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Becoming Dolores: William T. Vollmann Exposes His Female Alter Ego

By Stephen Heyman.

Daniel Lukes, Editor, Conversations with William T. Vollmann (University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

Interview with the Shapeshifter: Book of William T. Vollmann Interviews Reveals Intimate Portraits of Legendary Writer

When you read an interview with William T. Vollmann you never quite know which William T. Vollmann you are going to get. Wild Bill Vollmann—the reckless journalist reporting on humanity’s crooked timber from the latest geopolitical hotspot? Billy the Kid—grinning nerd in flak jacket welcoming you into his creepy den of iniquities? William the Blunderer—concerned citizen quixotically laboring to save the world one lost soul at a time? Or maybe you’ll simply hang out with William Tell and shoot some guns of an afternoon, like French writer David Boratav did in 2004. None of these caricatures really do Vollmann justice, but if they help raise his profile and sell his books they’re doing their job. When in a 2010 interview with Carson Chan and Matthew Evans, Vollmann discusses the founding mythology of “American Ovidianism”—the ideal that you can change who you are—you understand that his commitment to transformation is not simply aesthetic, but ethical. His writing argues that each of us has the right to be who we are, and who we want to be.

Conversations with William T. Vollmann, which collects 29 interviews conducted between 1989 and 2018, has a rather grim origin story: it was meant to be edited by writer, slummer, and Vollmann fanboy Michael Hemmingson, but he died in Tijuana in 2014, so the task of putting it together fell to me. This took me to the archives of the William T. Vollmann Collection at Ohio State University in Columbus, where at night, crossing the Olentangy River on my way back to my room at the Red Roof Inn, an old guy shouting in the dark threatened to shoot me if I looked back at him one more time. My research uncovered Vollmann interviews with the likes of Jonathan Coe, Dennis Cooper, D.T. Max, and plenty of juicy unpublished or additional material along the way—such as Stephen Heyman’s captivating portrait of Vollmann in his Sacramento studio, an excerpt of which follows below. Heyman’s piece is timely due to the imminent publication of Vollmann’s new novel The Lucky Star, which sees him return to exploring gender, sex work, and his feminine side: the book is part of his “transgender trilogy” (with The Book of Dolores and the unpublished How You Are).

Vollmann can be a daunting and intimidating author even for his biggest fans—call them Vollmaniacs and make them sound like a ‘70s band—and though interviews with him can never replace his own writings, they can act as a good gateway into some of his less accessible works, giving you the gist of things and making you curious to know more. Conversations with William T. Vollmann brings together in one place a series of glances into what Tom Bissell calls the “the demented kingdom of William T. Vollmann,” and offers what I hope will be some valuable insights into an often oversharing, overspeaking writer who in today’s social media world still maintains a level of mystery and mystique. If I’m able to make just one non-Vollmann reader curious enough to check out one of his books, I’ll be happy I did my job.

—Daniel Lukes

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In July 2013, I visited William T. Vollmann at his writing bunker in Sacramento, a squat white building surrounded by a tall fence and barbed wire. Outside the studio, a homeless man slept under a tree; Bill encourages drifters to camp out in his empty parking lot. The bunker used to be a cheap Mexican restaurant. Inside, the walls, the chairs, the doors, even parts of the ceiling were covered in Bill’s expressionistic paintings and woodblock prints: mostly images of women looking slightly alarmed. In his entryway was a major work, “Homage to the Vulva,” which consists of seven nether-views of a Bangkok prostitute whom Bill visited in 2001. He had a small bedroom brimming with books, and, in the corner, a series of wigs on Styrofoam heads that are propped up on poles. Each foam face was hand-painted—sloppy lipstick, bulging eyes. One looked a bit like Gene Simmons. “Whatever woman comes in here, I always say, ‘Now, those are your rivals,’” Bill told me. “They kind of freak out.”

I had come to Sacramento to profile Bill for The New York Times in connection with The Book of Dolores (powerHouse, 2013). This catalog of Bill’s experiments with cross-dressing includes paintings, photographs and prose. “Dolores” is Bill’s female alter ego and all her trappings—dresses, giant sealskin boots, Double-D silicone breast-forms—were stored in a massive walk-in refrigerator, formerly the Mexican restaurant’s meat locker. “Dolores likes to put her breasts on and have them stick to her chest and sleep with them,” Bill said, “which is against the manufacturers’ instructions.” On a long, hot day, in which we drank beer and whiskey and ate barbecue, Bill explained the origin of Dolores. He told me how he first discovered cross-dressing among prostitute friends in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco and how his curiosity developed into a passion—one that he indulged sometimes while drunk or high, sometimes as part of a strange vision quest for his mind-bending fiction, sometimes just because he liked the feel of a satin dress against his ankles.

Bill greeted me warmly and showed me around the art-making area of his bunker, where he has a power engraver—he was working on a suite of Norse block prints when I visited—and where he prints his Dolores photographs using an arcane 19th century method called gum bichromate, which takes up to 28 days to produce a single print. Then he led me to the walk-in.

What’s in here?

This is the meat locker, where Dolores’s parts are. When the electrician wired it up, he asked, “What do you use this for?” I said, “Oh, that’s just where I keep my victims.” There was a long silence….She’s got her dresses here and I have my bulletproof helmet and various stuff from my journalism in there.

Have you taken many reporting trips recently?

No, that seems to being drying up. It seems that the magazines have less and less money. They’re mostly interested in domestic stuff. I don’t know whether it’s to save costs or if they really think Americans are only interested in America. I get sort of sick of it. So there are the wig heads. Whatever woman comes in here, I always say, “Now, those are your rivals.” They kind of freak out.

Do you have many visitors or is this mostly a solitary space?

 I have the occasional visitor, yeah. And then let’s see. [Opens the door to the bathrooms.] I figure the men’s room and the women’s room ought to connect.

 Why is that?

 Well, you know male and female should always get together wherever possible. The men’s room is the toilet. The women’s room is the shower. They didn’t used to connect. It was really, really gross when I bought the place. This old restaurant—everything was all rotted out with pee.

[Bill takes me into another small room.] And then this is the books and bullets room. I put my phone in the closet most of the time, so I never have to hear it. I got all the extra copies of my books and all the bullets I’ll need for my various pistols.

Where do you keep your arsenal?

I keep them in a safe.

That’s good.

The worst thing would be if someone stole my guns and used them for a crime—I would feel really bad.

I’m curious about the rhythm: reading versus the writing, the painting versus the photographing: is it very programmed?

 No, I just do whatever I want.

[We leave for lunch. Bill punches a keypad to lock the door to his writing bunker. A short drive takes us to a barbecue restaurant. It’s barely noon when we arrive. “A table for 2?” the waitress asks. “Unless you’re going to sit with us,” Bill replies. Later, when we’re seated, he asks her, “We were wondering which one of us is more handsome? You are definitely the most beautiful.”]

I heard about your charm with women.

 I have such a great time, I have to say. They can tell that I don’t need anything from them. I just enjoy giving them compliments.

[The waitress sets down two glasses of beer.]

Here’s to you, Steve!

And to you! Congratulations again on the book.

 Thanks, I wonder if I’ll be sorry [to have it published]. A lot of friends who could always handle the prostitutes and the drugs were quite disgusted with this. You know, they say that gender is class. The idea of stepping down from the dominant male class to the number two class really disgusts a lot of people, including women. I’ve been kind of shocked. But I figure, you know, I’m in my 50s, I’ve reproduced, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

What does your wife think of it?

She’s not thrilled but she can deal with it. My daughter is gleeful. She can hardly wait for her friends’ parents to hear about this book. Sacramento is fairly conservative, but it’s not terrible.

There was a New York Times review of your book about hopping freight trains, Riding Toward Everywhere, that began basically with the question: What the hell is wrong with you?

Yeah, I get that sometimes. I figure as long as I please myself, that’s the main thing. We’re all going to die, and hopefully we’re not lying in our deathbeds thinking, I got a terrible review back in 2013. One of the t-girls told me, I want to die in the arms of a jealous husband. I think I’d like to die of a massive heroin overdose.

Do you still dabble with the chemicals?

 Sure.

What does your doctor wife think about that?

She has no comment, so that works for me.

Are you able to write after a few drinks?

 Oh, sure. But the best thing to write after is a bunch of crack. Then your concentration is so good. Coffee is kind of like that, too. I mean, crack is just like strong coffee.

You can’t feel good afterwards?

Well, you don’t want to do too much. For the Dolores book I figured that she would end up as a meth-addicted prostitute and there was a friend of mine who was editing a book about speed. Not that I know anything about that, but Dolores had a great time on the crystal.

 [We head Back to Bill’s writing bunker, where he has agreed to walk me through the process of becoming Dolores.]

So how do you begin?

 I think it’s important to be really clean. So I want to take a shower and shave really well. And usually I almost never bother to shave. Then there’s moisturizer and foundation and all this stuff. That was one of the revelations to me: how much women go through. I used to think, this woman looks so glamorous, what nice beautiful long eyelashes she has. And it never occurred to me, she must have spent 20 minutes with her eyelash curler and her mascara. There’s this whole science to this stuff, which is appealing to my male self—someone who wants to understand procedures. But the other thing about it that was kind of nice was it gave me a chance to sort of love and take care of myself. If I dressed up, I would take pains with my face. I wouldn’t want to just put on some dirty dress but I would work hard and I would feel kind of happy that I actually manicured my body a little bit, something that I have not done for myself. A lot of my female friends, if they’re down in the dumps, they’d go with their girlfriends and get their nails done. I never got that before. And so it’s just a way of being cared for. Some kind of basic primate grooming, I guess.

Did you spend a lot of time figuring out what kind of cosmetics to buy?

I had women help me.

Your wife or friends?

Friends, yeah. They would say, “Oh, you need this. Or “Let me help you.” Or “This doesn’t look good on you.” One of the funny things was that they all disagreed. Women in our culture are so appearance-conscious. They say, “Oh, this woman looks so awful.” But men could care less. So probably what takes me the longest is shaving. To me the mascara is an incredible hassle. And I don’t enjoy it. When I was three, I had an operation on my left eye. I hate having things close to my eye.

How long does it take to make yourself up?

 Dolores takes one to two hours. And after about 15 to 20 minutes she melts, and I have to go into the shower and wash it off. Kind of sad. When I went to that woman in Tokyo who did makeup for cross-dressers, I was shocked. She said that after [paying] $700 [to get your makeup done] it might last twenty or thirty minutes. Wow, now I know why women are always rushing to the bathroom. I had a friend who’s now in her early forties. I said, “When you were in your twenties and thirties, you must have had such a sense of power.” She said no. “First of all, you don’t understand your power until it’s too late. And second of all, we’re always worried that one of our high heels is going to break. Or we have to rush back into the ladies room to touch up our lipstick. We can never enjoy it.” And I thought, how awful. So Dolores has it pretty good.

So the vast majority of the times when you’re becoming Dolores it’s just to kind of hang out in your studio?

Yeah. I don’t go out dressed up here. . . I felt some shame too, once or twice. Someone’s thrown a rock.

Around here?

 Yeah. . . . And the cross-dressing stuff might be coming to an end anyway.

Why is that? Do you feel like that phase has resolved itself because you’ve written about Dolores and you’ve produced this series of photographs?

 You know, I tried to make my mind and my personality sort of blank when I’m writing, so I can be any number of things. My work is all about trying to empathize with the other. When I was writing my novel Europe Central, I got to be Shostakovich and Hitler and Akhmatova and all kinds of people. And when I wrote Fathers and Crows, I got to be this seventeenth-century Indian hero named Amantacha. So it’s been great to be Dolores. And I have a bunch of props. Maybe I’ll continue to dress up from time to time, but the thrill of it has lessened for sure. And that’s what a lot of long-term cross-dressers say. At first, it’s so exciting for them and they can hardly wait to buy a new slip and look at themselves in the mirror. Then after awhile, you say, “Well, I am this or I am not this, so what’s the big deal?” Your wife doesn’t get too thrilled when she puts on her slip, that’s just what it is.

When you have ventured out as Dolores, do you think people knew that you’re a man?

Probably. I don’t think Dolores is too convincing unfortunately. But there’s something very relaxing about wearing the clothes. Some women tell me, “Oh I can hardly wait to come home from the office and take off my bra and let my breasts just bob around,” whereas Dolores likes to put her breast-forms on and have them stick to her chest and sleep with them, which is against the manufacturer’s instructions.

Dolores’s breasts are silicone?

44 double D, silicone, although over the years of sleeping with them they are getting more like pancakes.

Although that happens to real women as well…

That’s true! Haha.

Can I see Dolores’s breasts?

Sure. [Brings out the breast forms.]

May I?

Of course. These are “asymmetric breasts with naughty nipples.” They cost about $200. If you want to, you can tape them to your chest. It comes with tape. And after a little while they can stay on your chest. And it feels like they’re part of you. You’re not supposed to sleep in them. But I did and one night I had this horrible experience. Apparently the adhesive had attracted ants and they crawled under my shirt and along my chest, it was quite a disgusting experience.

Do you have a sense that people who are cross-dressers might be grateful to you for doing this book?

 Some of them might. I hope so. People who cross-dress, especially people who go farther than that, suffer a tremendous amount of abuse. There’s a very high rate of discrimination and even violence. What’s interesting is in our country women can really dress as they wish. And one hundred years ago, that certainly wasn’t the case. A woman couldn’t walk around and wear pants. When I got married, one of my female friends showed up in a tuxedo, and nobody thought anything of it.

Right, well there’s certainly plenty of fashion antecedents for that: Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel.

 That’s true. Does your wife like to wear men’s clothing?

Yes, but for women it’s fashionable to play with boyishness or androgyny—it’s not transgressive in the same way.

And how do you think the trend is going for men? I really feel that pretty soon anybody will be able to dress as anything and it won’t make a difference.

I think it has a lot to do with geography. Maybe people are more or less tolerant depending on the place.

 Yeah, I was recently in West Virginia. Somebody told me that if people knew I was a cross-dresser they would be disgusted but also that there were so many ugly women in West Virginia that I could probably pass.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Stephen Heyman, a former features editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, has written for SlateVogueEsquire and other publications. His first book, The Planter of Modern Life, a biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, farmer and environmentalist Louis Bromfield, will be published in April by W.W. Norton. Twitter: @steveheyman

ABOUT THE EDITOR
Daniel Lukes has a PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University, is the co-editor of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, the co-author of Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, and the author of various articles on literature, culture and music. His forthcoming book will be Black Metal Rainbows from PM Press. Twitter: @danielukes

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“William T. Vollmann Changed My Life”—a book launch / reading event for Conversations with William T. Vollmann will take place on Saturday February 8, 2020 at 6:00pm at Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11238. It will feature a line-up of scholars, critics and readers—including writers who have interviewed Vollmann, talking about what his writing means to them.

Please see http://unnameablebooks.blogspot.com for more information.

Facebook Event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/747278329092358

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 5th, 2020.