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Voices: My Interview with Kurt Vonnegut

by Hugh Vandivier ’91
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VoiceVIf I had ever made a list of my life goals, merely meeting Kurt Vonnegut would have been in the Top 10.

As it turns out, I interviewed him.

In 2002, good old-fashioned Wabash networking landed me a job as a temporary contributing editor for Indianapolis Monthly magazine, filling in for two editors who had taken maternity leave.

Thrilled to be using my master’s degree in journalism, I took to the job immediately. Soon I had moved from fact-checking to proofreading to a restaurant review to writing a poignant essay on being downsized.

At a pitch meeting for the November issue, an editor observed that, famously, Kurt Vonnegut was born on Veteran’s Day and that Veteran’s Day 2002 would be his 80th birthday. The editor hadn’t read any of his work, so she asked if any of us was familiar with his writing.

My hand shot up. The first Vonnegut book I’d ever read was Timequake when it was published in the early ’90s. A few years after that, I read Slaughterhouse-Five right before my sister and I drove up to Chicago to see it staged at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Soon after, I began reading his other books and essays. To date, I think I’ve read about three-fourths of his novels, none of which has ever gone out of print.

So I landed the assignment. But now what? Requests for interviews with Vonnegut had to be faxed to his attorney. And after I drafted an official-looking request on the magazine’s stationery and faxed it off, I received no response. His lawyer might as well have been Godot.

In the meantime, staffer Evan West ’99, who had helped me get the job, found a clipping from the Indianapolis Star about this Hollywood producer who had struck up a friendship with Vonnegut and had been working on a documentary of him. Once a big fan, Bob Weide sent letters to the author only to find out that he was a maven on the Marx Brothers and loved the documentary on them that Weide had produced for HBO. Over the years, the two had developed a friendship. Weide even produced the film of Vonnegut’s book Mother Night.

I found Weide’s Web site, complete with his contact information, called Weide, and reached him immediately. We had a great conversation, and he finally said, "You know, Kurt won’t generally agree to an interview like this unless he feels he’s helping a friend out. If I ask him to do this interview and you two talk about this documentary during part of it, I’m sure he’ll do it."

Later that day, Weide called me back. "Kurt will call you tomorrow morning at 8."

Still in shock, I profusely thanked him and began finalizing my list of questions.

That’s when the editor, who had previously seemed interested only in the prurient pursuit of a good story for the magazine, told me she wanted to review my list and make suggestions.

"Why don’t you ask him what his writing process is?" she recommended. "You know, what time of day does he write and does he use a typewriter or computer or paper and pen." Yikes, I thought to myself, am I in freshman comp?

No, I had done my homework. Vonnegut could be particularly gruff to inane interviewers and downright flippant to pedantic questions. "So, what was it like to survive the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war?" A reporter once asked him. "I wrote a whole book on it," Vonnegut was said to have responded. "You might try reading it sometime."

At eight on the dot, the day before the first anniversary of 9/11, the phone rang. "Hello, this is Kurt Vonnegut." The vertebrae in my neck shuddered.

My recollection of the interview—both now and immediately following—is that I, as an interviewer, was not particularly probing or engaging. While I tried to make it as much like a conversation as possible, I remember being nervous, and a bit intimidated.

I tried to connect with some things we had in common.

"Tell me, do you still smoke unfiltered Pall Malls?" I asked. (My dad smoked the same brand.)

"Never mind," he answered so dryly that I couldn’t tell whether he was being coy, wry, or dismissive.

A few months earlier, he had suffered smoke inhalation from a small fire at his Manhattan apartment. I asked whether he had recovered well enough from it. Part of his reply was, "Well, nobody died, and I’m smoking again."

Finally, I managed to ask him something I had always wanted to know: "How did you end up in Rodney Dangerfield’s movie Back to School?"

If you haven’t seen the movie, Dangerfield plays an undereducated self-made millionaire who attends college to encourage his son not to drop out. He hires Vonnegut to write his term paper on Kurt Vonnegut. Suspicious, the professor gives the paper a failing grade and comments, "Whoever did write that paper doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!"

"Whoever wrote the script put me in it. Then they called me up," Vonnegut answered in that matter-of-fact style that pierced deeply into my overeagerness to connect.

Then I heard a smirk on the other end of the line. Laughing, he started quoting lines from the movie. "Hey Vonnegut, do you read lips?" The conclusion of the quote involves the most notorious of expletives.

(When I wrote up the transcript, a brief discussion arose regarding printing the "f-bomb" in the magazine: Would it raise the hackles of its target demographic, particularly upper crust north suburban housewives with a penchant for "family friendly art" and who protest Victoria’s Secret window displays? "Well, it’s not like any of us wrote it," I reasoned, "Kurt Vonnegut said it, and who better?")

The rest of the interview improved. I loosened up, and Vonnegut became more convivial. I asked him about making art, music, dogs, 9/11, the economy, his family cottage on Lake Maxinkuckee, his education at Shortridge High School.

At 8:30 on the dot, as I was about to ask my next question, Vonnegut declared in a remarkable lack of words that the interview was essentially over. I thanked him, wished him well, and he hung up.

Only a few people were in the office to hear me shout as if I had just hit a buzzer-beater in the State Finals. I went downstairs, out of the Emmis building onto Monument Circle, and walked a block south. Standing at the corner of Meridian and Washington streets, I stared across at the giant Ayres Clock built by Vonnegut’s architect father. I smiled, walked back to the office, and began typing up the transcript and fashioning it into an article.

Months later, the November issue came out, and Vonnegut was back in Indy for a fundraiser at the Athenaeum, another famous landmark built by his family. I scraped together $100 for the dinner and went with two copies of the magazine, one for Vonnegut and one for Weide, who graciously took me over to meet Vonnegut.

My literary hero seemed to regard me and my gift with about the same amount of enthusiasm as he had most of our interview.

It would be easy to regard this final face-to-face interaction as anticlimactic.

To add a layer of insult, shortly after my piece came out, NUVO came out with an interview with Vonnegut as well. To be honest, theirs was much better. Their interviewer asked more topical and hip questions. It was much more of the "conversation" that I was awkwardly trying to achieve in my interview.

But looking back at that interview almost five years later, I realize that what I thought was him being curt really was just him being Kurt. It was that deep sardonic wit that ultimately loved humanity but was disgusted with civilization.

So be it, I have finally surmised. Because to this day, when the subject of Kurt Vonnegut comes up, I can proudly interject, "I interviewed him, you know."