The Vonnegut Encyclopedia by Marc Leeds, an invaluable reference for Vonnegut fans, has been published by Delacorte Press in a new updated edition. To celebrate, we’re reposting a 2015 interview with Leeds, who spoke with The Daily Vonnegut about the Encyclopedia and his relationship with KV.
The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Interview with Marc Leeds
The Vonnegut Encyclopedia by Marc Leeds (Forward by Kurt Vonnegut) is a monumental achievement. First published in 1995, the Encyclopedia is a comprehensive and descriptive catalog of the themes, characters, phrasing, and imagery found in Vonnegut’s work. For long-time Vonnegut readers, spending time with Leeds’ book is akin to visiting a museum of KV’s fictional world. Looking for insight into the major novels? Leeds has it covered, but he also includes entries on lesser-known characters like Virgil Greathouse and Daniel McCone along with real-life connections like Phoebe Hurty, the Indianapolis Times columnist for whom Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions. Over 600 pages in length, Leeds travels through every nook and cranny of the Vonnegut universe; flipping through the pages, one becomes “unstuck” in Vonnegut’s work, bouncing through the entries, from the earliest short stories to Vonnegut’s final novel Timequake.
Although difficult to find (used copies on Amazon can fetch hundreds of dollars—my own copy rivalled my car payment!) the Encyclopedia is a must-have for scholars and fans alike. Fortunately Leeds will be releasing a revised version later this year.
The Daily Vonnegut spoke with Leeds about the Encyclopedia and his relationship with KV.
Q: You’re mentioned toward the end of Timequake as one of the people who made Kurt “want to keep on going” in his sunset years. How did that make you feel? Were you surprised to find yourself a “character” in a Vonnegut novel?
A: This is a hard one to answer. I could take the Aww shucks approach and say I was just as shocked as anyone else. I could say that it is an obviously undeserved honorific bestowed upon me by Kurt, and that would be part of my truth. To understand my reaction requires telling you how I learned of this.
Kurt sent me an unbound copy of the manuscript submitted to his editor. I had recently moved to Florida for my wife’s job and gave up my professorship in Ohio. So here I was sitting at my desk writing technical documentation for apparel industry software when I receive the package. It killed me to wait until lunch to open it. I read the first twenty pages or so when I started to get an odd sense of foreshadowing. I started speed reading, Evelyn Wood style. My finger sweeping down the pages until there it was. I sensed it. I knew it. I don’t know how. I don’t deserve it. But I’ll take it. The thought hit me that if I ever get to update the encyclopedia, I would have to include myself as a character. Pretty funny.
Q: What was your first experience with the work of Kurt Vonnegut?
A: My older brother, Don, did something completely out of the ordinary. He asked me to join him in his friend’s yellow convertible VW bug for a trip to a bookstore in Greenwich Village. This was back when I was about fifteen. We were usually at war with each other.
I found myself in the basement of Brentano’s thumbing through the science fiction section when I came across an obviously misplaced book: Mother Night. I was a child of the 60s and 70s. I grew up on every American war film ever made. I was walking to Hebrew school when I heard about Eichmann’s capture. The narrative enthralled me. I read it instead of reading for the NY State Regents Exams.
Q: When did you first start working on the Encyclopedia?
A: I first contacted Kurt about the proposed project in December 1987, when I received in the mail the official bound copy of my doctoral dissertation. I felt official. I had already scoped out the necessary software and computing technologies I needed. Worked up a budget with a big question mark concerning the scanning and development of the full-text database. A kind dealer of Kurzweil technology, Joyce Lawrence, took pity on me as a young academic and made the conversion from text to digital feasible. The first edition went through two full rewrites and was published by Greenwood in December 1994.
Q: The Encyclopedia is an enormous achievement. How did you compile and organize all of the information? Was there specific software involved?
A: No trade secrets. Just a lot of off the shelf stuff used in interesting combination, rigorously eyed over by me. Here’s a short list: Kurzweil scanning technology (both hardware and software); WordPerfect 5.2; WordCruncher (vital for the project’s early start); later on it involved Mac technology; conversion to Windows technology (hated that part); back to writing the second edition in Pages (far superior for wordsmiths than Word); and then an unfortunate need to convert the project into a single Word file. Lots of other stuff in there including my first experience indexing one’s own text.
Q: How long did it take to complete it?
A: The first edition took nearly eight years from permission to publication (including a change of publishers and two rewrites). I purchased back the rights to the book in 2007 and started right away with a new computer setup for the project. I am now working on the last page proofs (June 2015) as I write this reply. This second edition would have been out sooner if not for some medical problems I had, surgical complications, a coma, three-months in hospital, reconstructive abdominal surgery, awaiting more surgery as I write.
The funny thing is that I finished the manuscript the night before out-patient surgery and hung on to it thinking that I could look it over while recuperating at home. Wrong. I awoke from a coma three weeks later. I wound up sending the manuscript from a hospital bed on my iPhone with a DropBox link to the file. Kurt would probably roll his eyes. That surgery was April 10th 2013. Reconstruction was March 5, 2014. I am now awaiting another surgery to resolve the hernias that popped up in spots along the 250 sutures.
Q: In the Preface you write about developing a friendship with Kurt. How would you describe your relationship? Once you got to know him, was there anything that surprised you about him?
A: Kurt was ridiculously kind with his time and possessions. My family owns original, personalized artwork and books from him that basically showed up from nowhere. He was in the best sense of the term avuncular. Kurt was always displeased with my working at such small colleges on such big projects with no support. He always expressed in his calls concern for my family’s progress and a desire to get me better employed. He even wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf just because I mentioned my applications.
Q: What made you decide to revise the Encyclopedia?
A: I always wanted to revise it. Hell, immediately upon finding typos in the first edition and an embarrassing omission on my part, I wanted to revise it. Still, I hoped Kurt would live longer and write even more for the next version. As is, the revision includes all the work published in his lifetime provided he approved the final copy. None of the posthumous works make that cut.
Q: When will the revised edition be published?
A: November 17, 2015. I believe that is JFK’s birthday.
Q: Why does Vonnegut’s work resonate so strongly with you?
A: In no particular order: the narratives are compelling; the characters seek truth; Kurt’s own battle with PTSD is all over the texts and so he is as compelling as his forms; his backdrops are thoughtful, full of anthropological insights about man and our repetitive destructive behaviors; he always seeks what I call that Zen moment, the moment when you can stop giving a fuck about everything that’s shitty. And there are his sentences. No one conveys as much information in as neat a package. Also, he is damned good and grafting history to his texts.
Q: Do you have a favorite book in the Vonnegut canon?
A: I will cheap out on this question by saying that it is The Sirens of Titan. However, based upon how I have worked with the texts, I now see Kurt’s work as one stream, what Kerouac did with that first scotch-taped typescript of On the Road. For me, Kurt’s work is stretched out and attached to two poles and read as a Torah. It is all connected.
Q: What do you think about the books that have been published posthumously?
A: I have read some and see where Kurt was not finished with things. They have research value but should not be considered part of his official canon.
Q: Please describe your involvement with the Kurt Vonnegut Society.
A: I was a co-founder of the society along with five others. I had the good fortune of first having Robert Tally and then Gregory Sumner do the heavy lifting of conference organization. These days I am more involved as charter board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. I will be starting new Web section for them later this year based on various teachable moments within Vonnegut.