Kurt Vonnegut, Loud and Clear
Austinite rescues archival interviews
Like finding a wrinkled $100 bill from a pair of rummage-sale jeans, sound engineer and Austin resident K.A. Ryan happened upon an unlikely treasure just a few years ago. Through serendipitous circumstances, Ryan met literary scholar/professor Walter James Miller and discovered his collection of 200-plus analog tapes, wherein he interviewed famous writers and artists for NPR's The Reader's Almanac during the Seventies. Ever since, Ryan has been on a mission to restore these tapes into an immortal digital literary archive, beginning with three interviews conducted by Miller and close friend Kurt Vonnegut. Caedmon has just released Essential Vonnegut: Interviews Conducted by Walter Miller, in CD form, which includes three interviews spanning about 30 years of Vonnegut's career: In 1973 Miller and Vonnegut discuss Slaughterhouse-Five; in 1981, Palm Sunday; and this year, the two eightysomethings talk A Man Without a Country.
Austin Chronicle: What was your role in the production of these interviews?
K.A. Ryan: It was my idea to do this project. ... I had found a bad copy of an interview with Burne Hogarth through interlibrary loan, and I figured out it was Walter James Miller who had done the interview. It turns out he had done hundreds of interviews in this time, and a lot of them were with Kurt Vonnegut. I was surprised, because Vonnegut, of course, has never done many interviews at all. I told him, "Walter, you're not getting any younger. Have you made provisions for all these tapes? With NYU or Columbia or the Library of Congress to archive?" He hadn't. And I said it's a valuable collection, because it's one of a kind, and told him he should preserve them or get them transferred. ... And he said, "Well, what would you want to be paid to [transfer the material]? What would you like?" So that's kind of how it got started. I eventually did all the Vonnegut material: transcribed it all, transferred it all from the original analog tape to digital, then mastered it, and then burned it to CD.
AC: In these interviews, Vonnegut discusses at length the value of presenting readers with the creator's character, along with the other fictional characters. After working so closely with this material, what do you have to say about Vonnegut's character as a creator?
KR: He's got to be one of the strangest writers I can think of. He somehow manages to weave together what appear to be disparate narratives, like in Slaughterhouse-Five. He's clearly channeling his experiences during the war: seminal experiences for him, because he was so young ... his experience at the Battle of the Bulge and being captured and being held in Dresden, and where they kept him was that slaughterhouse, slaughterhouse five. And in fact being down in the basement of that place was what spared him of being burned alive by the firebombing of Dresden. He survived it, and that had a profound effect on this guy. I guess I don't really know where his interest in science fiction came from. He had a master's in anthropology from the University of Chicago. ... But, yeah, he's definitely one of a kind. He certainly offers a cynical outlook, but a humorous cynicism.
AC: What is the appeal of these specific interviews to Vonnegut fans?
KR: It's pretty indispensable, because you learn a lot about this guy, and you get some pretty important insight into three of his books. Certainly through Slaughterhouse-Five, Walter's whole analysis of The Song of Roland and Roland Weary, and the fact that Kurt is delighted that he had drawn this entire analogy, which he had not consciously done but was very true. It's a huge insight into these specific works and also this writer, because definitely, if you've read Vonnegut, you've got to have some questions about this guy. Who is he? What did he do? While he was writing a lot of that, he was teaching English, he was selling Volvos or whatever on the Cape, raising his family, and trying to make ends meet as a struggling writer, and he drew on his really horrific experiences during the war. I think that really colored a lot of his life. I'm amazed that he became a writer of these types of fiction stories given the tragedy of his youth.