LIANE HANSEN, host:
Kurt Vonnegut was one of America's more prolific authors in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. From his first novel "Player Piano," published in 1952, through such classics as "Slaughterhouse-Five, " "Breakfast of Champions" and "Cat's Cradle," Vonnegut entranced his readers, often using sardonic humor to depict horrific events. Kurt Vonnegut is now 82 years old, and he lives in New York City. His output has slowed some, but his writing remains crisp. This week Vonnegut's collection of essays and speeches, "A Man Without a Country," will be published by Seven Stories Press. He spoke to us this past week from our New York bureau, and he talked about how the role of the satirist in America has changed over the years.
Mr. KURT VONNEGUT (Author): Ink on paper doesn't matter anymore. Television is the whole story. It is the way to communicate now. And there was a time when ink on paper really mattered, but it doesn't anymore. You know, the libraries are full of wonderful satire, some of it going back to Roman times. And so there's no shortage of satire now, and the subject is still what idiotic, complicated animals human beings are.
HANSEN: You talk a lot about humor in this new collection and almost a physiological response to fear.
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, it is, yes.
HANSEN: Now I want to remind people that you, indeed, were a prisoner of war in World War II, and you survived the fire bombings of Dresden. Did you use humor with yourself at those times as a response to your own fear?
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, I think it's a very human thing to do when there's nothing else you can do. I mean, it's a situation of utter frustration, where you are helpless but still alive. And it turns out that it's human to make jokes, to make black humor. And, yeah, that is momentary relief, but there are times when you can't do a damned thing about the trouble you're in.
HANSEN: You have written that some things aren't funny. Auschwitz isn't funny. The deaths of...
Mr. VONNEGUT: No.
HANSEN: ...Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy are not funny. Do you--can humor be found, do you think, in the devastation of New Orleans and all those other communities along the Gulf Coast after the hurricane?
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, I--look, my faith in the American people is deep, and I imagine there have been wonderful jokes played down there, the darkest jokes possible. But, again, there were many people who were absolutely helpless, and it would be very human if one of them made a joke.
HANSEN: You used to be a chemist, and then you taught English literature, and you incorporated science into your own writing, but then you were classified then as a science-fiction writer. Why does that bother you? You bristle when people refer to you as a science-fiction writer.
Mr. VONNEGUT: No, I just write novels. And, damn it, to discredit me, to say, `Well, you know, this is for pimply teen-age boys,' it's not. These are terrific novels about people, but science is involved.
HANSEN: You are an artist. I mean, you've incorporated drawings in your own books. How important has art been to your work?
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, it's a perfectly agreeable, innocent thing to do, and it's a way of being human. What I hate about public school systems that cut out the arts because they're not a way to make a living--it is such a human thing to do, and it is the experience of becoming if you make something that wasn't in the universe before. And that feels so good to human beings, and to cheat kids out of that is criminal. Everybody should be painting now or drawing or whatever, just as they should be singing or taking walks or falling in love or whatever. It's so human. And not to teach kids how to do this is to cheat them terribly.
HANSEN: You write if, God forbid, you should die, you want your epitaph to read, `The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, that's certainly true. Why this is so I don't know, and what music is I don't know, but it helps me so. And, I mean, it's just noise, but it's such magical noise and enchanting to me. Why it works so well I don't know. But I know that I can find relief listening to music.
HANSEN: What kind of music do you turn to? What do you put on your...
Mr. VONNEGUT: Well, it's--everything but rap, really. No, but I--when bebop came along, I liked that. I decided it was a good idea. And, of course, America's greatest gift to the world is jazz from African-Americans, who have such a miserable time in New Orleans. Jazz--my goodness, what a wonderful, important discovery that is. And it's spiritually as important, or maybe even more important, than Beethoven's Ninth. Wow. So I really get off on jazz. And during the Great Depression, in Indianapolis, when I was in high school, I would go to jazz joints and listen to black guys playing, and, man, they could really do it. And I was really teared up. It's still the case now.
HANSEN: Author Kurt Vonnegut's latest book is called "A Man Without a Country," a collection of essays and speeches." And it'll be published later this week. He joined us from our New York bureau.
Thanks. Thanks for your time.
Mr. VONNEGUT: I had a good time.
HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.