Flashback: A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut

In 2002, the author sat down with IM to discuss dogs, intelligent women, and turning 80.

Editor’s Note, September 24, 2013: This article originally appeared in the November 2002 issue. Interviewer Hugh Vandivier is presently “locked up” at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis in observance of Banned Books Week 2013. As of this posting, the Robert Weide–produced documentary about Vonnegut, referenced in Vandivier’s conversation with the author, had yet to be completed. Last year, Weide told ScreenDaily the project was “stalled because of lack of funding.”

If the universe thrives on coincidence, it couldn’t have picked a better day for Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to be born. The writer’s birthday is November 11, which also happens to be Veterans Day, and as all Vonnegut fans know, the Indianapolis native was a POW during the intense firebombing of Dresden in World War II; he wrote about the experience in Slaughterhouse-Five, the 1969 novel that catapulted him to international fame, put him atop The New York Times bestseller list, and made “And so it goes” a phrase for the ages.

Over the course of his 50-year career in letters, Vonnegut has published more than a dozen novels (all of which are still in print—no mean feat these days), a play or two, short stories, and countless essays. This month, the master satirist returns to Indianapolis for an appearance at the 1894 Society Dinner at the Athenaeum. On the eve of his 80th birthday, we talked to Vonnegut about his passions and his Indiana roots.

IM: Eighty would seem to be an age when a person might look back on his life and take stock—or, especially in the case of famous artists, when other people might want to do the taking-stock for you. And in fact you’re the subject of a documentary-in-progress by Hollywood writer and producer Bob Weide. How’d the project come about?

KV: Well, we’re old friends, and he’d made a movie based on a book of mine, Mother Night. He’s always been very supportive of my work—been a pal for a long time. And he asked me to start sending him stuff. On his own, in fact, he had gathered, from a cousin of mine and from my late brother, film of me as a little kid and my parents and all that. And since then, whenever I’ve given a speech and there’s been a video, I’ve sent him the video—so he’s got quite an accumulation. He’s my archive now [laughs]. But I’m honored by his interest. There was a time when he and another person here in New York were going to do a piece on me for the American Masters series on PBS. But his partnership with that person semi–fell apart. And I was in no rush to have it done anyway.

IM: Weide interviewed you and your late brother Bernard on a train trip.

KV: Yeah, Bob made a couple of trips with me. One—which was wonderful archive material for my family—was my return to Lake Maxinkuckee, to Culver. It’s visually quite beautiful, and I got to remember my childhood there.

IM: How long had it been since you’d been back?

KV: Oh, Christ, I’m no good at math now. Everything seems to have happened about 50 years ago. Let’s see. The last time I was in, we had a cottage. There used to be a little string of Vonnegut cottages there. I guess it was supposed to go on forever, you know—for generations, Vonneguts would come up there. But we sold our cottage when I came home from the Second World War. The guy who had just bought it let me and my bride spend a week there. That would have been in June of ’45. That was the last time we saw the cottage.

“[The Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School] earned me more respect from my druggist and my dry cleaner here in New York than anything I’d ever done.”

IM: Bob also produces the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do you watch it?

KV: Not that much. It’s nothing against Bob, but I just don’t. Anyway, you have to pay to watch it [laughs].

IM: He’s also known for his documentaries on comedians—the Marx Brothers, Mort Saul …

KV: … Lenny Bruce. First rate.

IM: Does he think you’re funny?

KV: Yes, I think so.

IM: Who is funny to you?

KV: Well, at Shortridge High School we had at least 11 guys who were funnier than David Letterman [laughs].

IM: You’re aware that Shortridge is a junior high now?

KV: Well, the city grows. In my day, that might have been a scandal because, Christ, we had a symphony orchestra, we had a debating team, we had Zeiss microscopes, we had great labs and everything, and what they were spending on us per capita compared to what they were spending on kids at Arsenal or at Manual or Washington—I imagine they were spending two to three times that at Shortridge.

IM: You’ve often remarked about getting an almost college-level education there.

KV: Oh, no doubt. The faculty was exceptional. I’ve said before that my generation was so lucky to be great beneficiaries of the injustices to women, because the most intelligent women in Indianapolis—all they could do was teach, and boy there were dynamite teachers there. I think about my ancient-history teacher Minnie Lloyd still, and I say she was wearing a medal that she’d earned at the Battle of Thermopylae [laughs]. She was really deeply involved in her subject.

IM: Speaking of school, how did you end up in Rodney Dangerfield’s movie Back to School?

KV: Whoever wrote the script put me in it. Then they called me up.

IM: The English professor gives Dangerfield’s character a bad grade on a paper written by you, then tells him he knows nothing about Vonnegut.

KV: Yeah. “I know one thing. You didn’t write this, and whoever did doesn’t know the first thing about Vonnegut!” [laughs] “Hey, Vonnegut, can you read lips? Fuck you!” [laughs] I loved it. And it earned me more respect from my druggist and my dry cleaner here in New York than anything I’d ever done.

IM: You had a fire in your New York apartment a couple of years ago. Have you and your family recovered?

KV: Well, nobody died, and I’m smoking again [laughs]. Yeah, I think so. Yes. The insurance was quite wonderful. We were able to repair it.

IM: How bad was the damage?

KV: It was just limited to one room where I work, but there was a lot of smoke and water damage. The fire itself wasn’t much bigger than a bushel basket, I guess, but it was eating into the wall, into the floor and all that. And so it took a lot of water to put it out. But that’s all been repaired. The house is perfectly restored. So get fire insurance.

IM: Your father and grandfather designed and built a good many buildings here in Indianapolis. The one that has really survived and is thriving right now is the Athenaeum.

KV: Yes, and then there’s the clock at Washington and Meridian.

IM: The Ayres clock. Do you have a favorite among your father and grandfather’s buildings?

KV: Well, I think the Athenaeum is the most fanciful. You don’t normally get to be that playful with a client.

IM: In general, what sort of architecture appeals to you?

KV: I like it all. I like architecture. Donald Barthelme, the writer, was a friend of mine—he’s dead now, but he was also the son of an architect, a Texas architect. And after he died, I spoke at a service for him, and I pointed out that we both had been sons of architects and that they’d influenced our writing. We designed radically novel structures which turned out to be habitable.

IM: And you’ve also made art. Are you still?

KV: Yes, more than ever.

IM: What kind of stuff are you producing?

KV: Silkscreens.

IM: Do you have a studio?

KV: It’s called a house [laughs].

IM: Are the people who buy your art mostly the people who read your books?

KV: I have no idea. No idea. There’s certainly no feeding frenzy going on. No, I think they’ve liked the book pictures. I hope the pictures are appealing.

IM: Tell me, do you still smoke Pall Malls?

KV: Never mind.

IM: Okay, never mind. You’re a rather well-known dog lover. Do you have any dogs?

KV: I do, but we’re in the city now, and it’s cruel to have a big dog in the city. I mean, there’s a woman across the street who owns a Great Dane, and another guy’s got two big dogs, and that’s just not fair in the city.

IM: In the late ’90s, when the economy was definitely better, you said, “The government and corporations like to cook the books so they can present all sorts of rosy statistical pictures.” How’d you know?

KV: Well, it’s just common sense. If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it is. There’s so much talk about 9/11, but what the crooks on Wall Street and in big corporations have done to us has been far more destructive. And if there hadn’t been 9/11, we’d be talking about little girls being kidnapped or whatever it is. Certainly not Enron, not Bush’s pals nor Cheney’s pals.

IM: Because all that would be too complicated to explain.

KV: That’s right. It would destroy our faith in democracy [laughs].

IM: You’re interviewed in the documentary 1 Giant Leap, talking about TV and music. What kind of music do you enjoy?

KV: Everything but rap. I love it all. I grew up in the big-band era, and we used to chase bands all over the Midwest. We’d go up to Chicago or Louisville or wherever. Goodman or Artie Shaw or Ellington. You know, the arts are supposed to ideally make people like life better than they had before. Somebody once asked me if I’d ever seen that happen, and I said, “Yes, the Beatles did that.” They did. It’s no god-damn joke.

IM: In your work, you’ve graphed out the storylines of various works of literature as a way to plot the fortunes of the protagonist. As your 80th birthday nears, how would you plot your own life? I assume it would not be a flat line like you drew for Hamlet.

KV: No. For it to be a flat line, I would have had to stay in Indianapolis and become an architect like my father, in which case I would have been the third-generation Vonnegut architect in Indianapolis. Instead I went out in the world where anything could happen.

IM: Is it true you’ve made your last public address?

KV: I don’t know.