will be okay to skip the primer section and start over 200 pages in. I just pictured your publisher shaking their head, like, “Bill, please, try harder to entice the reader!”
WV: [Laughs] Unfortunately, it is to some extent a dreary book about a dreary subject. Of all my books, it’s probably not the book that people are going to put a pick up and re-read for fun. It can’t be. Just having to decide Let’s see, do we want to talk about lignite’s emissions per pound or its emissions per energy produced when it’s burned? ─ all this kind of stuff. It’s important and needs to be discussed, but it’s not particularly fun.
AG: But you clearly tried to have fun. You titled one section “The Parable of Adipic Acid” and had some fun there despite the dreariness of the subject.
WV: I do my best. [Laughs]
AG: As informative as it is, there are some funny lines in there like, “What a treat to watch adipic acid combining with the hexamethylene diamine so that we could see a pallid syrup forming, settling out into something resembling melted cheddar cheese!”
WV: Aw, how delicious.
AG: I guess it’s a good example that there are different types of books for different kinds of experiences, and your oeuvre contains so many different sorts, including the kind that we probably aren’t going to read on the beach.
WV: No, maybe not. Unless, of course, rising sea levels turn your backyard into a beach.
AG: That’s what so many residents of Phoenix, Arizona where I grew up were banking on with California earthquakes. They didn’t understand geology. Speaking of which, I was just reading about California governor Jerry Brown retiring, who said he doesn’t believe in legacies. I was wondering if you as a writer believe in legacies.
WV: Well, I want my daughter to live as long and as happily as she can, and I feel the same about my books. If people find some value in them after I’m gone so that their lives are extended, that’s a concept that makes me happy. But it’s hard for me to believe that I’m going to know it, and therefore what’s the point of a legacy in the way. You find that you give someone a very nice tomb and what happens? The tomb gets robbed. That’s life and that’s death.
AG: It seems interesting to think that since you don’t know if there will be a legacy, you shouldn’t burden yourself with trying to create one. Is that liberating?
WV: That’s right, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. I want to make sure that I do the best job I can and try to make things ─ to the extent that that’s possible ─ somewhat timeless. I try not to get too bogged down in what is current in 2018, for instance. I’m hoping that in the future someone could pick up Carbon Ideologies and say, “Alright, here and there, this part seems a little bit antiquated now, a little bit superseded, but still I understand what Bill’s trying to do, and how he’s trying to compare the different fuels, and this was how many perks per million of C02 there were in his lifetime.” What I would like is for the book to still be useful or of interest or still something in its dated way.
AG: When it’s a paper copy or in your achieves at the Ohio State University, readers will be able to see your intent and data unchanged, unlike on the evolving internet.
WV: Unlike the internet, exactly.
AG: Can I ask you about your daughter? I’m curious what it was like raising a child as a writer who travels for work as much as you do.
WV: Well, I love her very much and it’s been a thrill to be in her life.
AG: Your father was a very encouraging, cool father, a business professor who frequently told you, “Bill, if it’s not easy, lucrative, or fun, don’t do it.”
WV: Yeah, he was great. That’s a good business plan. I recommend that to everybody, especially to people like you and me Aaron who are self-employed. There is certainly no reason to do something for nothing unless it’s going to be fun.
AG: Amen. My dad, who is Mr. Practical, had good advice in that same vein. He said, “When you find what you like, do the hell out of it and make sure you enjoy it.”
WV: I agree with that.
AG: Do you see some of your intellectual appetites and hunger for knowledge and experience in your daughter?
WV: I think so, yes.
AG: As a new father myself, I just wonder how working writers balance everything, that and I want to help encourage curiosity in my own daughter.
WV: The good news is that as parents we will inevitably fail, and therefore all we can do is fail with grace and let our children see that we are not perfect and they are not going to be perfect either. If we can help each other through the hard times and forgive the rest then we are probably doing our best.
Read an excerpt from William Vollman’s “No Immediate Danger”