Aha Moment: Jon Ronson on Kurt Vonnegut


Friday, December 07, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut is a serious writer who holds a special place in the hearts of teenagers (including a young Kurt Andersen). Jon Ronson got hooked on Vonnegut when he was 15. For his long train rides from Cardiff, Wales, to look at colleges, Ronson packed a bag with Vonnegut’s novels, including Slaughterhouse Five. “It was like I was on the cusp of a new life,” he remembers. “I was about to go out into the world and Vonnegut was my companion.”

Ronson grew up to write journalism that creatively investigates weirdness of various flavors — from alien abductions to neo-Nazi gatherings. His bestseller The Men Who Stare at Goats (made into a movie with George Clooney) is about US military programs that tried to exploit paranormal powers. Vonnegut “made me very much want to be a writer,” Ronson says. At the same time, ”because he puts himself in his books and he always portrays himself as quite miserable, I thought ‘God, I don’t want to be a writer if that’s your life, all alone in a room, chain-smoking.’”

“When I look back on like everything I’ve written time and again it's very Vonnegut-ish. Because every good story that I write is about people trying to do good in a difficult, crazy, absurd world.”

Ronson’s new book is a collection of real-life mysteries called Lost At Sea.


→ What’s your favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel and how did you first encounter it? Tell us in a comment below.

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Comments [13]

Jonathan Rimorin from San Diego

I was introduced to Vonnegut by a classic kid's book by M.E. Kerr called "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!" (It also introduced me to the Beatles, Marxist-Leninism, and a lifelong fascination with neurotic girls with long dark hair, but that's another story.) Vonnegut plays a huge part in that novel: there's a character who continually spouts Kilgore Trout and quotes "God Bless You, Mr Rosewater" nonstop. Since I loved that book I had to read GBYMR immediately. I was 12 years old. I haven't read GBYMR since then. I wonder what I would think of it now, 30 years later.

I also did a musical version of "Slaughterhouse-Five" in high school, so I think that would qualify as my favourite V. book. And so on.

Dec. 12 2012 01:53 PM
JillKap from Lodi, NJ

I loved stumbling upon Kurt Vonnegut when a friend had on his wall the letter to Y-O-U towards the end of "Breakfast of Champions." As a fourteen-year-old, I connected so much with the idea of a universe created solely around me and my reactions to it. Sometimes, at that age, it felt like the "Creator of the Universe" caused occurrences just to see me squirm.

I've read several other Vonnegut novels and short stories since, but I've always felt that "Breakfast of Champions" kick-started my love for Vonnegut and helped propel him to the place in my heart as my favorite author.


Dec. 11 2012 09:35 AM
Ralph Reinert from Seattle, WA

My favorite Kurt Vonnegut Jr. book? Unfortunately I Haven't read them all yet, but I have a special fondness for both Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat's Cradle. I am always brought short by the line in Cat's Cradle from the Albert Schweitzer like character "'Son,' my father said to me, 'Someday this will all be yours.'"

But if I had to choose one as my favorite, I would pick Galapagos. Part of its appeal might be that it is NOT usually considered one Vonnegut's best. But I love his vision of the ultimate fate of humanity as peaceful, loving, and non-intelligent aquatic mammals. And with the lasting influence of Kilgore Trout.

Dec. 09 2012 11:43 PM
Andrea from Philadelphia

When I was in junior high and high school I read Cat's Cradle over and over again--I think the combination of dark, warm, and funny spoke to me in a visceral way. I barely noticed the dystopian nature of the story because I loved the characters so much. I still remember a bit of dialogue that I found hysterically funny at the time: "Screw you, Jack." "Screw you, Jasper. And screw Mother's Day and Christmas too." Need I mention that the characters' names were not Jack and Jasper?

I've read most, if not all, of his novels and several others stand out--Mother Night had a big impact on me too. But Cat's Cradle is the one I still give to friends' kids when they hit their teens.

Dec. 09 2012 11:15 PM
James Peters from Addison TX

I absolutely love the novel "Breakfast of Champions", I discovered whilst rummaging through shelving at the local Goodwill in a post Obama re-election , pre chistmas shopping spree. I wanted very much to find something that would remove me from my sometimes lonely weekend night-shift security guard job and it did so, wonderfully transporting me to the explorations of Kilgore Trout and his intersection with Dwayne Hoover. I spend a great deal of time writing what I consider to be somewhat absurd musical/existencialism culture themed prose and I was drawn to tears to find comfort in the knowing that I was not alone, in being alone. ( no sting reference implied ) - GOODBYE BLUE MONDAYS ! jp

Dec. 09 2012 08:42 PM
Mike from Charlotte, NC

My favorite Vonnegut is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and to my mind, the most closely autobiographical. Eliot Rosewater's terribly tortured interior life becomes a daily work of art, labor of love and an attempt at reconciling a fundamentally existential struggle to the Man With a Conscience: how best--or whether to at all--love people who have no apparent worth. This book has never failed to make my heart sing.

Dec. 09 2012 03:11 PM
Tom Berger from Fort Collins, CO

Hands down, my favorite is Cat's Cradle. I was late in life to the Vonnegut party (I'd read Slaughterhouse in school), and picked up CC when I was hired to work on a musical adaptation of it for Untitled Theater Company #61 a few years ago. I've regularly devoured his other work ever since and never looked back (though I usually have to take a break in betwixt two or three books just to cleanse my palate). Brilliant, bleak, sardonic, sweet, and yet there's always beauty in his words. Mr. Vonnegut has played a big role in my artistic life ever since.

Dec. 09 2012 03:10 PM
Dale from Astoria, NY

Breakfast of Champions instilled in me my love of literature. Vonnegut's ability to create hidden meaning out of a seemingly innocuous object, or to understand amazingly different and quirky perspectives on ideas like success, blew my simple notions of the world apart. He refuses to dismiss absurdities, instead embracing contradictory notions of humanity and unifying them poetically. By demystifying the human condition, he allows me to take life less seriously and then examine our struggle without the anxiety of its inevitable end. And so it goes...

Dec. 09 2012 12:19 PM
Spence Lack

When I was a teenager in Abilene Texas, Vonnegut introduced his wife who was on a photography tour in our restored Paramount Theater. The mayor of our city was a bit of a heel, and this became obvious during his introduction of the famous pair before his introduction and her showing. Afterwards at a reception I mustered the nerve to approach Mr. Vonnegut with my tattered copy of Breakfast of Champions in my back pocket, and attempted a lame joke about our mayor and how he should have sold used cars for a living. Vonnegut humored me, saying "Maybe he was, in his former life." He then drank from a cheap plastic cup of what must have been terrible white wine and consented to sign the famous "asterisk" drawing in the beginning of my copy of Breakfast, which therefore remains my favorite of his works. I must recommend his "Man Without a Country" though, the closest thing to an autobiography I think he's written.

Dec. 08 2012 03:14 PM
Joe Sweeney from Ardmore, pa

I read Slaughter House in 1969 in Newport, RI. I was nineteen years old in the Navy being instructed in all the "joys" of NBC WArefare, (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare) it was this book that helped me balance some of the absurdity of the situation. It made me think about these people were who were messing with my world, who could extinguish the human race, with an absolute certainty that they knew they were right.
I knew that there was little I could do about this from my position in the world so I became a landscape painter to document a beautiful world that could be incinerated at anytime within the blink of an eye. It was a long time ago. Luckily we have not destroyed ourselves yet. And I paint on.

Dec. 08 2012 08:49 AM
Linda from Princeton NJ

Mother Night is my favorite. Campbell's father-in-law who despises him tells him towards the end of WWII that he realized that he was an American spy masquerading as a Nazi propagandist after listening to every word of his broadcasts, but that Campbell was so effective that he decided he was doing more for the Nazis than the Allies. I'm writing this listening to the Weekend Edition piece about the homeless, barefoot man who was given boots by a police officer. When the man was rediscovered, again barefoot, it turns out that he is not homeless. He also complained about not getting "a piece of the action" from the publicity about the deed. Those moral ambiguities are what make life and Vonnegut's novels so interesting.

Dec. 08 2012 08:26 AM
Brandt Hardin

Vonnegut’s zany and surreal world reflects the absurdity of our own and really bent my mind to different modes of thinking. His work has inspired my own visual arts for quite some time and I created a tribute illustration of the author with the help of an old typewriter. You can see it at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-birthday-mr-vonnegut.html and tell me how his work and words also affected you.

Dec. 07 2012 07:22 PM
Suzanne from Washington, DC

The Sirens of Titan is also my favorite book by Kurt Vonnegut. I picked it up as a middle schooler (mostly because of the cover art) and have been a Vonnegut fan ever since.

When I was a kid I read his books as pure science fiction, but when I re-read them as an adult I came to appreciate the role that science fiction has as a commentary on the dumb things human beings sometimes do, even if the beings in the stories are not always human.

I introduced Vonnegut to my kids at that same tender age, when kids are trying to make sense of the absurdity of the world, and they too are now fans.

I always think of the book when I hear the song "Levon" by Elton John. The line, "And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus, leave Levon far behind," reminds me of Chrono, who puts on wings to fly away.

Dec. 07 2012 01:59 PM

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