Paris Review: Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64

Others had so much more to write about. I remember envying Andy Rooney, who jumped into print at that time; I didn’t know him, but I think he was the first guy to publish his war story after the war; it was called Air Gunner. Hell, I never had any classy adventure like that. But every so often I would meet a European and we would be talking about the war and I would say I was in Dresden; he’d be astonished that I’d been there, and he’d always want to know more. Then a book by David Irving was published about Dresden, saying it was the largest massacre in European history. I said, By God, I saw something after all! I would try to write my war story, whether it was interesting or not, and try to make something out of it. I describe that process a little in the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five; I saw it as starring John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Finally, a girl called Mary O’Hare, the wife of a friend of mine who’d been there with me, said, “You were just children then. It’s not fair to pretend that you were men like Wayne and Sinatra, and it’s not fair to future generations, because you’re going to make war look good.” That was a very important clue to me.

.. We were baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don’t think I had to shave very often. I don’t recall that that was a problem.

.. It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people—one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours.

.. I said that only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited—not two or five or ten. Just one.

INTERVIEWER

And who was that?

VONNEGUT

Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.

.. A snarf was a person who went around sniffing girls’ bicycle saddles. I didn’t do that.

.. Did you take a degree in chemistry at Cornell?

VONNEGUT

I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year. I was delighted to join the army and go to war.

.. I’m no scientist at all. I’m glad, though, now that I was pressured into becoming a scientist by my father and my brother. I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they’re doing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly. I enjoy plumbers and carpenters and automobile mechanics, too. I didn’t get to know any literary people until the last ten years, starting with two years of teaching at Iowa.

.. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug. And it wasn’t just that I had money all of a sudden, either. The hidden complaint was that I was barbarous, that I wrote without having made a systematic study of great literature, that I was no gentleman, since I had done hack writing so cheerfully for vulgar magazines—that I had not paid my academic dues.

INTERVIEWER

You had not suffered?

VONNEGUT

I had suffered, all right—but as a badly educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money.

.. I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

.. I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.

.. I lead a loving life. I really do. Even when I’m leading that loving life, though, and it’s going so well, I sometimes find myself thinking, “My goodness, couldn’t we talk about something else for just a little while?” You know what’s really funny?

.. They think it’s the proper business of government to protect the reputation of God.

.. I said in Slapstick that she was the person I wrote for—that every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity. Anybody can achieve it, if he or she will make something with only one person in mind. I didn’t realize that she was the person I wrote for until after she died.

.. Have you ever stopped smoking?

VONNEGUT

Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching two hundred and fifty pounds. I stopped for almost a year, and then the University of Hawaii brought me to Oahu to speak. I was drinking out of a coconut on the roof of the Ili Kai one night, and all I had to do to complete the ring of my happiness was to smoke a cigarette. Which I did.

.. Do you really think creative writing can be taught?

VONNEGUT

About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing. I did that well, I think, at the University of Iowa for two years. Gail Godwin and John Irving and Jonathan Penner and Bruce Dobler and John Casey and Jane Casey were all students of mine out there.

.. It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”

.. If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

.. If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

VONNEGUT

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water.

.. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed.

.. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

How common is storytelling talent?

VONNEGUT

In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by.

INTERVIEWER

What distinguishes those two from the rest?

VONNEGUT

They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.

.. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free-enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks.

.. And let it be put on the record here that Knox Burger, who is about my age, discovered and encouraged more good young writers than any other editor of his time. I don’t think that’s ever been written down anywhere. It’s a fact known only to writers, and one that could easily vanish, if it isn’t somewhere written down.

INTERVIEWER

Where is Knox Burger now?

VONNEGUT

He’s a literary agent. He represents my son Mark, in fact.

.. And I want to say, too, that humorists are very commonly the youngest children in their families. When I was the littlest kid at our supper table, there was only one way I could get anybody’s attention, and that was to be funny. I had to specialize. I used to listen to radio comedians very intently, so I could learn how to make jokes. And that’s what my books are, now that I’m a grownup—mosaics of jokes.

.. Well—I just discovered a prayer for writers. I’d heard of prayers for sailors and kings and soldiers and so on—but never of a prayer for writers. Could I put that in here?

.. “O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labor, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

.. There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.

INTERVIEWER

So—?

VONNEGUT

I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check.

Mary Karr: Paris Review Interview

The following day, on our way to the airport, Karr drove me past the house David Foster Wallace once rented in Syracuse. Wallace and Karr were involved for a time; he proposed to her and had her name tattooed on his arm.

.. She is a controversial figure in the poetry establishment for her Pushcart Prize–winning 1991 essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lamented the shift toward neoformalism in contemporary poetry: “the highbrow doily-making that passes for art today.” Karr argued that this sort of poetry—allusive, impersonal, obscure—had “ceased to perform its primary function,” which was to “move the reader.” And she named names.

 

Open Source Media

A lot of people think about software when they hear the words “open source,” but I’d like to extend the concept to “media”.  By that I mean books, tv, magazines, radio, etc.

Example

The basic idea is simple — suppose you’re reading a book about Jack Kennedy that makes an interesting claim and then cites its source with a footnote to an “NBC Interview with Jack Kennedy: Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the Oval Office in the White House, Sept 9, 1963.”

One of my first questions would be: “Can I get a transcript of the interview?”  A second would be: “Can a get a recording of the whole interview?”  Without the first, I can’t verify what the president said.  Without the second, I can’t get the context.

Two related questions this raises are: “What are the ground rules for the interview;” and “How much editing was done to produce the final product?”

It’s interesting that in Brinkley’s interview, the president was given a number of “mulligans,” although he appears not to have seen the questions ahead of time.

One of the commenters noted:

The media and politicos are in cahoots, rehearsing the interview.

Ground Rules for Interviewing

So I’ve been thinking: “What are fair ground rules for an interview?”  Here’s a few ideas:

  1. The full recording, including out-takes, should be available for the historical record.
  2. Should anything be left out of the transcript?  Inevitably I think the answer will have to be yes, unless you get rid of all “off-the-record” interviews.  I also think the appropriateness of off-the-record remarks varies according to the degree of power that the interviewee has.  The secrets of the powerful often warrant less protection than the secrets of the weak.
  3. It may take time to gain the trust of the interviewee; and in real-life, the interviewer only begins recording when trust has been established and the interviewee is ready.

The Complete Record

I’ve sometimes wondered, what would happen if journalists tried to put everything on the record.  They would record their telephone calls asking for the interview. They would share all their email correspondence.  They would begin recording as they approached the office or home of the interviewee and then just keep filming until after they left.  And they would publish the entire contents of this “record” with every interview they did.  This is now feasible on the web, whereas it was impractical in the television or print-only world.

Now of course most people wouldn’t care to watch the whole thing; but a few would; and they might post notable things for the inspection of a wider group.  Is this what we want?

Paris Review Style Interview

An alternate model is employed by the literary journal “The Paris Review.”  It’s editors like to select their favorite authors to interview; and they give the authors full license to edit their answers.

Naturally, the authors are used to choosing their words carefully; and this approach allows them to extend such care to the interview.  It allows the author to say exactly what they want, potentially resulting in more clarity, or alternatively less accountably.

Speaking about interviewing authors, David Fenza says:

A good literary interview is not faithful to the actual spoken event.  The transcript of the actual spoken interview should only serve as a draft of a dialogue that will, eventually, present the writer as completely and succinctly as possible.  A good literary interview is improvisational, but it’s also revisionary.  Writers are creatures who succeed through revision; they are most themselves when they revise; and this should carry over into the interview.

When to allow a “Paris-Review” style interview depends on the type of interview desired. In any case, the ground rules should be disclosed.

If a President is given chances to “edit” their answers, there should be some indication of this when the interview is published.  But no matter how the interview is edited or revised, can the full historical record be preserved?

It is common to see something like “This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.” It would be interesting to see some sort of statistical disclosure about how much of the included text was changed; and how much was excluded.