Friday, April 11, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut Interview

It was one year ago, on April 11, 2007, that Kurt Vonnegut died. To commemorate that, here’s an interview with him.
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Interviewer: Where you died last April, it’s been a bit complicated figuring out how to arrange this meeting. So really, I have to thank you for helping with the details. For a start, would you please describe where we are?

Kurt Vonnegut: Well, we’re in surprisingly comfortable lawn chairs, relaxing in the well-kept yard of a very solid-looking home. The house has traditional wooden shutters and is surrounded by several grand old trees, under which we are now sitting. If you saw the film, Slaughterhouse Five, you might think this is the same house used on that set. It’s pretty in a way that modern houses no longer are.

Int: Is this where you live?

KV: Mostly. There’s a group of us who stay here off and on, and I’d have to say we get along pretty well. As it turns out, most of the people who live here are members of my karass.

Int: And by that you mean a group that’s something like a family?

KV: That’s one way to explain it, though of course, rarely will someone’s biological family member turn up in their karass. The most surprising person in mine turns out to be Lady Bird Johnson.

Vonnegut disappears with an audible pop. But within seconds, he returns and emits a loud burp.

KV: Pardon me.

Int: I could swear you just disappeared.

KV: I met a few old friends and had lunch.

Int: Lunch? But you couldn’t have been gone for more than a few seconds.

KV: Well, it turns out I wasn’t so wrong when I wrote about time. I said it was there to help humans keep their place in the pages of their lives. That, because it trapped them in the amber of the moment, it provided a way for them to follow along and make better sense of the world.

Int: Hmm. I don’t think I understand.

KV: Think of how your memory works. You can remember all sorts of things – your high school graduation, the first fish you ever caught, what you had for supper last night. In your mind, you don’t have to remember events in the order they happened. You can skip around and remember them any old way. That’s kind of what it’s like here – only all those memories are happening all at once. I can tune into any one of them for a closer look whenever I please.

Again, he vanishes briefly.

Int: Where did you go that time?

KV: Sorry, I didn’t think you’d notice. There’s a particularly sweet fraulein I enjoy visiting. You might call it a barnyard romance – some tasty fooling around when I was a soldier during World War II.

Int: So, does that mean there’s sex here?

KV: Would that surprise you?

Int: Actually, I’m surprised to hear that you eat. I wouldn’t have thought that would be necessary here.

KV: Oh, come on – it wouldn’t be much of a heaven if you couldn’t indulge in a few pleasures. And you’re right, we don’t need to eat, most of us just choose to.

Int: So, what did you have for that lunch with your friends?

KV: I had a wonderful green salad that was filled with luscious surprises – peaches, blueberries and big hunks of abalone.

Int: Abalone? That’s like, so endangered!

KV: That’s only on earth. Like so many of the troubles there, the abalone problem is caused by greed. Here we can have as much of everything as we want. Albert Brooks got it right in that film he made about heaven: you can eat whatever you want here, calories don’t count.

Int: Oh right, Defending Your Life. The one where Meryl Streep digs into that huge plate of pasta! I loved that movie, all that Howard Johnson’s meets Disneyland style.

KV: Um, I hate to remind you, but Albert stole that from me – I had the Howard Johnson franchise delivering last meals to patrons of the Ethical Suicidal Parlor long before he made his movie. Remember?

Int: How could I have forgotten? But speaking of something I forgot, I meant to ask about the time travel thing. What does it feel like when you go to some other place – or should that be time?

KV: Really, it’s both – and it doesn’t feel any different than how this feels right here and now, which is fine, though I do wish you’d get on with the questions.

Int: OK. You admit this house we’re beside looks like something out of the film version of Slaughterhouse Five. So I’m wondering, where’s the antique fire engine?

KV: Ah, even heaven has its petty rules. No fire engines – or cars for that matter. It’s a problem with, as they call them here, infernal combustion engines. The exhaust interferes with the whiteness of the clouds – and some of the more traditional types prefer to live up there (points to the sky), though why, I can’t imagine. It’d get boring, I’m sure – plus there’d be all that white glare. My brother Bernard is one of them who likes it up there, but then, even as a kid he was crazy about clouds. He’s the one who discovered that seeding clouds with silver iodide particles could make them rain. So no, to answer your question, I don’t get to play with fire engines.

Int: Besides that, any regrets?

KV: Not so much regrets as things left undone. I still wish I’d been less of a stinker about allowing a re-release of Between Time and Timbuktu.

Int: What’s that?

KV: It was a great little piece of television drama – don’t sneer, there used to be a lot of great drama on TV – Playhouse 90 is a program they should resurrect. And I think it was ABC that had a terrific series of plays they showed on Thursday nights. Those must’ve run a couple of years at least. Between Time and Timbuktu was based on a lot of my earlier works. There were pieces plucked from Cat’s Cradle and Sirens of Titan and even Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Although I grumbled some at the time, they were strung together into a pretty passable story. There were even some bits from Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of my early short stories. I have to give the directors credit – they did a damn fine job of a patchwork piece. Casting William Hickey as Stony Stevenson was a step above brilliant. Radio announcers Bob and Ray helped tie the whole thing together. You’d never know it, but a lot of their dialogue was ad-libbed. They were really something!

Int: So, what happened to it?

KV: Who knows? The great beyond of bad moods and unknown bureaucracies and lunatic rules of copyright foreclosures. So it goes.

Int: Ah, one of your most famous lines, “So it goes.” Which brings me to the line most quoted after your passing—

KV: Please don’t use that ridiculous term. It sounds like passing gas and believe me, death is a lot more difficult than farting. It takes work, probably the closest thing to giving birth I ever experienced. God bless you, ladies, especially the mothers of my children and grandchildren.

Int: I’m sorry. Let me start over. After you died – is that better? (Vonnegut closes the famous heavy-lidded eyes and nods) – the quote most often cited was “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Was that appropriate? Is that what you want to be remembered as saying?

KV: Of course it’s not what I want to be remembered as saying. Most of the people who quote me have never read my books. They saw Slaughterhouse Five on television one night when they couldn’t sleep. And they figure that makes them an expert on me. If they knew my work at all, they’d realize how ironic that epitaph is.

Int: So, would you be happier to be remembered by the quote you once told Rolling Stone Magazine you wanted on your headstone?

KV: I’m sorry, what would that have been?

Int: “The only proof he needed for God was the existence of music.”

KV: Ah, yes. I suppose I would have said something like that to a magazine about the music industry.

Int: So, now that there’s probably a stone with your name on it somewhere, what would you like it to say?

KV: I’d be happy, of course, with the words of Eugene V. Debs. “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Only those are his words, not mine.

Int: So, as a second choice?

KV: How about, “He tried”.

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When the Interviewer thanked the author, she asked whether she’d be able to do more follow-up interviews, perhaps as an annual event. Apparently Mr. Vonnegut replied, “We already are.”

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