Novelist │ Short Story Writer │ Journalist
"William T. Vollmann is a monster, a monster of talent, ambition and accomplishment."
—Los Angeles Times
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—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” (Chicago Tribune
). That duality has earned him comparisons to Thomas Pynchon.
In Vollmann's case, “journalistic immediacy” is 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 twenty-something 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” (Madison Smartt Bell, The New York Times Magazine
). Though he denies any actual death wish, there is little Vollmann won’t try in the pursuit of authenticity.
His 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
. 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
. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Spin, Gear, Granta, Grand Street
and Outside Magazine
It would be enough—as it has 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, as in trying to find a “simple and practical moral calculus” for violence, in the voluminous, 23-years-in-the-making Rising Up and Rising Down
for instance. Or, writing a seven-volume “symbolic history” of North America in his Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes
(he’s written four of the seven so far).
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 I), Fathers and Crows
(Volume 2), The Rifles
(Volume 6) and Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith
Vollmann is the author of several novels including The Royal Family
and Butterfly Stories: A Novel
. The critically-acclaimed collection of related tales entitled 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.
His latest book is Last Stories and Other Stories
, a collection of "transporting and bizarrely beautiful" (Esquire
) ghost tales, many bearing the mark of Vollmann’s own travels to settings that include the Balkans, Scandinavia, Japan, Trieste, Bohemia, Buenos Aires, and Mexico. Garnering comparisons to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Last Stories and Other Stories
is an "elegant, elegiac meditation on death and the afterlife" (The Atlantic).
His most recent novel is The Dying Grass
, the latest installation in the "Seven Dreams" series, which examines the repeated collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers.
Born in Santa Monica, California in 1959, Vollmann attended Deep Springs College at Cornell University (summa cum laude
), and did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Sacramento, California.
Awards and Honors
- The Dying Grass (Viking, 2015)
- Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking, 2014)
- Kissing the Mask (Ecco Press, 2010)
- Imperial (Viking, 2009)
- Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco Press, 2008)
- Poor People (Ecco Press, 2007)
- Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (W.W. Norton, 2006)
- Europe Central (Viking, 2005)
- Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (abridged version, Ecco Press, 2004)
- Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (Viking, 2001)
- The Royal Family (Viking, 2000)
- The Atlas: People, Places, and Visions (Viking, 1996)
- The Rifles (Viking, 1994)
- Butterfly Stories: A Novel (Grove/Atlantic, 1993)
- Fathers and Crows (Viking, 1992)
- An Afghanistan Picture Show; or, How I Saved the World (Farrar, Straus, 1992)
- Whores for Gloria (Pantheon, 1991)
- The Ice Shirt (Viking, 1990)
- The Rainbow Stories (Atheneum, 1989)
- You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon (Atheneum, 1987)
2010 Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, Imperial
2007 Winner, Strauss Living Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters
2005 Winner, National Book Award, Europe Central
2005 Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, Europe Central
2003 Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, Rising Up and Rising Down
1989 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Award, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes
1988 Whiting Writers Award, You Bright and Risen Angels