Jim O’Loughlin – Kurt Vonnegut Remembered

Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, recently published by The University of Alabama Press, is a must-read for Vonnegut fans as it traces the author’s life through a series of essays and recollections from those who knew him best. The list of contributors ranges from well-known media figures like Geraldo Rivera and Michael Moore to Vonnegut family members and fellow soldiers who served with Kurt in World War II. In these pages you’ll find John Irving, Gail Godwin, Peter Fonda, and John Updike along with familiar names like Jerome Klinkowitz, Donald Farber, and Loree Rackstraw.

At the helm of this treasure trove of Vonnegut history is Jim O’Loughlin, who edited the collection and, in his Introductions to each section, provides context for what follows. Kurt Vonnegut Remembered leaves readers with a new appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut the author as well as Kurt Vonnegut, human being.

Purchase your copy here.

O’Loughlin shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: Kurt Vonnegut Remembered is a gift for any Vonnegut fan, the equivalent of an oral history of Vonnegut’s life. How did you come to be involved with the project?

A: I like that characterization: “an oral history of Vonnegut’s life,” and I may steal it from you. Two of my former colleagues at the University of Northern Iowa, Laurie Rackstraw and Jerome Klinkowitz, had important personal connections with Vonnegut, and the North American Review (housed at UNI) runs an annual Kurt Vonnegut Speculative Fiction Prize, so this is a part of our institutional heritage and I feel I’m doing my part to maintain it.

Q: What were some of the challenges in tracking down the different reminiscences and recollections included in the book?

A: Much of my prior critical writing has involved older subjects and long deceased authors. However, the majority of the people writing about Vonnegut are still very much alive. Dead people tend to be easier to work with, but you don’t get as much feedback . Actually, writers I corresponded with for this project were extremely generous and happy to see interest in a figure who had influenced them. The problems I faced tended to be technical, such as figuring out who controlled the rights to a particular piece or carrying out permissions fee negotiations in Spanish.

Q: While reviewing the material, what surprised you the most?

A: I was surprised by Vonnegut’s many unnecessary acts of kindness. Bear with me for an unrelated anecdote that helps explain this idea. I was once at our town’s Fourth of July parade on a gorgeous, sunny day, and I happened to be sitting next to the local TV weatherman. At least a dozen times during the parade, someone came up and made the same joke thanking him for the beautiful weather. That poor guy had to laugh it up every time like he had never heard the joke before. I’ve always liked him since then.
Similarly, for much of the latter part of his life, Vonnegut was a famous and instantly recognizable celebrity. People were not going to forget meeting him, and he had the choice as to whether he wanted those encounters to be positive. Time and time again, Vonnegut gave his attention to strangers, children, and struggling writers, and they remembered him for that. I think that because fame came to Vonnegut relatively late in life (Slaughterhouse-Five was published when he was in his late forties), he had a measured appreciation for what fame did for him and what it did for others.

Q: One of the contributors is Ezra Prior. Tell us about him, and how his essay adds a new perspective on Vonnegut and his family.

A: Ezra is one of Kurt Vonnegut’s grandchildren, and he grew up in a world where his grandfather was always a famous and imposing figure. That brought both great benefits and some challenges. Many writings from Vonnegut family members are centered around the before-and-after effect of the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, so it is notable that all that had played out before Ezra came into the picture. I appreciate that Ezra’s remembrance, like all the best ones in this collection, attempt to capture an individual in all his complexity, and it relates uniquely personal aspects of “Grandpa Kurt.”

Q: In an essay written specifically for the book, Jerome Klinkowitz discusses the topic of the posthumous publications. Was that something you asked him to specifically address?

A: That was all him. Jerome Klinkowitz has done more than any other scholar to establish Vonnegut’s literary significance. He was invaluable to me throughout this project in suggesting people I should contact or in helping me footnote now-obscure references. He wanted to write that piece because he recognizes that the next generation of Vonnegut readers will not be people who have had any personal contact with him, so the books that are most accessible to readers will be the ones that define Kurt Vonnegut’s future reputation.

Q: How did you determine what to include and what to leave out?

A: The goal of the project was to be as comprehensive as possible while creating a book that would make for good reading, so sometimes it made sense to excerpt longer pieces that went over Vonnegut’s basic biographical information. In a few instances, we were unable to acquire permission to reprint a remembrance, and then there was the odd piece, like a gonzo essay by Terry Southern that I didn’t include because I couldn’t figure out whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Overall, I feel good that the book is able to offer a representative account of writings on Vonnegut, and it provides citations for all remembrances I couldn’t include. I’m sure a couple slipped by me, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Q: One of the controversies around Charles J. Shields’s 2011 biography And So It Goes concerned the potential hypocrisy around some of Vonnegut’s personal investments. Is this addressed in Kurt Vonnegut Remembered?

A: Yes, in fact this was an issue that caused Vonnegut’s longtime friend and literary executor, Donald Farber, to write a letter to the New York Times (which I include), objecting to that characterization in a review of Shields’s book. Vonnegut’s investments were managed through a brokerage and overseen by Farber. Vonnegut was a “passive investor,” and if one wants to find fault with him for that, fair enough. But some people came away from Shield’s account with the view that Vonnegut was intentionally investing in industries he excoriated in his writings, which was not the case. That said, as I note in Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, while I take issue with some aspects of Shields’s book, it remains an important resource, and I find the biography’s account of Vonnegut’s early life and his relationship with his parents invaluable.

Q: Some of the contributors present a less-than-flattering portrait of Vonnegut. Why was it important to include them?

A: The goal of this project was to provide a resource that could be as comprehensive as possible, and that meant including both positive and negative accounts. Additionally, I found seeing Vonnegut’s vulnerabilities and curmudgeonliness, as well as the messiness of an actually-lived life, was something that brought out the human side of an iconic figure.

Q: While avoiding hagiography, most of the contributors recall Vonnegut with great warmth. Why do you think Kurt inspired such fondness?

A: I’m going to quote myself here. One of Vonnegut’s most famous lines comes from Mother Night, when he writes “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” In the introduction to the collection, I note “If Kurt Vonnegut’s readers desired for him to be kind, humane, and someone you would like to have as a friend, perhaps one of the best decisions he made was to pretend to be that person, because, in the end, that is who he was.”

Q: During our interview a few years back, we discussed your Craft of Fiction class at the University of Northern Iowa and how you were using the World of Kurt Vonnegut with your students, several of whom had published their work through Amazon. Are you still doing that?

A: Alas, the apocalypse has come to the World of Kurt Vonnegut (and all the other Kindle Worlds). Amazon discontinued the program, though I was happy to use it while I could to introduce many students to Vonnegut’s work and to give them their first publication opportunity. I’d love to find a way to bring out a collection of the best of Vonnegut fanfiction.

Q: Thank you for your efforts editing Kurt Vonnegut Remembered. What’s next for Jim O’Loughlin?

A: And thanks for all your work with The Daily Vonnegut! I am currently writing a blog that I aim to develop into a book. In “20+ Candidates,” I’ve pledged to see all of the 2020 Presidential candidates that may their way through Iowa and document the whole odd process leading up to the Iowa Caucuses. I’ve seen nine so far, so I’ve got a way to go. Feel free to check it out at: https://candidates.home.blog.

Jim O’Loughlin is Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the coauthor of Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870-1900