After winning the National Book Award for Europe Central in 2005, William T. Vollmann has unleashed a curious assortment of nonfiction upon the world of contemporary literature. He wrote a short piece for the Great Discoveries series on the 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, traveled around the globe investigating the nature of poverty, rode the rails throughout most of western America, and last year just finished a book on Imperial County, CA, a project that was 10 years in the making. Of course this list goes on, including a 3,600-page philosophical analysis of violence, and a vast array of labyrinthine historical fiction.
Vollmann's insatiable curiosity and ambition have culminated in a vast wealth of writing that explores the less socially acceptable aspects of the human condition, such as the prostitutes of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. There are seemingly few subjects or people that he isn't interested in, and it's this blend of journalistic tenacity and humane pathos that makes his oeuvre so enduring.
For his recent book, Kissing the Mask, Vollmann's focus was the ancient Japanese artistic tradition of Noh theater, with some added thoughts on subjects ranging from Kabuki theater, geishas, Yukio Mishima, Andrew Wyeth's Helga Testorf drawings, transgender prostitutes, and the classics of Japanese literature. This is one of the first books on Noh theater in decades, as well as an insightful meditation on the various aesthetic manifestations of beauty throughout the world and what it is about them that personifies femininity.
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Jimmy Cline: You just released Imperial last year, which you were working on for about ten years. In past interviews, you mentioned traveling to Japan and learning about Noh Theater. How long ago did you start working on this project?
William T. Vollmann: I first got really interested in Noh in about 1977. There was an independent bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana where I was going to high school. It was a really nice place. There was a New Directions paperback. It was the Pound/Fenollosa book, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan. [Editor's Note: Ernest Fenollosa was an Italian scholar who studied Japanese art during the late 19th Century. From his notes, Ezra Pound finished translations of fifteen classic Noh plays.]
Jimmy: I've read that.
Vollmann: It is still in print, which is so wonderful. I thought, "These are so strange and eerie." I kept thinking about them. The first chance I had to go to Japan, which was in the early nineties, I went to a Noh play. I thought, "This is very, very slow." I noticed lots of people falling asleep. I didn't really know what was going on; I was getting a little sleepy myself. Then the more I studied it, the more fascinated I got. I guess I started writing the book in earnest in about 2002.