Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked
(Ig Publishing, 2016)
If you were to choose one novel that was fundamental to you as a writer, what would it be? This is the question Robert Lasner, editor at Ig Publishing, asked a handful of authors. The result is Bookmarked, his new series that features writers devoting an entire book to discussing their choices.
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): Congratulations to all of you on Bookmarked, and on your contributions to it. Robert, could tell us about the series? What is its history? Its inspiration? What was your intention in creating it? How were these books and these writers selected?
Robert Lasner: The series was actually an idea I came up with several years ago. I was thinking about the 33 1/3 series, where people write on an album that influenced them, and I thought about how great it would be to get authors to write about a book that influenced them. We all have books that formed our literary sensibilities, and it would be cool to go back and revisit them. I wondered, would a book that blew your mind ten, twenty years ago still have that same resonance today? For example, Henry Miller was one of my biggest influences as a writer. However, a few years ago, I picked up one of his books—I think it was Black Spring—after not having looked at this work for probably twenty years. And you know what? I was thoroughly unimpressed. What had been so meaningful to my twenty-year old self meant nothing to my forty-year old self. Obviously, Miller’s writing hadn’t changed, but my relationship with it had. This made me realize how interesting it would be to get authors to explore an influential book—not just from a critical point of view, but from a personal perspective as well—to examine how changes in our lives change the way we relate to the books and authors that helped shape us.
I initially contacted several “big name” authors I knew, and while they all thought that series was a great idea, they were all busy working on other projects. I shelved the idea, but could never get it out of my mind. In 2014, I decided to move forward, so I contacted Kirby Gann to be the acquiring editor for the series. I have known Kirby for over a decade, and Ig has published his last two novels, Our Napoleon in Rags and Ghosting. It takes Kirby years to write a novel—you'll understand why if you check out his novels and see the gorgeous sentences he constructs—and I thought he might enjoy doing something different while he worked on his next book. In addition to being acquiring editor for the series, I also asked him to write the first volume, on A Separate Peace.
Rail: Robert, your 33 1/3 series reference is an interesting comparison. Although there are some musicians and music fans, who have contributed to the series, it seems there are more critics and academics writing for the series recently. But so far, at this early moment, the Bookmarked series features three published fiction writers—practitioners, that is—who’ve contributed. Do you see this continuing to be the case: fiction writers as your sole contributors?
Lasner: So far, everyone we have signed up writes fiction. While I do think the series lends itself to those who write fiction, I have often thought about approaching someone who writes non-fiction, maybe even someone you would not at first expect, like a political writer, who could offer a very different and surprising perspective.
Rail: For Curt, Kirby, and Aaron: Can you talk about how you decided on the books you did? And speaking to my earlier question to Robert: How did being an author yourselves influence the authorial stance you took on the books you chose? Did you feel any pressure to be academic? Did you read any published criticism of the books beforehand? Did you feel more like a crafts-person admiring the work of another crafts-person? Could each of you talk about your experience and your process?
Aaron Burch: I picked mine in a slightly roundabout way. The series is called Bookmarked because it’s supposed to be about a book that “left its mark on you.” I can’t remember if this was said in the earliest pitch or if I just read into it, but there was this idea that it’d be about a book that made you want to become a writer. I don’t really have a book like that, and The Body specifically didn’t actually leave a huge mark on me, but it was made into Stand By Me, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and so I thought that would be interesting to investigate. (And, even more than investigation, fun to write about a favorite movie.)
I didn’t read any criticism, of the book or movie, nor did I especially feel any kind of pressure to be academic. I knew, pretty early on if not immediately, that it was going to be as much, if not more, about me than the book/movie. This is one of my favorite forms recently, from the Boss Fight Books series, to Matt Sailor’s and Tabitha Blankenbiller’s ongoing columns on Hobart—writing about a thing to use that thing as a way to write about yourself. One of the aspects of myself that it became about, though, was myself as a teacher. I teach The Body in my literature-based Rhetoric of Growing Up comp class, so while the book itself isn’t academic, it became, in part, about myself as academic.
Curtis Smith: I was leaning toward Slaughterhouse from the get-go. I was one of those kids who’d discovered Vonnegut in high school and then read everything else of his I could get my hands on. I wasn’t writing then—in fact, writing wouldn’t be on my radar for another dozen or so years. I don’t want to write like Vonnegut—but I’m pretty certain his voice, with its humor and compassion, its mix of cynicism and wonder, waits at the core of what calls me.
I didn’t feel any pressure to be academic—in fact, my initial response to the project was a conditional yes—and that condition was that I didn’t want to write anything like lit crit. Not that I have anything against it, it’s just that I can’t see myself doing it well. I did read some takes on the book, but most of my research focused on other areas, like theories of time and the history of PTSD and such.
The deeper I got into the book, the more I admired it, which was pretty cool considering that often one returns to a seminal book only to find it’s faded. But revisiting Slaughterhouse only heightened my admiration for the man and his work. Its style and construction still feel fresh—at least to me.
The actual writing—once I’d wrapped my head around the form—was a blast. Once I decided I wanted to construct my book in a manner similar to Slaughterhouse, things fell into place. I wrote it in bits and pieces then wove them together, trying my best to pace things and move it forward in a somewhat pleasing fashion.
Kirby Gann: Actually, I was tricked into my selection by Robert. We’d talked before about 33 1/3 and how someone should do a series like that for books, and then one day he sent me an email that just asked straight-out what book made me want to be a writer. Without thinking about it much (a specialty of mine) I wrote back that it would be the Knowles novel, and it was only then that he got into the details of doing Bookmarked. Typical of Robert, he asked me to take over the heavy lifting—he’s an idea man!—and thus I was appointed series editor.
Thing is, I hadn’t read A Separate Peace since I was a teenager, though it traveled with me to all the different places I’ve lived, sort of like a totem. And I didn’t know how to write about it, either, for some time. I was thinking I’d approach the book as a fellow practitioner, kind of a shop-talk thing, but then once I started to read the book again, and read some of the criticism, it became clear there was little more to say about it. I mean, once a book enters the world of Cliff Notes/SparkNotes and that level, you really have to come from way out of left field to say anything new. Also, in reading the book for the first time in something like thirty years, I realized I could still admire what Knowles had accomplished, but I didn’t love the novel anymore. Which led me to start wondering why the book had affected me so strongly in high school—I had nothing but age in common with Gene and Phineas and their world. That led me to wonder about my teenage reading self, and who was that guy? And from there I found an opening to approach the novel.
Also, in my extracurricular reading, it surprised me to find so little existed about Knowles himself—no full-length biography. He was a diligent novelist with a new book every few years (none of which save ASP is still in print). Maybe ASP isn’t as popular now as it used to be, but for a few generations it was as unavoidable as Catcher in the Rye. And so I became interested in his story (what I could find of it), which might be the archetypal American Artist story of one big hit, financial security, followed by a career of aesthetic ruin and frustration. Some of the reviews that guy received were brutal; one by a young Michiko Kakutani in the mid-’80s was just vicious, painful to read today, and I think it led to Knowles remaining silent for the final, almost two decades of his life.
Burch: As a follow-up, I’m curious, were you to go back and to do it again, would you choose the same book? The same academic versus personal versus craft-admiration? Would you choose a different angle of entry if you were to do another one? Does a second book jump to mind if you were to do another? (Not that anyone is going to, but just as a kind of curiosity thought experiment.)
Gann: I would, actually. Though I’m happy with the way mine turned out, I would have preferred to choose a novel that had a more direct connection to the writer I turned out to be, and then sift back and forth between those connections to see what I could see. For me that would have been Paul Bowles and The Sheltering Sky, or The Spider’s House (though that may not be popular enough to get Robert’s OK). I went through a heavy Bowles phase in my twenties, reading everything of his and then everything by other authors in his orbit, and even changed the trajectory of my life by taking off for France to live for a while, and then wandering through North Africa, where I went into the Sahara alone with a guide. The cold control of his prose had a big influence for a long time—his objectivity when relating acts of violence and even outright evil—until I had to consciously move against it to find something more my own.
Smith: To address Aaron’s question—I’m happy with how my offering turned out. I often write short, somewhat disjointed pieces—and Slaughterhouse’s structure, a structure I wanted to emulate, was a nice match. With all the different strands and avenues Vonnegut presented, I could have approached my book in a number of ways—but I think any trajectory would have eventually led me to a similar orbit. As far as other books go, yeah, I’d love to tackle another someday. 1984, Lord of the Flies, Nine Stories—I thought about all of them when the project came up, and I think each would offer rich material. But I always knew Slaughterhouse was my go-to. Let me throw out a question to Kirby and Aaron—I’ve already put out a few essay collections—but for you two, this was your first foray into creative nonfiction, at least on the book-length level. How was that shifting of gears? How did your fiction background help/hinder the process?
Gann: The composing process started easily and then soon became awkward and gave me a hard time, honestly. The biggest hurdle for me was a common one: that voice in the back of your head asking, “Why should anyone care what you think? Why should anyone be interested in your writer-origins, or any part of your life story?” Granted, that same voice pesters me when writing fiction, too, but at least there I can persuade myself that the story under creation is also creating it’s own interest. Plus it’s fun to do and I’m drawn to the doing.
But the more memoir-like form surprised me with how strange and unnatural it felt. It also required revisiting a not-great time in the life of my family. Even stranger was learning that the teenager I used to be proved difficult to access, and remained stubbornly opaque. Like a character being created: teenaged-me didn’t readily explain himself to my head. Recognizing that is what led me to hit upon writing that section of the book as if it were a story, in third-person. And then weirdly, once I started in that vein, the past opened itself to my memory with a clarity and vividness that the conventional first-person-looking-back stance did not.
I’m unsure what a psychoanalyst would make of that.
Burch: Interesting. I think mine was a bit more of the reverse: it started kind of difficult but became easier as I went. Though, of course, the real answer is that it probably went back and forth between easy and difficult a handful of times.
Not only was this my first book-length non-fiction, I’ve written very little non-fiction at all. I think the handful of pieces I’ve published (with one exception, which is actually included in my book) have been grad school homework assignments or were written to “perform”—more humor pieces and introductions. The difficulty was kind of twofold: how do I write a book-length’s worth of words about this novella, and how do I fight being uncomfortable writing about myself.
With the former, my book works similar to Curt’s: it’s made up of a lot of short, sometimes-disjointed-seeming pieces. King’s novella is written in thirty-four chapters, so I knew pretty early on that mine would echo having that number of chapters, and I reassured myself by thinking, “well, I don’t know how to write 30-40k words about anything, but I could probably write 34,000-word essays. A couple about nostalgia, a couple about friendship, one about deer/buffalo, one about how I teach the novella,” and I was kind of off. I just started writing these little vignettes and then piecing them together, and the final stage was arranging them in an optimal order, cutting the ones that weren’t necessary, and writing connective tissue.
I think the biggest lesson or reminder or whatever that I brought from fiction was trying to let the piece go where it wanted to go instead of fighting it and making it go where I wanted it to. Actually, I don’t know if that lesson was helpful from writing fiction or teaching, but I definitely let the book become something that surprised me instead of what I thought it was going to be. Going hand-in-hand with that is this idea (I don’t know if it’s a maxim, or if there’s a good famous quote about this or if it’s just floating around out there) that when you’re working on a novel, the novel becomes about everything that fascinates you during the time of working on that novel, all those obsessions get thrown in, everything is fodder. So, like, I thought the book was going to be about nostalgia and male friendship, and I spent a lot of last year thinking about and trying to figure out why I love The Body and Stand By Me so much, but I also spent a lot of the year struggling with marriage and thinking about and trying to figure out why and how marriage is hard. So my book just kind of became about all of that.
Rail: Toward the end of your book, Aaron, you tell your wife that your Gordie’s “twelve going on thirteen” is an “x going on x+1” theory. Your wife says that “Kids always want to be older. They’re always rounding up.” At the beginning of the book, you claim “one of the strengths of Stand By Me is how closely it adheres to its source material.” However, you mention a few differences, one being the time period: The Body takes place in 1960, while the Stand By Me takes place in 1959. Rob Reiner rounded down by one, not up. King’s setting his story in the ’60s seems to speak to the wiser-but-sadder theme of “The Body, a theme that echoes through America’s history in the Sixties;” whereas, Reiner’s story seems bathed in the nostalgia of the feel-good American post-war decade—the end of it, of course, but even that detail seems significant. Why do you think Reiner made such a small change? Does it touch on your idea of “nostalgia?” Is nostalgia a theme of the King text? Or just the Reiner?
Burch: This may sound flip, but my guess when reading this question was that Reiner would just be a year older than King. And, indeed Google confirms—Reiner is in fact six months older, not a full year, but his “twelve going on thirteen summer” would have been 1959, whereas King indeed turned thirteen in September of 1960. This is a much less interesting or “important” reason for the tweak than your very smart question, but actually ends up echoing a couple other things I talk about in my book. One thing I do is I quote a number of my own pieces of writing—all these times that I’ve referenced Stand By Me over the years. One of those instances is the line, “I was twenty-four going on twenty-five the first time I saw a buffalo.” It’s an excerpt from this novel I’m working on, meant obviously to echo SBM/The Body’s opening, a line given to a character basically because I thought I myself was twenty-four when I first saw a buffalo. (Then, I investigate my own line to backtrack and do the math, and it turns out that is wrong.)
Which leads to my second echo—I try to talk some, in the book, about these distinctions of fiction and non-fiction, and fiction that is, or feels more “personal” in a more “drawn from my life” kind of way. I talk about some of the echoes between King and The Body’s Gordie Lachance, and argue that many of those parallels add an interesting almost metafictional layer to the book, while at the same time not necessarily caring, personally, what might or might not have actually happened. I think one of the reasons we often borrow things from our own lives in our writing is to ground them. We can then fictionalize things all we want, make them up entirely, and they can feel a little more
“real” because we have our own expertise to know what feels true to 2003, or 1996, or 1960 or 1959 or whatever. I think one of the reasons Reiner was so drawn to The Body was because of his closeness in age to King, I’m sure he recognized a lot in it, but at the same time, why not tweak the time period by a year to make it even a little bit more your own story?
The nostalgia is definitely there in King—the whole structure of the novella is that this story of the summer of being “twelve going on thirteen” is being told by an adult Lachance, and so those moments of looking back on his life, being younger, his friends, the town he grew up in as it was then as opposed to now—that was all there.
Rail: Aaron just named “nostalgia” as one of his early ideas for the book. Could you all talk about how nostalgia, or memory, played into all of your experiences with the books you chose? Was the experience of revisiting these books different now from how you had remembered it?
Burch: This is some of what I actually try to unpack in the book itself, but I don’t especially have nostalgia for reading The Body. I have it a little bit for Stand By Me, but I’ve watched and rewatched that over the years. So I don’t think nostalgia especially affected my rereading or rewatching of the book or movie, but because the story itself wrestles with nostalgia, and I myself am super prone to the tendency, I tried to use writing about the book as an entry point into talking about the larger phenomena of nostalgia, both it itself and my own predilection for it.
Lasner: The mid-1980s was a time of great nostalgia in film for the fifties. Stand By Me, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Dead Poets Society, all came out within a few years of each other. (Early in the decade, you had Diner.) Because of shows like Happy Days, my generation was aware on some level of the customs of the 1950s, even if they were filtered through the lens of TV. The ’50s were always painted as the last decade of innocence. Contrast them with the ’60s films made in the eighties, such as Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket—films about war and death. Going to the movies in the 1980s, you were fed the line that the ’50s represented innocence, the ’60s, tragedy. Interestingly, a movie like American Graffiti, which was made in 1973 and set in 1962, has a very ’50s feel to it, even though it is set in the ’60s. It looks like the farther you got from the 1950s, and into the 1980s, the more “nostalgia-driven” the films became.
Gann: There was some nostalgia in my case, probably unavoidable due to how young I was when I read ASP, and remembering it as the first novel to mean something to me—even though that something couldn’t have been articulated by me at the time. But a vast difference stretched between the book’s impression on me then and the impression it made on me as I reread it for this project. The distance was enough that, rather than nostalgia, I felt curiosity: who was that kid who took to ASP so passionately? How did a book situated in World War II speak to him with such power? And so I went in search of him, half-recalling, half-inventing him through what I remembered of the events in my life at that time, and what I could identify from this vantage point as shaping him/me then. Nostalgia suggests a wistful remembrance, a sentimentalism, and as my book probably suggests, this was not a period in my life to feel wistful over.
Yes, reading A Separate Peace now felt very different than how I remembered it; the book no longer held me in its thrall, which was difficult to admit to myself. I thought Knowles could have been more ambitious, even as it’s impossible not to admire the control with which he handled the world and subject of that novel—to have that kind of grasp over your work, and to sustain that over 200 pages, is no mean feat. But he struck me as a writer who might’ve benefitted from easing his grip on his material a bit, to lose some of that control, allow a bit of wildness in. ASP is close to perfect in its construction and execution, and yet that makes it feel kind of still-born today.
Smith: I address the notion of looking back often in my book—Lot’s wife, the accuracy of memory, the events we try to remember and the others we try to forget. I try (unsuccessfully) to remember the day I bought the book, and I look back on my first viewing of the movie. One of the main currents addressed in Slaughterhouse is the perception of time. Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time, drifting this way and that through his life. I did some research on different scientific and philosophical investigations on the reality (or unreality) of time. There were a number of times in my rereading of Slaughterhouse that I felt a deeper connection to my teen self than I could get from looking at old photos, a feeling like the younger me was waiting just behind the page.
The experience of revisiting the book was really positive. On the level of craft and storytelling, Slaughterhouse is a real work of art. And while the book hasn’t changed, I have—I’m forty years older than the teen who first read it—and much of what Vonnegut had to say about time and death hit closer to home than it ever could have for a boy who wasn’t old enough to drive.
I address the roots of word “nostalgia” in my book. It’s a combination of Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain”—literally, it means “the pain of coming home”—and it was coined in the late 1600s by doctors trying to describe symptoms in soldiers with what we now call PTSD. It’s odd that a word that was once used to describe something painful has evolved to mean something more sweet.
Rail: Robert, so far there are only three titles available. When will more be coming out? How can writers interested in the series submit proposals? Kirby mentioned that Paul Bowles’s The Spider’s House might not be “popular enough” to get your OK. Can you give us a sense of what types of books you’re interested in seeing covered in the series? Finally, can you give us a sneak peak at any upcoming titles?
Lasner: Our aim right now is to publish four Bookmarked titles per year, and see how it goes. Paula Bomer is writing on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and that should be out late this year. In early 2017, we are releasing a volume by Jaime Clarke, novelist and owner of Newtonville Books, on The Great Gatsby, and author David Ryan on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Later in 2017, we have Michael Seidlinger of Electric Literature, among other things, on Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and award-winning author Steve Yarbrough on Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. We also just signed up Brian Evenson, and Charles Holdefer for 2018.
As far as selecting titles and “popularity,” I haven’t had to have that discussion with any of the authors yet, as the books they choose were all their first picks, and all were sufficiently well-known. Since the series is so new, I don’t yet know if volumes on more popular titles sell better than those on obscure ones. Putting on my publisher hat, it makes sense that readers would be drawn, at least initially, to more popular books. If a book is so obscure that not many people have read it, it would seem to be difficult to get people to want to read a book about it. But, we’re early in the series, so I don’t know if this is true yet. The artistic freedom of the authors in the series is also very important, as each Bookmarked title is as much personal recollection as critical analysis. I don’t want to stifle that creativity if an author is really set on doing something less well-known.
I also want to add that we are not attached to just having fiction authors. I would love to have a non-fiction author do something, or have a writer do something on a single short story, or even a poem, or a play. There really are a myriad of directions to go in, which is what makes the series so exciting.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore