I'm on a four-day reprieve from a very long book tour for my new novel, The Zero, and I've fielded a few questions about why I ventured away from my earlier literary crime novels to write a dark satire about America's reaction to 9/11. So I thought I'd start my blogging week there.
The first half of the answer is that I was at Ground Zero in New York five days after the terrorist attacks and since that time, I've wanted some way to register my outrage over the way fear has become politicized in this country, the way patriotism and capitalism have been conflated, and the way we lurched toward a misguided war in Iraq.
But that's only half the story. The other half has to do with Kurt Vonnegut.
When I was young, I idolized Vonnegut. I'd first found his books when I was in my junior high school library, checking to see where my own novels would someday be filed, which was right after Vonnegut, at least in my library. So I grabbed his book, Breakfast of Champions, and was hooked. I read everything he wrote. He was my hero.
That's why, twenty years ago, I got phony press credentials to interview him when he came to read at Gonzaga University, in my hometown of Spokane. He was exhausted from a plane ride and wanted a cigarette and after I stumbled through my first question ("Do youâ€¦ you knowâ€¦ have any adviceâ€¦ forâ€¦ you knowâ€¦ a young writerâ€¦") he said, "Can I ask you a question? How old are you?"
"I'mâ€¦ uhâ€¦ twenty."
"And you're working for Esquire?"
"Wellâ€¦ not exactly."
But even though I wasn't really writing a magazine article, Vonnegut politely answered my moronic questions, and after his speech that night, he even pulled me aside to ask if I'd gotten everything I needed.
I said I had.
A few years ago, after publishing a couple of novels myself, I wrote about my early interview with Vonnegut. Not long after that, a package arrived in the mail: a leather-bound copy of Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, inscribed to "My fellow novelist, Jess Walter."
It was like having your childhood daydream show up in the mail.
When I set out to write a novel about the absurdities and corruptions in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, I thought a lot about Vonnegut, about the way he never sacrificed humanity for humor. You've probably seen those What Would Jesus Do braceletsâ€¦ I felt like, as I was writing The Zero, I was wearing a What Would Vonnegut Do bracelet.
When I was done, I sent him the novel and he sent me a card saying he'd really liked what he'd read. And on the other side of the card was a quote from his character, Kilgore Trout: "Life is no way to treat an animal."
÷ ÷ ÷
Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including Beautiful Ruins and We Live in Water. He's been a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/USA Literary prize and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Jess Walter is the author of Beautiful Ruins (P.S.)