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Kurt Vonnegut Interviewed on NPR Inside Second Life

What it means to be a man without a country, or what Marx has to do with improving life through technology.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my big literary heroes, a keen observer and wry critic of culture and society. His Armageddon in Retrospect is an absolute necessity and his wildly entertaining series of fictional interviews with luminaries, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is an absolute gem, firmly planted on this year’s edition of the annual Brain Pickings summer reading list.

In 2006, NPR interviewed Vonnegut from inside the virtual world Second Life, as a part of their Infinite Mind series. Recorded shortly before Second Life reached its peak and mere months before Vonnegut passed away, the interview is a rare cultural time-capsule in more ways than one, as well as a fitting meta-wink to God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, which is premised on the idea that Vonnegut would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences, allowing him to access the afterlife, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late.

It’s actually possible to get a better life for individuals [through technologies like Second Life] and I have frequently inanimated new technologies, but I love cell phones. I see people so happy and proud, walking around. Gesturing, you know. I’m like Karl Marx, I’m up for anything that makes people happy.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect

Unspoken speeches, the root of Beethoven’s misanthropy, and why we need a secretary of the future.

Last month, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional interviews with luminaries were the most-shared piece on Brain Pickings. Revisiting the book reminded me of two things: One, the world lost one of its greatest observers of and commentators on culture the day Vonnegut died; two, how fantastic the 2009 anthology Armageddon in Retrospect is — the first posthumous collection of 12 never-before-published stories by Vonnegut, including fiction, nonfiction and, perhaps most notably, his last speech, which he wrote in 2007 and was meant to deliver in April of that year, but passed away shortly prior, so his son Mark delivered it in his stead. (Segue to reminder about last week’s selection of 5 timeless graduation speeches.)

If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Vonnegut also penned the beautiful introduction to the book, in which he offers a priceless slice-of-life perspective on his father’s writing process, worries, and joys.

He taught how stories were told and taught readers how to read. His writings will continue to do that for a long time. He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was. He was the least wild-and-crazy guy I ever knew. No drugs. No fast cars.” ~ Mark Vonnegut

Amidst the stories of war, peace, and the human predilection for violence hides a a rare selection of Vonnegut’s artwork that articulates the iconic author’s frustrations with humanity in a simple and even more poignant way.

As usual, Vonnegut’s contemplative dismay at the state of mankind permeates the narrative:

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

But, also as usual, it’s underpinned by an honest hope for humanity’s future, for our capacity to change and better ourselves, which makes Armageddon in Retrospect — and his work in general — as sticky and powerful as it is.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Interviews with Luminaries

What near-death experiences have to do with Shakespeare, Jesus and Isaac Asimov.

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.'” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to the wonderful Letters of Note — which you should be reading, or else you’re seriously missing out — here’s Vonnegut’s original pitch to WNYC:

The interviews offer a priceless blend of cultural commentary and existential human preoccupations by way of comedy, from politics to the meaning of life, in what’s perhaps best-described as TED meets SNL.

I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagiani was philosophical. He said it sure beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Relentlessly entertaining and (un)surprisingly insightful, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is absolutely fantastic and a rare fiction treat even for those of us with a strong general proclivity for nonfiction.

Image courtesy of WNYC via Letters of Note

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Rent Is Too Damn High, Vonnegut Edition: The Beloved Author’s Housing Woes

“You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords!”

Kurt Vonnegut may have known a thing or two about writing and censorship, but he wasn’t immune to the gritty afflictions of everyday living that befall the rest of us common people. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which gave us Vonnegut’s priceless daily routine and was among the year’s best history books — he shares a tragicomic series of housing woes during his time teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Like much of the seemingly mundane topics of his correspondence, these snippets bespeak the depth and richness of his character in subtle, nuanced, yet unequivocal ways.

In a letter to his wife Jane, who had remained in Cape Cod with their kids and whom he addresses lovingly as “Dear Woofy,” Vonnegut writes on September 17, 1965:

But you should see the apartment I have. I don’t recommend that you see it. I opened the door for the first time, and I though, ‘My God, Otis Burger has been here before me!;’ It has a vileness, a George Price uninhabitability that no amateur could achieve. I must sleep in the very first hide-a-bed ever created, which was created from the rusty wreckage of the first Stutz Bearcat. Jesus, it is ever a cruel and ugly old bed! I have a bath with a stall shower, a full kitchen, less ice-cube trays, no curtains or windowshades, and this livingroom-bedroom with the hide-a-bed. You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords! ‘Live like a pig for $80.00 a month,’ say my surroundings. Very well. Very well.

In another letter four days later, he includes a sketch of his abominable abode:

But, in a testament to our human adaptability and penchant for making a home, Vonnegut seems to warm up to the place, writing Jane:

I like the apartment better each day. It’s friendlier than I thought — a nice, soft old shoe. I work well in it.

Indeed, this workability grows with time, as he writes in yet another letter on September 24:

I am used to my vile pad now. I work pretty well here now, which is the main thing — and any minute now my telephone will be installed.

The following month, Vonnegut finally leaves the crummy pad and moves into a new apartment that occupies “the entire first floor of a Victorian mansion,” “with funny, elaborate furniture.” And still, his housing woes continue. On October 20, he sends Jane another letter, in which his private, gentle, warm inner glow peeks through that faux-curmudgeonly façade:

This place is full of the dumbest, sweetest mice. I haven’t the heart to harm them. … They keep me company and make me laugh.

For a further peek inside Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, see the beloved writer’s daily routine and his heartwarming advice to his children, then revisit Vonnegut on the secret of happiness, the shapes of stories, and how to write with style.

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