Kurt Vonnegut. (AP Images)
I first encountered Kurt Vonnegut in 1970, about five years after I consumed Cat’s Cradle in one bite, when I took part in a “rap session” with him in New York just before the opening of his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Four years later, for the legendary Crawdaddy, where I was senior editor, I interviewed him and turned it into a unique profile that he called the best one about him up to that point. But that was only the beginning.
I see that The Nation has just published a book collecting a dozen pieces that he wrote for the magazine. Coincidentally, my own e-book, Vonnegut and Me, was also published last week. It details (often in a very witty way) my “conversations and close encounters of a weird kind” with the famed novelist, starting in 1970 and then over the years.
Here’s the first excerpt, below. Note: The entire copy of my quite lengthy 1974 profile/interview is included in the book. You can read more of it here. And my new quote-of-the-day feature from Vonnegut here.
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Following up on my exclusive Joseph Heller interview, I attempted to wrangle an invitation from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to come to his Upper East Side apartment (where he was now living with famed photographer Jill Krementz) for a rare sit-down interview. His recent book Breakfast of Champions had not exactly thrilled the critics—it was no Slaughterhouse-Five—but it was selling well. In response to my letter, Vonnegut wrote, “I’ll be teaching at CCNY next fall, along with your friend and mine, Joe Heller. Let’s see what sort of wisdom, if any, is shaped by that teaching experience. You might find me wise about life instead of shrewd about publishing.”
I’d profiled him over three years earlier after a group interview. Now, in February 1974, it was fun to sit across from him in his East Side living room for an hour or two, but he kept getting interrupted by students—he was teaching that semester—or his quite alarming cigarette cough. Also, his phone kept ringing and I learned that, amazingly, he still had a listed phone number. (His favorite calls, he revealed, came from drunks halfway across the country late at night.) His daughter had married Geraldo Rivera, which didn’t seem to thrill him in the least.
The recent film adaptation of his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June? “One of the most embarrassing movies ever made.” And so on.
When I transcribed the interview and realized it was so-so, I took the risky step of writing a lengthy account of my visit under the byline “Kilgore Trout.” Vonnegut had just set his most famous recurring character free in Breakfast of Champions, and so I (rather cleverly, I thought) adopted him myself as a pen name. I also assembled some of Vonnegut’s other characters, such as Bokonon, Howard W. Campbell, and Eliot Rosewater, for a fanciful reunion at his townhouse, with bear hugs and wacky anecdotes all-around.