Letters to Kurt: The Official Vonneguide to Fan Mail

Written by Jake Huff


Fan mail is a dying art.

I mean, the idea of fan mail is alive and well. Twitter mentions inundate even the most mid-level celebrity’s timeline, and “Famous Person Accepts Fan’s Invitation to Prom” is practically its own YouTube genre. But the act of writing a physical letter, folding it into a physical envelope, and affixing one of those Forever Stamps™ to its physical front? Not so much.

In the spirit of historical preservation, then, I’ve examined fan letters written to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. during the mid-1970s, analyzing their successes and failures for your reference. Study these techniques. Learn from them. Incorporate them into your own work. And if you need a test case for ideas of your own, feel free to write me with your professions of gratitude.

(In order to protect these individuals’ dignity, all names have been changed, redacted, or forgotten and replaced at whim.)


The most straightforward attempt to grab your hero’s attention, The Fanatic declares your intent in no uncertain terms. These letters are often written in moments of crisis, with many of them as single entries within a larger anthology sent from one fan to one celebrity. They’re heartfelt, honest, and almost guaranteed to be preserved as evidence for a future trial.

In general, The Fanatic’s request is usually more emotional than practical. Take, for example, panic-stricken realization by one disciple (say, Linda) that she’s losing sleep because “lately I have been having these bizarre dreams in which I am granted what turns out to be a very unsuccessful interview with you.” Given that her “sleep is as important to me as my intellectual development,” she humbly suggests that “this letter might act as a catharsis and stop all the undesirable night time activity. Well, let’s say at least the dreams about lousy interviews with unlousy writers.” Steamy!

Honestly, as far as fanatic approaches go, Linda’s is close to ideal. Her self-awareness is charming (“I always knew I was a fanatic of yours, but lately…”), and there’s a poetic rhythm to her articulation of devotion, as each line of her litany begins with the repeated confession that “even though I do not know how it developed, I am crazy-mad.” As a reader, I find myself wanting to cut her some slack. I may not have written such a daring proclamation to a stranger, but I’m sure if I ran into Jay Z or Allison Janney on the street, my fumbling for words would sound something like the verbal equivalent of this letter.

Alas, despite its earnestness, The Fanatic is one of the most obvious choices for fan mail. I’m not sure what this means for humans and obsession, but I am sure it means you get the blandest response an agent can provide. Case in point: Vonnegut’s intermediary, Donald Farber, apologizes for the fact “that Mr. Vonnegut is unable to respond to your letter at this time. However, he did want me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter and thank you for your interest in his work.”

Boldness:  8.5
Originality:  4.0
Response Rate:  2.3

Overall: 4.9


An overcorrection to the sloppiness of The Fanatic, The Egalitarian is rooted in a genuine belief that you and your hero occupy the same social stratum. We see this method in the request sent to Vonnegut by one man—we’ll call him Neil—who confesses that “although I have published over a dozen legal articles and am in the process of writing two law books… I am a complete novice in writing fiction… [and] should consult you about a couple of matters.” You know, as colleagues.

Neil calmly requests Vonnegut’s permission to use the character of Billy Pilgrim and the planet of Trafalmadore in one of his own novels, aptly named The No. 1 Bestseller. His confidence peaks with the generous promise that “I assure [my readers] from time to time that [Vonnegut] did not write my novel, even under a pen name”—a generous way to address the definitely-one-hundred-percent-real risk of his unproven voice being mistaken for Vonnegut’s.

I understand this approach. I’ve used it. When I was seventeen, my friends and I were booked as the opening act for a fairly popular band coming through town. Again, no identities revealed, but suffice it to say they could easily be considered the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. of the music industry – if you limited your definition of “Kurt Vonnegut Jr.” to “a band,” and your definition of “the music industry” to “whiny alt-pop that was perfected at Warped Tour in 2007 but was still garnering radio play in 2012, likely due to its ability to channel teen angst while remaining sunny and utterly benign.”

As we hung out with the band before the show started, I found myself in Neil’s exact predicament: desperately wanting something from the more famous party (i.e., social approval, perhaps expressed in a nod or a shared cigarette), yet just as desperately wanting not to appear desperate. Neil’s approach involved coolly flaunting his legal credentials before asking for license to use Vonnegut’s characters. Mine involved congratulating the band on their recent Grammy nomination; their correcting me by explaining it was a People’s Choice Award; my stubbornly insisting that they had been nominated—and probably even won, if they would just believe me—a Grammy; and, finally, their looking up that the Grammys weren’t for another two months and actually a People’s Choice Award is more meaningful anyway because it’s chosen by fans.

By my count, then, Neil and I have had similar levels of success with The Egalitarian. Farber notes that Neil’s letter “was received and discussed in detail with Mr. Vonnegut,” but they decided not to consent to Neil’s request. Farber even spins the rejection as a consolation prize: “Mr. Vonnegut specifically informed me that you may do anything that you are legally entitled to do so long as it is abundantly clear that he had nothing to do with your books.” Sure, Vonnegut now knows his name, but the connotation likely brings a sour taste to his mouth.

The takeaway? In its determination to avoid seeming like a starstruck fanboy, The Egalitarian falls into self-indulgence, drowning the Icarus who writes it in a sea of hot wax and flushed cheeks.












Boldness:  9.4
Originality:  3.1
Response Rate:  7.4

Overall:  6.6


Before combing through the Vonnegut collection, I would have thought The Citizen’s Arrest was a product of the twenty-first century. It combines a strong dedication to social values with equally strong beliefs that (a) celebrities’ personal choices are subject to public scrutiny, and (b) the writer possesses unique insights capable of changing anyone’s life for the better. The Citizen’s Arrest, in a word: HuffPost.

Little did I know that as early as 1976, one entrepreneur had the foresight and moral authority to invent this approach out of nowhere. Her name is Gweno, and because Gweno is an incredible name, I’m not going to change it.

Gweno mentions that she and her husband have recently quit smoking, and she praises Vonnegut for doing the same. But then, out of nowhere, Good Cop Gweno steps behind the one-way mirror, turns off all the lights except the single bulb above her suspect, and lets Bad Cop Gweno out to play. She interrogates Vonnegut: “If that’s true, why is ther [sic] a picture of you in last week’s Time with a you-know-what in your hand? Could you drop me a line and let me know? I hope it was just an old picture they picked up. It would make me feel so much better.” And finally—a quick kiss just to unnerve him—Gweno signs her letter “An Admirer.”

It’s chilling. It’s exhilarating. It’s practically an Alan Rickman monologue, and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me. Or, rather, I’ll let Gweno fight you. She’s an admirer.

If you think about it, The Citizen’s Arrest is quite brilliant. It displays the strengths of The Egalitarian (i.e. establishing common ground), but goes one step further, chastising the celebrity before they have a chance to dismiss you. It warms you up before knocking you out. The best defense really is a good offense.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a response from either Farber or Vonnegut, so we don’t know how Gweno’s letter was received. If she had delivered it today, when BuzzFeed publishes the digital equivalent approximately six times an hour, it surely would have been brushed aside with the other self-righteous think pieces. But Gweno was ahead of her time. Gweno was an innovator, a culture disruptor, a lone warrior fighting for Kurt’s lungs and their right to party, albeit smoke-free. So I choose to interpret the lack of response as a sign that Vonnegut received her letter, got more scared than he had ever been before, and never smoked again.*

Boldness: 10.0
Originality: 10.0
Response rate: 10.0

Overall: 10.0


*Editor’s note: All facts indicate otherwise. So it goes.


Jake Huff graduated from Indiana University with a degree in English, as well as minors in political science and sociology. This summer, he’ll be moving to Chicago to begin working as the Associate Producer of the Speaker Series for the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.