Last summer, English professor Dr. Rai Peterson headed an immersive learning internship with several Ball State undergraduate students. The seminar, which spanned two semesters, focused on building a 5-year marketing plan for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. The students worked on a number of areas for the Library including archival research, film, and design. This past fall semester, Dr. Peterson and seminar-student Andrew Neylon took a trip to New York City in order to gain an in-depth perspective about Kurt Vonnegut’s life according to his closest family and friends. Continue reading below where Andrew chronicles his New York trip and discusses the opportunities he was afforded by the internship.
It begins, like so many allusions in popular culture: at 4 AM. There’s an alarm I have to hit, a shower I have to take, and a suit I have to put on. This will be the most ambitious 44 hours of my life.
If this seems like hyperbole – it’s not. This is precisely what ran through my head as I woke up July 20th to board a flight to New York City for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Immersive Learning Project. I’d been selected to helm the trip with Rai Peterson, my project director, and head to the Big Apple to visit some of Vonnegut’s close confidantes for interviews.
A brief primer on my work with the Vonnegut Library – of the four major projects that characterized the project, I worked on the Film Team. This meant collecting, editing, and displaying videos of Vonnegut and his friends on a touch-screen television in the KVML. While a good chunk of my work revolved around watching VHS tapes and collecting distributor information, there was another part of the project. To help raise the profile of the museum, it was decided that someone should travel to NY to interview Suzanne McConnell, Don Farber, and one notable celebrity – Grammy winning comedian Lewis Black.
I wasn’t thinking about Grammys or interviews when I woke up that morning, though. I just knew I was hungry and eager not to miss my flight. Dr. Peterson loaded me into her car and took off for the airport – the dream became reality.
We knew we’d be traveling with a camera-man provided for us by WFYI in Indianapolis. Still, we hadn’t met the man before, and I’d only had the briefest of conversations with their head camera-man about the guy they’d be sending. Rai and I got through (a surprisingly busy for 6 AM) airport security, and met our third teammate, Andrew Warren, at the gate. I’d spend the next forty hours with Andrew – a feat as remarkable as it was enjoyable.
Plane rides, you know, are never easy. And ours, naturally, left the gate about 30 minutes late. Still, it was ample time to settle in and get comfortable as we moved towards our connection in Washington D.C. Camera-man Andrew, it turned out, was a pretty cool guy.
Rai and I talked a lot about the expectations for the trip. To send a student on such an ambitious project, even with a faculty member at the helm, was daunting. I wanted to get good interviews and prove that the investment was sound – to say the least, I had a lot on my mind as we entered Washington, and still more as we transferred to New York City.
We snagged a very filling lunch right near the Chelsea Hotel. Sadly, we did not see Lou Reed (Rai was really hoping we might!), but the prospect of eating in a real New York City restaurant was rather tantalizing.
I had been in NYC about six months earlier, but under similarly rushed circumstances. Still, a meal at the Chelsea Hotel beats $1.50 pizza by the slice (I’m sure there are some NYers who would disagree with this assertion) any day.
Finally it was time to get down to business. We realized we’d have to book it a few streets to make sure that we made our interview with former Vonnegut student Suzanne McConnell. We had an early afternoon meeting time with her, and ended up taking a cramped service elevator to her rather spacious apartment. There we began the process of pleasantries and camera set-up that would allow us to grab our first interview.
Ms. McConnell had the interesting perspective of being taught by Kurt Vonnegut. She was his pupil, and remembered him more as a teacher than a legendary literary icon. She recalled his thoughts about the nature of literary writing – reminding us that Vonnegut had emphasized the importance of selling a story, and targeting a market. She remembered him as a kind man with a very unique sense of humor, but stressed that many of the things we come to associate with Vonnegut today (particularly his service in World War 2, and his political activism) existed beneath the surface in his daily life.
After finishing the interview, and gathering my wits about me for the remaining two, we headed out to find the apartment of Don and Annie Farber – close personal friends and professional partners of Vonnegut. Don Farber served as Vonnegut’s literary agent and lawyer during his lifetime, and as he was quick to inform me, few people knew Vonnegut like Don. They worked together every day for decades, and for Don, the Vonnegut legacy is a crucial component of American literature.
While I’m far from an experienced interviewer, I have grandparents. I know that talking to folks of a certain age, by virtue of the age gap, can be tricky. But the Farbers were very welcoming to us. They let us move furniture around, showed us their vast collection of Vonnegut memorabilia, and treated us with a grace often associated with a thoughtful sense of bygone American hospitality.
Don and Annie got married in the 1940s before Don went off to war. They’d known each other less than a month, but their relationship spanned decades. You could tell, too, as they engaged in many of those old When Harry Met Sally tropes of the married couple – playful arguments, cutting each other off to finish sentences, correcting memories. They remembered Vonnegut as a deeply private man, an Indiana boy doing his best to thrive in the critical, fast-paced world of New York high society.
The most poignant account in the interview arrived near the end, where Don Farber made his thoughts regarding Vonnegut’s activism clear. The two recalled him as a man deeply devoted to human concerns, deeply invested in bettering the world around him. Don pointed out that Vonnegut was completely in print – a feat not every major author of the 20th century can claim – and that the Farber children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren were still reading him. Annie wasn’t so sure about the grandchildren – but point taken.
The day was exhausting, to say the least. It’s one thing to be on point for an Indana interview in a controlled studio – another to know the pressure of a whole project rests on your shoulders, in another state, with celebrities and a limited window of time.
We got a lovely dinner with a former Ball State grad at a nice Turkish restaurant a few blocks away. It was relaxing, and the sort of place you think of when you imagine NYC. Mostly I was thankful for a chance to decompress after a full day, and anxious for the showdown with Lewis Black.
A brief side-note before we address that chapter. That night, before bed, I had the chance to get coffee with Laura Pittenger – a recent Ball State grad from the Theatre Department. On such a break-neck trip, it was tremendous fun to see a friend who lived so far away, and it made me feel rather adult to meet up in the city.
The next morning, we made our way to 42nd Street where we planned to meet Lewis Black. We arrived about 45 minutes early to get everything just right, and ended up in the basement of an old coffee shop Black frequented when he was just starting out.
The daunting part? Black was about fifteen minutes late. We were, naturally, terrified. Nobody wants to fly to New York and miss their one chance to grab a once-in-a-lifetime interview.
Thankfully, Black arrived – apologetic and surprisingly friendly. The man famous for his angry rants with Jon Stewart was consummate, thoughtful, and surprisingly humble. There was no sense of ego – just a man who seemed to have genuinely read Vonnegut as a youth and discovered a deep attachment to Vonnegut’s knack for pointing out the latent hypocrisy in the world around us. Black stressed that Vonnegut found a way to make existentialism funny, and that he was the best American satirist since Twain. For Black, who found the preachy texts of the literary canon too severe, Vonnegut’s warmth and humor was a perfect antidote.
With that, Black was off, and already we had our eye on the clock to make it back to the airport for our flight to Indiana and the completion of our 44-hour NY adventure. We checked out, packed up, and grabbed a cab in just the nick of time.
Getting home was mostly smooth sailing (minus some flight delays, general hunger, and the weight of the trip finally taking its toll). But there was a moment, as I sat in my suit on the plane back to Indiana, where it became all too clear I could do this for a living. The Vonnegut Project had offered me a once-in-college-career-opportunity to talk to some tastemakers in the literary industry – and I was hooked.
In the month that followed, the footage would be transferred, edited, and presented at the Vonnegut Library in Indianapolis. The NYC interviews would end up a crowning jewel in the digital archive, and the project as a whole would help bring new life to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library we’d come to know so well.
I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have worked on a project that not only made me a better reader and writer – but one that made a difference in my community. And while it was only a sub-plot on the journey that was the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Immersive Learning Project – I’m thankful for my two days in New York. Ball State gave me a taste of bigger things I won’t soon forget.