02 May Breaking Down Vonnegut – An Interview with Julia Whitehead, Founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library
Breaking Down Vonnegut – An Interview with Julia Whitehead, Founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library
If there’s an MVP for promoting Kurt Vonnegut’s work and legacy, Julia Whitehead is that person. The founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, Whitehead has recently published Breaking Down Vonnegut (Jossey-Bass), an introduction to Vonnegut’s life and work. Though targeted to young adults, Vonnegut fans of any age can learn from Whitehead’s book. Purchase your copy here.
In an interview with The Daily Vonnegut, Whitehead shared her thoughts on writing about Vonnegut, the importance of Indiana in Kurt’s life, and the continuing advocacy work of the Vonnegut Library.
Q: You’ve written a new book, Breaking Down Vonnegut. What prompted you to write it?
I’ve been collecting information and anecdotes about Kurt over these roughly 12 years since I first had the idea for the Vonnegut Library. I’d have visits with his children or friends and they’d share their stories, which I filed away for some future book I might write. And then I had this opportunity that just landed at my doorstep when my publisher called and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this?” It’s a long story how they got into this, but basically I only had three months to write the book. They said, “If you want the project, you have to promise to deliver it on this day, not one day later.” So I knew going into it I had three months, not what I was expecting to have for my first book about Vonnegut. But I got it done and I’m happy with it.
Q: At the beginning of the book you discuss the connection that Kurt had with Indianapolis. Why do you think it had such a strong hold on him?
There is something about his life here. He talked about the extended family, and he had a great extended family that spent all of this time together, whether it was in Indianapolis or up at the family summer homes on Lake Maxinkuckee. Those relationships are so important, and especially at the age when he was growing up in Indianapolis, those teenage years and middle school years. He said at one point that he always had somebody to talk to. He later talked about the fact that we don’t have as many connections as individuals as people did in the old days, and he meant Indianapolis.
Especially now with COVID, people have become more isolated, and that’s not good for our mental health. I think part of his fondness for Indianapolis relates to his having this wonderful family. The Vonneguts were prominent, they were socialites, so Kurt knew all of the best the city had to offer as far as arts and culture and politicians, or just the interesting thinkers of the city, the movers and shakers. He had access to these folks. So he was always learning things.
Q: I read a quote the other day that was both beautiful and heartbreaking. He was thinking about the best moment of his life, and it was when he had a brother and a sister and a dog, and they were all together as children. Those feelings always connected him to his hometown.
Breaking Down Vonnegut does not cover all of Vonnegut’s novels. Player Piano is the first book you write about. What made you focus on Player Piano as opposed to some of his other books?
I had a little bit of flexibility in what I chose for the book, but I had to limit it to three chapters about his actual work. For years I felt a connection with Kurt in part because I also served in the military, and then also when it comes to individual issues, he was progressive, and I am personally like that myself. While I was growing up, my dad was in a union, and Vonnegut was well aware of these great union leaders who were in Indiana, nationally respected union leaders. And Vonnegut worked for General Electric, and I worked for the large pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, based here in Indianapolis. We both had the experience of working for these great corporations, and Vonnegut captures that corporate life so beautifully in Player Piano.
But also there’s that other side of it, that human experience, with the individual being more important than a corporation, and he captures that so well with that book. It was his first novel. He was a guy in his 20s, but he had such knowledge and wisdom. It features a great character, the Shah of Bratphur, who’s so funny and intelligent in his observations of the society. I love the way Vonnegut wrote that book with so many interesting characters.
Q: It’s the least Vonnegut-like book in terms of the style people expect from him, but it’s such a strong novel. I hope including it in your book will bring it new readers. You also write about “Harrison Bergeron”. It’s his most widely read story, particularly as it’s included in so many high school and college anthologies. Many consider it a warning against the idea of equality. You take a different perspective. What are your thoughts about “Harrison Bergeron?”
It’s been embraced by the left and the right politically, and I’ve been approached by people from different places who have said, “I had to read that story in school and I just completely agree with him that there are problems once everybody has the same rights.” I’ve been floored at times with things people have said about that short story. I tried to explain more about what Kurt was thinking. I had to do a lot of research to make sure I was getting that right. But it is a satire and he was laughing at people who thought that equal rights were going to be some kind of big problem that would lead to this dystopian future.
The story is really wonderful, and especially for middle school and high school students because of the characters. That age group really loves that story; the 14-year-old in all of us loves it. It’s interesting because I was reading Ray Bradbury around that time, and Bradbury has a story that is not the same by any means but has some similarity that makes me wonder what it was like during that period as people were seeing changes to the society. It’s a timeless story.
Q: A few years back I read it with community college students, many of whom had never read it before, and it was one of the few stories that people were raising their hand to comment on. Students really want to discuss it.
That’s great. We’re doing a Vonnegut tour where we’re going all over the country and talking to students in school. We’ll be giving away copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, taking questions from the students.
Q: I’m sure that will be well received. As one might expect, Breaking Down Vonnegut includes a chapter on Slaughterhouse-Five. You draw comparisons with it to “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow. I had never seen any reference to that before. How did you land on that perspective?
It just hit me one day during the three months when I was trying to write the book. I’m not an academic or a professor and many of my colleagues are. They’re college professors or high school teachers, and they know Vonnegut so well. I felt like I wasn’t worthy to write this book because I’m not an academic. But I just really did a lot of research. About “Paul Revere’s Ride”, I kept looking at that first sentence of Slaughterhouse, and I was thinking, “It’s his first sentence.” For me as a writer, I’m always thinking, “What’s my first sentence going to be?” And the more I thought about it, it became clear that the first sentence means a lot. That’s when it dawned on me that, “Hey, there’s something that might have been going on here.” (Both “Paul Revere’s Ride” and Slaughterhouse-Five begin with the word “Listen.”)
Another thing is that “Paul Revere’s Ride” is something that Vonnegut might have read, as it was popular to teach in school all those years ago. We sometimes forget about that. What were students in the past taught, and then what are they building on from that? So when I make that comparison, I write that Billy Pilgrim is a new kind of hero. That was a really exciting day for me to realize that.
Is that exactly how it went? We don’t know. We don’t have Kurt Vonnegut here to ask. But we know he borrowed a lot. We know that he looked at different things and changed wording, and that’s what I’m submitting to our readers. It’s important to show what Vonnegut was trying to do with Billy Pilgrim. He’s an important character not just in American literature, but world literature.
Q: The book ends with a chapter titled “Why Study Vonnegut?” So: why study Vonnegut?
We should study Vonnegut because his life is a roadmap for how to deal with life and its challenges. There are lots of other things I put in that chapter, but during the pandemic, we had so many people reaching out to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library wanting more of our virtual programming, which we had not done a lot of prior to that. We ended up with people from all over the world tuning in, and certainly on our social media platforms, and saying, “We need Kurt Vonnegut. We need his words of wisdom.”
Now it’s not as if his words of wisdom are going to say, “Go get vaccinated and go do this and go do that,” although he does have some things about that and about the importance of washing hands. But it’s really more looking at his life as an example. This is a person who survived the Nazis in the same year that his mother died, a young man dealing with these tragic scenarios, and he tried to cobble a life together and be a father and a husband and hold down a job and raise a family. In many ways, he was a regular guy that was just trying to raise a family and hold a job, but he always had these stories in him or he could just come up with a story very quickly just by looking at a mailbox, for example, and seeing somebody’s name. Next thing you know, he has an interesting short story. So I think we study Vonnegut to help ourselves deal with life.
But also for people who just like to read, his sentences are clear and short, and he writes for everybody. I have people coming into the museum saying, “Oh, which book should I read?” I have to ask some questions because I want to try to get the right book for that person. Not everyone is going to like Slaughterhouse-Five, a vulgar war story with a lot of profanity and the Montana Wildhack character, the porn star. Not everybody’s going to go for that. So I do try to choose things that I think people will like, but as I show in the book, Vonnegut always takes characters like Montana Wildhack and shows the wonderful things about them. There’s never a villain, and he doesn’t shame people, and that’s something I love about him as well.
Q: The book has been out for a few months now. How as the reaction been?
The feedback I’ve received has been all good. It came out February 2nd and was the number one new release on Amazon for its category, young adult biography, but also for 20th century American history, which I did not expect. I was super proud of that in part because I tried to explain what was going on in the country while Kurt was writing and how that could influence what he wrote. It’s really important to understand. Sometimes I think people make assumptions about him, because he has certain words in his books that not everybody is going to like. And some of us don’t like those words either. But he has reasons for including them. He wrote carefully. He wrote nine different endings to Slaughterhouse-Five and he picks every single word very carefully.
He was an artist, a literary artist and a visual artist. He was using his writing as a platform to make social change. I always try to make it very clear to people that if they have a misunderstanding about what kind of person he was, they should read him and they’ll find out. He was a friend to civil rights. He was a progressive human-loving individual. He didn’t get bogged down with labels of political party because that was what he would call a granfalloon.
Q: Over the last few years, KVML has done Teaching Vonnegut, a summer program for educators. Is that an initiative that you plan to continue?
We absolutely are. We’re about to unveil the whole schedule of events. It’s led by a wonderful person named ([Drew DeSimone) and we are working with some returning teachers, but also new teachers to bring some different content. It will be virtual. Next year we’re going to be able to have a hybrid situation, but you can sign up for one or for the whole series of teacher workshops.
We’re partnering this year with this group in the city called Circle City Storytellers. Their mission is to raise black voices in Indianapolis and share those untold stories of the human experience in Indianapolis. A few years ago we worked with Harshman Middle School, a really challenged school, as they’re underfunded and under-resourced.
We took Slaughterhouse-Five and the teachers said they wish we would’ve done it in the Fall instead of the Spring because instead of just promoting Kurt Vonnegut, we use Slaughterhouse-Five as a way to get students to write about their own trauma. And they did that. We expected some stories here and there of horrific things, but we did not expect that almost every single student had a story that was challenging in the very least, and tragic for most of them.
The teachers didn’t know these things about their students, and they said they wished they would have known at the beginning of the year. It ran from “My mom was sent back to Mexico,” to “My brother was gunned down in gang violence.” There were so many things these students had been through. That is a part of our program that we will continue to do.
Q: KVML also has initiatives around free speech. Can you discuss some of the advocacy work that’s been done?
The first class I ever taught at the teacher workshop was on free speech. What are our rights? What does the Constitution say? We had teachers talking about free speech issues in their classroom. Some of them were just sharing information, and others learned how they might be preventing free speech by some of the things that they were making assumptions about. So we had wonderful dialogue around that. But with the museum, on our first floor, we have a freedom of expression exhibit. It’s not just Vonnegut. We have some visiting pieces, some temporary exhibitions. We have a piece of the Berlin Wall in our museum, and we tie it all back to the importance of freedom of expression.
During Banned Books Week, which is a program from the American Library Association during the last week of September, we have someone living in the museum surrounded by a wall of banned books. During the week, that person is talking about free speech issues. It’s the most visited week of the year for the Vonnegut Library. People come from all over, including the Indiana farmland and all the major cities, to celebrate the freedom that we have. It’s the one time when we can all come together and support each other. Now there are people who are still trying to ban books and we have to go after that. Whenever that pops up, we have to partner with our friends around the country who are involved in that type of advocacy.
We also have one-off programs. We do things on cancel culture. There’s a great quote from Vonnegut. He says, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely, not merely your own ideas.” That’s how we approach this. So we will try to balance our programs with opposing positions on things that Vonnegut personally might not have supported, but we know that Vonnegut would have enjoyed and appreciated the dialogue. He talked about how important civics is, what he learned right here in Indianapolis at Shortridge High School. We see this every day with stuff that pops up in the news, people not really understanding what their rights are, what you can do and what you can’t. So it’s a great chance to have that dialogue.
Q: The Library has recently launched a podcast.
It’s so fun. If you go to vonnegutlibrary.org or check out our Facebook page and our other social media platforms, you’ll see when it’s airing. We just started it, and the first one is with one of our friends, comedian Gary Gulman. The next one is with our board chair, comedian Lewis Black. It’s great to have someone who is so entertaining, but also so very serious about the work we do as our board chair. The time for the podcast is donated to us, and my colleagues Fiona Duffy and Drew DeSimone are producing. The hosts are two Vonnegut Library staff members, our curator Chris LaFave, and Sam Bannon. They’ll be interviewing people but we’ll mix it up. We get to do this all year long as part of our celebration to honor Vonnegut for his 100th birthday.
We reached out to lots of different community partners, and we had folks coming to us and wanting to do something for the centennial, and this was one of those. We had talked about doing a podcast, but this was a great opportunity that landed on our doorstep.
Q: As a final question, why Kurt Vonnegut? Why has this author come to play such a pivotal role in your life?
It can get emotional for me sometimes when I talk about Vonnegut. But I think it’s feeling a connection to him. I never met him, but part of it was that shared experience of having served in the military, but also I’ve lived around the world. I taught in Thailand. I lived in Bangladesh and all of these different places. To know that we’re all brothers and sisters–Kurt said that. He knew that deep down, we’re all the same and that we need to be kind to each other. His quotes mattered a lot to me.
His books are really fun, and some people love Vonnegut for just the fiction part of his books. But I love Vonnegut for the Vonnegut part. He’ll sometimes insert himself, whether it’s with his own words or with a character and what that character says. He was equally comfortable in the fishing hole as he was at a black-tie event, and I think that’s interesting. In the military, he wanted to be enlisted. He made that choice and he’d call himself a regular. He didn’t think of himself as better than anybody else, but he also knew that we all have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We can help each other accomplish that.
But I think he was special in what he was able to recover from, or at least live with, through the use of humor and learning and reading other writers, reading history and connecting with people. He helped people. He helped homeless people beyond just handing them money. There’s a great story about him helping someone who had been homeless become a writer. (Lee Stringer. For more, read Like Shaking Hands With God).
He didn’t just throw money at stuff. He cared. Mark Vonnegut told us that too, that he would come home sometimes and his dad would be on the phone with a high school student that he had never met, just somebody who had called him up and wanted help with their assignment. And he would do that. He would put the time in. And boy, what more precious thing do we have to share with someone than our time?