In 2013 the Vonnegut Estate reached an agreement with Amazon to allow writers to use copyrighted elements of Vonnegut’s work for stories published exclusively for Amazon’s Kindle. These stories, under the category The World of Kurt Vonnegut, are available for download on Amazon. The “World” program gives fans the chance to apply their own imaginative powers to Vonnegut’s narratives, characters, and settings. While purists might grumble, it’s an interesting way to spur new interest in Vonnegut’s work and many of the published stories are lit-journal worthy, written with respect and admiration for the Vonnegut canon.
In his Craft of Fiction class at the University of Northern Iowa, Professor Jim O’Loughlin has introduced The World of Kurt Vonnegut to his students, assigning them to read Slaughterhouse-Five or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and then write a parallel story. To date several students have published their stories on Amazon.
The Daily Vonnegut recently interviewed O’Loughlin about the program.
Q: The students in your Craft of Fiction class write stories set in the world of Kurt Vonnegut. How did this idea come about?
A: When The World of Kurt Vonnegut was announced, I saw it as something that could fit my class really well. It’s an intermediate-level creative writing course that already began with a section in which students wrote fiction modeled after well-known contemporary stories. This “fan fiction” or “parallel fiction” type of exercise requires students to extend their reach, trying certain styles or formats that they might not otherwise give a chance.
Of course, this exercise can be done with any piece of fiction, but the fact that students could publish their work at the end of the process made people approach the project differently. There’s no better way to get people serious about revising and editing then to have a writing process end with publication. Of course, it’s also a great way to teach Kurt Vonnegut novels.
Q: In your class students read either Slaughterhouse-Five or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Why did you pick those two novels, particularly Rosewater, which gets a lot less attention than novels like Cat’s Cradle or Mother Night?
A: Though I do consider Rosewater an underappreciated book, in this particular class some of the students had recently taken a Vonnegut seminar with my colleague, Jerry Klinkowitz, and I had to dig a little deeper to find a book that would be a new reading experience for them. Most of the students in the class were new to Vonnegut, and S-5 was the book they used for their project.
Q: How do most students react to the assignment?
A: Students did a great job. They took the project seriously and, more importantly, they went in all kinds of different directions. Some mirrored Vonnegut’s style, other took on previously unwritten Kilgore Trout novels, and still others made minor characters into protagonists.
Q: A few of the students have published their stories on Amazon. Is this something that you encourage them to do? As their teacher it must be gratifying for you to see them publish?
A: The assignment was set up so that students had to write a story that would meet all the requirements necessary for publishing in The World of Kurt Vonnegut, but, in the end, it was up to the individual student to decide to publish (and about half of the class did so). Many of the published stories had moments when they became best sellers in the Kindle World-Contemporary category, and I took particular pleasure when a story from the class knocked a Vampire Diaries fan fiction story out of the top slot.
Q: You’ve also published a Vonnegut-related story: What Valencia Knew. Did you write it specifically for this project? What was your inspiration for the story?
A: I felt I had an obligation to be the first one to go through the process, so the class workshopped my story draft, and then I revised and published it so as to be able to talk about the electronic publication process (which was easier than I anticipated). Though S-5 is one of my favorite novels, I always felt the character of Billy Pilgrim’s wife, Valencia, was not fully realized. By having Valencia become the protagonist of her own story, I took on the challenge of making her a compelling figure while staying true to the elements of her role in S-5. “What Valencia Knew” is also indebted to Timequake in that in my story Valencia is visited by a Tralfamadorian who reveals the major events of her life to her before they happen. She’s a character who is not sure if she has decisions to make.
Q: Do you plan to write any more stories set in Vonnegut’s world?
A: Yes, I hope to repeat the same process this semester and model the work involved for students, but as far as what I write, I’m currently waiting for inspiration to strike my head like an anvil from the sky.
Q: How did you first become interested in Vonnegut’s work?
A: My mom gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle to read when I was in high school, and I made my way through a lot of Vonnegut’s canonical works after that. More recently, I’ve been reading works I missed the first time around (like Bluebeard) and re-reading others that I can only now appreciate (The Sirens of Titan).
Q: How do you approach teaching Vonnegut’s work to beginning fiction writers? Do you focus on any specific elements of craft?
A: Vonnegut’s style is really attractive to beginning writers. His work is accessible and seems almost casually written, but the more time you spend with his fiction the more you realize how hard it is to make it look easy, as Vonnegut does. We spend a lot of time charting out specific aspects of Vonnegut’s way of writing and try to learn how to best apply it. I should say that I prefer this approach much more than a fiction writing class based on “finding your unique voice” as a writer. If it’s all about “finding your unique voice,” than the fiction you read in a class is just showing you the voices that are already taken, which is actually counterproductive. In a section on parallel fiction, the reading is just as significant as the writing.
Q: You’re working on a book about Vonnegut. What is the book’s focus, and when do you expect to complete it?
A: I’m editing a collection of published and original remembrances entitled Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, part of a series from the University of Alabama Press. The book brings together much of the writing done on Vonnegut as an individual by friends, family, and occasional fans he ran into on the subway. It is in the hands of editors as I write this, so I’m hopeful it will be making its way through the publication process soon.
Q: Finally, what do you think Kurt himself might have thought about The World Of Kurt Vonnegut?
A: He had no role in its creation. It was a decision made by his Estate, and it’s possible he would have absolutely hated it. The main work of Vonnegut-inspired parallel fiction previously published was Venus on the Half Shell, the 1975 “Kilgore Trout” novel written by Philip José Farmer. Vonnegut had given Farmer permission to write it but then regretted his decision and had a falling out with Farmer. So, it’s possible he would have really despised The World of Kurt Vonnegut. But his main objection to Farmer’s novel seemed to be that Farmer was capitalizing on Vonnegut’s reputation (some people originally thought Vonnegut had written Venus) to make money. The World of Kurt Vonnegut follows copyright regulations (unlike much online fan fiction) and Vonnegut’s estate gets a percentage of its sales. Vonnegut may have been okay with that. And if the work that is published is good and leads to more interest in Vonnegut’s writing, then it would seem more like flattery than thievery.
For more on Jim O’Loughlin and The World of Kurt Vonnegut, check out the following, which includes links to the stories on Amazon published by Jim and his students. We’ve read several of them, including O’Loughlin’s What Valencia Knew, a well-crafted and entertaining tale well worth checking out.