Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt Vonnegut, is the writer of The Eden Express as well as a new book due out sometime next year called Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So.
SoR: Your father was the famous writer, Kurt Vonnegut, and you were named after Mark Twain. And your father would even mention that your mother "would often tell him that he was supposed to save the world," a phrase used in the first paragraph of your book, The Eden Express. Did you ever feel the pressure to be a writer and how did that influence your life?
Vonnegut: Writing and trying to write has helped me grow and survive. I'm very grateful to all the arts but never felt pressure to go into them. It's nice to have a great grandfather architect and a grandfather architect, both of whom could write and paint and make furniture and Kurt, of course, and a lot of other talented people in my family. It led me to believe that creating things might be in me. I think it's in everyone but if you don't use it, it dies.
SoR: I realize that The Eden Express was the only novel you published. I also realize that there was a powerful context within which you wrote it: the turmoil and change surrounding the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, drugs, and of course your actual, not metaphorical, journey through madness. How much of not writing again was due to the absence of that level of creative or volatile stimuli later in life? Was there a certain amount of creative soup that you were embroiled in that compelled you to write, that subsequently subsided?
Vonnegut: I've actually written three other books that didn't get published and started a few others. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So will be published by Dell, May 2010. For better or worse the soup and the volatility go on.
SoR: When you wrote The Eden Express, it was not only an intensely personal account of your experience with mental illness, but also a strong commentary on the social context, even possibly cause, of mental illness. Now as a practicing pediatrician with a Harvard medical degree, you seem to have sprung to the other side of this polarity. Can you elaborate?
Vonnegut: There's no polarity, just observations that either ring true or not. I don't fit in all that well with other doctors. I'm a writer with a demanding day job.
SoR: Your father referred to your mental illness as going "bananas" and the Hollywood Psychiatric Hospital as "a Canadian laughing academy" and the "Canuck loony bin." This is an example of some of Kurt's sense of humor but how do you think he dealt with your condition on a personal level?
Vonnegut: Worried about me, glad the doctors didn't blame him, glad I didn't blame him, intrigued by the illness, proud that he was able to come through as a father and be a true help to his son.
SoR: I have heard you mention schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as the ailment you had. Which one was it if you know or was it a combination?
Vonnegut: The diagnostic criteria has changed. There's substantial disagreement as to whether there are one, two, or a dozen diseases at work here. Until we have unequivocal tests to separate them, we're all blowing smoke.
SoR: When asked by your father, "Doc, you were so crazy a third of a century ago. How come you're so obviously OK now?" you replied, "My case was a mild one." But not to make light of schizophrenia, or what you later concluded was possibly bipolar disorder, what else could you attribute to your own personal-health success?
Vonnegut: Lithium and having a life worth getting better for.
SoR: How has your experience in the Hollywood Psychiatric Hospital shaped your views on health now that you are in the medical profession?
Vonnegut: I hated the powerlessness of being a patient and and try to be mindful of how awful it is to be sick.
SoR: What lured you to the saxophone and painting?
Vonnegut: Who wouldn't want to make jazz and rock and roll and make water colors?
SoR: What do you do in your spare time?
Vonnegut: I get up, have a cup of coffee and bounce back and forth between writing, gardening, painting, walking the dog, and going to work and fishing and making furniture.
SoR: You almost became a Unitarian minister. What made you choose that route and what made you decide against it?
Vonnegut: I was mostly interested in the political activism part of being a minister and wouldn't have been very good at it.
SoR: What advice might you give a budding writer?
Vonnegut: If you write badly and have something to say you have to write until you get it right.
SoR: Do you have a favorite book of your father's?
Vonnegut: Mother Night and a lot of the short stories and essays.
SoR: Was there at any time, a particular piece of advice your father gave that stood out as incredibly helpful or meaningful in your life and if so, what was it and why?
Vonnegut: No one is looking at you as closely as you think they are. Loosen up.
SoR: You and your friends were looking for something in "the meadow," a path to follow in such confusing and new times, both alluring and repelling. Today, many young Americans feel somewhat similar--the War on Terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis, a new president elected on the bill of change, global warming, life. What advice might you have for those looking for their path in the meadow?
Vonnegut: Go to British Columbia and start a commune.
SoR: In today's world, with the media casually covering the bombings and deaths in the War on Terror overseas, do you think that there is perhaps a condition occurring in society that is the equivalent opposite of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder--a sort of callousing of ourselves toward the suffering of others?
Vonnegut: Compassion/outrage burnout. Very few people believe that what they do and think really matters.
SoR: From the "hippie" era, what ideals do you feel were particularly hard to lose and if any became realized, what were they?
Vonnegut: We can't get over the idea that what we do and think matters and that it's possible to do better. I sure wish we had known then how bad drugs were for you.