Mark A. Carter

VONNEGUT: file drawer and urinal

World famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter talks about Kurt Vonnegut and about writing Science Fiction.

STRANGE ENCOUNTERS OF THE VONNEGUT KIND: Years ago, while waiting for a connecting train at Union Station in Toronto, as I sipped my coffee and sat quietly working on the final draft of my Master's Thesis to while away the time, a rather rumpled looking man sat down beside me and started to talk. And it was none other than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He told me that he had a three hour layover until his connecting train. And although my train was about to board, I sat with him for those three hours and took a later train to my destination.

Vonnegut asked what my thesis was about. And when I said Science Fiction he asked whether I planned to go for my Ph.D. I told him I was becoming disillusioned with Academia. And he nodded sympathetically. "Those who can ... do. Those who can't ... teach." Then he added, "Please don't tell me you have some pie-in-the-sky notion about becoming a Science Fiction writer when this education business is said and done." When I paused, he said "Oh my ..." He lit another Pall Mall, took a long drag on the cigarette, exhaled, and said: "Young man, be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be."

He went on to tell me how he had mysteriously been classified as a Science Fiction novelist after writing Cat's Cradle. And he was vexed by it.

"I have been the soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled Science Fiction for a number of years now, and I would like out, particularly since so many senious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The saving grace, in his opinion, was that the novel finally garnered him a long awaited, if not anti-climactic, Master's degree in Anthropology ten years after the fact.

All in all, we talked for three hours about the Bokononism, the science, and the technology found in Cat's Cradle, the Tralfamadorians found in Slaughterhouse-Five, and the Doomsday theory I was proposing in my thesis. And the time passed altogether too quickly. When it came time for me to board, with thoughts of my conversation with Vonnegut running through my head, I forgot the draft of my thesis on a bench at the station, and had to rewrite it, over the next few weeks, from memory.

Months later, I received the lost paper, by mail, sent by Vonnegut, who had picked it up absent-mindedly with his other papers at the station and had only gotten around to finding it and to reading it. He wrote a simple comment on the cover: "You don't really think we have a 50/50 chance of survival, do you? Be honest." Remarkably, the rewrite was virtually identical to the original, including my disingenuous conclusion, because I was emotionally unable to face the truth that we were all doomed unless we found a way to leave this planet. To quote Vonnegut: "And so it goes."

Some thirty years have passed since that fortuitous meeting. And here I am in South Detroit, of all places in the known universe. My physical location doesn't matter as much nowadays as it may have decades ago. The resources available to me through the internet have made living and writing feasible anywhere. And it isn't my external environment that is important to my writing anyway. It is all about what is going on in my imagination.

When people ask me where I live, I am tempted to say, with a tip of the hat to Rod Serling: "I am imprisoned in the Outer Limits, with occasional trips to the Twilight Zone for good behavior." Nonetheless, but mostly because I live in a beef and potatoes working town, it is now my turn to be vexed with the label: Science Fiction novelist. People just don't get what Science Fiction is although the fruits of it exist all around them. And a novelist, to them, is out there in some magical, mythical kingdom living with faeries and unicorns. To meet one is beyond their limited ability to comprehend. They literally suffer culture shock. I've seen it many times. And in an attempt to defend themselves against this strange mythical creature known as a novelist, they usually mumble demeaning, incredulous, and insulting nonsense. Alas.

If, after discovering that I am a Science Fiction novelist, and I get this all the time, your first, boring beyond belief, burning, utterly disingenuous, weird and wonderful question is: "What kind of books do you write?" then you have missed the point entirely. And I am forced to quote Josephine Saxton who posed the question: "Did your mother only breast-feed one of your heads?"

Read: Sci-Fi - devalue, dismiss, and disregard
Why write Science Fiction?

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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