Lack of Seriousness – The Last Interview with Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut is one of my few idols, an elegantly simple poet-philosopher of the first class. I grew up near where he lived in Sag Harbor, and I’ve enjoyed his writing since I was in junior high, where I silently hoped to one day have the courage to visit him.

Alas, I am too late. He passed on April 11, 2007.

I was very fortunate, however, to stumble upon the best interview I’ve ever seen with him, and it also happened to be his last.

I’ve edited J. Rentilly’s piece from US Airways Magazine for length to take two minutes at average reading speed, selecting the questions and answers I found most relevant to designing a rewarding life (the first half) or thought-provoking (the second half).

I believe this is two minutes very well spent.

It covers his views on creativity, seriousness, the power (or lack thereof) of the written word, and more. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…

###

Tell me the reasons you’ve been attracted to a life of creation, whether as a writer or an artist.

I’ve been drawing all my life, just as a hobby, without really having shows or anything. It’s just an agreeable thing to do, and I recommend it to everybody. I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly [you do it], because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow. That includes singing, dancing, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument. One thing I hate about school committees today is that they cut arts programs out of the curriculum because they say the arts aren’t a way to make a living. Well, there are lots of things worth doing that are no way to make a living. [Laughs.] They are agreeable ways to make a more agreeable life.

In the process of your becoming, you’ve given the world much warmth and humor. That matters, doesn’t it?

I asked my son Mark what he thought life was all about, and he said, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I think that says it best. You can do that as a comedian, a writer, a painter, a musician. He’s a pediatrician. There are all kinds of ways we can help each other get through today. There are some things that help. Musicians really do it for me. I wish I were one, because they help a lot. They help us get through a couple hours.

“A lack of seriousness,” you wrote, “has led to all sorts of wonderful insights.”

Yes. The world is too serious. To get mad at a work of art — because maybe somebody, somewhere is blowing his stack over what I’ve done — is like getting mad at a hot fudge sundae.

Nearly forty years after Slaughterhouse-Five, people still love reading your books. Why do you think your books have such enduring appeal?

I’ve said it before: I write in the voice of a child. That makes me readable in high school. [Laughs.] Not too many big sentences. But I hope that my ideas attract a lively dialogue, even if my sentences are simple. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don’t use semicolons. It’s hard to read anyway, especially for high school kids. Also, I avoid irony. I don’t like people saying one thing and meaning the other.

When Timequake was published ten years ago, you said you were basically retired as a writer. You’ve published two essay collections since then, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and the best-selling A Man Without a Country. I wonder if the visual arts have become a substitute for writing in your life.

Well, it’s something to do in my old age. [Laughs.] As you may know, I’m suing a cigarette company because their product hasn’t killed me yet.

Is it a different creative process for you, sitting down to write or picking up a paintbrush?

No. I used to teach a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa back in the ’60s, and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent van Gogh — who sold two paintings to his brother.” [Laughs.] I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me, and that’s the case for writing or for drawing, and then out it comes. There are times when nothing comes. James Brooks, the fine abstract-expressionist, I asked him what painting was like for him, and he said, “I put the first stroke on the canvas and then the canvas has to do half the work.” That’s how serious painters are. They’re waiting for the canvas to do half the work. [Laughs.] Come on. Wake up.

We live in a very visual world today. Do words have any power left?

I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. [Laughs.] To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.

Many years ago, you said that a writer’s job is to use the time of a stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. There are a lot of ways for a stranger to pass time these days.

That’s right. There are all these other things to do with time. It used to be people would wonder what the hell they were going to do for the winter. [Laughs.] Then a big book would come out — a big, wonderful book — and everybody would be reading it to pass the time. It was a very primitive experiment, before television, where people would have to look at ink on paper, for God’s sake. I myself grew up when radio was very important. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio. There were funny comedians and wonderful music, and there were plays. I used to pass time with radio. Now, you don’t have to be literate to have a nice time.

You’ve stated that television is one of the most viable art forms in the world today.

Well, it is. It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighborhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an airplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.

Is there another book in you, by chance?

No. Look, I’m 84 years old. Writers of fiction have usually done their best work by the time they’re 45. Chess masters are through when they’re 35, and so are baseball players. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.

So what’s the old man’s game, then?

My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope. This should have been a great country. But we are despised all over the world now. I was hoping to build a country and add to its literature. That’s why I served in World War II, and that’s why I wrote books.

When someone reads one of your books, what would you like them to take from the experience?

Well, I’d like the guy — or the girl, of course — to put the book down and think, “This is the greatest man who ever lived.” [Laughs.]

[For the complete interview, including background on Kurt's writing, please click here.]

Posted on: November 29, 2007.

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55 comments on “Lack of Seriousness – The Last Interview with Vonnegut

  1. I read Slaughterhouse five a few weeks back, (and currently am reading you 4 hour workweek) and really enjoyed it. Here is a man who can make you think about very deep things in a lighthearted -almost casual- way.
    Beautiful interview. What a shame he passed away a few months ago; hope I get to that age with the same sense of humor and witiness!

    Here are my comments of Slautherhouse Five (sorry, in Spanish): http://scepas.blogspot.com/2007/11/matadero-cinco.html

    Like

  2. Very good insights here!
    I dont know exactly why but I always had the idea that every people should learn how to play a musical instrument! Nowadays I think not only learning how to play an instrument, but another things like learn a language (I am learning both english and japanese), go abroad, run a marathon (I did it!), etc. There are lots of thing that we can make in our lifes to make it worth. Another thing is write! I learned that writing we learn how to express ourfelfs better, and also we learn how to think better! I am having been writing about languages in my blog. A lot of people used to say “one of the things you should do is write e book”. Perhaps a book is too long, I would say write a blog!

    Sorry for the english, is not my native language

    Mairo Vergara

    Like

  3. I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Vonnegut speak when I was an undergrad. I remember very distinctly that he told us, “You don’t do art to make money. You do art to make your soul grow.” Then he told us to go home and write a 12 line, rhyming poem!

    What a great human being.

    Like

  4. Hi Tim,
    My comment has nothing to do with this particular post, but more with your book ‘the 4-hour workweek’. The last 2 years it has crossed my mind a couple of times to quit my very well paid job and start working as a contractor. Though I was always thinking about what negative things could happen. After reading your book I got more and more motivated and convinced I should just risk it and do it. Today I quit my job (2 months ago I read your book) and as of the 1st of february next year I’ll be working as a contractor. So, via this not very personal way, I want to thank you very much for finally start living my dream.
    Big greeting from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Jordi Buskermolen

    ###

    Congratulations, Jordi! Thank you very much for your kind words, and I hope to see you in the Netherlands soon :)

    All the best,

    Tim

    Like

  5. Kurt Vonnegut? He’s in heaven. That is what Kurt asks be said about him in TimeQuake. I figure I should start there. The day Kurt Vonnegut died I was flying to The Netherlands and I forgot to but that in my blog. I felt like a real chump writing an obit and ignoring Vonnegut’s request.

    Tim, I’m grateful you have resurfaced this precious interview. Thank you. Vonnegut is a beacon of reason across troubled waters. I’ve been re-reading TimeQuake.
    Kilgore Trout: You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.

    I wish more people would repeat the mantra of Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout. The phrase is engineered to snap people out of a trance. I’m willing try it. I wish more people would simply try what Vonnegut suggests might heal our nation.

    Who else can remember the summer of 1964? America was busily buying more copies of Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason than they have ever bought from a 1st time author in the history of publishing. Seriously. More copies of Stormer’s book were sold that summer than were sold of The Da Vinci Code in it’s best year.

    What did Vonnegut do? He wrote of course. He re-wrote the introduction to his 1961 novel Mother Night. He reframed his novel as morality tale.

    “INTRODUCTION/ This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
    –Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night; 1966

    Thank you Kurt. His act inspired me to write under the name of Howard Campbell, the character who learned the hard way that we are what we pretend to be in Mother Night.

    In 2004, I sent Vonnegut a note and a manuscript. I told him I used his character Howard Campbell in my novel Poker Without Cards. Kurt replied… “Ben Mack, since you don’t have the guts to be a homosexual, and you want to hurt your parents, I’m glad that you are writing.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Classic. Thank you Kurt.

    This quote actually hurt my parents very much. They imagined Kurt Vonnegut actually reading my novel and that his one primary take-away was that I wrote my novel to hurt my parents. Of course they did. Classic. Again, Thank you Kurt. And, Mom and Dad & Betty… I love you. Yes, I do. I laugh at you and I love you. Kurt taught me that.

    “A purpose of human life, no matter who
    is controlling it, is to love whoever is around
    to be loved.”
    – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    Tim, Thank you for feeding the rising voice of Vonnegut. I love you brother. Dear readers, I love you, too. Maybe the love and peace movement can’t save the world. Maybe it can. I figure we owe it to the planet, to the little ones to try. Maybe we don’t.

    “I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    I need to get back to my work…
    “Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    I’ve been sick, but now I’m well again, and there’s work to do.

    Like

    • Ben,

      It is indeed late. Nearly six years, and i stumble upon this post, and upon your response to it.

      You see, I was trying to write…write the book I’ve been planning to write, since about five or four years ago. Sadly, I have only read one book by Vonnegut, yet, that was enough to bring me to search his name for inspiration. He inspires.

      Regardless, I could have simply read the post (which was marvelous) or watched one of his interviews, or anything of that sort. I didn’t need to write this here. Honestly, the combination of your words, and those of Vonnegut, together, have been much more inspiration than I expected. and thank you for that, and for that quote…I have been sick, too. And I must work.

      Again: Thank you, for sharing both your thoughts and experiences, and those of Kurt Vonnegut. Occurrence tends to be most mysterious–six years after, you and Vonnegut (even more than six years after) have done me a service. Thank you.

      -Hansel

      Like

  6. Excellent post Tim. Kurt was such a character—do we have characters anymore? Seems like everyone is so worried about the status quo and not offending anyone these days. True art comes from good souls like Kurt. What he has to say about our country is so true…I wish artists in this day an age would contribute to raising awareness of our dark times in their songs, writing and visual art!

    Like

  7. Tim,
    “like getting mad at a hot fudge sundae” (Biggest wonderful laugh of the morning)
    I knew this post was going to be special.Would love to see the rest of the interview for when I have more than two minutes. Will go looking. Spending time with someone as incredibly vibrant as Kurt Vonnegut is always rewarding. Thanks. Really.
    All best, Jan

    Like

  8. My high school tried to ban Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle when I was a junior. Also that year, the art students were put in a room with 3 walls and a tarp as the 4th wall through an Iowa winter while the school remodeled. We had 2 space heaters and our hands were so cold we could hardly hold our pencils.

    Like

  9. I enjoyed this interview (and your book too) but as someone who makes a living from writing articles (including for this particular magazine), I’d like to suggest crediting author and source upfront. Reprinting a published work like this, as opposed to excerpting a graf or two, is technically a violation of someone’s copyright–in this case the author’s b/c US Airways doesn’t buy all rights.

    I know the blogosphere has loosened protocol on this and the fact is you’re giving the magazine and writer a nice plug, but it doesn’t take much effort to credit the journalist who landed, conducted and probably spent hours writing up this wonderful interview as well as the magazine that commissioned, edited and published it. Just in case people don’t follow the link at the end.

    Carry on with the good work. I’ve learned a lot from you and have recommended your book to many.

    ###

    Hi Cathleen,

    Thank you for your comment! I wrote this one late last night and have now put the pub and interviewer/writer at the top of the post. Thanks!

    Cheers,

    Tim

    Like

  10. Was he a bible believing Christian who put his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins?

    Just curious? The Wikipedia entry did not explain his beliefs, other than being a humanist.

    When one dies it is really the only information I’m curious about.

    Surely, this won’t offend anyone since Vonnegut was a big believer in free speech and a lifetime member of the ACLU.

    Like

    • Bryce – what a bizarre concern. Do you have a notion that Jesus or God likes you better for not caring about how a life was spent, but only whether or not someone put their faith in them? Also, do you not know how to look up the word Humanist? Also, who would get mad at a simple question? You have some very weird ideas, Bryce. And as someone who chats with them daily, I suspect that God and Jesus will not approve of someone who doesn’t care how a life is lived. Makes me wonder how you live yours….

      Like

  11. Is it really a shame he had to leave? I don’t think so. Like he said, let the other writers write.

    What I’d like to add is that whenever I read something this man had to say, I feel like I’m being spoken to in a secret language that I don’t often take the time to use. I also feel a little twinge of guilt or embarrassment because it resonates in me and shows where I’ve gotten caught up in a dreadful and very unfun game. The image of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia when he’s being scolded by the wizard…that’s how I feel. But I remember that I’m being too serious, get over it, and jump back in determined to enjoy myself in all my living. Is that what he would’ve wanted? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no pleasing a dead man. Thanks, Tim, for passing this along.

    Like

  12. Thank you for the (edited) interview. I read SlaughteHouse 5 so many years ago I no longer remember when, but I still remember the book (and the rather sad movie version). This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from the author and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I think I will go and re-read the book, to see if it is different now that I have a little insight into the author.

    Like

  13. Hi All,

    Thank you for the great comments!

    I also wanted to give a shout out and thank you to Jema Watts (www.e-ssistance.com) who helped me fix the ridiculously small font on the email version of these posts.

    Now people can actually read it!

    Thanks, Jema :)

    Tim

    Like

  14. Thanks for the post Tim, never heard of Kurt Vonnegut before this.

    By the way, 2 minutes at average reading speed? It took me 6! I guess I read blogs slowly. Maybe I should try the pxmethod.

    Like

  15. Wonderful stuff. What a great human being. (And you’re not half bad for keeping him front & center, kiddo.)

    What struck me most about the interview was the frequency of laughter. The older I get, the more I understand the central importance of humor in keeping oneself balanced and flexible.

    Like

  16. Tim,
    Ironically, I started reading my first Kurt Vonnegut book 2 days ago, and then I see this post. Where he really hit the nail on the head is the second to last answer – “My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl…” He accurately described my undefined feeling of discontent about the state of affairs in this country today. I love this country and yet it saddens me of the materialistic direction we are going in (to name one issue). People value and put more time towards their TV’s and XBoxes than their relationship with their family and friends. I personally have chosen a few shows that I like to watch, and then try and keep the TV off – and I like it. I could go on for a long time, but I won’t – I need to go continue with Kurt’s book…

    I love the blog, and have your book and it really inspires me. I am hoping to move towards a new life direction in the next year, and plan on referencing your book often.

    Thank you.
    Jennifer

    Like

  17. What a great post. I like that this blog has become so diverse–not a just a testimonial to the mobile lifestyle, outsourcing, and living a 4-hour workweek.

    Don’t get me wrong, your book has affected me in a huge way. I’ve put so many of your principles and suggestions into action, and it’s helping to streamline and optimize my days. But it’s not the crux of things, it simply enables you to live your life the way you’d like. But the question will always remain: what should you do to fill that time?!

    I’d start reading Vonnegut, for one. (Though my favorite is Hemingway. Another one who, like you, avoids information overload like the plague…)

    Like

  18. Love the interview! Thanks for the post.
    I especially love the “getting mad at a hot fudge sundae” comment! People should take this to heart – with all the Phillip Pullman talk going on…

    Kaza Kingsley

    Like

  19. -=-“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I think that says it best.-=- AMEN.

    Thanks for being a friend and helping us all get through this thing with a healthy lack of seriousness, Tim :D Hey, we had a fantastic time down in Buenos Aires on last month’s Super Secret Sym storyline (click on my name above to surf over when you have a free moment!)

    “If you have been there in the Mind…I believe you can go there in the body…” ~ Dennis Waitley, The Secret

    If I asked this before, I think I must have missed the answer: How do you say “Let the good times roll” in Spanish?! ;-) Laissez les bons temps rouler – favorite phrase from my Cajun days down in Southwestern Louisiana.

    Hasta luego, Amigo ~
    Your Pal, Pen :o)

    Like

  20. Thanks for the great post.

    For whatever reason living and existence has become much more interesting to me. I went to a Kurt guest lecture in college and really didn’t get it. I know if I went now I would have a completely different view on him.

    Thanks for reminding me of the arts and how it can make us all better.

    Like

  21. when i was at stanford, kurt vonnegut came in to teach one session of a fiction writing workshop. he smoked a cigar like crazy during the class and then went on and on about television and how bad it was/is. but the thing that struck me the most about him was that he seemed entirely displaced, like an alien in the middle of it all. i think that’s what i most liked about him. he was also extremely funny of course.

    Like

  22. Thanks for posting this Tim. Kurt has been my favorite author since I first started reading his books. I always planned to write him a letter and start a correspondence, but I put it off and now it’s too late. He sure seems like he’d be a great friend.

    Like

  23. timmy
    brilliant S&*^
    should have know YOU’d be a fan

    personally, w/out “breakfast of championis” i may never end up reading… probably be in prison…. welcome to the monkey house?! are you kidding me. what about sirens of “FREAKIN’ titan!” all time!! cat’s cradle and ice 9 – brilliant


    the day KV passed – my bros and i threw some emails around -commenting on his genius and lamenting the loss. WE lost a one of a kind perspective – the very thought still actually stings. he was compassionate to a fault and of course his mental health suffered quite a bit becuase of it.

    in the end – i figured it’d be a fitting tribute to share what he taught and comment in kind as he might on his OWN passing…


    a man died today – who never understood man’s mission
    to f**k up the planet – or his inability to Love his fellow
    man
    he wrote books
    some people thought were funny

    he was kind
    and often depressed by the madness of it all

    and so it goes…


    great work again stud
    impressive stuff
    keep killing it!

    -mg

    Like

  24. Great perspectives but I hope he’s wrong about TV being life itself; that you turn it on to get relatives, family. TV seems like a poor substitute for deep relationships with my wife, kids and friends.

    Like

  25. ‘practice an art, no matter how well or badly [you do it], because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow’

    that is so good. i feel blessesd to have read this interview, thanks for posting it.

    KV – truly one of the greatest guys to ever live.

    Like

  26. I read “Breakfast of Champions” last year for high school, and I just finished reading “Cat’s Cradle” for the second time! Best reading experience I’ve had since I can remember! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while reading a book.

    God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut…

    Claire

    Like

  27. And so it goes… Milions read and loved Kurt’s books – and teachings I should say, for I have the feeling that he was my teacher, just as much as any real life teacher I ever met. I used to play along the banks of a creek called “Funne” in Westfalia, Germany, where grew up. The Vonneguts’ ancestors allegedly hailed from the region, Funne-Gut meaning “Farm by the Funne”. So sometimes it feels like there is connection, with distance relatives of the great Kurt roaming the region.

    Kurt belonged to a class of people that some call “teachers of mankind”.

    Like

  28. “For the complete interview, including background on Kurt’s writing, please click here”

    The link (on “here”) only takes me to the US Airways page. There is no opportunity to go back to the issue that this article came from.

    How can I access it?

    Thank you.

    Like