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God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

What he told me about writing, lying and science. An interview and memoir.

By Mark Leiren-Young 16 Apr 2007 |

Mark Leiren-Young, a Vancouver screenwriter, playwright and journalist, files his "Fast Rewind" summary of the news for The Tyee at the end of every month. Check out his website. Previous Fast Rewinds are here. You can read about Mark's adventures making The Green Chain on his blog.

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Kurt Vonnegut: 'I'm an atheist who preaches'

[Editor's note: Mark Leiren-Young interviewed Kurt Vonnegut in 1990. None of these quotes have been published before.]

When I heard Kurt Vonnegut was going to be in Vancouver, I had to interview him. I just didn't think it would be possible. I'd read in one of his books (Palm Sunday) that he didn't do interviews any more. But I had to try.

It was 1990, and I was writing about local celebrities for TV Week Magazine. I phoned my editor. I was prepared to beg, but she liked the idea. Then I phoned the production company expecting to be told: "Mr. Vonnegut doesn't do interviews." Instead, I was asked if it would be possible to meet him on Friday or Saturday. I was in shock.

Kurt Vonnegut was my idol. I'd read my first Vonnegut book, Cat's Cradle, in grade eight. He was the first "real" writer I'd read who seemed to write for readers, not lit profs.

After Cat's Cradle, I read everything else I could find that he'd written and anything written about him. I collected obscure essays, old interviews and books analyzing and over analyzing his work -- which wasn't that easy back before Al Gore invented the Internet and you could Google an official web site.

True fiction

Vonnegut's big hit was Slaughterhouse Five, a science fiction autobiography that dealt with his experiences as a prisoner in Dresden, Germany -- a city with no military importance that was devastated by an Allied bombing raid during World War Two. If you haven't read it yet, go buy a copy and check it out. I'll wait.

My hero was in town to film a TV series based on his short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House -- a book I'd read and reread until my copy was shredded. When I took a high school class that covered screenwriting and had to choose a story to adapt I did "Harrison Bergeron," one of the stories from Monkey House.

This all came spilling out of me when I spoke to the show's publicist, Dixie. But instead of dismissing me as a stalker she told me to keep Friday and Saturday open. I cancelled everything I had planned for Friday and Saturday and kept Sunday clear just in case. I moved all my appointments to Monday.

Thursday, I got a call from Dixie. "Mr. Vonnegut" wanted to go shopping on Saturday. For a moment my heart stopped -- I was going to take him shopping, show him the city, talk writing, bond for life. But this wasn't an invitation. "Mr. Vonnegut was wondering if it would be alright to set this up for Monday."

Oh. Of course. Absolutely. No problem. I rerescheduled everything and spent the weekend in a panic.

Writing, life, the universe

I skimmed my battered copy of Monkey House. I reviewed the books, essays, interviews and news clippings. I made a list of questions I had to ask. I wanted his theories on writing, life and the state of the universe.

The interview was set for 2:30. At about noon, I tried to eat lunch. I managed to get through almost half a tuna sandwich and few sips of iced tea. Then I drove to the studio, leaving enough time to spare that even if the bridge to North Vancouver collapsed I still had time to swim.

When I arrived, Dixie was nowhere to be found. I nabbed someone in a baseball cap who looked like a guy who'd know where people were. "I'm looking for Dixie," I said. "I've got an interview with Kurt Vonnegut." I realized even as the word "Kurt" passed my lips that it would have to be "Mr. Vonnegut" if I ever got the chance to address him. And then I passed an office and saw HIM. The Mark Twain moustache, the ironic smile, the ever-present Pall Mall cigarette scissored between the fingers of his left hand. Or maybe it was his right hand. But it was definitely HIM.

"I don't know where Dixie is," said my guide, "but Vonnegut's in there."

Mr. Vonnegut finally came out of the office. I think he was a bit over six feet tall but he looked seven. He walked with a slouch that was a little Groucho Marx-ish. In the face, in the bright eyes, in that smile, I saw Twain and maybe a little Einstein. I felt like a sweaty school nerd preparing to ask a cheerleader to the prom. But before I could say anything he was led away to the sound stage.

'Keep in touch'

For 30 minutes the crew filmed Mr. Vonnegut delivering the same line on a bright white set that was a hallway with a series of ever-shrinking doors designed to give the effect of a room stretching on forever -- the monkey house. Very Twilight Zone. "Keep in touch," he said -- over and over -- as he recorded his Rod Serling style cameo. Then he had to read more lines. That took another hour.

Then it was time. Dixie took me to meet him. He said, "Hello." He may have apologized for the delay. I can't be sure because that was when he shook my hand and smiled at me. His hand was warm. His grip was friendly, not too tight.

But before we had time to talk, before I had a chance to ask him the secrets of the universe and successful writing, he was summoned back on stage for a photo shoot.

And as I watched him posing for the cameras, I realized I should probably call the whole thing off, that I didn't want to interview him after all. What if he wasn't the person I wanted him to be? What if he hated me? What if I said something stupid? I wanted to go home and take that warm handshake with me. But it was too late.

Golden age of magazines

I'd never been better prepared for an interview before and I've never been better prepared since. I'd read 17 of his books, dozens of interviews. I had a list of questions that I'd spent days preparing. So are you the least bit surprised that when we finally went into a small office to talk, I could barely open my mouth?

Fortunately, he'd been interviewed enough times that after I asked how the TV show came about, he recited his favourite autobiographical anecdotes on auto-pilot, telling me about his stint in the army, his career with General Electric, his marriage and his progression from short stories for commercial magazines to TV scripts to novels.

"These stories were all written in the golden age of magazines, when people wrote short stories for a living. It was a big industry. Of course, it was television that knocked off the magazines, not out of malice, but just because television was a much better buy for advertisers.

"I used to be a magazine big shot, living on Cape Cod and just writing stories and sticking them in a mailbox and that cheque would come back, maybe a letter, "could you fix this or that a little bit?"

'Easy street'

"I had a good job at General Electric as a public relations man. And just writing on weekends I was suddenly making so much more than General Electric was willing to pay me for a whole year. I had a wife and two kids. I didn't hate General Electric. I admired them back then, I don't think much of them now. But, anyway, I quit and moved to Cape Cod. That was in 1951. And the magazines were knocked out of business finally by TV, about 1960. The magazines finally died and so I was without a means of supporting my family, but we had been on easy street."

Since he wrote for a living, Vonnegut went where the money was. TV. "When TV was just starting out, it was possible for an outsider like me to send in a script and they might produce it. And the industry was very briefly in New York City and so I did sell some TV scripts, three or four of them. One of them was the first dramatic part that Sammy Davis Junior ever had.

"The show, called 'D.P.,' was written for General Electric Theatre and was about a black sergeant in the Allied occupation of Germany who suddenly finds himself confronted with a black child calling him 'Daddy.'"

A novel plan

Then the TV industry moved to the west coast and Vonnegut moved into novels. His TV experience between that time and our interview consisted of hosting a PBS series on Mark Twain.

Vonnegut told me he wrote four hours a day. At the time he lived in a four-storey townhouse in New York with his wife, the photographer and author, Jill Krementz, and their eight-year-old daughter. He said he watched a lot of TV. "Everyone does." And during his visit to Canada he'd become hooked on watching curling. "I'd never thought much about curling before. Well, when I was in Tokyo I watched a lot of sumo."

The few questions I did manage to ask, I asked in a voice barely above a whisper. When he'd finish speaking, I'd stare blankly, then look down at my list of prepared questions, decide they were stupid and try to come up with something else. There were long pauses Beckett would have balked at, as I searched for the questions I wanted to ask. I wanted to know everything, but I couldn't help thinking that if he had anything to say he'd probably written it down, and since I'd read everything he'd written I'd have to be pretty stupid to ask.

'I'm an atheist and I preach'

Fortunately, I didn't need to ask much else. "I'm scared to death," he volunteered. "I hoped to die before I saw another Great Depression and another World War. I was sure both were coming, because they do come. By golly we're right on the edge of both of them. We sure as hell got the Great Depression again because we're not going to pull out of this thing in any three months. And the Middle East thing worries me a great deal. And so I'm worried about the quality of our leadership really, nothing seems to be done about our terrible economic problems, they're not even discussed."

He talked about the speeches he was giving, including speeches he was delivering from church pulpits. "I've preached some. It's funny, I'm an atheist and I preach. I've actually preached in the largest gothic cathedral in the world, which is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I've preached in St. Clement's Church, which is the actor's church in New York, the Episcopal Church. And a year ago I preached on Christmas Eve at Christ Methodist Church on Park Avenue. People regard me as an ethical person even though I'm not a Christian. So they bring me on as an ethical freak. I talk a lot of politics, I talk about conservation, I talk about literature, I'm supposed to be entertaining."

At his university speeches, he'd talk a lot about pop culture, including TV. "I talk about TV and I say that an awful lot of plays from the golden age of theatre in New York City, the 1920s and '30s, are no better than sitcoms. There's a staircase coming down one side and a couch and a coffee table and French doors are opening into the garden or something like that. And there are lots of things on TV in recent times, which are superior to almost anything on Broadway. And I said that I would rather have written Cheers than anything I did write. And I consider MASH and Hill Street Blues of tremendous importance -- ethically-- in shaping the American character. And the Civil War thing the Burns brothers did was a major masterpiece of the century and that may be because I was in it. I was one of the voices."

'Cheers' to you

I was still reeling from his claim that he'd trade Slaughterhouse Five for an episode of Cheers when I asked him why he wrote. "It's how I make my living. People hate to hear that. No, that's how I make my living and if I can't sell writing, I fall on very hard times. I've had great times, I'm having very good times now. I'm in business, that's my business, but I don't do it cynically. Very few writers can go after the market -- almost every writer I know is doomed to write the way he or she does. You can't change. It's like somebody saying to a tulip, "You know tulips are out and roses are in, why don't you bloom like a rose?" You can't do it.

"Joyce Carol Oates has to write the way she does, I have to write the way I do. William Styron writes the way he does. And even Stephen King has to write the way he does. And it turns out that in a free market that he's a sensation, I'm mildly successful, but there's nothing cynical about what he does.

"There are some people who can turn out market-wise junk and Bernard Geis, the publisher, I don't know whether he's still alive or not. But he published Jacqueline Suzanne and discovered some of these other people who are big names now, really popular novels that go to the top of the best sellers list. And he used to send these authors a formula for writing a bestseller.

How to write stories

"And the first thing is pick a person that a lot of people have heard of, don't do any research on this person, simply remember all the gossip you've ever heard about this person. That's who you're writing about. Change the name. Of course you're talking about Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra. Have a sex scene every twenty pages, go to nowhere but glamorous cities, San Francisco, Rio, Paris. Did I say sex every twenty pages? And that's it. The conflict, the double-crosses. I don't know whether a book like that would sell that well any more. It used to. It's reader friendly."

He barely paused before continuing. "See, I was born in 1922. So was Norman Mailer. And so -- roughly speaking -- were Gore Vidal, Irwin Shaw and Truman Capote. And we're the last generation of American writers or Canadian writers whose brains were marinated in books rather than film.

"Film is very intrusive and so easily dominates the brain. So my book reads as though it were written by a person who's really into books and indeed I was, there was no alternative. And kids now writing novels, they'll be very cinematic. There's nothing wrong with that. But the authors have been more influenced by film, by motion pictures in one form or another than by books. It's not a bad thing at all, it's just...." And Dixie knocked on the door to tell us we were almost out of time, so I didn't find out just what "it" was.

Science or art?

Then I asked one of the only questions I was actually proud of, a question he had to take a beat to think about. Years earlier he'd written a piece where he graded all his books and I asked him to grade the books he'd published since then, including my favourite -- the story of humans devolving because we're too dangerous -- Galapagos.

"I'm very proud of my recent books. It seems to me that I'm doing okay. I like Bluebeard. It seems to me a good examination of the abstract expressionist movement and I knew some of those people, know some of them. And then Hocus Pocus is a pretty good book. B+ or something. Bluebeard I'll give it an A. And I'd give an A+ to Galapagos. It's scientific. I had to be so careful scientifically. It's good evolution and Stephen Jay Gould, a great Harvard Darwinian scholar, uses it in courses and spoke very warmly to me about the book. He's not a friend, and I met him. It was very scientifically responsible. My education is scientific, not literary. I set out to be a biochemist and then took a degree in anthropology and my education was interrupted by the Second World War."

When we met he'd just released Hocus Pocus. His next book was, "a collection of speeches and essays and autobiographical connective tissue," called Fates Worse than Death. And his next novel?

"It's called Timequake," he told me.

I asked him about the story -- more interested as a fan than an interviewer -- but he wasn't revealing a thing. "I've got an idea what it's about," he says, "but I'm not gonna tell you."

He probably knew I'd buy it anyway.

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