If you had to be out and about as a hurricane was bearing down on New York City, there were worse places to be than in the back of a limousine with Kurt Vonnegut. Especially if you were twenty-three years old and wanted to be a writer.
It was September of 1985 and we were driving through midtown Manhattan during the prelude to Hurricane Gloria. Storefronts were covered with plywood. Rain blew horizontally over streets that Kurt and I seemingly had to ourselves. This was my first job out of college, working as a publicity assistant for his publisher and I was, understandably, unnerved. My boss was a hurricane-induced no-show that morning and there was a full slate of morning show appearances to make. Plus, I had never been alone with a literary icon before. I had never been in a hurricane before.
But Kurt could not have been more relaxed. And why not? What’s a little rain and wind after you’ve lived through the Great Depression, survived being a prisoner of war, and the firebombing of Dresden?
On the way to our first interview he lit another one of the unfiltered Pall Malls that he was on record as saying he hoped would kill him. Then he looked outside and dryly said, “Maybe Jerry Falwell is right, and God is punishing New Yorkers for our countless sins.” We went to Good Morning This and AM That. People who I am sure had not read his book asked innocuous questions that he answered with a deadpan wit that was quite unmorningshow-like. The novel was Galapagos, and he had two minutes to share his vision on evolution and humanity, plot and themes. Two minutes for Kurt Vonnegut? I was outraged, but Kurt could not have appeared to care less.
Outside the rain fell harder. The winds reached upwards of eighty-five miles an hour. He smoked more Pall Malls. Before a remote for the top morning show in Canada, a makeup woman considered his face and wild curls of gray hair and she shrugged. Even his hair was hurricane-proof.
Kurt Vonnegut got a lot of mail. I know, because for two years I sorted it and delivered it to him at his East Side town house. This is before email and blogs. This is before reading groups and Oprah. Sometimes I would call first. Sometimes I’d just ring the doorbell, convinced that I was interrupting a thought that would forever change the shape of American letters. It was always a shock when he would answer and more of a shock when he would invite me inside. Kurt knew that I wanted to be a writer but I never had the nerve to ask him anything. After all, I saw the mail. Hundreds of letters and manuscripts from fans whose lives his words had changed, asking for advice, guidance, the coveted blurb. What could I possibly ask of him? His advice for writers, for human beings, was right there in his books, in the transcripts of his countless speeches to the college students who worshiped him.
What I didn’t know then is that he had tried to take his own life in 1984, soon after I had started working with him, not long before the day he had seemed so unflappable in the face of a Manhattan hurricane. Thankfully, he survived, and I’ve since read that one of the things he’s proudest of is not trying again. He thought it would make a bad example.
A few months after Hurricane Gloria I knocked on Kurt Vonnegut’s door and spoke to him one last time. I had the usual stack of letters and manuscripts. I was not afraid anymore. We’d been through the morning shows and a hurricane. After he took them from me I told him that I was leaving for another job and to try to make a go of it as a writer. For the first time I asked him to sign a book for me. When he was done scribbling in his wild hand he handed it back to me and gave me the best advice a writer could give another. “Write every day,” he said. We shook hands, and I imagine he went back to doing just that. The inscription in my book, which I am looking at right now, as I write this, says, “To my admirable colleague, Jim Othmer. Kurt Vonnegut, Christmas 1985.”
And so it goes.