The death of celebrated author Kurt Vonnegut two and a half years ago left a void in the literary community. A new collection of his unpublished stories honors his life and work.
MANY AMERICANS get their first gander at a Kurt Vonnegut novel early on in high school. That first read seals the deal: Either youre a Vonnegut fan or youre not, plain and simple. Those who have fallen on the fan side are still mourning his April 2007 death. Luckily for readers, he left behind a slew of unpublished stories, many of which will be released over the next several years.
The first are in the newly released book titled Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction ($27, Delacorte Press). Another short-story collection is set to come out in early 2011, and there are future plans for a collection of letters and an encyclopedia of Vonneguts works. In addition, Vonneguts publisher, Random House Publishing Group, is in the process of rereleasing 15 of his earlier works in individual volumes featuring cover art drawn by the man himself.
We checked in with Random House editor Kerri Buckley to find out what readers can expect.
What is it like to be one of Vonneguts literary caretakers? Its a pretty big task. First and foremost, its surreal. Youre reading Slaughterhouse-Five in the ninth grade, and you dont figure that somewhere down the line youre going to be elbow deep in a box of original Kurt Vonnegut short stories that have never been published. I have met so many fascinating people who were close to Kurt over the course of his life. Thats an enormous privilege that I understand not very many other people are going to have. So Im flattered and Im honored and Im careful and Im just really lucky.
How much material did you have to choose from? What was the -whittling-down process like? The first step was to read [all of the 400 files the estate gave us]. There was a lot of cataloging and a lot of sorting. I was living in [a new] apartment, with no furniture and hundreds of pieces of Vonnegut on the floor. I was weeding out things that were damaged -- some of the originals had torn, so they were illegible. Some were so heavily annotated that it was obvious Kurt would not want them published. I was reading for commonality and consistency. We purchased 30 stories for the two collections.
What can readers expect from the stories in Look at the Birdie? He was very much finding his comic voice. There are some extremely wry comic points to these stories. If you have read Vonnegut widely, you will recognize the seedling of an idea that years later grew into a larger, different idea a little Easter egg tucked in there for the well-educated [Vonnegut] reader. Without dropping in too many spoilers, his pacifist side is very much in evidence.
Do you have any favorites? Two. [One is] Hello Red. Its very early. Its Vonnegut finding his way. He tells more than he shows, which is not typical of him in later years. It leaves you feeling very unsettled. My other favorite is The Nice Little People. Its Kurt Vonnegut does early sci-fi. Its so cool. The husband [in the story] makes a most peculiar discovery inside a pocketknife. Its just glorious.
Vonnegut has a lot of very dedicated fans. Does that put pressure on you? Its very, very difficult to put together something after an author has passed away. I think no matter who the author is -- big or small -- youre taking on some responsibility you didnt exactly ask for. Some people have said he didnt want these published. To that, I say he did. Some of the originals are attached to rejection slips [he had received]. I do not think his intent was to bury these from the world. I hope that weve done him justice