PW: Did you set out to write a seven-volume opus, or did you start out at a different scale?
William T. Vollman: I thought it would be much shorter. It began as part political manifesto and part exploration of what proportionality and discrimination might mean in a moral calculus—in other words, if somebody decided to kill 100 people because he thought he could save 1,000 that way, is that reasonable or unreasonable? As I started thinking about it, I realized the issues were somewhat more complicated. So the next step seemed to be to read as much as I could to see if there were a finite number of excuses or justifications for violence, and if so, to see if they could be judged or analyzed.
PW: In today's publishing climate, the length seems... unorthodox.
WTV:(laughs) I know. I really had given up. I was beginning to think, well, how can I preserve this? Should I seal it up and bury it somewhere so a couple of hundred years from now it might benefit someone? Now, it'll be a little easier to seal up and bury.
PW: How did you wind up publishing it with McSweeney's?
WTV: I was giving a reading at Berkeley, and at the end someone who had heard of its existence asked me about Rising Up and Rising Down. I had to say that I wanted it to be the way I wanted it so I couldn't really find a publisher. Then Dave Eggers came up. He was in the audience. He said that if it was still available, he would like to publish it. Dave Eggers is a really nice man. He wants to do things that he thinks might be helpful, and I wrote this book in the spirit of trying to help people also. I think Dave picked up on that. I will always be very grateful to Dave.
PW: Did you ever consider just selling a shorter version?
WTV: It seems to me that the stakes are so low when you look at how much an author gets paid given the amount of work he does that there isn't any point in selling yourself out. You might as well keep your work exactly the way you want it.
PW: You finished writing the book well before September 11?
WTV: Yes, that's right. I'm not going to say that I saw 9/11 coming. But certainly in the case studies, which were written before 9/11, there are plenty of warnings, and I was saying that this does not look very promising. Based on what people told me then and based on what I see now, I would guess that things are going to get worse.
PW: Who do you think will be your audience for Rising Up and Rising Down?
WTV: Well, I'm not sure. My hope is that diplomats and terrorists would read it. They're the people whose decisions to inflict or withhold violence are going to have an impact on other people's lives. It's possible that a suicide bomber might read this book and think he was still justified in being a suicide bomber. But it's also possible that, if nothing else, he might double-check his motivation for violence and give equal time to another point of view. Then, the world might be a better place. At least that's my hope.