How Kurt Vonnegut Found His Voice and His Themes

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COMPLETE STORIES
By Kurt Vonnegut
Edited by Jerome Klimkowitz and Dan Wakefield
911 pp. Seven Stories Press. $45.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: I once stalked Kurt Vonnegut.

There’s a sort of writer — often male, typically born in the mid- to late-20th century — for whom this won’t be a surprise, for whom “Vonnegut” is practically a stage of development (it comes somewhere between adolescence and first rejection letter).

In 1986, I was that sort, a college journalism student and young father who secured suspect press credentials to interview the famous novelist when he came to my hometown to lecture at Gonzaga University. As we settled into a classroom, I shakily read the first question in my spiral notebook (“Um, if you could give advice to a young writer …”).

Vonnegut’s eyes narrowed in those droopy, theater-box sockets. “Can I ask you a question? How old are you?”

“Oh, uh, I’m 20.”

“And you’re writing for Esquire?”

“Well,” I admitted, “they haven’t actually accepted the piece yet.”

Despite my dubious credentials, Vonnegut spent the next 15 minutes generously offering advice on how to be a writer — or, at least how he’d done it. After surviving the Dresden firebombing as a prisoner in World War II and working briefly in public relations, he supported his family writing short stories for the rich 1950s magazine market, where he developed the wry, aphoristic voice that would lead to his career as a beloved novelist and moral sage.

I found myself thinking back to that 30-year-old advice (which was 30 years old when he gave it) while lugging around the huge volume of Vonnegut’s newly released “Complete Stories.” Even in 1986, Vonnegut mused that his path was about as relevant “as how to repair a Model T.”

This is the 911-page question — what to make of a trunkful of stories written (and often, rejected) 60 years ago for a market with such narrow specs: short, kicky stories for white, middle-class readers with a snap at the end worthy of O. Henry (or better yet, “The Twilight Zone”).

For completists, this will be like a boxed set of a musician’s early work — Vonnegut’s Sun Studio sessions — 98 stories, including five recovered from the author’s papers at Indiana University and published for the first time here.

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