How did renowned novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wind up in Iowa City?
Credit goes to his friend, George Starbuck, who was a poetry lecturer at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and who influenced Vonnegut to join the staff in 1965.
Starbuck became the workshop’s director just as Vonnegut left in 1967.
Vonnegut had been writing freelance articles for more than 15 years when, at age 43, he joined the workshop’s staff. He had published two paperback novels, “Player Piano” in 1952 and “Mother Night” in 1961. Neither had gained critical notice.
Those first two novels were reissued in 1966, joining his new works, “Cat’s Cradle” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” His star had begun to rise.
Vonnegut lectured on fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first public appearance in Iowa was on Nov. 17, 1965, at a reading with Chilean author Jose Donoso, another novelist visiting the workshop.
In a March 1966 interview with Phyllis Fleming, The Gazette’s assistant state editor, Vonnegut talked about a book he was working on about the destruction of Dresden during World War II, something he had witnessed firsthand as a prisoner of war.
“I saw the whole thing smashed up in one night,” he said. “It was like watching a pyramid destroyed. It was astonishing.”
Before the bombing, he said, Dresden was “the most beautiful city I ever saw.”
As a prisoner of war, he took shelter in a meat locker beneath a slaughterhouse during the Allied bombing raids. After the all-clear was sounded, he and other survivors dug through the wreckage to find the bodies ... until the morning came when the German guards disappeared, replaced by Allied liberation forces.
That novel, with sci-fi elements added in, became “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Published in 1969, it would become a best-seller and cement Vonnegut’s reputation as a leading American novelist.
IOWA A TURNING POINT
Asked about his writing method during that 1966 interview, Vonnegut said he didn’t work from notes. He just sat down and started writing.
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“It’s hard to start properly,” he said. “There are stacks and stacks of beginnings that you have to throw away. The thing has a life of its own, and you realize you have told the story and you write the end.”
Vonnegut would later say that his move to Iowa City in 1965 was a turning point in his career.
“It was really exciting to end up where literature really meant a lot, and everybody was high as a kite on writing, and I became so, too,” he told The Gazette in a 2001 interview. “I had a hell of a good time.”
VISITS TO IOWA
Vonnegut would return to Iowa several times.
A “Fiction Week at Iowa” event drew him back in 1968. The faculty lounge of the English-Philosophy Building was packed for an informal session on fiction writing or anything else that Vonnegut wanted to talk about. It was the period of his literary fame when he was identified as a “black humorist.”
He illustrated that concept with a story about an executioner and a condemned man. As he tied the rope around the man’s neck, the executioner asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The prisoner said, “Not at this time.”
‘MAKES YOUR SOUL GROW’
Vonnegut returned in March 1971 for a three-day conference at the Writers’ Workshop. It was St. Patrick’s Day and the writers met at The Mill afterward, with everyone drinking green beer. Vonnegut’s daughter, Edith, an art major at Iowa, was there with her dad, sitting at a high-powered literary table with two other novelists, Vance Bourjaily and Richard Yates. At another table, poetry students wrote Hallmark sentiments on paper napkins to make some money.
Six years later, Vonnegut was back for a reading at the UI’s Macbride Hall. It was the year he became a grandfather for the first time and published “Breakfast of Champions” and “Slapstick.” Critics panned the novels, but his ardent fans bought them anyway.
By 1981, Vonnegut’s books were being banned in school libraries, and a North Dakota school board head decided to burn them.That blew over.
By 1989, he was hailed as a “master of contemporary literature” before a Super Artist in Residence symposium in the Quad Cities.
In 1999, Vonnegut was at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. The 540-seat Strayer-Wood Theatre was packed, with the overflow crowd moved to the education building to watch a simulcast. His advice to those who wish to work at artistic endeavors: “They say there aren’t enough jobs, and you can’t make any money. But that’s not what the arts are about. It makes your soul grow. The actual writing of the poetry is the payoff.”
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Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis declared 2007 the “Year of Vonnegut.” He planned to visit April 27 to give a free lecture and oversee the sealing of a time capsule. But he died April 11 from brain injuries suffered in a fall at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
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