BooksJacket Copy

William T. Vollmann, Unabomber suspect, opens his FBI file

William T. VollmannAuthorsFBICrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemFreedom of Information ActNational Security Agency

Literary fans know William T. Vollmann as a National Book Award-winning author; the FBI knew him as Unabomber suspect S-2047.

In the September issue of Harper's, Vollmann explores his FBI file in a brilliant, chilling essay about America and privacy, keyed to the strange experience of discovering he was suspected of being the Unabomber.

"I read his manifesto when it was published," Vollmann writes. "Angry, pitiless, certain of its righteousness, intelligent but fatally incapable of proportionality and discrimination, it made a repellent impression."

Repellent to him, maybe, but an unidentified informant connected it to Vollmann. He was one of seven writers so accused; his work was described as "anti-progress, anti-industrialist," a characterization so vague as to apply to almost any writer -- such as, for example, Mark Twain.

To get his FBI file -- access to his NSA file is still pending -- it took Vollmann a Freedom of Information Act request, an appeal and a lawsuit. Officials reviewed 785 pages, then released just 294 pages to him; the rest are still secret.

When it comes to Vollmann, the writing is always as compelling as the facts, and these facts are tremendously compelling. It turns out that being a Unabomber suspect was both the start of his problems and the least of them. Although the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, has been in custody since 1996, the surveillance of Vollmann continued. The FBI parked outside of his house. It tracked his movements. Twice border guards have detained him for no reason, in 2002 and again in 2005.

The suspicion of Vollmann as a terrorist was unfounded from the first and now, with Kaczynski in prison, is clearly irrelevant. And yet the surveillance continued, and may still be ongoing. In Harper's, he notes, "A draft of this article arrived with the envelope cut open and taped shut."


Bad news times two for Barnes & Noble

Elmore Leonard: Michael Connelly hails the book world's king of cool

'Blue Is the Warmest Color' gets NC-17 rating; book due in September

Carolyn Kellogg: Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
William T. VollmannAuthorsFBICrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemFreedom of Information ActNational Security Agency
  • Countdown to J.D. Salinger liftoff
    Countdown to J.D. Salinger liftoff

    In the first week of September, Shane Salerno and David Shields' massive biography "Salinger" will go on sale, and before the week is out, the documentary "Salinger," written and directed by Salerno, will open in more than 200 theaters. When it comes to documentaries,...

  • Elmore Leonard: Writers pay tribute
    Elmore Leonard: Writers pay tribute

    Elmore Leonard was a tremendously prolific author, whose long publishing career influenced more writers than we can count. We asked a few of Los Angeles' favorite writers to share their memories of him.

  • 97 years of typewriters
    97 years of typewriters

    For many decades, the typewriter was an indispensable tool for writers. It was faster than a pen and paper, more decisive than a pencil, more decipherable than a hasty scrawl. And, apart from its utility, it was a remarkable looking object, sometimes awkward, sometimes beautiful. Here's...

  • I, library robot
    I, library robot

    A Connecticut library has acquired two fully-automated, walking, talking robots to provide independent assistance to its patrons. The robots, set to begin their duties at the Westport, Conn., library Oct. 11, will teach computer programming skills, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • 'Inherent Vice' trailer: Thomas Pynchon via Paul Thomas Anderson

    Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel "Inherent Vice" is one of his most accessible. The story of a stoner private eye in Southern California at the end of the 1960s is part Jim Rockford, part Raymond Chandler and part Cheech & Chong. It's noir on the beach with hippie styling and...

  • Kirkus announces finalists for its first book prizes, each $50,000
    Kirkus announces finalists for its first book prizes, each $50,000

    Kirkus Reviews, the influential book review journal, on Tuesday announced the nominees for the first-ever Kirkus Prizes in fiction, nonfiction and young readers' literature. The young readers' literature category is divided into three subcategories -- picture books, middle grade and...

  • Talking with Naja Marie Aidt about her short story collection 'Baboon'
    Talking with Naja Marie Aidt about her short story collection 'Baboon'

    The Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt’s book of stories, “Baboon” (Two Lines Press: 190 pp., $12.95 paper), is an explosive collection; strange things happen to the characters, leading to unlikely twists, through which the borders of reality blur. The first of Aidt’s...

  • National Book Foundation names its 5 under 35
    National Book Foundation names its 5 under 35

    Tuesday the National Book Foundation announced its 5 under 35 -- five young writers selected for recognition by previous National Book Award winners and finalists.