I was at SFO about a year ago waiting for my flight to Salt Lake City to attend a journalism conference when a man shuffled into a seat across from me. At first I thought he was homeless or maybe a bit crazy because of his disheveled, rather greasy hair and the bulky, tactical-looking vest he was wearing. But then I recognized him. Holy shit. That's William T. Vollmann.
I quickly Googled him on my phone to confirm his identity. The wire-rim glasses and distinctive mole on his face matched the photos I was looking at.
"Are you William T. Vollmann?" I asked, stuttering a bit.
"Yes, I am."
Vollmann is a literary hero of mine. It was his outrageously ambitious and honest works of nonfiction that fueled my interest in journalism back when I was in my 20s and living in San Francisco. What a coincidence that, heading off to a journalism conference, I should meet one of my first literary inspirations.
Vollmann proceeded to ask me where I was going and about my work. A journalism conference? What is your favorite story you wrote, he asked.
That led to a discussion of mushrooms, Cambodia and radioactive contamination, at which point Vollmann pulled out a yellow Geiger counter he was carrying in his backpack. He was headed to West Virginia to research fracking for a book he's working on about carbon and climate change. The device was part of his research. How'd you get the Geiger counter past security, I asked.
"They don't even know what it is," he smiled.
Before we parted, I asked if he'd be interested in writing for the Bohemian. He immediately said yes, provided the assignment was "fun." Vollmann doesn't use email or a cell phone, so we began corresponding and talking on the phone about possible stories. Is there some kind of lesbian commune or maybe a marijuana encampment in the North Bay, he asked. Probably, but I don't think I could grant you access. After spending a night drinking beer and painting a nude model he had at his studio in a razor-wire-surrounded building in Sacramento, we settled on a story about Redding.
Vollmann is writing a novel about the black sheep of a famous political family who goes underground to escape his past. It was fascinating for me to see how he blends fact with fiction. I hope you like the story.
Stett Holbrook is the editor of the 'Bohemian.'
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