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‘Write to please just one person’

Kalpish Ratna remembers a day in New York, in 1999, with Kurt Vonnegut.

books Updated: Apr 30, 2007 17:39 IST

Books can be plagiarised, derivative, hackneyed or simply total fakes. Very few books, and even fewer writers, can stand up as genuine. The ability to write a line without the insulation of habit, or recall, is shocking. To write many books of that sort is electrifying. How can you meet a writer who does that, and come away unmoved?

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. I met him in New York in 1999. Since then, our conversation has stayed with me as much as his books always will. This is my memory of that afternoon:

At 76, he moves slowly. His lanky frame is bent, the distinctive blond hair an unruly crown for a face harshly contoured by life. He looks like a poor man’s Albert Einstein. He is here for the release of Bogambo Snuff Box. As he makes his measured, unsteady way to the lectern, I rein in the impulse to help him. Then he begins to speak, and startles me with his veracity. This is Kurt Vonnegut. I recognise the voice I know so intimately in print — vigorous, skeptic, jettisoning baggage with every word, paring truth down to the bone.

He begins by talking about Bogambo Snuff Box. Inevitably, it will be classified as “uncollected short fiction” but Vonnegut describes the book better: “My hope, an old man’s hope, is that these, my earliest tales, for all their mildness, clumsiness and innocence, will, in these coarse times, still entertain. Re-reading some of these upset me. The premise, the characters were so promising, the denouement so asinine. Considered as fossils they are fakes, on the order of the Piltdown Man — half human and half the orangutan I used to be.”

The short story industry is dead, he says sadly, the magazines that ran the industry are dead. “There are creative writing courses all over the country now but there is no short story writing industry.” Television killed the magazines and the industry. “Cosmopolitan bought several of my stories once,” he remarks. “It now survives as a harrowingly explicit
sex manual.”

Short stories, he says, are a bunch of Buddhist cat-naps. Cat-naps? I protest. The Buddhist bit is explained — a story is, in essence, a meditation. Novels, Vonnegut counters, are definitely not cat-naps. “A novel is so long, reading one is like being married to somebody no one else knows or cares about.”

That chills me. I bristle loyally at the thought of the many marriages my bookshelves cherish. Writers, I point out, can’t possibly write to please everybody. To my surprise, he agrees. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, you and your stories will contract pneumonia.” Has he ever done that? Written to
please just one person? The reply is unexpectedly revealing.

“I always wrote for my sister Allie. She is the person all my stories were written for. Anything I knew Allie wouldn’t like I crossed out. She was funny in real life. That gave me permission to be funny too. A story can’t just go anywhere. Like playing fields it has boundaries. The boundaries of my short stories and my novels were once the boundaries of the soul of my only sister. She lives on that way.”

There is nothing sentimental about his voice. Nor, I realise, does he intend to present Allie as muse or magus. Kurt Vonnegut can have no truck with any such quirk. Allie’s soul was simply the blueprint he planned around. There was no mystique involved. A story was functional, efficient. It had to be written so that it would work. At this point I hear my voice ask the unaskable, the one question anybody who has ever wanted to write must forever suppress. “How do you get a story to work?” There! The words are out now, bound to disappear in a crevasse of glacial silence. Nobody can possibly take a question like that seriously.

Kurt Vonnegut does. He speaks with impressive distinctness, not with Pecksniffian cant but with the simple assurance of a craftsman who has been down this road many times before.

“Start as close to the end as possible. Better yet, throw out your first three pages. That’s where you write about yourself. ‘Setting the scene’ is what you’ll call it. Well, throw it out! It isn’t interesting. Now, when someone reads your story he is in the middle of it. Let him wonder how he got there. Learn to use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that their time was wasted. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Every character in your story should want something, even if it is a glass of water. Every sentence should do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. Now introduce Iago. Or Slobodan Milosevic. Be bad. Be a sadist. Make awful things happen to your leading characters, however sweet or innocent they may be. This will show what they’re really made of. Don’t explain things...”

Ah, here it comes, the tricksy bit, the twist in the tale, the contrivance that makes the short story an artifice. I feel let down. I had considered Vonnegut above treasons, stratagems and spoils.

“The element of surprise?” I blurt lamely.

He laughs. “To hell with surprise! Readers should have such complete understanding of what’s going on, the where and why, that they could finish the story themselves.” His eyes twinkle wickedly. “What if cockroaches ate the last two pages?” Then he junks the whole neat plan. With a glare of honesty that sears like a sentence he says: “I came up from a chemistry department. There was no one telling me what to do. By writing stories I was just making my soul grow.”And that’s all anybody who’s ever wanted to write sets out to do.

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, who write together as Kalpish Ratna, are the authors of Nyagrodha — The Ficus Chronicles