Words with Kurt Vonnegut

by Mike Corrigan

Has the President ever read Vonnegut? Is a well-loved paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five moldering away somewhere in his box of Yale memories? Somehow, I can't see it. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of most beloved and widely read American authors of the 20th century. And one of the best. With uncluttered prose, universal themes and satirical humor, his books remain relevant and vital. They represent a plea for basic decency in an age of chaos, greed and insanity.

Over the last two decades, Vonnegut has concentrated more and more of his creative energies on the visual arts. He draws and paints -- for pleasure mostly, he says. But his work has also been widely exhibited, and limited edition prints are sold through his Web site & lt;www.kurtvonnegut.com & .

Before the interview could be launched, the gracious, gravelly voiced Vonnegut had a few of his own questions: "What does your paper hope I'll say?" he asked, followed by, "What's the job situation there?" and "What's the mood of the kids there?"

He was thinking about his audience.

Inlander: This is a literary event that you'll be attending, but I understand you've been more involved with the visual arts lately.

Vonnegut: Well it's just a very agreeable thing to do. You know I've been allowed to say everything I wanted to say. And I'm completely in print, not only here but in large parts of Europe. So, you know, I've shot my wad. What I would say about practicing an art is it's a way to make your soul grow. You don't have to make a career of it. But to draw pictures or dance to the radio or whatever -- for heaven's sake, practice an art, no matter how badly, in order to make your soul grow.

Inlander: I can look at a painting and be affected by it. But nothing visual sticks with me like a well-placed, well-worded bit of prose.

All right, let's try Picasso's Guernica. That sticks with you.

Inlander: It does. But to appreciate it don't you kind of need to know what the backstory is, what inspired it?

Yeah, that does help. And it also helps to know something about the painter. Look, good use of the language doesn't matter as much as it used to. You talk about visuals. TV -- now there's a visual art. Jesus, it is now the teacher. It is life itself.

Inlander: How are you these days?

Vonnegut: Eighty-one and quite demoralized because my country is hated.

Inlander: What gets you out of bed each morning aside from pesky interviews?

Vonnegut: Just embarrassment about staying in bed. [Laughs] If you stay in bed all day people start talking about you.

Inlander: Do you think our President has ever read any of your books?

Vonnegut: No, I don't think he's read much of anything, and he says he doesn't read the papers. Tim Robbins has a play running here in New York called Embedded. And it's all about the people around the president -- you know, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and so forth. And they're all onstage. And there's a question-and-answer period afterward, and they ask, "Why was there no character playing Bush?" And Tim's answer was stunning. He said, "He's not in the loop." That clarified my thinking a whole lot about Bush.

Inlander: Do you think if Bush had actually witnessed, as you had, something as horrific and devastating as the fire bombing of Dresden, that this country would currently be in the business of pre-emptive warfare?

Vonnegut: There are a lot of people who aren't terribly bright -- or good. Look, you can do me a favor by saying again, 'He's not in the loop.'

Inlander: He's not in the loop.

Vonnegut: Isn't that helpful?

Inlander: Do you feel that your written work has had an impact on society?

Vonnegut: I don't know. It sells. It continues to sell. I'm completely in print and there are not many people who can say that. And it's a matter of luck. I happened to write something and it resonated with a lot of other people. I know many wonderful writers who have died in utter poverty and neglect although they wrote wonderful books.

Publication date: 04/08/04