A Conversation With Kurt Vonnegut
It is not often that we make a wish and it comes true almost immediately. About a month and a half ago I wished I could speak with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. This came about because I finally read Slaughterhouse Five, after having read Cat's Cradle years ago and deciding for myself he was brilliantly sarcastic, which is something a lot of people try without much success. It is interesting to note also that, on those rare occasions when those wishes do materialize in front of your eyes or over the telephone, they almost never happen exactly the way you've planned them. I didn't get to ask Vonnegut if there actually was such a science fiction writer as Kilgore Trout, a character who appears in Slaughterhouse Five, or if Vonnegut really did have that late-night disease "involving alcohol and the telephone," or what he thinks of having his face on the Barnes & Noble carrying bags. It was not an interview in the sense that I got to ask questions and have them answered. To quote a bit of Cat's Cradle, if I had actually interviewed Kurt Vonnegut, "'then I'm ready now to take charge of volcanoes, the tides, and the migrations of birds and lemmings. The man [is] a force of nature no mortal could possibly control.'" We spoke for about 20 minutes about the state of mankind, writing and his visit next week to USC Aiken. This is what happened in that conversation, with some history thrown in.Kurt Vonnegut on Humor and TragedyWithout any idea whatsoever where to begin, I asked if he was as pessimistic about the future of the human race as the news release from USC Aiken says he is. "I hang out with scientists," he said, "and what we're doing to the planet is terrible."Yet his books make you laugh at things you're not supposed to be laughing at, things like war and bombs and the end of the world and prisoner-of-war camps ... "I hope so. It's good for people to laugh. It gives some relief to the body." Besides, he said, "I prefer laughing to crying."On Science and FictionAsked if he had set out to be a science-fiction writer, he said no. "I just set out to be a writer, and my education is in science." He feels that science fiction is an artificial genre anyway, and that many literary types look down on it because, "Some of it is miserably written." Also, he said, the early science fiction magazines which were the outlets for early science fiction writers, didn't pay very much for stories. But now, he said, we're ignoring science and its implications in exactly the same way the Victorians tried to pretend sex didn't exist, which doesn't make sense, since science is so much a part of our existence nowadays.He was a biochemist by education, having studied at Cornell University for three years. He told me he didn't take English classes, except for freshman English, which everybody had to take. He left the school, though, without a degree. "I was delighted," he says in a biographical sketch, "to catch pneumonia during my third year and, upon recovery, to forget everything I ever learned about chemistry and go to war." After being a prisoner of war for a while, seeing Dresden, Germany destroyed and mining corpses, he studied anthropology while working as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. After that, he went to work for General Electric, where his brother was "doing remarkable work with respect to cloud physics." Though he "hated it" he says that is where he met his closest friends. He likes to hang around scientists, who aren't boring at all, as some people might think. "They are witty; they are amusing; they are very interesting people."On Being a Good Blind DateIronically, he would spend some time on the teaching end of the writing programs of which he never partook as a student. He lectured at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, lectured English at Harvard University and was Distinguished Professor at the City College of New York. "All that was a while ago now," he said, meaning the late '60s and early '70s.I asked him how he knows a piece is working. "If it pleases someone else," he said. A key to good writing, he says, is sociability. "I can teach you how to be a good blind date," he said. As a writing instructor, it was his job to teach his students "how to show people a good time. ... Because the reader can stop at any time, you know." He says it is unreasonable to use writing as a way to dump on people. "The reader won't hold still while the dump truck backs up."On His Final BookPutnam has just released Vonnegut's last book. It's so brand, spanking new that even his agent had yet to see a copy of it when I spoke to her last week. It is called TIMEQUAKE. "This is my last book," he said. To the inevitable "But why?" he replied, "The older my father got, the dumber he got." And when I asked what he planned to do now that he was through writing novels, he replied, "Well, eventually, I'll die," after which he plans simply to lie in the ground for a while. So it goes.I told him I meant BEFORE that. He said, "I make pictures; I write short little essays sometimes." He seemed quite satisfied with himself, though, because he doesn't HAVE to write anymore. "All my books are still in print," he said, and pointed out that not many writers who have been around a while can say that. "I don't have to say a word and still I'm yammering at everyone."On Religion and Freedom of SpeechI mentioned the philosophical nature of his work, and asked him if he made up the religions that sometimes appear. "Well, I did make up one in CAT'S CRADLE." He is a member of the American Humanist Association. "That's my religion. ... My parents were good people, who were atheists. "We're not enemies to religion at all," he said, only I'm not sure whether he meant humanists or atheists or scientists. "It's a great comfort to a lot of people. I would never take it away from them." He admires CANDIDE author Voltaire for saving his criticisms of religion for discussions with like-minded people. "He never said anything to them (the religious) to make them skeptical. I think that was kind of him." He says that, though he's a "religious skeptic," he wouldn't want to make people not talk about their beliefs. Though he recognizes the desire to shut up those whose beliefs don't match ours as a very human one, he doesn't go for censorship. "It's against the law in this country. It's like parking in front of a fireplug." So then I asked if he sees a trend in this country toward trying to get writers to go away and be quiet, especially in schools. He didn't say yay or nay. He said, "Well we won't. We'll fight." He has faith in the parents who want their kids exposed to ideas. "I can't make you shut up and you can't make me shut up. I think that's wonderful." He then quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."I think that's wonderful. I've got to go now, Dear," he said, and we went about the business of tying up the conversation and saying our goodbyes. Then, just as I was about to hang up, I thought I heard him say something akin to, "Go with God," and put the phone back to my ear to ask him what he'd said. "I said, God bless you," he said. He was laughing.On Coming to the SouthHe is looking forward to his Aiken visit. He likes traveling below the Mason-Dixon line, he says, for two reasons. "Writers are respected there still. It's an important rank in the South." And the other reason? "I can smoke."