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Friday, June 22, 2012

An interview with Sidney Offit about his friend, the “congenial and modest” Kurt Vonnegut

Sidney Offit spoke with us about the recent publication of Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950–1962, which he edited for The Library of America.

Why do you think Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and stories still strike a chord today?
Kurt considers the seminal conflicts of war, justice, love, space, time, and “what’s it all about”? And he writes with an accessible style spiced by originality and wit.

What can younger writers learn from his work?
Write what you believe and remember, “You are writing for strangers.”

You often took walks together. What were they like?
Walks with Kurt were always an adventure. We shared intimacies and observations, and he taught me to look up and appreciate buildings as well as the sky. Whenever I stroll pass Tiffany on the south side of 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, I remember the first time Kurt discovered that the building directly east of Tiffany was once Public School 6453.

How was his tennis game?
Win or lose Kurt enjoyed tennis. Once, when we were playing doubles with our sons and off to a fast start 1-3, before they started to rally, Kurt suggested, “Let’s fall on the ball and run out the clock.”

Did he change after he became a counterculture hero and famous? 
As far as I could tell, Kurt’s fame only increased his curiosity about other people and ways of life. I never met anyone who experienced Kurt as less than congenial and modest.

Did he ever speak about World War II and Dresden? 
We cut up and kicked it around about our experiences and feelings. But there was very little Kurt told me about the war that he didn’t express vividly and originally in his novels.

What do you think of Vonnegut’s short stories?  And his ambitions for the stories compared to the novels? Did he talk about the “slicks” he wrote for? Why do you think he stopped writing stories and began to write literary and nonfiction journalism instead? 
Kurt’s short stories are works of narrative and imaginative art. He was candid about why he stopped writing them and concentrated on writing novels. The “slicks” were no longer around and there was not a lucrative market for short stories. Remember—Kurt was supporting a family with seven children.

Do you have a favorite novel or story in the new LOA collection? 
Among the stories and novels, circa 1950–1962, it’s not easy for me to play at handicapping, but if I had to make a pick I’d plunk for “Harrison Bergeron” because it’s so wildly imaginative, an easy read, unpredictable—vintage Vonnegut that is not quite as available as the other novels and stories in the collection.

What do you miss most about him? 
His observations, his humor, his warmth, his friendship, his cigarette smoke.

Also of interest:

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