In 2006, Charles J. Shields reached out to Kurt Vonnegut in a letter, asking for his endorsement for a planned biography. The first response was no (“A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer”). Unwilling to take no for an answer, propelled by a passion for his subject, and already deep into his research, Shields wrote again and this time, to his delight, the answer came back: “O.K.” For the next year—a year that ended up being Vonnegut’s last—Shields had access to Vonnegut and his letters.
And So It Goes is the culmination of five years of research and writing—the first-ever biography of the life of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut resonates with readers of all generations from the baby boomers who grew up with him to high-school and college students who are discovering his work for the first time.
Q: You mention, early on, that you spent several years writing this biography. Unusually, it started, it seems, as an authorized project, but then encountered resistance once Kurt Vonnegut died. Why do you suppose that happened?
Kurt’s permission wasn’t enough for his estate or his widow, Jill Krementz. I received a note from him in October 2006, shortly after we began working together. It began, “Please proceed with my biography. What a pal!” The first sign of trouble came the following month when he called and said his wife was giving him “holy hell about this book.” I offered to send him a letter promising him the right to review the manuscript and “remove anything that is untrue or hurtful to a family member.” Then shortly after his death in April 2007, his longtime agent and co-executor of the estate, Don Farber, remarked to my agent, “Kurt could do what he wanted while he was alive.” In June, I went to New York to meet with Farber and he cancelled the appointment. A few months later, the estate hired someone to write a biography of Vonnegut, but there was a falling out and it never happened. When I sought permission from the estate to quote from about thirteen percent of the 1,500 letters I collected, the estate refused. It’s clear to me that the estate stands to benefit from having a certain version of Kurt’s life perpetuated.
Q: Apart from that difficulty, were there any other stumbling blocks–any particularly vexing parts of the book, say, that took longer to sort out than others?
The chapters on the Battle of the Bulge and especially on Dresden were emotionally very hard to write. I interviewed men who fought at the Bulge. A few, I’m convinced, are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One stuttered as he tried to talk about his experiences; another began to tell me about it and then abruptly, “I just can’t go back there,” and hung up. Men who were in Dresden with Vonnegut tended to have long gaps in their memory, almost like blackouts. Writing about the pattern bombing of Dresden and its aftermath was so upsetting that I lost weight and had bad dreams.
Q: You bring forth many incidents and anecdotes from across the course of Kurt Vonnegut’s long life. Is there any single one of them, any single moment, that you would say is best representative of Vonnegut’s character overall?
He caught one of his teenage daughters kissing her boyfriend in the barn on the Vonneguts’ Cape Cod property. He raged at both of them, and when she tried to apologize, he fell to his knees and imitated her pleading in a sing-song voice. She was so shocked she didn’t know what to think. Vonnegut was caught in liminality: he was a boy-man with unresolved issues about his worth and competence, but that’s why young people believed he was speaking to them, he was their ally.
Q: Was there anything particularly surprising–for you and/or us–that you learned about Kurt Vonnegut in the course of researching and writing your book?
Kurt Vonnegut is often likened to Mark Twain. That was a deliberate choice on his part— Kurt dressed in white suits at the beginning of his popularity. Twain was a brand, and an immediately recognizable one, which to Vonnegut, a former public relations man for General Electric, had real value for getting attention. It was surprising to me how consciously Vonnegut performed as Twain, and how ironic it was that Samuel Clemens performed as Twain, too. The similarity between the two writers is mainly how they shared a particular persona, not their writing.
Q: Would you care to make any bets on how Vonnegut will be thought of, say, twenty years to come? Will he still be read as widely as today?
As long as there are young adults who are beginning to question authority, who realize that a lot of conventional wisdom is nonsense, who believe that they are misunderstood, Vonnegut will have readers. He addressed important questions, paradoxes, and injustices. Critics who label him as a science-fiction novelist or a cult writer don’t appreciate how hard it is to propel novels with ideas, instead relying on plot, or even character. He was a high-wire performer, and audiences will always want to watch and be thrilled.
This interview was conducted by Kirkus Reviews. Charles J. Shields will be presenting a lecture on Kurt Vonnegut on January 24, at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium.