The Joe & Kurt Show
Interview by Carole Mallory
We are settled on the patio Joe’s house in Amagansett on Long Island. Kurt sits in the shade, Joe nearer the lawn and in the sun. Both men wear khaki shorts.
PLAYBOY: You said last night that Joe was older.
HELLER: It depends on how we feel at the time.
VONNEGUT: Based on the thickness of his books, he’s senior.
HELLER: You probably worked it out to the number of pages. You have twenty-seven books. They’re all short. I have five books. They’re all long.
PLAYBOY: How long have you been friends?
HELLER: I don’t think we’re friends now. I see him maybe twice a year.
VONNEGUT: We’re associates. We’re colleagues.
HELLER: We call each other when one of us needs something.
VONNEGUT: I don’t know. We were both sort of PR people and promotional people at one time. I used to work for GE and I had ambitions to be a writer and I’d go to New York. I’d say we probably met about 1955 or so.
HELLER: No, no, I didn’t meet you then. I met you at Notre Dame.
VONNEGUT: When was that?
HELLER: It was 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot. He was shot the night we were there. I remember flying back from South Bend to Chicago with Ralph Ellison and reading the papers. They were worrying that Chicago was on fire. I think he was supposed to stop there and decided no to. So that would be the time I met you. And that turned out to be a cataclysmic year. Bobby Kennedy was shot in 1968. Martin Luther King. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.
VONNEGUT: Can I tell the story about you and the shooting of Martin Luther King?
HELLER: No. Of course you can.
VONNEGUT: It was a literary festival at Notre Dame and it went on for about three or four days and we took turns going on stage. It was Heller’s turn to be screamingly funny and he got up there and he was just about to speak, no doubt with prepared material, and some sort of academic, a professor, came up over the footlights to the lectern and shouldered Joe aside politely and aid, ”I just want to announce that Martin Luther King has been shot.” And then this guy went back over the footlights and took his seat, and Heller said, ”Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I wish I were with Shirley now. She’s crying her eyes out.”
HELLER: Shirley was my first wife. And then I went into my prepared speech. It was a tough beginning. That’s how we met. Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech that was probably the best speech I’ve ever heard. I think I haven’t heard a better one since. He was so casual and so funny and it all seemed extemporaneous and and when I came up afterward to shake this hand, I noticed be was drenched with sweat. I asked him a few years later if he had written the speech or was speaking off the cuff.
VONNEGUT: Every writer has to write his speech.
HELLER: I don’t do that.
VONNEGUT: You don’t?
HELLER: Nope. I have only one speech I give depending on whether or not Martin Luther King has been shot that day.
PLAYBOY: Would you like to give a speech now?
HELLER: Nope. I get paid for the speeches. And it’s still nothing compared to what Ollie North gets when he’s in his prime. Or Leona Helmsley — she can get more than that. Usually there is a year when certain people are very hot. Angela Davis was. Abbie Hoffman was.
VONNEGUT: Bork had about six months. But that was a scandal.
HELLER: I don’t think it’s a scandal.
VONNEGUT: The students come only to see reputed pinwheels and freaks. If you get an enormously dignified, intelligent, experienced man like Harrison Salisbury, nobody comes.
HELLER: You have a small audience and a few people walking out.
VONNEGUT: The best audience in the world is the 92nd Street Y. Those people know everything and they are wide awake and responsive.
HELLER: I was part of a panel there on December seventh. The fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
VONNEGUT: Were you bombed at Pearl Harbor, Joe?
VONNEGUT: Of course, James Jones was. I was saying this would be sort of a valedictory interview because our generation is taking its leave now. James Jones is gone. Irwin Shaw is gone. Truman Capote is gone.
HELLER: Yeah, but nobody’s replaced us.
VONNEGUT: No. Laughter
HELLER: By the way, that’s the subject of a novel I’m doing now to be called Closing Time. It has to do with a person about my age realizing not only that he’s way past his prime but also that life is nearing its end. The aptness of the invitation from the Y fits in because this novel begins with these lines, ”When people my age speak of the war, it’s not of Vietnam, but the one that broke out a half a century ago.”
PLAYBOY: What are you working on, Kurt?
VONNEGUT: On a divorce. Which is a full-time job. Didn’t you find it a full-time job?
HELLER: Oh, it’s more than a full-time job. You ought to go back and read that section in No Laughing Matter on the divorce. I went through all the lawyers. But yours is going to be a tranquil one, you told me.
VONNEGUT: It seems to me divorce is so common now. It ought to be more institutionalized. It’s like a head-on collision every time. It’s supposed to be a surprise but it’s commonplace. Deliver your line about never having dreamed of being married.
HELLER: It’s in Something Happened: ”I want a divorce; I dream of a divorce. I was never sure I wanted to get married. But I always knew I wanted a divorce.”
VONNEGUT: Norman Mailer has what–five divorces now?
HELLER: One of my idols used to be Artie Shaw. He used to marry these beautiful women who were very famous and be able to afford to divorce them. At that time, divorces were hard to get. You had to go to Nevada. The second thing, you needed a great deal of alimony because the women were always getting it. And I was wondering how a clarinet player could afford-was it Ava Gardner? Lana Turner? Kathleen Winsor? Oh, I’ve forgotten the others. He had about eight wives. All glamorous.
VONNEGUT: I used to play the clarinet and I thought he was the greatest clarinet player ever.
HELLER: You thought he was a better clarinetist than Benny Goodman or Pee Wee Russell?
VONNEGUT: It was explained to me by some musicologist. I said to him, ”I’ve got these vaudeville turns and the clarinet thing is one of them,” and he said, ”Shaw used a special reed that nobody else used and a special mouthpiece that allowed him to get a full octave above what other people were playing.” And that’s what I kept hearing him do. Christ, he was getting way up there where nobody else was getting. But no I think probably the greatest clarinet player in history was Benny Goodman.
HELLER: I would think so.
VONNEGUT: I wound up going home from Mailer’s one time in a limo with Goodman and I said to him, ”I used to play a little licorice stick myself.”
PLAYBOY: Why are men more readily able than women to distinguish the difference between sex and love?
HELLER: Your question implies that when a woman engages in sex, she does so only when she’s in love. Or she thinks of it as an act of love. Our vocabulary has become corrupt in a way that’s embarrassing to me. Have you ever heard a man use the word ”lover” about a woman? Have you ever heard a man say, ”This gal, she’s my lover?”
VONNEGUT: I’ll say it of a woman. To close friends.
HELLER: I used the word only once in a book, when the character Gold is reacting exactly the way I am and the woman says, ”You are my lover.” He never thought of himself as a lover. He says he always thought of himself as a fucker, not a lover.
VONNEGUT: Well, this is Joe. Joe doesn’t vote either. Is that right, Joe?
HELLER: I will say — Sound of a lawn mower — Oh, shit! Is he coming to do the lawn now? He is.
PLAYBOY: Shall we stop him? Or shall we go inside?
HELLER: We can go over there. No, we can’t stop him. You’re lucky to get him.
We move inside Heller’s modern country home. Kurt sits on a hassock between two sofas. Joe reclines on the middle of a sofa perpendicular to the hassock. They begin talking about the war.
VONNEGUT: Only one person came home from World War Two who was treated like a hero and that was Audie Murphy. Everybody knew he was the only hero.
HELLER: I felt like a hero when I came home. And I still feel like a hero when people interview me. People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew sixty missions even though I tell them that the missions were largely milk runs.
VONNEGUT: And what kind of medals did you get?
HELLER: I got the conventional medals, which came automatically. Air Medal with five or six clusters. You know, you’re in my new book. Unless you object.
VONNEGUT: Good. Good.
HELLER: In that sense it’s not a sequel. One of the characters does end up in Dresden and he’s talking to a guy named Vonnegut. You’re not in Catch-22, so it’s not properly a sequel.
VONNEGUT: Joe, when he was working on this book earlier, wanted to get an officer or a high-ranking noncom into Dresden. You know, the guy who had done bombing. Then, finally, he’s bombed, and this is technically impossible. Noncoms and officers were not allowed to work. They were kept in big stalags out in the countryside.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel when Iraq was bombed?
HELLER: I felt awful about the whole Gulf war. My feeling is that at that time Bush still hadn’t figured out why he had invaded Panama, and he didn’t know why he was making war in Iraq. And he still doesn’t. I think it was an atrocity.
VONNEGUT: I can see where you might catch a whole lot of people and have to kill them that way, particularly from the air. But people in our war, the good war, were sickened by it afterward and would not talk about it. When we went to war, we had two fears. One was that we’d get killed. The other was that we might have to kill someone. Imagine somebody coming back from the Gulf, particularly a pilot, saying, ”Gee, I’m lucky. I didn’t have to kill anybody.” TV has dehumanized us to the point where this is acceptable. It was like shooting up a crowd going home from a football game on a Saturday afternoon. Shoot the front vehicle and the back vehicle and then go up and down and kill everybody dead. A disgraceful way to act. In the SS-probably a tough branch of the SS and maybe just officers–they had to strangle a cat during their training. With their hands. And I think TV has done this to a whole lot of people without anybody’s having to strangle a cat.
HELLER: I would guess that after one strangled the first cat, the rest are easier. The next five or six are pure fun. Then it becomes a kind of pastime. A careless hobby. Like lighting a cigarette.
PLAYBOY: Why do we celebrate war with a parade?
HELLER: I think it’s dangerous to use the expression ”we” in dealing with war. One of the fallacies has to do with democracy. I don’t think we’ve had a President in my lifetime who came to the White House with a significant proportion of the eligible voters voting.
VONNEGUT: Yeah, but you got at least one great President, didn’t you?
HELLER: Which one?
HELLER: I often wonder, if I were an adult in Roosevelt’s time, whether I would have revered him and loved him the way I do in retrospect.
VONNEGUT: The Russians loved the czar as long as they could. right up until the last minute, because he was the father.
HELLER: Once the war broke out, I think everyone wanted it over quickly and did not want to see a U.S. defeat. There was so much bunkum and deception.
PLAYBOY: Instead of killing several hundred thousand Iraqis, why wasn’t Saddam Hussein ”disappeared”?
HELLER: It’s not that easy. I think they were bombing places selectively in the hope of getting him. The way they missed Qaddafi and got his daughter.
VONNEGUT: There’s a wonderful documentary Canadians made when people were really sick of the war–World War Two, that is. People were dying in industrial quantities. Fifty thousand nameless guys going over the top and they focused on these romantic figures up there in the airplanes and revived interest in the war.
HELLER: Is this in the U.S. or France?
VONNEGUT: All fighter pilots. Everybody loved Von Richthofen as much as anybody else. It was, Who was going to get him? My agent, incidentally, Ken Littauer, who is dead now, was Lieutenant Colonel Littauer, who in military history was the first man to strafe a trench. He was a full colonel at the age of twenty-two and he and Rickenbacker and Nordoff and Hall were all in the Lafayette Flying Corps. They were the only guys in the American Air Force who really knew how to fly and fight. Littauer was supposed to be just an observation guy, out for artillery. He decided, ”What the hell! The object is to kill people.” And he peeled off and I guess he had a machine gun.
HELLER: It was fun in the beginning. We were kids, nineteen, twenty years old, and had real machine guns in our hands. Not those things at the penny arcades at Coney Island. You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it. Glorious excitement. The first time I saw a plane on fire and parachutes coming down, I looked at it with a big grin on my face. I was disappointed in those early missions of mine where nobody shot at us.
VONNEGUT: Morley Safer wrote about going in after B-52s dropped these enormous bombs on an area suspected of sheltering Viet Cong. He said the small was terrible, there were parts of human bodies hanging in treetops. The poor pilots don’t usually see that.
HELLER: Air Force people don’t see it. I didn’t realize until I read Paul Fussel’s book on World War One that almost everybody who took my artillery shell or bombing grenade was going to be dismembered, mutilated. Not the way it is in the movies where somebody gets hit, clutches his chest and falls down dead. They are blown apart. Blown into pieces.
PLAYBOY: Is there a hidden agenda behind our romance with war?
HELLER: American rulers are discovering that the way to get instant popularity is to go to war. I think if the Vietnam war had been over in a month or two, Johnson might still be President–and might still be alive.
PLAYBOY: Do you think there’s a relationship between the CIA and the war?
VONNEGUT: I know Allen Ginsberg made a bet with Richard Helms, who was the head of the CIA. When the Vietnam war was going on, Allen bet him his little bronze dumbbell or some sacred object that the CIA was in the drug business and it would come out sooner or later. Flying drugs in and out of East Asia. I don’t know whether Allen won the bet or what Helms was supposed to have given him, but I’m sure it’s true.
HELLER: There’s one thing about being involved in a drug trade. There’s another thing about being the drug trade.
PLAYBOY: Were we in Iraq and concentrating on foreign affairs to cover up problems at home?
HELLER: Doing this last novel of mine, I find that Thucydides filed the same charge against Pericles in the war against Sparta – -to divert attention from allegations of personal scandal. It’s so much easier than administering your country. It’s also extremely dangerous because of the temptation in a democracy.
VONNEGUT: It’s also very bad if the enemy shoots back.
HELLER: Well, you have to pick enemies that won’t. During the Spanish-American War, American casualties at Manila Bay were four or seven. Panama was instructive to me because such a high percentage of the number of people who went were either killed or wounded.
VONNEGUT: What was that island we attacked before, with that long runway?
VONNEGUT: some of the first guys we lost were SEALs. Because they were dropped into the ocean and never heard of again. Nobody knows what the hell happened to them.
PLAYBOY: Let’s switch to censorship. Are you at all concerned about the government’s intrusion into our privacy?
HELLER: Do I think, for example, this guy Pee-wee Herman should be arrested for playing with himself in an adult theater?
VONNEGUT: Did he play to climax? I really haven’t kept up with the news as I should.
HELLER: But is that a crime? I would say no.
VONNEGUT: I agree with Joe.
HELLER: We may have an aversion to the idea of somebody’s masturbating in a theater or in a bathroom but so long as he didn’t call attention to himself–that’s what we call exhibitionism.
VONNEGUT: This is a huge country. There are primitive tribes here and there who have customs and moral standards of their own. It’s the way I feel about religious fundamentalists. They really ought to have a reservation. They have a right to their culture and I can see where the First Amendment would be very painful for them. The First Amendment is a tragic amendment because everyone is going to have his or her feelings hurt and your government is not here to protect you from having your feelings hurt.
PLAYBOY: What about the hurt being done to women deprived of the freedom of choice?
VONNEGUT: I think Bush is utterly insincere on the abortion issue. He probably feels about it the way most Yale graduates do. There’s just political capital in pretending to be concerned about abortion. He doesn’t want to push it any harder than he has to because he’d lose a big part of the electorate.
HELLER: Even if he’s pretending. I’m going to quote from the introduction of Mother Night, ”We are what we pretend to be.” If those people in government are only pretending to object to sex displays or abortion, the effect is the same as if they were sincere.
PLAYBOY: Do you think Senator Helms is pretending?
VONNEGUT: Yes. There are several famous hypocrites in the South and he’s surely one of them. Like the illegible thumpers. To attract a crowd.
PLAYBOY: Do you see him illegible a real threat?
VONNEGUT: He has a good many Christian fundamentalist followers. So he is, in fact, serving his constituents–and they are not hypocrites, I would say. But in that little railroad car that runs under Congress, I rode with a guy who worked for Helms, one of his assistants. This guy was as hip and sane and liberal as anyone. He simply had a job to do.
PLAYBOY: Let’s turn to books. Are you alarmed about the corporate role in publishing?
HELLER: ”Alarmed” is a strong word. I’m aware of it and I don’t think the effects will be beneficial toward literature. As I get older, I begin thinking that not only are certain things inevitable, everything is inevitable.
PLAYBOY: How about censorship in publishing? What about when Simon and Schuster decided not to publish a book it had contracted for — Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho — because of pressure?
HELLER: The allegation was made that the decision came from the head of Paramount which owns Simon and Schuster. But the book was published. I don’t think censorship is a widespread threat in this country.
VONNEGUT: You can publish yourself. During the McCarthy era, Howard Fast published Spartacus. Sold it to the movies. Nobody would publish him because he was a Communist.
PLAYBOY: Are writers supportive of one another or resentful?
VONNEGUT: Writers aren’t envious of one another.
HELLER: We may be envious of the success but not of one another.
VONNEGUT: Painters and poets can be deeply upset by the good luck of a colleague. Writers and novelists really don’t seem to give a damn.
PLAYBOY: Are nonfiction writers more jealous and envious of one another than novelists?
VONNEGUT: I know one very close friendship that ended when one guy was working on a book and his best friend came in right behind him.
PLAYBOY: Is it more difficult to get blurbs for nonfiction than fiction because of jealousy?
VONNEGUT: Blurbs are baloney. Anybody who reads a blurb is crazy. Calvin Trillin said that ”anybody who gives a blurb should he required right on the jacket to reveal his relationship to the author.” It’s a good way to advertise. Keep your name around.
HELLER: That’s one reason, but they don’t advertise as voluminously as they used to do.
VONNEGUT: When Alger Hiss wrote a book–his most recent, his side of the story–I wrote a blurb for it and I was the only blurb on the book. Starting! I thought other people would be on there with me. Howard Fast or somebody. . . .
PLAYBOY: Did you ever review each other’s books?
VONNEGUT: Yes. We hadn’t known each other very well. And then we were neighbors out here and Joe had finally written another book.
HELLER: That was 1974.
VONNEGUT: Since Something Happened was only his second book, he was rather anxious to find out who was reviewing it for the Times.
HELLER: I’m going to correct this impression when you finish.
VONNEGUT: It wasn’t unethical at the beginning of the summer because I really didn’t know him that well. But I spent most of the summer writing the review and I got to see more and more of Joe. Who did they tell you was reviewing it for the Times? You change the story.
HELLER: I knew fairly early you were doing it because Irwin Shaw brought it out. And I said, ”You never should have told me that.” I knew enough about you to know that you would not undertake it unless you were going to write favorably about it. Then I began to get anxious about you and myself. Each time they got word of a good review from somewhere else, I made it a point to tell you.
VONNEGUT: Talk about disinformation.
HELLER: I didn’t want you to feel inhibited in your praise.
VONNEGUT: Was there anyone who really tied a can to your tail? Anybody who really hated the book?
HELLER: There were reviewers who were disappointed, because it was not another Catch-22 and they expected it to be.
VONNEGUT: Well, Catch-22 was sort of a fizzle when it first came out, wasn’t it?
HELLER: Despite an advertising campaign that has never been equaled or surpassed in terms of the number of ads.
VONNEGUT: Did Bertrand Russell praise the book?
HELLER: He not only praised the book, he had his secretary call me up and arrange for us to meet. It was one of the few thrilling encounters I’ve had in my lifetime. It’s a long drive to Wales from London. Russell was already ninety. And he looked exactly like his photographs. I had that experience with Venice the first time I went to Venice. It looks exactly like Venice. Paris doesn’t. London doesn’t. New York doesn’t. Venice looks exactly like Venice and Bertrand Russell looked exactly like Bertrand Russell.
VONNEGUT: I suppose it was the first unromantic book about the Air Force.
HELLER: I don’t know about first. It’s not a romantic book. It is romantic. I know the underlying sentimentality. Phillip Toynbee began a review of it with a paragraph that embarrasses me still. He begins listing the great works of satire in the English language and he puts this among them. I think he was the one who said it was the first war book in which fear and cowardice become a virtue.
PLAYBOY: So, who are the new Kurt Vonneguts or Joe Hellers?
HELLER: Oh, I don’t think there has been anybody after us.
VONNEGUT: Well, we haven’t seen Schwarzkopf’s memoirs yet. Laughs
HELLER: You’ve got the name wrong. Scheisskopf.
VONNEGUT: I remember Schwarzkopf’s father, a police commissioner in New Jersey. Then he was the host on a radio show called Gangbusters.
HELLER: Somebody told me his father was also the head of the regional Selective Service department in New Jersey and New York.
VONNEGUT: Four stars is a lot of stars. That’s all Pershing had was four stars.
HELLER: They didn’t have five stars then. Five stars was a rank in World War Two.
PLAYBOY: I had a little trouble when he said that being under a missile attack was no more dangerous than being in a thunderstorm.
VONNEGUT: His comment on the Scud, I think, was that shooting down a Scud was like shooting down a Goodyear blimp, because these things are not very fast or hard to hit. There was a story in World War Two about a Dutch cruiser that escaped from the Nazis just as they were occupying Holland. The ship pulled into a fiord somewhere and put on war paint, purple and green stripes, and sailed into the Firth of Clyde, where the British navy was anchored in Scotland, and the skipper of the cruiser called to the flagship and asked, ”How do you like our new camouflage?” And the answer that came back was ”Where are you?”
PLAYBOY: Is that true?
HELLER: Would Vonnegut joke?
PLAYBOY: Do either of you read any contemporary writers?
VONNEGUT: Well, it’s not like the medical profession where you have to find out the latest treatments. I’ve been reading Nietzsche.
HELLER: And I’ve been reading Thomas Mann. I hesitate because maybe I’m reading more difficult books to grasp than nonfiction. Scientific books. Philosophy, I would not be able to read rapidly. I have a definite impression that I’m reading more slowly than I used to.
VONNEGUT: There’s no urgency about reading anymore. We’re not trying to keep up. I have that big book by Mark Helprin and I don’t think I’m going to read it because I’m too lazy.
PLAYBOY: What about Norman Mailer’s?
VONNEGUT: That’s none of your business. Norman’s a friend of mine.
HELLER: I intend to read it at one sitting. I read contemporary writers.
PLAYBOY: Such as whom?
HELLER: It wouldn’t be whom. It would be a particular work. If the work is described in a way I feel would be interesting to me. Not enjoyable. Interesting. I look into every galley I’m sent. I don’t have time to read them. Just the way I don’t get as many invitations to parties as Kurt Vonnegut does.
VONNEGUT: They’ve stopped coming. Well, I’m reading Martin Amis.
HELLER: The last book?
VONNEGUT: It’s a new one. The whole thing runs backward. Time runs backward. It’s very hard to follow.
HELLER: I will read Julian Barnes’s new novel. I like Julian Barnes for reasons I can’t explain.
PLAYBOY: Any women?
HELLER: You have to name some.
PLAYBOY: Ann Beattie.
HELLER: I’ve read Ann Beattie.
VONNEGUT: I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and thought it was terrific. I wrote her a fan letter. Joe said one time in an interview or somewhere that people in advertising are better read and wittier than most novelists.
HELLER: And most academics. That was my experience when Catch-22 came out.
PLAYBOY: What is your favorite book of Joe’s?
VONNEGUT: He hasn’t written enough to choose from.
HELLER: There’s no answer that would be convincing and satisfying.
VONNEGUT: You know about the frog-and-peach restaurant? Well, there are four things on the menu. You can have a frog. You can have a peach. You can have a frog stuffed with a peach or a peach stuffed with a frog. When you ask what is my favorite of Heller’s, you don’t have a very long menu. I have gone the extra mile with Joe. I have seen ”We Bombed in New Haven” performed at Yale. Not many people can say that.
HELLER: More at Yale than on Broadway. I used to think Catch-22 was my best novel until I read Kurt’s review of Something Happened. Now I think Something Happened is.
PLAYBOY: What is your favorite book of Kurt’s?
HELLER: OH, I DON’T LIKE ANY OF HIS WORKS. I just give blurbs to his books so we can remain friends.
VONNEGUT: I’m sure Joe doesn’t mind this being discussed. It takes him a while to write a book. He might be a different author in each case because he’s a decade older. Nietzsche says the philosopher’s view of the world makes his reputation and he doesn’t change it. It reflects how old he was then. Plato’s philosophy is the philosophy of a man thirty-five.
PLAYBOY: You’re writing a movie, we hear.
VONNEGUT: Yes, with Steven Wright.
HELLER: Boy, I’d love to write a movie script.
PLAYBOY: Why don’t you collaborate?
HELLER: Take me as a secret collaborator? Pay me just enough to qualify for the medical plan of the Writers’ Guild.
VONNEGUT: It’s hack work. I just got interested in Steven Wright. He was out here and stayed with me for a couple of days. You know who he is?
HELLER: Not really.
VONNEGUT: He has sort of the build of a Woody Allen and that melancholy and he doesn’t know what the hell he’s going to say next. And so you’re listening and finally he says it, but he never says where he is from, what he is. He is in fact a Roman Catholic. Most people assume he’s Jewish. But he’s very smart not to say, ”I’m from Boston.” He’s very hot on the college circuit. He gets fifteen thousand dollars an appearance and he does fifty a year.
HELLER: Are you being paid for the screenplay?
VONNEGUT: I’m doing it on spec. But I won’t show it to them until they pay me.
PLAYBOY: What about Hollywood?
HELLER: I love it. I don’t work that much and I will accept every offer I get. I love going to Hollywood because I know people there. When I go there, somebody else is always paying the expenses.
VONNEGUT: How do you know people there?
HELLER: Almost every friend I had on the Island moved out there after the war. Then my nephew was out there working for Paramount TV.
PLAYBOY: Kurt, we gather you’re less enthralled in dealing with Hollywood.
VONNEGUT: No. There are two novelists who should be very grateful to Hollywood. Margaret Mitchell is one and I’m the other one.
HELLER: Thelma & Louise is the first movie I’ve seen in years. I liked it. Well, a year ago I saw that Italian film Cinema Paradiso. I usually don’t like the movies.
PLAYBOY: Did it bother you that in Thelma & Louise the heroines killed a man?
HELLER: No. It doesn’t bother me when they kill cowboys or Indians. It’s only the movies. There are so many movies where the woman turns out to be the murderess. I didn’t see it as a movie with any kind of morality. It was a movie about two women who get into trouble.
PLAYBOY: Does a movie like Thelma & Louise indicate a change in the culture?
VONNEGUT: You have forgotten that we are so old we are contemporaries of Bonnie and Clyde and of Ma Barker. She was the head of the family. We know about some really rough women.
PLAYBOY: Bonnie still followed Clyde, didn’t she?
HELLER: You’re not asking us about women. You’re asking us about characters in motion pictures.
PLAYBOY: At the recent St. John’s rape trial in New York, one of the jurors wore a T-shirt that read, UNZIP MY FLY. What is that all about?
VONNEGUT: I don’t know, but it’s a very popular T-shirt.
PLAYBOY: Where is that coming from?
VONNEGUT: A T-shirt factory, obviously.
PLAYBOY: Why would someone want to wear that?
VONNEGUT: Joe and I had a publisher in England for a while and his fly was always unzipped.
PLAYBOY: Does sex get better when you’re older?
HELLER: Does what?
PLAYBOY: Does it get better when you’re older or not?
HELLER: I don’t know. I haven’t had it since I was young.
VONNEGUT: I don’t know if he’s kidding or not.
HELLER: Oh, I’ve had no sex as an adult.
VONNEGUT: He’s a comedian.
PLAYBOY: Well, what about you, Kurt? Does sex get better when you get older?
VONNEGUT: You get to be a better lover.
HELLER: I find I’m much more virile now than I was.
PLAYBOY: More what?
HELLER: More potent. I want to do it more often than when I was seventeen or eighteen.
PLAYBOY: Why don’t you guys write more explicitly about sex and its emotional trappings?
HELLER: More explicitly than what? You keep projecting. You keep attaching emotional reactions to sexual reactions. Earlier you used the words ”love” and ”sex” and now you’re suggesting emotional reactions to sex. By emotional I’m sure you mean something different from the sensory responses.
PLAYBOY: Well, emotions are different from senses.
HELLER: I don’t think there is a necessary correlation between emotional responses and sex.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t D. H. Lawrence write about emotions?
HELLER: That was the content of his artistic or literary consciousness. I don’t think writers have a choice, by the way. I think we discover a field in which we can be proficient and that’s our imagination. My imagination cannot work like Kurt’s and I don’t think his can work like mine. Neither of us could write like Philip Roth or Norman Mailer. I know John Updike has a lot of tales of the sexual encounter. And I suppose there are writers who can do it and will do it and want to do it.
PLAYBOY: Henry Miller?
HELLER: What you get there is the raw activity.
PLAYBOY: Anais Nin?
VONNEGUT: I haven’t read the porn she wrote. If you have an attractive man and woman coming together, the reader is going to want to see them do it or find out why they didn’t do it. And so you can’t talk about anything else. The example I use is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It’s about this black guy who is looking for comfort and enlightenment somewhere in American society. It’s a picaresque novel. If he ever ran into a woman who really loved him and he loved her, that would be the end of the book. It would be as short as my books. And Ellison has to keep him away from women.
HELLER: I must say, for me, it doesn’t normally make good literature. Fiction having extensive detail about the gymnastics of copulation or sexual congress–or even the alleged responses to it–does not make interesting reading to me. It’s like trying to describe the noise of a subway train. There are people who can do it. Young writers go in for that type of description. But when they’re finished, all they’ve done is described the noise of a subway train coming into a station or pulling out of a station. Is that the noblest objective of a work of fiction? To convince the reader that what you’re writing about is really happening? I don’t think so.
PLAYBOY: Isaac Bashevis Singer said, ”In sex and love, human character is revealed more than anywhere else.”
VONNEGUT: He is liable to say anything to be interesting. He entertains in that way. Do you know what he said about free will? ”We have no choice.”
HELLER: That’s not been proved. I would not agree with that. The same two people could have come together sexually numerous times and it could be a different experience and the person’s character doesn’t change from copulation to copulation.
PLAYBOY: But one gets to know the other better with increased copulation.
HELLER: I don’t think so.
VONNEGUT: Well, this is the French theory of the golden key.
HELLER: You learn more at lunch than you do in the meeting before. In phone conversation.
VONNEGUT: Nietzsche had a little one-liner on how to choose a wife. He said, ”Are you willing to have a conversation with this woman for the next forty years?” That’s how to pick a wife.
HELLER: If people were more widely read, there’d be fewer marriages.
VONNEGUT: I will give you all the money that’s left after the divorce if you can get me a film clip of Frank Sinatra making it with Nancy Reagan. I think that is the funniest damn thing.
PLAYBOY: In the White House?
VONNEGUT: I don’t care where. Those two scrawny people.
PLAYBOY: Have you read Kitty Kelley?
VONNEGUT: Sure. Parts of it. Joe gets all those books. And I just leaf through them. About the Kenney or about any scandal.
HELLER: I didn’t look at it.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think we’re so interested in scandal?
VONNEGUT: Just because it’s in the papers. The same way we pretend to be interested in sports, a way to say hello to a stranger. ”What did you think of the second game of the World Series? What did you think of this? What do you think of the Super Bowl?” It’s a way of saying hello.
HELLER: I agree with him. I have a slight, diminishing taste for gossip and for scandal. If you’re taking about the most interesting things in the newspapers, I think our news reporting is abominable. There shouldn’t be daily papers. Maybe once a week they ought to publish.
VONNEGUT: John F. Kennedy was off the scale. He was a freak! I mean, he was in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of women he screwed, apparently.
HELLER: I would have liked him a lot more if I had known at the time what was going on.
PLAYBOY: Why is a man respected for having many sexual relationships and a woman disrespected or scorned?
HELLER: The explanation would be the terrible fears of impotency men have and the jealousy that’s concomitant with that. Mark Twain says that the only reason the Bible was against adultery was to keep the woman from screwing someone else. His explanation is that a man is like a candle and he’s going to burn out, and the woman is like a candlestick and she can hold a million candles.
PLAYBOY: But women also scorn women who have had many sexual experiences.
HELLER: Women with bad reputations can be attractive to a man. They are to me. But a wife or a daughter like that would be a terrible embarrassment to me.
VONNEGUT: Joe’s got the Freudian explanation. I think that men can’t help suspecting that women are stronger and better people than they are and they learn that from their mother. I would agree with that.
PLAYBOY: Do you think younger women are sexier than older women?
HELLER: I agree with Kurt.
VONNEGUT: I taught at Iowa for a year and there were a whole lot of blondes there because of our Scandinavian population. I was not interested in these undergraduate girls at all.
HELLER: Even when I was young, I found older women more attractive than young girls.
PLAYBOY: Is there anyone for whom you lust in your heart?
VONNEGUT: My goodness!
HELLER: Madonna. Madonna.
VONNEGUT: Joe mentioned one of Artie Shaw’s wives. Seemed to me the sexiest woman I ever saw was Ava Gardner.
HELLER: Kathleen Winsor was pretty hot.
VONNEGUT: Rita Hayworth. I took it hard when she came down with Alzheimer’s.
PLAYBOY: Joe, were you serious about Madonna?
PLAYBOY: Who’s going to win the Democratic nomination?
HELLER: I have a feeling it might be me.
PLAYBOY: You? Are you going to vote for yourself?
VONNEGUT: He will have to register first.
HELLER: I’d register and I’d pose. I would if I ran.
PLAYBOY: Kurt, would you vote for Joe?
VONNEGUT: Certainly. It’s a figurehead job in any case.
HELLER: I’d run on two issues. And I believe I’d win. The first would be, as President of the federal government, I would take no steps whatsoever to interfere with a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The second is I would find some way to institute a national health program in this country. Don’t ask me where the money’s going to come from, I will find a way to do it.
VONNEGUT: The big difference between conservatives and liberals is that killing doesn’t seem to bother the conservatives at all. The liberals are chickenhearted about people dying. Conservatives thought that the massacre, the killing, of so many people in Panama was OK. I think they’re really Darwinians. It’s all right that people are starving to death on the streets because that’s the nature of work.
HELLER: Western civilization has made a pact with the Devil. I think the story of Faust has to do with Western civilization. You might say white civilization. The Devil or God said, ”I’ll give you knowledge to do great things. But you’re going to use that knowledge to destroy the environment and to destroy yourself.” You mentioned Darwin. I think what we’re experiencing now is the natural state of evolution. Half the society is underprivileged and maybe a third of the rest is barely surviving. The trouble with the Administration is that it doesn’t want to deal with the problem. It doesn’t want to define it as a problem because then it will have to deal win it.
Published in Playboy, May 1992
* * *
Remembering Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut in Conversation
by Carole Mallory
Reading Susan Braudy’s vivid remembrance of Joe Heller made me recall the time I had the opportunity to interview him in conversation with Kurt Vonnegut. Just how did I get this dynamic duo together for a chat with a tape recorder by my side? While it was my idea, it was Norman Mailer who played ‘dolly ‘and arranged an introduction with Kurt Vonnegut who gave me Joe Heller’s number and some advice.
“He can be gruff,” Vonnegut said. “But don’t let that put you off. It’s just his manner. Not personal.”
Sure enough when I did get the gumption to call Heller, he answered, “Who gave you my number?”
“Sure I’ll do a conversation with Kurt,” Heller said, “What’s the publication?”
“I’m going to offer it to Playboy.” And that was that.
Then I queried an editor friend, Jonathan Black, at Playboy who jumped at it.
It was arranged for one beautiful summer day in Easthampton.
Besides owning a townhouse in Manhattan, in the summer Vonnegut lived in Sagaponack, Long Island,, but we decided to do the interview at Heller’s home in Easthampton. Heller was suffering from Guillain Barre Syndrome, a weakness of his hands and feet and dysfunction of the nervous system. Wheelchair bound, he needed to be near his wife, Valerie, who was also his nurse. Valerie was a strong and loving woman.
The Heller home was modest and as one would imagine this writer’s home to be. It had a dark rustic interior and papers were strewn over his desk. The lawn was sprawling and ivy surrounded a white lattice fenced-in porch.
“Let’s do the interview on my lawn,” Heller said in a thin voice. I was surprised and thought he’d have a deep voice, but it was Vonnegut who has the raspy smoker’s voice. We sat on the lawn and began when after we filled up one tape, a loud ‘ruummmmmmmmmmmmmm’ was heard.
“For heaven’s sake,” Heller said. “That’s our lawnmower man.”
“Want to take this to a restaurant I know by the bay?” Kurt said and off we went to escape the lawnmower man.
To prepare for the interview I had read most of their books and quizzed Mailer about Joe and Kurt.
“Ask them about sex and war,” Mailer said, then chuckled, “In that order.”
Norman taught me how to do an interview by putting my questions in categories such as current events, politics, sex, literature, writing, war, women, whatever … I organized my questions and ran them by Norman who put them in an order which of course was gone with the wind and the lawnmower once the conversation began.
“Don’t restrict your interview with your will,” Norman said lecturing. “If your subjects want to go off on a tangent, by all means let them … Don’t dictate to your subjects … Follow their lead… especially if they’re celebrities. They could be leading you to pay dirt”
Pay dirt was a term Norman used to describe the golden part of the interview — when your subject is relaxed and revealing new thoughts and experiences.
At lunch we managed to do one more cassette, but eating and interviewing at the same time is not a good idea. However, I did manage to ask the waiter to take the above photo of us. And we did have a lovely, relaxed lunch. Little did I suspect that this would be the first and last time I was in the company of the talented, loquacious and pugnacious Joseph Heller?
The interview was a success. In 1992, it was published in Playboy with cartoons drawn of Vonnegut and Heller and was titled, “The Kurt and Joe Show.” In 2012, it again was published by Melville House in a collection of interviews titled, Kurt Vonnegut, The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Published in The Huffington Post,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carole-mallory/heller-vonnegut-interview_b_1325403.html
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