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Kurt Vonnegut's Last Interview Was in Second Life

It was the first interview on Second Life.

by ALEX PASTERNACK
Jun 26 2011, 6:34pm

Even at 83, Kurt Vonnegut was vibrant, and in his last interview, he even looks about 40—a mix of Malcolm Gladwell and James Joyce. It was August, 2006, and it would turn out that this appearance—the first interview "taped" in Second Life, conducted by "Infinite Mind" host John Hockenberry in front of some 100 avatars from around the world—would be the author's last. The author of Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle begins with a kind of requiem, remembering

being an American, having dreams for America. My generation—the depression generation and the war generation—we were nation builders, we were dreaming of what America was going to be when the depression was over and then when the war was over. And we had begun really to build a decent nation. Our race situation had been utterly disgraceful and we were finally dealing with that. And now we have become a nation I'm utterly ashamed of.

At eight and a half minutes in, he digs into virtual reality — "I'm frequently an enemy of new technology... but like Karl Marx, I'm up for anything that makes people happy!" He talks about his problems with technology at the twenty-two minute mark ("What we're missing in life [now] is waiting. . . mystery!"). But he also confesses his techno-fantasy: transforming himself into Andre Aggasis. 

But, seriously:

"Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia."

At around twenty-five minutes, he offers some advice to a scientist dreaming of being an artist: 

One thing I hate about art criticism is that what you do has to be original. Just do it for god sakes—people should be making pictures or drawing pictures or singing and dancing. It doesn't matter if you're lousy at it. It'll make your soul good, and you'll find out what's inside of you. There are always books that are never read. The big payoff is the act of creativity. So please experience that. It doesn't have to be justified afterwards by fame or money. It's the big payoff, just do it. 

As for doing that with style: some choice Vonnegut writing tips recently popped up on the website Open Culture, excavated from a 1980 issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' journal Transactions on Professional Communications. It was actually part of a full-page ad by the International Paper Company called "The Power of the Printed Word," addressing the imperative, given that "the printed word is more vital than ever," for "all of us to read better, write better, and communicate better." 

Early though they were early for the ages of Second Life and Twitter, his rules are still salient. On the importance of sounding like yourself, Vonnegut does Vonnegut: "If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?"

And on the value of simplicity, he points to, well, Joyce: "when he was frisky, [he] could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story 'Eveline' is this one: 'She was tired.' At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do."

Updated November 11, 2014.

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