01 Nov The Writer’s Crusade – An Interview with Tom Roston
The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut’s Long Struggle to Write His Masterpiece – An Interview with Tom Roston, author of The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and The Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five.
In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut describes how the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, was born from his promise to a longtime friend’s wife, Mary O’Hare, that he wouldn’t glorify war or depict it in a way in which “war will look just wonderful.” Vonnegut later tells Mary, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished.” Vonnegut, of course, did finish the book, and Slaughterhouse-Five has become a touchstone of America literature. Yet the journey to write the book was long and arduous.
In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and The Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tom Roston explores Vonnegut’s twenty-five year battle to transform his Dresden experience into a lasting work of art. The Writer’s Crusade moves beyond standard literary criticism to tell the story of Slaughterhouse-Five’s creation while addressing issues of PTSD, memory and collective trauma, and how a new generation of war writers struggle in their own crusades. Roston’s book is a welcome and necessary addition to the enduring conversation about Vonnegut and his work.
Roston shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: What inspired you to write a book about the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five?
I was talking to my editor, Jamison Stoltz at Abrams Press, about my next project. He was doing a series of books about books; he had done The Color Purple and 1984 and we were knocking around ideas and landed on Slaughterhouse-Five as being a great opportunity to re-examine the novel. I had loved the book as a teenager and even loved the movie more. But I recognized that there was a new way to look at the book. I had been thinking about the issue of collective trauma and the sense that as a group we’re feeling traumatized by different events from the past. Slaughterhouse-Five is all about trauma and yet it doesn’t feel like that when you read the book.
I think it’s very possible to read it and never even think of the word trauma, especially back when it came out in 1969. It’s still possible to read it that way now, but to me it’s very much about trauma. It was an interesting angle to the book that I don’t think had ever really been done before and so away we went.
Q: One of your working titles was “Kurt Vonnegut, Nazi Slayer!” How did that potential title come about?
I wanted to find a way to look at Slaughterhouse-Five that was exciting and fresh and very present. I didn’t want this just to be lit crit. There are so many books about Slaughterhouse-Five and about Kurt Vonnegut that I needed to have a reason for being. Why now? Why is this book happening? I wanted it to feel fun and alive and interesting and I really struggled with it.
But as I was reporting the book, I came upon a story that seemed too incredible to be true about Kurt Vonnegut having potentially committed a war crime. And it immediately triggered something in me that allowed me to access the subject of Kurt Vonnegut, trauma, and Slaughterhouse-Five, and answer the question “why now?” We ended up with the title of The Writer’s Crusade and it’s primarily about Kurt Vonnegut and his crusade to write that book. But of course there’s a little tongue in cheek: it’s also referring to my own journey as a writer to write the book about him.
Q: A question that appears throughout the book is whether Vonnegut had PTSD. What are your thoughts on that? And does it matter to the experience of reading Slaughterhouse-Five whether or not he suffered from it?
I do answer that question for myself in the book, but I think it’s open to interpretation. It’s safe to say that he didn’t have PTSD because PTSD did not exist as a diagnosis when he fought in his war. It only came about in 1980. But I think his experience was what most people would call traumatizing. What he saw in terms of what happened to his fellow soldiers, but especially what he saw happen to the city of Dresden and its people and having to clean up the bodies.
Now, of course, not everyone experiences the same thing in the same way, and many people could have experienced those things and not been traumatized. But what really brought me to this in many ways was reading some people who were very close to Vonnegut who said that he had PTSD. One of them being his daughter and another being Julia Whitehead, the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
Q: During the process of researching and writing the book, was there anything you came across that was a particular surprise?
Anyone who writes a book is constantly coming upon surprises. That’s part of the journey. Several things were really surprising, one being that, in terms of reading the book, so many people who love Slaughterhouse-Five see it as a crazy story about this loopy guy who goes to another planet and travels in time. To me, that’s not what it’s about at all. That’s only one layer of the book, but I think it’s great that people can experience it totally differently. Salman Rushdie had a great quote about how Vonnegut left it open to interpretation about whether or not Billy Pilgrim is actually experiencing time travel and Montana Wildhack and the Tralfamadorians. Or is it somehow a symptom of something else, whether it’s trauma or the plane crash or something that happened during the war? To me it’s clearly the latter but I find it surprising and wonderful that people can experience the book so differently. That’s one surprise.
I do find it surprising that Kurt throughout his years was never able to say that he was fucked up by the war. He refused to say it. There are a couple of interviews that I found where he said, “That was quite something I went through.” But then he says, “But if you’re going to experience something you might as well experience something intense.” He seemed to talk about it as if it was just something that happened. I don’t like to be the armchair psychologist, but it does seem like he is in some form of denial about how awful his experience was.
Now, it’s also possible that he had incredible fidelity to the pact he made with his fellow soldiers which was to never talk about it with anyone else. In which case let’s talk about saving Kurt. What’s amazing is that he can never talk to anybody outside of his circle of fellow soldiers and POW’s about how awful it was. Or you could interpret it as maybe he put it on the page in that book and said, “I’ve put it there; you can interpret it in this sort of lyrical, beautifully, fictional way, but I’m going to keep the raw awfulness of what I experienced to myself.”
It’s surprising that he could do that because he was such a talker. He used so much of his own thoughts as material in his speeches and in his writing, but he never went there. I’m in awe of his ability to not really talk about it.
Q: In your book you draw comparisons between how Vonnegut’s generation wrote about the war and how more recent writers have written about it. People like Phil Klay and Matthew Gallagher. What did you find significant about the difference there?
I lean on Tim O’Brien (author of The Things They Carried, Going after Cacciato) as a sort of bridge to understand more about war writers because Vonnegut was so sui generis about how he wrote about it. Vonnegut was very transparent. He writes that it’s impossible to write a war novel because you’re going to glorify it, and if you glorify it, you’re telling a lie. And so somehow Kurt cracked that code and in a miraculous way wrote this incredible book.
A lot of guys go to war with their typewriters. Norman Mailer did it, and so did Kurt. They wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and that’s so hard to do. As Kurt talked about it, it’s almost impossible. But I do think there’s something encouraging about the fact that there are always generations of soldiers who come back and become war writers.
We live in an era where we’re all so self-aware, and so Matt Gallagher is very self-aware about the question of when the great Iraq-Afghanistan war novel is going to be written. But it took Kurt twenty-five years to write his war novel. Kurt said that it was the Vietnam war that freed him to write his book, not only as a writer, but also because the audience was ready to read it. Now it’s been 20 years since 9/11. I think there are some cycles ahead of us before we get to a novel that does justice to the Iraq, Afghanistan engagements the way that Kurt did for World War II or Ernest Hemingway and the great war poets did for World War I.
Q: One can find many quotes in which Vonnegut downplayed the significance of Dresden in his life. Do you think he’s disingenuous in those statements or perhaps he really felt that?
It makes me feel queasy when I say he was in denial because who am I to say? A, I didn’t know him, and B, he’s a genius. It’s unfair, like armchair psychology.
In my book, I thought it was important to show his relationship to Dresden after he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. Because before he wrote it, he tried to write that book and sometimes he would write about how awful Dresden was and say things in a very clunky way. “It was awful. It was terrible. Damn it, boys.” Talking to the American soldiers, American pilots, saying, “What you did was a terrible thing.”
But that didn’t really work for him. Then he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, which acknowledges the disaster and awfulness of Dresden but does it in a way that gives the reader a choice of either feeling the pain and the misery and just the atrocity of that bombing or stepping away from it because there are Martians and this loopy guy named Billy Pilgrim. But then what I found interesting and wrote about is how when Vonnegut talked about Dresden after Slaughterhouse-Five, he went back and forth. He made speeches sometimes where he belittled it. He said, “It wasn’t that big a deal.”
Or he said, “The only thing that really came out of Dresden was that I made $5 per person who died there.” He used black humor, very dark humor to describe it. He often said it wasn’t a big deal to him but then sometimes he said, “Yes, it was awful and is as awful as a thing that humans can do.”
But then we have Bluebeard with a character (Rabo Karabekian) who has a Dresden like experience. Vonnegut tries to confront it and move us past it. You could see that he was trying to overcome its awfulness.
Q: It’s interesting that in Bluebeard the painting of the war scene is locked in the potato barn almost as if Rabo Karabekian refuses to acknowledge it. Perhaps there are some similarities to how Vonnegut felt, but again, that’s armchair psychology.
I totally agree and I think that’s what makes Vonnegut so incredible. He’s so accessible because you feel that this is what Vonnegut was saying because he speaks so clearly about what he’s doing. Most writers just aren’t able to do that.
Q: He’s a master. You mentioned Bluebeard which I think is a wonderful novel. Slaughterhouse-Five is obviously his masterpiece, but do you think perhaps its reputation and success overshadows some of Vonnegut’s other works so that they fail to garner the recognition they might deserve?
I think Slaughterhouse-Five is head and shoulders better than all of his other work. As we know he graded his own work and I would give it an A+++. I think Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions are for me the next two brilliant works. And then there’s a lot of other stuff that’s very good or excellent and then it goes downhill from there.
What’s great about Vonnegut is that people can choose for themselves and they have so much to choose from. From my understanding, in school if they’re going to teach any Vonnegut, they’re going to be teaching Slaughterhouse-Five. And do I think that’s wrong? No, because I think it’s a great book and it’s a great gateway to all the other books. Because I’m a non-fiction writer, I think his nonfiction work is pretty much second for me to Slaughterhouse-Five. I love his essays. The review of the dictionary that got him the gig to write Slaughterhouse-Five is to me the essential one.
Q: The last years of Kurt’s life appear to be sad in any account that’s given. Seemingly he couldn’t appreciate what he’d been able to accomplish. What are your thoughts on his final years?
I think that that is something that kind of hangs over him and it’s really upsetting. Because I think so many of us fans find so much solace and meaning out of reading him and yet this guy who is leading us ahead seems kind of sad. And so it’s confusing because there’s a discordance. When he was around 50, right after Slaughterhouse, he said, “I hope my children don’t say what I said about my father.” Which was that he told good jokes but was such a sad man.
I know his kids don’t want everyone to think of him in that way. Part of this subject is focused on Charles Shields’ book And So It Goes. Which I do think is unfair to Vonnegut because Charles Shields met him a couple of times. Just before he died, Kurt was an angry and bitter man, at least that’s what Shields saw and that’s how he wrote of him. And so the most definitive biography of Kurt Vonnegut paints him as an unhappy man. But let’s be honest: the guy was wrestling with depression; he was on medications. He was an alcoholic for phases of his life. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day when he was 18. He went through Dresden. He saw the worst of life.
He tried to commit suicide in 1984. Yes, it is dispiriting but he also tried to make us feel good about ourselves. We can see that this man struggled with the darkest of the dark and was still able to have fun. He did enjoy a lot of life and his kids talked about him having experienced and enjoyed everything from his family to his dogs to his work as a writer. He was a true artist. He felt things deeply. I think he felt the darkness deeply, but I think he also saw the light.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope that they reread his work, or they’re introduced to Vonnegut and especially to Slaughterhouse–Five because the book holds up incredibly well. It’s one of the great masterpieces of American literature. I hope that they also see what I see in its relationship to trauma and that it helps them.
I was working on the book when COVID-19 hit and then the Black Lives Matter movement came. The notion of collective trauma is very alive and we are as a nation wrestling with past suffering and trauma and that is what this book is about. I hope that people can see the connection that I’m seeing in the book and that they can use it because I think that’s what Vonnegut wanted to do.
Vonnegut, of course, made a joke of it. He said he wanted to do the same thing that Adolf Hitler wanted to do, which is that he wanted his book to serve society. That’s Vonnegut’s dark humor but he wanted that to happen. That’s what I hope my book does, that it helps to show that Slaughterhouse-Five is very much about society today. It can help us heal and see the world in a new way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Journalist Tom Roston worked at the Nation and Vanity Fair and was a senior editor at Premiere for more than a decade. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, Lit Hub, and more. He is the author of two books: I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanished Era and The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York. He lives in Brooklyn.