Friday, July 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut’s Final Interview(s)

Famous Last Words have been the object of fascination ever since famous people started uttering them. Caesar said “And you, Brutus?” Oscar Wilde made the joke about the ugly curtains.
To the disappointment of the many who held Kurt Vonnegut in similar esteem, the writer was robbed of any significant last words when he lay unconscious after a sudden fall until his death on April 11, 2007.
For newspapers and magazines of a certain stripe, Last Interviews are the next-best thing.The Chicago-based political magazine In These Times, to which Vonnegut was a frequent contributor, published one of them; another was printed in the June issue of an in-flight magazine published by US Airways. A public radio show called The Infinite Mind presented a third in the virtual-reality world of Second Life.
Which of these is the real last interview? None of them, as it turns out.
Vonnegut and host John Hockenberry of The Infinite Mind appeared as animated characters and broadcast their conversation live into the virtual universe in August 2006. The interview was aired again on the radio show the following October, about six months before Vonnegut’s death.
In a July 9 phone interview, Mr. Hockenberry told The Observer that he and Vonnegut were “old pals” and that he had appeared on Infinite Mind before; producers who reposted a link to the interview online after Vonnegut’s death labeled this one “his last interview for the Infinite Mind.”
Overzealous linkers itching for the author’s last words were apparently confused by the phrasing, and as a result, it is referred to in a few places on the Web as Vonnegut’s last interview ever.
With Infinite Mind thus out of the running, literary historians are left with a face-off between J. Rentilly, who conducted the US Airways interview, and Heather Augustyn, who did the one for In These Times.
Both of their pieces were presented as straight Q.&A.’s—Mr. Rentilly’s ran in the magazine’s “Verbatim” department—and neither of them, naturally, knew that their conversations with Vonnegut were going to be among his last interviews with a journalist.
Ms. Augustyn spoke to Vonnegut for a piece she was working on for the Times of Northwest Indiana, anticipating a speech the writer was scheduled to give in Indianapolis in late April (The speech, which ended up being delivered by his son Mark, was supposed to be a crown jewel of the city’s yearlong celebration of Vonnegut’s work.)
When Ms. Augustyn reached Vonnegut by phone on February 28, she only had time to ask a few questions before he told her, eight minutes in, that he was feeling too sick to continue.
“During the conversation, he was really coughing a lot,” Ms. Augustyn recalled. “He’d say, ‘I’m sorry, excuse me, give me a minute.’ But at the end of the conversation he said, ‘I’m not well, I have to go, do you have what you need?’”
Ms. Augustyn planned to get more material in person at the Indianapolis lecture, but when Vonnegut died, she decided to pitch what she had as a direct transcript to In These Times because she knew the magazine was so close to Vonnegut’s heart.
In the introduction to the Q.&A. she referred to her conversation with the author in the intro text as “what was to be his last interview.” (I hadn’t heard about he U.S. Airways in-flight magazine interview,” Mr. Bleifuss later wrote in an e-mail to The Observer.)
She said she wrote that because the magazine’s editor, Joel Bleifuss, a long-time friend of Mr. Vonnegut’s, told her it was true.
But as it happened, Mr. Rentilly talked to Vonnegut for his US Airways story a week later, on March 6.
According to Lance Elko, who edits the US Airways magazine, Mr. Rentilly’s interview was going to be published anyway; the issue in which it appeared was on its way to the printer when news of Vonnegut’s death reached the newsroom.
“We were prepared to run it on its own merits, and then Mr. Vonnegut died, and we were like, ‘Wow, is this the last one?’” Mr. Elko said.
He said he talked to Vonnegut’s publicist, Ruth Weiner, who confirmed to him that Mr. Rentilly’s Q.&A. was, indeed, the last interview Vonnegut had given before the accident in his apartment.
Mr. Elko adjusted the copy to reflect this; the teaser text now read, with the slightest hint of satisfaction, “The last interview with one of America’s great men of letters.”
US Airways had the pearl fair and square, it seemed, except that Mr. Rentilly’s Q&A, as it appeared on page, was found to contain two quotes that Vonnegut had actually given Mr. Rentilly five years earlier, when he spoke to him for a McSweeney’s article. That piece, which ran as a three-part Q&A on the McSweeney’s Web site, was substantially darker and more personal than what ended up in US Airways—sample question: “Have you ever simply wanted to stop living?”—but two passages unmistakably appeared in both. One was about Vonnegut’s brother Bernie; the other was about how he tried to write in the voice of a child so that everyone could understand him.
McSweeney’s editor Eli Horowitz didn’t seem to mind the overlap.
“We have no beef with US Airways. We have no beef with anyone,” he told The Observer. “We’re vegetarians.”
But Mr. Elko, the in-flight editor, did.
He told The Observer that he confronted Mr. Rentilly as soon as he learned of the convergence.
“I was upset,” he said.
Mr. Rentilly, in a series of e-mails to Mr. Elko and another US Airways editor, explained that he had made an inadvertent editing mistake while looking over his Vonnegut transcripts side by side on a computer.
That seemed to calm Mr. Elko down.
“It’s slightly tainted that way,” Mr. Elko concluded, “but not substantively.”
Mr. Rentilly, for his part, has been quite apologetic about the mix-up: “I regret this error deeply,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Observer, “and assure you, no harm, malice, or duplicity was intended to anyone, not least of all a public hungry for what turned out to be, sadly, Mr. Vonnegut’s final words.”
Unfortunately for that hungry public, it seems The Last Vonnegut Interview Ever does not properly exist—nor will it ever, as according to Mr. Elko, US Airways does not generally run corrections because the average reader only sees 2.7 issues of the magazine per year.
Luckily, Vonnegut himself planned ahead in his last book, a collection of his essays titled A Man Without a Country: “My last words?” he wrote, ‘Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.’”
Copyright © 2007 The New York Observer. All rights reserved.