Award winner probes human motivation


Author William T. Vollmann poses in his studio in Sacramento, Calif. Vollmann is the author of "Europe Central," for which he won the National Book Award for fiction in 2005.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 2:02 a.m.

Facts

FYI: "Europe Central"

  • By William T. Vollmann; Paperback; 811 pages; Viking Penguin; $18

  • Overview: A fictionalized account of some of the personalities behind the biggest stories of wartime Europe.

  • In his expansive, nearly windowless industrial studio crammed with books, art supplies, prints and photographs, author William T. Vollmann spends a lot of time thinking, much of it about human nature.
    He wonders: If a person grows up being indoctrinated, say, in Communism, then graduates to a position of authority in a time of revolution and war, would they have the necessary perspective to make rational, moral decisions?
    That question and the human dynamics behind the answer are at the heart of his latest novel, "Europe Central." The 800-page fictionalized account of some of the personalities behind the biggest stories of wartime Europe won the National Book Award for fiction in November, beating out E.L. Doctorow's "The March," among others.
    Vollmann paints a human picture of the historically one-dimensional characters involved in some of the most critical events of the 20th century, illustrating that regardless of time and place, most of us are more similar than we are different - from Vollmann's perspective, anyway.
    "We're all human beings and we all have our dreams," he says. "We're all people who think we're doing the right thing. I'm sure that Hitler thought that.
    "What if you happened to be born male and German and in the Third Reich and ended up in school being brainwashed? Can you say that's really your fault? It was just their bad luck to be part of that."
    Vollmann's international brothers-in-arms philosophy is also the link between his latest book and his notoriously detailed previous works dating back two decades, including 2003's "Rising Up and Rising Down," an encyclopedic seven-volume study of the history of violence that won critical acclaim but was daunting in its length and complexity.
    Now, the newfound attention from the book award is attracting new readers to Vollmann, who has long had a small but devoted following. Viking Press ordered another 35,000 paperbacks for the holidays, on top of the 8,500 it had already printed, said associate publisher Paul Slovak, Vollmann's editor.
    The award is "a validation of everything he's tried to do as a writer and the risks he's taken," Slovak said. "He's a very ambitious writer with a unique and kind of bold vision of what he wants to do, which is very attractive to me, an extravagant prose stylist and fabulous writer."
    Vollmann's thick glasses, cropped brown hair and nondescript clothes reinforce his bookish image, and he seems somewhat uncomfortable in his tall frame. He is attentive to guests but squirms often in his chair, giving the impression that he would rather be left alone to work.
    Forty-six and a married father of a 7-year-old girl, he is an intensely deep thinker. He considers his renovated studio in a former Mexican restaurant on the edge of Sacramento's downtown a refuge.
    The secluded research he does there offers a counterbalance to his daredevil investigative style, which has taken him into some of the most dangerous parts of the world: smoking crack and having sex with street hookers for his stories about Southeast Asia, research he did before he was married; hiding out during the 44-month siege of Sarajevo; nearly freezing to death in remote Arctic wilderness for his novel, "The Ice-Shirt"; and traversing Afghanistan with the mujahideen for his nonfiction book, "Afghanistan Picture Show."
    The adventurous pursuit of research has come "at very real and frequent risk to his life, in part because I think he has or had a quite genuine death wish and in part because he has this very literal kind of belief in documentary research and being on the scene," said Madison Smartt Bell, a novelist and short story writer who has profiled him.
    "His manner is peculiarly flat and in certain ways he seems like the nerd who spent all his time in front of a computer playing video games. On the other hand he's like a swashbuckling adventure hero. The weird thing is he's really both of those things," said Smartt Bell.
    Holed up in his Sacramento studio, Vollmann loses hours upon hours exploring new art forms, from watercolors to wood carvings of inland California topography. The walls are adorned with block prints and photographs from his exploits. There is no telephone, no TV set and no refrigerator.
    That kind of isolation allowed him to delve into the minds of his "Europe Central" characters. As well as devouring as many books as he could find about their lives, he studied photographs, which he said often reveal unintended details about a person. Then he contemplates, "What would I do if I were this person with this kind of baggage and in this kind of situation?"
    The book also takes a closer look at those sometimes on the fringes of revolution, such as Fanya Kaplan, who was executed after the attempted assassination of Vladmir Lenin in 1918, or Lenin's wife, Nadya Krupskaya. As the revolution grew more cruel, Krupskaya made some poor decisions, he concludes, yet he still feels compassion for her.
    "I feel sorry for her. ... I am disappointed in her actions and her legacy. She probably survived because she became blind" to the revolution's cruelty, he says.
    Vollmann is fascinated by the obligation of moral decision-making, a skill he says Americans will need to develop as international political conflicts increasingly bring violence to the United States.
    "It seems like a critical thing to think about. We Americans are so ill-equipped to think about it," he says. "It's the glory and the duty of being human to actually make a moral choice."
    He ponders people like Kurt Gerstein, the German SS officer described in his book who repeatedly risked his life to try to alert the Allies to the Holocaust, even destroying some shipments of Zyklon B gas intended for shipment to exterminate thousands of Jews. Gerstein's efforts were repeatedly ignored, and in the end, "he was condemned as a petty Nazi," Vollmann said.
    "He's always been a hero to me. Who could do more?"
    Beyond the war zone, Vollmann's eye for details extends to an examination of the passion, adultery and intrigue behind the works of Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who later fell from the grace of Stalinist leaders. It wasn't until after his death that his contempt for the regime was even revealed, but Vollmann explores what he might have been thinking as Soviet leaders commissioned and critiqued his work.
    Vollmann said he was genuinely surprised to win the National Book Award, despite years of toil as an author and journalist and the enormous risks he's taken in the name of research.
    "I'm sort of a writer's writer. Most people are pretty bored by what I write about."
    Part of that reputation may be attributable to his notoriously lengthy writing. Vollmann refuses to compromise by cutting his works, to the consternation of editors who usually tell him to write shorter. Then, after he threatens to pull the work, they relent, and he offers to take less money - for "Europe Central," he cut his commission in half.
    "Then I promise to never ever write a long book again and then we repeat the process again the next time," he says.
    "The stakes are so low. Half of nothing is still nothing."

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