Kurt Vonnegut's fiction took its readers into plenty of new worlds, but the most important of them was always the world of Vonnegut himself — it's remarkable how many of the young people who come across one of his novels on a school reading list or relative's bookshelf spend the next few years diving deeper and deeper into his work. There's something similar happening in Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, a documentary about the author's life and work. Robert Weide set out to make a simple film about Vonnegut in 1982. Instead, the two struck up a friendship that lasted decades, filming all the while. We spoke to a few creators about how they got drawn into Vonnegut's sphere — their memories, obsessions, and first reads — and, just for good measure, added a few of our own.
Oscar-nominated producer and director
For anyone who has a favorite author, I think you always hold a special place in your heart for the book that provided the introduction. For me it was Breakfast of Champions. It was 1976 and I was a junior in high school. It was actually assigned reading for a lit class, which is hard to believe, because that book is a bit racy. When I read it, I knew I had found “my” author.
I’m a big comedy buff, so what appealed to me immediately was Vonnegut’s humor. I thought he was a very funny writer. Of course, he’s also a satirist, so he was using comedy to deliver some very important messages about what we’re all doing here, how we treat each other, how we treat our planet, the nature of existence and religion and free will, and so on. The book is very moving, too. Everyone I know who’s read it has the same reaction to that closing scene where Kurt puts himself into the book, and meets his oft-recurring character, Kilgore Trout — now an old man. He tells Trout (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m your creator. Everything you’ve ever done, you did so because I wrote it. But no more puppet shows. I’m cutting the strings and giving you free will. You’re on your own now.” As Vonnegut then transcends the void, leaving the book to go back to his typewriter, he hears Trout calling out to him, “Make me young! Make me young!” I still choke up just thinking about that scene.
Incidentally, the teacher who assigned me that book to read is named Valerie Stevenson, and we’re still friends, all these years later.
Publisher, and owner of the bookstore Singularity & Co.
Because I love the detective work of unpacking authors' homages to one another, the history of Kilgore Trout has long been a favorite literary reference case study. Created by Vonnegut as a fictionalized version of fellow science fiction author and friend Theodore Sturgeon, Trout is Vonnegut's facetious take on Sturgeon, the product of Vonnegut's amusement at the notion of a person named after a fish — though his recurrence in Vonnegut's books has also led critics to read Trout as Vonnegut's alter ego. Trout appears in several Vonnegut stories, though the details of his life and circumstances change with each appearance. He is, however, consistently written as a prolific, if underappreciated, science fiction author, even when other details, including his general appearance and demeanor, vary widely.
The various Trouts perform a variety of roles in Vonnegut's work: in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five, he serves more as a catalyst for the main characters; in others, like Timequake, Trout is himself a main character and vital to the plot. In the novel Jailbird, "Kilgore Trout" is simply a pseudonym for a Dr. Robert Fender, novelist and prisoner. He makes some very subtle, even ghostly appearances, as in Hocus Pocus, wherein Vonnegut never mentions Trout by name, but the protagonist is deeply affected upon reading a Trout-like sci-fi story — or as the ghost of Trout's son Leon Trotsky Trout, narrator of the novel Galápagos. And yet Vonnegut never attempts to reconcile the many Trouts, leaving readers to connect their own dots.
One final delicious reference chain: Kilgore Trout is also the "author" of Venus on the Half-Shell, written pseudonymously by Philip José Farmer, the plot of which — the earth being destroyed by cosmic bureaucrats doing routine maintenance and the sole survivor questing to find the "Definitive Answer to the Ultimate Question" — Douglas Adams paid homage to in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.
author of the novel Binary Star
I was dating this guy when I was 18 or 19. I loved Kurt Vonnegut but was dating this guy that had declared himself not a reader. Over the course of our relationship he confessed that he really loved books, but always thought he couldn’t love books. I gave him Breakfast of Champions and he fell in love with it and moved on to Cat’s Cradle. I have this distinct memory of being at his house — I’ve always liked to read aloud — I have this memory of us lying together in bed while I read half the book to him aloud. He was explaining things to me — how does this allegory fit together… I’m not sure if he’s still a reader, but I thought that was a good, inspirational way to do it.
writer, at Kickstarter and elsewhere
I spent part of a summer in my late teens visiting friends in Boulder, Colorado, which had at the time reached the kind of peak Boulder late-90s-ness where you could go outside and walk three blocks and almost certainly meet at least one person playing a didgeridoo and at least three trying to figure out where the guy with the mushrooms went. I read a lot of things on that trip that seemed really urgent and captivating and world-expanding at the moment, but I can now say with total certainty that the only really good one was Cat's Cradle. (No offense to the Dalai Lama.) A funny thing about Vonnegut is that he's the rare person whose much-repeated quotables actually do capture something about his voice and work — that beloved-uncle vibe that lets you say deep, rich, and sad things about the world with enough wink and mischief and sheer joy of invention behind them to offer some comfort. Which is good, because by winter I was in Illinois, and it was very, very cold, and I was lucky enough spy a whole long row of Vonnegut on a friend's shelf.
writer and editor, at Kickstarter and elsewhere
I was 16 and it was the tail end of summer — that part where you know it's coming to an end, but you still have a good amount of time, and it feels like a perpetual Sunday, all anxious melancholy and curiosity about what's ahead. My uncle sent me a box set of some of Vonnegut's novels. It was a compact thing: these mass market paperbacks with blocky painted covers jammed up against each other. Perfect for your back pocket. I'd read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I might as well not have; I couldn't remember any of it, and had this weird, itchy feeling that I needed to read it again. There was something so ecstatic about the way it celebrated life through the violence of war. I read that one again much later, but I burned through the set in those last days of summer, marveling at the way Vonnegut took alien ideas and made them relatable, and took relatable ideas and made them alien. These books felt like my life, if my life crossed oceans and planets and jumped around in time. Reading a book like Cat's Cradle made me scared of the world, and then suddenly love that I was scared of it. Kurt Vonnegut helped me grow up, or at least he helped me learn what it meant to never be sure about what it meant to grow up.