16 Aug Waking People Up – An Interview with Steve Almond
Waking People Up – The Prophetic Voice of Kurt Vonnegut: An Interview with Steve Almond, author of Not That You Asked and William Stoner and The Battle for The Inner Life
Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His latest book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, is about reading and writing and the struggle to pay attention to our lives.
Almond’s Not That You Asked (Random House, 2008) includes an extended essay on Kurt Vonnegut, a lively mix of literary appreciation and field reporting interspersed with comic moments from Almond’s life. His depiction of Vonnegut’s appearance at The Connecticut Forum alongside authors Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner is both funny and heartbreaking, required reading for Vonnegut fans. For more about Steve Almond, visit https://stevealmondjoy.org or follow him on Twitter: @stevealmondjoy.
Almond shared his thoughts on the urgency and moral clarity of Vonnegut’s voice, Kurt’s reputation in the literary world, and why Vonnegut is unlikely to be cancelled.
In your essay collection Not That You Asked, published in 2008, you included a long appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut that was initially conceived as a book length project. Have your thoughts on Vonnegut changed over the years?
The book idea that I pitched to publishers was really an extended meditation on Vonnegut’s work, but also on the culture that he was responding to. He was certainly massively popular at one time, but like a lot of prophetic voices, he spoke with a certain starkness and clarity and simplicity that registers as unliterary, and I felt like what he had to say was getting more and more vital as we headed into a kind of psychosis at the end of the Bush years. I really wish I’d written that book because I had a lot more to say, but I was delighted that, in the essay, I had plenty of room to include an examination of his archive and a discussion of his work.
But I feel like his focus on two competing Americas is echoing louder and louder now. He really focused on class and wealth and poverty and what story you were born into, and whether you were born on the banks of The Money River. Morally, it’s some of the starkest writing in the American Canon, especially God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and his early books.
But what resonates with me louder and louder is the way in which he was literally describing Trump rallies to us forty or fifty years before they took place, the whole effort to criminalize poverty and frame it as a moral defect, the idea that people with wealth are inherently noble somehow. It’s the biggest crock of shit in the American Canon of myths. Generally, if you become extremely rich, it selects for depravity and sociopathy. This is what we see. This no- talent insecure hack purely on corruption exploiting every possible means claws his way to the top of the pile and presents this powerful message that Vonnegut, I think, was really warning us about so early.
If you see everything as a zero-sum game, if you revert to the pre-enlightenment, the Hobbesian view of the world, that it’s a war of all on all, it’s this paranoid, dark, sad, really heartbreaking view of the species. We’re doomed. Vonnegut saw it early because he was in situations like World War II where that depravity, the logical extension of that view, was right in front of him. He was carting the corpses around bombed-out Dresden, and he had a moral clarity and vision that fortunately never goes out of style. He keeps getting more right in his diagnosis.
Rosewater is due for a resurgence of interest. There’s so much focus on Slaughterhouse-Five, and rightfully so, but God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater speaks to the times, perhaps more so now than it did when it was published.
In your essay you wrote that Vonnegut is the least acknowledged influence in modern letters. Do you still think that’s true about him? He has a large presence culturally, but is that also true in the literary world?
I don’t think so. Vonnegut is viewed as kind of teen literature, and yet a book like Mother Night is extraordinarily sophisticated. Maybe this comes out of my own work as a teacher, but there’s a mistrust of simple direct prose. We feel somehow that to be literary is to be more abstract and figurative in our language and in our mode of storytelling. Vonnegut’s storytelling is not intricate or studded with little obscure Easter eggs. It’s very direct. He creates powerful narrators who are setting out how this world operates, and he views the characters in a detached, often objective way. In modern literature, perhaps because we’re under the influence of film and television, the quest is often to get deeply inside characters and see things purely from their vantage point.
Vonnegut always had this hovering benevolent narrator, more familiar from folk tales, from fairytales, from the literature of the 18th or 19th Century before we had TV and movies, when there was a big space for a narrator to guide us through the story and even to deliver little bits of philosophy, even saying, look, there is a moral to this story. I think Vonnegut was very out of step, even in his time, with the way that capital “L” fancy literature was supposed to sound, which is more like how John Updike or Saul Bellow or Toni Morrison sounds. Not convoluted exactly, but openly complex. Those writers and that kind of writing is wonderful, but there’s a certain oomph to Vonnegut’s writing that probably appeals to me as a self-righteous heartbroken idealist.
He was saying things like, as children we were taught to memorize facts like 1492 as the year people began living full and imaginative lives in the continent of North America. But people had been living full and imaginative lives in America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them. Kaboom. There’s a moral simplicity and rigor to that. He’s revisiting the way that we view history fifty years before the 1619 Project, when a mainstream newspaper revisits some of those same myths. That also makes him unfashionable because there is an understandable aversion to that kind of overt morality. Literature is supposed to deal with the nuance in characters, but with Vonnegut there’s a kind of moral simplicity that I think critics are trained to be wary of.
Do you use Vonnegut when you teach writing? Do you find that your students are aware of him, still respond to him?
I do. I just taught a class on chronology, and I always use Slaughterhouse-Five. “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” That book begins with a description of how Billy Pilgrim sees time, how he perceives it. Interestingly, we don’t know whether he’s, as his kids would say, had a nervous breakdown as a result of PTSD from all the tragedy that he’s seen in his life, and therefore he’s “crazy” and isn’t seen, or whether he really was abducted by the Tralfamadorians, whose conception of time is really much closer to how we live. We live in our memories and our regrets and in our wishes to return to a previous era of our lives. We live in our fantasies of the future, what might be, what we fear, what we desire. We are time traveling constantly.
The great insight of that book is to say right from the jump, this is the way that Billy Pilgrim operates, and therefore this is how the novel is going to operate in terms of chronology. We’re going to zigzag back and forth through time, not to be fancy or try to keep you on your toes as a reader or to show how fancy he can be as a writer, but because that is the consciousness of the hero of the story. It’s brilliant and people are blown away by it, that you can set that all out clearly right from the start.
Since the essay in 2007, have you been tempted to write about him again?
Well, I have written about him. He worms his way in. I wrote an essay about the creative class, whatever the creative class is, which was an effort to interrogate who gets to be creative in our culture. It’s kind of a luxury item. Not always, but you often have to be born into a story of some kind of privilege, and if you’re not, you have to fight through a lot more obstacles in order to be “creative” and tell stories for a living or write for a living, use the language for a living. And of course Vonnegut gets that. Because he was writing about, and often spoke about, what I see increasingly, which is that more and more people are trying to write partly because they have the ego dream of being famous and having their say in the world. But underneath that is something more universal, and kind of unassailable, which is people are going in search of themselves. They’re trying to figure out the meaning of their lives and the events they’ve lived through, and so they are drawn to writing. Vonnegut also had his finger on that. From his studies in anthropology and in folk societies, he intuitively anticipated that it was desperately important for people to figure out how to tell their story and make meaning of the events they’re living through.
That is a through-line in social media. There’s other stuff that’s more toxic that’s mixed in with that, but a lot of it is people saying, “Hey, this happened in my life. I want to be seen; I want to be known. I want to put it out there.” Vonnegut was wise to that. He understood that cultures where people are allowed and encouraged to tell stories and be part of the discourse are happier, more meaningful groups of people.
Vonnegut is known mostly as a novelist, but he wrote a lot of short fiction. What are your thoughts on Vonnegut as a short story writer as opposed to a novelist?
One of the things I did for this essay was visit his archive at Indiana University, and there’s a lot of unpublished short fiction. It was part of his apprenticeship, as he’s coming back from the war, getting the job at GE, starting a family, hustling, trying to figure out how he was going to support this family. He was desperately cranking out short stories, and I think they were apprentice work by and large. There are exceptions, like “Who Am I This Time?”, which is one of the great Vonnegut stories. But I think he’s an example of a writer who was using that apprentice work to find his voice and then taking his plots, which are usually deadpan but also quite propulsive, and developing them into full length novels where he could explore more deeply these kinds of crazy worlds, like the dystopic future in Player Piano, his first novel, or the world of Nazi intrigue as in Mother Night and to a lesser extent Slaughterhouse-Five, and even the mythical worlds that he creates like in Cat’s Cradle.
I have a sense that he just needed a bigger canvas. That’s the kind of writer he was. He’s naturally a novelist. The short stories are often excellent, but he’s a good example of somebody who was just getting his engine revved up with his short fiction. There was a volume of stories that came out a few years ago and I don’t think they reflect his strongest work. They’re a delight, but if they were submitted anonymously to a publisher, I can’t imagine they would have found a home.
What’s remarkable about looking at his archives is just what a creative machine he was. He was writing plays and writing for the screen and for television. He was constantly writing. Vonnegut was such a hard worker and had such a facility with language and ideas and ease of expression, that I think he was just constantly cranking work out. He had one of those busy minds that makes somebody prolific creatively. He even invented a board game.
You mentioned the posthumously published stories. I agree that they’re not up to the level of what we think of as “Kurt Vonnegut”. My concern has always been with someone who has never read him before, who might pick up one of those posthumously published books as his or her first experience. Would he or she read him again? Maybe not. From the perspective of a Vonnegut fan, they’re fun to read, but they don’t reflect him at his best.
Exactly. But it’s very heartening in a way. For me, this is the thing about published authors who you admire. We get to see the works where they made all the decisions, they’ve edited themselves for maximum profundity and eloquence and wit, et cetera. It was nice for me to read some Vonnegut stories and go, “Oh, he’s imitating Hemingway,” but poorly, because it’s not who he is. Or he’s imitating Mailer, trying to write about war in this gritty way. You can see him trying on these different literary personas, an idea of what he thinks he’s supposed to write. Many of them, the same episodes, will later show up in Slaughterhouse-Five. He knows he has this big story to tell, but he doesn’t quite trust his own voice yet.
Vonnegut was helpful when I wrote an essay on the comic impulse, trying to make the point that the comic impulse is not the opposite of tragedy. It’s the other side of it, a bio-evolutionary adaptation that allows us to contend with tragedy. It came along early in the Serengeti when we were constantly thinking about how we might die and having to live with that and having to check our aggressive impulses and always having to feel guilty if we did something wrong. Few species carry that burden. As a result, we need a sense of humor, so we don’t kill ourselves or each other. Vonnegut is a great example of that because his sense of humor was always there.
Even that letter that he wrote from the POW camp was full of his deadpan wit. His family thinks he’s dead, and he writes: you’ve probably heard that I was missing in action or killed in action, that leaves me a lot of explaining to do for still being alive. That’s his deadpan wit, his way of using the comic impulse as a form of self-forgiveness and to reckon with the absurdity of his circumstances. He had it at age twenty-one, but he mistrusted it. He didn’t see, “Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to be telling stories in the world.” He needed twenty years to figure that out. Those short stories are part of him figuring out that he wasn’t Hemingway.
I think that’s where Kilgore Trout comes from. Vonnegut is forever living with the perception of himself as a hack who writes science fiction. And it really is partly responding to the question about literary respectability and his place in the Canon. He understood that his style made him somebody who wasn’t going to win the big prizes. But I think that he was also true to how he naturally told stories. He found his voice, and when he did, he stuck to it.
That signature Vonnegut style is on display even in the love letters he writes to his future wife Jane when he’s a freshman at Cornell. It’s amazing.
I’m not surprised. The epistolary form, that intimacy of letters is where people really speak as they present themselves. Maybe they’re edited a little bit to be more eloquent or witty, but that’s where they’re usually accessing who they really are instead of assuming some pose.
If one is looking for it, there are some problematic things in Vonnegut in terms of language or in a story like “Welcome to the Monkey House”, which presents a troublesome attitude toward rape. Yet one doesn’t hear much about Vonnegut being canceled or see an antagonism towards him the way one sees it with Philip Roth, a writer from a similar time and generation. What are your thoughts on this?
We’re in this moment where there is much more of a reckoning that the kind of unquestioned prerogatives that go along with whiteness and maleness are no longer obtained. That actually you don’t get to be an asshole or inconsiderate because you’re the dominant force in the culture. I feel that people should be held to account when they fall short of their best selves.
They should also be recognized for what they’ve achieved and what they’ve done artistically. That’s part of the great anguish I feel around what is called cancel culture. It’s really a right- wing fancy term for a kind of Commissar culture that sees art as something that might reveal an error that somebody makes or provide a reason for them to be dismissed. My feeling is that we have trouble saying somebody is more than one thing. Here’s a very extreme example. John Updike is a brilliant chronicler of marriage and infidelity and a certain kind of post-World War II generational zeitgeist. And he’s a raging self-absorbed, narcissistic white dude. He’s both of those things. He’s not one or the other, he’s both.
Philip Roth is a brilliant chronicler. The Plot Against America is a breathtaking novel in its sense of what America is and could become that I more and more appreciate as the years go by. And when you read Portnoy’s Complaint, you see language and attitudes that are definitely screwed up. Through the lens of 2021 you look at it and think, “This person really was living in his time.” His ways of thinking were not as enlightened. There’s this term, woke, which I also kind of hate. The way I see it, we’re all at different moments coming into consciousness about the nature of our story and where we fit into the giant power grid, and in certain moments, the way that our own power and privilege has blinded us and caused us to flatten out other parts of the world.
It’s an incremental process. Any parent of a gay child or a trans child, or a child who’s marginalized in some way, usually comes to understand because they love their kid, that their various forms of bigotry around a trans person or a gay person are unacceptable and tend to fall away. They become more awake to the idea that everybody gets to choose who they are and who they love, and if they’re not hurting anybody else, we should grant them that. But that process is incremental. I look back at my own early short stories and go, ooh, there’s some language and some attitudes that were easy for me to assume. There was nobody around saying, “Actually, have you thought about why you made those characters Latinx and what it says that you have done that?” That was a lazy sloppy decision that you made and reflects a certain kind of unrecognized bigotry. It’s not that you meant to do it, that you were sitting there plotting out, you were asleep on that. And then you wake up a little bit when you have those experiences that ask you to kind of recognize, hey, where do you fit in here? What rights and powers and prerogatives do you have and how have you used them? Maybe you’ve used some of them well, but in other moments you’ve fallen short of your best. That’s the merciful way of looking at it.
I think Vonnegut was always somebody out front in terms of taking on war, people in power, political corruption, class bigotries and to some lesser extent maybe race and gender bigotries. Because of that, and because he was writing things that had the feel of sci-fi sometimes, he hasn’t been held to account the same as people like Updike or Roth or Mailer, who were writing very male centered narratives around what happens to the white male in the story.
It’s not always clear that the author has thought it through because the culture hasn’t made him think: who else is in this story and how do they see things? For instance, I love Saul Bellow. Nobody writes like him. There’s a certain kind of brilliance there, a mind that is thrilling. But I wouldn’t want to be an ex-wife or child of his, because he was always centering his own experience and everything was in the service of the white dude at the center of the story, who was usually a stand-in for Bellow. That doesn’t mean that his novels aren’t brilliant. It just means that in re-evaluating his work, it’s through the lens of who else is in the room? That’s the central decision that a fiction writer makes: who did they choose to pay attention to? Whose lives do they choose to represent?
Vonnegut was interested in people who were often quite troubled, mentally unbalanced. Eliot Rosewater, Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout. A lot of the characters in his books are marginalized in the sense that they don’t see the world in the same way as everybody else. They’re outcasts. He’s known as a voice of the disenfranchised. Still very male centered, but that’s kind of in keeping with the literary culture around him.
Certainly specific to the time as well. You’ve recently published a book on the novel Stoner by John Williams, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life. What led you to write that book?
Stoner was a book that came to me in my late 20s when I was finally taking seriously that I wanted to write fiction. When I read it back then, I saw it as a story celebrating the people who make literature and who are devoted to the cult of literature. It was quite heroic and exciting, and I wrote the book partly to try to make the point that the novels that we return to again and again are always about something else. Our favorite novels are really manuals for living. They’re different books at different times in our lives.
With Vonnegut, quotes from Slaughterhouse-Five have resonated at different points in the American story. When I look at Trump rallies, I think about that Vonnegut quote about how the poor give the wealthy the right to step on their necks. So when I read Stoner a few years after I’d completed grad school and been in these terrible feuds and experienced this fugue of self-pity and rage and literary rivalry, those aspects of the novel leaped out at me. Then when I got married, Stoner became a book about the rigors of marriage. Once I had children, I thought a lot about what it says about being a parent. When I read it again during my mother’s illness and death, Stoner was about the importance of figuring out what your life has been so that you can bid it farewell without shame and regret and anguish.
The larger message of that book is very much about not the quality of the life that you’re documenting, but the quality of attention that’s paid to that life. It’s such a revolutionary, in your face book because it says that this guy, Stoner, is a loser. He’s not a king of the universe. He’s not somebody who went off to war and became a hero or screwed a million women or was powerful in some other way. But he’s somebody who managed to lead a heroic life, but a quiet and obscure one, like most of us.
Most of us move through life with the most important moments hidden from view in the math of the obituaries, all those moments where our lives changed course and something inside of us that we weren’t aware of exploded into view. Whether it’s love of literature, of a woman, of a child. But also where we suffered all these disappointments and moments where we didn’t do what we had wished we were brave enough to do. Stoner lasers in on all those moments, and when I read it, it’s always a different book because I’m a different person. I wanted to write a book to make that point. Each time it tells us something different about our inner lives.”
Great. I have not read it yet, but it’s on my bookshelf. Last question: if somebody came up to you and said, “Why should I read Kurt Vonnegut? There’s so many other authors I could read.” What would you say to them?
I always say that people should read what they want. The reason I read is because it gives me so much pleasure. I am not a prolific reader, but I love being taken up by a story. I love that primal kid part of me that latches on to a character and a voice and feels like I have this wise, generous person who’s in my life telling me a story. Vonnegut does that. There’s nothing fancy. His plots are quite intricate, and his ideas are profound, but they seem quite simple and direct, and I like that kind of writer. I tell my students all the time, “Don’t try to be fancy. Don’t try to be a writer.”
That’s Vonnegut. That was his advice, to write in simple and direct language about the things that feel the most urgent to you. I don’t try to push Vonnegut on people, though maybe my writing certainly recommends him. But I do know that there are a bunch of people out there of all different ages who will feel that sense of enchantment that you and I feel because there’s such beauty and clarity to the way that he writes, such simplicity and generosity of spirit. I have kids and they’re all readers, but I haven’t told them, “You should read this guy.” Anything coming from me is sort of tainted by Dad-ness, but I am hoping that at some point they might wander to my bookshelf and find a Vonnegut novel and feel that same sense that I did, that same feeling of, “Oh, I just have met the most wonderful person. I want to spend time with this mind and listen to the stories that it has to tell.”
But I don’t proselytize too much because he certainly doesn’t need my help. But I think the culture needs him. The reason that I wished that I’d written that longer work is because I do think he was one of those writers who wasn’t just writing about creative actualization, the fate of an individual person, or a particular family. He had big fucking stuff on his mind. He was writing about how science can lead us in the wrong direction, about the chaos and insanity of the wars we keep getting into, about the class issues and the kind of unfettered greed that drives certain people to such madness.
I wish that I could put some of his books on a high school curriculum because what he does is very gently wake people up. That’s certainly the role that he played for me. I didn’t feel I was being lectured. I felt I was being told a great story and that it’s our moral responsibility to look out for people who were born into a different story, stories of privation and suffering and anguish. We have a moral responsibility. I think that clarity is really apparent. Vonnegut makes stories where we feel more human and more compassionate after we read them.