The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

Peter Wood’s “The Apocalypse and the Lake Mattamuskeet Gnat” [in our September/October issue, on sale now!] features a book club at the end of the world. Below, the author recounts another stressful literary experience, though it ends with a bright spot—bright as the apocalyptic lightning on the other side of Lake Mattamuskeet.

by Peter Wood

I think about Kurt Vonnegut a lot. I’ve worn an insulin pump for almost twenty-five years. It has little beeps and alarms that go off at unexpected times. Every time I hear one of those medical warnings, I think of “Harrison Bergeron.”

Vonnegut’s classic of forced equality where those of above-average intelligent are made equal courtesy of alarms and buzzers that constantly disrupt their trains of thought has always stuck with me. I read it in ninth grade at Horace Mann Junior High School in Brandon, Florida. Seventeen years later, I met the author.

Fast forward to February 1997. Living in Raleigh, North Carolina, I read that Kurt Vonnegut planned to speak at Duke University just down the road in Durham. The talk was only for Duke students and tickets were unavailable to the general public.

I convinced my friend and sometimes co-author, Paul, to drive us to Duke. I assured him we’d be able to get tickets somehow.

Turned out the Duke students were giving them away. We approached a couple of coeds and asked if they had any extra tickets. They gave us two on the spot.

Paul and I squeezed into seats better suited for small children way up in the nosebleed section of the 1200-seat Page Auditorium. After about half an hour, the 74-year-old Vonnegut lugged an enormous pad of paper and easel on stage.

“We can all agree that Hamlet tells a pretty good story,” Vonnegut announced. He proceeded to dissect the play. He said the plot was “man falls in a hole.” With a magic marker he drew a straight horizontal line and a sudden drop to the bottom of the page. The hole, the problem the protagonist must overcome. Vonnegut explained the plot revolved around the man getting out of the hole. He would languish at the bottom for most of the story until he overcame adversity and escaped the hole.

Unless he happened to be Hamlet.

He talked about storytelling for most of the time and then segued into Dolly the Sheep and cloning, which was a hot topic that year.

Vonnegut took questions. A student near us asked, “You were great in Back to School. When are you going to make another movie?” In the 1986 comedy, Rodney Dangerfield pays Vonnegut to write his English paper on Kurt Vonnegut. The professor hates the paper and Dangerfield blesses out the author.

Vonnegut answered without hesitation. “I was great in Back to School.” And, of course, Vonnegut was right.

After Vonnegut explained issues he had with the studio release of the adaption of Mother Night, Paul and I made a hasty exit before Vonnegut had finished answering questions. I suspected he might be signing books at the campus bookstore. The student center was a stone’s throw from the auditorium. I confirmed that Vonnegut would indeed be signing copies and I bought two hardcovers of Slaughterhouse Five. A couple of dozen people had beaten me to the store, and I got in line.

You may remember a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from the early eighties where an exhausted and sleep-deprived doughnut-maker gets up at the crack of dawn and sleepwalks through work. Looking like a zombie, he mumbles, “Time to make the doughnuts.”

A couple of handlers escorted Vonnegut into the store a few minutes later. He had that “Time to Make the Doughnuts” vibe. He looked like he desperately needed to go to bed, and that he wanted to be anywhere but the college bookstore.

I am not one of the beautiful people. I don’t hobnob with celebrities. I have met a few and they have generally been quite gracious.

Not giving a damn about what Vonnegut wanted, the handlers ushered him to the back of the store.

I am not one of the beautiful people. I don’t hobnob with celebrities. I have met a few and they have generally been quite gracious. Jimmy Carter beamed and asked how I was doing when he signed my book. Charlton Heston shook my hand and chatted for a few seconds. I have never read his book, In the Arena, except to check out the page on Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Heston admitted he didn’t remember much about the movie, and I still don’t know what he was thinking when he appeared in the worst sequel of all time.

A couple of years ago, William Shatner gave me a fist bump and talked for ten minutes about time travel, Gene Roddenberry, Harlan Ellison, and all things City on the Edge of Forever. I think it helped our relationship that the guy before me asked an incoherent question about how to get ahold of a super obscure video game. Shatner blurted out, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He looked to me with pleading eyes and asked if I had a “good question.”

David Gerrold has to be the most gracious. I called him on the phone at his request when I asked him a question online. We talked for over an hour. I felt like we’d known each other for years.

But back to Vonnegut.

When I reached the second place in line, a store employee revealed I could only get one copy of the books signed. Then, like one of the grouchy elves in A Christmas Story, he pushed me toward Vonnegut.

The author sat at a desk and refused to even make eye contact. He signed my book and shoved it back to me. I told him it was an honor to meet him and that I loved his fiction. He didn’t even look up. He said nothing.

Tucking the signed edition under my arm, I took the unsigned copy to the cashier and asked for a refund. He said that the store would only give store credit, which would not be available that night.

I had just spent twenty bucks on a book I did not need. Interestingly enough, in the March 1997 issue of the Duke Alumni magazine, the bookstore reported its number one seller was Slaughterhouse Five.

“Look,” I said. “What am I going to do with an extra copy of Slaughterhouse Five? Who needs two copies of the book? I’ve never been to this book store before and doubt that I’ll be coming back here again.”

The clerk started arguing with me.

Then we both realized that Vonnegut was watching our exchange with interest. A half smile on his face, he had stopped signing books to see how this played out. Nobody had a sense of the absurd more than Kurt Vonnegut. The store’s return policy was right up his alley.

The cashier gave in and refunded my money before the book signing ground to a halt.

And, I’d like to think that I made Kurt Vonnegut laugh.

Peter Wood lives in Raleigh with his very patient wife. This is his tenth story for Asimov’s. He loves vacationing in North Carolina, the best state in the country. Every nook and cranny is worth exploring. He cautions people who zoom down US 264 to reach the Outer Banks and the best beaches in the world. If you don’t slow down and take a look around you might miss something like . . . “The Apocalypse and the Lake Mattamuskeet Gnat.”

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