Top 100 Badass Writers in History
#81: William T Vollmann
Born in LA in 1959, Vollman experienced tragedy at a very young age. His younger sister drowned while under his supervision, an experience that he considered himself responsible for. The weight of this loss influenced a great deal of his later work.
After graduating from the University of California, Vollman bounced between jobs and eventually saved up enough money to fund a trip to Afghanistan. He traveled extensively with mujahideen, actively comparing his own idealistic political beliefs with those of the embroiled Middle East. The writing that he completed during this time provided the basis for his first non-fiction book, “An Afghanistan Picture Show.”
Back in the United States, Vollman supported himself as a computer programmer while submitting short written pieces to various popular magazines. In time, Harper’s, Playboy, Conjunctions, Spin Magazine, Esquire, The New Yorker, Gear, Granta, and The New York Times Book Review all published his work. Yet he never felt comfortable referring to him as a professional journalist. The travel writing and reporting that Vollman engaged in always contained an intensely personal theme that sometimes made it difficult for publications to make him relevant for audiences.
Often labeled a “postmodernist” author, Vollmann refused to distinguish between fiction, journalism, autobiography, and fantasy. Instead, he preferred to travel among many different genres in his work. This led to unique combinations of writing that effectively fused such studies as historiography, confessional poetry, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology. An emphasis on personal experience and emotional empathy led him to actively research any subject that he wished to examine. On one occasion, while researching for a novel about the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic, Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole. There he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire.
Vollman’s fictional work often dealt with transitioning life in North America, filled with the victims of war and poverty. His famous 2005 novel,Europe Central, followed the lives of a wide range of characters such Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as they were caught up in the fighting between Germany and the Soviet Union. This work won him the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction. In 2008, he continued on to be awarded a five-year fellowship from the Strauss Living Award, that gave him $50,000 a year, tax free.
Vollman continues to write today, living in Sacrament, California with his family. Often categorized as a lonely and reclusive man, it is rare for him to engage in the current literary culture.