I had the good fortune of writing an article on a few of Indiana’s notable literary stops for our Jan./Feb. edition of BizVoice (this particular edition will be a legacy project endorsed by the Bicentennial Commission). One such stop was the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Indianapolis.
While touring the facility, I was told the resident expert on all things Vonnegut was the curator, Chris Lafave. At the time, he was representing the library at a book fair down in Miami (not the worst assignment in mid-November), so I emailed him some questions that were on my mind. I was unable to fit most of his thoughtful answers into my story, so I’ll happily share them here.
About how many visitors does the library get annually?
Chris Lafave: The library draws thousands every year to the actual space, along with public speaking appearances by several staff members. And the organization’s traveling exhibit has been received far and wide, and has even visited the city of Dresden (Germany), where Kurt survived the 1945 bombing (as a prisoner of war). The trauma inspired him to write Slaughterhouse-Five.
It sounds like people visit from all over. What’s the farthest distance away you can recall?
CL: I’d have to say two guys coming in from Australia to do their great American road trip. They flew into Chicago, visited, rented a car and drove to Indianapolis to see the Vonnegut Library. I asked them what else was on their to-do list and they said Memphis and New Orleans, and then home. I was floored.
Do you find it’s not just Vonnegut’s generation, but younger people also becoming fans of his?
CL: The age demographic is all over the place and very hard to even pin down for research’s sake. (Founder and CEO Julia Whitehead) and I speak to an astonishing amount of students about Vonnegut. That’s not shocking in and of itself, but very recently I spoke at a school in Anderson, where a specific high school student requested permission to skip her own class so she could attend my lecture on Slaughterhouse-Five. Students are often engaged by his work, but we also have people well past retirement age spending a lot of time in the library and at our events as well. If you wanted to ask how he ever reached this many people across this large of a spectrum, I’d say he had a way of making people laugh at some of the hard things in life, to see beauty in despair, to see optimism in cynicism. That takes a certain degree of talent, and can sometimes bond people to your art.
It sounds like you’ve read all of his books. What influence do you think his Indianapolis upbringing had on his writing? In what ways is it evident?
CL: I think he saw Indy more through his family, friends and schooling… His family had such influence, his great grandfather founded a popular chain of hardware stores here, his grandfather and father were prominent architects. Can you imagine the pride of looking around your city’s skyline and saying “I’m related to the people who did that?”
He often talked about wealth inequality in his work, which relates to Indy in the sense that his family started out incredibly wealthy and lost a lot of said wealth in the Great Depression. He writes frequently about jazz music, which was incredibly popular in Indianapolis during his upbringing. He discovered the music at a barbecue joint somewhere on Meridian Street near his childhood home at 4401 N. Illinois Street. He wrote often about remembering good things in a hard world, which is a belief that seemed to have been instilled in him by his Uncle Alex, who he was quite fond of. And lastly, he was an avid defender of public schools and libraries — the best example of which would have been Shortridge High School, where he received an excellent education, played the clarinet and served on the school newspaper.
All I know is, while you’ll occasionally hear him take a shot at Indy or Indiana’s politics in an essay, most of the time in both his essays and novels, he seems to refer to Indianapolis in a fond sense, as a place of civility and decency. A city that his family built. My favorite Indianapolis moment is in Sirens of Titan, at the very end. I won’t spoil it for you with the details.
What’s your favorite book of his and why?
CL: Always a tricky question for me. I’ll say Cat’s Cradle, for the reason mentioned above; it has the ability to make you laugh at some of the tough things in life. But honestly, most of his books contain something that blows my mind. Slapstick, for example, is generally regarded by critics to be his worst novel. I disagree. I think it’s a phenomenal novel about the “disease of loneliness” as Kurt referred to it, and also about his desire for common decency. Plus it’s also very funny.
As referenced above, Vonnegut’s harrowing experience as a prisoner of war in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany inspired his classic novel, Slaugtherhouse-Five. A letter he wrote following the ordeal was published on Letters of Note and is quite fascinating.