Suzanne McConnell is the author of “Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style”. Suzanne was a student and a friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, and she was asked to write this book by Kurt’s Trust. Kurt is the author of Slaughterhouse-five and several other works of primary fiction, but also nonfiction. He shares many stories from his life in ways that were sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, but almost always entertaining. In this book, Suzanne includes Kurt Vonnegut’s instructions and advice about writing, work and family balance, and sharing our talents.
In this interview for the School for Good Living Podcast, Suzanne joins Brilliant Miller to discuss what Suzanne learned from Kurt Vonnegut and how to earn a living as a creative, those financial considerations as a writer, love, finding a community or building one. Suzanne talks about how Kurt dealt with depression as so many creatives do, and how he thought about love and sharing our talents. Throughout the interview, Suzanne and Brilliant uncover many of the Keys to Good Living that can be learned from Kurt Vonnegut, his life, his family life, and especially his writing.
“The most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.”
This week on the School for Good Living Podcast:
- Who is Kurt Vonnegut and what is his work about?
- Meeting Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne’s relationship with him.
- Why Suzanne wrote “Pity the Reader”
- How to write with style.
- Sharing our talents.
- Balancing work and family.
- Finding a community and building one.
- Suzanne McConnell
- Pity The Reader: On Writing With Style
- Suzanne’s Lecture at the American Academy in Berlin
- How to Write With Style – Kurt Vonnegut
- The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
Connect With The Guest:
Watch the interview on YouTube.
Listen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and Spotify!
Visit the Suzanne McConnell guest page right here on goodliving.com!
Brilliant Miller [00:00:07] Hi, I’m Brilliant. Your host for this show. I know that I’m incredibly blessed, as the son of self-made billionaires I’ve seen the high price some people pay for success. And I’ve learned that money really can’t buy happiness. But I’ve also had the good fortune to learn directly from many of the world’s leading teachers. If you are ready to be, do, have, and give more, this podcast is for you.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:30] If you are interested to produce writing that people enjoy reading and that makes a difference in their lives, do yourself a favor and pick up the book written by my guest today. The book is called “Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style”. It’s Written by Suzanne McConnell and Kurt Vonnegut. Suzanne was a student and a friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, and she was asked to write this book by Kurt’s Trust. Now, if you don’t know who Kurt Vonnegut is, you might have forgotten your high school English classes. Kurt is the author of Slaughterhouse-five and a number of other works of primary fiction, but also nonfiction. Someone who had an extraordinary life serving in the military, being taken prisoner of war, surviving the bombing of Dresden, and having so many other life experiences that almost all of us deal with, but we don’t necessarily write about or share about it. He put it in his writing in ways that were sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, but almost always entertaining. In this interview, I ask Suzanne to expound on what she includes in this book, Kurt Vonnegut’s instructions and advice about writing work. So we talk about how to earn a living as a creative. Those financial considerations as a writer, we talk about love, we talk about finding a community or building one. We talk about how Kurt dealt with depression as so many creatives do, how he thought about love. We also talk about the realities of being a writer. And so that’s a few of the things that we talk about. For a taste of Kurt Vonnegut’s instruction, you might Google “how to write with style”. It was an article that he wrote many years ago. It’s reproduced in the physical copies of this book. I don’t think it’s in the Kindle version, but some really great advice just in about a four or five-minute read. So with that, I invite you to listen to this. You can probably just pause that right here. Suzanne has taught both writing and literature at Hunter College. She’s also written for The Huffington Post and many other publications, including poets and writers. She has been the fiction editor at the Bellevue Literary Review since 2006, so she knows a thing or two about what she’s talking about. You can learn more about her at SuzanneMcConnel.com. And I think you can find her on Facebook. In this interview, we also talk about Suzanne’s forthcoming novel. So congratulations on that, Suzanne, after many, many years of working on that, but you’re finally ready to release it into the world. So with that, I hope you enjoy this conversation with my new friend Suzanne McConnell.
Brilliant Miller [00:08:42] Suzanne, welcome to the School for Good Living.
Suzanne McConnell [00:08:46] Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Brilliant Miller [00:08:49] Will you tell me, please, what is life about?
Suzanne McConnell [00:08:54] Well, as a student of Kurt Vonnegut, I can tell you what he might say, it’s about farting around, he says, in one chapter that I have. I mean, there are so many ways that one could put a little tweak on that question because you could say what is the meaning of life or what is meaningful to do in life? But you know, if you look at birds or any other creature, they’re not asking what it’s like about they’re just living. And I think I think that’s the answer, and I think it’s a very hard thing for human beings to swallow because we want it to be about something or to make meaning of it in some way. And I noticed one year because I go to Cape Cod every summer, my husband and I go to Cape Cod every summer and we’re on a pond and we’re by the ocean and we’re out of the city. And I notice that I never ask that kind of question when I’m there. I just swim and walk and write, and I never ask that kind of question.
Brilliant Miller [00:10:08] With Kurt’s answer about farting around, what does this mean, and do you agree with him?
Suzanne McConnell [00:10:13] Well, you know, it’s funny coming from him because he made so much meaning and was striving so hard to make meaning out of what happened to him. But I think what he means is kind of what I said, like, enjoy yourself. He certainly would say there’s no answer to that, you know. A lot of what happened in the absurdity in his books has to do with the fact there isn’t any. On the other hand, his character, his alter ego character Trout writes, what is the purpose of life and it’s about writing. It’s about writers. And the answer is to be conscious. I don’t have the quote exactly in my mind, but it’s something about being the conscience of the universe. So that’s a completely kind of different question, you know, but that’s two writers.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:20] Yeah, that’s in that passage that you share in your book, Pity the Reader. I believe something like to be the eyes and the ears and the conscience of the creator of the universe you fool.
Suzanne McConnell [00:11:32] Yes, that’s exactly right. You got it right.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:35] He didn’t have a pen or a pencil on him to scribble that in response to the person who had written it from somewhere.
Suzanne McConnell [00:11:42] Exactly. But if he did, this is what he would have written. So you must have marked that page.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:49] I actually host a monthly meditation group, and I shared that with the group yesterday, just inviting them to consider maybe that’s an opportunity that’s available to you. But I love that, and I might be a little ahead of myself. Let me ask this question before I ask you about yourself. But for those who might not remember back to their high school required reading or those who aren’t broad readers who might not actually know Kurt Vonnegut. Mm-Hmm. Will you tell us who is he?
Suzanne McConnell [00:12:22] Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer who was born and grew up in Indianapolis, and he’s a humorist. He’s often considered a black humorist, and his most famous work is Slaughterhouse-five, and that’s the one that is most often, I think, assigned right now. And it is based on his experiences as an American prisoner of war at the age of twenty-one to something like that when he was captured after being in the Battle of the Bulge after a month of being in the war captured and taken as a prisoner of war to Dresden, Germany. And then a couple of months later, three or four months later, the U.S. allies, that means we, the Americans, and the English firebombed Dresden to smithereens. And he was saved by his guards who took all the prisoners of war down three flights into the very, very bottom hold of a slaughterhouse, and when they came out three days later, the entire city was pretty much ash. And then I mean, this is the experience in thinking about it a lot. I’ve thought a lot about not just that, but the aftermath of it, which he doesn’t talk about much, but in some of his nonfiction, he does. But anyway, that experience was the struggle he was having to write about. It is part of how my book is structured. And part of what he accomplished before he got to Slaughterhouse-Five. He wrote five books before it, but it was what was thrusting him forward as a writer trying to struggle with that. I mean, there’s a lot of other aspects which I’m sure will come out as we talk.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:45] But yeah, yeah. And Kurt passed in 2007. Is that right? So you’ve been gone about a decade and a half. But of course, his writing lives on and you knew him personally. In fact, you were his student. And as I understand, you’re his friend. Will you talk about how did you get connected with Kurt and what was the nature of your relationship?
Suzanne McConnell [00:15:13] Well, I was connected with him because I was a student at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and one of the things about the workshop or probably any group of people where you’re there for a while because it’s a two-year program is that you eventually gravitate towards those with whom you have an affinity. And so people that you know, we have very different teachers, there was the guy who was Kurt’s best friend. He was a very different person than him. He was a Chilean writer, Jose de Nosso, who was an aristocrat and wrote very beautiful prose. I mean, a completely different kind of writer. So, you know, people who were drawn to Jose, et cetera, et cetera. I was drawn to Kurt because, first of all, the first time moment I saw him, I thought he was very funny. And he had this stance that was hilarious. And I’ve said this before, but it still resonates even with me. He was smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder, and he looked so funny, the smoke curling up. And you know, he’s this tall guy, kind of bent. And of course, he was young then. He’s not the Kurt that you see in pictures. I mean, he was only forty-two. So, you know, I was twenty-two. So that was the first thing. But he wasn’t my first teacher. I didn’t know who he was, but he team-taught a class. And in that team teaching class, which is the one where I saw him with the cigarette holder, I found out what he was like, you know, and also, you know, students talk to each other. We didn’t have the rate your professor thing. But you know, you write, you talk about each other. And so everyone learned the background of our teachers and what they were struggling with. So we knew what he was trying to write. He was trying to write Slaughterhouse-Five. And the fact that he was struggling so hard that he had a big family that he had given up everything to write, taking such risks to write. But trying to write about something really traumatic, I was sort of gone through traumas just before that, and so I was very drawn to that. And he was a great teacher, he did his best teaching there, he said he was hungry to be there. He’d been alone on Cape Cod for years. He was really happy to be there and he really put effort into it in a way that other teachers didn’t.
Brilliant Miller [00:18:16] Wow, what a privilege to learn directly from one of America’s great literary luminaries and not only to have been his student and to associate with him that way but to have written a book on his writing advice and his instruction. So you’ve written “Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style”, which I understand that Kurt’s trust asked if you would do. Will you talk about what is this book and how did it come to be?
Suzanne McConnell [00:18:45] OK, well, I think if one of my publishers is correct, that Dan Wakefield, who was first going to write this book, also had suggested the idea to the Vonnegut Trust, but he had just finished putting together Kurt’s letters. And he organized them and wrote little introductions to them so people would know what they were. And he was exhausted from doing that. And he’s, you know, older than I am, and that’s old enough. So he was exhausted. He didn’t want to do it, and I think he suddenly saw it was going to be a lot more work than he was willing to do. I think they had a fairly small book in mind when they asked me to do it, you know, but they wanted me to. I can’t remember the first deadline was supposed to be like six months, something absolutely ridiculous, you know, that I knew would never get accomplished, not if I was doing it anyway. So anyway, Dan called me up and he had also, I think he felt he’d also gotten to know me because you’ve interviewed me or the letters book. I first met him actually at Kurt’s funeral. And he had not published any of my letters, and I was a little bit. Pissed off at that, and I let them know that when the book came because I was kind of hurt. So anyway, he called me up and said, I have an opportunity for you. And you know, when somebody says that, Oh, what are they trying? You know what are they trying to get out of and what are they offering you? You know, so but for me, it was like I really felt touched by the universe. I mean, I even feel shivers right now telling you this because it was the perfect moment for me to be doing that book. I had just proposed a panel discussion for the associated writing programs on Vonnegut, and it was called to debacles of war and other disasters or something like that. I had been teaching in a literature and medicine program at hospitals, and I was teaching a lot of war literature because I was not teaching. I was leading seminars that were more like discussions. And I got to choose the literature. So I was too for caregivers. It wasn’t for patients. It was for caregivers. Who get partly traumatized themselves, sometimes they need a lot of support. And it was for them to air out things. So I was really in the thick of reading a lot of war literature for two or three years, including his. And so I created that panel. It had just gotten accepted. I had revised my novel for the umpteenth time and it was ready to market and I absolutely could not do it. I thought my heart would break if I put it out in the universe and it got rejected. I just couldn’t do it. And I had started to write a story. So when I realized that I thought, OK, what is it? I really have to say, what? What haven’t I written that I really? And there was a story I really wanted to tell. And I started writing that story. And so, so Dan asked me, just at that moment, I put aside the novel, but started writing this story and I knew the story was going to be good. I had the voice and it was going and I did not start my homework for Pity the Reader until I finished that story, because that was not going to work to put it on pause, you know? And that story went up when I first prize. Wow there was something magical and I can’t tell you, what about stopping the novel? It’s like listening to the best whatever telling me, Don’t go there, do this. And here’s this. And you know, I immersed myself for a year. And everything Kurt wrote. And in a couple of great other books, there’s a book called “Conversations With with Kurt Vonnegut”, and he had a compendium of interviews and I leaned heavily on them, but I had to write. 65 percent of it had to be Kurt’s words, which is why my publisher feels justified in saying it’s by Suzanne McConnell and Kurt Vonnegut, because it really is mostly his words. But of course, I organized it all and so on. So it was a funny reading experience because I wasn’t reading the books as novels. I was reading them as examples of what can I use? So, yeah, so that’s how it came about.
Brilliant Miller [00:24:26] So tell me about the title. Where does the title come from?
Suzanne McConnell [00:24:30] The title comes from, I had another title, so really, my publisher, Dan Simon, should have credit for this title. My title was mundane. It was. It was called Vonnegut’s Pearls like pearls of wisdom. But it’s and that at that point I was going to say by Suzanne McConnell, so it would have been a whole different thing. And the marketing people didn’t think it was very zippy, which is not nearly as zippy as “Pity The Reader”, but I really rebelled when at first because I had been living with my title a long time. So we had talked about this because it comes from, I don’t know what version of my book you read, the hardcover or the paperback,.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:20] The Kindle.
Suzanne McConnell [00:25:22] Oh, Kindle. Oh, that’s too bad because you miss a few things during Kindle, which I’ll tell you about. But how to write with style is that in the book,
Brilliant Miller [00:25:35] I don’t think how to write with sailors and there is that it’s like an essay.
Suzanne McConnell [00:25:39] It’s an essay by Vonnegut that was in the New York Times. It was part of an international paper companies advertising, and they had various how to write speeches, how to write blah blah. And I spotted it in the newspaper. I was teaching a punter, cut it at the newspaper and I used it in every class. It’s two pages. I think it’s got eight pieces of advice.
Brilliant Miller [00:26:11] Yeah. This was not reproduced in the canon. I remember in reading the book that you had some of the numbers, some of the numbered instructions, but I didn’t. I don’t remember seeing the Kurtz essay or that that list all consolidated.
Suzanne McConnell [00:26:30] OK. I better send you another book. OK. So one of his first pieces of advice is the way the whole first part of my book is structured, which is to find a subject you care about and which you and your heart feel others should care about. That’s his first piece of advice in this essay. And the seventh piece of advice is Pity the Reader. “Readers, he has”. But we decided reader is more, you know, it’s more directly to it, to a person who wants to buy a book. And do you want me to go on about that?
Brilliant Miller [00:27:07] Yeah, please do. I’m just taking the Kindle as we talk and making sure I didn’t miss it. But yeah, I see all the chapters and I don’t see that as an appendix or anything.
Suzanne McConnell [00:27:17] If I hold up the book, in the paperback it’s the first couple of pages, in the hardback it’s the interface, it’s the inside cover. So in a way, it kind of gives away the structure of my book by having it there. So you don’t have that, which is kind of nice. So pity the reader means I’ll read it. They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately. They have to read and are so difficult that most people don’t really M.M. it, even after having studied it all through grade school and high school 12 long years. So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd singing like nightingales. This is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited. Although there’s some stuff going on about that right now, it’s pretty scary.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:56] Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you for sharing that. Let me ask you, how is your life different because you wrote the book or how did the act of writing the book change you?
Suzanne McConnell [00:29:16] In several ways. One was that the act of doing it was so absorbing, it was wonderfully absorbing and wasn’t about me. Precisely. And at the very beginning, I wondered, what voice is this I’m using? Where’s this voice coming from? It’s not my fictional voice and I haven’t written. I’ve written nonfiction but wasn’t quite that voice either. And then I realized it’s my teaching voice, and that’s why it’s so easy because I’m trying to teach something. I’m not self-conscious, and I’ve got this marvelous writer and person who’s funny and serious to base things on. So that was one thing that was interesting because it was just so much easier than discovering that having that voice. And then there were certain pieces of advice. Originally, I had this book divided into sections. My publisher didn’t like the sections. He wanted it to be more narrative. I wanted the sections because I thought in terms of teaching would be easier. I like the section in which I really talk about particular aspects of writing. I called it nuts and bolts. So if you didn’t care about that, you could skip that whole section and you would be alerted as to what it was, you know? Anyhow, some of the nuts and bolts about writing really stuck with me, and they helped me afterward as principles that I somehow felt like I missed what one was. It’s not something I missed, but I just heard it more that if you’re a novelist, you have to remind the reader. And it’s not an intuitive thing, it’s one of those things you have to do. You know, maybe in a third or fourth draft when you’re going, what’s you know? But it’s very, very important because otherwise, the reader loses track of what the issues are. Yeah. And it’s really easy as the writers since you know what they are to forget to Pity the Reader.
Brilliant Miller [00:31:49] Right?
Suzanne McConnell [00:31:50] And let the reader know. So that was interesting. And the other thing he said, I found really interesting, not just as a writer, but as a person, which was, you said somewhere. I don’t know if I can remember this quote exactly. But if something happens to a character and no one responds, factually speaking, nothing has happened to the character. And I thought about it in terms of people I like recently. I read a lot of Chekhov partly because of this book, and there are two or three stories of Chekhov in which somebody is telling somebody else something important to them and nobody listens. And the story doesn’t end until finally in one story, the guy tells talks to his horse. And that’s so it’s the same thing in life, like if somebody doesn’t respond to you. It’s why children need reinforcement. People need acknowledgment all the time because, you know, otherwise you feel like you’re blowing in the wind where we’re communal, we’re you know, so that really stuck with me because when I went back and looked at my novel after pity the reader, I saw a place where I really missed the mark in that way. And I revised it. So that was interesting. OK.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:24] OK, well, good for you. Good for you.
Suzanne McConnell [00:33:32] I have one more thing to say just about the result. People email me like you, people from all kinds of, you know, I’ve had a rabbi, a bookstore guy, English teachers, but all kinds of people who, you know, write to me and say how it moves them or touch them, or how valuable it was to them. I mean, I just think. I just think that I’m that I was fortunate enough to be able to do this project in which my own teaching could come to bear. And the kinds of issues that Kurt talks about, which are so important. And it’s just incredible that I, you know, that I was able to do that.
Brilliant Miller [00:34:30] Yeah, what a privilege.
Suzanne McConnell [00:34:33] Yeah, that’s really a privilege.
Brilliant Miller [00:34:36] Well I took away so much as well from just having read, and to me, one of the big takeaways was the kind of person I want to be in just seeing Kurt as someone who was resilient and he was generous. And as you said, I think he was funny. You know, there was just so much beyond even the advice and instruction about writing that I thought was really wonderful. And I thought it was really interesting, too, that Kurt would, you know, live a life of writing and teach about it very generously. But somewhere in the book, he and I realized this is a soundbite now with me repeating here. But he gave this instruction to someone, right? And so I’d love to hear you comment on this against that. You know, with that context of devoting his life to writing and teaching so much writing. But yet, he said to someone, don’t be a writer if you possibly can’t. What did you mean by that? Why would he say that?
Suzanne McConnell [00:35:32] Because there’s another place where he talks about patients and complains about sitting there, and he and I have an anecdote that he told about Vance, another teacher who – Vance once told him that he imagined inventing this kind of like a wall typewriter that you could throw things out to type something that’s physical because sitting is hard. And now we know sitting is actually bad for us. And Kurt sat hunched over his typewriter. I mean, he really was not ergonomically correct whatsoever, you know? And I think it was such hard work and separated him from, like his children. They didn’t know what he was doing. They’re out playing and he’s telling them to shut up, be quiet. Let me work. And he’s trying to write to make a living. He’s trying to write to say things that are important. I mean, but that’s true of most fathers. I mean, my father went off to work. I didn’t know what he was doing, you know? But I think that it’s burdensome if you, I mean, what just popped to my mind was somebody in my own pure writing group who said to me after years of being together in the group and the sharing chapters of my novel. Finally, in chapter, I don’t know what it is, Thirty five or something should. Oh, now I know what you’re doing. Well, I mean, he could also give the advice somewhere, I think, in that same chapter like. Maybe if you don’t write all the time, I mean, he wrote all the time relentlessly. You know, that’s hard on you.
Brilliant Miller [00:37:42] Yeah, absolutely, and you break that down. I think really well in a chapter just about all of the almost the risks of being a writer, write the loneliness and the sedentary lifestyle and you know, this kind of thing. And maybe we’ll come back to that. And I definitely want to ask about a few other kinds of pieces of advice that Kurt gave. But before I do, I do want to ask you about your novel. You mentioned it a couple of times. It’s something I’m curious about. Obviously, this work, “Pity the Reader” is a work of nonfiction. And Kurt, as you’ve already said, wrote primarily fiction but also wrote some nonfiction. But with your novel, so you said this was something you’ve worked on for a long time as well, but until now or soon you haven’t published it, haven’t put it out into the world. But I understand that now you have an agent and that this is something that is going to happen. Is that right? Will you tell me about the novel and tell me about the story behind it?
Suzanne McConnell [00:38:36] Okay. I actually did have an agent about 20 years ago. The novel was longer then and he loved it, and he very faithfully sent it around. And I got, “it’s too literary. It’s not literary enough”, but the only consistent thing I got was “it’s too slow”. So that’s where my learning “pity the reader”. It’s like, you know, you’re writing for readers, and it was when I came back and I had a little bit of time, I thought, Yes, it is too slow. It starts too slow. You don’t know what the what’s at stake exactly at first. So, you know, I edited the novel, it’s called Venture Earth. It’s based on how do I describe it? It’s set in 1980 and goes back to the 60s. And it’s the protagonist is trying to come to terms with the suicide of her husband in the 60s. So it’s also that whole era of suicide is it is a drug overdose. She has a new life. She’s pregnant in the novel and with a second person. So it’s also a whole era that she’s coming to terms with and being a hippie and all this stuff. And there’s a whole other childhood layer in there, which is about animals and what it’s about slaughtering. So there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on and it’s set in three days’ time, which is actually not realistic that it really wouldn’t happen in three days, but novelistic. It works fine. So it just took me a long time because I had to learn so much. I didn’t know. I just wasn’t experienced enough as a writer. And so part of my cautionary chapter about, you know, sometimes what you care about so much, which is the first piece of advice, also gives you lots of problems because you can’t separate the subject you’re caring about from the craft things that you need to learn. It makes it harder.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:15] Yeah, absolutely, I mean, in that component of that advice about right, about something you care about that you think others should as well, you know?
Suzanne McConnell [00:41:23] That’s right. That’s really different. Yeah, that’s really different than you think others should as well? Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:31] Wow. So, well, congratulations. I mean, I know that many artists stay with a single work for decades and they might have a hobby or another art form that they try or other projects. But I’ve heard of somebody once described someone who’s a writer is someone kind of along the lines of maybe what Kurt alluding to, but someone who can’t write. Yeah, just part of who they are. Yeah, and so you know that persistence, that combination of persistence or commitment or whatever, just expression. I really honor that because I think that. You know, what’s that saying about the world needs more people who’ve come alive, you know, kind of thing, and if we’re sharing our gifts, we’re sharing our art with the world, I think that’s a really beautiful thing. So good for you. Anything else that you want to share about that, about your novel, or the journey thus far?
Suzanne McConnell [00:42:32] I think part of the instruction for me, but I don’t know what advice comes out of this, but just boy, things have their own time and you can’t. I mean, this at this distance, which is a great distance, I see that. I couldn’t push the river, it just had its own time, and I don’t know what will happen with this novel now. But now, by now, it’s like a historical novel. When I started it, it was not historical, but maybe I hope this is true where some would knock on it. Maybe now is the time that the novel itself needed to be out. Mm-Hmm. I mean, I’m quite old and this is the first time I’m getting attention. And maybe if I’ve gotten attention earlier, it would have gone to my head or my life would have been different. I don’t know. All I know is I have something, something about doing, having to have that. What felt like the fairy godmother coming down and tapping on the head to do the Vonnegut book really made me feel very spiritual about it that I could. On the top level, I may rant and rave and blah blah blah. But at the Neal, a kind of trust it, and I would like to say that to people because no matter how many times you say it’s the process, that’s not what you want to hear when you win, you want your story or whatever published you want to. Everybody wants immediately what they think they want.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:30] Yeah, absolutely. Especially in our culture, right? And probably more and more each day. Yeah. And at the same time, this idea, this one thing that I definitely want to explore with you is the ideas of success and failure as a creative or as a writer and how Kurt viewed that and maybe specifically or as an entry point. The thing he said about Van Gogh? Right, and about the paintings that he sold two paintings, right, because I know that some of this is on this, the scale we’re considering, are we talking about during your lifetime? Are we talking about after which? Of course, who knows, you know, but maybe, maybe you can start with what was it that Kurt said to his students about Van Gogh?
Suzanne McConnell [00:45:13] I don’t remember him saying anything about Van Gogh,
Brilliant Miller [00:45:15] and I think he said that he sold two paintings to his brother. Yeah. And so he said something like, Consider yourselves like Van Gogh. Right?
Suzanne McConnell [00:45:26] He was telling this to students past the time of Iowa, which is sort of interesting because when he was at Iowa, you know, everyone, the perspective I have is like the perspective you have with a childhood friend who you knew when they were children and they were very different than as an adult. He was writing Slaughterhouse-five, but I knew him. He wasn’t Kurt Vonnegut. Yet there were capital letters. Mm-Hmm. He was just a struggling writer like everybody else. I mean, he had some books out. Yeah, but they were not also well known. I think the Mother Night was published first as a paperback, and it was like on racks and bus stations. Nobody knew what it was. I mean, it’s a fantastic book. And, you know, so he was in process. He wasn’t. He was just struggling. And that’s what everyone does. You don’t get to be, you know, somebody unless you’ve gone through getting there.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:33] Yeah. And I was really interested in what you included in the book, Kurt had said something about every I don’t know if it was every child or every son attempts to fulfill his mother’s impossible dreams. And I think he did that.
Suzanne McConnell [00:46:49] Yes, he did that. And I have a footnote. I had to put it in a footnote because it didn’t quite fit. But my footnote is a quote. And it’s going to be able to quote it exactly off the cuff like this, but it’s something like whatever is not brought to consciousness will appear magically in your life as fate. And I believe that if you haven’t worked out issues that keep coming up for you to work out and what I talk about in the book and you’ve just finished so you know, you know, Kurt finishes Slaughterhouse-Five, OK, trust is taken care of. Then if it is just then, other things pop up his mother’s death. And he keeps working through that. So it’s just endless mining going on, you know, and I think that although he’s conscious about, he says he talks about his mother, it really was amazing to look at how he did fulfill her dreams.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:00] Absolutely. Will you tell me what did Kurt believe was the role of talent in a writer’s success?
Suzanne McConnell [00:48:08] I have a chapter on that. Yeah. So. That chapter opens with quotes from him, I think, from a Paris interview review in which he talks about how people have different talents. He was very bad at a lot of things he tried to do. He was a terrible salesman and tried to, you know, he would be a horrible mechanic. So he tries to put challenges in perspective. Everyone has talents. You have to have some talent. You can’t. It would be ridiculous. And it’s itself. What’s the word? You know, people who aren’t told in a certain thing, don’t continue doing it because it doesn’t feel good. Yeah. You know, if you start out and you couldn’t write a word and you kept sending things to some people, I mean, it just doesn’t feel good to be rejected all the time. So I think you learn that pretty early. You learn in school where your tolerance more or less lie, don’t you think?
Brilliant Miller [00:49:11] I think by and large schools are a clearing for that.
Suzanne McConnell [00:49:15] Yeah. Not always, because there’s a lot of talent outside of school, things that require talent outside of what you might learn in school. But yeah, so there’s that. But talent is not what wins out. There are lots of talented people. Persistence, patience, and a kind of stubborn hopefulness. Serves you much better as a writer and as is any kind of artist, I think, yeah, even as a person like whatever, whatever your dream is.
Brilliant Miller [00:49:51] You know, well, I love the description that he gives on that, if I remember correctly, he talked about writing is like filling a blimp with a bicycle that anyone can do it. It just takes patience and perseverance. So there’s this one aspect where, yeah, almost anyone can do this, but talent absolutely has, it factors in, no question. Yeah. And I was really also struck by something that you included in the book that seemed to really blow Kurt’s mind. And I think it was this comment his sister made about the talent that just because you have a team, just because one has a talent obligates them in no way. At least that was her view. It doesn’t obligate them to use that talent, but I’m not sure that Kurt agreed with that. How did he see it and how do you see that?
Suzanne McConnell [00:50:37] Well, he says this in several different places where I read. So he made a big impression on him as he was shocked and kind of like, What do you mean? How could you say that unless I can hear him, you know? And she just said, what you just said? Well, yeah, I’m talented, but I don’t have to. I think that he really did feel an obligation for that talent. Maybe that’s a combination of, yes, he’s got to fulfill his mother’s dream because his mother was trying to write. Maybe it’s because he really had a subject that he thought others should know about, but they didn’t know about. But he was writing before he went to Dresden. And this is something I didn’t actually know as much. And I think it’s something people assume who learned something about him. But until I wrote, Pity the Reader, and learned a lot more about his background, I didn’t know that. For example, he took a typewriter with him to boot camp. What he was going to do with that typewriter, only a young person who’s pretty naive would imagine that, of course, they took the typewriter away from him, he’s got to take it to the battle of the bulge. I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s so sweet. And you know, he found out in high school and college that, you know, his talent did not lie in chemistry like his brother. He was busy over there writing for the Cornell newspaper. So, you know, he was going to what he liked and he was always funny. He says that when he was a kid, he learned that he can make people laugh and that gave him attention. So. He kept it up all his life. And I lost track of what your first question was
Brilliant Miller [00:52:40] It was about this with talent ,and whether or not, you know, we have an obligation to do something with it. And I think it’s interesting. You know, we all have our own beliefs and worldviews, for sure. But of course, you don’t touch on this a lot or maybe deeply. But you do touch on the fact that Kurt was an atheist. So if there is this obligation to do something with our talent, for him, it wasn’t coming from a higher power or from one creator or this kind of thing, probably. But how do you think that Kurt’s worldview as it relates to, you know, there being no God influenced, you know, him as a human and as a writer?
Suzanne McConnell [00:53:25] Well, I think it’s complicated because, yeah, he was an atheist, but there’s a lot of Christian references, you know, at the time he grew up, even at the time I grew up, I grew up going to a Baptist church. I grew up learning a lot of Bible, memorizing lots of Bible verses, and I was very surprised when I wrote my own novel that they poured out. So he grew up in a very Christian society that had a common denominator of the Bible and verses, and he uses it. So he may be an atheist, but he was inculcated with those values. And one of the Christian things I remember learning is, you know, don’t watch the line. Don’t, don’t bury your talents. Christ says something along this line like, you know, go forth and use your talents. There is a line and I just can’t think of it right now on my Bible just went out of my mind. So I think that I think that’s part of the answer for him that he did feel that way. Also, I think it’s different for a man than a woman, his sister, he talks about his sister not being able to do any wrong in his father’s eyes. And that he thought that was detrimental to her in a way because everything she did, his father thought was wonderful. Maybe Kurt had to earn it more. Maybe he, I don’t know that, but I know that he makes a point that she, on the other hand, everything was valued and maybe everything then becomes the same. I don’t know.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:31] Yeah. Yeah.
Suzanne McConnell [00:55:34] I feel like I’m sort of like, Yeah, you should use them.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:40] Yeah. Well, I certainly think so. I mean, I do, yeah, I mean, I think it’s just my own view, but I think that you know, there is this kind of perfection to the universe. Where, you know, each of us has certain strengths or certain gifts and when, when and they’re not all the same. And many of them are, you know, complementary, and when we share it can be a source of joy in and of itself just for that expression. And then it can be a gift, those who receive it as well. So I don’t know that there’s a moral imperative, necessarily, but I do suspect there is. Yeah. Well, thank you for exploring that with me. Just a couple of more questions about Vonnegut’s advice or instruction regarding writing here. One is this one’s very practical and you put this toward the end of the book, which I appreciate that you didn’t leave it out, which is about making a living because we can look at Kurt who is famous, who is successful and think, Oh, yeah, you know, like, that’s it. That’s what I want, or just see that that’s possible. But then we’re reminded that’s like a single-digit probably of all writers who achieve that kind of success. Well, what was it that Kurt said about making a living and balancing that with, you know, one’s craft or one’s art?
Suzanne McConnell [00:57:07] He was very concerned about that for us. And. Later, in an essay, he sort of disparaged himself, he said students really didn’t want to hear about this, but I don’t think he was correct. So what he did at Iowa, you know, we were in our university bubble in a writer’s university bubble, meaning we were given the gift of time. That’s what getting an MFA was giving you wasn’t a gift. I paid for it. It was expensive at the time. Now it can be a gift as you can get scholarships there, but not for me. But. I lost track.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:00] So we’re talking about making a living, balancing that with and Kurt had a job at G.E., so he had a full-time thing that ultimately he left, but it was a very calculated departure, right?
Suzanne McConnell [00:58:14] It was. It was calculated and I mean, one of the things that I really thought about this and try to make the point out in the book was calculated because he could earn a living writing short stories, but he actually couldn’t. He actually couldn’t, he didn’t entirely make a living writing short stories. He was supplementing it with doing things, you know, he taught at a school on Cape Cod. He had this car dealership, which he was terrible at and didn’t work. He kept having to make a living other ways. So I think that there’s a lot of complaint among all writers and all artists about having to make a living while you’re trying to do your work. But. Two things, one particular to Kurt. He did his best work, he says, I have a quote in the book when he was struggling the most on Cape Cod. He wrote Cat’s cradle, he wrote another night. He wrote “God bless you, Mr. Rosewater”. All the books leading up to all of his first five books. Plus, all that time, he was struggling to write Slaughterhouse-Five, his best work in spite of writing tons of short stories, which is why he was supporting himself in terms of raising all the children they had. He did. He was doing his best work. He was young and he’s got his war experiences on his mind, he’s trying to come to terms with all kinds of stuff and it keeps leaking out and these other novels, so while you complain about your day job, it provides a lot. It provides structure. It’s hard to write all day long. Nobody writes all day long. You can’t do it. So I’m thinking about my husband, who’s a visual artist, and he tells a story. When he was young, he was a roofer, and he tells a story, a wonderful story about something that happened during work, that formed some of his, some of his work, which was that a cement loads and loads of cement truck after truck of cement. They were doing a pour of this cement, which was to come out smooth, but it broke through the bazaar on a slope. It broke through. And this cement poured through the cracks, you know, through the barrier. And kept on going. And that that shift. Well, actually, it’s in the book, there’s a piece of his work in the book. I don’t know if I say my husband, it’s called the melt piece and it’s it’s a block and part of it’s pouring out. I think I have it in the chapter of what makes great art, because Kurt says it’s about having a sense of death among life and that transformative thing of one shape into another was what impacted my husband. And Kurt would say this in class a lot. He would say people spend a lot of time at work. Lots of stuff goes on at work, right, about work. Yeah. And you know, the first story I wrote was about work.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:59] Yeah, I love that. And how fitting. You know, there’s someone who is so prolific would recognize that something so mundane as our day to day workplace, the thing that we might have a dream of one day escaping is actually the very substance of our turtle.
Suzanne McConnell [01:02:16] I want to say one of the things that I also say in the book he was so concerned about us living there with our pie in the sky. Dreams of writing that at the end of the first year, he put together, along with Richard Yates, like an afternoon seminar for us to talk about how we could earn a living. And he kind of was very like, Do whatever you can do, you can do advertising. And that was quite a piece of advice at the time because we were all, you know, the industrial-military complex and the advertising industry, you know, at that time, if you had a label on your clothes, you would have destroyed it. I mean, nobody. This was the 60s. We were like, you know, yeah, we were not doing that kind of social media. I mean, all of it that’s going on now would have been horrifying to us at the time. So he was telling us, do it. And there’s a quote in the book about that kind of hack writing because there was a whole term at the time or coming out of Hemingway and so on about hack writing. Not so you don’t hear that so much anymore, but it was separating like people who were really earnest and really true writers from people who were, you know, doing what he was doing, which was writing for the commercial magazines. And he said it doesn’t ruin, it doesn’t ruin you as a writer to do that. In fact, you could learn something from it. You learn how to make a plot.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:54] So I love that. And yeah, I love that. He was concerned for you personally. Yes. And the other students? Yes. The reality of being an artist in a commercial world. Yeah. It’s not an easy thing.
Suzanne McConnell [01:04:09] Yeah. And I’ve had many students. I had a student once come to me, I was teaching at Pratt Institute, which is about artists, and she came to me one day and she said, Do you realize that everyone here thinks that they’re going to go out and become famous? You know, she had just kind of realized it. And she realized that everybody else was thinking that. And yes, they do. I’ve had I had to tell students and former students, No, you’re not going to be a writer. All by itself, you’re going to have to. Have a day job because, you know, they don’t know those percentages, just like nobody thinks about that with all kinds of stuff. Maybe they do more now. I don’t know. Maybe if people are more realistic now,
Brilliant Miller [01:04:54] our kids and young people today are pretty savvy.
Suzanne McConnell [01:04:57] I’m learning that. I think they are. I think they’re much savvier than we were
Brilliant Miller [01:05:01] for sure. Well, talking about some of the practicalities of living a creative life. One of them is having a family. And Kurt had many kids. He’s married a couple of times. What? What did you learn from Kurt from Kurt’s life as it relates to family and relationships?
Suzanne McConnell [01:05:23] So Kurt was a man of his generation and that meant, almost my parents’ generation. Somewhere in between. But it meant that division of labor and marriage was very clear. The woman raised the children and kept the house and did all the things to support her husband, who was doing fine earning a living. So that was their case. And Jane, his first wife, who was at Iowa with him and two of the children, his oldest daughter and nanny, his youngest were there, too. Jane did all those things. She supported him. She did everything. So. That freed him up to write. So I’m saying all this because whatever I say is colored by the fact that he wasn’t changing the diapers or, you know, hands-on being a dad, he was a dad like my dad, which went off to work and came home and, you know, wasn’t around much. But. He also liiked being frank and clear about earning a living. He understood how important it was for an artist to have a sympathetic, supportive partner because you can’t do it without that. You know, it’s very hard to do it without that, without someone who at least. Understands the singularity of being an artist where you’re, you know, you’re not going to work coming home, you’re doing something private and separate, and that you don’t know whether it’s going to reach anybody. And when you’re young, you really just don’t have confidence. I mean, unless you happen to have confidence, but mostly you don’t. So I think he was really aware of and aware of the responsibility towards children because, you know, he was in there making a living for the children. Yeah, it was by himself. He wouldn’t have had to do that. So it’s very complicated.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:59] Yeah, for sure. And there and the bit that I got from your book about him, obviously, it’s not a book about, it’s not a biography, it’s not a book about his parenting and this kind of thing. But the little bit that I took away, it seems like he was fairly involved in his kid’s lives and that they had the sense that he cared about them, that they weren’t to him.
Suzanne McConnell [01:08:18] Yeah, and he had, I mean, this story we’re not mentioning here is that he and Jane had three children and then his sister and her husband died within two or three days of each other. She had cancer and her husband in a horrifying train wreck, the train fell into the river between New Jersey and New York. And they had four boys and these boys were suddenly orphaned. And Jane and Kurt. I mean, her sister’s dying wish was to keep the boys together, so they adopted the boy they didn’t adopt legally, they took them in and the youngest who was a baby, the relative on the other side came up and said, Look at what they were trying to handle and said, Let us take the baby because it’s just too much. Too much so. So they, you know, they raised all those children. Then when Kurt married Jill Crimmins, the second wife, they adopted a child, Lily. So, you know, he was willing to have that other family and do that. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:46] And on the subject of relationship, so not just with the family, but Kurt also recognized the power and the value of a community. Right? Well, you talk about how he saw that and maybe what you saw and experienced, what is something that may be artists, creatives, writers don’t necessarily think about when it comes to consciously cultivating or finding a community? And what is it that might make a difference for them if they did?
Suzanne McConnell [01:10:17] OK, I’ll start with Kurt. So he grew up in a family where they had I didn’t know this, of course, until I did research. They had a house on a lake along with an uncle. And so as a kid, you could run from one house to the other. You know, if you didn’t like the food at your own house, you could just go to your uncle’s just down around the river and wind down around the lake. So he had a sense of the security and the variety of a group of people. And I mean, you probably have that in parts of your life. I have it in parts of my life. And what I was noticing during COVID, for example, was not missing somehow my best friends or my relatives, but missing a sense of the community of humanity like the person you see all the time and your yoga class. I mean, we have varying degrees of community, but we are more than our tiniest community. And so Kurt was Kurt was. Always looking for a home for that, for that kind of community. And there was a letter in which he writes to somebody, his agent, I think early on and says is something like Paris going on somewhere like this community of writers in Paris is rich. You know, a moveable feast like Hemingway writes about and James Baldwin and all the people that were there. And he finally found that. I mean, that was the kind of thing that happened to him when he got to Iowa. I mean, he told me later that it was certainly as important to him as it was to any of us. And I think a large part of that was because at last, you know, there was this community of people who were doing exactly what he was doing. You know, sometimes they were doing not with the same attitudes or whatever, but at least they’re in the trade, you know, so that was really important to him. And I think he saw community like he has a lot to say about marriage. The single marriage. Not not a generational household or community. How hard that is. And it is hard. It’s you know, you watch your husband or wife do and prefer to do exactly what you want to do. Well, if you know a larger community, you’re going to be someone there who wants to go to that movie. And it just still possible for another person to have all those tastes. So, you know, I’ve been in, you know, artist colonies or in groups where it’s really clear to me that that kind of extended thing right now, my stepdaughter has inherited her mother’s house and she’s told us, I’m thinking, I think of this is the family house, and we have built on two studio rooms onto that house. It’s a farmhouse in New Jersey. And every time we go out there with my stepdaughter, her husband, a cousin, and I, even there there is. It’s expensive. It makes you feel secure. It’s not just, you know. So he could have downsides, say, about community, too, because it also can squelch you in many ways.
Brilliant Miller [01:14:08] Yeah, it was interesting to me to see that this was something that he talked about at all, which is maybe not a surprise, but the one thing that stood out to me was his idea of a school and how a school will often celebrate its most prominent, you know, adherents or whatever. But they’re just the tip of a group of wanted people. That was interesting.
Suzanne McConnell [01:14:32] It’s interesting. Yeah, yeah. He also, you know, part of this part of his thinking about community came from his anthropological background. So it wasn’t just his childhood, it was. If you’re studying anthropology, you’re studying whole cultures. And that background really affected him as a way of looking at the community, as a way of looking at everything because he, you know, there’s a he says something about learning that stories can be malleable and so can cultures that you know. I once gave a class the most fun class I ever taught was on Cat’s Cradle because it’s a career. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that, but it’s oh, it’s an invented community with an invented religion and invented punishments and all of that. So I divided my students up and had them each in the space of 15 minutes, create a religion that had to have certain things, you know, had to have something that you had to have rules. It had to have a guru. It had to have a point. So they came up with the wildest thing somebody had something called Crestopoly, crest toothpaste was the point, et cetera, et cetera. So he really saw. You know, whole constructs in terms of community and interesting.
Brilliant Miller [01:16:18] Well, the last thing, it’s actually just two more things that I want to ask you about related to Kurt’s life and his work. But I want to save those if I want to go ahead and transition us to the enlightening lightning around. If you’re good with that. So again, a series of questions on a variety of topics. My aim for the most part and this is just to ask the question and stand aside. You’re welcome to answer as long as you want, but I’ll do my best to just keep us moving through that. OK with you.
Suzanne McConnell [01:17:00] Oh. So I’m not done with I just took a break, I want to tell you one thing, maybe this belongs in the if it does, you can just put it in somewhere. I’m really happy to hear you say to remark on those those chapters like about working and community emotion, because all of that section, I called how to live as a as my working section title. And one day when I was on Cape Cod, I woke up. I mean, no one asked me to do that right? I was told to write a book about Kurt’s writing advice. So but but what made me do it is because I had students who’d quit everything and decided to write and. It’s just so much larger than just sitting down to write, it’s, you know. Anyway, so anyway, one of those one of these nights when I’m way past my deadline, I woke up in the morning, I said. I’m not going to do this. This whole section I’ve come up with, it’s too hard and I don’t have to do it and I’m going to throw it out. So for two days, I was elated that I was finished. But the better I said, I think now people need this. They need to know, they need to know about earning a living and they need to think about. They need to think about all of these ways, their whole life, you know?
Brilliant Miller [01:20:11] So stop now I’m glad that you included it because I think it gives a reality to this and sometimes boldness. And, you know, leap and the net will appear or jump off the cliff and build your weighing
Suzanne McConnell [01:20:24] you down and say, Oh, yeah, right, right.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:27] Yeah, this is an economic reality and adds an emotional reality, which is part of what I want to get out so that before we wrap up and after the enlightening lightning round here, I want to ask you about depression. I want to ask you about Kurt’s view of love. I love that thing about just loving whoever is around to be loved. So I want to ask you about that. And then and then just conclude with your advice, kind of if there’s a takeaway or any final advice to anybody listening. So, OK, so that’s just a bit of a preview. And then anything else you want to say? I know we’ve already covered so much, but we’ll reserve some time for anything else you want to talk about. So. OK, so with that, we’ll do the enlightening lightning round. So here is question number one. Please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a.
Suzanne McConnell [01:21:30] OK.
Brilliant Miller [01:21:32] OK. Question number two. And here I’m borrowing Peter Thiel, the technologists and embeds investors question. What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
Suzanne McConnell [01:21:52] I don’t know if I can answer that an important truth that I feel like I can, I can think of a specific thing that’s happening, but it’s not necessarily a truth like. I mean, I’ll tell you that, but I don’t think it answers your question. It’s the problem of censorship versus. Versus it’s about being politically correct. How, how hard. That is right now. So answering your question, although so I’m going to stop it. OK.
Brilliant Miller [01:22:34] No worries. OK, we’ll keep going. Question number three, if you were required to wear a T-shirt every day for the rest of your life with a slogan on it or a saying or a phrase or a quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Suzanne McConnell [01:22:50] I can’t believe you’re asking these questions. They’re hard!
Brilliant Miller [01:22:52] One of the things that people get tattooed on themselves
Suzanne McConnell [01:22:56] what they think about them for a few days. You’re asking me right at the moment. “Keep your feet on the ground.”
Brilliant Miller [01:23:08] OK? Question number four, what book other than your own have you gifted or recommended most often?
Suzanne McConnell [01:23:26] It’s hard, I mean, I’ve certainly recommended a lot of Vonnegut books, but I’ve also in my own journey read a lot of self-help books when I was trying to help myself a lot when I needed it. So there are certain books out there that I use, like Louise Hayes. Everybody’s read for the way,
Brilliant Miller [01:23:53] like you can hear a Lewis of your
Suzanne McConnell [01:23:55] life. Yeah, the each, you know, I don’t know that I did. I recommended a lot that I use it. So there are some funny books like that that are really out of the loop that if I told a lot of my fiction writer friends, they would give you squeamish and not like, you know, because they’re too directly self-help, and it makes people squeamish to think they need help or to try to get help. Sometimes I kind of got over that because I needed so much help that I had to. I was very embarrassed by trying to get help when I first started trying to get help. And I felt ashamed like, you know, you’re supposed to already be involved and not supposed to need help. You know, so
Brilliant Miller [01:24:49] many people feel that way, for sure. OK. Question number five, so this one’s about travel. It’s assumed you do a lot of travel. I know the pandemic has changed this for many people, but what’s something you do or something you take with you when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
Suzanne McConnell [01:25:12] I take watercolors and I always take a notebook. I once wrote a story while I was on vacation in Puerto Rico based on a guy I saw in a bar. And I started on the beach when my husband went for a walk. I just started writing this story. So I take those things.
Brilliant Miller [01:25:43] OK, question number six. What’s one thing you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age well? Hmm.
Suzanne McConnell [01:26:01] One of the things I do to age well is to keep its cliche, keep engaged, but I do, you know, I’m very engaged with the reader I have been doing. I quit teaching, but I’ve been editing with Bellevue Literary Review for almost 20 years and we have lots of friends, lots of social life. And one of the other things is this is sort of along the line of being embarrassed because it’s embarrassing to grow. You need more help. When you age and you need fixing a lot, so I have. Body replacement parts, you know, and everyone resists that because it’s not fun to have a hip replaced or whatever, but it’s a really interesting process in terms of getting help, asking for help, asking for what you need, finding what you need. And it doesn’t work not to be able to ask for those things and not to recognize that you need help. I mean, I can’t do things that I used to do easily. I also. You know, have a certain exercise regime, I ought to do more of certain stretches that I do. So I think I don’t know if I answered the question about quitting or starting. But there’s two things I do,
Brilliant Miller [01:28:01] and that’s great. Thank you. OK, question number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Suzanne McConnell [01:28:10] Wow. I wish every American really, really understood. The basic idea of democracy. The basic idea of democracy is a kind of Christian idea of doing unto others what you want to have them do unto you, and I’m very concerned about voting rights right now. Terribly concerned. And it is the quarrel about it is about not giving everybody a voice. Now let me have more power than you.
Brilliant Miller [01:28:47] Yeah. Doesn’t seem very American, does it? Oh, I’m with you. Question number eight What’s the most important or useful thing you’ve learned about making relationships work?
Suzanne McConnell [01:29:02] Acceptance. Acceptance of who that person is. Not that I always do it, of course, I’m always saying what I know works, not that I’m always good at it, but I did the es-training a long time ago. It was, I don’t know if you know what that is.. And there was a thing they put you through in that. I think this wasn’t even about training per se. It wasn’t some seminar, but you sat with a person. It’s a stranger, and they made you sit there for I don’t know how long a long time, everything was always a long time. And observe everything about the person that you liked and everything that you disliked. And then they put you through the whole process of everything you just liked and asking you, can you accept this person in spite of your judgment about what you dislike? And then you would go, Yeah, I can. I mean, I’m assuming I did. That was the point of it. So when you got through, you really did accept that you really went through this thing of accepting each fake the tiny, you know, the tiniest things people don’t like. You know, I remember somebody saying to me that my feet were too small, but OK, whatever, you know. So we all are running around with these judgments all the time. But as someone, I just read a wonderful piece in the New York Times about forgiveness. And it was he was making the point that we also forgive everybody all the time because we have all these little judgments and then we forgive them all the time about there being too small or their ears being to lobes are too long or they’re whatever you don’t like, what they wear, whatever it is, we really do forgive everybody, there are little judgments, pretty continually, so we need to give ourselves pats on the back for that, but that process of acceptance, I think, is really the most important thing. Yeah, thank you.
Brilliant Miller [01:31:21] Question number nine. Almost at the end here. Aside from compound interest, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money,
Suzanne McConnell [01:31:33] That you need it. You may not know that, but I hope you do. Yeah. So I’m not good, I’m not very good with money. And when I quit teaching full time, you know, I was bouncing checks every other minute, sort of not paying attention to it. And I think. I think my Christian upbringing gave me a negative idea about money. Whcih Louise Hay actually helped me with it because she talks about embracing money because money is important. Money can bestow things. Money can give things new. You found that out. It’s. She talks about it as. Heart of plenty. You know, part of the transaction of give and take among things, it’s a method. And we know in this country. What it’s doing for wealth to be inequitable as it is and how important it is for it to be more equitable. So I think even as I’m talking, I realized that I don’t value it enough. Like my husband will say to me, You know, you don’t even know what you’re getting with your royalty. I mean, I don’t pay enough attention to it. I still have this. Something’s a little wrong. Yeah. And I think it’s a really stupid attitude because I do find myself going to the business section of the times and reading it because things are happening there. It will say things, you know, something happened, and I say it matters to you. It’s about power and you know what Midas puts his fingers on will turn into something new cat. I mean, it’s sort of the same thing as learning with the civil rights movement without Lyndon Johnson being in power. And without his assistance, the what Martin Luther King, Dr. Martin Luther King, and all the other leaders who were fighting so hard would not have easily won the First Voting Rights Act because you need someone in power. That’s why we need politicians in power because they have the power. Yeah. So money is my power like that? And why don’t I? Why don’t I learn that more? I’m much more accepting of money and of the whole thing, but I’m not as responsible as I should be about it.
Brilliant Miller [01:34:49] See the previous answer about acceptance.
Suzanne McConnell [01:34:53] Yes. Oh, good. Thank you. Thank you. Very good. I appreciate that.
Brilliant Miller [01:35:00] Now, thank you. OK. And the final thing here in the Lightning Round is speaking of money as an effort to express my gratitude to you for sharing what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced with me and with everyone listening. I’ve gone to a micro-lending site named Kiva.org that makes microloans to entrepreneurs around the world. And I have made a microloan to a woman named Elizaveta, who is in Moldova, and she’ll use this money to buy a sprinkler and to pay for her tractor repairs so that she can perform agricultural work. And then the beautiful thing about this is I won’t receive any. I won’t receive the interest on this that will fund the lender there. So hopefully this will create a virtuous cycle where Elizaveta’s life will be blessed. The people that she serves will be blessed and they’ll be able to contribute to more entrepreneurs in Moldova and increase the quality of life for many people. So thank you for giving me a reason to do that.
Suzanne McConnell [01:35:58] You’re welcome.
Brilliant Miller [01:36:00] That’s OK. Well, cool. Well, I know we’re we’ve talked for quite a long time and we’ve covered so much. And just a moment ago, I told you that I was interested to understand what Kurt’s view was or what your view is about depression and the creative person I’m interested to know about love, the role that that might play. And then anything else that you want to talk about and final thoughts for anybody listening. So I know that’s a lot we can cover as much or as little of that as you want. But where would you like to take the conversation?
Suzanne McConnell [01:36:40] I’ll start with love. I think what he says about love that I quote in the book is profound in that he makes a point about respect versus love. Love is such a weird term. It’s such a big noun for all kinds of ways that people feel, including if you love me while you’re doing that and that kind of stuff, or I love you so much, I’m going to kill you because I can’t stand it that you’re with somebody, I mean, et cetera, et cetera. So when he talks about respect. Respect is a kind of love. And it’s not a possessive love. The word respect is not about possessing somebody. It’s about giving them space, about honoring that person. I think in there somewhere is listening, allowing that person to be who they are, what we talked about before acceptance. And he there is a passage and I think it’s the chapter love, marriage, and the baby carriage. But about that. But he does something else very often. He revised he’d like to revise many stories, he talks about stories as a visible thing, so. He there are several stories that are in the culture that he revises so that there is more respect in this story. And I think I think that value is just. I love the ship when I read that, that those passages about respect, I was really moved by that. I really thought it was a key to it’s actually a key to love real love. Yeah. His real love has to do with respect.
Brilliant Miller [01:38:49] Yeah, absolutely. And if I may read one of the things I highlighted because this struck me as well, where Kurt’s words are. One of the many unnecessary American catastrophes going on right now is all the people who are getting divorced because they don’t love each other anymore. That is like trading in a car when the ashtrays are full when you don’t respect your mate anymore. That’s when the transmission is shot and there’s a crack in the engine block. A great description. Yeah. Now and then and then beyond even the relationship, and obviously, this is a very important, you know, relationship for so many of us, the spouse or the marital partner. But even beyond that, I love that you also include this thing, Vonnegut says through his character constant in the sirens of Titan. A purpose of human life is to love whoever is around to be loved. Like, what a great deal.
Suzanne McConnell [01:39:46] Yeah, it’s like the song “love the one you’re with”. It’s a little different than that. But yeah, but yeah, yeah, that’s a great quote. I love that. I love that quote.
Brilliant Miller [01:39:57] Yeah, I remember I did a program a few years ago, and it was actually a Tony Robbins program, but there was a gentleman on stage, Joseph McAlinden, the third, and he told a bit of his life story. And I got the sense that this was so true. You know, just from seeing him or hearing his words. And he said, you know, I made the decision. I think he called it the 50-foot rule. He said if somebody comes within 50 feet of me, I’m just going to love them. That’s really cool.
Suzanne McConnell [01:40:23] This is a quote by Abraham Lincoln about it’s not quite about love, but it’s about it’s something like people. I’ve noticed that people are just about as happy as they decide to be. Yeah. Which is somewhere along with same something along the same line.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:42] Now it’s a decision,
Suzanne McConnell [01:40:44] it is a decision.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:45] Yeah, I think that’s really beautiful.
Suzanne McConnell [01:40:48] And you talked about depression, so Kurt was visited by depression a lot. And. I mean, there are several quotes sitting in my book from him about it. What is to his friend, Jose. And he talks about writing and writers being depressed and he says to do now. So maybe it’s because they’re caring because of the smallness of their operation as to how it puts it, meaning that as a novelist, you’re doing the whole thing yourself. I mean, there’s I was just on a panel. I was just on a discussion with it about veterans and so on. And in that, they were talking about how war veterans today who are writers hook up with each other. They have a community in a way that Vonnegut didn’t avoid, that writers didn’t at the time. So there’s that. But there’s, you know, depression is a brain disease. Yeah. And he talks about it talks a lot about mental illness and how it’s it’s a disease, you know, unfortunately, I think that he didn’t at the end of his life take those words to heart because I think he was quite depressed and I think he could have used some medication and some help about it himself.
Brilliant Miller [01:42:33] Yeah, and at one point, you include in this, where he did actually see that well, he shared in the interview that he did take some medication at one point and that he did seek a psychoanalyst. I believe that at one point. But it sounds like maybe he didn’t keep up with that or toward the end of his life when he could have used it. He didn’t avail himself of that.
Suzanne McConnell [01:42:56] Yeah. And also. There’s a PTSD factor for him. That, you know, he didn’t use that term, but if you look at his life in terms of being a survivor of. Of Dresden and the firebombing and other things, even his why did he live in his sister and her sister’s husband die? I mean, just that kind of survivor question? And then do I deserve joy and happiness since they didn’t have it? You know, it’s lots of stuff going on there between
Brilliant Miller [01:43:39] yeah and a mother, right, who had her own addiction. If I understand she took her own life,
Suzanne McConnell [01:43:46] she either took her own life or it was an accident, but he chose to talk about it after a while as though she took her own life. So it’s not absolutely known.
Brilliant Miller [01:43:58] How do you think that his ability to deal with his depression – I mean, you talked about this earlier where you said that you could you knew he was struggling when you were his student and so forth. But how do you think that his art allowed him to cope with this or manage or process this in a way that maybe you wouldn’t have been able to without it?
Suzanne McConnell [01:44:20] You know, I can only make a guess. I’m not. I’m not him. And even Peake only probably makes a guess, but he talks about the fact that working out your own issues. In fact, he has a piece of advice about writing off the writing indirectly, because you said, no matter what you’re writing, your issues will come out and they will bigger or smaller. I think. I think you know, if I think of my own writing, like the weirdest story I’ve ever written came to me in a dream and I and I didn’t even know that I had those issues as deeply as I could, and I could not have ever written about them in a realistic way because it was too much. And I think that part of what he does with science fiction, even for him, is to get to be able to address things in a creative manner that that comes out in ways that. That you don’t understand that you don’t know, you know, that because words are only. They’re not the thing. There there are substitute for our experiences in our body and our spirit. So those manifestations come out in ways that we don’t understand. And if we don’t have those manifestations, I don’t know what happens to us. There are lots of people. On the street here that is not working something out in another way, I think it’s really fundamental. I think that everyone is creative and sometimes you cannot articulate things are too hard.
Brilliant Miller [01:46:21] Yeah, I think you’re right. Well, thank you for that. Thank you for going there. Now that I look at one of the very last questions, I’m like, What a downer, why did? Why did I end with that? But I’ll put the onus on you. What? How do you want to end this interview and is there? And perhaps it’s the piece of advice or encouragement that you would leave people listening with that would help them finish their own creative projects or something more general? Just kind of something. Final thought. Final words.
Suzanne McConnell [01:46:51] I’ve said it already, but I think that. I think there is a higher spirit or a lower spirit or a spirit, whatever going on. And I think it leads, I think it is creative and it leads to creativity and that, you know, you can’t really believe in creativity. And he would say, talent, you no talent. You know you can play the piano even if you’re not going to be. At Carnegie Hall, et cetera, et cetera. So. And also, you know, everything is creative businesses, creative philanthropy is creative. It takes thought, it takes vision, intuition. All of those, all of those things happen. So trust, trust what comes up for you. Trust your trust, your interests. Trust the path that seems to come up. OK.
Brilliant Miller [01:48:06] OK. Wonderful. Well, fantastic. Well, again, thank you, Suzanne, so much for sharing so generously of your time, of your wisdom, of your insights. I’ve really enjoyed it. No, I’ve said this already, but I really enjoyed Pity the Reader. I’ve loved talking to you, being able to ask a few follow-up questions, and things like this. And I’m confident that people listening to this will find a lot of value and enjoyment from the work you’ve done as well. So thank you.
Suzanne McConnell [01:48:35] Thank you. I told you one time I wanted to interview. I don’t know what for, but I love interviewing people. So if you want to be interviewed for some, then you let me know.
Brilliant Miller [01:48:45] OK. That’s very generous. Thank you. I love that. Yeah, I don’t spend a lot of time on the other side of the microphone so that could be a lot of fun. Yeah. OK, well, great. Again, my guest today, Suzanne McConnell. Her book Pity the Reader and Sense of Earth.