Interview by Ronald Gross
On November 8, 1970, Kurt Vonnegut was the guest speaker before a class at New York University.
We uncovered this rarely heard conversation in the Pacifica Radio Archives
The Animated Transcript
I left Indianapolis following puberty when I went to high school in Indianapolis I learned how to walk around looking tough because everybody had to do that and I went out to Indianapolis, I go out there occasionally and they’re still doing it, walking around looking very tough because something might happen, you know.
I was raised by a black maid by the name of Ida Young and I probably talked to her more than anybody, so whatever Is nutty about me was nutty about her, too, I think because I saw a lot more of her than I did of my parents. Here comes a rather intimate part because I used to keep it a big secret and I used to have awful guilt feelings. My mother was crazy towards the end. she was all right in the daytime unless you tried to her picture where you would get a bizarre reaction; at night she would really get wild squaring people away and crashing around the house. That was barbiturates. these were supposed to tranquilize her and it turned her brain to cobwebs. I can’t get mad at my mother because I pity her so much is what she went through
I went and saw my parents tombstones and I cried and I hadn’t cried for a long time and what I was crying about was I wished that they had been happier than they were and I think this is probably a dumb thing to do.
I think probably parents are much happier than the parents realize. I remember I asked my father what the happiest day of his marriage had been, this was after my mother had died, and he said well they had an Oldsmobile, a little Oldsmobile, and they broke into the Indianapolis 500 mile speed way one Sunday and just drove around and around and around.
I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. what everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life, this is if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway but you won’t know it and the thing is in order to sit alone and work alone all day long you must be a terrible overreacter and you’re sitting there doing what paranoids do is putting together clues, making them add, you know. Putting the fact that they put me in the room 471, you know, and … what does that mean and everything?
Well nothing means anything except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole though no such holes exist. You need paranoia for energy too. You must be terribly worried and secretly full of hate.
I am now older than George Orwell when he died. I’ll soon be older than Jack Kerouac when he died. Anyway, I’ve wondered why all these people kill themselves and I think that writers, creative writers, are in the process of becoming. They are humanity becoming.
It’s like reaching in to the mouth of the student and taking a hold of a piece of tape in the back of the student’s mouth without getting bitten and seeing what the hell is written on it and then just keep pulling it up and the person doesn’t know what the hell it is. I think it becomes an exhausting thing to do. That’s about it. A lot of people decline to do it anymore. It becomes too unpleasant.
I have written a story called The Big Space Fuck and it’s about this big, ah… [Laughter]. It’s about the end of the world. All are left are lampreys and human beings and they’re turning into man-eating lampreys. The space program now has built this enormous space ship and the hope is that human life will somewhere go on. It’s got a big war head on it filled with sperm you see and they are firing this thing out there hoping it will hit something, you see, and life…
How important my books are or anybody’s books are, I don’t know. I don’t think they are terribly important I think that they make people contented during the period they are reading them and this is worth something is to take care of somebody for a couple of hours. there will always be magic entertainers who will comfort people some during the Job story that all our lives are. For this reason I honor my own profession because we are entertainers. We don’t do a whole lot but something.
The unedited tape
The full talk by Kurt Vonnegut originally aired on WBAI 99.5 FM New York
Vonnegut was a prolific artist…
… and did much of the artwork for his books.
Vonnegut Behind Enemy Lines
The Indiana Historical Society offers a fascinating backstory on Vonnegut’s tour of duty during WWII. Vonnegut was an advance scout with the 106th Infantry Division when he was captured by the Germans after wandering behind enemy lines.
Vonnegut was shipped to a work camp in Dresden, a city that soon faced an onslaught of bombs from American and British planes. Dresden was wiped out and tens of thousands of people died. Miraculously Vonnegut survived, thanks to the fact he was “sheltered in an underground meat storage locker.”
Twenty years later Vonnegut wrote his classic, Slaughterhouse-Five. The books was published just months before he spoke at NYU:
“Slaughterhouse-Five was about the only thing I ever wrote about something that really happened to me with a nauseating experience.”
“I tell people: don’t kill, don’t kill even in self-defense, don’t work on killing machines, don’t litter and don’t take more than you need and know you’re going to die and think about it and the reason I put that in there is that Slaughterhouse-Five is about how badly American prisoners were behaved in the Second World War and again in the Korean War, is they let each other die, they were filthy, they wouldn’t wash and this was quite startling is the other prisoners of war all survived much better than the Americans do and so I reported this in my novel and I heard from a lot of guys who had been in prison at the same time, I was who had seen this and one guy said that the people he’d seen who had survived best were fundamentalists, is hillbillies and he supposed this was because they were used to the idea of death coming to you at any time in a state of rest, and of course that’s what prison is, is you’re sitting there waiting and what many people found demoralizing and finally shattering was that death could come at any time is without any romance or excitement or anything else and the fundamentalists knows at any moment he may die and God would take him back to heaven and this is been told to him told to most of us, so let me tell you, you are going to die and if you think about it from time to time I think it would probably make you braver in jail.”
The Lure of War
“One thing that is very seldom said was that the infantry feels good, it really does it, just feels awfully good. For a while.”
“In one of my books I said man is an infantry animal and he is and one thing about war is, you know, you get so excited because there’s so much noise and everything it doesn’t hurt for a while, if you get hit, you know. It’s just like your part of a movie that with may be on your side don’t worry about it if you have to go to war if you jump up and down so if you get to run around and there’s a lot of noise if somebody just snipes you that will hurt, you know, if it’s quiet but anyway generally war doesn’t hurt it just looks like it ought to.”
The Big Space Fuck
During his talk to that class at NYU in 1970, Vonnegut let the students in on a little secret:
“See, now this story hasn’t been published yet but the story is written and accepted and everything. I think I am the first person to use the word in a title. I have written a story called The Big Space Fuck and it’s a… and it’s about this big … see what it is, is it’s about the end of the world as the … It’s about a couple living on the edge of Lake Eerie there and the … all there are left are lampreys and human beings and they’re turning into man-eating lampreys and they … The space program now has built this enormous space ship which they’re going to send fire at the Andromeda galaxy which two million light-years away and the hope is that human life will somewhere go on because obviously the earth is exhausted and the name of this spaceship which is an enormous thing is the Arthur C. Clarke and it’s got a big war head on it filled with sperm you see and they are firing this thing out there hoping it will hit something, you see, and life … “
Growing Up in Indianapolis
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kurt Jr. was the youngest of their three children, along with Alice and Bernard. He was born into a well-to-do family; His father was a well-known architect and his mother was born into Indianapolis high society. The Depression dealt a huge blow to Vonnegut Sr.’s architectural firm and the family was forced to downgrade to a much less lavish lifestyle – a turn of events that deeply affected both parents:
“This radical change in economic circumstances caused Kurt Sr. virtually to give up on life and Edith to become addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. Kurt Jr.’s lifelong pessimism clearly had its roots in his parents’ despairing response to being blindsided by the Depression.” (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library)
Vonnegut + Rodney Dangerfield
Vonnegut played himself in Back to School
“Aphorismen Fur Klavier Op.3 (1961)”
“24 Piano Preludes 12”
Krzysztof Aleksander Meyer
“Paris Blues Waltz” Frederic Robert Chauvigne
“Punti Di Vista No.1 For Piano Solo” James Dashow
The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust