By: Greg Mitchell
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Vonnegut, the famed novelist who passed away this week, in 1974 for a lengthy profile that would later earn the honor of appearing in the first collection of writings about him. Actually, I wrote it under the guise of his most famous character, Kilgore Trout, and borrowed a great deal from Vonnegut’s fiction, while including many actual quotes from the interview.
The interview took place in the Upper East Side townhouse in New York that he shared with his partner, and later wife, photographer Jill Krementz. Twenty years later, he provided a favorable (if perplexing) blurb for the book “Hiroshima in America” that I wrote with his friend Robert Jay Lifton. Having survived the Dresden firebombing, Vonnegut knew something about the mass slaying of civilians.
He chainsmoked throughout the interview and coughed and wheezed his way through it. Somehow this supreme fatalist — who started his writing career as a police reporter in Chicago for City News Service — lived another 33 years.
Here are some excerpts from that 1974 article.
I asked him if he had been able to figure out yet why he’s the best-selling author on campus.
“Well, I’m screamingly funny,” he obliged. “I really am in the books. And I talk about stuff Billy Graham won’t talk about, for instance, you know, is it wrong to kill?
“I see nothing wrong with being sophomoric. I mean, my books deal with subjects that interest sophomores. Again, I fault my fraternity brothers from Cornell. Not only do they not read anymore but they’re not interested in the Big Questions, and I don’t regard that as mature — I regard it as a long step toward the grave.”
“How nice,” I said of his fellow Cornellians, paraphrasing Vonnegut. “To feel nothing and still get full credit for being alive.”
Still, I wondered whether yesterday’s sophomores now look back at his work as “kid’s stuff.”
“People usually don’t go back and re-read my books,” Vonnegut observed. “I seldom do it myself. If someone has read me when he was 19, which is quite likely, when he ceases to be 19 he’s going to leave me behind too. If it’s comforting to the person to feel he’s outgrown certain things and is into deeper stuff, well I’m really all for him. That’s a nice way to feel. …
“And one day,” he continued, “they’ll stop and think and ask themselves: ‘How did I get so old?’ And ‘Where have all the years gone?'” …
Returning to the living room I found Vonnegut on the phone chatting amiably with someone who seemed to be a stranger. His phone number, amazingly, was still listed in the Manhattan phone book and he said he enjoyed late night calls from across the country. I took this opportunity to find a more comfortable spot on the couch.
By and by Vonnegut hung up, dipped into the kitchen for a minute, came back out and offered me an apple.
“They treat me as an extremely prosperous man now,” he said suddenly. Apparently that had been one of his students on the phone. “Which makes a difference. I don’t know what sort of difference.
“A student whispered these exact words one morning when I walked by,” Vonnegut said, almost choking on his apple. “Fabulously well-to-do.”
Vonnegut said he saw his writing career as “a perfectly straightforward business story.” He wasn’t being perfectly serious, but then he could afford not to be. “My wealth is mainly in the form of copyrights,” he explained, “which are very valuable as long as the computers and the printing presses think I’m their man.”
“But if you want my expert opinion,” he said, and knew that I did, “money doesn’t necessarily make people happy.”
Vonnegut called the film based on his play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” one of the “most embarrassing movies ever made” but said admiringly that George Roy Hill had made a ”flawless translation” of “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
“I drool and cackle every time I watch that film,” he said, but promised: “I am not going to have anything more to do with film, for this reason — I don’t like film.
“Film is too clankingly real,” he explained, “too permanent, too industrial for me. As a stingy child of the Great Depression, I am bound to complain that it is also too fucking expensive to be much fun. …
“The big trouble with print, of course, is that it is an elitist art form,” he asserted. “Most people can’t read very well.” …
“As I get older,” he said, interrupted by another enormous cough that wracked his body, “I get more didactic. I say what I really think. If I have an idea I don’t embed it in a novel, I simply write it in an essay as clearly as I can.”
“Do you think you had as much influence on your own children’s attitudes about life as you had on thousands of strangers’ kids across the country?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I couldn’t really say.” It really did look like he couldn’t really say. “They’re not Social Darwinists. And they’re not racists. They are all pacifists. They avoided military service with my encouragement.” …
Vonnegut said he had managed to teach his children — three of his own and three adopted when his sister died — “the only rule I know of.” This is it: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
Related E&P story: Kurt Vonnegut On His Days As A Police Reporter in Chicago