Conducting a telephone interview with William T Vollmann, the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir and a seven-volume history of violence seems appropriate, given that the telephone plays such an important part in his new novel. In Europe Central, which recently won the National Book Award in America, he describes the telephone as an octopus, a malignantly complex brain that turns Europe into a blank zone of black icons. It's an evil force, to be treated with suspicion, like the car and television, two other technologies Vollmann mistrusts. But the author is warm, open and unsuspicious. Born in LA 47 years ago, currently resident in Sacramento, Vollmann has up to now been known mainly as a cult novelist, revered more than read. I asked him if the success of this new book has changed his career. "No," he sighed, "I'm still a marginal figure living from book to book but, as long as I'm producing labour as a good Marxist prole, I guess I'm satisfied."
Europe Central focuses on the warring authoritarian regimes of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century, focusing on an imaginary love triangle between three real people, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the documentary film-maker Roman Karmen, and their shared lover Elena Konstantinovskaya. "What drew me to the subject was the strangeness and the horror of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, which I've been studying since the 1970s and even before that. We had a film loop of the camps in school as a child and that material has stayed with me ever since."
Vollmann told me the historical liberties he'd taken in constructing his love triangle had led to some criticism from American critics. "I like the idea that the anguish in the book isn't all inflicted by war, it's partly by natural human life too. The two men are connected to Elena as a way of opening up the characters. It's something you find in Norse sagas and Japanese literature, a female character revealed through her effect on men." Many of the female characters in Vollmann's most important novels are prostitutes. I asked him why that was. "I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for prostitutes. Maybe next time I come to your country I will visit the prostitutes there." I asked him how he avoided suspicion when dealing with prostitutes and pimps. "The best way to deal with a prostitute is to be honest. They're used to people seeking out peculiar gratification. If you want stories from them, that's fine, as long as you're prepared to pay. Pimps I avoid, because all they do is cost me money. My book Whores for Gloria  incorporates real stories told by real prostitutes and I didn't feel I had the right or the competence to change those stories. But by the time of The Royal Family [his 2000 novel about prostitutes in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco], I had the ability to invent prostitutes, putting together different stories." He's currently working on a number of new projects. One is a non- fiction book about his experiences hopping freight trains across America. "It's really fun to think about the connections with the Beats, rereading Jack Kerouac, but also Jack London and Mark Twain, travelling fast through the country, that solitary, wild American experience."
Another forthcoming book is about Imperial Valley. "I've been working on it for ten years," he told me. …