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.]