Heather Augustyn – Vonnegut’s Last Interview

In May 2007, In These Times magazine published Kurt Vonnegut’s last interview on its website. Conducted by journalist Heather Augustyn, the interview focuses on Vonnegut’s relationship with Indiana. Despite his poor health, Vonnegut’s responses  were lively and sharp.

The Daily Vonnegut recently spoke with Heather Augustyn about the interview.

1 – How did you come to interview Kurt Vonnegut in 2007?  What was the experience like?

It was the Year of Vonnegut in Indianapolis. They had organized a year-long celebration with events since Vonnegut is a Hoosier. He was to come speak in Indianapolis that year, and so I secured my ticket for the event, and being a correspondent for the Times of Northwest Indiana, I wanted to interview him. I knew there would be too many reporters at the press conference they arranged at the event, so I tracked him down prior to the event and asked to interview him about his relationship to Indiana. He graciously accepted. I prepared for days, reading everything I could, cramming all of his obscure essays and writing three pages of questions. I was so nervo

In May 2007, In These Timesmagazine published Kurt Vonnegut’s last interview on its website. Conducted by journalist Heather Augustyn, the interview focuses on Vonnegut’s relationship with Indiana. Despite his poor health, Vonnegut’s responses were lively and sharp.

The Daily Vonnegut recently spoke with Heather Augustyn about the interview.

1 – How did you come to interview Kurt Vonnegut in 2007? What was the experience like?

It was the Year of Vonnegut in Indianapolis. They had organized a year-longcelebration with events since Vonnegut is a Hoosier. He was to come speak in Indianapolis that year, and so I secured my ticketfor the event, and being a correspondent for the Times of Northwest Indiana, I wanted to interview him. I knew there would be too many reporters at the press conference they arranged at the event, so I tracked him down prior to the event and asked to interview him about his relationship to Indiana. He graciously accepted. I prepared for days, reading everything

us. He is my idol. So I was a bit fan-girl on the phone, but he was so warm and generous. He made me comfortable at once–a member of his karass.

 2 – During the interview did you sense that Vonnegut was moving toward his final days?

Yes, I have to admit that looking back, it’s pretty obvious. Vonnegut was hardly able to speak because he was coughing throughout the conversation. At the time I just thought it was too many unfiltered Pall Malls, but now I know it was likely something more serious.

 3 – In the published interview Kurt’s thoughts seem very sharp and focused.   Were you surprised, considering his admission that he wasn’t well? 

No, I’m not surprised. Even though he was 84, he didn’t seem to be 84. You’re right, he was lucid, sharp. He wasn’t well because of his cough, his respiration, but his mental capacity was dead on.

 4 – Vonnegut’s comments focus very much on his childhood in Indiana.  Was that your objective for the interview, or did Kurt move the interview in that direction? 

Yes, my objective for the interview was to stay focused on Indiana. Since it was the Year of Vonnegut in Indiana, and I was writing for an Indiana newspaper as a Hoosier, I wanted to explore these themes, this history. There are so many things we could have talked about, but I knew it was an extreme honor to have time with Mr. Vonnegut and wanted to keep it succinct and focused. It was just an angle. Mr. Vonnegut would have answered anything I wanted to ask, I had the feeling, so it was my direction.

 5 – Although he left Indiana at a young age and never returned to live there, it seemed to have a major influence on him.  He was a proud Midwesterner.  Why do you think Indiana had such a lasting impression on him? 

I asked him about this. It was because he had his foundation set here with his family. They had a cabin at Lake Maxinkuckee with the other members of his family and that was a rich childhood. There was a large extended family there on both his maternal and paternal sides. Extended family is central to his works, as is being a Hoosier, because there are connections he made here, familial and otherwise, established his values and beliefs as a young child. He carried these beliefs with him throughout his life–not just aspects of his character, but also his spirituality. His grandfather, Clemons Vonnegut, was a freethinker, a secular humanist, which is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was himself–a secular humanist, and in fact they both shared leadership posts in secular humanist organizations. This came from that set of beliefs and values taught to a young Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. during his time with his family in Indiana. It was critical to his being.

 6 – You’re an avid reader of Vonnegut’s work.  Do you have a favorite among his novels?

Absolutely–Galapagos is my favorite. I just gifted a copy of it to one of my students at Purdue University North Central since he expressed an interest in a Vonnegut piece I taught in class. The themes, the sense of humor, the truths. It’s so rich.

 7 – How were you first introduced to Vonnegut’s work?  What features of his work had the strongest impact on you?    

I found a used copy of one of his books, Slaughterhouse Five, at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland when I went to visit a friend many years back. I picked it up for two bucks. I was hooked. His political insights, his simple truths, his sarcasm, it really speaks to the way I think. It’s like someone much smarter than I am, much funnier than I am, is showing me the way, enlightening me, clearing out the overgrown paths of the way I already feel and believe. It’s refreshing to read Vonnegut.

8 –  You’ve written a book on Ska music, and Vonnegut was an enthusiastic admirer of Jazz.  Do you see music influenced his prose style?  If so, how?  

I didn’t know he loved jazz, and if I did, I never saw a connection in my work. To me they are two separate loves. If there is music in his prose style, specifically jazz, I could definitely see the classic jazz pattern of theme and variation used throughout. He has themes he echoes throughout his works–the importance of family, the importance of doing good to each other and to the earth, etc., and he has a scene or an aside, another scene or an aside, another scene or an aside–which all echo that theme in a different way, and then he comes back to the big point, the big theme that he hammers home.

9 –  Please tell us about yourself.   What are you working on currently? 

I live in Northwest Indiana–born and raised a Hoosier! I did live in Chicago for 10 years, but am back in my hometown, by choice! I live in Chesterton, have been married for 18 years and my husband Ron and I have two sons, Sid, 12 and Frank, 9. I am a correspondent for the Times of Northwest Indiana and have been for 10 years, and I am an adjunct professor at Purdue University North Central teaching English composition. I am currently promoting my latest book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music which has just been published.

 10 – Finally, was there a question you would have liked to ask Vonnegut that you didn’t get the chance to ask? 

I had three pages of questions to ask him. I only spoke to him for 8 minutes, so yes, there were many, many questions I wanted to ask him but didn’t get the chance to. Too many questions. Now I just look to his writings for the answers.

Check out Heather Augustyn’s interview with Kurt Vonnegut on the In These Times website:

Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Interview