In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, a science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut published a surreal novel named “Slaughterhouse-Five,” based on his experiences surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and satirizing the absurdity of war. The book made Vonnegut, a grizzled journeyman writer pushing 50, into a “counterculture guru” and one of the most famous authors in America.
In his scintillating biography, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life” (Holt, 528 pp., $30), the writer Charles J. Shields follows Vonnegut’s path from an unhappy childhood in Depression-era Indianapolis to the horrors of World War II and his struggles as a writer. Writing the first Vonnegut biography, Shields adeptly sifts through a mountain of material and interviews with Vonnegut’s family, friends and rivals to create a complicated portrait of an impoverished hack writer who became a prominent author and national cult figure. Vonnegut was a crank, was principled, and was both a miserable father and an inspiring teacher, while being battered by lifelong depression up to his death in 2007. Shields argues persuasively for Vonnegut’s place in the American literary canon.
Shields, 60, is the author of “Mockingbird,” his acclaimed biography of the novelist Harper Lee. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by phone from his home in Barboursville, Va.
A. I was in college in the late 1960s. I was draft eligible. The Vietnam War was going and “Slaughterhouse-Five” broke over like a storm. All of a sudden, there was a book that reflected our bewilderment and disorientation, and confusion over our duty. We were required to sign up for the draft, but we would say to each other, “Would we fight? And for what?” The book addressed all that.
I was surprised that there wasn’t a biography. Vonnegut had been writing for 50 years and had 14 books in print. What man was behind these books?
Q. You explore the many layers to Vonnegut’s personality and his hypocrisies. What did you find?
A. His kids often said that he could be a cruel and scary father. Vonnegut was a man who was an aggrieved person. When I first interviewed him, I was amazed that Vonnegut, who was old enough to be my father, had such issues with his own long-dead father.
Vonnegut was forever on the cusp of full adulthood. That is why he related so well to his readers.
When I met people who knew Vonnegut, I felt like I was getting reports on different people. One person would say, “He was so witty and asked me about my writing.” Another would say, “I think he was loaded during his lecture.”
Q. Mental illness and depression play a big role in this biography. How?
A. Vonnegut was both intrigued and deeply worried about mental illness. He thought it might have something to do with creativity. When he finally went in for counseling, he said to his son, “I hope they don’t talk me out of being creative.” Vonnegut was also worried about passing it on. He saw both his mother and son crack up. He wondered: Was it a curse or a gift?
Q. You had great access, interviewing five of his six children and dozens of other people, but his son Mark stopped you from quoting Vonnegut’s letters. Why?
A. I never got a reason. The word that came down was just “no.” It might have been because Mark Vonnegut had an unsatisfactory relationship with his father. He might not have wanted to open old wounds.
Q. How do you view Kurt Vonnegut after writing about him for five years?
Please check out my interview with Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark on his memoir that came out in late 2010: