San Francisco-based author Kevin Smokler writes and speaks about the past and future of media and culture. He’s the author of the essay collection “Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School,” in which he revisits staples of the high school English literature canon as an adult, from “Pride and Prejudice” to “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” He’s currently at work on a new book of essays, “Brat Pack America,” about 1980s teen films.
An IdeaFestival veteran, Smokler returns this year to dig into the American literary canon. He’ll lead a discussion at 8 a.m. Thursday with Julia Whitehead, founder and executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, on the enduring legacy of Vonnegut and his work.
Smokler spoke with WFPL’s Erin Keane from his home in San Francisco.
On re-discovering Vonnegut’s classic World War II novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”:
“There are some real scenes of horrific violence in “Slaughterhouse-Five” and I think I was far more into horrific violence as a 16-year-old than I am now. The funny thing is I didn’t remember any of them. I remember reading the book and liking it when I was that age, because I dug the scattershot quality of the narrative and I dug that there were all sorts of trippy scenes with aliens and things like that. Frankly, I’m convinced that the first three printings of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” were you to find those books, every one of them would smell like Cheech and Chong’s garage. I don’t think anybody read that book back in the day without being high, not because it doesn’t stand on its own as a great book but it compels you somehow to match up with the cracked mirror-view and imagination of Vonnegut himself.
“That, strangely enough, was the part I took re-reading it as a grownup. To me, it was far more about storytelling and memory than it was about war or wild psychedelic stuff. It was far more about how we remember things, particularly how we remember things that are painful, and how we create stories to both manage the pain and make sense of things that are senseless.”
For a nonfiction writer, where does storytelling begin?
“My writing of nonfiction is my attempt to make sense of the world we have already. Of course there’s an act of research and reporting that goes into that, but there’s also an act of reorganizing what the real world gives you in a way that makes sense, not only to you but ultimately to the reader. The act of doing that means sometimes you wrench things out of order, sometimes you interpret things perhaps in a way their creators weren’t intending to, and sometimes you’re actually making up a story because it makes more sense. The truth is, I feel like part of being a nonfiction writer is you contend with things that aren’t 100 percent true, like myth and legend and interpretation, and that’s all part of the process.”
Vonnegut’s Midwestern tongue:
“There is something about the flatness—and I say that in a complimentary way—the flatness and the literalness and the plainspokenness of his language that gives a launching pad for his flights of fancy to jump off of. When Roger Ebert died, people talked about how Roger Ebert was able to speak about movies in the Everyman’s language, and there was something Midwestern and unadorned about his language. I think that really works to Vonnegut’s benefit, the fact that his sentences are short, that he doesn’t engage in a lot of fancy vocabulary words, that he’s not trying to dazzle you with metaphors. Being a Midwesterner myself, I typically associate that kind of writing with the Michigans and Minnesotas and Indianas of the world.”
We’ll have more interviews with IdeaFestival speakers throughout the week. Find them online here, and tune in to 89.3 at 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday to hear the interviews.