On April 27, Kurt Vonnegut was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis as part of the city-proclaimed The Year of Vonnegut. On February 28, in what was to be his last interview, I spoke by phone with Vonnegut, who was home in New York.
We did not talk for long because he was not well, but we discussed memories of family vacations, his ancestors and what it means to be a family. Sadly, a member of our family is gone, a member of our karass, a true American, and one hell of a writer. The following is our conversation:
What about Indiana explains why you write, what you write, and who you are?
Well, there was certainly plenty to write about. Indiana is a very divided state, which creates a kind of electricity. During the Civil War, the governor sent the legislature home because he was afraid southern Indiana would go with the Confederacy. So that tension is really very exciting. Of course, Indiana was strongly racist in some places. The last lynching to take place north of the Mason-Dixon line was in Marion in 1930, and when I was a kid, the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan was in my home town of Indianapolis. But Indiana was also the home and birthplace of Eugene Debs, the great American socialist. And so the ding-dong, back-and-forth was very entertaining. I was, of course, on the side of Debs.
Did that influence you when you were younger, and later the content of your novels?
In the public schools, I learned what America was supposed to be – you, you know, a beacon of liberty to the rest of the world. And obviously, that wasn’t the case. I wrote a letter to Iraq, an open letter signed Uncle Sam [laughs], and what it said was: “Dear Iraq. Do like us. At the beginning of democracy, a bit of genocide and ethnic cleansing is quite okay. After a hundred years, you have to let your slaves go. And, after a hundred and fifty years, you have to let your women vote and hold public office.” Some democracy. Anyway, when I was young, I noticed these contradictions and, of course, they were quite acceptable to a lot of people, but not to me.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood in Indiana. I know that you’ve written that you used to visit Lake Maxinkuckee.
Yeah, well, I’ve said in my speeches that everyone needs an extended family. The great American disease is loneliness. We no longer have extended family. But I had one. There were lots of Vonneguts in the phone book and my mother was a Lieber, and there were Liebers there too. And at Lake Maxinkuckee there were a row of cottages, one of which we owned, and so I was surrounded by relatives all of the time. You know, cousins, uncles and aunts. It was heaven. And that has since been dispersed.
Do you think that might have had any part in your book Cat’s Cradle?
I don’t really trace the roots of any of my ideas. One basic attitude I’ve learned from my family is that they were freethinkers. People stopped calling themselves that because it was so specifically German and the Germans were so hated during the First World War. And so, I am now honorary president of the American Humanist Association, which is just the very same thing.
But you know, I don’t mock religion at all. It’s very helpful to people. I had a particular war buddy named Bernie O’Hare and he was so disgusted that we bombed civilians, because he thought we were the good guys. He had thought we were careful not to hurt civilians and it was the Nazis, the bad guys, who didn’t care what civilians they killed. Then we saw the Dresden Fire Bombing, when the cruise ship brought us home after the war and we parted company, I said, “What did you learn?” and he replied, “I’ll never believe my government again.”
Freethinkers. They’re like humanists, in that they were influenced by science, not what was in the Old Testament.
I know a bit about them.
My ancestors on both sides of the family came over here about the time of the Civil War. One of them lost a leg and went back to Germany. Anyway, but they were all freethinkers. They were educated. They weren’t refugees at all. They were opportunists, looking to build things, businesses to go into.
Here is what my great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut said one time about Jesus, “If what he said was good, and it was marvelous, what did it matter if he was god or not?” And I am enormously influenced by the Sermon on the Mount. But I gotta go. I’m not well. Good luck.