I first encountered Kurt Vonnegut in 1970 when I took part in a "rap session" with him just before the opening of his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Four years later, for the legendary Crawdaddy, where I was senior editor, I interviewed him and turned it into a unique profile that he called the best written about him up to that point. But that was only the beginning.
My new e-book, Vonnegut and Me, was published a couple of days ago, detailing (often in a witty way) my "conversations and close encounters of a weird kind" with the famed novelist, starting in 1970 and then over the years. Here's the first excerpt below. Note: The entire copy of my infamous and quite lengthy 1974 profile/interview is included in the book.
Following up on my exclusive Joseph Heller interview, I attempted to wrangle an invitation from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to come to his Upper East Side apartment (where he was now living with famed photographer Jill Krementz) for a rare sit-down interview. His recent book Breakfast of Champions had not exactly thrilled the critics, but it was selling well. In response to my letter, Vonnegut wrote, "I'll be teaching at CCNY next fall, along with your friend and mine, Joe Heller. Let's see what sort of wisdom, if any, is shaped by that teaching experience. You might find me wise about life instead of shrewd about publishing."
I'd profiled him over three years earlier, as we've seen, but since it was for Zygote he probably never saw it.
Now, in February 1974, it was fun to sit across from him in his East Side living room for an hour or so, but he kept getting interrupted by students -- he was teaching this semester -- or his quite alarming cigarette cough. Also, his phone rang off and on and I learned that, amazingly, he still had a listed phone number. (His favorite calls came from drunks halfway across the country late at night.) His daughter had married Geraldo Rivera, which didn't seem to thrill him in the least. The recent film adaptation of his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June? "One of the most embarrassing movies ever made." And so on.
When I transcribed the interview and realized it was so-so at best, I took the risky step of writing a lengthy account of my visit under the byline "Kilgore Trout." Vonnegut had just set his most famous recurring character free in Breakfast of Champions, and so I (rather cleverly, I thought) adopted him myself as a pen name. I also assembled some of Vonnegut's other characters, such as Bokonon, Howard W. Campbell, and Eliot Rosewater, for a fanciful reunion at his townhouse, with bear hugs and wacky anecdotes all-around. Then, borrowing a Vonnegut trick, I reported the end of the world at the finish.
While I resurrected and re-cast some of Vonnegut's best lines from his novels, most of his quotes were from our interview, so it maintained an air of reality. Then I got Krementz to lend us some photos -- including one of Vonnegut in old man make-up, a portrait of Trout, or so I claimed -- and famed illustrator Edward Sorel contributed the cover. One excerpt, in the voice of Trout:
I had spent the previous night in a movie theater on 42nd Street. It was much cheaper than a night in a hotel. I had never done it before, but I knew sleeping in movie houses was the sort of thing really dirty old men did. I was in town to take part in a symposium entitled "The Future of the American Novel in the Age of McLuhan."
As I walked east on 38th Street I decided that what I wished to say at that symposium was this: "I don't know who McLuhan is, but I know what it's like to spend the night with a lot of other dirty old men in a movie theater in New York City." And: "Does this McLuhan, whoever he is, have anything to say about the relationship between wide-open beavers and the sales of books?"
As for a second character:
Campbell, who had served too enthusiastically the Nazi cause during World War II as an American agent and had hanged himself in an Israeli jail 20 years later (before the Jews could) only to have Vonnegut cut the rope with his Emancipation Proclamation, explained quickly that he had revived the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution. Apparently he had taken yet another turn for the worse.
And then, based on the actual interview:
I asked Vonnegut 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. 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."
"When you get to be our age," he added, "you all of a sudden realize that you are being ruled by people you went to high school with. You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school -- class officers, cheerleaders, and all."
"As I get older, 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....The big trouble with print, of course, is that it is an elitist art form. Most people can't read very well."
Somehow the whole package worked and after Vonnegut read the galleys he would tell me it was the best profile about him he'd ever read (it was later re-published in the first collection of pieces about him). Then my career high turned to humiliation....
For more on the book, go here.
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