At the age of 15, Marc Leeds (PhD ’87) was browsing a Greenwich Village bookstore with his brother when he stumbled across a copy of “Mother Night,” an early novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—the acclaimed author of 14 novels (including “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions”) and several short stories, plays and essays. The story captured him, and a lifelong literary passion was born.
Leeds and Vonnegut met in 1989, soon after Leeds had completed his doctoral thesis on the writer, and the two maintained a warm friendship until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. Halfway through his dissertation, Leeds says, he realized that he had collected enough material for an encyclopedia. “The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Authorized Compendium” was published in 1994, and is now considered the definitive catalogue of Vonnegut’s canon.
An updated edition, scheduled for publication this October, covers his writing through the end of his life, plus new and updated entries on Vonnegut’s countless characters, cultural references and interwoven plotlines. Leeds, who also is at work on a screenplay and children’s books, co-founded the Kurt Vonnegut Society in 2008 and is an active charter board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (soon to become the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library) in Indianapolis.
At Buffalo asked Leeds about his relationship with Vonnegut. This is the full interview from our conversation.
Favorite Vonnegut line
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” — “Mother Night”
Favorite personal memory
As I was standing in a line outside the University of Iowa visitors house, Kurt bent over my significantly smaller frame, cupped my head by laying hands on my cheeks and kissed me on the forehead. The other scholars all turned to me and exclaimed that I was just admitted to his inner circle. It felt like a knighthood.
Best advice he gave you
“You need to get a job where they will appreciate what you do.”
His strengths as a writer
Kurt’s appeal for many is in juxtaposing the essential propositions of a civilized, communal society against misleading myths (often religious and/or political) that become the false mechanisms that screw up society.
And as a friend
Kurt proved to be more than a reliable correspondent, often answering letters within a day or two. I always feared that my letters, among his many others, must have taken away from his own creative writing time. I think his correspondence was more like a musician’s warmup before getting down to serious work.
On whether he was a genius
The army certainly thought he was, after testing him. They sent him to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Texas to train for intelligence work. As for being a literary genius, that is for others to decide. But his works sit squarely on the bookshelf with Voltaire, Twain, Will Rogers, and perhaps filmmakers such as Kubrick, Fellini and Tarantino.
He is a genius at getting even shallow readers to consider the weighty questions and parameters of life. He writes for those with lots of questions, but luckily, one of Kurt’s trademarks is his explanation of historical, scientific or literary parallels to the circumstances in his work.
What people misunderstand about Vonnegut and his work
Most people misunderstand Kurt when they are simply trying to look for a traditional narrative and plot development. That’s not what he’s about. Kurt is all about the essential conditions of humankind: emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and materially. People completely get wrong his complex and nuanced positions on war, organized religion and money. In today’s parlance he would be a democratic socialist, but many people believe he is anti-American and completely anti-religion. It’s not that simple.
What Kilgore Trout would think about the current state of things
I think his call to mindfulness is apt at this time of mindless political standoffs. In “Timequake” (1997), once free will kicks in after the ten-year rerun in which everyone has to do exactly as they had the first time around, Kilgore rouses people out of their apathy and mindless fealty to their past actions by exclaiming, “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do!” Kilgore would want people to willfully participate in the political process by becoming mindful of their responsibilities to others in the community.
Which of his books would be a good parable of our times
“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” has money as a central character in the text. Kurt says so. He sets off Reaganesque overstatements comparing the nation to the last days of the Roman Empire. Written 15 years before such language was used by the Moral Majority and continues to be used by the right wing, it would be the most obvious text from these political and economic bases.
Kurt’s narrative structures will always be seen as unique, “Vonnegutian.” It is his content, however, that will forever be used to strip bare the falsehoods that make up the myths of our religious and political biases.
Kurt insists that his readers and others participate in the narratives they read. They need to be broadly read and open to an agnostic’s approach to peace, an atheist’s belief in the intelligence of humankind to value objective science above all else, and the faith that discounting bullshit creation myths of all sorts will eventually lead to a better understanding of, and living experience for, all humanity.
Leeds was featured as a character in “Timequake,” Vonnegut’s final novel.
Marc is spot on in his choice of quotes from Vonnegut and in his assessment of Kurt's writing and attitudes, as you would expect from someone who has made such major contributions to Vonnegut scholarship. Contrary to rumors, Kurt had respiratory problems long before he kissed Marc. God bless you, Mr. Leeds.
I enjoyed this interview. Juicy, yet concise. I read Vonnegut - I think almost all of his books - when I was in college, and his thoughts and style still seem new to me. Thanks, LNM!