This interview with Kurt Vonnegut was originally a composite of four interviews done with the author over the past decade. The composite has gone through an extensive working over by the subject himself, who looks upon his own spoken words on the page with considerable misgivings . . . indeed, what follows can be considered an interview conducted with himself, by himself.
The introduction to the first of the incorporated interviews (done in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, when Vonnegut was forty-four) reads: “He is a veteran and a family man, large-boned, loose-jointed, at ease. He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge gray flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He shells the interview with explosive coughs and sneezes, windages of an autumn cold and a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking. His voice is a resonant baritone, Midwestern, wry in its inflections. From time to time he issues the open, alert smile of a man who has seen and reserved within himself almost everything: depression, war, the possibility of violent death, the inanities of corporate public relations, six children, an irregular income, long-delayed recognition.”
The last of the interviews that made up the composite was conducted during the summer of 1976, years after the first. The description of him at this time reads: “ . . . he moves with the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general, his appearance is tousled: the long curly hair, mustache, and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him. He has rented the Gerald Murphy house for the summer. He works in the little bedroom at the end of a hall where Murphy, artist, bon vivant, and friend to the artistic great, died in 1964. From his desk Vonnegut can look out onto the front lawn through a small window; behind him is a large, white canopy bed. On the desk next to the typewriter is a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Clancy Sigal’s Zone of the Interior, and several discarded cigarette packs.
“Vonnegut has chain-smoked Pall Malls since 1936 and during the course of the interview he smokes the better part of one pack. His voice is low and gravelly, and as he speaks, the incessant procedure of lighting the cigarettes and exhaling smoke is like punctuation in his conversation. Other distractions, such as the jangle of the telephone and the barking of a small, shaggy dog named Pumpkin, do not detract from Vonnegut’s good-natured disposition. Indeed, as Dan Wakefield once said of his fellow Shortridge High School alumnus, ‘He laughed a lot and was kind to everyone.’“
INTERVIEWERYou are a veteran of the Second World War?
Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.
It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.
VONNEGUTThe unqualified approval of my community.
INTERVIEWERYou don’t feel that you have that now?
VONNEGUTMy relatives say that they are glad I’m rich, but that they simply cannot read me.
INTERVIEWERYou were an infantry battalion scout in the war?
VONNEGUTYes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
INTERVIEWERA rather large weapon.
The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
INTERVIEWERIt must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
INTERVIEWERThe ultimate terror weapon.
VONNEGUTOf the Franco-Prussian War.
INTERVIEWERBut you were ultimately sent overseas not with this instrument but with the 106th Infantry Division—
VONNEGUT“The Bag Lunch Division.” They used to feed us a lot of bag lunches. Salami sandwiches. An orange.
VONNEGUTWhen we were still in the States.
INTERVIEWERWhile they trained you for the infantry?
I was never trained for the infantry. Battalion scouts were elite troops, see. There were only six in each battalion, and nobody was very sure about what they were supposed to do. So we would march over to the rec room every morning, and play Ping-Pong and fill out applications for Officer Candidate School.
INTERVIEWERDuring your basic training, though, you must have been familiarized with weapons other than the howitzer.
VONNEGUTIf you study the 240-millimeter howitzer, you don’t even have time left over for a venereal-disease film.
INTERVIEWERWhat happened when you reached the front?
VONNEGUTI imitated various war movies I’d seen.
INTERVIEWERDid you shoot anybody in the war?
VONNEGUTI thought about it. I did fix my bayonet once, fully expecting to charge.
INTERVIEWERDid you charge?
No. If everybody else had charged, I would have charged, too. But we decided not to charge. We couldn’t see anybody.
INTERVIEWERThis was during the Battle of the Bulge, wasn’t it? It was the largest defeat of American arms in history.
Probably. My last mission as a scout was to find our own artillery. Usually, scouts go out and look for enemy stuff. Things got so bad that we were finally looking for our own stuff. If I’d found our own battalion commander, everybody would have thought that was pretty swell.
INTERVIEWERDo you mind describing your capture by the Germans?
VONNEGUTGladly. We were in this gully about as deep as a World War I trench. There was snow all around. Somebody said we were probably in Luxembourg. We were out of food.
INTERVIEWERWho was “we”?
VONNEGUTOur battalion scouting unit. All six of us. And about fifty people we’d never met before. The Germans could see us, because they were talking to us through a loudspeaker. They told us our situation was hopeless, and so on. That was when we fixed bayonets. It was nice there for a few minutes.
VONNEGUTBeing a porcupine with all those steel quills. I pitied anybody who had to come in after us.
INTERVIEWERBut they came in anyway?
No. They sent in eighty-eight millimeter shells instead. The shells burst in the treetops right over us. Those were very loud bangs right over our heads. We were showered with splintered steel. Some people got hit. Then the Germans told us again to come out. We didn’t yell “Nuts” or anything like that. We said, “Okay,” and “Take it easy,” and so on. When the Germans finally showed themselves, we saw they were wearing white camouflage suits. We didn’t have anything like that. We were olive drab. No matter what season it was, we were olive drab.
INTERVIEWERWhat did the Germans say?
They said the war was all over for us, that we were lucky, that we could now be sure we would live through the war, which was more than they could be sure of. As a matter of fact, they were probably killed or captured by Patton’s Third Army within the next few days. Wheels within wheels.
INTERVIEWERDid you speak any German?
I had heard my parents speak it a lot. They hadn’t taught me how to do it, since there had been such bitterness in America against all things German during the First World War. I tried a few words I knew on our captors, and they asked me if I was of German ancestry, and I said, “Yes.” They wanted to know why I was making war against my brothers.
INTERVIEWERAnd you said—?
VONNEGUTI honestly found the question ignorant and comical. My parents had separated me so thoroughly from my Germanic past that my captors might as well have been Bolivians or Tibetans, for all they meant to me.
INTERVIEWERAfter you were captured, you were shipped to Dresden?
In the same boxcars that had brought up the troops that captured us—probably in the same boxcars that had delivered Jews and Gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on to the extermination camps. Rolling stock is rolling stock. British mosquito bombers attacked us at night a few times. I guess they thought we were strategic materials of some kind. They hit a car containing most of the officers from our battalion. Every time I say I hate officers, which I still do fairly frequently, I have to remind myself that practically none of the officers I served under survived. Christmas was in there somewhere.
INTERVIEWERAnd you finally arrived in Dresden.
In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the noncoms and officers. Under the articles of the Geneva Convention, which is a very Edwardian document, privates were required to work for their keep. Everybody else got to languish in prison. As a private, I was shipped to Dresden . . .
INTERVIEWERWhat were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?
The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt-syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.
INTERVIEWERYou didn’t suffocate in the meat locker?
No. It was quite large, and there weren’t very many of us. The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either. Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. When the war started, incendiaries were fairly sizable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.
INTERVIEWERWhat happened when you came up?
Our guards were noncoms—a sergeant, a corporal, and four privates—and leaderless. Cityless, too, because they were Dresdeners who’d been shot up on the front and sent home for easy duty. They kept us at attention for a couple of hours. They didn’t know what else to do. They’d go over and talk to each other. Finally we trekked across the rubble and they quartered us with some South Africans in a suburb. Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come in with a flamethrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.
INTERVIEWERWhat an impression on someone thinking of becoming a writer!
It was a fancy thing to see, a startling thing. It was a moment of truth, too, because American civilians and ground troops didn’t know American bombers were engaged in saturation bombing. It was kept a secret until very close to the end of the war. One reason they burned down Dresden is that they’d already burned down everything else. You know: “What’re we going to do tonight?” Here was everybody all set to go, and Germany still fighting, and this machinery for burning down cities was being used. It was a secret, burning down cities—boiling pisspots and flaming prams. There was all this hokum about the Norden bomb sight. You’d see a newsreel showing a bombardier with an MP on either side of him holding a drawn .45. That sort of nonsense, and hell, all they were doing was just flying over cities, hundreds of airplanes, and dropping everything. When I went to the University of Chicago after the war the guy who interviewed me for admission had bombed Dresden. He got to that part of my life story and he said, “Well, we hated to do it.” The comment sticks in my mind.
INTERVIEWERAnother reaction would be, “We were ordered to do it.”
His was more humane. I think he felt the bombing was necessary, and it may have been. One thing everybody learned is how fast you can rebuild a city. The engineers said it would take five hundred years to rebuild Germany. Actually it took about eighteen weeks.
INTERVIEWERDid you intend to write about it as soon as you went through the experience?
When the city was demolished I had no idea of the scale of the thing . . . Whether this was what Bremen looked like or Hamburg, Coventry . . . I’d never seen Coventry, so I had no scale except for what I’d seen in movies. When I got home (I was a writer since I had been on the Cornell Sun, except that was the extent of my writing) I thought of writing my war story, too. All my friends were home; they’d had wonderful adventures, too. I went down to the newspaper office, the Indianapolis News, and looked to find out what they had about Dresden. There was an item about half an inch long, which said our planes had been over Dresden and two had been lost. And so I figured, well, this really was the most minor sort of detail in World War II. Others had so much more to write about. I remember envying Andy Rooney, who jumped into print at that time; I didn’t know him, but I think he was the first guy to publish his war story after the war; it was called Air Gunner. Hell, I never had any classy adventure like that. But every so often I would meet a European and we would be talking about the war and I would say I was in Dresden; he’d be astonished that I’d been there, and he’d always want to know more. Then a book by David Irving was published about Dresden, saying it was the largest massacre in European history. I said, By God, I saw something after all! I would try to write my war story, whether it was interesting or not, and try to make something out of it. I describe that process a little in the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five; I saw it as starring John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Finally, a girl called Mary O’Hare, the wife of a friend of mine who’d been there with me, said, “You were just children then. It’s not fair to pretend that you were men like Wayne and Sinatra, and it’s not fair to future generations, because you’re going to make war look good.” That was a very important clue to me.
INTERVIEWERThat sort of shifted the whole focus . . .
She freed me to write about what infants we really were: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. We were baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don’t think I had to shave very often. I don’t recall that that was a problem.
INTERVIEWEROne more war question: Do you still think about the firebombing of Dresden at all?
I wrote a book about it, called Slaughterhouse Five. The book is still in print, and I have to do something about it as a businessman now and then. Marcel Ophuls asked me to be in his film, The Memory of Justice. He wanted me to talk about Dresden as an atrocity. I told him to talk to my friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Mary’s husband, instead, which he did. O’Hare was a fellow battalion scout, and then a fellow prisoner of war. He’s a lawyer in Pennsylvania now.
INTERVIEWERWhy didn’t you wish to testify?
I had a German name. I didn’t want to argue with people who thought Dresden should have been bombed to hell. All I ever said in my book was that Dresden, willy-nilly, was bombed to hell.
INTERVIEWERIt was the largest massacre in European history?
It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people—one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours. There were slower schemes for killing, of course.
INTERVIEWERThe death camps.
Yes—in which millions were eventually killed. Many people see the Dresden massacre as correct and quite minimal revenge for what had been done by the camps. Maybe so. As I say, I never argue that point. I do note in passing that the death penalty was applied to absolutely anybody who happened to be in the undefended city—babies, old people, the zoo animals, and thousands upon thousands of rabid Nazis, of course, and, among others, my best friend Bernard V. O’Hare and me. By all rights, O’Hare and I should have been part of the body count. The more bodies, the more correct the revenge.
INTERVIEWERThe Franklin Library is bringing out a deluxe edition of Slaughterhouse Five, I believe.
VONNEGUTYes. I was required to write a new introduction for it.
INTERVIEWERDid you have any new thoughts?
I said that only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited—not two or five or ten. Just one.
INTERVIEWERAnd who was that?
VONNEGUTMe. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.
INTERVIEWERHow much affinity do you feel toward your contemporaries?
My brother and sister writers? Friendly, certainly. It’s hard for me to talk to some of them, since we seem to be in very different sorts of businesses. This was a mystery to me for a while, but then Saul Steinberg—
INTERVIEWERThe graphic artist?
Indeed. He said that in almost all arts, there were some people who responded strongly to art history, to triumphs and fiascoes and experiments of the past, and others who did not. I fell into the second group, and had to. I couldn’t play games with my literary ancestors, since I had never studied them systematically. My education was as a chemist at Cornell and then an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. Christ—I was thirty-five before I went crazy about Blake, forty before I read Madame Bovary, forty-five before I’d even heard of Céline. Through dumb luck, I read Look Homeward, Angel exactly when I was supposed to.
VONNEGUTAt the age of eighteen.
INTERVIEWERSo you’ve always been a reader?
Yes. I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil.
INTERVIEWERWhich member of your family had the most influence on you as a writer?
My mother, I guess. Edith Lieber Vonnegut. After our family lost almost all of its money in the Great Depression, my mother thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms.
INTERVIEWERShe’d been rich at one time?
My father, an architect of modest means, married one of the richest girls in town. It was a brewing fortune based on Lieber Lager Beer and then Gold Medal Beer. Lieber Lager became Gold Medal after winning a prize at some Paris exposition.
INTERVIEWERIt must have been a very good beer.
Long before my time. I never tasted any. It had a secret ingredient, I know. My grandfather and his brewmaster wouldn’t let anybody watch while they put it in.
INTERVIEWERDo you know what it was?
INTERVIEWERSo your mother studied short-story writing—
And my father painted pictures in a studio he’d set up on the top floor of the house. There wasn’t much work for architects during the Great Depression—not much work for anybody. Strangely enough, though, Mother was right: Even mediocre magazine writers were making money hand over fist.
INTERVIEWERSo your mother took a very practical attitude toward writing.
Not to say crass. She was a highly intelligent, cultivated woman, by the way. She went to the same high school I did, and was one of the few people who got nothing but A-pluses while she was there. She went east to a finishing school after that, and then traveled all over Europe. She was fluent in German and French. I still have her high-school report cards somewhere. “A-plus, A-plus, A-plus . . .” She was a good writer, it turned out, but she had no talent for the vulgarity the slick magazines required. Fortunately, I was loaded with vulgarity, so, when I grew up, I was able to make her dream come true. Writing for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal and so on was as easy as falling off a log for me. I only wish she’d lived to see it. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren. She has ten. She didn’t even get to see the first one. I made another one of her dreams come true: I lived on Cape Cod for many years. She always wanted to live on Cape Cod. It’s probably very common for sons to try to make their mothers’ impossible dreams come true. I adopted my sister’s sons after she died, and it’s spooky to watch them try to make her impossible dreams come true.
INTERVIEWERWhat were your sister’s dreams like?
She wanted to live like a member of The Swiss Family Robinson, with impossibly friendly animals in impossibly congenial isolation. Her oldest son, Jim, has been a goat farmer on a mountaintop in Jamaica for the past eight years. No telephone. No electricity.
INTERVIEWERThe Indianapolis high school you and your mother attended—
VONNEGUTAnd my father. Shortridge High.
INTERVIEWERIt had a daily paper, I believe.
Yes. The Shortridge Daily Echo. There was a print shop right in the school. Students wrote the paper. Students set the type. After school.
INTERVIEWERYou just laughed about something.
It was something dumb I remembered about high school. It doesn’t have anything to do with writing.
INTERVIEWERYou care to share it with us anyway?
Oh—I just remembered something that happened in a high-school course on civics, on how our government worked. The teacher asked each of us to stand up in turn and tell what we did after school. I was sitting in the back of the room, sitting next to a guy named J. T. Alburger. He later became an insurance man in Los Angeles. He died fairly recently. Anyway—he kept nudging me, urging me, daring me to tell the truth about what I did after school. He offered me five dollars to tell the truth. He wanted me to stand up and say, “I make model airplanes and jerk off.”
VONNEGUTI also worked on The Shortridge Daily Echo.
INTERVIEWERWas that fun?
Fun and easy. I’ve always found it easy to write. Also, I learned to write for peers rather than for teachers. Most beginning writers don’t get to write for peers—to catch hell from peers.
INTERVIEWERSo every afternoon you would go to the Echo office—
Yeah. And one time, while I was writing, I happened to sniff my armpits absentmindedly. Several people saw me do it, and thought it was funny—and ever after that I was given the name “Snarf.” In the annual for my graduating class, the class of 1940, I’m listed as “Kurt Snarfield Vonnegut, Jr.” Technically, I wasn’t really a snarf. A snarf was a person who went around sniffing girls’ bicycle saddles. I didn’t do that. “Twerp” also had a very specific meaning, which few people know now. Through careless usage, “twerp” is a pretty formless insult now.
INTERVIEWERWhat is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?
VONNEGUTIt’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.
VONNEGUTI beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I’m always offending feminists that way.
INTERVIEWERI don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.
In order to bite the buttons off the backseats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.
INTERVIEWERYou went to Cornell University after Shortridge?
I had a friend who was a heavy drinker. If somebody asked him if he’d been drunk the night before, he would always answer offhandedly, “Oh, I imagine.” I’ve always liked that answer. It acknowledges life as a dream. Cornell was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for. My father and brother agreed that I should study chemistry, since my brother had done so well with chemicals at M.I.T. He’s eight years older than I am. Funnier, too. His most famous discovery is that silver iodide will sometimes make it rain or snow.
INTERVIEWERWas your sister funny, too?
VONNEGUTOh, yes. There was an odd cruel streak to her sense of humor, though, which didn’t fit in with the rest of her character somehow. She thought it was terribly funny whenever anybody fell down. One time she saw a woman come out of a streetcar horizontally, and she laughed for weeks after that.
Yes. This woman must have caught her heels somehow. Anyway, the streetcar door opened, and my sister happened to be watching from the sidewalk, and then she saw this woman come out horizontally—as straight as a board, face down, and about two feet off the ground.
VONNEGUTSure. We loved Laurel and Hardy. You know what one of the funniest things is that can happen in a film?
To have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep. I remember a movie where Cary Grant was loping across lawns at night. He came to a low hedge, which he cleared ever so gracefully, only there was a twenty-foot drop on the other side. But the thing my sister and I loved best was when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coat hangers and scarves.
INTERVIEWERDid you take a degree in chemistry at Cornell?
I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year. I was delighted to join the army and go to war. After the war, I went to the University of Chicago, where I was pleased to study anthropology, a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all. I was married by then, and soon had one kid, who was Mark. He would later go crazy, of course, and write a fine book about it—The Eden Express. He has just fathered a kid himself, my first grandchild, a boy named Zachary. Mark is finishing his second year in Harvard Medical School, and will be about the only member of his class not to be in debt when he graduates—because of the book. That’s a pretty decent recovery from a crackup, I’d say.
INTERVIEWERDid the study of anthropology later color your writings?
It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.
INTERVIEWERAlmost a religion?
VONNEGUTExactly. And the only one for me. So far.
INTERVIEWERWhat was your dissertation?
INTERVIEWERBut you wrote that years after you left Chicago, didn’t you?
I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady. Twenty years later, I got a letter from a new dean at Chicago, who had been looking through my dossier. Under the rules of the university, he said, a published work of high quality could be substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an M.A. He had shown Cat’s Cradle to the anthropology department, and they had said it was halfway decent anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree. I’m class of 1972 or so.
VONNEGUTIt was nothing, really. A piece of cake.
INTERVIEWERSome of the characters in Cat’s Cradle were based on people you knew at G.E., isn’t that so?
Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the absentminded scientist, was a caricature of Dr. Irving Langmuir, the star of the G.E. research laboratory. I knew him some. My brother worked with him. Langmuir was wonderfully absentminded. He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in. His most important contribution, though, was the idea for what I called “Ice-9,” a form of frozen water that was stable at room temperature. He didn’t tell it directly to me. It was a legend around the laboratory—about the time H. G. Wells came to Schenectady. That was long before my time. I was just a little boy when it happened—listening to the radio, building model airplanes.
Anyway—Wells came to Schenectady, and Langmuir was told to be his host. Langmuir thought he might entertain Wells with an idea for a science-fiction story—about a form of ice that was stable at room temperature. Wells was uninterested, or at least never used the idea. And then Wells died, and then, finally, Langmuir died. I thought to myself: “Finders, keepers—the idea is mine.” Langmuir, incidentally, was the first scientist in private industry to win a Nobel Prize.
INTERVIEWERHow do you feel about Bellow’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
VONNEGUTIt was the best possible way to honor our entire literature.
INTERVIEWERDo you find it easy to talk to him?
Yes. I’ve had about three opportunities. I was his host one time at the University of Iowa, where I was teaching and he was lecturing. It went very well. We had one thing in common, anyway—
We were both products of the anthropology department of the University of Chicago. So far as I know, he never went on any anthropological expeditions, and neither did I. We invented preindustrial peoples instead—I in Cat’s Cradle and he in Henderson the Rain King.
INTERVIEWERSo he is a fellow scientist.
I’m no scientist at all. I’m glad, though, now that I was pressured into becoming a scientist by my father and my brother. I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they’re doing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly. I enjoy plumbers and carpenters and automobile mechanics, too. I didn’t get to know any literary people until the last ten years, starting with two years of teaching at Iowa. There at Iowa, I was suddenly friends with Nelson Algren and José Donoso and Vance Bourjaily and Donald Justice and George Starbuck and Marvin Bell, and so on. I was amazed. Now, judging from the reviews my latest book, Slapstick, has received, people would like to bounce me out of the literary establishment—send me back where I came from.
INTERVIEWERThere were some bad reviews?
Only in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. They loved me in Medicine Hat.
INTERVIEWERTo what do you attribute this rancor?
Slapstick may be a very bad book. I am perfectly willing to believe that. Everybody else writes lousy books, so why shouldn’t I? What was unusual about the reviews was that they wanted people to admit now that I had never been any good. The reviewer for the Sunday Times actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been. My publisher, Sam Lawrence, tried to comfort me by saying that authors were invariably attacked when they became fabulously well-to-do.
INTERVIEWERYou needed comforting?
VONNEGUTI never felt worse in my life. I felt as though I were sleeping standing up on a boxcar in Germany again.
No. But bad enough. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug. And it wasn’t just that I had money all of a sudden, either. The hidden complaint was that I was barbarous, that I wrote without having made a systematic study of great literature, that I was no gentleman, since I had done hack writing so cheerfully for vulgar magazines—that I had not paid my academic dues.
INTERVIEWERYou had not suffered?
VONNEGUTI had suffered, all right—but as a badly educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.
INTERVIEWERDo you mean to fight back?
In a way. I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, “Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.”
INTERVIEWERYou believe that?
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
INTERVIEWERLet’s talk about the women in your books.
VONNEGUTThere aren’t any. No real women, no love.
INTERVIEWERIs this worth expounding upon?
It’s a mechanical problem. So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.
INTERVIEWERSo you keep love out.
I have other things I want to talk about. Ralph Ellison did the same thing in Invisible Man. If the hero in that magnificent book had found somebody worth loving, somebody who was crazy about him, that would have been the end of the story. Céline did the same thing in Journey to the End of Night: he excluded the possibility of true and final love—so that the story could go on and on and on.
INTERVIEWERNot many writers talk about the mechanics of stories.
VONNEGUTI am such a barbarous technocrat that I believe they can be tinkered with like Model T Fords.
INTERVIEWERTo what end?
VONNEGUTTo give the reader pleasure.
INTERVIEWERWill you ever write a love story, do you think?
Maybe. I lead a loving life. I really do. Even when I’m leading that loving life, though, and it’s going so well, I sometimes find myself thinking, “My goodness, couldn’t we talk about something else for just a little while?” You know what’s really funny?
My books are being thrown out of school libraries all over the country—because they’re supposedly obscene. I’ve seen letters to small-town newspapers that put Slaughterhouse Five in the same class with Deep Throat and Hustler magazine. How could anybody masturbate to Slaughterhouse Five?
INTERVIEWERIt takes all kinds.
Well, that kind doesn’t exist. It’s my religion the censors hate. They find me disrespectful towards their idea of God Almighty. They think it’s the proper business of government to protect the reputation of God. All I can say is, “Good luck to them, and good luck to the government, and good luck to God.” You know what H. L. Mencken said one time about religious people? He said he’d been greatly misunderstood. He said he didn’t hate them. He simply found them comical.
When I asked you a while back which member of your family had influenced you most as a writer, you said your mother. I had expected you to say your sister, since you talked so much about her in Slapstick.
I said in Slapstick that she was the person I wrote for—that every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity. Anybody can achieve it, if he or she will make something with only one person in mind. I didn’t realize that she was the person I wrote for until after she died.
INTERVIEWERShe loved literature?
She wrote wonderfully well. She didn’t read much—but then again, neither in later years did Henry David Thoreau. My father was the same way: he didn’t read much, but he could write like a dream. Such letters my father and sister wrote! When I compare their prose with mine, I am ashamed.
INTERVIEWERDid your sister try to write for money, too?
No. She could have been a remarkable sculptor, too. I bawled her out one time for not doing more with the talents she had. She replied that having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it. This was startling news to me. I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and fast as they could.
INTERVIEWERWhat do you think now?
Well—what my sister said now seems a peculiarly feminine sort of wisdom. I have two daughters who are as talented as she was, and both of them are damned if they are going to lose their poise and senses of humor by snatching up their talents and desperately running as far and as fast as they can. They saw me run as far and as fast as I could—and it must have looked like quite a crazy performance to them. And this is the worst possible metaphor, for what they actually saw was a man sitting still for decades.
INTERVIEWERAt a typewriter.
VONNEGUTYes, and smoking his fool head off.
INTERVIEWERHave you ever stopped smoking?
Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching two hundred and fifty pounds. I stopped for almost a year, and then the University of Hawaii brought me to Oahu to speak. I was drinking out of a coconut on the roof of the Ili Kai one night, and all I had to do to complete the ring of my happiness was to smoke a cigarette. Which I did.
INTERVIEWERThe second time?
Very recently—last year. I paid Smokenders a hundred and fifty dollars to help me quit, over a period of six weeks. It was exactly as they had promised—easy and instructive. I won my graduation certificate and recognition pin. The only trouble was that I had also gone insane. I was supremely happy and proud, but those around me found me unbearably opinionated and abrupt and boisterous. Also: I had stopped writing. I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again. As the National Association of Manufacturers used to say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
INTERVIEWERDo you really think creative writing can be taught?
About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing. I did that well, I think, at the University of Iowa for two years. Gail Godwin and John Irving and Jonathan Penner and Bruce Dobler and John Casey and Jane Casey were all students of mine out there. They’ve all published wonderful stuff since then. I taught creative writing badly at Harvard—because my marriage was breaking up, and because I was commuting every week to Cambridge from New York. I taught even worse at City College a couple of years ago. I had too many other projects going on at the same time. I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory.
INTERVIEWERCould you put the theory into a few words?
It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”
INTERVIEWERAnd how would that be helpful?
VONNEGUTIt would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.
If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.
INTERVIEWERCan you give an example?
The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, “A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.”
INTERVIEWERSome more examples?
The others aren’t that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.
INTERVIEWERIf you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWERAnd what they want.
Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.
INTERVIEWERSurely talent is required?
In all those fields. I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic’s school, and they threw me out of their mechanic’s school. No talent.
INTERVIEWERHow common is storytelling talent?
VONNEGUTIn a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by.
INTERVIEWERWhat distinguishes those two from the rest?
VONNEGUTThey will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.
INTERVIEWERYou have been a public relations man and an advertising man—
VONNEGUTOh, I imagine.
INTERVIEWERWas this painful? I mean—did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?
No. That’s romance—that work of that sort damages a writer’s soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free-enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.
VONNEGUTA tragedy. I just keep trying to think of ways, even horrible ways, for young writers to somehow hang on.
INTERVIEWERShould young writers be subsidized?
Something’s got to be done, now that free enterprise has made it impossible for them to support themselves through free enterprise. I was a sensational businessman in the beginning—for the simple reason that there was so much business to be done. When I was working for General Electric, I wrote a story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” the first story I ever wrote. I mailed it off to Collier’s. Knox Burger was fiction editor there. Knox told me what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I did what he said, and he bought the story for seven hundred and fifty dollars, six weeks’ pay at G.E. I wrote another, and he paid me nine hundred and fifty dollars, and suggested that it was perhaps time for me to quit G.E. Which I did. I moved to Provincetown. Eventually, my price for a short story got up to twenty-nine hundred dollars a crack. Think of that. And Knox got me a couple of agents who were as shrewd about storytelling as he was—Kenneth Littauer, who had been his predecessor at Collier’s, and Max Wilkinson, who had been a story editor for MGM. And let it be put on the record here that Knox Burger, who is about my age, discovered and encouraged more good young writers than any other editor of his time. I don’t think that’s ever been written down anywhere. It’s a fact known only to writers, and one that could easily vanish, if it isn’t somewhere written down.
INTERVIEWERWhere is Knox Burger now?
VONNEGUTHe’s a literary agent. He represents my son Mark, in fact.
INTERVIEWERAnd Littauer and Wilkinson?
Littauer died ten years ago or so. He was a colonel in the Lafayette Escadrille, by the way, at the age of twenty-three—and the first man to strafe a trench. He was my mentor. Max Wilkinson has retired to Florida. It always embarrassed him to be an agent. If some stranger asked him what he did for a living, he always said he was a cotton planter.
INTERVIEWERDo you have a new mentor now?
No. I guess I’m too old to find one. Whatever I write now is set in type without comment by my publisher, who is younger than I am, by editors, by anyone. I don’t have my sister to write for anymore. Suddenly, there are all these unfilled jobs in my life.
INTERVIEWERDo you feel as though you’re up there without a net under you?
VONNEGUTAnd without a balancing pole, either. It gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes.
INTERVIEWERIs there anything else you’d like to add?
VONNEGUTYou know the panic bars they have on the main doors of schools and theaters? If you get slammed into the door, the door will fly open?
VONNEGUTThe brand name on most of them is “Von Duprin.” The “Von” is for Vonnegut. A relative of mine was caught in the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago a long time ago, and he invented the panic bar along with two other guys. “Prin” was Prinzler. I forget who “Du” was.
And I want to say, too, that humorists are very commonly the youngest children in their families. When I was the littlest kid at our supper table, there was only one way I could get anybody’s attention, and that was to be funny. I had to specialize. I used to listen to radio comedians very intently, so I could learn how to make jokes. And that’s what my books are, now that I’m a grownup—mosaics of jokes.
INTERVIEWERDo you have any favorite jokes?
My sister and I used to argue about what the funniest joke in the world was—next to a guy storming into a coat closet, of course. When the two of us worked together, incidentally, we could be almost as funny as Laurel and Hardy. That’s basically what Slapstick was about.
INTERVIEWERDid you finally agree on the world’s champion joke?
VONNEGUTWe finally settled on two. It’s sort of hard to tell either one just flat-footed like this.
INTERVIEWERDo it anyway.
Well—you won’t laugh. Nobody ever laughs. But one is an old “Two Black Crows” joke. The “Two Black Crows” were white guys in blackface—named Moran and Mack. They made phonograph records of their routines, two supposedly black guys talking lazily to each other. Anyway, one of them says, “Last night I dreamed I was eating flannel cakes.” The other one says, “Is that so?” And the first one says, “And when I woke up, the blanket was gone.”
I told you you wouldn’t laugh. The other champion joke requires your cooperation. I will ask you a question, and you will have to say “No.”
VONNEGUTDo you know why cream is so much more expensive than milk?
Because the cows hate to squat on those little bottles. See, you didn’t laugh again, but I give you my sacred word of honor that those are splendid jokes. Exquisite craftsmanship.
INTERVIEWERYou seem to prefer Laurel and Hardy over Chaplin. Is that so?
I’m crazy about Chaplin, but there’s too much distance between him and his audience. He is too obviously a genius. In his own way, he’s as brilliant as Picasso, and this is intimidating to me.
INTERVIEWERWill you ever write another short story?
Maybe. I wrote what I thought would be my last one about eight years ago. Harlan Ellison asked me to contribute to a collection he was making. The story’s called “The Big Space Fuck.” I think I am the first writer to use “fuck” in a title. It was about firing a spaceship with a warhead full of jizzum at Andromeda. Which reminds me of my good Indianapolis friend, about the only Indianapolis friend I’ve got left—William Failey. When we got into the Second World War, and everybody was supposed to give blood, he wondered if he couldn’t give a pint of jizzum instead.
INTERVIEWERIf your parents hadn’t lost all their money, what would you be doing now?
I’d be an Indianapolis architect—like my father and grandfather. And very happy, too. I still wish that had happened. One thing, anyway: One of the best young architects out there lives in a house my father built for our family the year I was born—1922. My initials, and my sister’s initials, and my brother’s initials are all written in leaded glass in the three little windows by the front door.
INTERVIEWERSo you have good old days you hanker for.
Yes. Whenever I go to Indianapolis, the same question asks itself over and over again in my head: “Where’s my bed, where’s my bed?” And if my father’s and grandfather’s ghosts haunt that town, they must be wondering where all their buildings have gone to. The center of the city, where most of their buildings were, has been turned into parking lots. They must be wondering where all their relatives went, too. They grew up in a huge extended family which is no more. I got the slightest taste of that—the big family thing. And when I went to the University of Chicago, and I heard the head of the Department of Anthropology, Robert Redfield, lecture on the folk society, which was essentially a stable, isolated extended family, he did not have to tell me how nice that could be.
VONNEGUTWell—I just discovered a prayer for writers. I’d heard of prayers for sailors and kings and soldiers and so on—but never of a prayer for writers. Could I put that in here?
It was written by Samuel Johnson on April 3, 1753, the day on which he signed a contract which required him to write the first complete dictionary of the English language. He was praying for himself. Perhaps April third should be celebrated as “Writers’ Day.” Anyway, this is the prayer: “O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labor, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
INTERVIEWERThat seems to be a wish to carry his talent as far and as fast as he can.
VONNEGUTYes. He was a notorious hack.
INTERVIEWERAnd you consider yourself a hack?
VONNEGUTOf a sort.
A child of the Great Depression. And perhaps we should say something at this point how this interview itself was done—unless candor would somehow spoil everything.
INTERVIEWERLet the chips fall where they may.
Four different interviews with me were submitted to The Paris Review. These were patched together to form a single interview, which was shown to me. This scheme worked only fairly well, so I called in yet another interviewer to make it all of a piece. I was that person. With utmost tenderness, I interviewed myself.
I see. Our last question. If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?
VONNEGUTThere is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.
I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check.