Book Talk: The life of Kurt Vonnegut, a disenchanted American

Thu Nov 10, 2011 5:05am EST
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By Nick Zieminski

(Reuters Life!) - Kurt Vonnegut liked to show visitors the dictionary. "Look me up," he would say. "Nothing. Now look up Jack Kerouac."

The author of "Cat's Cradle," "Slaughterhouse 5," and "Breakfast of Champions," who died in 2007, was frustrated by his standing in American letters and felt he was perceived as a science-fiction writer, one not warranting a dictionary entry.

But Vonnegut's two-dozen novels and story collections spoke to the human condition and humorously showed some of the absurdities of post-war America. Vonnegut was shaped by two key experiences in his 20s: his mother's suicide, and surviving the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.

Biographer Charles Shields, who previously told the story of Harper Lee in "Mockingbird," describes his subject, whom he got to know well, as a "disenchanted American."

The author of the authorized 'And So It Goes -- Kurt Vonnegut: A Life' spoke to Reuters about the author's personality and legacy.

Q: How did this project get started?

A: "We began corresponding in the summer and fall of 2006. Then the phone calls and postcards started. He would call late at night after he'd had a couple, it sounded like. The first time I met him he wanted to start talking right away about his childhood, his family, his resentments as a teenager. So I started writing like mad. The success of our phone calls depended on what kind of mood he was in. Vonnegut was a moody man, a little thin-skinned."

Q: Did he feel snubbed by the critical establishment?   Continued...