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Love As Always, Kurt: Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw

Preface

It was a hot September afternoon in 1965 when I joined other writing students in our Quonset hut classroom at the University of Iowa. This was my second year of graduate work at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was torn between anger and anxiety about the new person who’d be teaching our fiction writing section this semester.

I was a single mom with two kids and the usual pressures of limited time and money. My former mentor, the novelist Verlin Cassill, who’d approved my admission into the writing program the year before, had rather abruptly accepted another position after a disagreement about the Workshop’s administration. We former students had only recently received announcement of his replacement, and so far I’d not found anyone who’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I had found a copy of a novel he had published a couple years earlier called Cat’s Cradle and had given it a fast read. It was compelling but far removed from books and stories I’d been studying the past year. Henry James he was not.

So it was with considerable apprehension that I trudged across Madison Street from my half-time job at the University of Iowa’s public relations office, to the Workshop Quonsets for the first meeting with our new writing coach. What none of us knew was that Kurt Vonnegut was as apprehensive as we were. He’d been trained in the sciences and had done graduate work in anthropology. And he’d never taken, never mind taught, a college course in fiction writing.

I took a seat next to Andre Dubus—a dear friend who’d played second dad to my son the previous spring when he’d been roughed up by a third-grade bully. He had news about our new guru: Vonnegut and his teenaged daughter had moved into the big house on Van Buren Street next door to the Dubus family. So Andre had already met him and assured me he was “a great guy; lots of laughs.”

Just then Mr. Vonnegut came through the door, ducking his head to enter the sultry room, dressed in chinos, a somewhat rumpled short-sleeved shirt, and scruffy, tan sneakers. He sat atop the desk at the front of the room and faced us. Conversations quieted abruptly.

He was a great bear of a man with an elongated boyish face, cropped hair, and almost-protruding hazel-blue eyes. He surveyed the room of young writers, myself the exception in my mid-thirties. I saw lots of smile lines around his eyes and a nice grin. He ground out a cigarette and pulled another from the Pall Mall pack in his shirt pocket. His hands were those of a pianist, with unusually long fingers. Lighting the cigarette, he told a joke and laughed profusely through the smoke, coughing just as much. A couple of students glanced at each other with rolled eyes. He would say later that “following Verlin Cassill in front of this audience was like following Judy Garland.”

His message that day was not profound, but it was clear: He hadn’t been educated in an English department, but he knew the most important thing a writer had to remember was the reader. He drew some murmurs when he said he didn’t see any reason for working on a story unless you wanted to sell it. (Some of us still considered financial reward beneath one’s dignity.)

But his was another take on the craft: “What do you need to be a writer in America? An audience! You don’t need to supply useless information. Readers don’t need to know how many freckles are on a lady’s thigh and what she had for breakfast!”

And writers must provide enough props so readers are comfortable and don’t get lost. “It’s OK to let them know right away where your character’s going to end up. But then make your character clearly want something so your readers will have to find out how the character gets there.”

By the time he was finished, I was quietly impressed. Since I’d been supporting myself and two kids for several years as a journalist and public relations writer, I knew the value of keeping the reader reading to the end. And it didn’t hurt that he had a sense of humor.

I hoped the first story I handed in a few weeks later met some of Mr. Vonnegut’s expectations. I was nervous but looking forward to our appointment. His tiny office in the Quonsets was furnished with a wooden desk and chair plus a shabby, upholstered recliner where he sat reading my manuscript, cigarette in hand. A typewriter rested atop an upside-down wastebasket next to him.

He had a cheerful way of disarming apprehension and appearing to be intensely interested. Primed for his reactions, instead I blurted out worries about my work—and found myself revealing the disaster of the novel manuscript I’d abandoned the previous month.

That past summer, when my two children had been away to visit their father, I’d devoted every available moment of that rare time to my own writing. With forty pages of a novel completed that might qualify toward a required thesis for the Master of Fine Arts degree, I rewarded myself to a night out at a newly released movie. To my dismay, the film’s plot became increasingly recognizable.

Soon after, my manuscript received a ritual cremation in my charcoal grill.

So now, I told Mr. Vonnegut, I had less than a year to finish a new novel or a book-length collection of stories in order to graduate by the end of next summer. And I had to graduate! Another year here was not financially possible.

I stopped for breath. He would think I was an idiot.

Without cracking a smile, he said, “You could have written Madame Bovary and tried to publish that, if you really wanted to get in trouble.” And somehow I was able to laugh instead of cry.

That was how it began—the semester and a friendship that grew in richness and value over the next forty years, until his death in the spring of 2007. Our relationship was mostly sustained by hundreds of letters and phone calls, with only occasional meetings. It granted me the opportunity to follow his career with unusual if distant intimacy through his spectacular tenure as one of the most significant and beloved writers in America and abroad.

To “understand” our friendship was not something I gave a lot of time to. We broke a couple of taboos that first year, something Kurt alluded to near the end of Chapter 1 in Slaughterhouse-Five, about teaching at “the famous Writers’ Workshop.” I was a participant in the “beautiful trouble” he got into and got out of again. That “trouble” evolved into a bond unique in my life’s experience. From the beginning, it defied analysis, so I simply accepted it and came to trust it.

Naïve though it may seem, that was our relationship—simple, unquestioning, trusting, generous—and richly profound. It was not to be feared or doubted or heaped with expectations. It simply existed. It felt right. I believe he agreed. What became much more important was that Kurt continued to be my friend and mentor until the time of his death.

His was the most richly complex mind I have ever known. I was a willing listener when he wanted to vent or celebrate—or share a funny story. I took his fiction seriously and wrote a number of reviews and scholarly articles exploring it. I believed he was a creative genius. I still do.

Because our friendship was sustained mostly by the U.S. Postal Service, over the years I filled several drawers of a file cabinet with his letters and copies of his essays, speeches, page proofs, and reviews. As he began taking his visual artistic talents seriously, examples of his “colorful doodles” decorated the walls of my home. And as my sense of his work’s significance and its humanizing effect on American culture grew, I came to believe I must give serious effort to share the insights I felt I had gained during our relationship. I began to write what would become this memoir. About two years before he died, I told him what I was attempting. He immediately asked if I planned “to include the time [back in 1975] when we damn near swamped our boat off Key West in a one-foot chop?” When my reply was “yes,” he said, “Hurrah!”

I completed the first draft of this book a few days before he died.

I miss him a lot. We all do.

 

From the book Love As Always, Kurt: Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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