Beyond the Books - A Closer Look at Kurt Vonnegut

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[A Writer’s Digest Magazine Online Exclusive]

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He died in 2007, but he’s already the stuff of modern writing legend—the man who survived the firebombing of Dresden, penned Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, and made ironic generational poetry of his catchphrase "So it goes." But who was Kurt Vonnegut, really?

For some answers, if you find yourself in Vonnegut’s Indianapolis hometown, swing by the new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library at 340 N. Senate Ave. (Check out our previous post about the library here, and more photos from the grand opening below.)

Of course, if you can’t make the trip, there’s also Majie Alford Failey, Vonnegut’s lifelong friend and the author of We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek: The Young Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis and Beyond.

Following her speech at the grand opening of the library, WD caught up with Failey for a few of her insights about the man behind so many classic pages. So it went. The following is an array of outtakes from our conversation, which will be featured in the May/June 2011 issue of WD. A Promptly Slaughterhouse-Five infused Literary Roadshow writing prompt follows.

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“He was tall and lanky and kind of loose-jointed, and he had kind of a nice air about him. I called it casual … and I also said later his clothes were kind of, oh, a little bit, I called him shabby brooks brothers. … He was just loose. Casual about things. And like I’d say, ‘Kurt’—he wore Top-Siders—‘why don’t you tie your shoes? That bothers me.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, doesn’t bother me.’ So, I said, ‘OK, it’s your house. But you look like someone turned a fan on a dumpster, Kurt.’ And he just said, ‘Oh hush.’ ”

“You know how people sign your yearbook and say, ‘good luck’ and ‘I’ll miss you’ and blah blah blah, well, Kurt signed his for somebody. Under his picture he signed it koort vonnygut. He was zany. And I don’t think the girls that got that book ever even noticed it.”

“He had just gotten a Guggenheim grant, one of the first he got. And with it, he bought a Boston whaler with part of that. So he said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have fun today, we are going out on my new boat. … We’re just going to noodle around.’ Which is what we did. And we had a picnic on his new boat. … My husband and Kurt smoked at each other. Literally. They called each other sport, and they smoked Pall Malls, unfiltered, and I could have killed them both because that’s all they did, was smoke.” [laughs]

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“He was so normal. You know, there was nothing abnormal about Kurt, and there was nothing that special about Kurt, either, as a kid in high school or in college. He wasn’t the smartest, he was just a neat kid and he was in everything. He joined everything. The bad thing was, as I know you know, was that he wasn’t a jock, and the letter men made his life miserable. … That was something Janie [Marie Cox, Vonnegut’s first wife] said—‘Majie, he’ll never get over that. He’ll never get over that. He thinks so, he says so, but …’ And the other thing that really, really crippled the whole Vonnegut family, and it hurt Kurt, but Kurt had a way of getting around hurts, was the depression.”

“This thing about him being a humanist and this German background stuff and not being a Christian and not believing in God, well, if that’s the case, why did he quote the Bible so much? Why did he talk about the Sermon on the Mount?”

“I think he just decided, well, I’m going to be a writer. His dad wanted him to be a chemist, and he didn’t want to be, and his dad was an architect and Kurt didn’t want to do that. … You know, he had a huge imagination. But he also had a very practical side.”

“He loved to talk about Crown Hill Cemetery because John Dillinger is buried there, close to James Whitcomb Riley, the children’s poet. And he thinks that’s hysterical.”

“He was very simple. The one thing about Kurt I hope people understand, he was so much himself. No airs. Not puffed up. I mean, he was just Kurt.”

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WRITING PROMPT: Literary Roadshow, Slaughterhouse-Five Edition

Literary Roadshow: Will one author’s stray sentences be another’s writing exercise gold? Feel
free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments
section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble
with the captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me
at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and
I’ll make sure it gets up.

Write a story inspired
by or including the following (from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five):

"What did his wife say?"
"She doesn't know yet," I said. "It just happened."
"Call her up and get a statement."

"What?"

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The Vonnegut timeline: "All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will
exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just
that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.
They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any
moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on
Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and
that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."