As anyone who’s read it will tell you, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is a classic. But it also has a backstory that’s as interesting as the novel itself. It’s this backstory that writer Tom Roston covers in his new book, The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut And The Many Lives Of Slaughterhouse-Five (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Roston discusses how he came to write it, and what he got out of it.
It’s obvious from the subtitle what The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut And The Many Lives Of Slaughterhouse-Five is about. But did you start with the idea of writing a biography of Vonnegut and then focus your approach, or did you always have this focused idea?
The book was always going to be about Slaughterhouse-Five. What I had to develop was a new angle on an old book, an angle that would make the book relevant to today and feel alive. I didn’t want to write lit-crit, so I seized on what I consider to be the greatest miracle of the novel: how it was able to anticipate the PTSD diagnosis that wasn’t established until eleven years after the book’s publication.
So then where did you get the idea to write a book about Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five?
My editor at Abrams Press, Jamison Stoltz, and I were talking about my next book after I wrote The Most Spectacular Restaurant In The World: The Twin Towers, Windows On The World, And The Rebirth Of New York for him. He was doing a series of “books about books” and we agreed that Slaughterhouse-Five deserved a second look.
In doing your research for this book, did you learn anything that about Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five that really surprised you?
There were many surprises throughout the writing process. I was thrilled by the little discoveries I made looking at Vonnegut’s manuscripts and discarded versions of Slaughterhouse-Five at the Lilly Library in Indiana. How fascinating to see that, at one point, he had written Billy Pilgrim as being gay. Or that he constructed the novel as if it were Waiting For Godot. One of the most resonant surprises is how different readers read Vonnegut’s work in different ways. I’m flummoxed by how many people read Slaughterhouse-Five as a straight-up sci-fi novel, as in, he really does time travel and he really is abducted by Tralfamadorians. It takes a close read, but, really, not that close, to see that Vonnegut was depicting a delusional reality of a traumatized, broken man. But that’s the beauty of great art. People make of it what they want. It speaks to each of us in different ways.
And did you learn anything that really made you laugh?
I was thinking Vonnegut nonstop for two years: That means I was laughing all the time. I love his dry wit. His sarcasm. His scatological dips. His first 1945 letter home after being freed from the German POW camp always gives me the giggles. To see that he could crack wise about the Nazis and the harrowing experience he had just gone through is a marvel to me. Also: I read Breakfast Of Champions, which I had not read before. That is one hell of a funny book. I don’t care if Kurt didn’t like it. I love it.
Non-fiction books can take many different approaches. What approach did you take for The Writer’s Crusade and why did you feel this was the best one to take?
I’d actually love to hear you describe my book’s approach, but what I can say here is that I tried to emulate Vonnegut by doing something idiosyncratic. It’s part-biography, part-literary analysis, part history and a dash of first-person reportage. I recently heard from one of Vonnegut’s children, who read the book, that he would have enjoyed my approach, which is a great honor.
The Writer’s Crusade is, of course, not the first author biography to center on a single work or a single aspect of a writer’s life. Like for Hemingway, there’s been books just about his boat [Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat], his work as a “spy” [Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy], and his time in Cuba [Andrew Feldman’s Ernesto]. Prior to writing The Writer’s Crusade, did you read any similar biographies to get a sense of what to do, and what not to do?
That would have been a good idea! Sorry I didn’t think of it. No, I just dove into reading and rereading everything that Vonnegut had written. And then also reading everything I could that had been written about him and his work (and, by no means did I cover everything because there are reams and reams, but I believe I got to everything that was significant). There is really only one very major biography of Vonnegut’s life, Charles Shields’ And So It Goes, which was one of the first books I read.
It’s entirely possible that people who read The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut And The Many Lives Of Slaughterhouse-Five will come away with a different perspective on Slaughterhouse-Five. Did researching and writing this book change your opinion of it?
I hope so. I’m far from the first one to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is about trauma, not aliens and time travel, but I hope that I’ve deepened our understanding of how trauma, memory, storytelling and, well, being human, intersect. Vonnegut is also such an interesting person. I wanted to scratch beyond the persona he constructed in his novels and writing to get a better look at who the real Vonnegut was. I also hope that I can remind people how damn good the novel is. That’s what it did for me. I’ve read it multiple times now and I marvel at it every time.
Are there any other novels that Vonnegut wrote that you think could support a book like The Writer’s Crusade?
I love many of Vonnegut’s novels. Other than Slaughterhouse-Five, my favorites are Mother Night and Breakfast Of Champions. And then maybe God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater and Bluebeard. But Slaughterhouse-Five is so much greater a novel than any of those others. I think, more than most prolific, accomplished writers, Vonnegut had this one essential story to tell. The other work is great and worthy of more attention, but this is the Big One for him. That said, many people adore Cat’s Cradle. And it’s such a powerful allegory for the consequences of our big brains. I think that that book could warrant a book like mine. Come to think of it, maybe I should reread it and see if I want to throw my hat in that ring.
Finally, you kind of already answered this, but if someone enjoys The Writer’s Crusade, what biography of Vonnegut, one that covers his whole life, would you suggest they read and why that one?
As I mentioned, Charles Shields’ And So It Goes is the most definitive. That said, many of Vonnegut’s friends and family are not happy with it. They say he got some facts wrong and they criticize the overall way that he depicted Vonnegut’s life-long temperament based on two meetings and his end-of-life grumpiness. So read it with a grain of salt. [Ginger Strand’s] The Brothers Vonnegut is also very good.