By 1962, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had been writing novels for ten years; three had been published—Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night—and nobody had ever heard of him. He didn’t count. Player Piano had been haphazardly reviewed when it was published in 1952, because it was a first novel; and had been as haphazardly dismissed when the reviewers found out that it looked a lot like science fiction—which is to say, trash. In 1959, “The Sirens of Titan” came out as a paperback original, with a screaming space-opera cover—and didn’t get a single review. Ditto Mother Night, in 1962, which carried a cover blurb implying that it was part of the Kiss My Whip school of writing.
In the 11 years since, he’s written four more novels—Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, just published. His books are now reviewed in the lead slot of the Sunday Times book section; Slaughterhouse-Five rode the best-seller lists for more than three months and was nominated for a National Book Award; Breakfast of Champions was grabbed by three book clubs long before it came out; those early novels that the critics wouldn’t touch with a stick are now being taught in colleges all over the place; a book of original essays about him called “The Vonnegut Statement” just appeared; the number of Ph.D. dissertations considering his work is up to six so far, and you can practically hear the typewriters clacking in graduate schools everywhere: “The Ambivalent Relationship of Zen and Bokononism in ‘Cat’s Cradle’: An Approach.” And so on.
Vonnegut counts now. But it’s been a long lime coming, and the way it happened was a series of accidents. The first accident was his birth date: Armistice Day, a day set aside for the celebration of peace. He was born in Indianapolis in 1922, into a German family with a long rationalist tradition; they were pacifists and atheists who loved America. His grandfather had been the first licensed architect to practice in Indiana and his father was an architect, too—which probably has something to do with how much Vonnegut has thought about the importance of homes. He had a sister, who died of cancer 15 years ago, and has an older brother, a well-respected scientist who is listed directly above his kid brother in “Who’s Who.”
Vonnegut planned to be a scientist, too, but started writing in high school for the Shortridge Echo, one of the country’s few daily high school papers. He went on to Cornell to study biochemistry—and ended up writing a column for The Cornell Daily Sun. This was the spring of 1941 and most of his fellow freshmen were hungry to get into the war and kill Germans. Vonnegut, who was both a pacifist and a German-American, wrote antiwar columns that made almost everybody nervous.
But Pearl Harbor and the dreary drift of the war changed his mind enough that he enlisted in a student officer-training corps in 1943, and he was sent to Carnegie Tech to become a mechanical engineer. But that didn’t work, and not long afterward he was in the Infantry, in Germany, fighting Germans. It was the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans blasted his squad to pieces—leaving Vonnegut to stumble and wander for 11 days, alone, lost, looking for the war—Billy Pilgrim, the gentle, time-warped optometrist who lives through it all in Slaughter-house-Five, was born.
If war had before seemed preposterous to Vonnegut, it just got worse: He was captured and eventually shipped off to Dresden, which he has since described as the first truly beautiful city he had ever seen. It was supposedly a safe place; there was nothing in it to bomb but people and extraordinary cathedrals. He was down in a slaughterhouse when it happened; when he came out, the city had melted to the ground. And the good guys had done it—and then kept quiet about it. He started thinking about that.
After the war, Vonnegut bounced through several schools and finally landed at the University of Chicago, studying anthropology. He didn’t get his degree—the faculty committee turned down his thesis, “Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in a Simple Tales”—but he learned some things at school about watching how people behave that still show, sometimes hilariously, in his writing. In a lot of ways, he’s still an anthropologist, whether the University of Chicago says so or not.
He married Jane Cox, whom he’d met in kindergarten, when he went to Chicago, and was moonlighting as a reporter for the City News Bureau to keep them both alive. But after the faculty committee said his ideas weren’t right, he left school and wound up as a public-relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He was a good one, for three years, from 1947 to 1950, but it meant hanging around scientists all the time, listening to their bright plans for improving the future. He left in 1950 because his reaction to their cheery talk was turning into a book: Player Piano. It seemed to him that scientists in those days wanted to mechanize everything and take care of everybody, and he showed them a terrible, funny future in which just that had happened: a technological Brave New World where virtually all work was done by machines and everybody but the scientists who ran them walked around feeling empty and useless.
By the time Player Piano came out, Vonnegut had moved to Cape Cod and taken up free-lancing full time. For the next few years, he lived mainly by writing short stories for such magazines as Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan. His family was getting bigger—he had three children and became legal guardian of his sister’s three children when she and her husband died within a day of each other—so he spent most of his time writing stories that would feed everybody, and didn’t get around to another novel until The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut claims it’s the only book he enjoyed writing, and it is a fantastic whoop, with characters pin balled to Mercury, Mars and Titan, an “extremely pleasant moon of Saturn.” In it, the entire course of human history has had a single purpose: to deliver a replacement part to an alien spaceship on Titan. But at least it’s a purpose.
Like the rest of his early books, Mother Night lived only in hiding on the paperback racks. The next one, Cat’s Cradle, in 1963, began with a typical lack of fanfare. But it leaked onto college campuses—where the hot discussion at the time was what Piggy symbolized in Lord of the Flies—and spread like a bizarre and happy rumor; a romp about the end of the world, with a new religion created by a bum and based on agreeable lies, and full of useful new terms like karass and grandfalloon. Two years later, the rumor had spread so well that Vonnegut had become a campus cult hero; both the term and the status still make him a little jumpy.
After 1965, when God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater came out, grownups began paying attention, too. One by one, the critics heard the kids and found a new novelist to play with; and while they were figuring out how to read to him. Vonnegut accepted an invitation to teach at Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Then came a Guggenheim, which he used to return to Dresden and to work on what became Slaughter house-Five.
His family is grown and scattered now, and Vonnegut has given up the Cape Cod farmhouse for a New York duplex in the East 50s. He says that Breakfast of Champions, which was published in May, will be “the last of the selfish books.” It’s supposedly about a confused and then crazed Midwesterner who believes he’s the only human being in a world of robots, but it’s really about looking for, and finding, reasons to stay alive on a planet that’s certainly crazy and frequently shitty, too—which, finally, is what all his books have been about.
Vonnegut is 50 now, and for a lot of people that’s a year full of changes, checking out old paths and directions, snooping around for new ones. To find out if that’s been the case for him, and to see how the world looks from where he’s watching, we sent Staff Writer David Standish to talk to him in New York. Standish reports:
“I was one of the people who made Kurt Vonnegut rich and famous. It was in 1962, and I was a junior at a university in Ohio, on my way back from a wonderful wrecked weekend in Chicago. It was just about dawn, and I was waiting for the Indianapolis bus in the Greyhound station, tired and happy and hung over and in no mood for sleep. Joe, as we used to say, College.
“So I was cruising to kill time, and wound up staring through the haze at the paperback rack, blinking my eyes into focus, and saw:
By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
“It sounded weird enough. And it was, I spent the next three hours riding toward Vonnegut’s home town, getting to know his remarkable zoo of odd, quirky characters—senile, unreconstructed Nazis, artistic failed spies and fanatic evangelists who hate for God. The book was funny and serious and sometimes incredibly smart; in it somewhere he develops the image of the crazed totalitarian mind as a gear with a few teeth missing: It ticks along perfectly most of the time, then skips, jumps and lurches—and ticks along perfectly again. I was knocked out. And went back to Ohio and spread the word: ‘I don’t know who this fucker Vonnegut is, but he’s a gas. Pass it on.’
“Eleven years later, I was ringing the bell of his apartment. At first I thought I had the wrong building, it was so plain and unassuming on the outside; but that, of course, was right: Vonnegut himself is a little like that. He let me in, smiling, and led me through a tiny kitchen into a high-ceilinged living room. The walls were covered with paintings, one or two huge and dreamily abstract, and one full of happy people done in fourth-grade primitive style that he said came from Haiti. The black Danish-modern chair he sits in to write was pulled up to a low coffee table, facing his portable typewriter. Envelopes and papers and letters were piled in nearly neat stacks on several tables. The rear wall was glass and faced an enclosed patio that was being used at the moment to store a rug rolled up and flopped there. It looked like he’d moved in a few months before and was just finishing up. I asked him how long he’d lived there. He grinned. ‘Two years.’
“We started, the interview right away. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and laughed and wheezed and pondered, running his hands through his WASPro and sometimes looking at the ceiling to find words. In his V-neck sweater, slacks and old sneakers, he didn’t look much like a proper hero for hip college students—more like their father. And he looked like he’d be a good one. I had always loved his books, because they always made me laugh and often made me think, but as we talked, I realized that in a strange way—beyond the characters and planets that turn up again and again, like an askew intergalactic Yoknapatawpha County—all his books really fit together. That there is a Plan. I began by asking him what he’s trying to say in his books.”
Playboy: Beyond the fact that it’s become a profitable way to make a living, why do you write?
Vonnegut: My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly, I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change. For the better, we hope.
Vonnegut: Writers are specialized cells in the social organism. They are evolutionary cells. Mankind is trying to become something else; it’s experimenting with new ideas all the time. And writers are a means of introducing new ideas into the society, and also a means of responding symbolically to life. I don’t think we’re in control of what we do.
Playboy: What is in control?
Vonnegut: Mankind’s wish to improve itself.
Playboy: In a Darwinian sense?
Vonnegut: I’m not very grateful for Darwin, although I suspect he was right. His ideas make people cruder. Darwinism says to them that people who get sick deserve to be sick, that people who are in trouble must deserve to be in trouble. When anybody dies, cruel Darwinists imagine we’re obviously improving ourselves in some way. And any man who’s on top is there because he’s a superior animal. That’s the social Darwinism of the last century, and it continues to boom. But forget Darwin. Writers are specialized cells doing whatever we do, and we’re expressions of the entire society—just as the sensory cells on the surface of your body are in the service of your body as a whole. And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down into the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists—all artists—should be treasured as alarm systems.
Playboy: And social planners?
Vonnegut: I have many ideas as to how Americans could be happier and better cared for than they are.
Playboy: In some of your books—especially The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five—there’s a serious notion that all moments in time exist simultaneously, which implies that the future can’t be changed by an act of will in the present. How does a desire to improve things fit with that?
Vonnegut: You understand, of course, that everything I say is horseshit.
Playboy: Of course.
Vonnegut: Well, we do live our lives simultaneously. That’s a fact. You are here as a child and as an old man. I recently visited a woman who has Hodgkin’s disease. She has somewhere between a few months and a couple of years to live, and she told me that she was living her life simultaneously now, living all the moments of it.
Playboy: It still seems paradoxical.
Vonnegut: That’s because what I’ve just said to you is horseshit. But it’s a useful, comforting sort of horseshit, you see? That’s what I object to about preachers. They don’t say anything to make anybody any happier, when there are all these neat lies you can tell. And everything is a lie, because our brains are two-bit computers, and we can’t get very high-grade truths out of them. But as far as improving the human condition goes, our minds are certainly up to that. That’s what they were designed to do. And we do have the freedom to make up comforting lies. But we don’t do enough of it. One of my favorite ministers was a guy named Bob Nicholson. He looked like Joseph Cotten, and he was a bachelor Episcopalian priest up on Cape Cod. Every time one of his parishioners died, he went all to pieces. He was outraged by death. So it was up to his congregation and the relatives of the deceased to patch him up, get him pumped up on Christianity sufficiently to get through the funeral service. I liked that very much: Nothing he was going to say in the standard Episcopalian funeral oration was going to satisfy him. He needed better lies.
Playboy: Did you come up with any?
Vonnegut: I tried. Everybody did. It was a very creative situation, with a minister of God falling apart like that.
Playboy: What are some of the lies you like?
Vonnegut: “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s a good lie. Whether God said it or not, it’s still a perfectly good lie. And if it gives it more force to say that God said it, well, fine.
Playboy: What’s your religious background?
Vonnegut: My ancestors, who came to the United States a little before the Civil War, were atheists. So I’m not rebelling against organized religion. I never had any. I learned my outrageous opinions about sacred matters at my mother’s knee. My family has always had those. They came here absolutely crazy about the United States Constitution and about the possibility of prosperity and the brotherhood of man here. They were willing to work very hard, and they were atheists.
Playboy: Do you think organized religion can make anybody happier?
Vonnegut: Oh, of course. Lots of comforting lies are told in church—not enough, but some. I wish preachers would lie more convincingly about how honest and brotherly we should be. I’ve never heard a sermon on the subject of gentleness or restraint; I’ve never heard a minister say it was wrong to kill. No preacher ever speaks out against cheating in business. There are 52 Sundays in a year, and somehow none of these subjects comes up.
Playboy: Is there any religion you consider superior to any other?
Vonnegut: Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous gives you an extended family that’s very close to a blood brotherhood, because everybody has endured the same catastrophe. And one of the enchanting aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous is that many people join who aren’t drunks, who pretend to be drunks because the social and spiritual benefits are so large. But they talk about real troubles, which aren’t spoken about in church, as a rule. The halfway houses for people out of prisons, or for people recovering from drug habits, have the same problems: people hanging around who just want the companionship, the brotherhood or the sisterhood, who want the extended family.
Vonnegut: It’s a longing for community. This is a lonesome society that’s been fragmented by the factory system. People have to move from here to there as jobs move, as prosperity leaves one area and appears somewhere else. People don’t live in communities permanently anymore. But they should: Communities are very comforting to human beings. I was talking to a United Mine Workers lawyer in a bar down in the Village the other day, and he was telling me how some miners in Pennsylvania damn well will not leave, even though the jobs are going, because of the church-centered communities there, and particularly because of the music. They have choirs that are 100 years old, some of them, extraordinary choirs, and they’re not going to leave that and go to San Diego, and build ships or airplanes. They’re going to stay in Pennsylvania, because that’s home. And that’s intelligent. People should have homes. My father and grandfather were both architects—my grandfather was the first licensed architect in Indiana—and he built a home with the idea that it would be inhabited by several generations. Of course, the house is an undertaking parlor or a ukulele institute now. But during his lifetime, my father built two dream homes with the idea that further generations would live there. I would like there to be ancestral homes for all Americans somewhere.
Playboy: But you’re living in a New York apartment now.
Vonnegut: Well, I’m used to the rootlessness that goes with my profession. But I would like people to be able to stay in one community for a lifetime, to travel away from it to see the world, but always to come home again. This is comforting. Whenever I go to Indianapolis now, a childish question nags at me, and I finally have to say it out loud: “Where is my bed?” I grew up there, and nearly 1,000,000 people live there now, but there is no place in that city where a bed is mine. So I ask, “Where is my bed?”—and then wind up in a Holiday Inn. You can’t go home again.
Until recent times, you know, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to. So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he was feeling tender again. Or if a kid got so fed up with his parents that he couldn’t stand it, he could march over to his uncle’s for a while. And this is no longer possible. Each family is locked into its little box. The neighbors aren’t relatives. There aren’t other houses where people can go and be cared for. When Nixon is pondering what’s happening to America—“Where have the old values gone?” and all that—the answer is perfectly simple. We’re lonesome. We don’t have enough friends or relatives anymore. And we would if we lived in real communities.
Playboy: How do you feel about those who are making attempts at alternate social structures—such as communes?
Vonnegut: They want to go back to the way human beings have lived for 1,000,000 years, which is intelligent. Unfortunately, these communities usually don’t hold together very long, and finally they fail because their members aren’t really relatives, don’t have enough in common. For a community really to work, you shouldn’t have to wonder what the person next to you is thinking. That is a primitive society. In the communities of strangers that are being hammered together now, as young people take over farms and try to live communally, the founders are sure to have hellish differences. But their children, if the communes hold together long enough to raise children, will be more comfortable together, will have more attitudes and experiences in common, will be more like genuine relatives.
Playboy: Have you done any research on this?
Vonnegut: No. I’m afraid to. I might find out it wasn’t true. It’s a sunny little dream I have of a happier mankind. I couldn’t survive my own pessimism if I didn’t have some kind of sunny little dream. That’s mine, and don’t tell me I’m wrong: Human beings will be happier—not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my Utopia. That’s what I want for me.
Playboy: You don’t have a community?
Vonnegut: Oh, there are a lot of people who’ll talk to me on the telephone. And I always receive nice welcomes at Holiday Inns, Quality Motor Courts, Ramada Inns.
Playboy: But you have no relatives?
Vonnegut: Shoals of them, but scattered to hell and gone, and thinking all kinds of crazy different ways.
Playboy: You want to be with people who live nearby and think exactly as you do?
Vonnegut: No. That isn’t primitive enough. I want to be with people who don’t think at all, so I won’t have to think, either. I’m very tired of thinking. It doesn’t seem to help very much. The human brain is too high-powered to have many practical uses in this particular universe, in my opinion. I’d like to live with alligators, think like an alligator.
Playboy: Could this feeling come from the fatigue of having just finished a book?
Playboy: Even though you’d rather be an alligator, could we talk about people some more?
Vonnegut: People are too good for this world.
Playboy: You must have seen or heard of human communities that you’d like to join.
Vonnegut: Artists of different kinds constitute a sort of extended family. I’m already in that, I guess. Artists usually understand one another fairly well, without anybody’s having to explain much. There’s one commune I admire here in New York, but I wouldn’t want to join it. It was founded by a woman I know. It’s based on everybody’s screwing everybody else. This is intelligent, because it makes sort of a blood tie. It’s actually a jism tie, but anything of a magical nature like that really does tend to make a person more of a relative. It’s taken her a long time to construct this, because there are a lot of people who can never relate that way, who can’t get through the barriers. But it’s like the brotherhood ceremony in Tom Sawyer, when Tom and Huck sign oaths in their own blood. Vital substances are involved. I saw a thing on television recently about the exploration of the upper Nile; the British expedition was stopped by one of the tribal chiefs, and the chief wouldn’t let them go on until they mingled their blood with the chief’s blood. Another New York woman I know has a commune based on eating big bowls of chili or spaghetti or rice every night. Those are also vital substances.
Playboy: This longing for community may explain, at least in part, the Jesus-freak movement among young people. But why do you think they’re attracted to fundamentalist Christianity?
Vonnegut: Well, the choice of a core for an artificial extended family is fairly arbitrary. I’ve already mentioned the arts and jism and blood and spaghetti. Christianity is equally commonplace and harmless, and therefore good. Do you know what nucleation is? I don’t, but I’ll pretend I do. It has to do with how big something has to be in order to grow rather than die out. The standard example is starting a fire in a coal furnace. If the fire you start is below a certain size, it will go out. If it’s larger than that, it will spread until all the fuel is on fire. Clumps of cancer cells are probably forming in us all the time and petering out—because the clumps are below a certain size. In America, it’s easy to form a large clump of people who know something about Christianity, since there has always been so much talk about Christianity around. It wouldn’t be easy to get a large clump of Zoroastrians, for instance. But there are very big clumps of Christianity. There are very big clumps of race hatred. It’s easy to make either one of them grow, especially in a society as lonesome as this one is. All kinds of clumps.
Playboy: So you don’t admire Christianity any more or less than, say, a communal bowl of spaghetti every evening? Or anything else that might hold an extended family together?
Vonnegut: I admire Christianity more than anything—Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.
Playboy: You speak of gentle people, but somehow all this talk of Jesus freaks and extended families brings Charles Manson to mind.
Vonnegut: Yes, it does. His, of course, was an extended family. He recruited all these dim-witted girls, homeless girls, usually—girls who felt homeless, at any rate —and the family meant so much to them that they would do anything for it. They were simple and they were awfully young.
Playboy: What do you think Manson’s appeal was to them?
Vonnegut: His willingness to be father. It’s one of the weaknesses of our society that so few people are willing to be father, to be responsible, to be the organizer, to say what’s to be done next. Very few people are up to this. So if somebody is willing to take charge, he is very likely to get followers—more than he knows what to do with. The standard behavior pattern in our society now is for the father to deny he’s father as soon as he possibly can, when the kid is 16 or so. I assume that Charles Manson projected not only a willingness to become father but to remain father and become grandfather and then great-grandfather. There was a permanence there that people haven’t been able to get from their own parents.
Playboy: And if father happens to be evil, you just take your chances.
Vonnegut: Sure. What the hell? You just got born and you’re going to leave before you know it.
Playboy: Do you have any suggestions on how to put together healthier extended families than Manson’s?
Vonnegut: Sure. Put Christianity or spaghetti instead of murder at their core. I recommend this for countries, too.
Playboy: Is there some way our country could encourage the growth of extended families?
Vonnegut: By law. I’m writing a Kilgore Trout story about that right now.
Playboy: Kilgore Trout is the fictitious science-fiction writer you’ve used in some of your novels.
Vonnegut: That’s true. And he’s writing a story now about a time when our Government understands that it isn’t taking care of the people because it’s too clumsy and slow. It wants to help people, but it can’t get anywhere in time. So the President happens to visit Nigeria, where extended families have been the style since the beginning of time. He is impressed, and properly so. Huge families take care of their own sick and old, of any relative in trouble. They do it right away and at no cost to the government. So the President of the United States comes home and he announces that the trouble with the country is that nobody has enough relatives within shouting distance. Nobody can just yell for help. Everybody has to fill out forms. So the President is going to have the computers of the Social Security Administration assign everybody thousands of relatives.
Playboy: At random?
Vonnegut: Higgledy-piggledy. You have to throw out whatever middle name you have and substitute whatever name the computers give you—names of Greek gods, colors, chemical elements, flowers, animals. The story begins with a political refugee coming to America, and he not only has to swear allegiance to the country and all that, he also has to accept a new middle name from the computers. They give him the middle name Daffodil. His name becomes Laszlo Daffodil Blintz. He has 20,000 relatives all over the country with the same Government Issue middle name. He gets a Daffodil family directory, a subscription to the Daffodil family’s monthly magazine. There would be lots of ads in there for jobs, things to buy, things to sell.
Playboy: Wouldn’t his GI relatives take advantage of him?
Vonnegut: If they asked for too much, he could tell them to go screw, just the way lie would a blood relative. And there would be ads and articles in the family monthly about crooks or deadbeats in the family. The joy of it would be that nobody would feel alone and anybody who needed seven dollars until next Tuesday or a baby sitter for an hour or a trip to the hospital could get it. Whenever I’m alone in a motel in a big city, I look up Vonneguts and Liebers in the telephone book, and there never are any. Lieber was my mother’s maiden name. But if I were a Daffodil or a Chipmunk or a Chromium, there would be plenty of numbers to call.
Playboy: What if they didn’t want to bear from you?
Vonnegut: That’s a fairly standard experience with relatives. It’s also fairly standard for relatives to be glad to hear from you, to help if they can.
Playboy: They wouldn’t be compelled by law to give you what you wanted?
Vonnegut: Hell, no. It would be like regular relatives, only there would be slews of them. If some guy came ringing my doorbell and he said, “Hey, you’re a Chipmunk and I’m a Chipmunk; I need a hundred dollars,” I would listen to his story, if I felt like it, and give him what I could spare, what I thought he deserved. It could be zero. And it wouldn’t turn the country into a sappy, mawkish society, either. There would be more people telling each other to go screw than there are right now. A panhandler could come up to you and say, “Hey, buddy, can you help a fella out?” And you could ask him his middle name, and he might say, “Chromium,” and you could say, “Screw you. I’m a Chipmunk. Go ask a Chromium for help.”
Eventually, of course, the Chromiums would start thinking they were just a little bit better than the Daffodils and “I don’t know what it is about those Chipmunks,” and so on, but there would also be people of all backgrounds meeting as relatives. “Are you an Emerald? Shit, I’m an Emerald, too! Where are you from?” I know that as far as Vonneguts go, I’ve got some claim on those people. I got a postcard on my 50th birthday signed by a lot of people named Vonnegut—a Catholic branch around Oakland, California. I don’t know how they found out it was my birthday, but I got this marvelous card and I’d never met them.
One time a few years ago, I was speaking at the University of Hawaii and somebody came up to me and said, “Who’s Fred Vonnegut?” I said I didn’t know and he told me that Fred Vonnegut’s name was in the newspaper all the time. So I picked up a Honolulu paper and in it there was this big used-car ad with a picture of Fred and a headline like “Come in and Ask Fred Vonnegut for a Good Deal.” So I looked him up and we had supper together. Turned out that he grew up in Samoa and his mother was a Finn. But the meeting, the connection, was exciting to both of us.
Playboy: Aren’t links by name, though, what you call a false karass in Cat’s Cradle—a group that finds its identity in an irrelevant or artificial shared experience?
Vonnegut: I don’t know, but if it works, it doesn’t matter. It’s like the drug thing among young people. The fact that they use drugs gives them a community. If you become a user of any drug, you can pick up a set of friends you’ll see day after day, because of the urgency of getting drugs all the time. And you’ll get a community where you might not ordinarily have one. Built around the marijuana thing was a community, and the same is true about the long-hair thing: You’re able to greet and trust strangers because they look like you, because they use marijuana, and so forth. These are all magical amulets by which they recognize one another—and so you’ve got a community. The drug thing is interesting, too, because it shows that, damn it, people are wonderfully resourceful.
Playboy: How so?
Vonnegut: Well, thousands of people in our society found out they were too stupid or too unattractive or too ignorant to rise. They realized they couldn’t get a nice car or a nice house or a good job. Not everybody can do that, you know. You must be very pleasant. You must be good-looking. You must be well connected. And they realized that if you lose, if you don’t rise in our society, you’re going to live in the midst of great ugliness, that the police are going to try to drive you back there every time you try to leave. And so people trapped like that have really considered all the possibilities. Should I paint my room? If I get a lot of rat poison, will the rats go away? Well, no. The rats will still be there, and even if you paint it, the room will still be ugly. You still won’t have enough money to go to a movie theater; you still won’t be able to make friends you like or can trust.
So what can you do? You can change your mind. You can change your insides. The drug thing was a perfectly marvelous, resourceful, brave experiment. No government would have dared perform this experiment. It’s the sort of thing a Nazi doctor might have tried in a concentration camp. Loading everybody in block C up with amphetamines. In block D, giving them all heroin. Keeping everyone in block E high on marijuana—and just seeing what happened to them. But this experiment was and continues to be performed by volunteers, and so we know an awful lot now about how we can be changed internally. It may be that the population will become so dense that everybody’s going to live in ugliness, and that the intelligent human solution—the only possible solution—will be to change our insides.
Playboy: Have drugs been a solution for you?
Vonnegut: No—although I did get into the prescribed-amphetamines thing because I was sleeping a lot. I’ve always been able to sleep well, but after eight hours of sleep, I’d find myself taking a nap in the afternoon. I found I could sleep from one to five if I wanted to, spend the afternoon seeing wonderful color movies. It’s a common response to depression. I was taking these enormous naps and I decided it was a waste of time. So I talked to a doctor about it and she prescribed Ritalin. It worked. It really impressed me. I wasn’t taking a whole lot of it, but it puzzled me so much that I could be depressed and just by taking this damn little thing about the size of a pinhead, I would feel much better. I used to think that I was responding to Attica or to the mining of the harbor of Haiphong. But I wasn’t. I was obviously responding to internal chemistry. All I had to do was take one of those little pills. I’ve stopped, but I was so interested that my mood could be changed by a pill.
Playboy: Do you experience manic periods as well as depressive ones?
Vonnegut: Until recently, about every 20 days, I blew my cork. I thought for a long time that I had perfectly good reasons for these periodic blowups; I thought people around me had it coming to them. But only recently have I realized that this has been happening regularly since I’ve been six years old. There wasn’t much the people around me could do about it. They could probably throw me off a day or so, but it was really a pretty steady schedule.
Playboy: You say was.
Vonnegut: Well, I’ve been taking lessons in how to deal with it. I’ve been going to a doctor once a week. It isn’t psychoanalysis: It’s a more superficial sort of thing. I’m talking to her about depression, trying to understand its nature. And an awful lot of it is physiological. In this book I’ve just finished, Breakfast of Champions, the motives of all the characters are explained in terms of body chemistry. You know, we don’t give a shit about the characters’ childhoods or about what happened yesterday—we just want to know what the state of their blood streams is. They’re up when their blood streams are up and they’re down when their blood streams are down. But for me, this year is a much better one than last year was. Depressions really had me, and they don’t this year. I’m managing much better. I was really very down the last couple of years, and by working at it, I’ve gotten myself up again. I’m getting help from intelligent people who aren’t Freudians.
Playboy: Early on in Slaughterhouse-Five, you mention getting a little drunk at night and calling old friends long distance. Do you still do that?
Vonnegut: Not anymore. But it’s wonderful. You can find anybody you want in the whole country. I love to muck around in the past, as long as there are real people and not ghosts to muck around with. I knew an obstetrician who was very poor when he was young. He went to California and he became rich and famous. He was an obstetrician for movie stars. When he retired, he went back to the Midwest and looked up all the women he’d taken out when he was nobody. He wanted them to see he was somebody now. “Good for you,” I said. I thought it was a charming thing to do. I like people who never forget.
I did a crazy thing like that myself. At Shortridge High School, when I went there, we had a senior dance at which comical prizes were given to different people in the class. And the football coach—he was a hell of a good coach, we had a dynamite football team—was giving out the presents. Other people had rigged them, but he was passing them out, announcing what the present was for each person. At that time. I was a real skinny, narrow-shouldered boy.
Playboy: Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse?
Vonnegut: Right. I was a preposterous kind of flamingo. And the present the coach gave me was a Charles Atlas course. And it made me sick. I considered going out and slashing the coach’s tires, I thought it was such an irresponsible thing for an adult to do to a kid. But I just walked out of the dance and went home. The humiliation was something I never forgot. And one night last year, I got on the phone and called Indianapolis information and asked for the number of the coach. I got him on the phone and told him who I was. And then I reminded him about the present and said, “I want you to know that my body turned out all right.” It was a neat unburdening. It certainly beats psychiatry.
Playboy: In your books, a real sadness darkens all the fun. Despite your apparently successful self-therapy, do you consider yourself basically sad?
Vonnegut: Well, there are sad things from my childhood, which I assume have something to do with my sadness. But any sadness I feel now grows out of frustration, because I think there is so much we can do—things that are cheap—that we’re not doing. It has to do with ideas. I’m an atheist, as I said, and not into funerals—I don’t like the idea of them very much—but I finally decided to go visit the graves of my parents. And so I did. There are two stones out there in Indianapolis, and I looked at those two stones side by side and I just wished—I could hear it in my head, I knew so much what I wished—that they had been happier than they were. It would have been so goddamned easy for them to be happier than they were. So that makes me sad. I’m grateful that I learned from them that organized religion is anti-Christian and that racial prejudices are stupid and cruel. I’m grateful, too, that they were good at making jokes. But I also learned a bone-deep sadness from them. Kids will learn anything, you know. Their heads are empty when they’re born. Grownups can put anything in there.
Playboy: Why were your parents so sad?
Vonnegut: I can guess. I can guess that the planet they loved and thought they understood was destroyed in the First World War. Something I said earlier, that human beings were too good for this planet: that was probably the sadness in their bones. That’s hogwash, of course. They wrecked their lives thinking the wrong things. And, damn it, it wouldn’t have taken much effort to get them to think about the right things.
Playboy: Are you like your character Eliot Rosewater in the sense of feeling very tender about all the sadness in the world?
Vonnegut: It’s sort of self-congratulatory to be the person who walks around pitying other people. I don’t do that very much. I just know that there are plenty of people who are in terrible trouble and can’t get out. And so I’m impatient with those who think that it’s easy for people to get out of trouble. I think there are some people who really need a lot of help. I worry about stupid people, dumb people. Somebody has to take care of them, because they can’t hack it. One thing I tried to get going at one time was a non profit organization called Life Engineering. If you didn’t know what to do next and you came to us, we’d tell you. Our only requirement would be that you had to do what we told you. You’d have to absolutely promise to do whatever we’d say, and then we’d give you the best possible answer we could. But it turned out that nobody ever kept his promise and we had no way of enforcing it. We couldn’t bring in a couple of hit men from Detroit.
Playboy: Another way of dealing with sadness, of coining to terms with problems you can’t solve, is through humor. Is that your way?
Vonnegut: Well, I try. But laughter is a response to frustration, just as tears are, and it solves nothing, just as tears solve nothing. Laughing or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do. Freud has written very soundly on humor—which is interesting, because he was essentially such a humorless man. The example he gives is of the dog who can’t get through a gate to bite a person or fight another dog. So he digs dirt. It doesn’t solve anything, but he has to do something. Crying or laughing is what a human being does instead. I used to make speeches a lot, because I needed the money. Sometimes I was funny. And my peak funniness came when I was at Notre Dame, at a literary festival there. It was in a huge auditorium and the audience was so tightly tuned that everything I said was funny. All I had to do was cough or clear my throat and the whole place would break up. This is a really horrible story I’m telling. People were laughing because they were in agony, full of pain they couldn’t do anything about. They were sick and helpless because Martin Luther King had been shot two days before. The festival had been called off on the Thursday he was shot, and then it was resumed the next day. But it was a day of grieving, of people trying to pull themselves together. And then, on Saturday, it was my turn to speak. I’ve got mildly comical stuff I do, but it was in the presence of grief that the laughter was the greatest. There was an enormous need to either laugh or cry as the only possible adjustment. There was nothing you could do to bring King back. So the biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears.
Playboy: Is that what’s called black humor? Or is all humor black?
Vonnegut: In a sense, it probably is. Certainly, the people Bruce Jay Friedman named as black humorists weren’t really very much like one another. I’m not a whole lot like J.P. Donleavy, say, but Friedman saw some similarity there and said we were both black humorists. So critics picked up the term because it was handy. All they had to do was say black humorists and they’d be naming 20 writers. It was a form of shorthand. But Freud had already written about gallows humor, which is middle-European humor. It’s people laughing in the middle of political helplessness. Gallows humor had to do with people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were Jews, Serbs, Croats—all these small groups jammed together into a very unlikely sort of empire. And dreadful things happened to them. They were powerless, helpless people, and so they made jokes. It was all they could do in the face of frustration. The gallows humor that Freud identifies is what we regard as Jewish humor here: It’s humor about weak, intelligent people in hopeless situations. And I have customarily written about powerless people who felt there wasn’t much they could do about their situations.
One of my favorite cartoons—I think it was by Shel Silverstein—shows a couple of guys chained to an 18-foot cell wall, hung by their wrists, and their ankles are chained, too. Above them is a tiny barred window that a mouse couldn’t crawl through. And one of the guys is saying to the other, “Now here’s my plan.…” It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life. There are people, particularly dumb people, who are in terrible trouble and never get out of it, because they’re not intelligent enough. And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry—or laugh. Culturally, American men aren’t supposed to cry. So I don’t cry much—but I do laugh a lot. When I think about a stupid, uneducated black junkie in this city, and then I run into some optimist who feels that any man can lift himself above his origins if he’s any good—that’s something to cry about or laugh about. A sort of braying, donkey-like laugh. But every laugh counts, because every laugh feels like a laugh.
Playboy: What sort of things strike you as genuinely funny?
Vonnegut: Nothing really breaks me up. I’m in the business of making jokes; it’s a minor art form. I’ve had some natural talent for it. It’s like building a mousetrap. You build the trap, you cock it, you trip it, and then bang! My books are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips; and each chip is a joke. They may be five lines long or eleven lines long. If I were writing tragically, I could have great sea changes there, a great serious steady flow. Instead, I’ve gotten into the joke business. One reason I write so slowly is that I try to make each joke work. You really have to or the books are lost. But joking is so much a part of my life adjustment that I would begin to work on a story on any subject and I’d find funny things in it or I would stop.
Playboy: How did you happen to begin writing?
Vonnegut: The high school I went to had a daily paper, and has had since about 1900. They had a printing course for the people who weren’t going on to college, and they realized, “My goodness, we’ve got the linotypes—we could easily get out a paper.” So they started getting out a paper every day, called the Shortridge Echo. It was so old my parents had worked on it. And so, rather than writing for a teacher, which is what most people do, writing for an audience of one—for Miss Green or Mr. Watson—I started out writing for a large audience. And if I did a lousy job, I caught a lot of shit in 24 hours. It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else is having so much trouble doing it. In my case, it was writing. In my brother’s case, it was mathematics and physics. In my sister’s case, it was drawing and sculpting.
Playboy: Were you already into science fiction by then?
Vonnegut: Most of it was in the pulps, you know. I would read science-fiction pulps now and then, the same way I’d read sex pulps or airplane pulps or murder pulps. The majority of my contemporaries who are science-fiction writers now went absolutely bananas over science-fiction pulps when they were kids, spending all their money on them, collecting them, trading them, gloating over them, cheering on authors the straight world thought were hacks. I never did that, and I’m sorry. I’m shy around other science-fiction writers, because they want to talk about thousands of stories I never read. I didn’t think the pulps were beneath me; I was just pissing away my life in other ways.
Playboy: Such as?
Vonnegut: I dunno. I used to say I wasted eight years building model airplanes and jerking off, but it was a little more complicated than that. I read science fiction, but it was conservative stuff—H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s easily forgotten, but he wrote Jekyll and Hyde. And I read George Bernard Shaw, who does an awful lot of extrapolating, particularly in his introductions. Back to Methuselah was science fiction enough for me.
Playboy: What do you think of it as a form? The standard critical appraisal is that it’s low rent.
Vonnegut: Well, the rate of payment has always been very low compared with that for other forms of writing. And the people who set the tone for it were the pulp writers. There’s an interesting thing: When IBM brought out an electric typewriter, they didn’t know if they had a product or not. They really couldn’t imagine that anybody was that discontented with the typewriter already. You know, the mechanical typewriter was a wonderful thing; I never heard of anybody’s hands getting tired using one. So IBM was worried when they brought out electric typewriters, because they didn’t know whether anybody would have any use for them. But the first sales were made to pulp writers, writers who wanted to go faster because they got paid so much a word. But they were going so fast that characterization didn’t matter and dialog was wooden and all that—because it was always first draft.
That’s what you sold, because you couldn’t afford to take the time to sharpen up the scenes. And so that persisted, and young people deciding to become science-fiction writers would use as models what was already being written. The quality was usually terrible, but in a way it was liberating, because you were able to put an awful lot of keen ideas into circulation fast.
Playboy: What attracted you to using the form yourself?
Vonnegut: I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War Two, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brancusi forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.
Playboy: So science fiction seemed like the best way to write about your thoughts on the subject?
Vonnegut: There was no avoiding it, since the General Electric Company was science fiction. I cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Eugene Zamiatin’s We.
Playboy: Slaughterhouse-Five is mainly about the Dresden fire bombing, which you went through during World War Two. What made you decide to write it in a science-fiction mode?
Vonnegut: These things are intuitive. There’s never any strategy meeting about what you’re going to do; you just come to work every day. And the science-fiction passages in Slaughterhouse-Five are just like the clowns in Shakespeare. When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring on a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing on the clowns every so often to lighten things up.
Playboy: While you were writing Slaughterhouse-Five, did you try at all to deal with the subject on a purely realistic level?
Vonnegut: I couldn’t, because the book was largely a found object. It was what was in my head, and I was able to get it out, but one of the characteristics about this object was that there was a complete blank where the bombing of Dresden took place, because I don’t remember. And I looked up several of my war buddies and they didn’t remember, either. They didn’t want to talk about it. There was a complete forgetting of what it was like. There were all kinds of information surrounding the event, but as far as my memory bank was concerned, the center had been pulled right out of the story. There was nothing up there to be recovered—or in the heads of my friends, either.
Playboy: Even if you don’t remember it, did the experience of being interned—and bombed—in Dresden change you in any way?
Vonnegut: No. I suppose you’d think so, because that’s the cliché. The importance of Dresden in my life has been considerably exaggerated because my book about it became a best seller. If the book hadn’t been a best seller, it would seem like a very minor experience in my life. And I don’t think people’s lives are changed by short-term events like that. Dresden was astonishing, but experiences can be astonishing without changing you. It did make me feel sort of like I’d paid my dues—being as hungry as I was for as long as I was in prison camp. Hunger is a normal experience for a human being, but not for a middle-class American human being. I was phenomenally hungry for about six months. There wasn’t nearly enough to eat—and this is sensational from my point of view, because I would never have had this experience otherwise. Other people get hit by taxicabs or have a lung collapse or something like that, and it’s impressive. But only being hungry for a while—my weight was 175 when I went into the Army and 134 when I got out of the P.O.W. camp, so we really were hungry—just leads to smugness now. I stood it. But one of my kids, at about the same age I was, got tuberculosis in the Peace Corps and had to lie still in a hospital ward for a year. And the only people who get tuberculosis in our society now are old people, skid-row people. So he had to lie there as a young man for a year, motionless, surrounded by old alcoholics—and this did change him. It gave him something to meditate about.
Playboy: What did your experience in Dresden give you to meditate about?
Vonnegut: My closest friend is Bernard V. O’Hare. He’s a lawyer in Pennsylvania, and he’s in the book. I asked him what the experience of Dresden meant to him and he said he no longer believed what his Government said. Our generation did believe what its Government said—because we weren’t lied to very much. One reason we weren’t lied to was that there wasn’t a war going on in our childhood, and so essentially we were told the truth. There was no reason for our Government to lie very elaborately to us. But a government at war does become a lying government for many reasons. One reason is to confuse the enemy. When we went into the war, we felt our Government was a respecter of life, careful about not injuring civilians and that sort of thing. Well, Dresden had no tactical value; it was a city of civilians. Yet the Allies bombed it until it hurtled and melted. And then they lied about it. All that was startling to us. But it doesn’t startle anybody now. What startled everybody about the carpet bombing of Hanoi wasn’t the bombing; it was that it took place at Christmas. That’s what everybody was outraged about.
Playboy: As an ex-prisoner of war, how do you feel about the P.O.W.s returning from Vietnam?
Vonnegut: Well, they were obviously primed to speak as they did by our own Government. But that shouldn’t surprise us. In any case, these men have blatantly vested interests: They were highly paid technicians in this war. Our 45,000 white crosses in Vietnam were the children of lower-class families. The casualties have been hideous in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and in the ghettos. These people didn’t make a lot of money out of the war, don’t have lifetime careers. War was hell for them, and these highly paid executives are coming back saying, “Yes, it’s a wonderful business.” They get paid as much, some of them, as the managing editor of a big magazine gets paid. They’re professional warriors who’ll go anywhere and fight any time.
Playboy: You don’t seem particularly sympathetic about their internment.
Vonnegut: I’m pigheaded about certain things. I’m pigheaded about the difference between the Air Force and the Infantry. I like the Infantry. If there were another war, and if I were young enough, and if it were a just war, I’d be in the Infantry again. I wouldn’t want to be in anything else. Before the Galley thing, I thought that infantrymen were fundamentally honorable—and there was that feeling among infantrymen of other countries at war, too. That much about war was respectable and the rest was questionable—even the artillery, you know, hiding in the woods and lobbing shells. That’s foolish, but I still feel it. Also, I hate officers.
Vonnegut: They’re all shits. Every officer I ever knew was a shit. I spoke at West Point on this subject and they found it very funny. But all my life I’ve hated officers, because they speak so badly to the ground troops. The way they speak to lower-ranking persons is utterly unnecessary. A friend of mine was here the other day and he had bought a new overcoat he was very proud of. But I didn’t like it, because it had epaulets—and I think he’s going to take them off.
Playboy: Judging from Player Piano, which is a strong indictment of scientists and the scientific way of looking at the world, you don’t overly love them, either. In the 21 years since the book was published, has your attitude toward them changed?
Vonnegut: Well, scientists have changed considerably. It turns out that people will follow stereotypes because it makes things easier for everybody else. It used to be that professors really were absent-minded; it was expected of them and they could get away with it. So they would cultivate it until it became a habit—missing appointments, forgetting important anniversaries—but they don’t do that anymore. And it used to be that scientists were often like Irving Langmuir. He was a Nobel Prize winner, and my brother, who is a fine scientist, worked with him—that’s how I knew him. And he was childlike in social relationships and claimed that he was simply unearthing truth, that the truth could never hurt human beings and that he wasn’t interested in the applications of whatever he turned up. Many scientists were that way—and I’ve known a hell of a lot of them, because at General Electric, I was a PR man largely for the research laboratory there. They had hundreds of first-class scientists. So I got to know them—low-temperature guys and crystallographers and electron microscopists and all those guys. I was there every day, sticking my nose in here and there and talking to them. And back then, around 1949, they were all innocent, all simply dealing with truth and not worried about what might be done with their discoveries.
Playboy: The A-bomb had had no impact on their minds at that point?
Vonnegut: No. But then they all woke up. They decided, “Goddamn it, we’re going to start paying attention.” So they did, and the Langmuir type of innocent no longer exists. It was a stereotype at one time and it was useful to the politicians and the industrialists that scientists wouldn’t worry about the implications of their discoveries. But they’ve learned that anything they turn up will be applied if it can be. It’s a law of life that if you turn up something that can be used violently, it will be used violently. I’ve been proud of my brother because of the actual innocence of his work-like cloud seeding with dry ice and silver iodide. He discovered that silver iodide would make it snow and rain under certain conditions. And I watched his shock about a year ago when it came out that we had been seeding the hell out of Indochina for years. He had known nothing about it. It’s something anybody can do. You and I, for instance, could start seeding right here in my back yard—all we’d need is some crummy smoke generator that would send up silver-iodide smoke. But my brother has always tried to be alert to the violent uses of what he might turn up, and it saddened him to find out that silver iodide had been used in warfare. So scientists have become concerned about the morality of what they’re doing. It’s been happening for some time. Several years ago, Norbert Wiener, the MIT mathematician, wrote in Atlantic that he wasn’t going to give any more information to industry or the Government, because they weren’t gentle people, because they don’t have humane uses for things.
Playboy: What about scientists such as Wernher Von Braun?
Vonnegut: Well, he’s an engineer, of course, not a scientist. But what do I think of him? I don’t know him, but it seems to me that he has a heartless sort of innocence, the sort of innocence that would allow a man to invent and build an electric chair—as an act of good citizenship. He has been an inventor of weapons systems in the past. Inventors of weapons systems, and Leonardo da Vinci was among them, are not friends of the common man.
Playboy: So far, at least, the space program has been a nonviolent application of science and technology. What are your feelings about it?
Vonnegut: I went to the last moonshot; I had never seen one before. I’ve been against the space program, just because it was so expensive and because we were in such a terrible hurry to do it. We’ve had the technology for a while to do it, but it seems to me that there is certainly no rush about getting to the moon and spending so much money doing it. We might plan in the next 500 years to explore the moon. After all, we knew there were no resources we could economically bring back from there, and we knew there was no atmosphere. Even if the whole thing were paved with diamonds, that wouldn’t help us much. So it seems like a vaudeville stunt. A lot of scientists felt it was money that might be spent in other areas of research. What it was was money spent on engineering. It might as well have been an enormous skyscraper or a huge bridge or something like that. It was publicity and show business, not science. John F. Kennedy was largely responsible for it. He was competitive. He was a tough, joyful athlete and he loved to win. And it wasn’t a bad guess, really, that this might cheer Americans up and make us more energetic. It didn’t quite work out that way, but Kennedy, in his enthusiasm for this thing, was really wishing the best for the American people. He thought it might excite us tremendously.
Playboy: When, in fact, most people got bored with it very quickly. Why do you think that happened?
Vonnegut: It seemed childish. It seemed childish even to children. My children simply weren’t interested. There was nothing they wanted on the moon. A third grader knows there’s no atmosphere there. There’s nothing to eat or drink, nobody to talk to. They already know that. There’s more that they want in the Sahara or on the polar icecap.
Playboy: The science-fiction versions of how it would happen were certainly more flamboyant than the actuality.
Vonnegut: Well, they picked colorless men to make the trip, because colorless men were the only sort who could stand to make it. In science-fiction stories, people on spaceships are arguing all the time. Well, people who are going to argue shouldn’t go on spaceships in the first place.
Playboy: What was it like to be at the last shot?
Vonnegut: It was a thunderingly beautiful experience—voluptuous, sexual, dangerous and expensive as hell. Martha Raye was there. Don Rickles was there. Death was there.
Playboy: Somebody died?
Vonnegut: Life magazine died. They were down there with cameras that looked like siege howitzers. We hung around with them. We were down there on credentials from Harper’s. When they got home with their pictures, they found out Life had died. How’s that for a symbol? Our planet became Life less while our astronauts were on their way to the moon. We went down there because a Swedish journalist at a cocktail party in New York told us he cried at every launch. Also, my brother had told me, “When you see one go up, you almost think it’s worth it.”
Playboy: You said it was sexual.
Vonnegut: It’s a tremendous space fuck, and there’s some kind of conspiracy to suppress that fact. That’s why all the stories about launches are so low-key. They never give a hint of what a visceral experience it is to watch a launch. How would the taxpayers feel if they found out they were buying orgasms for a few thousand freaks within a mile of the launch pad? And it’s an extremely satisfactory orgasm. I mean, you are shaking and you do take leave of your senses. And there’s something about the sound that comes shuddering across the water. I understand that there are certain frequencies with which you can make a person involuntarily shit with sound. So it does get you in the guts.
Playboy: How long does that last?
Vonnegut: Maybe a full minute. It was a night flight, so we were able to keep the thing in sight in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the daytime. So the sound seemed longer. But who knows? It’s like describing an automobile accident; you can’t trust your memory. The light was tremendous and left afterimages in your eyes; we probably shouldn’t have looked at it.
Playboy: How did the people around you react?
Vonnegut: They were gaga. They were scrogging the universe. And they were sheepish and sort of smug afterward. You could see a message in their eyes, too: Nobody was to tell the outside world that NASA was running the goddamnedest massage parlor in history. When I got back to New York, I was talking to a cabdriver on the way in from the airport. He was talking about what I’ve always felt—that the money should be spent on space when we can afford it. He wanted better hospitals; he wanted better schools; he wanted a house for himself. He was a very decent guy; he was no fool at all. He was working 24 hours a day—at the post office from two in the morning until three in the afternoon, and then he started driving his cab. And, believe me, he knew there was nothing on the moon. If NASA were to give him a trip to Cape Kennedy and a pass to the VIP section or the press section for the next launch, he’d find out where the real goodies are.
Playboy: The Vietnam war has cost us even more than the space program. What do you think it’s done to us?
Vonnegut: It’s broken our hearts. It prolonged something we started to do to ourselves at Hiroshima; it’s simply a continuation of that: an awareness of how ruthless we are. And it’s taken away the illusion that we have some control over our Government. I think we have lost control of our Government. Vietnam made it clear that the ordinary citizen had no way to approach his Government, not even by civil disobedience or by mass demonstration. The Government wasn’t going to respond, no matter what the citizen did. That was a withering lesson. A while ago, I met Hans Morgenthau at a symposium at the United Nations and I was telling him that when I taught at Iowa and Harvard, the students could write beautifully but they had nothing to write about. Part of this is because we’ve learned over the past eight years that the Government will not respond to what we think and what we say. It simply is not interested. Quite possibly, the Government has never been interested, but it has never made it so clear before that our opinions don’t matter. And Morgenthau was saying that he was about to start another book, but he was really wondering whether it was worth the trouble. If nobody’s paying attention, why bother? It’s a hell of a lot more fun to write a book that influences affairs in some way, that influences people’s thinking. But the President has made it perfectly clear that he’s insulated from such influences.
Playboy: What’s your opinion of Nixon?
Vonnegut: Well, I don’t think he’s evil. But I think he dislikes the American people, and this depresses us. The President, particularly because of television, is in the position to be an extraordinarily effective teacher. I don’t know exactly how much Executive responsibility a President has, or how much the Government runs itself, but I do know that he can influence our behavior for good and ill tremendously. If he teaches us something tonight, we will behave according to that tomorrow. All he has to do is say it on television. If he tells us about our neighbors in trouble, if he tells us to treat them better tomorrow, why, we’ll all try. But the lessons Nixon has taught us have been so mean. He’s taught us to resent the poor for not solving their own problems. He’s taught us to like prosperous people better than unprosperous people. He could make us so humane and optimistic with a single television appearance. He could teach us Confucianism.
Vonnegut: How to be polite to one another—no matter how angry or disappointed we may be—how to respect the old.
Playboy: Humanity and optimism was the message that George McGovern was trying to get across. How do you account for his spectacular failure?
Vonnegut: He failed as an actor. He couldn’t create on camera a character we could love or hate. So America voted to have his show taken off the air. The American audience doesn’t care about an actor’s private life, doesn’t want his show continued simply because he’s honorable and truthful and has the best interests of the nation at heart in private life. Only one thing matters: Can he jazz us up on camera? This is a national tragedy, of course—that we’ve changed from a society to an audience. And poor McGovern did what any actor would have done with a failing show. He blamed the scripts, junked a lot of his old material, which was actually beautiful, called for new material, which was actually old material that other performers had had some luck with. He probably couldn’t have won, though, even if he had been Clark Gable. His opponent had too powerful an issue: the terror and guilt and hatred white people feel for the descendants of victims of an unbelievable crime we committed not long ago—human slavery. How’s that for science fiction? There was this modern country with a wonderful Constitution, and it kidnaped human beings and used them as machines. It stopped it after a while, but by then it had millions of descendants of those kidnaped people all over the country. What if they turned out to be so human that they wanted revenge of some kind? McGovern’s opinion was that they should be treated like anybody else. It was the opinion of the white electorate that this was a dangerous thing to do.
Playboy: If you had been the Democratic nominee, how would you have campaigned against Nixon?
Vonnegut: I would have set the poor against the rich. I would have made the poor admit that they’re poor. Archie Bunker has no sense of being poor, but he obviously is a frightened, poor man. I would convince Archie Bunker that he was poor and getting poorer, that the ruling class was robbing him and lying to him. I was invited to submit ideas to the McGovern campaign. Nothing was done with my suggestions. I wanted Sarge Shriver to say, “You’re not happy, are you? Nobody in this country is happy but the rich people. Something is wrong. I’ll tell you what’s wrong: We’re lonesome! We’re being kept apart from our neighbors. Why? Because the rich people can go on taking our money away if we don’t hang together. They can go on taking our power away. They want us lonesome; they want us huddled in our houses with just our wives and kids, watching television, because they can manipulate us then. They can make us buy anything, they can make us vote any way they want. How did Americans beat the Great Depression? We banded together. In those days, members of unions called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ and they meant it. We’re going to bring that spirit back. Brother and sister! We’re going to vote in George McGovern, and then we’re going to get this country on the road again. We are going to band together with our neighbors to clean up our neighborhoods, to get the crooks out of the unions, to get the prices down in the meat markets. Here’s a war cry for the American people: ‘Lonesome no more!’ “ That’s the kind of demagoguery I approve of.
Playboy: Do you consider yourself a radical in any sense?
Vonnegut: No, because everything I believe I was taught in junior civics during the Great Depression—at School 43 in Indianapolis, with full approval of the school board. School 43 wasn’t a radical school. America was an idealistic, pacifistic nation at that time. I was taught in the sixth grade to be proud that we had a standing Army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.
Playboy: A lot of young people share those values with you. Do you think that’s the reason your books are so popular with them?
Vonnegut: It could be something like that, but I truly don’t know. I certainly didn’t go after the youth market or anything like that. I didn’t have my fingers on any pulse; I was simply writing. Maybe it’s because I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.
Playboy: Isn’t that using “mature” ironically?
Vonnegut: Not if you define mature as the way old people act, and immature as the way young people act.
Playboy: But these questions remain important to you.
Vonnegut: They’re still entertaining to me. I’m not a vested interest, particularly. I don’t want to find out what God wants so I can serve Him more efficiently. I don’t want to find out what heaven is like so I can get ready for it. Thinking about those things makes me laugh after a while. I enjoy laughing, so I think about them and I laugh. I’m not sure why.
Playboy: When did you start laughing about all this?
Vonnegut: When I was just a little kid. I think. I’d wonder what life was all about, and I’d hear what grownups had to say about it, and I’d laugh. I’ve often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they’re on, why they don’t fall off it, how much time they’ve probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on. I tried to write one once. It was called Welcome to Earth. But I got stuck on explaining why we don’t fall off the planet. Gravity is just a word. It doesn’t explain anything. If I could get past gravity, I’d tell them how we reproduce, how long we’ve been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution. And one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity. I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. I didn’t find that out for sure until I was in the graduate school of the University of Chicago. It was terribly exciting. Of course, now cultural relativity is fashionable—and that probably has something to do with my popularity among young people. But it’s more than fashionable—it’s defensible, attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it.
Playboy: Whatever the reasons for your popularity, you’ve become genuinely famous in the past couple of years. Has that changed your life much?
Vonnegut: The big problem is mail. I suppose I get about as much mail as Eddie Fisher does—about six letters a day. I get plenty of really thoughtful, charming letters. I keep meaning to answer them, but then I realize I’ll never have a chance. So the stacks pile up—and they’re all letters I mean to do something about. I had a secretary for a while; I thought I could use her to handle this enormous correspondence. But it turned out that it was taking half a day, every day, to dictate letters. Also, every time I answered a letter, I got a pen pal. So my mail increased geometrically.
Playboy: Has popularity changed your life in any other way?
Vonnegut: No. I’m just sorry it didn’t happen sooner, because I was really very broke for a long time, when I had a lot of children. I could have bought neat vacations and wonderful playthings, and so forth. I mean, my children certainly had shoes, and some even had private educations, but I’m sorry the money wasn’t spread out more evenly over the years. Now that they’re all grown, the money has a slightly mocking quality. That’s one of the things that’s ridiculous about the economy as far as writers go. They get either $50 for something or $500,000—and there doesn’t seem to be much in between.
Playboy: Does your surge of popularity make you uncomfortable in any way?
Vonnegut: No, it’s all right, because it’s the books that are popular. And I don’t read them or think about them; they’re just out in the world on their own. They aren’t me. Neither is my reputation. I’ve pretty much stopped making public appearances, because I’m so unlike my books or my reputation. Strangers speak to me on the street in New York about three times a week. That cheers me up. I’m not crashingly famous and the small fame I have came gradually. I admire Norman Mailer very much—particularly his mental health—because he absorbed the most terrific shock a mind can absorb: to become famous at 25. He held up very well under the impact.
What’s happened to me, though, is such a standard American business story. As I said, my family’s always been in the arts, so the arts to me are business. I started out with a pushcart and now I’ve got several supermarkets at important intersections. My career grew just the way a well-managed business is supposed to grow. After 20 years at a greasy grind, I find that all my books are in print and selling steadily. They will go on selling for a little while. Computers and printing presses are in charge. That’s the American way: If the machines can find a way to use you, you will become a successful businessman. I don’t care much now whether the business grows or shrinks. My kids are grown. I have no fancy uses for money. It isn’t a love symbol to me.
Playboy: What is a love symbol for you?
Vonnegut: Fudge is one. An invitation to a cottage by a take is one.
Playboy: Are you wealthy now?
Vonnegut: I know a girl who is always asking people that. I nearly drop my teeth every time she does it. My mother told me that was practically the rudest question a person could ask. The girl always gets an answer, incidentally. The people give her a fairly clear idea of their net worth. Then she asks where the money came from and they tell her that, too. It sounds to me like they’re talking hard-core pornography. Anyway, my wealth is mainly in the form of copyrights, which are very valuable as long as the computers and the printing presses think I’m their man. As for cash and real estate and securities and all that, I’m nowhere near being a millionaire, for instance. It doesn’t now appear that I will ever be one. The only way to get to be one is through capital gains. I have nothing big coming up in the way of capital gains. I’m a straight-income man. And the hell with it. As I said, my children are all grown now and it would wreck their heads if I started rigging things so they could all be millionaires.
Playboy: How does it feel to have been doing for years what must have seemed to you like good work and only now getting really noticed?
Vonnegut: I don’t feel cheated. I always had readers, even when not much money was coming in. I was in paperbacks, you see, and from the first. I was getting friendly notes from strangers who had found me in PXs and drugstores and bus stations. Mother Night and Canary in a Cathouse and The Sirens of Titan were all paperback originals, and Cat’s Cradle was written with that market in mind. Holt decided to bring out a hardcover edition of Cat’s Cradle after the paperback rights had been sold. The thing was, I could get $3000 immediately for a paperback original, and I always needed money right away, and no hardcover publisher would let me have it.
But I was also noticing the big money and the time heavy praise some of my contemporaries were getting for their books, and I would think. “Well, shit. I’m going to have to study writing harder, because I think what I’m doing is pretty good, too.” I wasn’t even getting reviewed. Esquire published a list of the American literary world back then and it guaranteed that every living author of the slightest merit was on there somewhere. I wasn’t on there. Rust Hills put the thing together, and I got to know him later and I told him that the list had literally made me sick, that it had made me feel subhuman. He said it wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. “It was a joke,” he said. And then he and his wife got out a huge anthology of high-quality American writing since World War Two and I wasn’t in that, either.
Oh, well, what the hell. I was building a power base anyway, with sleazo paperbacks. This society is based on extortion, and you can have anything you want if you have a power base. The computers of my paperback publishers began to notice that some of my sleazo books were being reordered, were staying in print. So management decided to see what was in them. Hardcover publishers sniffed an opportunity. The rest is history—a Guggenheim, professorships, Elaine’s. Allen Ginsberg and I both got elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters this year and Newsweek asked me how I felt about two such freaks getting into such an august organization. I said, “If we aren’t the establishment, I don’t know who is.”
Playboy: Was Slaughterhouse-Five the first to sell well in hardcover?
Vonnegut: Yes: it was an alternate selection for Literary Guild. And Breakfast of Champions is a primary selection for Literary Guild, Saturday Review Book Club and Book Find Club. But I’m sort of like Ted Williams now—I shuffle up to the plate.…
Playboy: Do you think your writing will change much from now on?
Vonnegut: Well, I felt after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t have to write at all anymore if I didn’t want to, It was the end of some sort of career. I don’t know why, exactly. I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served. Flowers didn’t ask to be flowers and I didn’t ask to be me. At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it. I could figure out my missions for myself after that.
Playboy: Since Breakfast of Champions has just been published, you apparently decided to continue writing after Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut: Well, Slaughterhouse and Breakfast used to be one book. But they just separated completely. It was like a pousse-café, like oil and water—they simply were not mixable. So I was able to decant Slaughterhouse-Five, and what was left was Breakfast of Champions.
Playboy: What are you trying to say in Breakfast?
Vonnegut: As I get older, I get more didactic. I say what I really think. I don’t hide ideas like Easter eggs for people to find. Now, if I have an idea, when something becomes clear to me. I don’t embed it in a novel; I simply write it in an essay as clearly as I can. What I say didactically in the introduction to Breakfast of Champions is that I can’t live without a culture anymore, that I realize I don’t have one. What passes for a culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials, and this is intolerable. It may be impossible to live without a culture.
Playboy: Most of the people in Breakfast seem jangled and desperate—in situations they can’t get out of—and a number of them consider suicide.
Vonnegut: Yes, suicide is at the heart of the book. It’s also the punctuation mark at the end of many artistic careers. I pick up that punctuation mark and play with it in the book, come to understand it better, put it back on the shelf again but leave it in view. My fascination with it, the fascination of many people with it, may be a legacy from the Great Depression. That Depression has more to do with the American character than any war. People felt so useless for so long. The machines fired everybody. It was as though they had no interest in human beings anymore. So when I was a little kid, getting my empty head filled up with this and that, I saw and listened to thousands of people who couldn’t follow their trades anymore, who couldn’t feed their families. A hell of a lot of them didn’t want to go on much longer. They wanted to die because they were so embarrassed. I think young people detect that dislike for life my generation often learned from our parents during the Great Depression. It gives them the creeps. Young people sense our envy, too—another thing we learned to do during the Thirties: to hunger for material junk, to envy people who had it. The big secret of our generation is that we don’t like life much.
Playboy: Do you think the younger generation likes it better than the previous two or three?
Vonnegut: No, the younger generation probably doesn’t like it, either. And some of the anger between the generations is the guilt and embarrassment of the parents at having passed this on. But the American experience has been an unhappy experience, generally, and part of it, as I say, is living without a culture. When you came over here on a boat or whatever, you abandoned your culture.
Playboy: How has all this affected you personally?
Vonnegut: All my books are my effort to answer that question and to make myself like life better than I do. I’m trying to throw out all the trashy merchandise adults put in my head when I was a little kid. I want to put a culture up there. People will believe anything, which means I will believe anything. I learned that in anthropology. I want to start believing in things that have shapeliness and harmony. Breakfast of Champions isn’t a threat to commit suicide, incidentally. It’s my promise that I’m beyond that now. Which is something for me. I used to think of it as a perfectly reasonable way to avoid delivering a lecture, to avoid a deadline, to not pay a bill, to not go to a cocktail party.
Playboy: So your books have been therapy for yourself.
Vonnegut: Sure. That’s well known. Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day. If I’m lucky, the books have amounted to more than that. I’d like to be a useful citizen, a specialized cell in the body politic. I have a feeling that Breakfast will be the last of the therapeutic books, which is probably too bad. Craziness makes for some beautiful accidents in art. At the end of Breakfast, I give characters I’ve used over and over again their freedom. I tell them I won’t be needing them anymore. They can pursue their own destinies. I guess that means I’m free to pursue my destiny, too. I don’t have to take care of them anymore.
Playboy: Does that feel good?
Vonnegut: It feels different. I’m always glad to feel something different. I’ve changed. Somebody told me the other day that that was the alchemists’ secret: They weren’t really trying to transmute metals. They only pretended to do that so they could have rich patrons. What they really hoped to do was to change themselves.
Playboy: What sort of things do you plan to write from now on?
Vonnegut: I can guess. It isn’t really up to me. I come to work every morning and I see what words come out of the typewriter. I feel like a copyboy whose job is to tear off stories from the teletype machine and deliver them to an editor. My guesses about what I’ll write next are based on what has happened to other human beings as they’ve aged. My intuition will pooh out—my creative craziness; there will be fewer pretty accidents in my writing. I’ll become more of an explainer and less of a shower. In order to have enough things to talk about, I may finally, have to become more of an educated man. My career astonishes me. How could anybody have come this far with so little information, with such garbled ideas of what other writers have said? I’ve written enough. I won’t stop writing, but it would be OK if I did.
One thing writing Breakfast did for me was to bring right to the surface my anger with my parents for not being happier than they were, as I mentioned earlier. I’m damned if I’ll pass their useless sadness on to my children if I can possibly help it. In spite of chain-smoking Pall Malls since I was 14, I think my wind is still good enough for me to go chasing after happiness, something I’ve never really tried. I get more respect for Truman Capote as the years go by, probably because he’s becoming genuinely wiser all the time. I saw him on television the other night, and he said most good artists were stupid about almost everything but their arts. Kevin McCarthy said nearly the same thing to me one time when I congratulated him for moving well in a play. He said, “Most actors are very clumsy offstage.” I want to stop being stupid in real life. I want to stop being clumsy offstage.
Part of the trick for people my age, I’m certain, is to crawl out of the envying, life-hating mood of the Great Depression at last. Richard M. Nixon, who has also been unintelligent and unimaginative about happiness, is a child of the Great Depression, too. Maybe we can both crawl out of it in the next four years. I know this much: After I’m gone, I don’t want my children to have to say about me what I have to say about my father: “He made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man.”
Published in Playboy, July 1973
Also in William Rodney Allen (Editor), Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, University Press of Mississippi (1988)
Read more Playboy interviews here
Kurt Vonnegut Interviewed by David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, Richard Rhodes, The Paris Review, Spring 1977 No. 69