Monday, December 22, 2014

A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut by Bruce Frank

For many Kurt Vonnegut fans, the Museum's fall 2014 exhibition Kurt Vonnegut: Madmen and Moonbeams was their first opportunity to see Vonnegut's concept of his beloved characters.

One of his fans, Bruce Frank, who came to  to see the exhibition, told me he'd had a chance encounter with Kurt a few years back where Kurt had mentioned these works of art. Bruce had been so impressed with their meeting  that afterwards he wrote it down. Below is a record of Bruce Frank's conversation with Kurt Vonnegut.


For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a chance meeting with a fan, one of many I’m quite sure he’s had throughout his career. For me, it was the highlight of my year – Vonnegut has been a cultural hero of mine since the Sixties: I’ve never missed one of his books (Cheryll claims it’s because they’re short – more than a grain of truth in that, since I’m usually loathe to read anything beyond a couple of hundred pages; Vonnegut’s always hit the mark for me).

It was Labor Day weekend, 2006, and we were in the sponsor chalet (a rather elaborate tent structure) at the Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton, Long Island, an annual sojourn for Cheryll and I, since she’s there representing the Young Jumper Championships. Upon arriving in the tent, one of the tables was marked for “Vonnegut” – how many of those could there be, especially since I had a vague recollection that he lived in the Hamptons? Sure enough, he showed up with an entourage of family and friends. They were there because his 20-year-old daughter was singing the national anthem. He’s relatively tall, and although 83, hardly frail; and soon, I was to find out, as humorous and quickwitted
as I had expected.

Not wanting to invade his privacy, I didn’t rush over to speak to him, but when I noticed he seemed to be off by himself, even appearing bored, I felt compelled to step over to the next table and say “Mr. Vonnegut, I’m a huge fan of yours, and just wanted to introduce myself.” Noting I wasn’t particularly large in stature, I presume he realized my comment indicated that I was enamored of his literary style. He couldn’t have been more approachable and charming. What follows is an edited and only somewhat paraphrased version of the conversation.

What brings you to the Hampton Classic?
KV: My daughter is singing the national anthem.

BF: Oh really? Is she a professional singer?
KV: She would like to be – I’ve suggested she join a band to help launch her career.

BF: So that’s a direction she’d definitely like to go in?
KV: Well, I asked her once if that were the case, and she didn’t seem sure. So I asked her “if you were to die today, where would you want your ashes scattered? After thinking about it, she said “Broadway”. So I said, “there you go.”

BF: So what did you think of the recent Rolling Stone article about you?
KV: It’s all marketing. A good piece, though. But for some reason they sat on it for six months. (Note: I presume he would have preferred it appeared closer to the release of his recent book, “A Man Without A Country”, a series of political essays.)

BF: Are you thinking of writing another novel?
KV: I’m 83. There are plenty of other perfectly good novelists out there. I have a couple of other things going on, however – there’s a guy in Lexington who convinced me to let him print
limited editions of my drawings, as silkscreens.

BF: Really, I’m from the area! Also, I’m a visual artist.
KV: Well, this guy would be a good person to know. It’s odd, however, that in this day and age of computers, that someone would make prints by pushing ink through cloth with a squeegee.

BF: That brings up a question, do you use a computer or a typewriter?
KV: (with a wry grin) They took away my typewriter. I use a word processor. But you know, the thing about a typewriter is that it makes you think before you write. (Note: this seemed rather profound to me, and a truism, as I recalled my days of writing term papers on a typewriter and not wanting to have to type it all over again because I made a typo or conceptual error).

BF: So how are your prints being marketed?
KV: Joe has put up a website, (he gets into marketing mode here – hey, why not?) – many of the prints are rather reasonable – some are as little as $80.

BF: That IS very reasonable.
KV: So, what brings you to the horse show? (I explain).

BF: And do you come to the show each year?
KV: Well, we came last year since my daughter sang then as well (I didn’t recall – but then I wouldn’t have known who she was at the time – also, Vonnegut must have been in a different chalet since I certainly would have noticed!). And my wife is involved with horses and has written a book or
two about the horse world. Also, we live nearby, and like to hang around rich people (wry grin ).

BF: It was a great pleasure to meet you – thanks for talking with me.
Someone from his party began a conversation with him, so I excused myself – I came away with the impression he was delighted to have someone to talk with besides the usual suspects. After his daughter sang – very, very well by the way, she certainly has the kind of voice that would make it on Broadway – someone called out to Vonnegut, “Hey, Kurt, she did great!” His reply: “She’s got balls!” I seemed to be the only one who was in earshot and spontaneously laughed at the comment – he looked over at me in acknowledgement and what I took to be a bit of appreciation. But it was me who was even more appreciative for the opportunity to speak with one of my all-time heroes.

image: KURT VONNEGUT, Portrait of Kilgore Trout, 1997, silkscreen on paper, collection of The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky.

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