One of America's best-loved novelists, Kurt Vonnegut, who died this week, was often asked to explain his craft and the events that inspired him. In this seminal conversation with 'The Paris Review', conducted over more than a decade and finally published in 1977, the writer offers a fascinating glimpse into his early life, shares his wicked sense of humour - and reveals the humanity that underpins his work
Published: 13 April 2007
INTERVIEWER You are a veteran of the Second World War?
KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Yes. I want a military funeral when I die - the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Which is - ?
VONNEGUT The unqualified approval of my community.
INTERVIEWER You don't feel that you have that now?
VONNEGUT My relatives say that they are glad I'm rich, but that they simply cannot read me.
INTERVIEWER You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?
VONNEGUT Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240mm howitzer.
INTERVIEWER But 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.
INTERVIEWER In combat?
VONNEGUT When we were still in the States.
INTERVIEWER While they trained you for the infantry?
VONNEGUT I was never trained for the infantry. Battalion scouts were élite 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.
INTERVIEWER During your basic training, though, you must have been familiarised with weapons other than the howitzer.
VONNEGUT If you study the 240mm howitzer, you don't even have time left over for a venereal-disease film.
INTERVIEWER What happened when you reached the front?
VONNEGUT I imitated various war movies I'd seen.
INTERVIEWER Did you shoot anybody in the war?
VONNEGUT I thought about it. I did fix my bayonet once, fully expecting to charge.
INTERVIEWER Did you charge?
VONNEGUT No. If everybody else had charged, I would have charged, too. But we decided not to charge. We couldn't see anybody.
INTERVIEWER Do you mind describing your capture by the Germans?
VONNEGUT Gladly. We were in this gully about as deep as a First World War trench. There was snow all around. Somebody said we were probably in Luxembourg. We were out of food. 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.
INTERVIEWER What did the Germans say?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Did you speak any German?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER And you said - ?
VONNEGUT I 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.
INTERVIEWER And you finally arrived in Dresden.
VONNEGUT In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the non-coms 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...
INTERVIEWER What were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?
VONNEGUT 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 labour 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 whump a 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.
INTERVIEWER You 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 sizeable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.
INTERVIEWER What an impression on someone thinking of becoming a writer!
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Did you intend to write about it as soon as you went through the experience?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER One more war question: Do you still think about the firebombing of Dresden at all?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Which member of your family had the most influence on you as a writer?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER She'd been rich at one time?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER It must have been a very good beer.
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Do you know what it was?
INTERVIEWER So your mother studied short-story writing -
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER So your mother took a very practical attitude toward writing.
VONNEGUT 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 10. 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.
INTERVIEWER What were your sister's dreams like?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER The Indianapolis high school you and your mother attended -
VONNEGUT And my father. Shortridge High.
INTERVIEWER It had a daily paper, I believe.
VONNEGUT Yes. The Shortridge Daily Echo. There was a print shop right in the school. Students wrote the paper. Students set the type. 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.
INTERVIEWER So every afternoon you would go to the Echo office -
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?
VONNEGUT It's a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.
INTERVIEWER I see.
VONNEGUT I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I'm always offending feminists that way.
INTERVIEWER I don't quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER You went to Cornell University after Shortridge?
VONNEGUT I imagine.
INTERVIEWER You imagine?
VONNEGUT 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 MIT. 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.
INTERVIEWER Was your sister funny, too?
VONNEGUT Oh, yes. There was an odd cruel streak to her sense of humour, 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. We loved Laurel and Hardy. You know what one of the funniest things is that can happen in a film?
VONNEGUT To have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep.
INTERVIEWER Did you take a degree in chemistry at Cornell?
VONNEGUT 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 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 crack-up, I'd say.
INTERVIEWER What was your dissertation?
VONNEGUT Cat's Cradle.
INTERVIEWER But you wrote that years after you left Chicago, didn't you?
VONNEGUT 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 PR 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 MA. 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.
VONNEGUT It was nothing, really. A piece of cake.
INTERVIEWER Let's talk about the women in your books.
VONNEGUT There aren't any. No real women, no love.
INTERVIEWER Is this worth expounding upon?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER So you keep love out.
VONNEGUT I have other things I want to talk about.
INTERVIEWER Not many writers talk about the mechanics of stories.
VONNEGUT I am such a barbarous technocrat that I believe they can be tinkered with like Model T Fords.
INTERVIEWER To what end?
VONNEGUT To give the reader pleasure.
INTERVIEWER 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.
VONNEGUT 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 realise that she was the person I wrote for until after she died.
INTERVIEWER She loved literature?
VONNEGUT 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. 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.
INTERVIEWER What do you think now?
VONNEGUT 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 humour 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.
INTERVIEWER At a typewriter.
VONNEGUT Yes, and smoking his fool head off.
INTERVIEWER Have you ever stopped smoking?
VONNEGUT Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250lb. 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.
INTERVIEWER The second time?
VONNEGUT Very recently - last year. I paid Smokenders $150 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.
INTERVIEWER Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER You have been a public relations man and an advertising man -
VONNEGUT Oh, I imagine.
INTERVIEWER Was this painful? I mean - did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER No joke.
VONNEGUT A tragedy. I just keep trying to think of ways, even horrible ways, for young writers to somehow hang on.
INTERVIEWER Should young writers be subsidised?
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 $750, six weeks' pay at GE. I wrote another, and he paid me $950, and suggested that it was perhaps time for me to quit GE. Which I did. I moved to Provincetown. Eventually, my price for a short story got up to $2,900 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.
INTERVIEWER Do you have a new mentor now?
VONNEGUT No. I guess I'm too old to find one. What ever 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.
INTERVIEWER Do you feel as though you're up there without a net under you?
VONNEGUT And without a balancing pole, either. It gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes.
INTERVIEWER Is there anything else you'd like to add?
VONNEGUT I want to say, too, that humourists 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 specialise. 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.
INTERVIEWER Do you have any favourite jokes?
VONNEGUT 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."
VONNEGUT I told you you wouldn't laugh. The other champion joke requires your cooperation. I will ask you a question, and you have to say "No."
VONNEGUT Do you know why cream is so much more expensive than milk?
VONNEGUT Because the cows hate to squat on those little bottles. See, you didn't laugh again, but I give you my sacred word of honour that those are splendid jokes. Exquisite craftsmanship.
INTERVIEWER If your parents hadn't lost all their money, what would you be doing now?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER So you have good old days you hanker for.
VONNEGUT 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 centre 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 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.
INTERVIEWER Anything else?
VONNEGUT Perhaps we should say something at this point how this interview itself was done - unless candour would somehow spoil everything.
INTERVIEWER Let the chips fall where they may.
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER 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?
VONNEGUT There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.
INTERVIEWER So - ?
VONNEGUT 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.
INTERVIEWER Thank you.
VONNEGUT Thank you.