When you call William Vollmann’s studio, a former Mexican restaurant in Sacramento, the message machine has a recording of a spoon banging three times against a pot.
Vollmann, the winner of a National Book Award and a famously prolific writer with more than 20 books, including novels, essays, short stories and war correspondence, spends a good part of his day at the studio, and the message is meant to discourage callers who offer deals on carpet steam cleaning or cellphone plans. Especially since he doesn’t have a cellphone.
Along with writing, Vollmann paints watercolors and oils at his studio. And for the last several years, he’s been putting on makeup, a wig and high heels and going out in the Sacramento night as his alter ego, Dolores.
Vollmann has documented Dolores in photographs and for the first time, there’s an exhibition of his visual art in a San Francisco gallery, It’s My Job Being a Girl. Vollmann thinks Dolores has helped him understand women.
“Now I get it when women tell me they are afraid to go out at night,” he said. “When I put on breasts and high heels and go wobbling out at night and men yell at me and throw rocks, I think, ‘Oh, this is not so safe,’ so that’s a very good experience in vulnerability.”
He says wearing women’s clothes and makeup also brings up questions of how we present ourselves and who we are really.
“It’s fun to put on a wig and look in the mirror and say, ‘This person is not me and she’s seems sort of familiar but not exactly,’ and what does that say about identify?” Vollmann said. “Maybe I’d feel the same way if I could see my own decomposing corpse. It’s so odd the face I take for granted can be so easily altered.”
In his visual art as well as his writing, Vollmann constantly searches for understanding. Art is a way of pleasing oneself, he says, and trying to make the most moving things you can, but it’s also a way to really look at people we often turn away from.
“Art can be, and documentary stuff should be a way of helping people improve their empathy, their understanding for others, especially people who are marginalized, and people who maybe seem like failures or even threatening,” he said. “So that’s part of my job, I guess.”
However, he told the The New York Times in 2013 before he published The Book of Dolores, detailing his cross-dressing, that “probably when the book comes out, it’ll be the first she’s heard of it. I always try to keep my wife and child [a teenage daughter] out of what I do. I don’t want to cause them any embarrassment.”
Vollmann’s images of himself clearly impressed Steven Wolf, who put on Vollmann’s exhibition in his eponymous San Francisco gallery.
“In his images as well as his writing, the same compassion for the abject is evident,” Wolf said. “The abject is something we try and move off stage or hide. He tries to bring it back into view, so we have to look at it and embrace it, and in some way, give back its humanity.”
In Vollmann’s work, he has constantly turned away from the comfortable and the familiar—fighting with the Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan against the Soviet army, spending time in war zones in places like Bosnia and Iraq, and going to the magnetic North Pole to research his book, The Rifles, where he got frostbite and accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. Vollmann says he’s trying to see and learn as much as he can.
“If I were to just live in my head all the time, I would learn probably more and more about me,” he said. “But any one person is so limited, so why not learn about other people, especially other people who are not like me—different and, by definition, not comfortable?”
There are plenty of places in the United States that feel strange or foreign, Vollmann adds. He has a particular horror of gated communities and can’t understand people wanting to live in a place where everyone is like them and you pay a company to keep others out. This, for him, is the definition of dreary.
Vollmann learned photography in first or second grade in New Hampshire (where he lived for a while between Southern California and Indiana) when a college student volunteered to show kids how to use a darkroom. There were some years when he didn’t do it at all, he says, but after coming back from the siege of Sarajevo without pictures, he decided it would enhance his reporting, not distract from it.
For his Dolores photographs, Vollmann uses a method called gum bichromate, which is labor intensive and toxic. Those are the down sides. But he’s after permanence.
“One of the nice things about written words if they’re printed on good paper is they will last for a while,” he says. “A crappy digital photo is constantly degrading.”
In Harper’s March issue, Vollmann has a piece about the fallout from the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant, where he spent a lot of time, observing and talking with people affected by the disaster. Wolf seems a parallel between Vollmann going into a radiation zone and working with toxic chemicals to get the luminous images in his photography.
“There’s a willingness and a desire to expose himself to figurative and literal toxicity to get the story,” Wolf said.
Clearly Vollmann is willing to go to extremes. And he genuinely doesn’t seem to care what others think. His books are famously long—his treatise on violence, Rising Up, Rising Down, is well over 3,000 pages—and he resists editing.
Some painters say they need to learn when to stop. But Vollmann thinks he stops exactly when he should. He cheerfully says if people told him his visual art wasn’t very good, he would keep right on doing it.
“The only person who has to be pleased is me,” he said. “Other people don’t have to like it. It would be sad on my deathbed to think, ‘Oh, I did it somebody else’s way.’”