MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.
NEDA ULABY: In 1999, Kurt Vonnegut told NPR that he wrote everything, everything, for one specific reader - his sister Allie, who died of cancer in her 30s.
BLOCK: It's just trusting the taste of someone else. I mean, it could easily be a teacher. But that is the secret to artistic unity, I think, even when painting a picture or composing a piece of music, is to do it with one person in mind. I don't think you can open the window and make love to the whole world.
ULABY: It's kind of hard to believe now, but Kurt Vonnegut's early work was critically dismissed. His writing was seen as lowbrow, even a little outre. His novel "Cat's Cradle," from 1963, was the first to earn him respect from the literary establishment. And like all of Vonnegut's books, it's still in print and it's still being read. Here's the author reading from "Cat's Cradle" in collaboration with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity. And I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow, and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men and I would make a statue of myself lying on my back, grinning horribly and thumbing my nose at you know who.
ULABY: Vonnegut was a secular humanist, as playful as he was principled. His style was lean and unpretentious. John Irving is best known for his novel "The World According To Garp." He studied creative writing under Kurt Vonnegut.
BLOCK: The only critical thing he ever said to me was about my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt himself despised. He called them hermaphrodites.
ULABY: Irving remembers a dinner party with Vonnegut when the older writer got up choking from the table. Irving rushed to help.
BLOCK: I was trying to Heimlich him. But I'm very short, 5'6," and Kurt was very tall - 6'2", 6'3". So I had to knock him down on all fours, climbed up on his back, Heimliched the hell out of him. Finally he said, John, I'm not choking. I have emphysema. I didn't know he had emphysema. He never let me forget it.
ULABY: Forgetting was not the problem when Kurt Vonnegut sat down to tell the story of his experience as a soldier during World War II. The problem was how to narrate the firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut was a POW who emerged from an underground meat locker, slaughterhouse number five, to a ruined city.
BLOCK: As prisoners of war, we dealt hands-on with dead Germans, digging them out of basements because they had suffocated there, and take them to a huge funeral pyre. And I heard, I didn't see it done, but finally they gave up this procedure because it was too slow, and of course the city was starting to smell pretty bad. They sent in guys with flamethrowers.
ULABY: Vonnegut was a ferocious critic of war, and most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jerome Klinkowitz is an English professor who's written extensively on the author. He says Vonnegut's writing is filled with inept, foolish characters, but cheap shots were not his style.
P: He did plenty of outrageous work but he never wanted his work to be hurtful. There's no villains in any of his novels.
ULABY: Kurt Vonnegut was proud of those novels, and extremely matter of fact about producing them.
BLOCK: How the hell I did all this I don't know. It's an instinctive, irrational process. There's no way to be clever, to be marketwise when writing a novel. You write the novel you were damn well born to write. And people buy it or they don't, but here I am completely in print. And I have a survivor syndrome as if, you know, ashamed to be alive in a way, not because of the Second World War but because of all the really good writers and artists of other sorts who were not able to make a living.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.