Books: Vollmann interviews 'Poor People'

William T. Vollmann
Thursday, March 1, 2007; 1:00 PM

"Why are you poor?" William T. Vollmann asked this question in St. Petersburg and California, in a Bogata slum, under bridges in Tokyo and Miami, and of Chinese families whose homes were demolished to make way for a road.

Vollman was online Thursday, March 1 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, "Poor People," which is being released today.

The transcript follows.

Vollmann won a National Book Award in 2005 for his novel "Europe Central" and in 2004 published "Rising Up and Rising Down," a seven-volume examination of violence.


William T. Vollman: I'll do my best to answer any questions I can. I'm not sure I know any more than anyone else, but I've thought about it a bit, so that's all I can say.


Southern Maryland: I have asked myself why am I rich and so many others in the U.S. are rich in comparison to most of the world population. Basic needs met: food, clothing, shelter; stable government; education and literacy; available jobs and transportation to those jobs; health and health care; stable environment/weather. If people do not have their basic needs for survival met or have to expend all resources to meet basic survival needs, it makes for a dire situation.

William T. Vollman: I would say that that's fairly accurate. One of the most common aspects of poverty I see is lack of access to decent water, and we have fairly decent water everywhere in the U.S. A lot of poverty has to do with how it is perceived in the mind of the poor person as well. Marx talks about absolute vs. relative poverty, and I'm not a Marxist but it's a good distinction. Someone with enough to eat but who doesn't have a TV when everyone else does is going to feel a little impoverished, and we can't say it's wrong that the person feels that way.

I don't happen to drive, and I live in a city (Sacramento, Calif.) where most people use cars. If there's any sort of specialty item I want to buy -- a bed or something like that -- I have a great deal of trouble. I have to hire someone with a car to get to the store -- it's not something I can do walking around. A common measure of poverty is how much money you have in relation to other people -- that is useful as far as it goes, but that excludes the case of, say, a hunter in the rainforest who has no money but is not poor. And there can be a number of people with money but who can consider themselves unwanted or invisible or estranged from society. Those are some of the phenomena of poverty that I have noticed.

I remember a panhandler I saw in Portland a couple of years ago -- actually took her photo for the book. She has a sign saying "donate here and get me out of your neighborhood." She wasn't wearing rags, didn't look dirty -- but she knew she was unwanted, people didn't want to be panhandled, and all she could promise was that she could go away and stop bothering them. And that's sad. They know rich people don't want them around. When there's a labor surplus, the people who become unneeded become unwanted and because they're unwanted they're unneeded. So there's a lot of vicious circles in this.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think Michael Harrington's "The Other America" still relevant today?

William T. Vollman: I think that there always have been and always will be at least two Americas -- the poor America, the second America tends to be in the shadows. Sometimes it's an America of people in a ghetto of color, sometimes it's an economic ghetto, but definitely there is a parallel America which people in the dominant America prefer to ignore if they can.


Gurgaon, India: How can and how will the U.S. eradicate poverty? Poverty leads to all "isms" abhorred by the U.S., the biggest of which is terrorism!

William T. Vollman: In my opinion the U.S. can not and will not eradicate poverty -- no one can eradicate poverty. That being said, I do think that the U.S. could do more and if the U.S. wished to eradicate "isms", we should in addition to military aid where appropriate be funding hospitals, schools, etc. with the name of our country prominently displayed on those. I was in Yemen the year after Sept. 11 and people repeatedly showed me this European school and that European hospital, and their rage against those particular non-Muslim countries thereby was softened.

_______________________ You took pains in your book to be very nuanced in your approach to poverty -- making sure to examine it from a relative standpoint, avoiding lifestyle judgments, etc. Could you go into the whys and hows of this approach?

William T. Vollman: I guess I would say that the more judgmental I am the more ignorant I remain. It's very easy to disapprove of something or think that I know the answer to something and thereby close off part of my investigation. I think that's especially true with the subject of poverty because I am not a poor person -- if I were a poor person I never could have afforded to do this research. That being said it's incumbent on me to remember that this book cannot speak from the experience of its author, only from the experience of its subjects.

_______________________ How long have you been planning/working on this book? What was its conception? How many of the anecdotes were gathered from trips made specifically for that purpose and how many were from side excursions on trips made for other reasons?

William T. Vollman: I'd say the book has been in the making for about 10 years and most of the trips are as you would put it "side excursions". When I was writing my long book about violence, "Rising Up and Rising Down", I started asking people why they were poor, and I discovered to my surprise that unlike reasons for violence, reasons for poverty seemed to vary by region. Once I saw that I began asking poor people about their lives frequently. The early chapter about Thai cleaning ladies was conceived for this book. The chapter on Kazakhstan was conceived because I thought it would be interesting to see how workers under communism were adapting to working at a capitalist oil refinery. When I was denied access to the refinery and tried to figure out why, the issue of poverty became dominant in my investigation. So I guess that would be two examples of how chapters in the book were conceived.

_______________________ Did you have any goal in mind in writing the book? Can/should poverty be reduced, and if so, do you have suggestions to that end?

William T. Vollman: When I started the book I hoped to be helpful. That's always my aim when I write nonfiction, is to somehow be of service to people. I was disappointed but not at all surprised to realize that I had no master plan for solving poverty. I guess what I did also realize was that to the extent that poverty is an experience of the poor person as opposed to an external financial condition then the poor person might have some sort of control over his or her experience, and that if there's some sort of way people can take control over their experiences and make themselves happier, that's all to the good and that's something that no one else in the world can really take away from them. However, all I can do is communicate that and suggest it -- far be it from me as a rich people to tell poor people what to do. And I'm also well aware that most poor people in the world will not have the money or education to read my book.

Whenever we have an opportunity to engage with each other as human beings and to minimize the differences between us based on disparity in resources, then we should do it. Absolute poverty is very possibly intractable and only governments and NGOs can really address it, but relative poverty is something we can work on as individuals by engaging with poor people and trying to understand what in particular makes them sad and bitter -- possibly by listening and communicating, maybe we can make some of these people feel a little bit better.

My afterthought to that is that even absolute poverty can be addressed in a local individual and limited way. Whenever I travel to a poor country I try to help at least one person. Usually that person helps me just as much -- I can find a local poor person to be my guide or my interpreter. That person makes money from me, I make money from him or her, we both learn about each other. It's an equal win-win relationship.


Laurel, Md. : My favorite political line of all time is "the majestic egalitarianism of the law makes in it illegal for the rich, as well as the poor, to beg in the streets, to sleep under bridges and to steal bread"? In your travels, what are the most egregious examples you've observed of laws designed to keep poor people out of an area by making their coping mechanisms illegal?

William T. Vollman: I would say that in most of the places that I've been where there are a lot of poor people, there is no very effective social or legal system -- things tend to be quite ad hoc, so the sorts of legal barriers that you talk about are not particularly common. For instance in Russia, the beggar ladies whom I interviewed told me that the police would let them beg on some days, on others would tell them that they couldn't be there, and that every now and then a policeman would rob one of these ladies. I would say that that is more typical of the situation -- things are more fluid. I would imagine that what you're talking about would be more common in a very organized industrial country where there are regulations to control guest workers or something like that. Unfortunately I don't have direct experience with poverty in those countries.
It can be a little bit frustrating trying to help homeless people sometimes. I remember in Miami there was a fairly thriving homeless city under the freeway. A lot of these people had built wooden shacks. It was fairly clean -- not the toilets, but there wasn't a lot of litter around. I went back to that area and found out that the shacks had been destroyed and found some of the same people, who were now sleeping on the street under much worse conditions. In my own home in Sacramento I own a building with a large parking lot where people often sleep, and I looked into putting in some kind of drinking fountain or shelter for those people and I was warned that I could be cited for creating an "attractive nuisance."


Silver Spring, Md.: Apart from the subject matter, I have a question on writing. How hard is it to move back and forth from writing nonfiction to fiction? I know you are a tireless researcher, even when writing your novels, so how does your mindset change between the two genres?

William T. Vollman: I think it's very good for me to do both. It keeps my mind flexible an reminds me of the complexity of reality. I think that if I wrote fiction all the time I gradually would end up just living in my head, and my writing would become stale. If I wrote nonfiction all the time, I worry that I wouldn't be able to exercise my gift with language -- in writing a book like "Poor People" it seemed to me important to keep he language relatively simple because most of the interviewees talk in a very simple style, which further is mediated by the difficulties of translation, often by semiprofessional or nonprofessional interpreters. Therefore to make the language of this book too rich would risk making it more about me than about them. But I do like to write elaborate sentences and feel that sometimes a story that comes to me from the real world deserves to be embellished and retold as fiction, and one of my long-term projects is the Seven Dreams series in which historical encounters between Europeans and Native Americans in North America are retold as fiction, but accurately.

I'm almost finished with a nonfiction book about the California-Mexico border, a very long history of the border. I'm also working on a nonfiction book about Japanese Noh drama, and then I have just started the next of the Seven Dreams, which is about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians.


Washington, D.C.: How much poverty in America is directly related to people living beyond their means? Meaning you have a nice car, TV, expensive clothes ... but you can't pay for food or health insurance? To me that is the No. 1 problem with America today.

William T. Vollman: I would say that I'm not sure what the No. 1 problem with poverty in America today is, but I do believe that the culture of mass consumption and conspicuous consumption is very harmful, and that the commercial messages that we see everywhere encourage people to get easy gratification, to become addicted to installment payments, to have expensive diamond rings and fancy vacations and fancy cars they can't necessarily afford. I would blame the culture of advertising for that.


Fairfax, Va.: I have not read your book, but having come upon this discussion, would like to. The first poster prompted me to wonder: Why not ask rich people "why are you rich"? Is it the same question? Do you think that because in many places rich and poor people both are privy to certain hegemonic discourses about wealth that their answers would reflect each other? Or did you find individual perspectives to be more nuanced, interesting and independent than that?

William T. Vollman: I think that's a wonderful question and one that I had never thought of. My guess is that if I asked somebody why he were rich, he would reply with a history of his own personal methodology for success -- "I am rich because I invested shrewdly in the stock market, because I saved very very well and then I bought very very carefully." When you ask somebody "why are you poor," the answer is not necessarily the straight opposite of that. People rarely will say "I am poor because my particular method at getting rich failed." A lot of poor people have no plan for getting rich -- they think that it's impossible for them. People like the Thai cleaning ladies think they're poor because they were bad people in their previous existence -- therefore it's their karma to be poor. Maybe rich Thais would say the same thing -- I'm not sure. If I were going to investigate that question, I might start by rereading "The Great Gatsby."

One of the things that we gained from being rich is the leisure to investigate "the other." People who are poor have to spend more time isolated in their own lack of resources at best and misery at worst, so poor people have less opportunity for their answers to be nuanced.

_______________________ Your seven-volume discourse of violence was an attempt at comprehensive coverage of the topic. Why did you choose a more narrow path for this subject.

William T. Vollman: I feel that most of the time violence is a voluntary act, or at least active. As such it is subject to rational evaluation, whereas poverty is a state as opposed to an action, and therefore it's not necessarily subject to categorization in the same way. You might be able to get someone to say "I was violent because of this and I wouldn't be violent because of that," whereas a poor person can only say "I'm poor because of this and I don't see how anything is going to change." There is no calculus of poverty I could come up with the way I could create a calculus of violence. One of the worst thing I viewed about poverty was the monotony. The room of Sunee, the Thai cleaning lady was just this horrid, dark miserable place that was no fun to spend time in. I'm hopeful a short book can suggest that, whereas a long book would just impose that on people. Poverty is more monotonous than violence, fortunately or unfortunately.


The other Southern Maryland: Here in the U.S. Democrat politicians claim to be the "friend of the poor and working class" but those politicians themselves are filthy rich. Examples: John Kerry who married the Heinz fortune, any Kennedy, John Edwards who owns a $6+ million estate in North Carolina, Al Gore who spends $30,000 a year on electricity for his Tennessee mansion alone, Bill Clinton who earns $9 million a year on speaking engagements. Should I continue or do you get my drift?

Don't you think it's extremely hypocritical for these wealthy fat cats to claim to be on the side of the poor? If they really want to help, why not give some of that moola to social reform? Jimmy Carter seems to be the only one who has done anything for the poor by way of his Habitat for Humanity work.

William T. Vollman: I would agree that almost all of our politicians could do a lot better for the poor, and I think that the Republicans who think that Halliburton is a wonderful, fair company also could do a little better.


Columbia, Md.: Hi. I wondered if you have read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and what you thought about it?

William T. Vollman: I have read it. I think it's a very interesting book. It's actually one of my father's favorite books of all time. I think the idea that our lives can be determined by, for instance, microbes, is a very important and humbling one. Of course that is the case with poverty as well -- that people can be born into a situation that has been predetermined by some external cause -- so what we are left with is the task of accepting these predetermined causes while maximizing our own free will.


Washington, D.C.: How do you maintain the discipline to continually write such expansive, long-winded novels and books?

William T. Vollman: I am naturally a long-winded person, and because I talk very slowly my listener gets to enjoy the agony longer.


William T. Vollman: I would like to thank everybody for the interest in the book and in the subject and I hope that whatever the failures and limitations of this book, that people at least will consider trying to establish one-to-one relationships with people who are poorer than they are.

_______________________ Vollmann will be in Washington to talk about his book at 7 p.m. March 6 at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W.


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