On the Writing of Rising Up and Rising Down

William Vollmann: “I just worked and worked until it was done. Then I worked some more. That was about it.”

On First Experiences with RURD

Susan Golomb, Vollmann’s agent: “When Bill approached me about representing him after several years of his going it alone, he told me a condition of my being able to handle his backlist and future works was to sell his 4000-page manuscript on the motivations and ethical complexities of violence. A manuscript that must be published in its entirety, with additional pages of annotation and footnotes, oh, and plentiful illustrations! Bill referred to this project as ‘my ball and chain.’ I found several editors at mainstream houses who very much wanted to publish this book and labored mightily to convince the powers that be to do it, but alas, no major house could see how to handle the logistics of printing, pricing, shipping, and distributing such a lengthy and serious (read: unprofitable) work.”

Chris Sweet, Vollmann fan-website administrator: “I first became aware of Rising Up and Rising Down about ten years ago. Some kind soul emailed me a list of Bill’s works-in-progress and RURD was one of several titles on that list. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the book. All I had was a title. As the months and years passed, the legend surrounding the book grew. The delight in reading the occasional excerpt, published in various literary journals, was often accompanied by a profound sense of disappointment, because I never thought the entire project would see the light of day. The likelihood that a publisher would ever be found for the book seemed mighty slim.”

Dave Eggers, editor, McSweeney’s: “I saw an excerpt of RURD in Grand Street about five years ago, and I tried to find out when it would be published as a whole. I wrote to Vollmann, offering to publish any other excerpts from it, and that led eventually to his giving us ‘The Old Man,’ which we published in our seventh issue of McSwys. Meanwhile, I’d heard—I think from Vollmann—that he had a publisher for the entirety of RURD, and so I was waiting for that to appear. A while later, I saw him read one night at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, and during the Q&A he mentioned that RURD’s, publisher had backed out, and the book was orphaned. So I went home, did some rudimentary math, and wrote him a letter to the effect that McSweeney’s might be able to figure out a way to get the book out. This was in the winter of 2001, and after a few months, Bill and Susan and [McSwys publisher] Barb Bersche and I figured out a way to do it. And we did all this was before we even saw the book.”

Eli Horowitz, managing editor, McSweeney’s: “Bill came down to San Francisco in June of 2002. A group of us met him at the office, and we all sat in a circle. Bill had prepared three memos: ‘For Designer,’ ‘For Fact-Checker,’ and ‘For Editor.’ Somehow ‘For Editor’ ended up in my hands. Then we all went out to dinner. I sat next to Bill, and during the dinner he kept making comments to me beginning with ‘Since you’re my editor…’ At the time, I wasn’t even a full-time employee.”

Dave Eggers: “Eli Horowitz had been a volunteer carpenter when we were building 826 Valencia. He and I would talk about books, and he seemed very astute and hard-working, so eventually he became the logical candidate if McSweeney’s ever hired a managing editor. Until that point, the place had always been a two- or three-person operation, without any other full-time editors. But when we committed to Vollmann’s book, that forced the issue—we had to have some full-time editing help. Eli was hired, in large part, to bring Vollmann’s book into the world. It was not easy; it aged him mightily. Eli was twenty-four when we hired him, and he’s now seventy-three, and looks older than that.”

Devorah Lauter, intern and researcher: “When we first went to see the manuscript at Vollmann’s house, he took us to lunch at the original Tower Records, one of Sacramento’s favorite landmarks, which is now a restaurant covered in tropical decor, with a lot of fluffy flowerless plants and zebra stripes. Vollmann said we could come over any time, and he’d even give us a key if we needed one. And I’ll never forget how Eli looked up and smiled: he was so proud that we were all here in this tropical Sacramento restaurant, working with someone as friendly as Bill. There aren’t many people as friendly as William T. Vollmann. That was all before any of us knew what we were getting into.”

Eli Horowitz: “Each of those early conversations left me exhausted; I was trying so hard to keep up, but there was just so much to keep up with. I was like the blind man feeling different parts of the elephant, trying to guess what kind of animal it is‹or is it a bunch of different blind men, each feeling one part? Anyway, I was in over my head, but I didn’t want Bill to worry. I took a lot of notes and asked a lot of questions.”

Amira Pierce, Ms. Golomb’s assistant: “On the bottom shelf of one of our filing cabinets in the office sits a copy of the manuscript from when Susan was first sending it out. In a box that was originally used for 5,000 fresh white sheets of copy paper, there are almost 4,000 xeroxed pages of maps, diagrams, photographs, essays, expositions, and stories, all lying sideways, with page numbers that Bill wrote in by hand. Sometimes, I pull it out and whip the top off for a new intern or a friend coming by the office for the first time.”

Carla Bolte, Vollmann’s designer at Viking: “I know he’s probably a genius and everything, but Bill’s just such a sweetheart. He puts so much of his desire for goodness into his books. So in a way, it’s as if each letter of every word he writes is like a little kiss. I guess that’s a lot of letters in this particular book. He’s a very generous man.”

Chris Sweet: “When I finally heard that McSweeney’s would be publishing the book, it made perfect sense. It made my year.”

On Editing, Fact-Checking, & Copyediting

Eli Horowitz: “Fact-checking took a long time. He didn’t make many errors, but there were just a lot of facts to check. Production was also pretty complicated. Dave and I designed the book’s template and set it up in Quark. Then for each chapter, Owen [Otto], or I, or whoever, flowed the text; Devorah [Lauter] and Ben [Bush] inserted all the images they found; Gabe [Roth] did the copyediting; someone else entered his changes; I went back through and cleaned things up; Dave [Eggers] made his marks; fact-checkers made their fixes; design changed a bit; Vollmann made his comments; I smoothed things out again; and so on. And there are about seventy chapters, and each was its own document.”

Suzanne Kleid, fact-checker: “The actual work of fact-checking was incredibly tedious. Eli would hand out 100-page chunks of the manuscript to each of us and we would head out to the Doe library at UC Berkeley, highlighters in hand. The vast majority of the facts were quotations—from as many as five or six different sources on each page. I found myself having dreams about Trotsky.”

Gabriel Roth, copy editor: “Copyediting this book was difficult. Vollmann writes in the voice of a man who’s going to examine every assumption and pursue every thought; he uses all these ornate grammatical constructions and really intricate punctuation. The syntax feels almost seventeenth-century in its crazy rigor; it’s like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or something.”

Eli Horowitz: “I finally read the whole book in November and December [of 2002]. In terms of line editing, I was in charge of the theoretical chapters, and Dave did the journalistic chapters. Given the size of the project, it didn’t seem useful to quibble over commas, and the commas were pretty good anyway. Instead, I tried to focus on structure and clarity. I broke down his arguments into basic steps and then made a complex grid to analyze and compare each chapter. It was a different sort of editing. But the writing itself was always so strong, and unlike anything I had ever encountered.”

Kara Platoni, researcher: “I can say that I learned many small useful facts in the course of working on RURD,. One of them is how to correctly spell Kalashnikov.”

Devorah Lauter: “We needed hundreds of books from the UC Berkeley library, and since Ben [Bush] was the only one with a UC library card, he was the only one who could check out the books—and even then a limited number of them. We had to find a place to hide the stash inside the library between Ben’s pick-ups, a place we could leave them for weeks. What we really needed was a library connection, or some kind of secret vault/ trapdoor/hidden bookshelf.”

Suzanne Kleid: “Yeah, it was crazy. We had to hide our books in secret places around the library so they would be available when we needed them the following day.”

Andrew Leland, fact-checker: “I remember checking citations and quotations, and noticing that many of the pages I was looking for were already marked with scraps of paper. Then we found out that Vollmann had done a lot of his research in the same library. It was a thrilling feeling—the bibliographical equivalent of pressing my hand into those Hollywood handprint-in-concrete things, or maybe like tracking Vollmann through the analytical snow.”

Devorah Lauter: “Finally, we developed a workable solution to the library-book problem. We ended up with a compliant graduate student and some false papers. It turns out that if a book has a green CHECKED OUT slip sticking out of it and it’s sitting in a ‘study carrel,’ which only grad students are allowed to have, no one will mess with them, i.e., try to reshelve, check out, touch, or even come near your books. The problem was getting hundreds of these fake checked-out slips. After a little sweet-talking I managed to get ahold of enough to last several months. It was a close call, and I was almost found out.”

Gabriel Roth: “The difficulty of this book went beyond tracing the shape of the sentences, one after another. Rising Up and Rising Down is about the subjects that provoke the strongest feelings in people: violence, obviously, but also love and hate, race and class and gender, hunger and pleasure and tyranny and freedom. It was hard to scrutinize it with a detached, clerical eye for very long. I took a lot of breaks. To read it is to argue with it. I tried not to, because it slowed me down and lowered my page count, but there were plenty of times when I wanted to throw Vollmann across the room.”

Suzanne Kleid: “99 percent of the time Vollmann hadn’t made a single mistake. In those few instances when he’d actually misspelled a name, or put a phrase out of place, we got kind of excited.”

Brian Neff, fact-checker: “I would have a stack of twenty or so books, which more often than not would contain something on the Nazis, something by Julius Caesar, The Art of War, House of Pain, Goebbels’s diaries, Women in Prison, Studies in Homicide, and maybe de Sade’s Juliette. I would sit down next to a group of Cal students, diligently plugging away at their calculus homework, and just wait for the looks to start. Invariably they would come. Eventually it seemed like everyone at the table was looking at me over the top of their books. I always wondered what those people thought I was doing with all those books on violence and sex and war.”

Suzanne Kleid: “[Dave] Eggers would sometimes cheerfully exclaim that he thought the fact-checking could get done by the end of the summer [of 2002]. Among ourselves, we whispered that this thing was so huge it was never going to be finished. When that summer ended, I handed my highlighters off to a new group of interns who then toiled for another full year.”

On Some Personal Implications of Working on RURD

Kara Platoni: “I was doing some research for the ‘Defense of Animals’ chapter. Since radical activism seemed to be a good place to start, I went in search of the Animal Liberation Front, a clandestine international organization that endorses the damage or destruction of property for the sake of animal welfare. I was lucky enough to find someone’s email address, and even luckier that they wrote back. So Vollmann drafted a deeply philosophical and intricate list of questions for the ALF, I sent the questions to my anonymous contact, she submitted them to the group for a response, the answers were sent back to me, I sent them to Vollmann. Fine. Months elapsed. I forgot all about the list. I went out on a first date with a guy who, in the course of the evening, was revealed to be a dedicated vegan. He seemed dreadfully put out and surprised when it was revealed that I am not. Unaccountably surprised. Then it turned out that pre-date, he’d done a Google search on my email address, which had turned up only one result: Vollmann’s questions, posted on the ALF website. These were questions like: If you could push a button that would vaporize the entire human race while leaving the rest of terrestrial life intact, would you do it? And: Do you support the genetic modification of predatory animals to make them vegetarian? And also: Can a person who eats meat be a good person?”

Brian Neff: “The downtown Oakland library is a strange place. They have a surprisingly good collection of books, but on any given day, no matter what time of day you go, there is an equal chance that you will find it full of either psychopaths or schoolchildren, and I have to say that on some days I couldn’t tell the difference. Nothing makes you feel more like a dirty old man than sitting at a table next to group of middle-school girls while you look through copies of The Joy of Sex and a Hitler biography. The constant giggles were almost too much for me.”

Eli Horowitz: “I became weary, and sometimes went crazy. By the end I was fairly miserable. June [of 2003] was probably the worst. I went to sleep thinking about this book, and woke up thinking about it. In the morning I’d have my laptop out and be working before I got out from under the blankets. But even then, there were always moments when I stepped back and realized what we were working on, and I would get real excited about the whole thing.”

Karen Leibowitz, housemate of Eli Horowitz: “Over the past year, Eli simply hasn’t had the time to fulfill even the minimal requirements of a properly socialized American man. I mean, I remember a time when he would trim his hair every four or five days, and these days, we’re lucky if he cuts it every two weeks, you know what I mean? And the homemade sauerkraut he used to make—that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Falling up falling down indeed.”

Dave Eggers: “I didn’t know that Eli was so worn out. He always seemed so chipper, and he appeared to have everything in hand. He’d grown a very long beard, I remember, and began burying his food, but otherwise there were no obvious indications of the book’s effect on his life. We talked a lot about the book while editing it, and I remember that we would both periodically have moments where we’d say, ‘Oh sweet Jesus, this is great, this is so fucking great!’ We’d read over a particular section and feel that we were a part of something truly magnificent. That kept everyone going.”

Eli Horowitz: “Whenever I forgot what I was working on, something would jump out and grab me by the throat—an episode in Yemen, or the photo portfolio in the ‘Remember the Victim’ chapter. I got chills, actual chills.”

On the End of the Project

Matt Frassica, intern: “In the last few days before the book had to go to press [in July 2003], Eli sat the summer interns down at the tables in the writing lab. ‘Guys,’ he said, ’I’ve called you here today because you have all done an excellent job, and I am proud of you. You have worked hard, and deserve praise. But a couple of days ago, as I was thinking about this book and what is best for it, I consulted this reference.’ He picked up a thick user’s guide to QuarkXPress 4. He flipped to a page he had marked. ‘This is how David Blatner, the author of The QuarkXPress 4 Book, begins Chapter 8.11, Indexes: ’It was Mr. Duncan, my elementary-school librarian, who first impressed the importance of an index into my malleable young brain: A nonfiction book without an index, he said, wasn’t even worth putting on the library shelf.’ Now, if David Blatner’s elementary-school librarian says it’s so, then I say it’s time we give Vollmann an index. What do you think?’ No one contradicts an oracular computer manual—or Eli—so we divided the book up and scanned it for its major moral actors.”

Rose Lichter-Marck, intern: “I won’t soon forget that ‘Team Index Pizza Party’ day. The interns combed every page of RURD while Eli stood over us and yelled obscenities at Matt Frassica, who was slacking. We were compiling a list of the ‘major moral actors’ of the book. People were writing up the names on the dry-erase board so that we would all be documenting the same people. When we were done, that board read like a who’s who of atrocity.”

Matt Frassica: “Vollmann discusses Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Cortez, Eichmann, Pol Pot, King Egil, and so on in establishing his moral calculi. He also occasionally mentions Eli, and discusses the process of editing that the book had undergone. So we decided to index Eli: Horowitz, Eli; I.416, III.587, V.363-4. The next day, Eli removed himself from the index, which I suppose was his prerogative as editor.”

Richard Parks, intern: “In a way, the index is an insidious thing, because the innocent act of looking up a single name might make you crazy. The connections are everywhere, so it’s never as simple as culling a single date or place name. Even the smallest association Vollmann makes threatens to explode into a matrix of history.”

Matt Frassica: “About a week before we had to send the thing off to the printers, I went to dinner and then came back to do some late-night fact-checking. But once inside, Eli handed me a walkie-talkie. ‘Tell me what’s missing, and I’ll print it,’ he said. He was printing a full copy of RURD from his computer, which is up a ladder in the office. The printer is down the ladder and on the opposite end of the 826 Valencia writing lab from his computer. That night, Eli printed and I sorted all seven volumes of RURD, checking to make sure the titles of the chapters matched their entries in the Table of Contents, that the drop caps were spaced right, that no pages went missing. After an hour, the walkie-talkie batteries started to die, and they would emit warning shrieks every five minutes.”

Rose Lichter-Marck: “For the most part, all of us worked well together; there were, however, a few crises. Toward the end of July, we were going through the final manuscript one last time. Eli wanted each page to be checked by two pairs of eyes, so we worked in pairs. I was partnered with a girl who was there for the first day of her internship, and she had no idea what she had stumbled into. She was dividing her volume by chapter into different piles, and when it was time to put it all together, there were about 100 pages missing. It was a little frantic for a while: when you’re dealing with 3000+ pages, disorganization is a code-red emergency. I think she wept.”

Richard Parks: “About the first week of August, in the home stretch, I almost destroyed the entire project—for reasons I can’t exactly go into. I imagine that if you were to ask Eli today, he’d say that it’s as true as it ever was: never trust an intern with 3000 pages of manuscript text and the New York Times’s FedEx account number.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, general assistant/associate: “I had been around McSwys for much of the RURD project, but I had somehow avoided working on it. At the beginning of August, however, an extremely frustrated William T. Vollmann called one morning and asked for Eli. Eli was on vacation. Could he then talk to one of the interns who worked on the book? The summer interns were gone, and I was the only person available to talk to him, so I got on the phone. He had just received the final galleys from the printer, and there were myriad things he wanted changed. I sat there with him, going through seven volumes of PDFs on Eli’s computer, for almost four hours. We somehow ended up spending a lot of time talking about the intricacies of transliteration.”

Eli Horowitz: “Even after I thought everything was done, there were a bunch of little problems with the printers, and each time something flared up, a tremendous weariness would pass over me. Then we finally got the actual books. They looked good. I was happy.”

Dave Eggers: “This is the most proud we’ve been of anything we’ve ever done. This kind of book is what McSweeney’s was set up to do, and we just have to thank Bill for letting us bring this book into the world. He had faith in our little group, and we very much appreciate it.”

William Vollmann: “When I finally saw it, I was so happy I almost cried.”