William Tanner Vollmann is the last of a breed of macho male American writers. Hardly a mention of the author goes by without bringing up the lengths he's gone for a story: joining the mujahideen in Afghanistan, smoking crack with prostitutes in San Francisco's Tenderloin, and becoming an FBI Unabomber suspect along the way. Most recently, he's taken on a different type of exploration through his female alter-ego Dolores, the subject of his first art exhibition, It's My Job to Be a Girl, which opened this weekend at Steven Wolf Fine Art in San Francisco.
The show, which puts Vollmann's paintings and photographs alongside the work of artist-slash-author-slash-porn-star Zak Smith, is a fitting return to San Francisco for Vollmann, who made the city's darkest corners the subject of some of his earliest work. As the author sipped on some no-name Scotch in his bunker-like Sacramento studio, we chatted about what he's learned by becoming Dolores.
VICE: Hey, Bill. What are you working on today?
William T. Vollmann: I'm getting ready to start on a project—it's going to be a series of block prints from the Bible, and everybody from God to Jesus and everyone else is going to be a woman with no clothes. I think probably the human race would be better off if it were all women. I'm lining up my models and getting my blocks ready, so that's going to be a lot of fun.
What's it like casting the woman to play God?
The fun thing about any sort of visual representation is you get to decide what sort of symbol or representation you want. For me, God would have to be a mother figure. I'll want some kind of Rubenesque-looking lady who looks as though she's giving birth.
Has the Charlie Hebdo shooting affected how you're thinking about this project?
It seems very likely that, by writing for VICE, you and I are already on ISIS's list. We can be fairly sure, I think, that over the next few decades that the world, even the secular, Western world, is gradually going to lose more freedom of speech.
People will say, "Oh, yeah, freedom of speech, but is it really worth insulting the Muslims?" And then someone else will say, "What about us fundamental Christians? It really hurts our feelings when someone talks about global warming, and so we don't want you to do that anymore." They'll just keep tightening the screws. So we might as well enjoy freedom of speech while we have it.
You've been making art for a long time, but this is your first gallery show. How did it come together?
[Gallerist Steven Wolf] contacted me, and I said what I usually say: "I don't want to have a show because my friends who have shows just end up paying money and going into debt. I don't have an ego; I would rather just sell through collectors … and I won't do it if it costs me a cent." So he said, "All right, I'll pay for it." Every time he comes up, I get him a little sloshed and then he takes me out to lunch and he says, "Don't worry Bill, I'm gonna make a lot of money off of you." I'm hoping that's true.
What will you be showing?
I have to paint, most of the time, a fairly ugly woman with whom I share my studio. You'd be amazed at how much space she takes up—she keeps her body parts in my meat locker—but she means well. She's not too beautiful but wants to be. If I ask her to pose, she's always up for it, so there are no ethical issues about exploitation and so forth. So, all in all, it's been a good thing.
I feel like I've learned something about what it's like to transform and, really, how alien the matter is that I thought was just me. I'm some sort of a skull with flesh on it, and this can be altered to a degree. So suddenly here's Dolores, who looks all the better of course when I take my glasses off. All the same, she has these creases at the corners of her eyes that curve away and down just as I do. So when I make paintings or drawings, I make sure I put those in. She has a certain kind of mouth. I had never really paid any attention to what my mouth was like.
How would you describe Dolores to somebody who's never met her?
Well, there are two Doloreses. One is a literary character, and while I was doing all this cross-dressing and making these works of so-called art, I was also writing a novel, which may or may not ever be published. It's called How You Are. It began with my present and then imagined an alternative future in which being Dolores was the most important thing to me, and then I eventually became a transgender Mexican prostitute, who came to a very bad end. It was so interesting imagining stuff, talking to the prostitutes, writing descriptions, and just trying to make everything come out as grim and terrible as I could! Do you believe that people have more than one personality, or that, say, an actor playing a role becomes that role, or is still the actor? What would you say?
With those examples, I would say that the actual person has more roles than an actor. An actor's just playing whereas we actually inhabit these things.
Yeah, I think that's probably right. When I first started doing this Dolores stuff, it was kind of an exercise, although it was fun. I was surprised by how excited that it made me, in a lot of ways. Back in the 80s, I was writing a book called The Ice-Shirt, and there's a little Inuit myth in there about the origin of the human race: There were two brothers and then in the end one of them was turned into a woman, so I thought, "Well, I guess I should try to imagine this." Back in San Francisco, these two transvestite prostitutes made me up as a woman, gave me a dress and dried orange peels for breasts and so forth. And a friend took some pictures and I thought, Oh, wow. I was amazed by how pretty I looked.
When I started trying to do the Dolores stuff, years and years later, I kind of thought, Oh yeah, I'll put on a wig and some breasts and lipstick and I'll look like that. Then I looked in the mirror and it was like some aging Elizabethan courtier, with all the bad pockmarked skin and the bags under the eyes and the hair not very well combed. And I thought, Oh, of course, I'm old now. I forgot about that part. In my male existence, I'm a little afraid of aging and death, as we all are, but it's very easy for me to reconcile myself to the deterioration of my appearance.
I just think, Well, you know I never cared that much about it anyway. But poor Dolores thought, I would really like to be a pretty woman.She can't be. I can't be. So then, I realized if I really wanted to continue with this, instead I just have to try to be an old woman. It's not so bad.
When do you feel most like a woman?
Well, sometimes when I'm in the studio, if I'm by myself, maybe I'll put on makeup and a dress and so forth and I'll lock myself in and just cook my meals and read and write, do my laundry, do whatever I want to do, all by myself for a couple of days. I get used to the feelings of the breastforms, and the feeling of the wig, which makes my head a lot more hot, and then it starts to feel a very natural after a while. That's kind of fun and sweet. I feel like I'm somebody different.
Will your relationship with Dolores change now that you're doing less of this work?
I wonder if there will even be a Dolores anymore. I talk about Dolores in the third person—a lot of cross-dressers do that. There were times when it was very real for me, and then making the actual art is kind of artificial. So am I just kidding myself? Is there really any such person? Yes, I have felt different, but maybe I should just call that me. Do I want to keep dividing myself into two in this way? It was all very unexpected to me, the intensity of the whole experience.
Dolores isn't the only woman in the gallery. There are also some reportage-style photos, including pictures of prostitutes.
I have really, really loved prostitutes for many years. They know so much about a certain kind of category of human nature. Almost all of us experience love and desire and rejection. Prostitutes know so much about that: A lot of the really good stuff about comforting people and taking away their pain. A lot of the bad stuff about the pain they sometimes feel themselves, and the ways in which some of them manipulate their customers, or are abused or worse by their customers. But it's such a primal human thing, and they become experts.
How do you connect with a subject in a way that you can capture these real kind of moments?
I began my relationship with prostitutes as a very lonely young customer, and then people were always saying "prostitutes are this," or "prostitutes are that." "Prostitutes are all exploited," or "prostitutes are empowered," and "prostitutes don't kiss."
I grew up a little bit and got to meet more of them in different parts of the world, eventually I realized, you know, prostitutes are simply women. A prostitute who exchanges sex for money is not too different maybe from someone who exchanges sex for a nice dinner, or not too different from me, who will exchange a book review for some money. After a while, you say the continuum is so blurred, maybe it covers almost all of us.
You can check out It's My Job to Be a Girl until March 7 at Steven Wolf Fine Art, which is located at 2747 19th Street, Suite A, in San Francisco .
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