Spying on Writers

Christian Lorentzen

How many living novelists does the FBI keep files on? Is there a filing cabinet in Washington that contains a rundown of Jonathan Franzen’s feud with Oprah Winfrey? Do the Feds keep track of how many words Joyce Carol Oates writes in a day? Do they monitor Karl Ove Knausgaard’s border crossings? Did they know who Elena Ferrante was before the editors of the New York Review of Books did? Or how much Martin Amis drinks these days, and where? These scenarios seem unlikely. But perhaps they keep a file on Toni Morrison, who – as a photo that recently went viral made clear – hung out with Angela Davis in the early 1970s, and surely Don DeLillo’s speculations on Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra merited attention. There is at least one known case. In 2013 William Vollmann wrote about getting hold of his own FBI file and discovering that during the 1990s, following an anonymous tip, he was suspected of being the Unabomber. ‘UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN, has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing,’ the agents wrote. They interviewed an acquaintance who told them he had a ‘death wish’; noted that his appearance – an unshaven man wearing sunglasses and a hood – fitted the composite sketches of the suspect; reported that he owned firearms and, erroneously, a flamethrower; commented on the violence and torture depicted in his novels (which they didn’t seem to finish); suspected that he might have learned about explosives from reporting on the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and remarked: ‘By all accounts, VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.’ The squad investigating the Unabomber had 2406 suspects, 111 of whom were female. Vollmann was never high on the list. But the FBI kept its file on him open for another decade, he was subjected to lengthy interrogations at border crossings and came under suspicion for the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11.

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