The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: The Rumpus Interviews Nanette Vonnegut

Below we've excerpted The Rumpus's excellent interview with Kurt Vonnegut's daughter, Nanette Vonnegut. You can read the full text interview here.


Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, Nanette, doesn’t have a massive Internet presence. She’s not a regular on the literary scene and she doesn’t have a blog. A writer, painter, and self-identified little sister, she raised three kids and thinks of herself as normal. She’s intentionally looked away from the literary aura of Kurt Vonnegut, preferring, instead, to view one of our country’s greatest writers as “Dad.” That makes her introduction to her father’s book, We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works, moving and enlightening. The book spans the beginning and end of Kurt Vonnegut’s fifty-year career. Basic Training is Vonnegut’s earliest unpublished novella, and If God Were Alive Today is the unfinished novel Vonnegut began before he died. Nanette, who was with her father when he wrote the latter, provides context for the books and the man who wrote them.

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The Rumpus: In a guest piece for The Huffington Post, you say living with your dad was like living with an elephant that was trying to give birth to something twice its size. I can’t get that image out of my head. It’s kind of painful and exciting.

Nanette Vonnegut: Definitely a labor. It was a sensation of living with a lot tension. I was the youngest and I cried all the time. I tried to turn everything into a fairy tale. I’m the most sensitive in the family and I absorbed a lot of what was going on in the house. My father was definitely a man dealing with trauma. This is a man who was carrying the weight of something…not even his wife understood.

Rumpus: He never talked about his experiences in World War II with your mom?

Vonnegut: No. And he was a textbook PTSD sufferer. It’s only recently that veterans are encouraged to talk, let alone cry. My dad could be triggered by something like watching the news coverage of the Vietnam War. Both he and my mother were tuned in to what a load of crap it was. I remember him ripshit yelling at the TV saying, “Fucking lies!” I’ll never forget that. My mother was red-faced, saying, “They’re not going to take my boys. They’re not.”

My father was remembering what it was like and he knew: these are a batch of babies going off to war for nothing. There was a reviewer, William Deresiewicz, who writes for The Nation. He said Slaughterhouse-Five is not a book about flying saucers; it’s a book about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rumpus: You hadn’t looked at it that way before?

Vonnegut: Nobody had the words for it back then.

Rumpus: So when your dad wrote he was expelling demons.

Vonnegut: He was expelling them with writing and with artwork. If he wasn’t writing he was creating terraces on our patio. He was a nonstop creative force. It was like he had to keep busy or he would die.

The demons gave him the impetus. I do think people are born with the seed of genius, and it either gets worked or it doesn’t. Probably his experiences [in WWII] gave him the impetus to create. Everything he wrote about stemmed from that.

Rumpus: In an interview with The Paris Review, he says everything he writes is about family.

Vonnegut: Huh. It always is, isn’t it? That’s what I’m feeling lately. I’ve always written, but I’ve always been in the closet with it. I don’t want to have to stick my neck out there.

Rumpus: Yeah, Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter. A little pressure?

Vonnegut: Too much pressure. People can be mean. Anyhow, I feel my work is all about family. Everything I write about points to it—even to my great, great grandparents. I believe my father was affected very deeply by his mother’s death. It’s in our DNA. This is the source of who we are.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

Vonnegut: Writing is a process of discovery and writing always leads me to family. My father always said you should have an audience in mind when you write.

Rumpus: An audience of one, right? And his was family?

Vonnegut: Yes. His sister was his audience. I found that very, very touching. He adored her. She was an incredibly funny human being.

Rumpus: Why her?

Vonnegut: Because he’s her baby brother. He got her attention because he was funny. He got everyone’s attention by being funny. Even at the dinner table he was always being the baby. He was crazy about his big sister. There’re these clips, these old films. When you see them together, there’s just so much love there. She’s enough older that she must’ve seemed like a giant to him.

Read the rest of the interview here.