by: Michael Shields
An “interview” with one of America’s most distinguished authors, which doubles as a “review” of a recent compilation of the author’s letters1…..
MCS: Mr. Vonnegut. First off, thank you for joining me today, not an easy task I know, considering the circumstances. I am not really sure how to start here, as it is a bit overwhelming to have the opportunity to chew the fat with the author of two books that I not only hold in the highest of esteem, but that I also read annually (Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five). In fact, it is not a stretch to say that I wouldn’t have ventured into writing if I hadn’t chanced upon your work.
KV: The excellent writer Wolcott Gibbs when a young man was interviewed by Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker. The interview went very well. Gibbs got a job. But as he was leaving, and Ross believed him to be out of earshot, Ross cried out, “God damn it, I’d hire anybody!” Until very recently, jobs at the New Yorker were also for life, but the pay was low. The pay is very high now, but goes to jittery, hand-to-mouth independent contractors, in effect. Like actors, they are in for lifetimes of seeking work, hat in hand.
MCS: It certainly is a different landscape, and consequently a difficult time, to try one’s hand at the craft. Yet – it is impossible to not be inspired, and to attempt to channel that inspiration. I am curious, what has inspired you? What kept you going, for so very long?
KV: I understand better than ever why the Muses are women, not children or men. Women have the power to renew the ambition and wit of men adrift, and have done that twice for me so far, once in Iowa City in 1965, and then in Sagaponack, to which place I had been exiled in 1991. Both times, after sleeping with these angels, I started writing and making pictures again. Not a word of this to anyone!
MCS: Of course not. From your lips to God’s ears, I promise. In 1999 you wrote a series of twenty- one segments to be broadcast on WNYC (New York’s public radio station). In these segments you imagined yourself as a “reporter on the afterlife,” with interviews of the famous and infamous ranging from Shakespeare to Hitler2. I am sure it is somewhat obvious to you that these discussions with the deceased were the inspiration for what we are doing here today. I hope that’s okay – just some fun with an old idea of yours, and also an opportunity to learn some more about you.
KV: Do Darwinists ever consider the possibility that somebody might do something for the sheer hell of it, and heck with survival?
MCS: Exactly – just for the hell of it. I guess Darwinists…..(cut off)
KV: It may give us some comfort in these worrisome times to know that in all of history only one country has actually been crazy enough to detonate atomic weapons in the midst of civilian populations, turning unarmed men, women and children into radioactive soot and bone meal. And that was a long, long time ago now.
MCS: Comforting yes, in the scheme of things, but also distressing to think that the grounds I call home is the same country you speak of. I have read a few comparisons of your style to jazz and comedians. Does that analogy hold any water?
KV: I don’t think about it much, but, now that you’ve asked, it seems right to say that my writing is lower class, intuitive, moody, and anxious to hold the attention of a potentially hostile audience, and quick – like a comic or jazz musician – to change the subject or mood…..
MCS: In many of your stories it is this ability to change subjects and mood, to be so flexible, and to be wry yet insightful, that is so affecting – and in that light the comparison makes sense. Now, for decades you were a pretty controversial subject – invoking the ire of the public to the point of censorship. For instance in 1972, Slaughterhouse-Five was banned in Rochester, MI because it “contains and makes references to religious matters.”
KV: The first story of mine to arouse censors was about time-travelers who go back to the Holy Land at the time of the Crucifixion. It turns out the Bible had it right, the three crosses, the crown of thorns and so on. As long as they’re back there, they decide to measure Jesus. He is five foot and three inches tall, the same height, incidentally, as Richard the Lion Hearted. Outrage! Pandemonium!
MCS: The horror! It is remarkable what has been thought to be unsuited for the masses. That continues to this day of course. A shame really. Moving on – Can you share some advice with the burgeoning young writers that frequent this site?
KV: If you want to write fiction, then you must be patient, for you need experiences, and those take time to accumulate. Unfortunately, television offers the illusion of experiences writers used to come by the hard way, in courtrooms, on ships, in hospitals, whatever. Please don’t rely on those, unless you want to be popular. I go for truths, very personal ones, not likely to be learned from TV sets. We need to know what those are. Or I do. When I teach creative writing, my lessons are mainly about sociability. Please, please, please make sure the reader is having an interesting time, and the hell with you…..
Listen: Story-telling is a game for two, and a mature story teller is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak. Or such is my opinion, and I will agree with what you3 say about opinions, that they are “not stuff”, and thus famously insubstantial and subject to change.
MCS: I agree. I have always thought that trying to please the reader is important. If we are solely writing for ourselves we are simply just masturbating, which has its place of course. I have been thinking a whole lot lately about art, and as I know you have also dabbled heavily in silk screen prints I thought you might have some insight. Is there a benefit to separating the artist from the art? Or do you have to know about the author to understand, or to put into proper context, his writing? Does it help?
KV: People capable of loving some paintings or etchings or whatever can rarely do this without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is one half of the conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking to you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for sincerity? There are virtually no beloved or respected paintings made by persons of whom we know nothing. We can even surmise a lot about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caves underneath Lascaux, France.
So I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to attach a name to your pictures, and to say why you hope others might find them rewarding to look at, there goes the ballgame right there. Pictures are famous for their human-ness not their picture-ness.
MCS: Interesting take, and I see how that applies specifically with paintings, sculptures, and the like.
KV: In my present condition, though, I find important art almost unbearable. Maybe that is because I myself can’t produce important art, and can’t stand proofs that such art is possible. Things could be worse. I could be in what used to be Leningrad, with nothing to eat and without a clue to what the fuck to write now.
MCS: It could always be worse I suppose. But I would argue until blue in the face, and beyond, concerning the importance of your art, and your contributions in general. Before we end our little activity here, is there any other counsel you may have for us? It does not solely have to be about writing.
KV: Somebody should have told me not to join a fraternity, but to hang out with independents, who were not that numerous. I would have grown up faster that way. Somebody should have told me that getting drunk, while fashionable, was dangerous and stupid. And somebody should have told me to forget about higher education, and to go to work for a newspaper instead.
MCS: So true, these enlightening truths seem to find us far too late in the game. I really cannot thank you enough, it has not only been a pleasure, but a true honor. And with that in mind, I will grant you the honor of of the last word here. Any closing thoughts?
KV: And how should we behave during an apocalypse? WE should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog if you don’t already have one, I’m out of here.4
- All the quotes in this piece are accredited to Kurt Vonnegut and are lovingly sourced from the book “Kurt Vonnegut – Letters” compiled and edited by Dan Wakefield. Only excerpts from the 1990’s and 2000’s were used in this piece so that any parties interested in reading this brilliant publication approach it almost wholly unspoiled. Enjoy! [↩]
- Which were later published as the book God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. [↩]
- Steve Adams [↩]
- These were the last words of advice Vonnegut wrote to be delivered to an audience. [↩]