"I've worked with enough students to know what beginning writers are like, and if they will just talk to me for twenty minutes I can help them so much, because there are such simple things to know. Make a character want something -- that's how you begin."
William Rodney Allen teaches English at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. He is the author of Walker Percy: The Southern Wayfarer.
Books by Kurt Vonnegut Player Piano.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.
The Sirens of Titan.
New York: Dell, 1959.
Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1961.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1963.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1965.
Welcome to the Monkey House.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1968.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1971.
Between Time and Timbuktu, or Promethus 5.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1972.
Breakfast of Champions.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1973.
Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons: Opinions.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1974.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1976.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1979.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1981
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1982.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1985.
New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1987.
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1990.
Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage.
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1997.
(Note from Scanner: As of June 2004, the only other books Vonnegut has published are Bagombo Snuff Box, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and Like Shaking Hands with God. For some reason, Canary in a Cat House, Sun Star Moon (Ya), Nothing is Lost Save Honor andHappy Birthday, Wanda June were not included in the above list.)
Running Experiments Off: An Interview Laurie Clancy
'Unstuck in Time'. . . a Real Kurt Vonnegut: The Reluctant Guru of Searching Youth William T. Noble
An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Frank McLaughlin
Playboy Interview David Standish
A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Robert Scholes
Meeting My Maker: A Visit with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by Kilgore Trout Greg Mitchell
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Joe David Bellamy and John Casey
Kurt Vonnegut: The Art of Fiction LXIV David Hayman, DavidMichaelis, George Plimpton, and Richard Rhodes
Two Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut Charles Reilly
There Must Be More to Love than Death: A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut Robert Musil
A Skull Session with Kurt Vonnegut Hank Nuwer
An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut Wiliam Rodney Allen and Paul Smith
Having Enough: A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut William Rodney Allenand Paul Smith
Introduction Thirty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, the ground zero of Kurt Vonnegut's career. Coming when it did, at the height of the war in Vietnam, the novel captured the imaginations of enough readers -- especially young ones -- to make Vonnegut for a time the most popular writer in the country. Perhaps not since Uncle Tom's Cabin had a work of fiction so deeply affected the public's perception of an ongoing American war. If, as Lincoln famously remarked, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel helped start the Civil War, then Slaughterhouse-Five -- along with non-fictional events like the Tet Offensive and Kent State -- helped get the United States out of Vietnam. As Vonnegut himself might say, strong stuff.
That was thirty years ago. Now, amazingly (for those of us who think of him as inevitably connected to youth), Kurt Vonnegut is the seventy-seven-year-old Grand Old Man of American literature. Having yielded the spotlight of pop culture to such writers as Stephen King or John Grisham, Vonnegut now stands nearer the edge than the center of fame. Undergraduates no longer automatically perk up at the sound of his name. But as he has said in explaining why American writers produced a more significant literature on World War II than did their European conterparts, the edge often provides a better perspective than the center. This paradox holds true for the literary critic, who can see a writer most clearly only at a distance. While Vonnegut has probably not finished writing, he published his first story fifty years ago, so time has provided enough distance to reveal the shape of his career. The aim of Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut is to document that career, in the artist's own words, through all its frustrations and triumphs. And what a long, strange trip it's been.
These interviews reveal that Vonnegut began more as a scientist than a novelist. His early writing for his high school newspaper, the Shortridge Echo, and later for the Sun at Cornell, taught him a respect for hard facts. Though he struggled as an undergraduate chemistry major before the war, he never lost the sense that a novelist should be "scientifically literate." Yet during the pervasive technological optimism of the '50s, Vonnegut sounded warnings against scientific hubris in his first two novels, Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959). In these conventionally structured sci-fi books, Vonnegut borrowed from Brave New World and anticipated A Clockwork Orange, depicting the triumph of technology as hell rather than heaven. Though in his apprenticeship, Vonnegut managed to hear and record what was often drowned out by the ad men's hucksterism -- a faint but persistent static, coming from outer space or deep within the national psyche, that became audible in the decade's fears about UFO's, domestic communists, even the monsters on the drive-in movie screen.
After showing signs of finding his own voice in the somber Mother Night, Vonnegut found it beyond any doubt in 1963, in his fourth novel. A jazzy, Zen-influenced, metafictional, mock-apocalyptic tour de force, Cat's Cradle was light years beyond his earlier novels, both technically and thematically. His college cult following began with this book, for soon hip undergraduates were quoting the Book of Bokonon, the sacred text of Cat's Cradle's invented religion of "harmless truths." The enemy was still unbridled science, in the guise of the atomic bomb and its successor, Ice 9, but Vonnegut had changed his methods of attack: as a whole generation would soon learn, the best way to challenge authority was first to undermine it with ridicule. In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut satirized both religious fundamentalists rendered obsolete in the age of science and scientists who could offer man everything except a promise not to blow up the planet and a ground for his values. The book ends with the narrator's thumbing his nose at God.
Vonnegut's "major phase" continued through God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and culminated with Slaugherhouse-Five. The former book contained such gems as Rosewater's hymn of praise to a convention of science fiction writers ("I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really important changes going on. . ."), his famous bit of advice that sums up his creator's ethos ("God damn it, you've got to be kind"), and his adoption at the novel's end of all the illegitimate children of Rosewater county as his heirs (one of Vonnegut's many expressions of the need for extended families).
Then came what Vonnegut called "my famous book on Dresden." As he remarks in the novel on the Allied bombing near the end of the war of that cultured, nonindustrial city, "What can you say about a massacre?"; as for Slaughterhouse-Five, what can you say about a masterpiece? It is tempting to see POW Vonnegut's chance survival of the obliteration of Dresden as the central event in his life -- one akin to, say, Hemingway's wounding at the Italian front in the previous war. But as Vonnegut insists in one of the interviews, "The importance of Dresden in my life has been considerably exaggerated. . ." (Standish, p. 94). Paradoxically, the aftershocks of the novel that came out of his war experience ultimately affected him more than had the experience itself: he became the most famous writer in America. Every bookstore in the country featured a poster of the tall author with the droopy mustache, rumpled hair, and sad, wise eyes. Time called him "ultraVonnegut." But behind the hype was the book, which somehow both magnified the horrors of war through the dazed eyes of Billy Pilgrim while reducing them through the cosmic perspective of the Tralfamadorians. At its core was the hope that nothing is ever really lost: Billy learns from the Tralfamadorians that "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist." Slaughterhouse-Five was fiery and cool, despairing yet comforting -- and it worked. And still works.
But what happens after one writes his masterpiece? In these interviews Vonnegut candidly offers several causes for the marked decline in his work in the early '70s -- when he was ironically at the height of his fame. Perhaps the central one was that he had written the single book he had to write, and so found himself adrift. His children had grown up and left home, and his marriage of twenty-five years was breaking up. In Deadeye Dick (1982), he would offer the theory that lives are like stories, with climaxes and epilogues; Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Slapstick (1976) all suggested that Vonnegut's post-Slaughterhouse-Five work would be anticlimactic. In Palm Sunday (1981), Vonnegut would grade his books, awarding Slaughterhouse-Five an A+, and his play and next two novels a D, C, and D, respectively. Many critics might argue that Slapstick's grade was inflated. This botched attempt was certainly the nadir of his career, a bleak time when, as Vonnegut says, "the critics wanted me squashed like a bug" (Paris Review, p. 184).
But the trouble was not that Vonnegut was another F. Scott Fitzgerald, corrupted by financial success and fame into compromising his art. While the '20s and the late '60s-early 70s had much in common -- both periods were youth-oriented, sexually liberated, antiwar -- and Fitzgerald and Vonnegut were both perceived as the literary embodiments of their times, there were crucial differences between the two men. One was the measure of their talent, but another was the fact that when Fitzgerald's fame came in the 20's, Fitzgerald was in his twenties; Vonnegut was in his late forties when it happened to him. After The Great Gatsby, seven years passed before Fitzgerald published Tender is the Night. In the interval he spent his time writing slick magazine stories for $3,000 each, and being photographed with Zelda in various carefree poses. As an older man, a veteran of war, Vonnegut never took the youth culture of the summer of love too seriously, never pandered to his fans. As he said at the time, "I don't want to be the Pied Piper" (Noble, p. 61). His most important book in this period was a collection of his journalism, Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons (1974), in which he demonstrated considerable skepticism about the psychedelic age. He coolly analyzed the young's limitations in taste in "Why They Read Hesse," and in "Yes, We Have No Nirvanas" offered a classic send-up of the Maharishi's magical mystery tour of America. Vonnegut's fictional talents seemed to have withered, but his touch in journalism, his first love, was as sure as ever.
What Vonnegut perhaps did get too caught up in was the antinovel movement of the period. Fowles, Barth, Barthelme and others were incessantly calling attention to the artificiality of art, to the fact that the great Oz of fiction was simply a little man pulling levers behind a curtain. A desire to break down the barrier between fact and fiction had always marked Vonnegut's work (as in the first and last chapters of Slaughterhouse-Five); but in Breakfast of Champions he seemed determined to show his characters were automatons before they ever came alive. He wrote himself into the book, faced down his fictional alter-ego Kilgore Trout, and set him free -- proclaiming that he had also freed himself from the restraints of plot, characterization, and theme. But this sort of literary gamesmanship really wasn't Vonnegut's game, as the interviews make clear. Never a Borges, much less a Nabokov, Vonnegut finally gravitated toward the moral rather than the aesthetic pole of art.
In his books from the last two decades, especially Jailbird (1979), Bluebeard (1987), and Timequake (1997), Vonnegut has made a quiet but unmistakable comeback. After the disastrous reception of the involutional Slapstick, he turned his attention outward -- to questions of American politics, religion, and character. Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, and Bluebeard all deal with the crimes or failures of the protagonists -- two of whom are artists -- but these personal battles are grounded in the sweep of American history. In his teens, Vonnegut had seen the interconnectedness of history and character first hand. The central fact in his life was not so much his experience at Dresden as his recognition that his wealthy father gave up on life after the Great Crash took away all his architectural commissions. A child of the Depression, Vonnegut was able to write brilliantly in Jailbird about how economic tensions caused a virtual breakdown of constitutional government in the '20s and '30s -- a failure epitomized by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Walter Starbuck's accidental entanglement with Nixon's Watergate gang, moreover, shows that the constitution is always under siege -- even from the Oval Office. Palm Sunday, the nonfictional follow-up to Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons, continued Vonnegut's explorations of questions of citizenship -- issues of separation of church and state, freedom of speech, sexual equality. Like Whitman's Democratic Vistas, Palm Sunday demands that America be what it claims to be. I believe it contains some of Vonnegut's best work.
If Deadeye Dick (in which Vonnegut returns as he had in Mother Night to his ambivalent attitude toward his German ancestry) loses steam at the end, and Galapagos is as coldly cerebral as a textbook in biochemistry, Bluebeard is Vonnegut's best novel since Slaughterhouse-Five. It is an old man's story, like The Old Man and the Sea or Mr. Sammler's Planet, but it has little of those books' bitterness. A purely realistic novel without any of Vonnegut's usual sci-fi tricks, Bluebeard is richly characterized and elegantly structured. Through its protagonist, the ex-abstract expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian, Vonnegut looks back on his own career and finds he can live with it -- and keep on working.
That resolve is evident in Vonnegut's three books of the 90s. In Hocus Pocus he examines the financial/spiritual malaise of the late 80s from the perspective of the near future. While not as successful a novel as Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus is Vonnegut's last real effort in that genre. Fates Worse Than Death picks up where Palm Sunday left off, and is the closest thing to an autobiography that Vonnegut is likely to write. This collection of essays is filled with moving, intimate writing about his politics, his work, and his family. Finally, Timequake, his self-proclaimed "last novel," might better have been called Fates Worse Than Death II. In it he makes only the most perfunctory gestures toward traditional fictional tropes before getting down to his real business: being America's greatest gadfly. If Timequake is indeed his final bow, it's a winning one in which Vonnegut invites all his old pals to an imaginary clambake on Cape Cod in the year 2001. And who'd want to miss that one?
The interviews collected here took place over almost three decades, from early in 1969 to 26 February 1999, when Paul Smith and I talked with Mr. Vonnegut in his townhouse in Manhattan. It would have been impossible to offer all the interviews in one volume (for a complete listing of them prior to 1987, see Kurt Vonnegut: A Comprehensive Bibliography, compiled by Asa B. Pieratt, Jr., Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, and Jerome Klinkowitz [Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1987]), but I have included all those I consider "major," such as those from the Paris Review, Playboy, and the New York Times, as well as a representative sample of the shorter pieces. Because the interviews are concentrated in the early '70s, I have tried to feature as many as possible of the later ones. Paul Smith and I did interviews of our own in order to bring the volume up to date in terms of Vonnegut's recent work; in two two-and-a-half hour conversations with the author we discussed his books from Jailbird on, paying special attention to Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Fates Worse Than Death, and Timequake.
The interviews appear here in chronological order, and as they were originally published. Obvious errors have been silently corrected. While the same questions inevitably crop up several times ("Are you a black humorist?" is unquestionably the winner in this category), Vonnegut's wit in handling them makes good reading.
A number of people helped me with this project. Several colleagues at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts lent their support, but I would especially mention Drs. Karen Cole, Katherine Kearns, Allen Tubbs, and Art Williams. Laurie Duke, my research assistant, was invaluable to me. Sandy Hussey at the Northwestern State University Library and Nancy Nuckles at the LSU Library facilitated my pursuit of obscure journals. Bill Rice went out of his way to assist me with research in the libraries at Emory, Georgia State University, and Shorter College. At Columbia University, Jim Shapiro provided logistical support while I was in New York in 1987, and Pat Watkins and Werner F did the same in 1999. Paul Smith was the best of partners in our interviews. Most importantly, without Jerome Klinkowitz's help, over the phone and through his extensive work on Vonnegut, I would still be in the reference room. This book would of course not have been possible without the work of all the authors and editors of these interviews, or without their generous permission for me to reprint them. As always, I owe a great debt to my editor at the University Press of Mississippi, Seetha Srinivasan, and to Hunter Cole.
And I thank Kurt Vonnegut.
Chronology 1922 - Born 11 November, in Indianapolis, Indiana to Kurt, Sr. and Edith Lieber Vonnegut. Older siblings: Bernard and Alice.
1929 - Depression begins. Father begins long period without a single architectural commission. Family in reduced financial circumstances.
1936-40 - Student at Shortridge High School. Editor of its daily paper, the Echo. 1940-43 - Student at Cornell University, majoring in chemistry and biology. Managing editor for its daily paper, the Sun.
1943 - Enlisted in the United States Army; sent to Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee to study engineering.
1944 - Death of his mother, 14 May. Captured by German troops at the Battle of the Bulge, 22 December. Interned as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany.
1945 - Survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden in which over 130,000 died, 13 February. Returned to the United States, 22 May. Married Jane Marie Cox, 1 September. Moved to Chicago, December.
1946-47 - Worked for Chicago City News Bureau. Graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago.
1947 - Left graduate school without a degree. Moved to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as a publicist for the General Electric Corporation.
1950 - Published his first story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," in Collier's magazine, 11 February.
1951 - Quit his job at General Electric and moved with his family to Provincetown, Massachusetts (later to West Barnstable, Massachusetts), to write full time.
1952 - Player Piano, his first novel, published by Scribner's.
1954-56 - Taught English at the Hopefield School on Cape Cod; worked for an advertising agency; opened the second Saab auto dealership in the United States.
1957 - Death of his father, 1 October.
1958 - Deaths within 24 hours of each other of his sister Alice, of cancer, and her husband, in a train accident. He and Jane adopt Alice's three oldest children.
1959 - The Sirens of Titan published.
1961 - Canary in a Cat House, a collection of short stories, published.
1962 - Mother Night published.
1963 - Cat's Cradle published.
1965 - God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater published. First reviews appear. Writes personal journalism for large-circulation magazines. Began two-year residency at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
1967 - Offer of a three-book contract from Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, who later reprinted all his books in hardcover. Guggenheim Fellowship, which included travel to Dresden.
1968 - Welcome to the Monkey House published.
1969 - Slaughterhouse-Five published.
1970 - Taught creative writing at Harvard University. Wrote Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a play.
1971 - Awarded a Master's degree in anthropology by the University of Chicago. Moved, alone, to New York.
1972 - Son Mark suffers a schizophrenic breakdown, which supplied the basis for Mark's book, The Eden Express. Slaughterhouse-Five produced as a film. Elected to membership in in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
1973 - Breakfast of Champions published.
1974 - Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons: Opinions published.
1976 - Slapstick published.
1979 - Jailbird published.
1981 - Palm Sunday published.
1982 - Deadeye Dick published.
1985 - Galapagos published.
1987 - Bluebeard published.
1990 - Hocus Pocus published.
1991 - Fates Worse Than Death published.
1997 - Timequake published.