LJC: Could I begin by going backwards and asking you about your last novel, which is the first I read, Slaughterhouse-Five? I thought this rather different from your earlier novels with the partial exception of Mother Night. Did you feel you were doing something different when you wrote it?
KV: I hope each book is different from the other. The book I’m working on now grew out of Slaughterhouse-Five. There haven’t been such a lot of novels; I haven’t written too many and each one seems to grow out of the one before and I find myself using characters from previous novels.
LJC: I noticed that. Why?
KV: It simply feels right. It pleases me as I write it. Because I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing; neither does any writer unless he’s discovered a formula.
LJC: When I suggested that Slaughterhouse-Five was different, I meant it was much more different from any of the others.
KV: Well, it’s the first one of my books that’s been about something that really happened, the first remotely autobiographical book, and my books are tending in that direction; they’re becoming more and more autobiographical. I’m able to talk about things that actually concern me, to talk frankly about them now that I’m forty-seven years old.
LJC: I wonder if I could lake you up on some of the things at Providence.1 For instance, I was very interested in your talk on Hermann Hesse. Would I be wrong in saying that you were in some sense attempting to reduce Hesse’s stature, or to disparage the reason why his novels are so popular with college students?
KV: I was asked by a magazine to write an article on the popularity of Hesse, and there are best-seller lists for college bookstores and I had customarily been on that list as having at least one book in the first ten in the past five years or so, and Hermann Hesse has always been there with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. Joe Heller has been there with Catch-22. I have an interest in university attitudes. And well, my own children brought home Steppenwolf and I finally got around to reading it. It seemed a bizarre book to be so popular. I attempted to understand why this strange book by a Swiss who was my father’s age should be so madly popular on campuses. So I took a very simple-minded approach to it: it is Hesse’s attitude towards drugs, his attitude toward music, toward communal living and so forth, because the youth culture can be fairly easily described. There are a few key things about it and I was trying to figure out where the hell this crazy Swiss fitted in to all this.
LJC: Why do you think your own novels are popular with college students?
KV: I don’t know. Leslie Fiedler has written an essay for Esquire explaining this. I suppose I talk about things that are on people’s minds—a very simple-minded, sophomoric sort of thing. Why are we on earth, what’s really going on, and all that, which you’re supposed to stop talking about when you get older.
LJC: You also said at Providence that you wrote your books for very careful readers. What did you mean by that?
KV: Well, every book is written for a careful reader because reading is a difficult thing to do and anyone who’s ever taught grade school, high school, understands that most people never learn to read, or certainly not quickly or subtly. But you can show a motion picture to illiterates and they’ll get the whole story and get the subtleties and they’ll see everything there is to sec. But if you make millions of tiny marks on a sheet of white paper, it takes a very skilled person to pick those up, and what the reader has to be clever enough to do is to put on a whole show in his head. He has to build the sets, to cast the show, put costumes on, hear their accents, see how they move, and that’s a terribly skilled thing and and very few people can do it. For that reason every carefully constructed novel is written for an elite group and what defines ‘elite’ is people who can do this trick. Most people can’t.
LJC: It’s a bit paradoxical in your own case, isn’t it, because your books seem to have a sort of surface simplicity?
KV: They have a real simplicity, I think, because I have always been aware of the reader and his difficulties and when I’ve taught creative writing I’ve generally expressed the interests of the reader and tried to make my students realize that the reader had a tough job and that it might be worthwhile to make things easier for him. One thing: a reader can stop anytime he want—you must keep him going.
LJC: Does this mean you consciously write at a certain level of audience awareness?
KV: I avoid sentences where the reader could get lost. I don’t want him to do that but I’m not inclined to play Henry Jamesian games because they’ll exclude too many people from reading the book, and also the Jamesian game may not be worth playing. I have made my books easy to read, punctuated carefully, with lots of white space.
LJC: I’ve noticed some critics couple you with Joseph Heller as being a kind of middle-ground novelist: that you’re one of those novelists who’s reducing the area between high art and popular art: that you fall somewhere in between. What do you think about this?
KV: What is high art? I don’t know what critic you’re talking about but I would set up a straw man and assume he would like longer paragraphs, longer sentences, tougher verbal games. I don’t think that Joe Heller and I have skimped on our language or on our dramatic effects or on characterization or on setting scenes. What we have done is write shorter sentences and we could easily mask what we’ve done and substitute semi-colons and dashes for periods and get wonderfully intricate sentences and also pages that would be much more tiring to the eye.
LJC: You’re a very different writer from Heller, because the simplicity I’m talking about in your case comes usually out of a sense of irony or a sardonic way of writing—the ‘so it goes’ in Slaughterhouse-Five, for instance. Heller’s not as laconic as this.
KV: I build jokes. I find sections of my book constructed like jokes and then they’re not very long and I suddenly realize the joke is told, and that it’d spoil the joke if I were to go past. The tag line is where the joke paid off and so I’ll make a row of dots across the page to indicate that something’s ended and I’ll begin again and it’ll essentially build as another joke. Heller will deal in a way with jokes, but longer ones.
LJC: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?
KV: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. Everybody else is a robot and the creator of the universe has decided that perhaps free-will creatures would be good creatures to put on some planet and so He performs this experiment on Earth. This man is a Pontiac dealer out in Indianapolis, but he’s the only person who’s thinking because everybody else is programmed to be what he has to be. What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book.
LJC: You suggested that only now do you feel free to write more autobiographically. Why do you think this has happened?
KV: Well, I’ve never lived before and this is apparently what it is to mature as a kind of organism.
LJC: Some of the characters you’ve created in earlier novels, though, seem to be in some sense autobiographical. For instance, I noticed that your heroes tend to have similar political views, a similar sense of humour.
KV: There has been autobiography, but I want to get into more intimate matter now. Not necessarily sexual—I want to talk more about myself, I want to go on more of an ego trip now I’m free to do it. I’ll think about myself.
LJC: Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five stood out a pretty clearly superior. What would you say to this?
KV: I suppose the appeal of those two books is more universal from the standpoint of an older person in that they’re talking about the Nazi experience which is still very much on the minds of older people and so it satisfied and interested them to have me address myself to something as real and recent as that.
LJC: Could I ask you a couple of questions about Mother Night; are you Jewish yourself?
LJC: You’re German, aren’t you?
KV: Yes, which has made it very touchy to seem to be in any way an apologist for Nazi Germany. I had to be very careful about that. My family’s been over here for four generations.
LJC: Who was Kurt Vonnegut Senior?
KV: He was an architect in Indianapolis and his father was an architect and my grandfather was the first licensed architect in Indiana. My father became his partner and I’ve often wished I’d become my father’s partner, as that would have been in the oldest architectural firm in the Middle West, I think.
LJC: Both these books touch on what’s German in your nature, or touch the whole question of Germany and they seem to me to be very much more intensely felt. In some way they’ve engaged you very personally. In the case of Slaughterhouse-Five you were there, weren’t you?
KV: Yeah, I was there. I think people should think of their breeding from time to time and see what sort of a…what sort of a dog they are, and the German thing has been on my mind. Both my father and mother were of German ancestry, were fluent in German and went back to Europe often. I’m not aware of relatives in Germany, though I must have many. But I’m charmed to hear a Polish American talk of himself as a Polish American; and God knows, the Irish and the Jews have been perfectly open about that.
LJC: You got on to a marvellous situation in Mother Night, of the American who also feels that in some sense he’s a German. Was this at all related to anything factual? Was there any character you built Campbell around?
KV: All this falls into the area of automatic writing, really. There isn’t time to be rational about it and plan what you’re going to do. I began with the idea of an American Lord Haw Haw and there really wasn’t one, but the idea interested me so I began pursuing it. You write each day and read the stuff you’ve written and if it looks pretty good, well, you keep on going and eventually you have a book. But the only premise was that there was an American Lord Haw Haw. What started me on that book was a cocktail party where I met a man who’d been in Naval Intelligence during the war and so I just got him talking spies. He said every spy is a double agent because otherwise he can’t survive. Also, he’s a very sick man; he’s a schizophrenic. In the Intelligence business you understand this. Very few spy novels have ever acknowledged this, as the man has maintained his political purity actually because the enemy is so easily deceived. Well, the enemy isn’t easily deceived at all. The enemy very promptly kills anybody who is acting the least bit strange.
LJC: You talked a lot about the difficulties you had when you first began. For instance, I think you gave one of the reasons for using the science-fiction form as the fact that you were a professional writer and had to do something which was popular.
KV: In the beginning I was writing about what concerned me, and what was all around me was machinery. I myself had had some training in engineering and chemistry rather than in the arts and I was working for General Electric in a big factory city, Schenectady. So the first book I wrote was about Schenectady, which is full of machinery and engineers. And I was classified as a science- fiction writer. Well, in the past, science-fiction writers have been beneath the attention of any serious critic. That is, far above you are the people dealing with the really important, beautiful issues and using great skills and so forth. It used to be that if you were a science-fiction writer you really didn’t belong in the arts at all, and other artists wouldn’t talk to you. You just had this scruffy little gang of your own.
LJC: Did you feel there were pressures on you because you had to strive for popularity? For instance, what actually led you to take up full-time writing?
KV: I disliked my job at General Electric so much and in order to quit and hang on to my family I wrote short stories on weekends and at nights. And there used to be a large short-story industry in this country—it doesn’t exist anymore—but we used to have several very rich weekly magazines, each of which would publish five stories a week, and they paid very well. So when I learned to write these rather lousy short stories I started making a lot more money than I could make at General Electric. It was hilarious; we quit and we moved to Cape Cod. That opportunity used to be open to any young writer who was willing to apply himself a little and learn a few simple rules. There were an awful lot of American writers who got their start that way and actually made most of their money that way. It’s too bad that writers no longer have that financial support.
LJC: Did you feel, though, that the fact that you had to support a family and were writing full-time, imposed certain sorts of pressure on your work? Do you feel it changed the sort of writer that you might have been?
KV: Well, it forced me to write for magazines and the sort of fiction they wanted was low-grade, simplistic, undisturbing sort of writing. And so, in order to pay the bills I would write stories of that sort. I would try to accumulate enough capital to allow me to write a book. In effect, I was scrambling pretty hard writing lousy stories for years in order to pay the bills. It wasn’t all bad—nothing ever is all bad—I did learn how to tell a story, how to make a story work, so that the thing has a certain flow and suspense and so forth. It is mechanical and it’s somewhat worth knowing. Because I went through that apprenticeship I did learn how to tell a story. But every book I ever wrote I wrote with great seriousness, no cynicism at all and no large financial hopes each time. The reason I was living, so far as my professional life went, was in order to write books, simply books I wanted to exist. I was not out to make money. The short stories were going to make my money and after I had accumulated enough I would write as good a book as I could. There’s no cynicism in my book writing whatsoever.
LJC: Are there any writers you feel have influenced you at all?
KV: Oh sure. There’s George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson…
LJC: Why Stevenson?
KV: Because he makes up such wonderful stories. One reason why I’m grateful for my magazine experience is that I was forced to make up actual stories, to invent them like mouse traps, and I regard inventions such as Frankenstein or Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde as simply marvellous inventions; they’re great gadgets and they make such clear comments on life. George Orwell interests me more than anybody else. I try to write a great deal like him. I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity.
LJC: I’m not sure whether you heard Leslie Fiedler at Providence when he made a distinction between literature which has mythic significance and literature which hasn’t mythic significance. Did you recall this?
KV: Yeah. I don’t know how useful this is. I’ve self-consciously on occasions created myths and the reader either accepts them or throws the book away because you have to accept them or you can’t continue on. Does Fiedler feel that one sort of book is better than another?
LJC: He doesn’t say so, but I think the implication is there. He says that Henry James is a great non-mythic writer, but given Fiedler’s own predilections towards popular culture, it’s natural that he thinks highly of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs. What myths did you create?
KV: Well, in Cat’s Cradle I created a whole body of myth, I created a whole religion, all of which was made up…there was a body of belief and there was a history, there was a cosmogony and everything else, so that was all mythic in a very overt way. I think Fiedler actually has one universal myth, doesn’t he, that he says he’s seen in book after book which has appealed to the popular imagination. He’s been able to dig out the same myth in everything from Huckleberry Finn to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve heard him do this and I haven’t been persuaded that this method has been invented in each of these books.
LJC: His basic thesis is that the American writer shies away from the presentation of adult heterosexual love, that he tends to sublimate this in a number of forms say, in a suppressed homosexuality in Huckleberry Finn.
KV: There’s a mechanical reason for avoiding adult sexual love in a book. The minute you introduce that element the reader’s not going to want to hear anything more about the factory system or about what it’s like to be a parachutist. He’s going to want to hear about the guy getting the girl and this is a terrible distraction unless you’re really going to deal flat out with the sexual theme.
LJC: Is this why you’ve largely repudiated sex?
KV: Yes, you do it self-consciously. But I’ve wanted to talk about automation, for instance; my first book was about that, and if I’d introduced an obsessive love affair there it would have creamed the whole book. By Love Possessed was a book about lawyers; the whole wonderful texture of the legal world, being a high society lawyer and what that entailed and so forth, but every scene reeked of Chanel Number 5 in a law office, in a court room. So you avoid introducing that subject. Celine wants to talk about how awful the modern world is and what’s unbearable about it…in the start of Journey to the End of Night, just before he decides to join the French army, the first World War is just about to break out and there’s a parade going by. It’s a recruiting parade, and he’s sitting there drinking with his friend who suggests that what he needs is a good woman, and life will be much better. But Celine absolutely rejects that because intellectually that’s an insufferable solution to what’s on his mind. In all of Celine’s books this never becomes a possibility, that you’ll fall into the arms of the woman you love and you’ll be happy and the world will be much more satisfactory. He’s damned if he’s gonna do that. And Ralph Elison in 1nvisible Man comes close to articulating that, too. His invisible man avoids women because it would have made it impossible for him to talk about society again. He can’t get out of bed, reeking of perfume, and go on the streets and be mad about society. You’ve lost your forward motion, you’ve lost your anger, you’ve become a soft fool. So you avoid that. Updike is right in writing a sexually obsessed novel. That’s what you do, you just write about that for five hundred pages. That’s fine, but you have to do that because it just brings everything else to a halt.
LJC: So that’s why the love affair in Cat’s Cradle remains unconsummated; fairly gratuitously, I thought?
KV: Well, of course, there’s something psychological going on in America, too, and Fiedler’s right: there’s repression here. As craftsmen, Americans customarily can’t handle it well and keep it under control.
LJC: Do you propose, or could you consider it feasible, that you might write a novel about sex one day?
KV: That’s where I’m tending now. This man who is the only person with free will, completely surrounded by robots, finally decides that the only thing good are women. So yeah, but that’s going to happen about three-quarters of the way through the book and there’s going to be very little suggestion of this in the beginning or the reader’s going to want it to start right away—you know, bring on the girls. It’s like a burlesque show, they want the comedians to get the hell off and get another naked woman on the stage. And so there’ll be no promise of this until about three-quarters of the way through, and then having done about all I want to do with my hypothesis I can just go sexually clear through to the end. And that’s fine, the last third will be sexually obsessed.
LJC: I hate to use the word ‘message’ but you seem to be one writer to whom that word is applicable, particularly in a novel like God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, where you seem to be setting up actual social problems, postulating certain social problems, the products of evil or misguided behaviour, and then formulating some kind of answer to those problems.
KV: It’s in the nature of my education. I was educated as a chemist and then as an engineer, and my elder brother, my only living sibling, is a reasonably famous scientist, Dr Bernhardt Vonnegut. The experimental method has always been very much in my mind. I got into this frame of mind during high school, setting up experiments to see what happened and regarding this as a very pretty way of making God reveal Himself. Regarding Rosewater, I said to myself, ‘Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?’ So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could. And now I’m dealing with the fathead question about free will as opposed to being automated. I have this one man in Indianapolis and I’m trying to have things happen to him, to see what we can possibly conclude. I think it’s an interesting experiment.
LJC: You’re sometimes given the label of black humourist. What do you understand by this?
KV: Well, the man who made up the term was Bruce Jay Friedman and he published a paperback, Black Humor. Friedman decided that Terry Southern, John Barth, myself, Friedman himself, Joe Heller, Donleavy—a whole bunch of people—were black humourists. They didn’t mix with each other, I don’t think they paid particularly much attention to each other. It was simply Friedman’s conceit that we were all black humourists. Critics accepted this because it allowed them in a simple phrase to deal with fifteen writers or so. The critic would customarily say, ‘This novel under consideration is far superior to the self-indulgent whimsy of the black humourists’, there we’d all go out the damned window and we never had anything to do with each other.
LJC: Do you think the term has any meaning?
KV: No. Well, it obviously has some meaning or Friedman wouldn’t have gotten away with it. It wasn’t quite nonsensical—we were all about the same age, and none of us is a patriot; we are social critics. The term was part of the language before Freud wrote an essay on it—‘gallows humour’. This is middle European humour, a response to hopeless situations. It’s what a man says faced with a perfectly hopeless situation and he still manages to say something funny. Freud gives examples: A man being led out to be hanged at dawn says, ‘Well, the day is certainly starting well’. It’s generally called Jewish humour in this country. Actually it’s humour from the peasants’ revolt, the thirty years’ war, and from the Napoleonic wars. It’s small people being pushed this way and that way, enormous armies and plagues and so forth, and still hanging on in the face of hopelessness. Jewish jokes are middle European jokes. And the black humourists are gallows humourists, as they try to be funny in the face of situations which they see as just horrible.
LJC: It seems to me that one of the finest examples of black humour is Swift’s pamphlet, A Modest Proposal; that Swift found the only way in which one can present something terrible is by adopting a sort of reverse stance towards it, by laughing at it?
KV: Swift obviously was elated the whole time he was writing that. It’s charged with excitement. The writer would like to be calculating but he isn’t. He’s really trying to have a good time. His difficulty is to find something to do with the day that will entertain him and God. It must have been a hilarious day when Swift wrote it; it must have written itself. And every so often you see outrage of that sort.