Distinctive for his boundless ambition and extraordinary output—over twenty books to date, including the seven-volume, 3,352-page, Rising Up and Rising Down series—William T. Vollmann fully inhabits two often polarized literary worlds. “One of the most unnerving aspects [of Vollmann’s work]…is his combination of journalistic immediacy with profound moral inquiry,” says The Chicago Tribune. That duality has earned him comparisons to Thomas Pynchon.
In Vollmann’s case, “journalistic immediacy” may be a euphemism for suicide missions. Named by The New Yorker in 1999 as “one of the twenty best writers in America under 40,” Vollmann has achieved cult-status with legions of readers for embracing taboo subject matter and (or in) highly dangerous situations.
Running with the Afghan guerrilla muhajadin against Soviet invaders, smoking crack with street prostitutes, nearly freezing to death while alone for two weeks in the North Pole, losing two friends while escaping gunfire in a Bosnian war zone—Vollmann has done it all “with a disregard for personal danger that would shame Hunter S. Thompson, or Jack London, or Errol Flynn,” wrote Madison Smartt Bell in The New York Times Magazine. Though he denies any actual death wish, there is little Vollmann won’t try in the pursuit of authenticity.
Vollmann is the author of several novels, including The Royal Family and Imperial. His critically acclaimed Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction. This “novel in stories” takes place mostly in Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. Using real-life figures in fictional stories, Vollmann examines fanaticism as well as acts of resistance to Nazi and Communist totalitarianism.
It would be enough—as it is for many writers—to give us a clear-eyed inside view of these harrowing, at times tawdry events; to capitalize on the shock value; to engage us in voyeurism. But Vollmann’s close and relentless study is driven by a sweeping philosophical and historical agenda. He tries to locate a “simple and practical moral calculus” for violence in the voluminous, 23-years-in-the-making Rising Up and Rising Down, while in his seven-volume “symbolic history” of North America, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, he examines the repeated collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers. The Dying Grass is the latest installation in that series. In the words of The Chicago Tribune, “The Seven Dreams sequence promises to return us to the history of the North American continent in a form we’ve never seen before. It is likely to become one of the masterpieces of the century.” Other volumes in the series include The Ice Shirt (Volume 1), Fathers and Crows (Volume 2), Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (Volume 3), and The Rifles (Volume 6).
Vollmann’s literary awards include the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction for the short story collection The Atlas, and the 1988 Whiting Award for his cyberpunk debut You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon. His work has been translated into over 10 languages, and Vollmann also won the 1989 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Award for an excerpt from Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Rising Up and Rising Down and Imperial. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, Esquire, Spin, Gear, Granta, Grand Street, and Outside.
His most recent nonfiction work is the two-volume Carbon Ideologies, for which he traveled to the radio-contaminated zones of Fukushima, Japan; the oil regions of Oklahoma, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates; a contested coal district in Bangladesh; and many coal towns in Appalachia. The two volumes, No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative, address various ideologies of climate change. The Christian Science Monitor termed Carbon Ideologies “a thing of nearly monstrous ambition…mind-bogglingly detailed reporting” in which “the brightness and intelligence of Vollmann’s own prose, absorbingly readable as always, acts as a kind of ideological counterweight to the gloom of his tidings.”
In 2020, Vollmann will return to fiction with The Lucky Star, a parable about the limitations of desire and life at the margins of society. Returning to the seamy underbelly of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the novel will center around a woman with magical powers and her coterie of worshipers. The Lucky Star examines loneliness, celebrity, abuse and the heroism of marginalized people who in the face of humiliation and outright violence seek to love in their own way and stand up for who they are.
Born in Santa Monica, California in 1959, Vollmann attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University (summa cum laude), and did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Sacramento, California.