We Can Learn Things When We’re Out There: A Conversation with William T. Vollmann

Hannah Jakobsen in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

HANNAH JAKOBSEN: You’ve had a lot of unusual experiences — taken up arms with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, been a war correspondent, and hopped freight trains, to name a few. How have you chosen to do the things you’ve done, and how have they informed your writing?

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnailWILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: I think there are two reasons to look for experiences. One is to go out and have some experience that you’re curious about and keep an open mind and then decide what you’re going to do with it, and that was what Thoreau always recommended. He said it’s so important that we never let our knowledge get in the way of what’s really much more helpful, which is our ignorance. As long as we remember that we’re ignorant, we can learn things when we’re out there in the world. When I’ve ridden the freight trains, I’ve tried to keep that in mind. I don’t know where I’m going, what I’m going to see, who I’m going to meet, and so I just try to be open, like a child. And then I have some chance of actually learning what reality is.

The other way to go is when I have some situation in my mind that I’m going to write about, and I want to make it as vivid as I can, and so I want to go out and gather information, or local color, or a whole experience for the thing that I’m writing. So for instance, are you familiar with my “Seven Dreams” series?

More here.