In 2016, Zachary Perdieu, co-Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, delivered a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference titled “’That was I. That was me.’ The Many Vonneguts and Their Relationship with Fiction.” In the following interview, Perdieu shares his thoughts on “the many Vonneguts” and how Vonnegut’s fiction may have predicted his own death.
Q: Vonnegut is well-known for inserting himself into his fiction, perhaps most prominently in Breakfast of Champions. In your research you found evidence of this approach in a much earlier work, Cat’s Cradle. What did you find?
A: In Jerome Klinkowitz’s book Vonnegut In Fact (1998), Klinkowitz explains that Vonnegut attempted to insert his surname, at the very least, into the narrative of Cat’s Cradle (1963). Funnily enough, Vonnegut had already blatantly placed a “Kurt Vonnegut” character in Mother Night that came out two years before Cat’s Cradle, but this character was presented as the editor of Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s memoir manuscript. This manuscript was fictional, of course, so the “editor” character Vonnegut presented was also a fictional projection of the author, himself. Apparently, this particular presentation of a Vonnegut-character was accepted by editors, but the idea of the author’s last name entering Cat’s Cradle two years later was viewed as literary malpractice, as Klinkowitz goes on to write, “Editors talked Vonnegut out of the idea as being too radical” when Vonnegut made this attempt in Cat’s Cradle because it would be seen as “violating the aesthetic distance that critics assume must exist between reality and the fictive” (111).
So Vonnegut was “present” as an editor-character in Mother Night in 1961, and then showed up again in 1969 in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five and a few other places in the book. As you mentioned, Vonnegut as an author/character shows up most prominently in Breakfast of Champions in 1973, where the character is interacting and manipulating with the fictional universe around him. Simply put, in the book immediately preceding Cat’s Cradle and the two that followed in publication order, representations of Vonnegut as a character are all over the place. Despite this, his editors had censored this stylistic inclination out of Cat’s Cradle.
I was at Indiana University’s Lilly Library doing research in the Vonnegut archive for my master’s thesis, and on my final day I decided to look for evidence of Klinkowitz’s claim that Vonnegut had attempted to place himself in the work in an early draft of Cat’s Cradle that was present in the archive.
Read the entire interview here.