A Conversation with Julia Whitehead, President of the KVML
I recently sat down with Julia Whitehead, president of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (KVML), at the Rathskeller in downtown Indianapolis for lunch and an informal discussion about the origins of the KVML. The German restaurant seemed an appropriate choice given that it’s housed in the historic Athenæum building, which was designed by Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Corey Michael Dalton: You know, I’ve been on the Board of Advisors for the KVML for over a year now, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked you – where did the idea for the library originally come from?
Julia Whitehead: No, you haven’t asked me! One night, I was rocking my baby to sleep – this was in November of 2008 – and my mind wandered to Vonnegut’s literature. He had just died the year before. I’d always been a fan of his, and living in Indianapolis had made me even more of one. Anyway, as I rocked, I started to wonder if there was a Vonnegut memorial somewhere out there in the world. I had seen different writers’ homes and memorials and thought there should be something similar for Vonnegut. My husband is a writer and a poet, so I mentioned the idea to him. He was so amazingly supportive! He suggested I get in touch with Vonnegut’s son, Mark Vonnegut, someone neither of us knew. I was familiar with the Henry Miller Memorial Library in California, and I used that as a model for discussion when I gave my ideas about a nonprofit Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to Mark. Mark offered up a few of his own ideas on programs, and we both started gathering supporters. It’s been a long haul over the past two years, but it’s been wonderful, too.
CMD: What made you think Vonnegut warranted something like this?
JW: I just think he’s a great writer who’s touched thousands and thousands of lives around the world… whether it’s because his fans love his view of the world, his humor, his artwork, his will to live, or perhaps a combination of those things. He was a celebrated, prolific American writer that expressed great American values, and we need Vonnegut to remind us of – as he would say – the importance of “common decency.” People want to have a place to go to learn about him and his writing and to share their appreciation for him. The library will be a place to share ideas.
CMD: When you reached out to Mark Vonnegut, did you think he would support your idea for the KVML?
JW: I hoped so. You never know until you try, right? I often feel so thankful that he and his sisters Edie and Nanny (people I have still never met in person, by the way) have embraced our plan. When I initially presented my idea for a nonprofit library to them, I think they trusted that I would work hard to build a grassroots organization. Mark made suggestions for educational outreach programs early on, which helped us to realize that we could have meaningful programs even before we had the physical space for the library. I often say that it’s Vonnegut’s ideas that matter the most, and getting those ideas out to the world became our primary focus. Being offered free space for the library by Katz & Korin was a wonderful gift that happened much sooner than we expected. We are so looking forward to showing our Vonnegut collection to the world, and we are thankful that three of Vonnegut’s children have contributed so many personal items to that collection. I feel personally grateful that they trusted me to lead this mission.
At this point Julia’s eyes begin to water.
CMD: Are you getting choked up talking about this?
JW: No! The mustard on the wurst platte is getting to me. It’s really spicy!
Both laugh. Julia chugs some water.
CMD: Okay, back to the interview, then. What do you see as the library’s mission?
JW: I see it as a place to celebrate the literary, artistic, and cultural contributions of Kurt Vonnegut. The library board is creating a space somewhat like a presidential library that will also serve as a cultural and educational resource center, functioning as a museum, art gallery, and reading room for readers, writers, and students. We plan to reach out to high school students and teachers around the country with our writing programs, among our various programs.
CMD: Why do you think it’s important for the library to be located in Indianapolis? I’ve always heard that Vonnegut had a somewhat contentious relationship with Indiana….
JW: Many people say that. They say he had a love/hate relationship with Indianapolis. But it’s become clear to me over the past couple of years that he really had a love/love relationship with the city. He grew up here and wrote about Indianapolis in many of his works. He continued to visit Indianapolis throughout his life, and he was even planning a visit just before his death. When he was critical about Indiana, I think he handled that like he handled his criticisms about his country; he said what everyone was thinking. He tried to improve life for the people here. Yes, sometimes he did that by pointing out the absurd. He tried to get us to think more about showing common decency for each other. His children and friends (as well as his fellow Hoosiers) agree that the library should be here in Indy.
CMD: How do you think the library will impact the city?
JW: The library will certainly bring visitors from all over the world. It will also fill a gap. Currently, as you drive the streets of Indianapolis, you do not see anything anywhere that has the Vonnegut name. How can that be? He was a Hoosier who’s celebrated all over the world for his brilliant mind! We want to provide a place for local fans and writers to share ideas.
CMD: What is your personal history with Kurt Vonnegut’s writing?
JW: Well, I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school in my free time.
CMD: Me too! I always thought it was odd that it wasn’t assigned to me in school, given that I grew up in Indiana.
JW: I thought it was a great book but I didn’t go on to read all of his works at that time. I served in the Marine Corps after that and worked some other jobs before returning to his writing. When I did return to it, I found that it affected me much more deeply. While I appreciated his amazing imagination, I became fascinated with his life story, too. What a life! Who was this guy? I had to know more. While I am not like the Vonnegut scholars on our board who know every detail of every book and how each thing relates to various literary themes, I learn more about Vonnegut each day. I feel like I know him. I wish I had known him.
CMD: It’s a shame you two never got to meet. What, specifically, about his work sparked your interest, do you think?
JW: I have a soft spot for left-wing World War II vets because my father was one of them. Slaughterhouse Five was phenomenal. Having read military books and having seen so many military movies that glorified war, I really appreciated the message of Slaughterhouse Five. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was a personal fave, too, because I thought it showed Vonnegut’s humor as well as his love for humanity and his ability to pinpoint absurdities in our society. I also love his short stories (especially one called “D.P.” and another called “Happy Birthday 1954”). Slapstick didn’t get great reviews, but I don’t understand why. It was outstanding! It gave us a glimpse into the life of Vonnegut. In the intro, he says it’s as close as he will come to writing an autobiography. It’s a great book full of magical things that could have only been described by someone as creative as Vonnegut. And I love Player Piano.
CMD: I’m reading that book right now so I can blog about it. I’m digging it.
JW: Yeah, you’ll really like it. Oh, and I love Mother Night, too. And I love…. Well, there are just so many! And thankfully there are still Vonnegut books coming out to love.
CMD: Well, you’re not alone in loving his work. People around the world seem to be drawn to his writing. Why do you think that is?
JW: I think everyone is attracted to different things about Vonnegut, and maybe there’s overlap among his fans. I think fans like that he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. We LOVE his sense of humor. We appreciate that he never gave up on this life, no matter how difficult. He mattered. He mattered in the literary scene, he mattered in the art and film scene, he mattered in the political arena. He mattered to all kinds of people in their everyday lives. Being drawn to Vonnegut’s writing means being drawn to Vonnegut. That’s not the case with all writers.
CMD: What kind of help or volunteers does the library still need?
JW: We need all kinds of volunteers. For example, we need a few people at the end of this week to cover the floors of the library with paper before the painters arrive! We need people to help us fundraise. We need people to work the booth at our events. We need someone to take photos of our development that we can share on Facebook. We need several people to help us address envelopes and stamp our annual appeal letters next month. We need people to volunteer in the library space itself when it is open. And the list goes on….
And that point our schnitzels arrived, so we stopped talking. I want to thank Julia for giving me a glimpse at why she decided to start the KVML. If any of the blog readers have more questions for her or other members of the Library Board, feel free to send them my way. I can compile the questions and do another session like this. In fact, I wouldn’t be opposed to making these kinds of interviews a regular feature here – especially if I get to eat at the Rathskeller every time.