METH on VONNEGUT
Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Sept., 1997
Reprinted courtesy BarnesandNoble.com
Kurt Vonnegut's alter ego, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, states that on February 13, 2001, at 2:27pm, a global timequake will occur that will be the moment that the fabric of the universe unravels. And unravel it does -- backing up time ten years, forcing everyone to suffer through ten years of deja vu. Author Clifford Lawrence Meth spoke with living legend Kurt Vonnegut about his wildly inventive new novel.
An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut
by Clifford Lawrence Meth
Almost from the outset of his literary career, Kurt Vonnegut has transcended the role of writer/entertainer and achieved icon status for his humanism, his messages, his Twainesque ability to tell so much more than a story. His latest work, TIMEQUAKE, may be the last of these important lessons, but that's fitting because it's a mighty lesson -- and a powerful book -- that like most of his bold work will surely stand the test of time.
Kurt Vonnegut: I'm sitting here with Clifford Meth, who looks much better than I expected under the circumstances.
Clifford Lawrence Meth: My knee injury? Everything heals with time.
KV: Some people don't, you know.
CLM: Let's talk about your new book. TIMEQUAKE is the most plotless book you've done so far -- not meaningless, but plotless.
KV: Well, one subtitle we considered was "Autobiography of a Novel" -- that is, autobiography of a failed novel, because the thing wouldn't allow itself to be written.
CLM: So that's all true?
CLM: There's no way of knowing.
KV: About eight years have gone by since I published much of anything, and that's a long time. I was working every day, but I did not want to publish crap. Of course, I can publish anything I want now just because I'm a brand name. Putnam had a book with this title in the catalogue, and I'd turned in a manuscript, but it didn't work for me, so I tore it up.
CLM: So there really is a TIMEQUAKE I, and all the things that you refer to in TIMEQUAKE I are exactly like that?
KV: Yeah, there is a manuscript around somewhere for TIMEQUAKE I.
CLM: And that manuscript worked more as a traditional, linear novel than this new book?
KV: Absolutely. And it was lousy. I mean, what the hell, it was acceptable, but....it is almost certainly my last book, because I'm tired of writing, so I wanted it to be halfway decent -- something I liked.
CLM: You're happy with this?
KV: Reasonably so, yeah.
CLM: You said in an interview several years ago that you're not angry -- that you don't have anger to draw upon as a writer.
KV: One thing my father said when he didn't have very much longer to live, he thanked me for not having a villain in any of my stories, because the villain might have been the stand-in for him.
CLM: But you do have "bad guys."
KV: Well, I have Hitler. [laughs]
CLM: Actually, Hitler pops up quite a bit -- Nazis, in general, throughout the body of your work. Your entire war experience is still resonant.
KV: That was such a tragic war in a way, because it was a just war, you know. It made us cuckoo ever since. We figure every time we go to war now, it's a just war, and here come the Americans again. It was a just war, though -- it had to be fought. I'm still trying to find out the guy who designed the costumes for the Nazis, because they are the greatest uniforms in the history of modern warfare. The skull and crossbones on the hat. What was so great, too, was casual dress for desert warfare. [laughs]
CLM: Harlan Ellison recently told me that Kilgore Trout was based on Theodore Sturgeon. But in TIMEQUAKE, you say that Kilgore Trout is your alter ego. Where's the truth?
KV: Harlan's a friend and he has it roughly right -- after all, Sturgeon was named after a fish, too, and I think it's funny to be named after a fish. But it didn't go on from there to replicate Sturgeon, except last time I saw him face-to-face was on Cape Cod. It would have been 1968 or something like that, and he was really down on his luck. He had a nice success afterwards in Hollywood, but he was really down on his luck and desperate and somebody had loaned him a cottage on the beach. I had a house, and still do, in Barnstable, and further up the Cape somebody'd loaned Ted a beach house. This was off-season -- I suppose it was autumn. I asked him, Please, come to supper, let's have a drink or let's do something. He couldn't! He was there all alone. And, of course, science fiction writers then were making, I don't know, ten cents a word or something like that, and the more they wrote.... He was absolutely frantic and would not stop, and he seemed to typify terribly underpaid science fiction writers, but he went on to become quite successful and had been successful before. I just caught him below normal. So, sure, I named a character after a fish, too, and had him as unsuccessful as Ted was back then; otherwise there's no parallel at all.
CLM: Otherwise, it's you.
CLM: To a greater or lesser degree?
KV: Well, obviously, I thought up all of Trout's ideas, so it must be me. [laughs]
CLM: But you haven't lived his life.
KV: No.... It's a life I might have led.
KV: If I had been a purely science fiction writer. What I said about Trout -- which wasn't true of Sturgeon, incidentally -- he was a terrible writer but his ideas are so wonderful. [laughs]
CLM: One of the things that you attribute to Kilgore Trout is, "He was a black hole to anyone who might imagine that he or she was a friend of his. Both my wives have said that I'm very much like that in that regard." On the other hand, throughout your books, you speak of your friends with great affection.
KV: I work at home, and the wives complain because I'm just so unresponsive. Why get married to something like this? [laughs] I'm concentrating, totally. You have to.
CLM: I had read that comment as a commentary on your friendships, not just your friendships with your wives.
KV: I don't know -- that was an offhand, casual remark. No, I don't think my friends would find me a black hole. I pay Don, my agent, to be my friend.
CLM: Mark Twain, who was one of your heroes, said, "A friend is someone who will stand by you when you're wrong; anyone will stand by you when you're right." What's your definition of friendship?
KV: Well, it's a perfectly natural thing and a necessary thing. It's like a balanced diet, or whatever. We are gregarious animals. My basic politics are built around the idea that human beings need extended families, as much as they need vitamin C or any essential mineral in their diet. So many Americans feel really lousy because they're so alone -- they don't have extended families, and that's an unnatural environment for human beings. We need the support system.
When I was in Nigeria years ago, the Biafran civil war was going on. The Ebos were trying to start a country of their own in southern Nigeria. And I was there and I met a man, an Ebo, who had 600 relatives. And his wife had a new baby with the war going on -- and losing the war, too. But they were going to go visiting all the other relatives with the baby, to introduce all the relatives to the newest member of the family.
The Biafran army -- the Ebos -- when they needed replacements, the family met and decided who should go. The government didn't decide who should go -- the government said we need three guys. The Ebos -- they may still be, I don't know -- they used to be the most highly educated of all black Africans. They had far more Ph.D.'s -- from Cal Tech and from Cambridge and the Sorbonne and from everywhere else -- than all the rest of black African societies combined, but the family would meet and decide what kids would go to college. They would pick the kid and they'd all chip in to pay transportation, get the right clothes for wherever the kid was going. Extended families are wonderful survival units.
Think of some poor sonuvagun who has lost his job in Detroit; General Motors has closed down his plant, so he goes to Houston because he hears there's work there -- the guy, his wife, a couple of kids, the dog, and the family car. If anything goes wrong, there's nothing for them whatsoever. That's a perfectly standard situation for Americans. It makes people terribly vulnerable. Before the terrible diasporas, before the Industrial Revolution, people lived perfectly naturally with these excellent support systems: Somebody gets sick, somebody else takes care of the kids. But this poor sonuvagun looking for work in Houston, camped out in the park here, well, if anything goes wrong, he can go to the police, or the fire department, or the emergency room in the local hospital.
Any politics -- communism, socialism, whatever -- I want people to have extended families. I want the government to make that possible. When you get people with extended families, like the Kennedys, it's a great source of power. And, of course, once a guy becomes a Senator, he doesn't want to leave the inside of the belt-way. Dan Quayle, from my native state, which is Indiana, he and Marilyn are this brave little family believing in "family values" and all that. Well, every banker and lawyer and politician in the state of Indiana, never mind the whole middle West, is there to help them if anything goes the least bit wrong.
The English Navy felt lousy for a long time and they didn't know why until they started sucking on limes, and then they all cheered up -- they'd had a terrible vitamin deficiency. Today, Americans feel lousy because they don't have enough people. 50 percent or 60 percent of marriages fail now. But when a couple fights, it's not about money, it's not about sex, and it's not about power. Each person is saying to the other one, "You're not enough people. I need more people."
Clifford Lawrence Meth is the critically acclaimed author of several collections of short stories including PERVERTS, PEDOPHILES & OTHER THEOLOGIANS, and the editor of STRANGE KADDISH and the forthcoming STRANGER KADDISH.