an interview with dan wakefield
Dan Wakefield wears a lot of hats. Over the course of his impressive career, he’s published novels, journalism, screenplays, and nonfiction works, and has of late donned the editor’s cap—collecting the letters, speeches, and stories of his fellow Shortridge High School alum, Kurt Vonnegut. Dan’s work includes the best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over, publication in a diverse range of journals and magazines including The Nation, Dissent, Harpers, Esquire, The Yoga Journal, GQ, and the TV Guide, as well as a number of what he describes as “spiritual memoirs.” In addition to all of that, he’s taught at a number of colleges and universities—including UMass Boston at the founding of its English Department.
Most recently, Dan released Vonnegut’s Complete Stories along with Jerome Klinkowitz. His book tour brought him to old UMass, where Dan led a panel discussion about Vonnegut and his work. He entered the room smiling in a striped long-sleeve polo and blue jeans. He stood for most of the panel, giving a funny and gracious account of his life, work, and friendship with Vonnegut for the audience—largely the students and faculty of UMB’s MFA program.
Ever the entrepreneur, Dan was sure to mention his website (danwakefield.com), remind us that most of his works are now available as ebooks, and pass out his new business cards. In contrast, Dan spoke about Kurt Vonnegut with humility and gratitude. He turned question after question about himself back towards Kurt, saying a number of times how thankful he was to have Vonnegut as a friend and champion throughout his career.
Dan stays busy. After the panel, he had to rush off to meet old friends in Boston, and not soon after found himself down in Miami (where he once taught at Florida International University) to give a talk at the Miami Book Fair. The interview below was conducted primarily over email, and has been lightly edited.
Although you’ve had a storied career in your own right, the reason for your visit to UMass Boston, where you once were a founding faculty member of the University’s English Department, was to discuss the recently released Vonnegut’s Complete Stories.
You’re famous in the Vonnegut world for going to the same high school as Kurt in Indianapolis, but about a decade after him. Was him being an alumnus a big deal then, or did that happen later?
I didn’t hear about Vonnegut till I was home from college in summer of 1952. When I visited my old high school, I told one of the teachers I wanted to be a writer, and he said “One boy who went here did that, boy named Vonnegut. Has stories in The Saturday Evening Post.” That was big time stuff in those days. I first read a Vonnegut story in a barbershop while I waited to get a haircut. It was either in The Post or Colliers, two of the popular weekly “Slick” magazines of the era (called “slick” because they were on “slick paper,” as opposed to “Pulp fiction” of the magazines printed on rough or “pulp” paper).
What was it like when you finally got to meet him? I gather you’d been a fan of his work well before then.
That first story I read was about a high school band leader who was very much like our own band leader at Shortridge High School. I started reading everything of Vonnegut’s, including his first novel Player Piano.
I first met Vonnegut in 1963 when I was on a Neiman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard and Kurt was living on Cape Cod. A mutual friend invited us and some other people to dinner in Cambridge. Vonnegut and his wife Jane were very friendly, good-natured people with a great sense of humor. He and I didn’t talk about writing, we talked about high school. Both of us had written for the school paper, The Shortridge Daily Echo.
Vonnegut was like “The Godfather” of my first novel, Going All the Way. He not only recommended it to Seymour Lawrence, his publisher, he reviewed it in Life magazine, which I know helped make it a best-seller.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Vonnegut was like, on a person-to person level?
Vonnegut was a great friend, a great supporter of other writers, very generous. Editing the book of Kurt Vonnegut Letters, I saw how he kept in touch with old friends throughout his life – friends from high school, the Army, his first job at General Electric, students he taught at The Iowa Writers Workshop.
I also edited a book of his graduation speeches, which were very wise and also funny. It’s called If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? It’s a great introduction to Vonnegut and his writing, his way of seeing the world.
In that talk at UMB, you mentioned what a pleasure it was to work with Jerome Klinkowitz. Can you tell us a little more about the process? What was it like working with Jerome on Vonnegut’s work, after editing his letters on your own?
When I was asked to edit Complete Stories I said I wanted to do it in partnership with Jerome Klinkowitz, who I feel knows more about Vonnegut’s work than anyone else. He has written six academic books on Vonnegut’s work, and I met him when Kurt introduced us in 1971. He’s a professor of English at The University of Northern Iowa.
I went to see Klinkowitz last summer in Iowa and work out the structure of the book. He had already figured out that we could break up the stories into categories of their subjects, like War, Women, Ethics, Romance, Science – and write “headnotes” or introductory essays to each category, so the book would be more interesting than just throwing all the stories together.
After spending so much time with Vonnegut’s work, what features strike you most?
I know that faith has been an important theme in both your life and published works, and in many ways Vonnegut also deals with faiths of various sorts in his own work. Was faith, or rather an interest in faith, a feature of your friendship?
Kurt was the honorary president of The Humanist Society, and came from a long line of German “free-thinkers,” like the humanists of today. He called himself a “Christ-loving Atheist,” and sometimes said he was a Unitarian “so people won’t think I’m a spiritual paraplegic.”
Throughout his work, the two things he quotes the most are The Sermon on The Mount, and a quote of his fellow Hoosier, the Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs who said, “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it; as long as there is a criminal class, I am of it; as long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
He observed that there seemed to be many public buildings where The Ten Commandments are posted or engraved, but he never heard of a public building that was inscribed with The Sermon on the Mount.
In his sermon on Palm Sunday at an Episcopal church in New York City, he said that his favorite of the Beatitudes was “Blessed are the merciful.” He thought that the idea of “mercy” was the only good idea we humans have had. Maybe, he said, some time we will have another good idea. “Then we will have two good ideas.”
And finally, do you want to share any advice to those of us trying to make it as writers?
Vonnegut had a unique approach to rejections of his stories when he started out. Instead of deciding that editors were dumb when they didn’t like his work, he decided the work wasn’t good enough. His advice to aspiring writers could probably be summed up in something he often said: “Nothing is accomplished without great concentration.” He knew, from his own experience.
His hard work paid off – his work still resonates.
Daniel Elfanbaum is from St. Louis and an MFA candidate at UMass Boston.