Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by Curtis Smith, part of Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series, is one writer’s thoughts and reflections through the lens of Vonnegut’s great novel. Neither literary criticism nor memoir, the book contains elements of both, as Smith explores the novel’s themes as they relate to history, time, mortality, and the arc of Smith’s own life.
Curtis Smith shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: How would you describe the book to a potential reader?
A: It’s a riff on the original—part of it is playing with Vonnegut’s narrative and ideas and trying to relate them to my own experiences. Part of it is taking his themes—war, death, time, horror, humor—and investigating them at another level than what’s presented in the Slaughterhouse. I think my book is original enough so that one wouldn’t necessarily have to have already read Slaughterhouse—but it’s definitely an homage to both the book and Vonnegut.
Q: How did you come to write the book? Was it written specifically for the Bookmarked series?
A: The guest editor, Kirby Gann, approached me and asked if I’d be interested. At first I shied away—I didn’t want to write a piece of literary criticism—then Kirby and the folks at Ig assured me what they were looking for was a kind of free-form take on the original through the eyes of someone who’d been influenced by the work. They gave me a contract and a deadline and then left me alone. It took about nine or so months—and it was a lot of work—the research and weaving together the book’s strands—but it was also a lot of fun. I found myself anxious to get up every morning so I could have a quiet hour to dedicate to the pages. I couldn’t ask for much more in terms of reward or engagement.
Q: Tell us about your first experience reading Slaughterhouse-Five.
A: Part of the book addresses this—and the fact is, I can’t actually remember it—which kind of dovetails into the book’s notion of time being a slippery thing. But I do know the approximate details—I was in high school—probably a sophomore or junior—and at that time, I was reading all the Vonnegut I could get my hands on. And while I can’t pinpoint the time exactly, I know Vonnegut, through all his works, was having an influence on me and the way I viewed the world.
Q: The book is written in small segments, usually no more than one or two pages. This mirrors the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five. Was that always your intention, or did the shape take form during the writing?
A: Yes, that was the intention from the start. It’s such a great structure—in the book I talk about art and I contend collage and assemblage are the art forms truest to how we perceive the world—the taking of disparate fragments and weaving them into a whole. And I think that’s what Vonnegut did in books like Slaughterhouse and Breakfast of Champions. It’s masterful, and he often doesn’t get the serious, literary credit he’s due because he’s so damn funny.
Q: A theme of the book is the almost unavoidable instinct to “look back?” Did writing the book cause you to look back on parts of your life and see them differently?
A: Perhaps some—but more so I found myself looking forward—imagining the time when I wouldn’t be healthy and happy and not a burden to anyone. Looking at it from that end made me appreciate how good today—or any day when I’m still kicking—is.
Q: Your son is featured throughout the book. Has fatherhood changed how you read Slaughterhouse-Five?
A: Fatherhood has changed how I look at the book’s angle of war being a Children’s Crusade. I think of Billy Pilgrim and Kurt Vonnegut—and they’re less than ten years older than my son—and when I see the spectacle of war through the eyes of children, it hits home in a way it hadn’t (or probably couldn’t) before.
Another aspect that parenthood impacts is the concept of time past and present—what parent doesn’t look into their child’s eyes and see and echo of themselves? It’s an odd sensation—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous.
Q: Have you had any contact with or response from the Vonnegut estate regarding the book?
A: No—but it would be cool if they did. My sincerest hope would be that someone from that end would read it and think I did the man and his work justice.
Q: You mention Bluebeard as your second favorite Vonnegut novel. I’ve always thought his later books deserve more attention than they get. Why is Bluebeard one of your favorites?
A: I loved the book’s time period—and the whole abstract impressionist aspect of it. I loved the fact that it was happy, at least in its own way, and that it was a celebration of art and expression and survival—even if Rabo’s own creations were destined to fade. In some ways, it’s one of the more optimistic of Vonnegut’s pieces—although I’ve always thought there was a heavy current of optimism in his work beneath the disgust he sometimes saw in the world—I think that balance of wonder and horror is one of the most enduring aspects of his worldview.
Q: You’ve had a career in education, and one of my favorite sentences in the book is: “This is my fear—the interests behind the Core don’t desire a country of literature lovers but of proficient manual readers and report writers.” Unfortunately, I think your fear is reality. What does a writer like Vonnegut have to offer that is lacking in a test-crazed curriculum? How would you respond to someone who says, “Why should I read Slaughterhouse-Five when there are cool things to stare at on my phone?”
A:There are a lot of cool things to look at on one’s phone—but they don’t offer the immersion a book can, especially a book like Slaughterhouse. I’ve got to think different parts of the brain are stimulated—even though the body is in the same, observing posture. Not to sound like a crank, but there’s something off-putting about a glowing screen—it repels while a printed page draws one in. I know there are fewer and fewer folks who think the same way—but I’ve got to believe there are enough of us to keep the print industry alive.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the experience of reading your book?
A: I think the best thing that can come from my book is steering folks back to Vonnegut’s work. And after that, if my book can make some people think about time and science and history and war just a bit differently, then I’ll be happy.
Curtis Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays, and his work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with indie presses to put out ten previous books, his most recent being Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). His take on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the initial offerings of Ig Publishing’s new Bookmarked series. You can find him on Facebook or at www.curtisjsmith.com.”