New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1965. Welcome to the Monkey House

НазваниеNew York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1965. Welcome to the Monkey House
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CR: In the "Preface" to Welcome to the Monkey House, you said you had a "relative who was secretly writing a history of parts of my family." I noticed an anonymous article called "An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. by an Ancient Friend of the Family" was published in Summary in 1972. Are they one and the same?

KV: They're one and the same.

CR: And that's not you? You're not the author, in other words?

KV: The person who wishes to remain anonymous has no reason to remain anonymous, but he insists he will remain so. He's a cousin whom I call "uncle" and he's a family historian -- a retired lawyer who writes very well.

CR: Until I read Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, I was unaware of all the writing you had done on the American political scene. You said in the "Preface" to the book that you were more or less through with that sort of thing, though. You're not going to write on politics, or another political convention, or the like, from now on?

KV: I don't know. I enjoyed doing the convention piece, but I am now mature enough to witness an important event and realize I personally have nothing much to say about it. I went down to see a night-time firing of a moon shot awhile ago, and I was delighted to have had nothing to say about it afterwards. The experience has entered my bones, in other words, and was content to stay there. I guess I'm saying that I get sick of bullshitting about political events.

CR: I suppose now that Watergate is history, there is a lot less to write about. How do you feel about America now? Has it become the "ruined planet" you once theorized about?

KV: I worry about the ignorance of the lawyers who rule us because they know nothing about biology and chemistry. They know nothing about the atmosphere or the ecological crises that threaten us. They are accustomed to arguing problems away, and most of the problems we're facing now are so stringently biological, so primitive really, that they can't be solved with rhetoric. Presidents have been operating without science advisors for several administrations now. There used to be such a job, and the advisor was carefully listened to. But, no more. One reason they were dispensed with, I think, was because they became a nuisance. They hung around the Oval Office saying, "Nah, we can't do that, it would ruin the air or the water or the food," and the politicians decided it was no fun having them around.

CR: How bleak do you think things are?

KV: I think we've damaged the planet so severely we're going to be severely penalized. And it's too bad. There are so many rash acts. It just amazes me, for instance, to think of the methodical dumping of poison into the Great Lakes. What kind of mind would dream up, or approve, something like that?

CR: Your work in progress talks about the ruins of New York City, and that reminds me of the ruins of Dresden. But it seems so much more sinister in this case. How does New York get ruined?

KV: There are two questions there. In the book, laws and order keep breaking down and when the law of gravity goes . . . well, you know how dependent New York city is on elevators. Also, it was critical in the novel that I locate my narrator in a place where he could involve himself in a lot of retrospection. I wanted him in a locale which would permit, even promote, a lot of reminiscing and I didn't want a lot of people around to distract him. So I decided the ruins of New York were as congenial a place as any. But, as to the larger issue, I think what will finally kill us will be God. God will kill us by the millions quite soon, I think -- by starvation, with flu, through war, in any number of ways. He is killing us by the millions right now on the growing margins of the Sahara desert and in places like Bangla Desh.

[pause, occasioned by the telephone's ring.]

CR: A couple of years ago you seemed to grow impatient with writing plays. Are you done with them altogether?

KV: What is problematic about them is the fact that in America it's so expensive to produce a play. It's not the critics or the audiences; it just costs so damn much to produce and stage one. What's wonderful about novels is that they're cheap to make. If no one else will publish my next one, for example, I could do it myself for a couple of thousand dollars.

CR: I suppose, too, a play can slip out of the author's control?

KV: It's more of a process of constant fighting, constant revising, constant almost-negotiating with the others involved. Actors have strong feelings about given lines and directors almost invariably cry for modifications and revisions. So sometimes you wind up with a play that is not what you intended it to be; sometimes you're reduced to hunting for gadgets; sometimes you can only stand by and watch actors and directors make decisions that deep in your heart you feel are unfortunate.

CR: At one point weren't you about to start a dramatic company?

KV: Yeah, we almost put one together, one we were going to call "Sourdough." One of my partners was especially enthusiastic, and at one point we actually hired Duke Ellington to write some music for a musical version of The Hustler. We were all set to produce it -- the other two partners were myself and my lawyer -- but at the last minute my lawyer and I backed out. He decided he would rather practice law; I decided I would rather be a writer. Sourdough more or less fell apart. But for a time, the time when I made the statement you're inquiring about, we were very much in motion and I'm convinced that if we had been able to acquire a few more properties, we would have certainly lost millions of dollars.

CR: It's good to hear you were drawn back to writing. There was a time when you were threatening not to write at all in the future.

KV: Well, I think some people become convinced that a couple of decades is all you should really expect out of a career. I think doctors get tired of being doctors after about twenty years; I know teachers do. My father became jaded as an architect: he didn't want to go on designing buildings for the last twenty years of his life, even though he had become quite good at it. Personally, I still find writing a very pleasant endeavor. But I have to concede it frequently seems to me an insult to life to sit still that long, to be that unsociable, to get so little done at the end of a given day.

CR: You work at it every day then?

KV: Yeah.

CR: What is a good or bad day's production?

KV: Well, it probably comes out to three pages of some kind, but those pages are rarely of any quality. I mean, they'll be good enough for the day.

CR: Handwritten?

KV: No, typed.

CR: You've been involved in a strange phenomenon in that there are at least two works kicking around that are indirect creations of your pen. Both of them involve a character who is your exclusive creation: Kilgore Trout. Would you care to comment on the novel Venus on the Half-Shell which was published under the by-line "Kilgore Trout" and the Crawdaddy magazine article " 'I Call on Kurt Vonnegut' by Kilgore Trout." Were you involved with those?

KV: Yeah, I was indirectly involved with both of them. The Crawdaddy thing was their idea; it seemed like a clever, whimsical project. My sole objection to it, and this really upset me and ruined it for me, involved their use of photographs from Jill Krementz' files. They wrote up "funny" captions for the photos, but they didn't trouble themselves to learn who the people in the photographs were. One caption, as I recall it, depicted a person, a kind and rather tragic person, as a member of Howard Campbell's unit. A lot of the faces were readily recognizable and a lot of the, well, identifications were at best unfortunate. I begged them to apologize to the people whose pictures they had used and to tell them I had nothing to do with this sort of college humor. Otherwise, I found the piece clever and well written.

CR: And Venus?

KV: Venus on the Half-Shell was written by Phillip Jose Farmer. He lives out in Peoria and he is a distinguished Science Fiction writer -- that is, he chooses to confine himself to that area of writing. I have never met him. He kept calling me up, though, and saying "Please let me write a Kilgore Trout book." He was delighted by the character and, as I say, he was a respected writer himself, so I finally said, "Okay, go ahead." There was no money involved, by the way; I didn't get a cent of royalties.

CR: You didn't even get a chance to chop off another part of Kilgore's finger?

KV: No, not even that. So he published it, and I wound up getting abuse from all over the place -- accusations that I was ripping off college kids' money and whatever.

CR: You just thought you were doing someone a favor?

KV: Well, it was dumb of me to say yes. But I periodically go through these Molly Bloom periods when I find myself saying "Yes, I will, yes I will, yes I will" to any project that comes along.

CR: As the beneficiary of such a period, I'm grateful for one of them. You know, in the Crawdaddy piece the author, Greg Mitchell, gave a number of readings of your novels through the "mouths" of "Kilgore Trout" and the "Kurt Vonnegut" whom he interviewed. Were these actually quotations of things you had written?

KV: Yes, everyone of them was, I think, at least a paraphrase. It's been a long time since I looked at the story, but I'm pretty sure everything my characters say in there is pretty closely related to something I wrote.

CR: Would you say that a person interested in Kurt Vonnegut could do worse than to examine what Mitchell wrote?

KV: That's fair. It was a collage and he was very proud of it. And he did do a nice job; it took a lot of work.

CR: I guess being misunderstood is an occupational hazard for a writer. I recall when I was in California in the late sixties, you were frequently associated with the "tune in, drop out" movement -- the Leary business, in other words. A lot of it keyed on the "Tralfamadorian" practice of contemplating the good moments, as opposed to the bad ones. When you were writing Slaughterhouse-Five, did you anticipate that such a response might. . .

KV: I've never been sympathetic to the Leary movement, and they're the ones who advocated dropping out. I think all I was describing in Slaughterhouse-Five was a very real memory process -- and that fact is not often considered in studies of that portion of the novel. If you'll recall, I wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five about looking up a guy whom I was in Dresden with and asking him, as a favor, to remember whatever he could. The fact was that neither of us could remember anything of substance, and neither of us wanted to remember. I think that's the nature of the human mind. I remember someone in Life magazine once wrote about rabbits and decided the reason they had no memories was because, if they did, they would die of fright. In other words, they have so many horrible adventures and riotous experiences just within the period of an hour that, if they ever remembered it all, they'd keel over in terror. So I was really speaking about the human mind in that "Tralfamadorian" section; I wasn't encouraging people to drop out.

CR: Do you see yourself in any kind of American literature "mainstream"?

KV: I don't know. An awful lot of what I do is rooted in one book, which is E.B. White and Katherine White's Subtreasury of American Humor. It's a wonderful anthology, filled with the kind of splendid humor which has made us famous around the world -- you know, Mark Twain, Artemis Ward. There were a lot of funny people around.

CR: I suppose when I asked I was thinking particularly of two authors. One was Joseph Heller. You reviewed Something Happened for the New York Times Book Review; both of you have written brilliantly about your World War II experiences; Heller's recent book has generated some charges of "pessimism" similar to those your works have received. Do you feel any affinity for Heller?

KV: He's a friend, we get along very well. I did do the review of his book, but I was not a friend of his when I began it. In other words, I agreed to review the book and, after I had begun, we wound up living near each other on Long Island. At one point he became quite interested, by the way, in finding out who was going to do the Times review, so I and a couple of other people who were in on it decided to "help" him -- people like George Plimpton, who was doing the "Profile." Ultimately, we persuaded him that Robert Penn Warren was the reviewer. He was quite pleased.

CR: I admired the review. I thought it captured the emotions and excellences of the novel very well.

KV: Something Happened is a terribly unhappy book and in that respect I think it differs from my work. I don't think my books are that unhappy.

CR: The other writer I had in mind was John Barth. You handle so well the role of the "I-narrator" who enmeshes himself in his own plot and finally becomes a part of the narrative itself. Do you find yourself part of. . .

KV: Well, now you're talking about a pretty large corral. I know an artist who is slightly older than I am and who is full of wisdom. I said to him one time, there are writers, a lot of writers, who are working with forms so different from the ones I use that we might as well be in two different professions. He was able to talk about the phenomenon easily, although he did it in terms of his own field. He said, there are some artists who respond to the history of art -- that is, to the artistic achievements and artifacts of the past -- and there are others who respond simply to life itself. To me, there are some important writers -- say, John Barth, Donald Barthelme and Jorge Luis Borges -- who seem to be concentrating on what we could call "literary history," in the sense that they're responding to literary experiments in the past and are refining them. They're also responding to life, of course; I don't mean to imply they aren't. But they have a certain academic strain within their works, an awareness of being part of an evolutionary scheme, and I don't feel any such awareness. Probably I'm too ignorant.

CR: You see yourself more fighting your way through as you go?

KV: Yeah. I feel I have techniques enough to do what I want without ransacking the past -- without consciously duplicating all of Proust's great inventions, or all of Joyce's.

CR: So even early in your career, say in Cat's Cradle, when you toyed with the idea of having "Vonnegut" on the tombstone and when you wrote a novel about the end of the world, narrated by a writer writing during the planet's final hours, a writer who had set out to write a book about the atomic bomb -- this was all "up from Vonnegut" and not consciously imitative of anyone?

KV: Correct.

CR: I hate to keep asking in effect the same question, but your use of point of view probably fascinates thousands of readers as well as me, and there are so many aspects of your narration that fascinate me. I can't really think of a narrator quite like the one in Breakfast of Champions, for example: one who pops into his own work, makes phones ring to distract attention from himself. At one point at least he calls himself "Philboyd Studge." Does he really exist?

KV: "Philboyd Studge" resulted from some ignorance on my part. There was a writer named Saki -- his real name is H.H. Munroe, a very famous British author -- who wrote, what?, "The Open Window" and about ten really magical short stories, ones graced with a pleasant or surprising twist, and a couple of novels. But I had apparently not read everything of his because there was a story entitled "Filboid Studge: The Story of a Mouse that Helped." Well, a friend of mine was speaking once about a really bad writer and he remarked: "This guy writes like Philboyd Studge." This struck me as a very funny comment because the name itself was so gummy, sort of a tar-baby name, and I knew exactly how a "Philboyd Studge" would write. When I was working on Breakfast of Champions, I felt my own narrator possessed such qualities, so I used the name. I wish, though, I had known about Monroe's story at the time, since I consider him to be an excellent writer.

CR: One last question. You have used so many real persons in your novels as characters, people like Werner von Braun. Have any of them protested?

KV: No, not in the least. Perhaps they don't read my work, but I suspect that the types of major political figures I use have developed a sense of humor about seeing themselves in print. I recall one time von Braun was asked, for about the four-thousandth time, whether he was forced to serve Hitler or whether he was indifferently serving science, or what. Von Braun just smiled and said: "Oh boy, dot vun again!"

CR: In that case, maybe I should close by being the four-thousandth person to ask you: "Do you see yourself as a Black Humorist?"

II New York: Fall 1979

CR: Something that impressed me as different about Jailbird, although I guess you've done it to a degree in Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night, is your looking back upon the past. You continue to speak solemnly and eloquently about the present, of course, but in this one you linger over a labor riot of the 1890's, the immigrant backgrounds of the narrator's parents and the Sacco and Vanzetri trial of the early twenties. Was it a different kind of novel for you to write?

KV: Yeah, I think so. But it was an easy sort of history to deal with, because the history of the labor movement holds a special interest for me. Sacco and Vanzetti, for example, have always been on my mind, and I've always been impressed by the life of the labor activist Powers Hapgood, who figures in the novel. Hapgood, in fact, is one of the few genuine idealists I've ever encountered; perhaps he and a few priests I met in Biafra were the only ones. I don't know why I've been so interested in labor history. It puzzles me really because I don't come from working class people; my ancestors were farmers, then businessmen and architects. But the ordeals and problems of, say, factory workers have always been on my mind. Perhaps it was a case of some older person speaking a lot about it, but I still haven't figured out who that person might have been.

CR: Would it be accurate to say that the particular case of Sacco and Vanzetti had a lot to do with the creation of this novel? Was it that special kind of event that, when you heard it referred to in the, oh, forties and fifties, would ring a bell? Did you always have a feeling that someday it would boil up into your fiction?

KV: Yes. And it's ironic that, although it's such a fascinating story, people really don't like to hear it re-told. Maybe if it does get re-told five more times during the next ten years it may become a little more central to our culture. Because, damn-it, the story is so shaking and moving -- one of the most impressive I know. The Christ story is marvelous, but it's not really about people like us. I do talk about the Sermon on the Mount in Jailbird, but it's difficult to incorporate something like the real Christ story, the literal crucifixion, into our times. The crucifixion of Sacco and Vanzetti fits rather neatly.

CR: Was there a lot of research involved in writing this novel? I ask because Jailbird is crammed with facts and your historical references seem quite precise.

KV: Yes, there was. For one thing I re-read all the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti and. . . you know, that's a story in itself. You would think the correspondence would be readily available, given the way their tragedy has influenced this nation, but the fact is the letters are entirely out of print. I needed a private copy, of course, and had no luck at all with the usual sources. Finally, a young clerk at the Gotham Book Mart found a ratty old paperback in an attic somewhere and was kind enough to give it to me.

CR: As I recall, you use one of their letters as a bridge between the "Prologue" and novel proper.

KV: Yes, Sacco's last letter to his son. Sacco's English wasn't good, I guess you could say he was semi-literate in English, and yet that passage had an eloquence I admire: "Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim."

CR: I know the Sermon on the Mount is a theme that runs through the work, and I was impressed by the way Sacco's words reinforced the idea. As I recall, one reference to the Sermon was made by Powers Hapgood when he was hauled up before a judge.

KV: Right, the judge was named Claycomb and, as I say in the "Prologue," I went to high school with his son. That's a good story too. The judge had cited Hapgood's distinguished family and education and asked him in effect why he kept screwing around with these laborers. Powers answered, "Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir," and the judge recessed the trial. He was quite a man: left Harvard with the class of '22 and, while his classmates took positions with law firms, he went to work in the coal mines.

CR: In the "Prologue," you call the Cuyahoga Massacre, which you describe so vividly, "an invention, a mosaic composed of bits taken from tales of many such riots in not such olden times." I checked a couple of source books and can't find a trace of it. Was there such a riot?

KV: Well, the Pullman Riot was really quite similar, but, no, there was no massacre in Cleveland identical to the one I wrote about.

CR: The way you described details such as the advance of the National Guard and the role of the sharpshooters made me say, "God, he couldn't be conjuring all that up!" But, it was an "invention," to use your phrase?

KV: Somewhat, except my orchestration of the event was consistent with the way riots had gone in the late nineteenth century, and with the way they continue to go. I think an important point there concerns our enduring delusion about the National Guard. Even then we entertained the hallucination that any American handed a rifle was thereby transformed into a soldier. The last time the theory was tested was at Kent State and, although it was fashionable at the moment to think about "our loyal American soldiers" there, the fact was they were a bunch of draft dodgers. It's hard for me to imagine any kind of sane government which would conclude people like that had any business holding loaded rifles.

CR: I was going to compliment you on that; you must have tied it together brilliantly because even I made the connection. And Kent State does come into the novel, doesn't it? Poor old Starbuck [the narrator and protagonist] tries to give President Nixon some loyal advice about Kent State and winds up getting lectured about campfires. The way you wove that into the inadequacy of the National Guard in the nineteenth century was wonderful.

KV: What's disconcerting about Kent State is the fact that it shows we still cling to this dream that every American man is a potential Minuteman the minute he's handed a rifle. We were severely punished for it in the Spanish American War, and still we didn't wake up. That war was a scandal because they put National Guard outfits directly into the lines as regular soldiers. At best they were useless, more often than not they were massacred. They suffered such enormous casualties, in fact, that it resulted in a congressional investigation after the war.

CR: I think you drew the parallels between the Kent State tragedy and "your own" Cuyahoga Massacre deftly: amateurism prevailing, a hasty decision, soldiers starting to fire.

KV: Again, the word "soldiers" troubles me; giving those people live ammunition was a terrible idea. But I'm glad you made the connection.

CR: Something a reader of Jailbird has to be struck by, perhaps disoriented by, is your handling of years. Rather than render them numerically, you chose to spell them out. You say at the beginning, "years as well as people are characters in this book," and "thus do I capitalize years as though they were proper names." Do you want to expand upon why you spelled them out?

KV: Well, a lot of novel writing is intuitive. If it feels right, you try it. If it works, you keep on doing it. I know one thing I had in mind was the way people would think about a given year back then. When I grew up, people would talk and have genuine feelings about the Blizzard of '88, the Crash of '29, and so forth. Attitudes have changed -- I'm not sure for the better -- and we're so terribly rushed that history now comes packaged in decades. It's pretty arbitrary packaging too. The legendary "Sixties" didn't get under way until 1963 or so, and they certainly extended into the early Seventies. My own parents spoke frequently about individual years, and some of them assumed almost human characteristics in my mind. As is the case with Jailbird, a lot of it involved economics. A terrible flaw in Capitalism is that every so often a depression comes along. My father would refer frequently, and with good reason, to the setback of '22, for instance. Then there was the Great Crash of '29, then the one in '32, then the one in '39. I have similar recollections of booms. It occurred to me once that I could draw a map of the relocations of some relatives and friends by charting the location and timing of boom periods.

CR: Jailbird is a long novel for you. The "Prologue" is separately paginated, but in its entirety the book amounts to more than 300 pages and it contains almost two different plots. Was it a hard book to write?

KV: It wasn't hard, but it was worrisome at times. There were moments when I was quite frightened it wouldn't work. In retrospect I found myself thinking that I had written two books over the last few years that I hadn't liked very much. The critics seemed similarly displeased with them. I hadn't liked much of what I had written in this decade, in fact, and I began to wonder if I was ever going to write another good book, because I had liked a lot of the older ones. But I certainly like this one. Perhaps I'll wind up chattering away to my grandchildren that "Nineteen-hundred and Seventy-nine" was a good year.

CR: So, while this was in progress, you did some fretting over how it would turn out?

KV: Novel writing doesn't breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn't going to work.

CR: I'm not sure I follow. I think I would agree with John Irving -- to name one of many who spring to mind -- that you're hardly a liar. If anything, your novels are filled with the most profound and disturbing truths. For example, when I think of the comments you made about the history of labor unions and the practices of the nation's more monstrous corporations, I have to conclude the truth of Jailbird is as inarguable as it's inescapable.

KV: Okay. I know what you're getting at. I do feel comfortable with my comments about corporate life and the labor movement. What I was concerned about was whether the sequence of events that occurs to my hero after he is released from prison would be convincing.

CR: Now I see. You know, I felt the events prior to and including Starbuck's incarceration were so engrossing, so believable, that if I had had no idea who the author was, I could have easily been persuaded he had been a Watergate criminal. The parts about Nuremberg in 1945 were gripping too. as was the hero's inadvertent exposing of the fellow who had been a communist. . . oh, what's his name?

KV: I didn't say Alger Hiss, but you could.

CR: Right. But I see what you mean now. That encounter at the corner between Starbuck and the two women from his past is a bit coincidental, isn't it?

KV: Novelists have problems and they have to make decisions. An analogy could be drawn to a party where one of those magical conversations takes place. Everyone is talking, everyone gets a chance to talk, everyone has something to say and says it well. Then someone makes a statement that, although it keeps matters moving and is delightful in itself, gets a couple of things wrong. The facts become a bit strained, in other words, but everyone forgives the speaker because his tale in particular and the conversation in general are going so well. The same sort of phenomenon occurs occasionally in novel writing. An author gets to a point where he needs a couple of coincidences to keep the story moving, and he doesn't dare pause for thirty pages to contrive an elaborate sequence of believable events in order to get a few characters together. So, he takes a deep breath and treats himself to a coincidence. Then he worries himself sick about whether he's lost his reader.

CR: Something which the shift to New York City brought to my mind was that not only had Jailbird resembled Mother Night, but at that point it had even relocated to Mother Night's turf. That made me wonder about point of view in Jailbird. Should a reader watch out for the honesty of Starbuck in the same manner as he should for Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s in Mother Night? Should he wonder if Starbuck is hallucinating about his alternatingly good and spectacular fortunes in New York?

KV: No, I hope not. Anytime I have a character hallucinate -- and I have done so in the past -- I provide clear evidence that he is hallucinating. It drives me up the wall when I'm reading a book and have to wonder whether a character, who gives no hint of duplicity or insanity, is making everything up. Now I'll say this much, and I think my text supports it. In Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. was an authentically bad man. He drew a pistol target for the S.S. which took the form of a Jew with a long nose, he. . . I could go on.

CR: I'm not giving any secrets away since anyone who gets through the first five words of Jailbird will know this. But one of your best characters -- the ignored and persecuted sci-fi writer, Kilgore Trout -- is back. It's a welcome homecoming, and I was wondering. . .

KV: That's a story in itself! Do you know what's happened to Trout during his time away from my fiction?

CR: Well, I know someone named Phillip Jose Farmer wrote a book "by" Kilgore Trout and I know some of the critics yelled at you for letting him do it.

KV: That's about a third of the story. This Farmer wanted to forge on and write a whole series of books "by" Trout -- and I understand he's capable of knocking out a pretty decent Vonnegut book every six weeks. I hardly know Mr. Farmer. I've never met him and most of our contacts have been indirect, so I asked him, please, not to do it. And I asked my publisher, please, not to publish any more of his Trout books because the whole thing had become very upsetting to me. I understand he was really burned up about my decision. I heard he had made more money in that one "Kilgore Trout year" than he had ever made before -- in case you're too polite to ask, I didn't get any of the money.

CR: I think you've already served him better than he deserves.

KV: Well, I gather he's a very nice person.

CR: What I mean is, there are legions of readers who love Kurt Vonnegut fiction, and I think that Kilgore Trout has become, and deserves to remain, a rather precious commodity.

KV: Precious commodity is the phrase. When I sold Slaughterhouse-Five to Universal Pictures, the material naturally included the portions where Trout figured. When I decided to sell my next book, Breakfast of Champions, to the movies -- and you may recall that Trout played an important role in it -- I learned I had to retrieve my rights to the character. I entered the proceedings with my usual innocence. I got hold of Universal and, after reminding them they didn't even use Trout in the movie, asked if they would send a letter or something returning Kilgore Trout to me. What followed was a lesson in economics. They drove a very hard bargain, and I wound up paying fifteen thousand bucks for him. So, I'm a little jumpy about giving him away to anyone.

CR: When we last hear about Kilgore, he's in a Georgia prison, sorting through his various pen-names and finishing up a book on economics. Jailbird is a book about economics and the moral of it, as best I can figure it out, is chilling. When your protagonist was young and idealistic, he had a dream which included the thought: "if only the common people would take control of the planet's wealth." In Jailbird, an attempt is made to return to the people a large portion of the planet's wealth, that portion which the RAMJAC Corporation owns. The attempt is a tragic failure: more bureaucracies; everyone gets something except the people. I wonder to what extent the novel suggests you're not terribly encouraged about the prospects for either the American Dream or a truly democratic economic system?

KV: I don't pretend to be an expert but, really, I'm not that soured on the American economic system. I think most Americans' discomfort is social in nature, not economic. We don't have a severe food problem, for example. Admittedly we have a shocking number of people who are hungry, but they represent a small percentage of the population. When you speak about the major problems of America, I think you have to concede that food and shelter are fairly well taken care of.

At the same time, I feel that people today are terribly lonely. In fact, as I proposed to Shriver when he was running for Vice-president, a candidate who ran on the promise of "Lonesome No More" would win an awful lot of votes. It was my thought that the people of this country would be well served by a project in which we could re-form ourselves into artificially extended families. It's not a fascist scheme; I don't mean neighborhood blocks where some goon serves as a local boss. This would be more free-form -- parts of a given family could be in San Diego, others in Cleveland. In my own case, although I have no reason to be lonely, I do endure occasional bouts of loneliness, and I would imagine other people's loneliness must be much worse. So, no, I don't want to sound nihilistic about the economic system.

In fact, an odd sort of virtue of the free enterprise system is that there always seems to be a number of well-intentioned maniacs who for one reason or another are dedicated to the tasks of keeping the trucks running, getting the lettuce to market, slaughtering the beef, and so on. Our society seems to engender a cadre of wonderfully motivated people who want earnestly to take charge and get things done. Conversely, I understand that in Paper Utopias like Cuba, people continually manage to forget to grease the trucks or get into the fields on time. What they obviously need is a more generous serving of the type of nuts we turn our enterprises over to -- or who claw their way into control of them.

CR: You just said something that struck me. You are not only a novelist but a productive and distinguished novelist as well. In short, you're a highly successful communicator. Yet you spoke about bouts of loneliness. Is novel writing a very solitary occupation? I imagine closed doors, utter silences, intense concentration. Do these take a toll?

KV: It is, and to an extent they do. It's an odd business in the sense that you have no associates and, yes, it can be trying. Something nice is happening to me now, though, in that a couple of guys have made a musical out of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. My contribution to it, though limited, is pleasant and noisy. We open on October 11 [1979] and I find myself doing a lot of busy work. After you and I are finished this afternoon, for instance, I'm going over to inspect a set.

CR: Will they depict the fire-bombing of Indianapolis?

KV: They're going to hallucinate it. They seem to be doing a wonderful job of interpreting what I wrote and adding to the original. For example, at the end of the play when Eliot resumes his leadership of the Rosewater Foundation, he tells his lawyer of his decision to acknowledge all of the children in Rosewater county who are reputed to be his as his own. Now that much is in the book. But in the play he makes this acknowledgment in song, and then the rest of the cast comes out. Each is carrying a baby, and in the end you have this lovely, triumphant finale where the stage is filled with babies. It's something I hadn't envisioned and I'm delighted by it.

CR: It's been years since I read Rosewater so this takes me by surprise. But doesn't your novel end with the, well, holocaust of Indianapolis?

KV: No, that occurs a bit earlier when he's on his way to the city, and it's symptomatic of his nervous breakdown. By this time, he's reached the stage of his recovery, or his seeming recovery, and he's dividing up the Foundation's resources among the children of the county.

CR: Two passages in Jailbird especially impressed me; both seem to concern what you've described elsewhere as a ruined planet. One comes in a summary of a story by Kilgore Trout. In it, Trout's narrator talks about his former home, a planet named Vicuna, where "they ran out of time":

The tragedy of the planet was that its scientists had found ways to extract time from topsoil and the oceans and the atmosphere -- to heat their homes and power their speedboats and fertilize their crops with it; to eat it; to make clothes out of it; and so on. They served time at every meal, fed it to household pets just to demonstrate how rich and clever they were. They allowed great gobbets of it to putrefy to oblivion in their overflowing garbage cans. . .

"On Vicuna" [said the narrator] "we lived as though there were no tomorrow."

The patriotic bonfires of time were the worst, [he said]. When he was an infant, his parents held him up to coo and gurgle with delight as a million years of future were put to the torch in honor of the birthday of the queen. By the time he was fifty, only a few weeks of future remained. Great rips in reality were appearing everywhere. People could walk through walls. His own speedboat became nothing more than a steering wheel. Holes appeared in vacant lots where children were playing, and the children fell in.

And at the end of Jailbird itself, the narrator is asked what is going to kill the planet and he replies:

"A total lack of seriousness. . . Nobody gives a damn anymore about what's really going on, what's going to happen next, or how we ever got into such a mess in the first place."

My question is, are we that bad off? You've studied science. Do you think we're actually running out of time?

KV: We're in serious trouble. I once heard myself described as being embittered with humanity because of its wasteful acts. That notion distresses me. My real feeling is that human beings are too good for life. They've been put in the wrong place with the wrong things to do. They're shrewd and terribly resourceful machines, and one sign of their resourcefulness, I think, is their human-wide tendency not to give a shit any more. They're shrewd enough to perceive that, if you do give a shit, you'll wind up getting your heart broken. I'm no brighter or better educated than anyone else, but it seems to me we're in terrible danger. I see no reason that would persuade me we'll escape a third world war. I see a number of reasons to conclude we're on a collision course with ecological disaster. On a less spectacular note, I think we can be absolutely certain a nuclear plant is going to blow within the next few years; the mathematical odds of that are intolerable.

CR: You're hardly a casual observer of the world we live in and you've written about so many aspects of that world. You spoke about the end of civilization in Cat's Cradle and Slapstick, the dehumanization of modern life in Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions, the mind-breaking potential of wealth in Rosewater and Jailbird. I wonder where you're headed next? I especially wonder if you're inclined to reach further, back into the past or press further into the future?

KV: You've caught me at an interesting time, a time when I'm casting about, wondering what to write about next. At the moment I'm toying with a novel about peacetime. From the novelist's viewpoint post-Watergate peacetime is a pretty arid period -- no depressions, no wars, no unusual political scandals. So I find it quite a challenge to attempt to get the texture of what, sadly enough, is such an unusual time. I don't know if I'll do it, or whether it could work as a novel. One thing I am certain of, and which I would imagine a lot of my fellow writers are experiencing, is the impact of the computer upon the novelist. In the past, the interim between the day the novelist turned over his manuscript and the production of the finished book was a year. It was a precious time: a mellowing period, a chance for experimentation, a time when the novelist could be content with the thought of having accomplished something and unbothered by a need to begin anew. It was a time when he could reflect upon his just-completed work and form opinions before the critics got to it. With the advent of computers that interval has been reduced to about four months, and the nature of modern book production keeps the writer busy even during those four months. So, I'm not in the middle of a new book, and I haven't decided upon a new subject.

CR: You've written sparingly but stirringly over the years about your own family; in fact you said one of Jailbird's false starts was a story about you and your father. Have you ever thought about comprising an autobiography?

KV: I've thought about it, but it would be an awfully difficult project for me. My father is a lot of trouble to write about. He was, and chose to be, a dreamy artist and a good one. Because he found the real world ugly, he had no interest in it. Now this, to me, was not a form of insanity. Rather, it was a wonderful intellectual conclusion, based on careful and extensive observation. But once he made that decision to disengage, he wound up leaving behind very little for a son to relate to. It's difficult to talk about, harder to write about. I just finished Geoffrey Wolff's book about his father, The Duke of Deception, and I would imagine I'm more angry with my father than he is with his, and his was a crook.

KV: I'm surprised. You didn't seem that angry in the "Prologue" to Jailbird.

KV: I was disappointed in him as a survivor; I admire survivors. My father had lost interest in current events by the time of the first world war. Although he was a third-generation American, he had divided his time and thoughts to that point between Europe and the United States. He lived in such a congenial world, one that treated him well as an artist, and he loved to wander about Europe and America, sketching and enjoying music. Well, when all that was smashed by the war, my father let go. He lost all interest.

CR: Did he endure in some form of art? I know from Jailbird he was an architect who had no commissions for twenty years. But did he do portraits or something?

KV: He did a number of wonderful things architecturally, but most of them are gone now. One thing left is something they call "The Clock," which is located at the intersection of Moravian and Washington streets in Indianapolis -- or, the "Crossroads of America," as they call it. Anyhow, at that intersection there's a department store, the L.S. Ayres Department store, which my father and grandfather designed. And on that store is a clock which is an almost tradition. It's a beautiful thing to see. But Indianapolis has had the misfortune to continually prosper and, when a city enjoys that type of prosperity, it enjoys the ability to continually "renew" itself. "Renew" is the wrong term, of course. What the city does is architecturally destroy itself. It cannibalizes the types of graceful and delicate architecture that made it a thing of beauty. So I guess there was something harrowing for my father: existing in a city, a provincial capital like Indianapolis, witnessing the systematic replacement of works of art, many of which he helped create, with a bunch of amorphous cinder blocks. By the time my father really took over the firm, most of the art had disappeared from architecture. It took a lot out of him.

CR: You mention something along those lines in Jailbird, something that had never occurred to me. But it must have been heart-breaking to you, the son and grandson of architects, to witness the destruction of an aesthetic jewel like Dresden when you were a prisoner of war there.

KV: It was, and it's not pleasant for someone like me to look at modern Indianapolis, a place that no one has bombed, and realize it's the same damn way. You know, it's odd you mention Dresden because I was thinking of Hiroshima. They might as well have dropped a bomb on Indianapolis. Take that wonderful Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown. It's a parking lot now.

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