Our friend James McBride shares a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut that he delivered at the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Foundation GalaOctober 3, 2011
Not long before he died, I did a reading with the late Kurt Vonnegut at a church in Manhattan called St. Barts. Before the event, Kurt and I stood in the church courtyard while Kurt smoked. He smoked filterless Lucky Strikes. I asked him, "Filterless cigarettes? They're terrible for you. Why smoke em?" He inhaled one deeply and said, "More value."
Suddenly the rectory door opened and his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, popped her head out. She said, "Kurt! Hurry up! Come inside. The people are waiting. They've got coffee and doughnuts for you."
Kurt, his face covered in cigarette smoke, took a deep drag of his filterless cigarette and said, "But dear, I just brushed my teeth."
We went inside, and during the Q&A, a woman said, "Why don't you two speak out against the Iraq war? You're writers! Why aren't you doing something to let people know what's going on?"
Kurt said, "Miss we don't have the power you think we have. They affirmation you want, we cannot deliver to people who aren't listening."
And therein lies the problem. We live in a society so wired everyone can write a book about nothing. My plumber is writing a book. My marriage therapist is writing a book. My ex-wife is writing a book, presumably about our marriage therapist. Newt Gingrich wrote a novel and he's a short story. Bill Clinton wrote a biography and he's a novel. Barack Obama -- all book writers. In fact, I can't think of anyone offhand who is not either writing a book or who does not believe their life is worthy of one. With all these people writing books, there's no one left to read them. So I think fewer people should write books, and more people should spend time thinking.
What all this blogging and the internet chit chat has done, is given us the chance to talk more about nothing. Just because some rant on television or radio sells toothpaste and sneakers and beer does not mean the person saying it is smart or a valid political movement. They're just salesmen with different titles, selling a different kind of drug, the drug of obedience, the drug of compulsory behavior disguised as patriotism or religion. But I remember Kurt Vonnegut. His kindness. His talent. A veteran and former P.O.W. who swore off all wars forever, because he saw its destructiveness. His widow Jill was one of the first women photographers to work in Vietnam.
The PEN Faulkner organization supports the NEW Kurt Vonneguts and the NEW Jill Krementzes in its school program. That's why I'm wearing this tux. And that's why my fellow writers and I gather nervously before you like sheep, in a town that, at times, seems to be is living proof that the world is run by gangsters. You are a few of the good. Thank you for keeping up the good. God is watching. He will bless you for your good, and in the end, right all wrongs in this world. That's the real Writing On The Wall. It's also the prayer on my lips every night.