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



© 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
, 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

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
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.”

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
, and In the Box Called
, 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



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