Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remembering Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut in Conversation

Reading Susan Braudy's vivid remembrance of Joe Heller made me recall the time I had the opportunity to interview him in conversation with Kurt Vonnegut. Just how did I get this dynamic duo together for a chat with a tape recorder by my side? While it was my idea, it was Norman Mailer who played 'dolly 'and arranged an introduction with Kurt Vonnegut who gave me Joe Heller's number and some advice.

"He can be gruff," Vonnegut said. "But don't let that put you off. It's just his manner. Not personal."

Sure enough when I did get the gumption to call Heller, he answered, "Who gave you my number?"

"Kurt Vonnegut."

"Sure I'll do a conversation with Kurt," Heller said, "What's the publication?"

"I'm going to offer it to Playboy." And that was that.

Then I queried an editor friend, Jonathan Black, at Playboy who jumped at it.
It was arranged for one beautiful summer day in Easthampton.

Besides owning a townhouse in Manhattan, in the summer Vonnegut lived in Sagaponack, Long Island,, but we decided to do the interview at Heller's home in Easthampton. Heller was suffering from Guillain Barre Syndrome, a weakness of his hands and feet and dysfunction of the nervous system. Wheelchair bound, he needed to be near his wife, Valerie, who was also his nurse. Valerie was a strong and loving woman.

The Heller home was modest and as one would imagine this writer's home to be. It had a dark rustic interior and papers were strewn over his desk. The lawn was sprawling and ivy surrounded a white lattice fenced-in porch.

"Let's do the interview on my lawn," Heller said in a thin voice. I was surprised and thought he'd have a deep voice, but it was Vonnegut who has the raspy smoker's voice. We sat on the lawn and began when after we filled up one tape, a loud 'ruummmmmmmmmmmmmm' was heard.

"For heaven's sake," Heller said. "That's our lawnmower man."

"Want to take this to a restaurant I know by the bay?" Kurt said and off we went to escape the lawnmower man.

To prepare for the interview I had read most of their books and quizzed Mailer about Joe and Kurt.

"Ask them about sex and war," Mailer said, then chuckled, "In that order."

Norman taught me how to do an interview by putting my questions in categories such as current events, politics, sex, literature, writing, war, women, whatever ... I organized my questions and ran them by Norman who put them in an order which of course was gone with the wind and the lawnmower once the conversation began.

"Don't restrict your interview with your will," Norman said lecturing. "If your subjects want to go off on a tangent, by all means let them ... Don't dictate to your subjects ... Follow their lead... especially if they're celebrities. They could be leading you to pay dirt"

Pay dirt was a term Norman used to describe the golden part of the interview -- when your subject is relaxed and revealing new thoughts and experiences.

At lunch we managed to do one more cassette, but eating and interviewing at the same time is not a good idea. However, I did manage to ask the waiter to take the above photo of us. And we did have a lovely, relaxed lunch. Little did I suspect that this would be the first and last time I was in the company of the talented, loquacious and pugnacious Joseph Heller?

The interview was a success. In 1992, it was published in Playboy with cartoons drawn of Vonnegut and Heller and was titled, "The Kurt and Joe Show." In 2012, it again was published by Melville House in a collection of interviews titled, Kurt Vonnegut, The Last Interview and Other Conversations. "

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