How I Met Kurt Vonnegut and Lived to Be a Better Person

vonnegut letterNote: Kurt Vonnegut, one of my two all-time favorite writers, died ten years ago today. At the time, I was the somewhat-newly adoptive parent of a 15-month-old. While she took her afternoon nap, I wrote this essay. I’ve put it on an Internet forum or two, but never on a blog. On the 10th anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, it seemed like a good time to resurrect it.

Back in 1991 during the war (before we knew there’d be a sequel) I was a young writer, fresh out of college, working in an indie bookstore. The war pissed me off, as all wars do, and shortly after my first mass protest, I started writing a novel about a bunch of young anarchists who try to take over the U.S. government. It was kind of a comic novel. The writing was going well during the summer of 1991, and since I wasn’t sure what to do with it or how to approach an agent, I took a chance on sending a few chapters to my favorite author on the planet, Kurt Vonnegut. I figured he’d know what to do.

Did I tell you I believe in longshots?

I went to the public library and found an address for Mr. Vonnegut in a celebrity phonebook (this was in the dark days before the Internet when you actually had to leave the house in order to do research). I sent off the first three chapters along with a letter asking for his advice about agents. Two weeks later, an envelope arrived for me, my address written in blue magic marker in a swirling hand that looked vaguely familiar and a Long Island postmark. I opened it to find the following letter, typed on onion skin paper and copied here verbatim:

July 17, 1991

Dear Susan Petrone –

You are right to suspect that you have written well. I also like your politics.

The only way a literary agent can treat an unpublished writer badly is to charge stiff fees for reading material which he or she knows can’t be sold. Their business is reading, not selling.

Two good agents, both friends of mine, are Knox Burger (address deleted to protect Mr. Burger’s privacy), and Elaine Markson, NYC 10001. But no agent (except a reader for cash) will consider an unfinished work from an unpublished writer, and neither will any publisher. The only acceptable proof that an unknown can indeed finish a book is a finished book. Sorry about that.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut

It was signed in the same blue marker with a signature that now reminds me slightly of the symbol Prince used to use when he wasn’t calling himself “Prince.” “Damn,” I thought, “I should have told him that the novel was finished.” (Indeed, it was.) Nonetheless, I was delighted to have received a letter from God (as I dubbed it when I put it in a frame and hung it on the wall near my desk, where it has followed me these 15+ years) and was even more delighted that God said I had written well.

A few months later (October, to be exact), I saw that a community college in Canton, Ohio, (about an hour’s drive south) was hosting a two-day writing convention and that Kurt Vonnegut was scheduled as the keynote speaker. I borrowed the registration money from my older sister and went. Thus began the most Taoist 24-hour period of my life up to that point.

The conference began with workshops in the afternoon. Vonnegut wasn’t scheduled to speak until later that evening. He was also on the agenda as doing a Q&A session early the next morning. I went to my first workshop session on a topic that I can no longer recall. There were about 60-75 people scrunched into a classroom. For some reason, one young woman about my age caught my eye. I’m straight, but something told me that I had to make friends with her. Thus when the workshop ended, I started chatting with her and successfully completed my first het-girl pickup. It turned out she was with a group of five people who worked at American Greetings and were at the conference on the company tab. They invited me to join them for dinner, during which I told them the story of writing to Vonnegut and The Letter. They were duly impressed and invited me to crash on the floor in their hotel room so I wouldn’t have to drive back to Cleveland that night. I gratefully accepted.

After dinner, they went back to their room to freshen up before heading back to the college for the keynote speech. I hung out in the lobby, fooling around on the baby grand piano sitting there, people watching, and generally feeling that all was well with the world. As I sat there, I heard applause coming from the next room. A set of double-doors leading to a conference room off the lobby opened up, and Kurt Vonnegut strode out and across the lobby.

“I must talk to him!” I thought. Vonnegut looked as though he had other things on his mind, and the same impulse that told me to buddy up to the right people told me to wait. So I did.

We went to the auditorium at the college across the way and got decent seats. We could see Kurt Vonnegut sitting in the second row on the aisle, chatting with people and signing books as the brave faithful made their pilgrimage to his seat. The American Greetings folks kept urging me to go talk to him, but again, I declined. It wasn’t the right time.

The great man gave a wonderfully clever and amusing talk. At the end of it, he walked off stage right and went directly out of the auditorium doors, not to be seen in that room again until the next morning.

The American Greetings folks and I toyed with the idea of going out for a drink, but decided to go back to the hotel first and regroup. We wandered into the hotel bar. For some reason I ordered a hot fudge sundae—I was in a good mood. Before my ice cream had even arrived, Kurt Vonnegut walked in—alone—sat down at the bar and lit a Pall Mall.

Now seemed a good time to approach him.

I used to work in professional theater and have met more than my share of famous people, but none has made my heart pound as much as Kurt Vonnegut did. I walked up to his bar stool and waited until he had finished ordering a drink (a scotch and water I believe, but don’t quote me).

“Excuse me, Mr. Vonnegut?” I said. “My name is Susan Petrone. I wrote to you last summer and send you a few chapters of my novel.”

His Basset Hound-like eyes gave me a once-over. “Did I write you back?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I remember.” My heart was about to pound through my chest. I didn’t expect a writer of his caliber to want to bother with a 23-year-old kid and all I could think was: “Don’t even bother playing polite. If you’re going to tell me to buzz off, just do it fast. I can handle that.” Then he said: “So how goes the life of a radical?”

He actually did remember what I had written. The tension in my chest eased up a bit and I was able to speak. We chatted for a few minutes about my novel. I told him that I had tried the two agents he had suggested in his letter, but both had replied that they didn’t think it was something they could sell. He tried to think of the name of a small press to send it to. I tried not to fall over.

We had only been talking for a few minutes when the American Greetings person I had originally buddied up to came over and said, “Mr. Vonnegut, if you’d care to join us for a drink, we promise not to talk about any matters literary.” I could have smacked her. He declined politely, saying he had to get up early for the Q&A session the next morning at eight. I took that as my cue to leave him alone, although I think I probably could have hung around longer.

My ice cream had melted (and here I had thought that time had stopped while I was talking to God). We told the waitress that we wanted to buy Kurt Vonnegut a drink. She said “Who?” and simultaneously, the original American Greetings girl and I said, “Bless you.”

The concierge apparently didn’t know who Kurt Vonnegut was either, because he gave me his room number. I actually stood outside the door for a full minute, feeling like a stalker, before running away.

I crashed on the floor of the kind people from American Greetings (none of whom I’ve ever seen or spoken with again) and the next morning, we got seats in the third row, center for the Q&A session. At one point, Vonnegut was talking about people who wrote because they love it and the difficulty of getting published. Then he said, “Last night, I went to the hotel bar to congratulate myself on my marvelous speech, when a woman came up to me, and it turned out that we had corresponded. Is she here?” he asked, looking around the 250 or so upturned faces staring at him.

Shocked, I slowly raised my hand as the American Greetings crew all pointed at me and yelled “She’s right here.”

Vonnegut asked for my first name again. I told him. And he said that Susan had written this great book about how war is bad and government is bad and that he had recommended some agents but they had turned it down. He said that the problem was not the writing, because it was good (!) but the parochial attitudes of editors and agents on both coasts. He went on from there to talk more about writing and to answer more questions, but there it was. I was a Kurt Vonnegut anecdote. I got to be a minor celebrity for the rest of the day. There was, fortunately, a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal sitting in the first row, tape recording the whole thing. He sent me copies, so I have a recording of Kurt Vonnegut saying that I write well, and that is a mood lifter better than Zoloft with a wine chaser, let me tell you.

When I went back to work at the bookstore, my co-workers asked, “So, did you meet Kurt Vonnegut?” When I said, “Better,” when of them actually said (not asked): “You slept with him.” “No,” I replied. “He remembered my writing.”

The following spring, one of our buyers went to a conference where Kurt Vonnegut was the speaker. He brought back a special edition of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater for me, signed by Kurt Vonnegut. It is inscribed: “For dear Susan Petrone” with the same symbolic-looking signature. My colleague said they just put slips of paper into the books with the name to be inscribed and that he didn’t know anyone else for whom Vonnegut had written “dear.” “Maybe he remembered you,” the colleague said.

Maybe he did.

My mother always thought that I’d have one more encounter with our Mr. Vonnegut. I regret to say that she was wrong. She’s no longer among the living—she’s in heaven or somewhere in the great beyond. And now so is Kurt Vonnegut. I hope that she and he have a chance to talk. Although she was Catholic and he a secular humanist, they would agree on most topics. They would agree that war is bad, that human beings need to be kind to each other. I think they would agree that you need to trust your instincts and be patient and go where your heart leads you and that if you can be kind and make people laugh while you do so, you just might meet God.

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