William Vollmann (born July 28, 1959 in Los Angeles, California) is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter. Vollmann studied at Deep Springs College and earned a BA, summa cum laude, in comparative literature at Cornell University.
After graduation, Vollmann worked odd jobs (including as a secretary at an insurance company) and saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan in 1982. His experiences alongside the Mujahideen rebels formed the basis of his first non-fiction book An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World which would be published many years later. Upon his return to the USA he briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student but dropped out after one year. He then found work as a computer programmer, despite having virtually no experience with computers. It was there he spent the better part of a year writing his first novel You Bright and Risen Angels after hours on office computers, subsisting on candy bars from vending machines and hiding from the janitorial staff.
He has written for Spin Magazine, Esquire, The New Yorker, Gear, Granta and sometimes contributes to the New York Times Book Review among other publications. Vollmann has called himself a "former hack journalist" and his travel writing and reportage often inform his fiction, giving it a hybridized and journalistic feel.
In early 2004 (after many delays) McSweeneys published Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3,300 page, heavily illustrated, seven-volume treatise on violence which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A single-volume condensed version was published at the end of the year by Ecco Press, an abridgement he justified by saying "I did it for the money." It represents over 20 years of work and attempts to establish a moral calculus to consider the causes, effects, and ethics of violence. Much of it consists of Vollmann's own reporting from places wracked by violence, among them Cambodia, Somalia, and Iraq.
Vollmann's other works often deal with the settlement of North America (as in Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a cycle of seven novels), or stories of people (often prostitutes) on the margins of war, poverty and hope. His most recent novel is Europe Central. It follows the trajectories of a wide range of characters (including Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich) caught up in the fighting between Germany and the Soviet Union, and won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction.
Vollmann's papers were acquired by the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library of Ohio State University .