Here's to You, Mr. Vonnegut

by Jess Walter

I first met Kurt Vonnegut in my junior high school library in 1977. Already swollen with pre-teen literary ambitions, I was scouting the spot my future novels would be filed; this happened to be right after Vonnegut. So I picked up his Breakfast of Champions to see what the competition was up to. Inspired by Tolstoy and Jefferson, who'd freed their slaves at fifty, Vonnegut marked his fiftieth birthday in that book by freeing his characters. He also drew crude pictures and wrote himself into the ending. (He wore sunglasses so his characters wouldn't recognize him.)

At 12, I had no idea you could do these things.

Over the next few years, I read and re-read everything Vonnegut wrote. Drawn in by his inventiveness, I was transformed by his intelligence and compassion. His was the first style I envied (and shamelessly copied: Hi Ho) -- economical and evocative, lithe and powerful, concrete and abstract. He was a painter of ideas. In college, I owned four copies of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Young readers must be the sweetest curse. They don't just read; young readers invent relationships. (This is after we are forced to give up imaginary friends and before we are taught that booze takes the edge off loneliness.) Like a lot of young readers, I knew Vonnegut. His books were intimate conversations we had about our common agnosticism, our sorrow over the state of humanity. More than my favorite author, he became a sort of mentor-by-proxy, and even now, having fallen so hard so many times for so many other writers in the years since, Kurt Vonnegut continues to occupy that place in my memory where we recall first loves.

And now I own five copies of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Several years after I first read Vonnegut, when I was in college and becoming serious about being a writer, I decided to seek out my literary heroes in person, figuring that by asking them insightful questions -- or, more accurately, through some process like osmosis -- I could become one of them.

So I did what anyone would do. I lied.

I'm not proud of it ... well, actually I am proud of it.

In the mid-1980s, I posed as a magazine writer to get phony press credentials to interview Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut when they came to Spokane. These acts weren't as criminal as they sound; in each case, I really did hope to write something (and I did manage to sell smallish stories about two of the three). But I suppose, in hindsight, it could be argued that I exaggerated somewhat the connections that a 19-year-old kid from the Spokane Valley might have with the editors at Vanity Fair.

Kesey's college wrestler son had recently died in a bus crash and he was -- understandably -- more interested in talking about school bus safety than in divulging how much LSD it took to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Shamed by the depths of his sorrow, I became aware for the first time that writers have real lives to negotiate.

Tom Wolfe answered the questions the real reporters put to him, but his high, tight collar and superior breeding kept him from making eye contact, or in fact acknowledging anyone else's existence. When I asked what advice he'd give a young writer, he said dryly, "Use a computer."

And then there was Vonnegut. By the time I met him, I had intuited that our heroes -- especially the literary breed -- could only let us down in person. I remember driving to the interview dreading what would happen, wondering if an earthbound author could ever live up to the transcendence of his great books.

He descended the Sunset Hill in the passenger seat of an old Plymouth Fury driven by a student from Gonzaga University, where he was speaking that night. He appeared sick from the airplane ride or the Fury ride, or both, and he was leaning out the car window chain-smoking Pall Malls. He looked like Mark Twain on a bender.

While my Kesey and Wolfe interviews were conducted with plenty of other people in the room -- escorts and other reporters -- I was stunned to find out that this time, it would be just Vonnegut and me. They put us in a classroom. Our knees bumped the tops of old desks.

He listened patiently to my first na & iuml;ve, rambling, self-serving, four-minute question (If you were going to give advice to ... say, a young ... you know ... a writer ... who ... you know, admires you ...) When I finished grinding my syntactic gears, Vonnegut sat there, red-lined eyes beneath caterpillar brows. "Can I ask," he said, "how old are you?"

Well. I'm ... uh ... well, I'm twenty.

He closed one eye against the smoke of his cigarette. "And you say you're writing a profile of me."


"For Esquire."


"Esquire magazine?"

Well ... Esquire hasn't officially agreed to buy my piece, no.

He stared at me for a moment, and then picked at the bridge of his nose. He looked out at the hallway and I figured he was going to get up and leave. But after a moment of reflection, he leaned forward. "What was your question?"

I repeated it in half the time: What advice would he give a young writer?

"All I can do is tell you how I did it," he said. After surviving World War II, he worked in journalism, and then tried unsuccessfully to get his master's degree in anthropology. He ended up working in advertising for General Electric. When he wasn't at work, he sat down at a typewriter and wrote short stories. He sent the stories to various general-interest magazines, which began buying them. This was during what he has called the Golden Age, when magazines published a great deal of short fiction, and next to a Kurt Vonnegut story you might find a Hemingway piece, or stories by Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Eventually, at $1,500 a throw, Vonnegut made enough money to quit GE and begin honing his craft.

His stories got better when he stopped trying to write like other people and began telling the truth. After a time, he felt confident enough to write novels. At first, he was dismissed as a science fiction writer, then a stylistic oddball, but he refused to be limited by genres or by critics. He simply wrote stories. His novels became tight and funny -- allegorical reflections of late 20th-century life. For 15 years he kept at this; it wasn't until early middle age that he finally experienced real success.

As he relayed a brief version of this story to me, I scribbled furiously and began to see my life unfold in front of me -- journalist to short story writer to novelist to....

Vonnegut took a long drag of a Pall Mall.

"Of course," he said, "there's no way a writer could do it that way now. Almost no one publishes short stories anymore. Magazines are more interested in celebrities now. I may as well be advising you on the best way to repair a Model T."

So it goes.

I framed the first check I ever got for writing fiction. It was for an odd little story about paranoia called "Flashers, Floaters and Vitreous Detachment." I had entered it in a contest judged by the now-defunct Story Magazine. From more than seven thousand entries, the editors chose 25 finalists. My story was the last to make the cut -- twenty-fifth place. My check was for $25. I had paid $5 to enter the contest, $3 in self-addressed-stamped postage and another $5 in various printing and copying expenses for the dozen drafts that I printed out. That left me $12 in profit. I would guess that I worked on that story for about four months -- for math's sake, let's say 100 hours total. That breaks down to about twelve cents an hour.

It is, without a doubt, the best money I've ever earned in my life. Since then, I have been better compensated for three novels, some nonfiction books, countless stories, essays and screenplays. But that check for 25 bucks remains the only one I've ever framed. It is the best return I've ever gotten on my original investment of hope.

Like a lot of writers, I keep a journal about my work -- charting my progress and my ideas, the beginnings of short stories and screenplays, the outlines of novels. It breathes success and bleeds failure, the countless chidings and pep talks that I give myself. My journal's mood swings wildly between the elation of good reviews to the funk of rejections. It is like the diary of a manic-depressive who lives on the ocean but has no concept of how tides work: The water is coming in! It's a flood! The water is receding! It's a drought!

As I read my journal now, it occurs to me that everything I know about writing I learned in that short talk with Vonnegut, and that it can be broken down into three quick tips: 1. Take it seriously. 2. Get it down on the page. 3. Repeat 1 and 2.

Kurt Vonnegut is coming to town next week for Get Lit! It's funny to see his name just listed there with the other writers -- like going to a rock festival at the Gorge and seeing the Rolling Stones on the bill.

A generational writer who didn't actually belong to the generation he inspired, Vonnegut became popular on college campuses in the late 1960s, when he was already in his 40s. Because his prose is simple and irreverent and his themes seem sweet and hopeful, and because he showed little interest in "sustaining the dream" of fiction, Vonnegut has sometimes been dismissed as a less-significant writer than the 20th-century totems like Faulkner, Hemingway and Bellow. Vonnegut was too accessible. Too popular. Too easy. This criticism of Vonnegut is twined with the same snobbery that you hear from some music fans, that if you like it, it can't be any good.

And this particular literary theory is, in my humble opinion, crap.

More than his contemporaries, Vonnegut still matters. It's fitting that he still tours, that his books are being rat-eared by new generations of students. His themes -- the tyranny of technology, the senselessness of war -- are as relevant as they were 40 years ago. His ironic writing voice has become our national song; his cries for compassion and peace have never resounded more. His best books hold up to anything written in the last 50 years.

In fact, far from outgrowing my love of Vonnegut over the years, I have come to the realization that 18 years ago, I actually had the fortune of sitting across from one of the literary giants of our time.

And I lied like a schoolgirl.

That day, after 10 minutes of politely listening to my phony questions, Vonnegut excused himself to go take a nap. When he was gone, I sat there for a long time in that empty classroom, staring at my tape recorder. This is when I began to realize that if I was really going to be a writer, I might want to start writing.

Later, I went to his lecture. After it was over, I lingered with the other dopes, hoping he'd grab us by our corduroy lapels, ask why we were wasting our talent here in Spo-nowhere, and discretely slip us the names of his agent.

Instead, he saw me and walked over. He smiled and apologized for leaving our interview early. He'd been very tired, he said. He asked if I'd gotten everything I needed for my "story."

Yes, I said, he'd been very helpful.

He smiled and his face smoothed and I had the sense that he could see right through me, and that it was OK. And then he said, with something like pure generosity: "I look forward to reading it."

Well, Mr. Vonnegut, here it is.

Publication date: 04/08/04

85th Annual Greek Festival @ Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Sept. 23-25, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
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