The Melancholia of Everything Completed:
KURT VONNEGUT (1922-2007)
Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest
Vonnegut in his home in Barnstable, Mass
Photographed by BUCK SQUIBB for Stop Smiling, July 2006
Thursday, April 12, 2007
The following cover story interview appeared in
Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest, released in August 2006
THE MELANCHOLIA OF EVERYTHING COMPLETED
The Stop Smiling Interview with Kurt Vonnegut
By JC Gabel
“The arts put a man at the center of the universe,” Kurt Vonnegut told the graduating class of Bennington College in 1970, “whether he belongs there or not.”
Growing up in Indianapolis during the Great Depression, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. did not consider the arts to be a part of anyone’s universe. According to the legendary author and humorist, the arts were discouraged in his family. Vonnegut’s father urged his children toward rationalism. Science was the answer, he was assured, not the arts.
Vonnegut’s older brother, Bernard, a physical chemist who studied at MIT, thought technology would solve the world’s problems. Partly to please his father — Kurt Vonnegut Sr., an architect whose business suffered during the Depression — his son, Kurt Jr., followed in his older brother’s footsteps, studying biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Yet the younger Vonnegut had already shown promise as a writer at his daily high school newspaper, the Shortridge Daily Echo. He later worked as a columnist, writer and assistant managing editor at the Cornell Sun.
Fate, of course, continued to intervene. Midway through his studies Vonnegut was failing chemistry. He enlisted in the Army and was thrust into World War II, after some training in mechanical engineering. He became a battalion scout with the 106th Infantry Division. At the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans, became a POW and was later taken to Dresden, where he witnessed the firebombing of that city, which killed 135,000 citizens. Vonnegut’s portrayal of these events formed the basis of his most-cherished novel, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or The Children’s Crusade. The title is taken from the meat locker in which he and his fellow Allied POWs took shelter while Dresden was destroyed. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1945, he was awarded a Purple Heart.
It’s now 2006, and America’s greatest living fiction writer is done writing. He has seen 14 novels published (Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and Timequake, among them), three short-story collections (Canary in a Cathouse, Welcome to the Monkey House and Bagombo Snuff Box), a play (“Happy Birthday, Wanda June”), two books of essays and opinions (Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons and Palm Sunday), as well as numerous adaptations of his works for television and film.
His most recent collection of writings, A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories Press), is composed of short pieces, most of which he wrote for the magazine In These Times. When it was released in September 2005, it became an instant bestseller.
“I’ve lived a full life,” he says. He’s been an author and freelance writer now for 56 years. Some previous jobs he’s held include police reporter for Chicago’s City News Bureau, PR writer for General Electric, teacher in Cape Cod, advertising copywriter and Saab manager in Barnstable, Massachusetts.
He’s also taught writing at colleges, on and off, for more than 40 years, beginning at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then Harvard, followed by the City College of New York and Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
He has a total of seven children: three of his own (Mark, Edie and Nanny), three he raised after his sister, Alice, died of cancer in 1958 (Tiger, Jim and Steven), and Lily, the daughter of Vonnegut and his second wife, author and photographer Jill Krementz. More than half of them are professional artists in one form or another. It turns out, art does run in the Vonnegut family.
Vonnegut has been creating art most of his life with felt-tip pens and markers. For a better part of the last 15 years, he’s been creating art exclusively with Kentucky-born artist and screen-printmaker, Joe Petro III. Each piece is hand-drawn or painted by Vonnegut, and hand-printed by Petro from his studio in Lexington.
In the Author’s Note to A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut pays tribute to Petro, his friend and collaborator, while describing more about their process: “Joe makes prints of some of [my work], one by one, color by color, by means of the time-consuming, archaic silk screen process, practiced by almost nobody else anymore: squeegeeing inks through cloths and onto paper. This process is so painstaking and tactile, almost balletic, that each print Joe makes is a painting in its own right.
“Our partnership’s name, Origami Express,” he continues, “is my tribute to the many-layered packages Joe makes for prints he sends for me to sign and number.”
“Everything I’ve done is in print,” Vonnegut tells me from his house in Long Island. “I have fulfilled my destiny, such as it is, and I have nothing more to say. So now I’m writing little things – one line here, two lines there, sometimes a poem. I like working crossword puzzles. And I make art. I didn’t expect to live this long.” He has reached, he says, what Nietzsche called “the melancholia of everything completed.”
Much to his surprise, Vonnegut has outlived Mark Twain, a man he not only physically resembles and admires greatly – he’s called him “a national treasure” — but with whom he also shares a comic bond. Twain died at the age of 76 in 1910. Born in 1922, Vonnegut is now 83. Twain amazed and entertained Americans throughout the latter half of the 19th century; Vonnegut did the same for Americans in the latter half of the 20th century. Both men were born writers, practiced novelists and, most important, savage satirists quick with endless black humor and sharp wit. Each managed to have the last laugh, no matter how dire life and times got. So it goes.
This summer, Vonnegut and I talked by phone six or seven times, from the middle of June to the middle of July. The following interview is a portion of those conversations.
Stop Smiling: Tell me about the American Midwest you remember from childhood, and the one you came back to, after WWII.
Kurt Vonnegut: I was born in Indianapolis, but I’m a Chicagoan who lives in New York. I went to the University of Chicago. I worked for Chicago’s City News Bureau as a street reporter, and my first child, Mark, was born there.
SS: Do you think the Midwest is a good place to grow up?
KV: If George W. Bush got mad enough at me and exiled me back to Indianapolis, I could make a decent life there. I could hack it in Indianapolis.
SS: In your last book, A Man Without a Country, there is a story about Germans moving to America. You wrote that your pioneering relatives came to the New World more because they were attracted to the Constitution than because they were being oppressed.
KV: I’ve said in my book that the Statue of Liberty was calling for the people in awful shape. And of course they arrived. The country was welcoming everybody. They were educated German gentiles and Jews as well. They were savvy in business and learned English, and were in a good shape to establish themselves, which they did. This raised a feeling which I still sense sometimes when face to face with an Anglo — it raised the question: Who the hell’s country is this anyway? All the businesses in Indianapolis were largely taken over by Germans — again German Jews and gentiles alike.
SS: You always talk about the importance of extended families. Do you get together with your own very often?
KV: It’s hard to do. We’re dispersed. I want people to have extended families, but economic realities disperse us. I had an extended family in Indianapolis. I think there were 32 of them in the phone book at one time. None of my kids are in Indianapolis.
SS: You and your family long ago gravitated East. What is your theory about fresh water people versus salt-water people?
KV: When my ancestors arrived, they were thunderstruck by all this land. They were right in the middle of it. Arable land stretched out for hundreds of miles in all directions. So the land, the continent, was enough to think about. New York and San Francisco and West Coast people are oceanic and feel very close to Europe or to Asia, and the people in the Middle West are continental. One is not better than the other. It just happens to be an interesting difference. Where did you grow up?
KV: All right. You’re a fresh water person.
SS: Did studying anthropology at the University of Chicago lead you to become an atheist?
KV: No. I’m descended from boatloads of Germans who arrived about the time of the Civil War. They were so called “free thinkers.” They were educated people who decided that the priest or the preacher didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the origin of things. It was largely influenced by Darwin. They formed clubs and picnics, calling themselves free thinkers. But in two World Wars, German-Americans were so hated and the free thinkers were so specifically German, they stopped calling themselves that. I take part in my hereditary religion, which is what is called a humanist. I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association. At the same time, I do not remotely proselytize and my particular war buddy who is dead now — his name is Bernard O’Hare and appears in several of my books — gave up on God after the War. He gave up being a Roman Catholic. I thought that was too much to lose. I didn’t want him to do that.
SS: After finishing at U of C, you went right to Chicago’s News Bureau and became a journalist professionally. Did you have some experience working for newspapers in high school and college?
KV: Yes. I had to find some way to make a living. I already had a kid, for God’s sake, and I had just been discharged. I got married and my wife got pregnant immediately in Chicago. I didn’t have a clue as to how the hell I was going to make a living. Anthropology is surely no way to do it, unless you have a Ph.D. I went to an overachiever’s high school in Indianapolis, which no longer exists. It was called Shortridge High School, and since 1906, it had a daily newspaper. I was an editor at the Shortridge Daily Echo, and I learned to write. It was beneficial, really, because it made me aware immediately of the response of readers. You publish something people don’t like and you hear about it right away.
I knew how to paste up a front page and write headlines. At the City News Bureau, we phoned in our stories and we phoned in leads. The first thing you’d say is who, what, when, where and why. In writing fiction, that’s what I always did. I made sure the reader knew at once where he was, too. Fiction is a game for two. You have to make it possible for a reader to play along. I have taught creative writing at Harvard, City College of New York, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and, most recently, at Smith College. Nowadays, a student will withhold a crucial piece of information for the sake of surprise later in the story — only on page 18 do you find out this person is blind; only on page 15 do you find out that this is actually happening in 1850. The reader doesn’t enjoy that.
SS: You’ve always said that certain people are born writers. Have you always wanted to write?
KV: My brother was 10 years older than me. Bernard Vonnegut, Ph.D. from MIT in physical chemistry. He thought science was the answer to everything, and he thought the arts were ornamental. He would talk about a dumb uncle of ours who did nothing but read novels. Art was absolutely taboo for me growing up. My father was quite beat down by the Depression. My big brother Bernie said it was a waste of money if they sent me to college, unless I studied chemistry. So that was what I did at Cornell. I was also on the Cornell Daily Sun, which was Ithaca, New York’s morning paper. I became assistant managing editor. I would have been managing editor, but I went to war instead.
I was flunking chemistry and hating it. I was bored stiff by it, and robbing other people of their liberal arts educations. We’d talk about all kinds of interesting stuff. They’d tell me what books to read and so forth. When I went to war after three years of college, I was practically flunking everything: physics, math, all of it — barely passing. I went to the war and the Army sent me back to college. It’s the reason I wasn’t an officer — the officer’s candidate school was closed. They had plenty of people willing to be saluted, so they took all us college kids and sent us back to college with no chance of promotion. I flunked thermodynamics twice — once at Carnegie Mellon, which used to be called Carnegie Tech, and again at the University of Tennessee. What they wanted when we successfully invaded Europe was a whole lot of riflemen to sweep across the continent. So that’s what I was. I never had an opportunity to get a promotion. The things I saw as a private —
I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
SS: Did fighting the war make you want to go to school for anthropology, perhaps to learn and maybe write about other cultures of the world, after having witnessed so much death and destruction?
KV: I was still cowed by the science thing. Actually, anthropology calls itself a science. It turns out it isn’t. It’s a form of autobiography. We all had to take a course in the anthropology department, which everybody should take. It’s called “Peoples of the World,” and it is a study of society after society, based on the writings of explorers, missionaries and imperialists of all different kinds. It was quite wonderful to see the varieties of culture and realize their inventions. That was helpful.
SS: In the last few years you’ve been writing — mostly nonfiction — for the small Chicago magazine In These Times. I’m curious how that relationship came about?
KV: I don’t know. I turned 80, and nobody paid any attention. Then this paper out in the Midwest — Chicago, my spiritual hometown — said, “Hey, how are you? Why don’t you write something for us?” I thought that was nice. I went on writing for them. I had sent out op-ed pieces to the New York Times again and again and again, and they would never print them.
SS: Why do you think?
KV: Because [the editorials] stunk, probably.
SS: You wrote a piece for In These Times that dealt with the death of one of your most cherished characters. Did you kill off Kilgore Trout, or will we see him again?
KV: Oh no. I’m all through writing except for poems and shorts, and I do art.
SS: You’ve been drawing for four or five decades. But in the last decade you’ve been working with Joe Petro III, who’s from Lexington, Kentucky, on dozens of art-related projects. How did this come about?
KV: As I said, art was taboo when I was growing up. My father was full of self-pity. He was an architect. I would have liked to be an architect, but I believed my brother. My impulse was to make art anyway. Here I am. It was a wonderful break. Joe Petro said, “Why don’t we work together?” It was a wonderful thing to happen to me at the end of my life.
There’s a woman’s college in Lexington called Midway, and I spoke there once. Speaking was a big part of my business life. Mark Twain made more money speaking than he did from writing. Anyway, I did about six speeches in the fall and six in the spring. I quit that now. I was invited to Midway, and Joe Petro was there. He said, “Why don’t you do a self-portrait? I’ll make a silk-screen of it and we’ll use it as a poster.” So I did it. I got out there and I saw what he can do. He’s an artist, too. He was a zoology major in college. He does these beautifully detailed accurate pictures of nature for Greenpeace. Anyway, after I did the self-portrait he said, “Why don’t we keep going?” And so we did. It was a very welcome invitation.
It was without any expectation of doing anything with the picture. Joe Petro got me drawing commercially. Putting it on the web, making silk-screens based on drawings by me. If it hadn’t been for Joe, I wouldn’t be doing it now. So Joe made this happen and as I’ve said about him, he did the most wonderful thing for me — he gave me a job.
I realized something this morning at the Museum of Modern Art, where they were having a press reception before the opening of their Dada show. Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and all those guys started making these very strange works of art after the First World War. Duchamp famously signed a urinal “R. Mutt.” Anyway, I saw that urinal this morning and I realized that’s what Joe and I are doing — Dada. Dada was the artists’ response to the senselessness of the First World War. Who wants to make a picture of noble human beings? Joe and I are practicing Dada now. They were protesting the meaninglessness in life.
SS: Would you say you wanted to be a painter more than a writer?
KV: I wanted to be an architect like my father, and, like a lot of architects, I also expected to paint. Before ever meeting Joe, I had done art one way or another. I made paintings, although not with any regularity. There’s nothing new about making pictures. My father painted, particularly when his architecture business failed during the Great Depression. There were art materials all over the house, and my late sister, Alice, was a wonderful sculptor. She got off a great line: “Just because you have talent doesn’t mean you have to do something with it.”
When I used to be a speaker at colleges, I’d say, “Look, practice an art, no matter how badly or how well you do it. It will make your soul grow.” That’s why you do it. You don’t do it to become famous or rich. You do it to make your soul grow. This would include singing in the shower, dancing to the radio by yourself, drawing a picture of your roommate or writing a poem or whatever. Please practice an art. Have the experience of becoming. It’s so sad that many public school systems are eliminating the arts because it’s no way to make a living. What’s important is to have the experience of becoming, which is as necessary as food or sex. It’s really quite a sensation — to become.
The trouble I’ve had with art criticism is that it discourages people from painting. Dance criticism discourages people from dancing. But hell, everyone ought to be painting. It’s such a pleasant thing to do. With critics, it has to be original, as though the arts were like science, where you make progress. Hell, there’s no need to make progress. I’m kind of a cubist. More than anybody else I’ve ripped off Paul Klee.
The power of the museums is to say, “This is important.” The whole idea of picture framing, which is a big industry, is, “This you must look at.” You’ve taken a piece of the world and you’ve isolated it in a frame and it must be looked at, which is nice. But here we’ve got a big Dada show going on in the Museum of Modern Art and you must look at this. I’m wandering around all of New York and looking at this, looking at that. Maybe not looking at anything, but when you get into a museum, you gotta look at this. The arts are a practical joke. Artists are practical jokers. They’re making people respond emotionally when nothing is really going on. Which is fine. That is safe sex.
But Dada was a response to how ugly modern life had become, particularly World War I. These guys simply made pictures and works of art about themselves and not about life at all. Painters used to make noble pictures of other people and buildings and scenes, and World War I was so shocking and made life so ugly that they made pictures of nothing. Essentially, the Abstract Expressionists — most stridently Jackson Pollack, who put a canvas on his garage floor and threw paint at it. This man was perfectly capable of painting a picture of Jesus on the cross or George Washington crossing the Delaware or a field of lilies. But there’s nothing noble to make a picture of anymore. The joke about art, really, is that if you frame something, people will look at it. It’s a form of meditation. We’re making pictures. That’s all. We can make any kind of picture we want. It was true of Mondrian. It was true of Jackson Pollack. Just because there is no market for them is no reason to stop making them.
SS: Did you know Jackson Pollack?
KV: I met him briefly and wrote a piece about him for Esquire magazine, where they called him “Jack the Dripper.” People said, “Please. Paint a pretty baby, paint a beautiful woman, a noble human being, a great horse. Is that all a painter can do? Throw paint at a canvas on his garage floor?” He was quite disgusted with what art had become. So are Joe and I. And it’s fun. The function of painting — Joe’s and my pictures — they’re for people’s homes, not a big deal in a museum. Somebody might enjoy having one in their home or office. We’re not breaking new ground.
SS: Do you think there’s too much emphasis on making money — not so much that there is a de-emphasis on art?
KV: Yes, and we have some of the worst schools in the world.
SS: Because of the lack of curriculum? Class size?
KV: The classes are too big. My definition of a utopia is very simple: classes of 15 or smaller – out of this, a great nation can be built. Classes have 35 students, for Christ’s sake. The class ideally should be a family. Let’s take care of each other. There’s a person who can’t get the hang of calculus? Someone should say, “Here, let me show you.” A class of 35? Poor teacher.
SS: You taught writing for years. When you came across a talented student, were you dumbfounded about what to tell them to do with their talent?
KV: I’m dumbfounded about what happened to my country. But as I say regularly in lectures, you practice an art to make your soul grow, not to make a career, be famous or be rich. It’s the process of becoming. It’s as essential to the growing up process as food, sex or physical exercise. You find out who you are that way. I used to challenge audiences, but I don’t face them much anymore. I’d say, “Write a poem tonight. Make it as good as you possibly can. Four, six or eight lines. Make it as good as you can. Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it to anybody. When you’re satisfied it’s as good as you can make it, tear it up in small pieces and scatter those pieces between widely separated trash receptacles and you will find out you have received your full reward for having done it.” It’s the act of creation, which is so satisfying.
SS: How did you get into short-story writing for periodicals?
KV: It was such a tempting business, such a booming business with the magazines, that I could easily quit my job with General Electric and make a hell of a lot more money. Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post each needed five short stories every week. There were lots of guys like me who were making good pay. A hell of a lot more than General Electric was paying.
SS: Was that strange to you? That you could write stories at home and make more money than you could working a straight job?
KV: No, not at all. It’s a special skill. It’s not something that anybody can do. I had the gift for writing short stories. Most people don’t. Most people aren’t high jumpers or pole vaulters either. It was something I could do. With my particular gift, I could move my family to Cape Cod.
SS: You always used to say that you were in the joke-making business. Do you still feel that way?
KV: Yes. I appreciate other people’s jokes, too. There are some lovely things that are happening, even as the world ends. There’s a wonderful new movie, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. There are great country jokes in it. God, there’s a knock out. I love country jokes: “Did you try that new toilet brush I gave you?” “Yeah, but I still prefer paper.”
SS: At one point, Robert Altman was talking about doing a film with one of your books — Breakfast of Champions.
KV: Somehow we never got together. I’m a huge fan of his, and I guess he likes what I do. But Nashville is his masterpiece.
SS: His most famous film was MASH, a film about finding humor during wartime. After the bleakness of the Depression and WWII, the 1950s seemed to offer people hope and now it’s gone. What do you think got us here?
KV: This is a very rich country, an economic paradise, thanks to plentiful rainfall and topsoil. We could afford schools with classes of 15 or fewer and we could afford a national health plan like Norway or like Canada. Our so-called leadership brought us here.
SS: You’ve said that the lesson we learned from our engagement in the Vietnam War is that we found out how ruthless our leadership could be. How do you feel about that subject today?
KV: It’s a calamity. That’s all. This isn’t the first battle I’ve lost. This isn’t the country I’d hoped it could be, and which in fact could have been, except for a few people who feel they’re entitled to own everything. What’s going on now, we have wrecked the planet as a life support system, so it will slowly die. We are in a state of denial now. It would be too hard to fix it, and too expensive. There is only one party, which is People with Money. Some of them say they’re Democrats and they fight with the Republicans. What everybody is saying now is we can’t fix it. Just don’t spoil the party. We’ll keep having fun with cars as long as we can get ahold of gasoline. The weather is going to get worse and worse. More and more species are dying. In my last book, A Man Without a Country, I wrote a poem. I think it’s an important poem. But there is no such thing as an important poem these days — nobody pays any attention. We’re goners, because it would be too hard to repair it. Everybody is saying, “All right. I’ve only got a few more years and I’ll be out of here.” One of the works of art I did is a sign. It says, “Dear Future Generations: Please accept our apology.” It’s the most fun human beings have ever had. If you could look back at history, nobody was having any fun. Suddenly with cars, everybody started having fun. That’s going to end. I won’t give a shit because I’ll be dead. I won’t feel anything. I’ve tried so hard to die by natural causes, with no luck at all.
SS: What gets you up in the morning?
KV: Sunlight. The news is perfectly terrible, so we all just entertain each other.
SS: We’re amusing ourselves to death?
KV: Yes. Well, there’s nothing else to do, because we can’t defend ourselves now against the collapse of the planet, of the life support system. I don’t know what the fuck to do. Certainly windmills aren’t enough. “Science is going to take care of everything. Don’t worry — meanwhile, use all the gas you want.” Christ, we have billionaires now. That is a huge amount of money.
SS: How can anyone be fine, even these very rich people, if the planet itself eventually dies?
KV: Because they’re psychopaths. They have no conscience. They were born without a conscience. They’re psychopathic personalities. There is a wonderful medical book about them. It’s called The Mask of Sanity. It’s by Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley. It’s about people who were born without consciences. They don’t care what happens next. They rise high in business because they’re so decisive. You and I would say, “Jeez. I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do now.” A psychopath would say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Bang.” Women go for these guys, too, because they’re so decisive. One thing that’s really scary about them — and this would be true of Bush and Cheney — is that they don’t give a shit what happens to them. You could count on a guy saving his own ass. These guys don’t do it. They love to succeed, but they don’t care what happens to them, either.
SS: There’s no way these people can be re-elected in the next election cycle.
KV: I don’t care. We have no opposition party. We have only one party, and that’s winners. It’s people with money, and so they pretend to fight and argue back and forth.
SS: Before September 11th, it seemed like Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential run might have been a viable movement to form a third party.
KV: Television, which is owned by the fascist corporations, did not take Nader seriously. They made him appear like a fool. That’s the end of any new party he wants to start. It’s the same with Howard Dean. He’s not taken seriously at all. I went to anti-war protests before the Iraq war began and we got absolutely no coverage. We were perfectly respectable people — men wearing jackets and ties, educated. They were solid members of the community, and no coverage at all.
During the Vietnam War protests, the government would send people to pretend to be part of us, and they were the ones who would actually raise hell. We had one rally in Washington near the Monument. I think it was Nixon’s second inauguration. We were behaving ourselves. A bunch of young guys showed up who looked like athletes. They had aerosol cans and they went up to the Washington Monument and wrote “shit” and “fuck” on it. They were sent by the government. I’m sure people thought they were us.
SS: Nixon got what was coming to him. I feel like this current administration makes Nixon look like he was playing beanbag.
KV: Oh yeah. I wish Nixon were president right now. I could at least talk to him.
SS: He seemed like he was battling his own personal demons, not those of Jesus Christ and the neocon establishment.
KV: They’re not Christians either. They’re simply using Jesus to mobilize a group they can count on for votes. The fact that the religious right is so strong is a function of how lonely people are in this society. We all need extended families, which is what human beings have always had until very recent times — until the Industrial Revolution. We need extended families as much as we need vitamin C. You move to a new area all by yourself or with your little family, and by God there is a church there and all kinds of stuff is going on there. Sometimes there are swimming pools and gyms. People will do anything to stop being lonely — just as people will do anything to stop from suffocating. Once you join one of those families, you have fun there. It’s some place to go and a lot of people to talk to, march, protest. That is the great American disease, which is so easily exploited by cynical people. It’s loneliness. It is unbearable.
SS: It would be another thing if the loneliness these people felt were not being cured by religion alone, but also by art and music and dancing and freethinking.
KV: Yes, because there’s a whole lot of fun. There’s singing, too. Sure. I say we need extended families. We can’t have them any more. It’s too bad. People will join any group nearby to have a gang. I would too, if I were that lonesome. All you can do is not spoil the party. The dying of the planet is irreversible. I made up a bumper sticker a while ago. I don’t have any left, but it was popular for a while. It said, “Good Earth. We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” We really are going to lose it. The most sensible thing to do is have fun. There’s nothing we can do to stop the process. It would be too expensive and take too much time.
SS: In 2000, a fire destroyed most of your early drafts and stories, and scores of your letters. Did that crush you?
KV: It doesn’t matter. I’m sick of possessions. I’m completely in print and I don’t want to say any more. I’ve said everything I want to say, and I’m embarrassed to have lived this long. I so envy Joseph Heller and George Plimpton and all these other friends of mine who are pushing up daisies. They don’t have to hear the news. That’s what I want to do. I think I’d do a swell job. The only thing that disappeared in the fire here that I really miss is my master’s degree from the University of Chicago.
SS: Growing up your family owned a hardware store; therefore, you had some knowledge of science, even from hammers and ten-penny nails. But it was technology that led us to drop the atomic bomb. I’m curious whether the story about how the U.S. had to drop the bomb to end the war was generally accepted at the time? Were people satisfied with that justification or were people horrified by the thought?
KV: My brother was 10 years older than me — and was the ultimate technocrat — thought science was going to do everything. I’d come home from the war — after having been a prisoner of war — and was on furlough in Indianapolis, and my brother was there. We got up one morning and there was the Indianapolis Star on the front doorstep, which said, “US A-Bombs Japs.” My brother was utterly sickened. Science was going to make everything better — so much easier, so much more fun — and this totally sickened him. It hit him in the gut. I really had no idea how horrible the news was, except through his reaction.
When he was on his deathbed, he said this again. He lived in Albany in a hospice where he was allowed to keep his cat. He had a lot of things to say on his deathbed. One of them was that he thought scientists made terrible husbands. There’s another one: “If the superpowers decide to duke it out with silver iodide, I think I can live with that.” Bernard discovered silver iodide. He was in on the early cloud experiments and everything. He sure didn’t want to duke it out with nukes.
A whole lot of us were sickened. When I came home on a troop ship — we were sent home from Newport News, Virginia — I asked my war buddy, Bernie O’Hare, who would later become a district attorney, “What did you learn?” He said, “I will never believe my government again.” We were supposed to be the good guys. We weren’t supposed to hurt civilians, men, women and children. After all, Dresden — after the A-bombing of Japan — was 135,000 dead, more than the nukes killed in Japan combined. It turned out we were the bad guys, too.
SS: What did you make of North Korea launching missile tests on the Fourth of July?
KV: I thought it was a wonderful practical joke on George Bush.
SS: Stephen Hawking recently told an audience that we should seriously consider colonizing space, because it may be our only option to avoid future human extinction. Ironically, this is something you’ve written about in a fictional context.
KV: That must be a joke on his part. It’s like what Bertrand Russell was saying, “We’re the lunatic asylum of the universe.” We can’t colonize space. We haven’t got the means of transportation. Human beings are obviously a terrible idea. The whole universe is supposed to be infected with us?
ALSO IN STOP SMILING'S ODE TO THE MIDWEST ISSUE
18 pages of Vonnegut
Two Vonnegut covers, including limited edition KV self-portrait
Over 20 original pieces of KV's artwork
Excerpts from A Man Without A Country
and Bagombo Snuff Box