He is also a National Book Award-winning novelist of uncommon empathy and ambition, most notably in a projected seven-book cycle on Native American dealings with Europeans that will continue in 2015 with a historical novel, The Dying Grass, about Chief Joseph of Oregon's Nez Perce tribe.
But Vollmann was also a Unabomber suspect. In an essay in the September 2013 issue of Harper's, Vollmann wrote about requesting his FBI file and discovering, amid heavily blacked-out pages, that an informant had tagged him as a possible terrorist.
Vollmann will be at the Mission Theater on Wednesday night, Feb. 5, to talk about his experiences with the FBI. WW talked with Vollmann over the phone about yo-yos and the FBI's skills as literary critics.
WW: What are the chances the FBI is listening right now?
William T. Vollmann: The chance that the NSA is bugging us is 95 percent. I doubt the FBI has the manpower. But we can be assured that our tax dollars are being wasted somehow.
Any idea who accused you of being the Unabomber?
I'll never know for sure. If I ever met him, I would forgive him. He thought he was doing a good thing, and I just don't want to be a professional victim. I do get tired of it, that a lot of my international mail never gets to me, that books from my publisher will arrive with the spine slit open. But what am I going to do about it? I can seethe with fury or spend my time doing something else.
Which of your books troubled the FBI the most?
Oh, it was Fathers and Crows. It was a long novel about Jesuits and the Iroquois. It caught [the FBI's] interest because the Unabomber was publishing letters under the moniker F.C. This novel was set in Canada in the 1600s, before the U.S. existed. The fact that the FBI would think this was subversive and supportive of terrorism—that was kind of a shock.
In the Harper's essay, you called the agents spying on you "Unamericans."
In an ideal America, that whole process would be the most un-American thing at all. We pride ourselves in allowing each person to live in his own way. But we have never lived up to that from the very beginning. It's important not to let those Unamericans slide, which is what most of us tend to do.
You've read your FBI file. How do you rate them as literary critics?
I actually enjoyed some of the things they said. I got a certain amount of feeling about some of these people, as if they were literary characters. Of course, they were trying to do the same for me. But the operative in New Haven [Conn.] I sort of have a soft spot for. He might have enjoyed studying me in a way. It seemed like there was a wide range of skill and literacy. I was quite surprised by the people who interrogated me at the FBI building in New York. They seemed quite literate, although we weren't on the same planet. When I got my file and read what they had written, it was hardly even grammatical. We'd like to think if we're going to be spied on, they're probably these cunning, intelligent people who know everything about us. Instead there are a lot of yo-yos and minimum-wage slaves, and probably a lot of it gets outsourced. It's got to be that way in the FBI, as everywhere else.
When you got detained in customs much later, one of the agents described your FBI file as being like a novel.
I would love to read the bulk of it, which, of course, I'll never be able to. I'm sure it would be fascinating as well as sad. Sometimes it hurts a little bit. Other people who've gotten their files have said that. They say, "Oh, I never thought it would be this guy who'd turn me in." That wasn't my experience, but some of the things that people would say or think about me made me a little sad.
I think that's why the Freedom of Information Act is so great and should be strengthened. That's really our only defense against authority figures writing garbage about us. The garbage just kind of builds and builds. I have a parking lot where I sometimes let homeless people stay. Somebody will sometimes leave a little garbage, and if I don't pick it up, pretty soon other people will considerately add garbage to that pile. The FBI file is sometimes a lot like that. I was a Unabomber suspect. And even if the Unabomber is proved to be someone else, there's probably something suspicious about me. They might as well make me an anthrax suspect too. Who knows what I'm a suspect for now?
Is there anyone whose life could withstand that kind of scrutiny?
I bet there is. I bet some rather boring, simple-minded, 9-to-5 person who has a limited range of interests—who doesn't like to travel, and who does everything with credit cards and cellphones so they can see what this person does all the time. And everything they do is so dull that the FBI is yawning. There must be people like that.
Is that the goal of society? To have people so dull they bore the FBI?
Maybe that's the goal of the powers that be.
Did you find insight into your own life in your file, that you didn't have to begin with?
No, it would've been fun. I sort of hoped for that. But I can't say they really knew me very well. Their psychologizing was a little amusing, but also creepy and repellent.
So you don't want them to spy on you, and when they do, you're disappointed they didn't do a better job.
I guess I wasn't too disappointed. Maybe they think they know me well enough. At one point, they really wanted to get my Social Security number. They couldn't find me in the system because they couldn't spell my name right. That's what gives me hope. Not that Big Brother is going to become nice, but that Big Brother is incompetent.
Your recent book of photography, The Book of Dolores—which contains photographs of yourself as a woman—is also about public versus private identity.
In that Harper's article, I wrote that what I had to hide from the FBI is that I had nothing to hide. That is significant. People ask why I care if they're bugging my phone. I'm not ashamed of who I am or what I've done. I'm not ashamed I've put on a dress a few times and become Dolores. But it's my business. If I want to make it public, that's fine. If they want to spy on me and make it part of my file, I think that's vile.
The book is an interesting document.
It's a kind of experiment. It's a way of seeing in part who I am, in part who I might be, in part who I can never be. That's what I do in my writing all the time. When I write about Chief Joseph, I have to put myself in [U.S. General Oliver O.] Howard's shoes. I have to put myself in Joseph's shoes, which is harder. Putting myself in high heels was surprisingly difficult. I enjoy hanging out with women, but I'll never know what it's like to be one.
So what's next after the Chief Joseph novel, The Dying Grass?
I'd like to write a nonfiction book having to do with the idea of home.
GO: William T. Vollmann will appear in conversation with Oregon Humanities director Adam Davis at the Mission Theater as part of that organization's Think & Drink series, 1624 NW Glisan St., on Wednesday, Feb. 5. 6:30 pm. $10 suggested donation. Minors admitted with legal guardian.