Donald Farber on the Legacy of Kurt Vonnegut
Warren Zevon probably didn't have Kurt Vonnegut in mind when he coined the phrase, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." Because even though he's no longer with us, the influential writer continues to work as hard as any living author. At least that's the way it seems. Case in point- this past January saw the publication of While Mortals Sleep, the latest offering of the master satirist's unpublished short fiction, as well as the grand opening of The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in his home town of Indianapolis.The term "memorial" aside, this doesn't feel like the posthumous appreciation of a writer's memory to me. It feels more like the recognition afforded a hard-working writer in his prime.
New Vonnegut is an exciting prospect for any reader, but can be a cause of concern for the reviewer. There are only so many ways to laud one man's work without sounding repetitive. So instead of recycling the gushing praise of my Look At The Birdie review, I decided to go for a different approach. Obviously an interview with the man was out of the question, but I may have scored the next best thing. An interview with agent, business manager and life-long friend, Donald Farber.
It is instantly apparent why the two men were friends. Donald Farber has the same no nonsense candor associated with some of Vonnegut's best work. He was direct and to the point, almost blunt in his answers, and never once gave in to sensationalism. We discussed everything from the trials of being in business with your friends to whether or not Vonnegut would approve of the handling of his estate. Our conversation paints a fascinating picture of one of the most enduring writers of the 20th century and the legacy he left behind.
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: What was your relationship to Kurt Vonnegut, on both a personal and a professional level?
DONALD FARBER: It was all mixed up. I was his attorney, his agent, his closest friend, his manager, his partner. I was part of his family and he was part of mine. I just happened to work for him.
JC: Were you friends or business partners first?
DF: The friendship and the business relationship developed together, then got mixed up.
JC: Did one ever conflict with the other?
DF: Why should they?
JC: A lot of times, mixing business and pleasure is a dicey proposition. I take it in your case they didn't conflict.
DF: I can't imagine why it would. I attended all his family affairs, he attended all mine. We were friends, but I also worked for him. We got along.
JC: You are in charge of managing his estate, correct?
DF: I'm the sole trustee of his copyrights.
JC: Did Kurt leave any instructions as to how his unreleased work should be handled after his death?
DF: The only instructions were that I should do it. While he was alive, I never did anything without asking him. We always discussed everything in detail. He would say, well Don, what do you think? I'd tell him what I thought and he'd say, well then do it. I'd like to think he was pleased with what I did. I have one of the posters that he drew in my office, which says, "for Don, without whom this life would not be possible."
JC: In Sidney Offit's foreword to Look At The Birdie, he wrote, "Unpublished is not a word we identify with a Kurt Vonnegut short story. It may well be that these stories didn't appear in print because for one reason or another they didn't satisfy Kurt." Why do you think they went unpublished?
DF: Oh, goodness. I knew Kurt better than anyone in the world, and I would never speculate on what he thought about certain things. I suspect he was too busy writing books to worry about stuff he wrote way back when. He wrote them when short stories were popular. Then books became the thing to write, and the short story magazines, many of them went out of existence. The market disappeared, so then he started writing books.
JC: Do you think he would approve of their publication all these years later?
JC: In a 2006 Rolling Stone article, Vonnegut talked about his unfinished novel If God Were Alive Today, saying:
"I've given up on it... It won't happen... The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, 'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?"
Will that book ever see the light of day?
DF: Well, I have it, and of course I've thought about it. But it's unfinished, and there's no point in publishing an unfinished work. Kurt had said everything he had to say.
It's funny, I thought about it today- if there is anybody that could finish it- but I don't think that's appropriate. I don't think anybody writes the way Kurt writes. I have people approaching me all the time asking me to represent them because they say, I write the way Vonnegut wrote, but that's a load of crap. Nobody writes the way Kurt wrote. And why would we need anybody who writes the way Kurt wrote? Kurt wrote the way Kurt wrote.
JC: I don't know if you remember, a couple years ago there was an unfinished Nabakov novel called, The Original of Laura?
DF: I remember that.
JC: It was published posthumously, in its incomplete form, against Nabakov's wishes, and the critical reaction wasn't too positive.
DF: We will not publish Kurt's unfinished work.
As for the critics, Kurt had the same problem every talented person has- every now and then somebody comments, oh, his later books weren't that good, or something to that effect. Well let me tell you, the problem Kurt had was that he was being compared to himself. You've got Slaughterhouse and Cat's Cradle and Rose Water and Player Piano and Sirens, but when you start comparing what he wrote in the 50's and 60's and 70's to his later work, it's not fair. The later books on their own are great. But you compare them to his earlier works... no one can compare to what they did earlier in their careers. That's true of every artist. I mean, how many books did Mailer write after his famous one? How about Joe Heller? Well, Joe only wrote a few books, but you get my point.
JC: Vonnegut famously said, "If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning big time." Did Vonnegut identify as an atheist?
DF: Oh yes. He brought down the house at Asimov's funeral when he said Asimov is looking down at us today from heaven. Everyone thought that was the funniest thing he could have said. But more than that, he was a humanist.
JC: In his introduction to While Mortals Sleep, Dave Eggers says that Kurt was a moralist. A lot of people associate atheism with amorality, but Kurt is a great example of how atheism and morality are not mutually exclusive.
DF: I don't know that God has a monopoly on morality. And I don't think that was just Kurt's view. Morality and god are separable.
JC: What can you tell us about the selection process for Look At The Birdie and While Mortals Sleep?
DF: It was done very carefully.
JC: Was there a lot to choose from? Was there a lot that didn't make the cut?
DF: There are another 250 or so short stories.
JC: Can we ever expect to see those published?
DF: I hope so.
JC: Was there any touching up or editing that needed to be done to those stories, or were they printed as written?
DF: We don't change Kurt's work. There might have been a comma added or something, but I doubt it.
JC: At the close of the Harper Audiobook edition of Breakfast of Champions, there is brief conversation between you and Kurt where you jokingly disparage the film adaptation as "painful to watch." What were Kurt's thoughts on selling his work to Hollywood?
DF: He was thrilled with Slaughterhouse, but not too keen on some of the other works. He didn't want to be involved in the making of the pictures. He wrote books and let Hollywood make the movies. They bought them and did what they wanted, but he wasn't too pleased. Everything except Slaughterhouse.
JC: What about Mother Night? That film is pretty decent.
DF: That one was Ok. He liked Nick Nolte. That was better.
JC: Yeah, but Breakfast of Champions, not so good.
DF: You got that right.
JC: Breakfast of Champions is one of those novels that is considered unfilmable. Why do you think he went ahead and allowed them to make it? Do you think there was some sort of mischievous ulterior motive on his part?
DF: I don't think he had any ulterior motive. We just made the deal and got paid.
JC: So it was strictly a business deal?
DF: He took the position that there was no way a good or bad movie could affect his career.
JC: Not a lot of writers feel that way.
DF: He wanted to be judged by his books.
JC: Didn't he have a small cameo in the film?
DF: I don't remember the details. I do remeber his cameo in the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School.
JC: Haha, a classic.
DF: That was a fun one.
JC: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial library finally had its grand opening in his home town of Indianapolis this past weekend. What was your involvement, if any.
JC: I read the family donated many of Kurt's personal effects to the library.
DF: Yes, we all have.
JC: Has there ever been a reluctance on the part of the family to give so selflessly of Kurt's memory to the public?
DF: Not that I know of.
JC: I feel like, personally, if I was in that situation, I would want to keep some of those things for myself.
DF: Kurt belonged to the world.
JC: I also read his daughter, Edie, had donated boxes of rejection letters, saying he got tons of them, including ones that said he had no talent and should give up writing.
DF: Probably. I haven't actually seen any, though.
JC: It is a scary thought to contemplate what would have happened if he listened to them.
DF: When I was in law school, I was on the law review, and the professor didn't like an article I wrote. He said, you can't write and you will never write.
JC: Sounds like a great teacher.
DF: Since then I have written seven books- one is in its third edition, one is in its fifth edition. I'm the general editor of ten volumes of entertainment industry contracts published by Lexisnexis, of which I've just finished the 69th update. And this professor said I can't write and will never write. People make mistakes.
JC: What if he had listened to them? Where would the world be without the literary voice of Kurt Vonnegut?
DF: I can't even imagine. I don't want to.
JC: Why do you think his work still resonates with people, young and old alike?
DF: Very simple. They resonate because they cover universal themes, that everyone can relate to. Children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents- everyone reads Kurt Vonnegut.