Dear Neil Gaiman, Christopher Barzak, and Maureen McHugh,
Dear Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Lethem,
and dear Kevin Powers, dear Patrick Ness, and dear Erin Morganstern –
Twenty years from now, I don’t want to read “The Collected Facebook Statuses of <insert your name here>.” Nor do I want to read “The Collected Blog Posts of <insert your name again here>.”, or even “The Twitter Feed of <yes, your name again>.”
Do you have a fellow author you mentor? Are you writing them letters? How about children, aunts, cousins, high school friends, teachers – do you sit down and write them a letter once in a while?
I have just finished reading Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited by his friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield. I feel like a door has been opened into the mind and life of Mr. Vonnegut, and my impression of the man and his writing has been utterly changed and deepened.
I guess I had always assumed that Kurt Vonnegut was probably most like his character Kilgore Trout, the strange and stoically unsuccessful scifi author that is featured in many of Vonnegut’s novels. Instead, I have come to know a man who cared passionately about his family – including his former wife Jane. He kept up a correspondence with many other writers, especially the authors he met while teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His encouragement and advice to these writers continued from the time he met them in the late sixties, all the way up until his death in 2007.
He also wrote to his teachers, army friends, and kept up a lifelong correspondence with friends from his high school in Indianapolis.
Vonnegut also felt very strongly about censorship and free speech. There are quite a few letters in this collection, previously unpublished, sent privately to the towns and school boards that proposed banning his works from their libraries.
Standout correspondence from Vonnegut that touched my heart were his tender, often apologetic letters to his daughter Nanny. Nanny appears to have had a difficult time with her parents divorce – more difficult than her parents, even, and Vonnegut time and again reassures her that the divorce had nothing to do with her or another woman. The letters are those of a man whose heart is laid bare:
Anytime you want to come here, do it. I have not schedule to upset, no secrets to hide, no privacy to guard from you. (Letters, p 177)
That’s not to say that Vonnegut doesn’t get a bit testy, a la Kilgore, from time to time. Difficulties with his agents and lawyers are documented in his letters. It’s comforting to know, from editor Wakefield’s notes, that Vonnegut did resolve his estrangement from his long time agent and they resumed their friendship.
One of the most amusing letters is from November 1999, sent to Ms. Noel Sturgeon, daughter of the famous scifi author Theodore Sturgeon. Ms. Sturgeon wrote to Vonnegut, requesting that he write an introduction to a new edition of her father’s short stories. Vonnegut’s reply to her explained the relationship between Theodore Sturgeon, real life scifi author, and Kilgore Trout, fictional scifi author created by Vonnegut. Here Vonnegut explains once and for all – was Sturgeon indeed the model for Trout:
We knew each other’s work, but had never met. Bingo! There we were face-to-face at last, at suppertime in my living room.
Ted had been writing non-stop nor days or maybe weeks. He was skinny and haggard, underpaid and unappreciated outside the ghetto science fiction was then. He announced that he was going to do a standing back flip, which he did. He landed on his knees with a crash which shook the whole house. When he got back on his feet, humiliated and laughing in agony, one of the best writers in America was indeed, but only for a moment, my model for Kilgore Trout. (Letters, p388)
Wakefield has grouped the letters by decade, and has written an introductory note to each section that frames the major events in Vonnegut’s life during that period. This was very helpful. However, there were a few significant letters – most obviously, the angry letter Vonnegut wrote after discovering that his second wife is having an affair – that Wakefield never addresses in his notes. Unless I read a biography of Vonnegut, I’m not going to learn the context of that letter.
Also, Wakefield did some editing of the body of the letters, for understandable reasons, removing addresses, phone numbers, and repetitions. However, his explanation for his edits appears in the afterword. I ended up baffled by the ellipses at the beginning, and searched through the book to find Wakefield’s explanation at the back. I do think that would have been better placed at the beginning of the collection.
A letter, written just for a specific person, conveys so much more of the writer’s personality than anything written for general public consumption like a blog post. And I do believe that the act of putting pen to paper makes a writer feel responsible to write something with thought behind it, unlike the many quick emails we dash off on a daily basis.
So all of you wonderful writers that I have addressed this review to, please, do your fans a favor and write some letters. Not emails, not blog posts, but real, honest to god, written thoughtfully on paper, LETTERS.
I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.