The author Kurt Vonnegut was perhaps best known for his 1969 anti-war novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” and its recurring line "so it goes" whenever someone died.
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But before he achieved literary success, he had some jobs that even Vonnegut admirers may not have known about. In this week’s One on 1, NY1 has an interview Budd Mishkin conducted with the late Kurt Vonnegut in 2005.
In his last years, both in his public speaking, interviews and his writing, Kurt Vonnegut did not go quietly.
"President Bush is so dumb that it wouldn't surprise me if he thought Peter Pan was a wash basin in a whorehouse," said Vonnegut, laughing.
“I call myself a man without a country, indeed, I can't be proud of a country with public schools as terrible as ours are,” he said. “They're the worst and the highest drop-out rate in the industrial world and also our infant mortality rate, because our care of the poor is so bad."
When I interviewed Vonnegut, he was promoting his last book, "A Man Without a Country," which he described as a "glass of champagne at the end of an old man's life."
He was reflective about his career, his good fortune and the impact he had on many of his readers.
"Each of us writes what he must write, and then you wait to see if there is an audience for it or not,” said Vonnegut. “And I was lucky that I found an audience, so hooray! But I have known perfectly wonderful writers who have crashed and burned and ended in total poverty."
Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis.
He enlisted in the Army during World War II, fought in Europe and was captured by the Nazis.
He wrote that he was in an underground meat locker making vitamin supplements when the Allied carpet bombing of Dresden began.
When he emerged, death was all around him.
It would be more than 20 years before Vonnegut could write about his experiences, as described by the character Billy Pilgrim in his 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse Five.”
"It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day,” reads one passage. “When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes."
"I don't think any artist knows why he does anything. It's not that rational. This stuff comes pouring out of us,” said Vonnegut.
The book and then the movie came out as the fervor against the war in Vietnam was peaking. “Slaughterhouse Five” and then Vonnegut became synonymous with that time. Not that he could explain its success or the popularity of any of his other books.
"I sit there, this person named 'me' and this stuff starts coming out and I write it down, but my wastebaskets are full,” described Vonnegut. “Again and again, Îthat’s no good, that's no good.’ But I've been lucky enough that good stuff has come out. So I'm pretty fortunate that this stuff comes pouring out of me."
Vonnegut became known as a writer who questioned nothing less than the meaning of our daily lives.
And yet before his literary success, just after World War II, he held what might be called an establishment job.
Can you picture Vonnegut as public relations executive for General Electric in Schenectady?
He loved it.
"My job was to support a family and actually this wasn't corrupt at all, because General Electric then was a wonderful company and it was American Industry at its best,” said Vonnegut. “Machinists then, in Schenectady, were treated like they were great musicians. It's because what they did was so delicate, so skilled. And so I saw American manufacturing at its best and we were a family.”
Another job that you might not associate with Vonnegut: Even after his initial success writing in the Î60s, he had a Saab dealership on Cape Cod.
"I think I was writing Rose Water while I was waiting for customers to come in,” said Vonnegut. “I did my best and treated customers well and it was the business story of the year, I think, because I only lost $50,000.”
Vonnegut's ability to laugh at himself and his literary status was on display when he appeared in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield film "Back to School."
Dangerfield's character hires Vonnegut to write a paper about Vonnegut.
"He hands it in to his teacher and says: "I know two things: one, you didn't write this; two, you don't know the first thing about Vonnegut.”
Vonnegut said that life had been very good to him, but absolutely horrible for so many others.
He had what he called a survivor syndrome, feeling guilty to be alive and successful.
When asked about that success, he recalled a conversation he had with a man who once did some work on his house on Cape Cod.
"Finally, it was done, and he called me out and said 'come here.' and we stood out and looked at it at a distance of 20 feet. And he said, ÎHow the hell did I do that?’ I think anybody who's done a good piece of work feels that way: How the hell did I do that?" said Vonnegut.
So it goes.
— Budd Mishkin