William T. Vollmann has been called a "unique and essential voice in American letters." He's the author of novels, story collections, a memoir and massive works of nonfiction.
His latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is his first work of fiction in nine years. And he says at the book's beginning that it will be his final work — as a living human, at least. "Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been written by a ghost," he writes.
Ghosts abound in the book itself, which is a series of sad, strange and sometimes playful journeys into the afterlife, and meetings with the undead.
Some of the stories are set in Bosnia in the 1990s, during the Bosnian War, which was a story Vollmann covered as a journalist.
Vollmann spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about how his reporting notebooks helped inspire his return to fiction and why he's been thinking about mortality.
On how old notes from his reporting trips helped inspire new fiction
Do you ever find that after you have filed a whole bunch of stories about something, there are little scraps of things left over? Things that you took a certain amount of risk and effort to gather, and they kind of haunt you, but they're incomplete.
... I go through all my old notebooks, and I put an X on the page when everything has been entered into the computer. And sometimes that takes 15 years. But eventually the notebooks are full of Xs and they're no good to me any more. But in the process of doing that, sometimes I'll think, "Well, this is kind of interesting."
Sometimes the scraps are the best things. If they haunt you, or do something to you over a period of years, there must be something there that the unconscious mind is grappling with.
On what inspired him to write about sickness, death and the afterlife
It's always a pleasant exercise to imagine my own death, because then I'm so happy when I can stop. You know, I have a couple of friends who have died recently, and I tend to think about it from time to time. And you know, my father said when he was dying that he wasn't afraid to die, and I don't think I'm so afraid. But it's worth thinking about.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
William T. Vollmann has been called a unique and essential voice in American letters. He's the author of novels, story collections, a memoir and these massive works of nonfiction that tackle big themes. His latest book, "Last Stories And Other Stories," is his first work of fiction in 9 years. The book is a series of sad, strange and sometimes playful journeys into the underworld and meetings with the undead. The book opens with stories set in Bosnia during the war in 1990s, a story Vollmann covered as a journalist. The main character of the story is an American journalist. So I asked Vollmann if these stories are, in some ways, his reckoning with death - namely of the two colleagues he saw get killed by a landmine in Bosnia all those years ago.
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: I think most of us who live into our 50s have had a few experiences with death. You know, we see people we know start to die. We realize it's getting closer and closer for us. Yeah, the experience I had in Bosnia when my colleagues were killed was very disturbing and upsetting but it also made me extremely grateful to still be alive. I don't know if it's been like that for you with your experiences in the Middle East?
VOLLMANN: But sometimes I would think, you know, especially in war that - why was I here? You know, this seems so stupid. I could get killed for nothing. And then after it was over I think, well, I learned something really interesting. So it was OK.
MCEVERS: The book is in some ways a collection of ghost stories - or let's say explorations into the underworld in places like Bosnia, Bohemia, Mexico, Norway Japan, the U.S. I mean, you've written a lot of big, serious books of nonfiction from these places - works about, you know, violence, poverty. After all of that work, what is it that made you turn back to fiction after all these years?
VOLLMANN: Recently I was closing out some of my old notebooks and I found a bunch of notes written in Sarajevo during the siege and I remembered how scary it had been for me. And I wondered if there was a short story left and it turned out that there was.
MCEVERS: I'm curious about this idea of closing out your notebooks. What does that mean?
VOLLMANN: Well, Kelly do you ever find that after you have filed a whole bunch of stories about something there are little scraps of things left over - things that you took a certain amount of risk and effort to gather and they kind of haunt you but they're incomplete?
MCEVERS: Yes. (Laughing). Yes I do. Of course. So that's what you mean closing them out? But I guess there's something final about closing it out as if you can do it once and it's over. Aren't those scraps, like, always there kind of?
VOLLMANN: Well, I go through all of my old notebooks and I put an X on every page when everything has been entered into the computer and sometimes that takes 15 years. But eventually the notebooks are full of X's and they're no good to me anymore.
VOLLMANN: But in the process of doing that sometimes I'll think, well, this is kind of interesting - I don't know, sometimes the scraps are the best things if they haunt you or do something to you over a period of years there must be something there that the unconscious mind is grappling with.
MCEVERS: One of the final stories is almost a novel in itself. It's called "When We Were 17." It follows a man who is dying and his quest to reunite with his first love and she had died of cancer. So he uses a magic potion to conjure her up from the grave and he goes and sees her every night and they have these meandering conversations about their relationship back in the day, the letters that they used to write to each other. Reading it I have to wonder - it's so vivid that main characters experience of being sick - were you sick at the time? Had you been sick? Or was this something you conjured up?
VOLLMANN: Well, it's always, you know, a pleasant exercise to imagine my own death because then I'm so happy when I can stop.
VOLLMANN: You know, I have a couple of friends who have and died recently and, you know, I tend to think about it from time to time. And, you know, my father said when he was dying that he wasn't afraid to die - and I don't think I'm so afraid. But it's just worth thinking about. And the last few years sometimes when I'm working, you know, with various difficult chemicals - I might get a stomach ache, so I thought, well, if I got stomach cancer it would probably be like that only worse. So why don't I take some notes right now on my stomach ache and maybe I can use it for something - which I did.
MCEVERS: Working with difficult chemicals - you mean for your artwork?
VOLLMANN: That's right, yeah.
MCEVERS: But you yourself have not been sick. I mean, you weren't writing about - this was not a personal experience. This was you imagining something in the future.
VOLLMANN: That's all it was. And I'm hoping to die from a heart attack or a stroke and not go through this. I guess in the arms of a sex partner would be best of all.
MCEVERS: (Laughing). OK. You really just set the standard for all of us, I feel like.
MCEVERS: In the introduction you playfully say, this will be your last book as, you know, basically as a human being - that any other book will be written by a ghost. As I watch the world turn past my window I wonder how I should have lived. I mean, so you've taken the playful but then that next statement is pretty serious. I mean, it seems like the book is also about legacy and what we leave behind. But I just can't help but thinking you're not that old, you know? I mean, you've got a lot left in you. Why are you thinking about all this now?
VOLLMANN: Well, it's probably better to write these last stories and other stories now and then try to move on to some happier ones.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) Just get these out the way.
VOLLMANN: That's right. And maybe I was already dead before that anyway. Of course the way it translated, in this book, there's no real difference between being alive and being dead.
MCEVERS: So we don't even know.
VOLLMANN: It doesn't.
MCEVERS: You might be dead now as I'm talking to you.
VOLLMANN: That would certainly be possible. That would be sort of a Philip K. Dick realization, maybe.
MCEVERS: That is William T. Vollmann. His new book is called "Last Stories And Other Stories." It's out now. Mr. Vollmann, thank you so much.
VOLLMANN: Oh thank you for having me. I sure appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.