Nonfiction: Jordan A. Rothacker
The True Story of William T. Vollmann’s Research Assistant
Trust me, I know I’m lucky. Once upon a time, I was a college kid in the Nineties reading William T. Vollmann, my mind blown with almost every sentence, and now he’s someone I call a dear friend. My child knows him as Uncle Bill. I also call him boss, as I had the honor of serving as research assistant on his new two-volume (six hundred plus pages a piece) opus, Carbon Ideologies, a very Vollmanny mix of reportage, data-analysis, and compassionate philosophy on climate change and our energy needs. The work I do will continue into his next books, although those are novels, but the friendship isn’t going anywhere, it’s been a long road. But before I explain my trajectory from fan to friend to research assistant, let’s not obscure what is most important here: the work. Carbon Ideologies (No Immediate Danger, out April 10; No Good Alternative, out June 5) is an important work of nonfiction for the world, a book I believe Vollmann sees as an act of service, just like his books Poor People (reportage and analysis of global poverty) and Rising Up and Rising Down (a massive critique on violence including a moral calculus should you choose to employ violence). Carbon Ideologies addresses the reader one hundred years from now and basically apologizes. It says and shows how much we know now about climate change and how little we are doing to stop it or even slow it down. It illustrates through personal testimonies and profiles from people living near coal mines, fracking sites, oil fields, and nuclear facilities just how complicated and interconnected lives and economies are with these unsafe or unsustainable energy sources. It was an honor to do the little that I did to assist William T. Vollmann out there in the world doing the real work.
I first discovered the work of William T. Vollmann through my friend Daniel Chameides, who was himself gifted Vollmann’s novel, The Butterfly Stories, which he gushed to me about on a visit back home. In high school Daniel introduced me to William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Kathy Acker, and several other writers who became integral to my development. Since I was a big shot up in college in New York now, I quickly forgot his recommendation. However, the clarion call came again, in a Barnes and Noble in Poughkeepsie, New York in the summer of 1999. Idling through a bargain bin, killing time before seeing “The Phantom Menace,” there was The Atlas for one dollar. The name of the author was familiar. The book looked cool and daunting. I had just savored P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell and I wanted to be a journalist since that profession would give the perfect fodder and practice for fiction writing. I took The Atlas home and started it that night. The next day I drove back and bought the rest of the copies to give to friends.
That was it. I was in. Done. Hook, line, and sinker.
The Atlas is still my favorite book by Vollmann, and one of my favorite books ever. Its structure is explained in a darkly hilarious Compiler’s Note at the front. It is comprised of fifty-three short stories all very short—vignettes inspired by Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories—except for the middle story that is very long. The stories are organized as a thematic palindrome with the first and the last of the same theme, second and second to last of the same theme, all the way down correspondingly until the center story titled “The Atlas,” which includes all of the themes. Every story is titled and noted with city, country, and longitude and latitude numbers of where each story took place. Vollmann calls it a “piecemeal atlas of the world I think in.” I slowly digested the stories nightly over months and still return to my favorites.
I felt like I was in the presence of greatness. This was everything I wanted from a writer. The mind, the heart, and sense of adventure, the commitment to craft. I learned new words, I learned new sentence structures, I learned about the world, and I learned how to think and feel in new ways. And he was a weirdo. Even better. This was our Tolstoy and Dostoevsky rolled up into one.
I started buying all his books I could find, many of them used first editions. I collected Gear magazine for his travel articles and eventually a slim column at the back called “Vollmann’s World” (it didn’t last long, just like Gear). I ordered all the back issues of Conjunctions and Grand Street with him in them, which also exposed me to lots of other great writing and great literary magazines. From his interviews I learned a lot, and I made him my mentor, amassing and reading all the books he recommended which was a much wider range of reading than I ever got in college. It was the perfect way to continue my studies after college. Sure, it’s always what I’ve done, reading the letters and journals of my favorite dead writers to know how to become like them, what books went into making them “them” and them as a writer, but with Vollmann here was a writer alive now and I could get all that stuff fresh.
The summer internship before my senior year of college was at Vegetarian Times Magazine as an editorial assistant. I continued the job into the school year and was hired on after graduation. At some point we did a small news piece about Navaho hunting rights and from the research I thought I might have some stuff that would interest Vollmann since he was working on a novel called The Cloud Shirt about the Hopi Navaho land dispute in the 1980s for his Seven Dreams series (Grand Street had published an excerpt). My main functions as an editorial assistant were fact-checking and research. Accordingly, I was able to track down Vollmann’s post office box address and sent him the Navaho research I thought might help. I wrote him a letter on Vegetarian Times stationery. One day, two weeks later, after returning to the office from a day off there was a voicemail message from Vollmann thanking me for what I sent. He said, “Any writer would be lucky to have a fan like me.”
He’s that kind of guy.
I still have a micro-cassette recording of the voicemail message.
In 2000, I met Vollmann at a couple different events in support of his novel, The Royal Family, but I was too shy to ask more than for him to sign my books.
In 2001, at an event in support of his novel, Argall, at the Free Library in Philadelphia, I asked him how The Cloud Shirt was going. He asked if I had read the excerpt in Grand Street and I told him I had and I had sent some research. He said, “Oh, you must be Jordan.”
He remembered my name?!?!
He’s that kind of guy.
A couple of years later, as I buckled down on my first novel, I made a necessary move to Athens, Georgia. This was so I could do a MA in Religion as textual support for the book, which also gave me proximity to Atlanta, where the novel was set so I could get in to do field work, interviews, and other exploration of place research. I was working in the way that I always assumed one should as a writer and Vollmann was a living model for this. Moreover, with a university and academic department at my disposal, I had the legitimacy and funding to reach out to Vollmann. In 2004, McSweeney’s published the unabridged version of Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven volume, 3,400 page study on violence. My major professor, a specialist in Religion and Literature, set up a graduate seminar on “Religion and Violence” and we used the abridged version of RURD as one of our texts (I had a copy of the unabridged students were able to share).
I raised money from a few different departments and received a grant from the Dean and invited Vollmann to come speak to the class and the university at large separately. His visit was an amazing experience for everyone involved and after he left we were officially friends. He even read the first three chapters of my novel and gave me notes.
After the National Book Award win, Vollmann’s public engagement fee skyrocketed but he was my friend now and I could get him a little cheaper than others could. I brought him back to the University of Georgia to speak with funds from the Departments of Religion, Journalism, and English and the Georgia Review. On the way into town we stopped at Home Depot and he bought a large plywood board. The woman I had been dating for only a few weeks modeled for a drawing he did on the board. At the State Botanical Gardens we talked politics and literature while he added flora to the drawing on the board. After he left, I shipped him the piece of plywood in the formative stages of becoming art. When I married that very same woman a year and a half later, Vollmann sent a painting he made of her after carving the board into a block print.
After several year of friendship, visits to see him in Sacramento (once to get a longhand recommendation letter for an MFA program application) and New York when he’s there for a book event, and several letters and computer discs mailed back and forth (since Vollmann doesn’t use the internet at all, let alone email), he popped the big question, “Do you want to do some research for me?”
To which of course I said, yes, and this was when we developed our unique process you’re here to know more about.
I’ll reiterate: William T. Vollmann does not use the internet. At all. Ever. He also doesn’t use a mobile phone or checking account. His computer is air-locked, which means it’s never been online. It is pure, clean, unsullied. His reasons—and I’m only speaking for him since he has said these things before in several interviews—is that he doesn’t want to be surveilled or advertised to. He also doesn’t like the ephemeral nature of the internet. Those are all extremely valid reasons. However, sadly, there are many websites that are the only places to find truly up to date scientific data.
So that was where I came in.
Vollmann hired me to google.
“So, he hired you to use the internet for him since he doesn’t use the internet,” my friend Hope clarified for herself. “It sounds like he actually does use the internet,” she clarified for me.
It’s true. Through me he was using the internet without sullying his hands or computer. My hands and computer were already sullied. And some times I was just googling for him. Some times I was sending emails on his behalf. Other times I spent hours over the course of days trying to find the exact detail he needed to know. Whatever he asked for I found, no matter how long it took (if it was findable). If he needed to know the allowable cesium levels for potatoes in immediate post-Chernobyl Ukraine and those same numbers for now in Ukraine I emailed with someone in the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food and even enlisted a friend and a translation program to get those numbers. It was a lot of fun really.
Once I had the data for each item on the list he sent me or called me—from a landline—to give, I put it on a DVD, dropped it in priority mail envelope, and sent it to him. He then opened it in his air-locked computer and read the downloaded webpages, screen grabs, and text files I compiled. (He will never read this essay unless I put it on a disc or print and mail it to him).
Some things he needed came from WikiLeaks. Some things were from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA); actually many, many pieces of data came from there. One day my wife and I were driving back from a beach trip and Vollmann called right before we got in the car. He had three items for me to fact check before a deadline with Harper’s on an article that was an excerpt from Carbon Ideologies. I wrote the assignment down and my wife googled from her phone while I drove. One of the items was the correct spelling of a town in Kyrgyzstan someone had mentioned to him.
Often I felt like the computer-bound tech support in a spy movie or television show and Vollmann was the Jack Bauer-type out there in the world doing the real work while I handled the details. And although I have enjoyed a good bit of travel in the service of research or writing assignments myself, I don’t mind being that support for him; it’s an honor.
Finally holding the advance copies of both volumes of Carbon Ideologies in my hands, seeing the very nice thank you he wrote to me in the Acknowledgements, and now getting to read the book was all better than the money I received (though that was nice too). Even though I knew what went into making the book—I’d had that peak behind the curtain—the finished product was still a mystery to me. Regardless of the planning and outline I was privy to, it all still comes down to the writing, what that man’s mind does with the data I collected and the stories he found out there in the world. The book is his, I’m just the research assistant, and it’s a wonder to behold.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, novelist, and essayist living in Athens, Georgia, where he earned a Master’s in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia.His journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch, while his fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays can be found in such illustrious venues as Red River Review, Dark Matter, Dead Flowers, Stone Highway Review, May Day, As It Ought to Be, The Exquisite Corpse, The Believer, Bomb Magazine, and Guernica. For book length work check out Rothacker’s The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), and novella (or “micro-epic” as he calls it) and his first full-length novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds Publishing, 2016). He edited Maawaam’s My Shadow Book (Spaceboy Books, 2017), loves sandwiches (a category in which he classifies pizza and tacos), and debating taxonomy almost as much as he loves his wife, his son, his dogs, and his cat, Whiskey. A collection of weird tales, Gristle, is forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press.