On Writing · Pop Culture & Social Trends

My Awkward Brush with Greatness: Meeting Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut looked like this the day I met him, except he wore glasses and wasn’t smoking … but that’s only because we were in an elevator.

There was an old guy wandering around the lobby of the office building where I work. He looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t place him until the desk clerk called his name.

“Hey…aren’t you Kurt Vonnegut?”

It was Kurt Vonnegut. He looked the same as he did on the back cover of my copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Only older, with wilder hair.  The desk guy shook his hand. I did, too.

Cat’s Cradle is one of my all-time favorites,” I said. I wasn’t lying.

A moment later the elevator doors opened, and we both got on. I was alone in an elevator with one of my literary idols. I felt lightheaded, giddy, and nervous.

“Doing an interview with NPR today?” I asked. National Public Radio has its studios on the seventh floor of our building. In the past, I’ve run into other celebs on their way to NPR. A few years back I shared an elevator with Paul McCartney and his supermodel wife, Heather Mills. That time the elevator had been crowded, and the ride short, so I didn’t say anything. But I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away.

“I hope so,” Vonnegut said. “That’s what they tell me.”

An awkward pause followed. I kept staring at Vonnegut, and I think it made him uncomfortable. He looked away, and I stared at the numbers on the elevator panel. I knew I had roughly another minute before we reached the NPR floor. I cleared my throat and spoke.

“I do some fiction writing myself,” I said.

vonnegut in BTS
Vonnegut landed a tough gig writing a Vonnegut term paper for Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. “Vonnegut! I’m gonna stop payment on your check! Fuck me? Kurt, read my lips — fuck you! Next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum!”

“Yeah? What do you write?” Vonnegut asked.

Science fiction. Mostly horror.”

“You sell it?”

The question surprised me. Evidently Vonnegut judges writers the same way publishers do. If their stuff doesn’t sell, it must not be very good.

“I’ve sold a couple of things,” I said. “Small press stuff.”

The most I’ve been paid for a piece of fiction is fifty bucks. I won first place in a short story contest once. The prize was a plaque and ten copies of the magazine.  The magazine went belly-up after issue #2.

“Good for you,” Vonnegut said, “Keep at it.”

I had time to share one more thought.

“Writing,” I said, “is sort of a solitary profession, don’t you think?”

Editors or collaborators may make suggestions, but the bulk of all writing is done by one person, working alone, with only their thoughts and a computer keyboard for company. Sometimes it’s a very difficult, very lonely job.

Vonnegut laughed nervously, but he looked right at me. There was a kind of sadness in his eyes. And something else, too; something that looked like fear.

The elevator doors slid open. We had reached his floor.

“Stick with paperbacks,” Vonnegut said as he stepped out. “I’m into paperbacks now. That’s all anyone ever reads these days.”

I have no idea what Kurt Vonnegut was talking about. Maybe he was urging me to seek paperback publishers for my science fiction tales. Maybe he was encouraging me to read more paperback novels. Maybe he was answering a question someone else had asked him hours before. I don’t know.

Instead of asking for clarification, I shouted, “Thanks!” as the elevator doors slid closed. Kurt Vonnegut was gone, and I was alone again, pondering just what the 82-year-old author might have meant, and hoping against hope that if I ever make it to 82, I’ll still be publishing…and getting paid.

– 30 –

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2005 

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