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Most of What I Know about Writing, I Learned from Kurt Vonnegut

In my debut novel, 15-year-old Alex Woods sets up a Kurt Vonnegut reading group with the hope of discussing "all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestrial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humour, et cetera."
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In my debut novel, 15-year-old Alex Woods sets up a Kurt Vonnegut reading group with the hope of discussing "all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestrial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humour, et cetera."

It probably goes without saying, but I'm a bit of a Vonnegut fanatic, and there are some fairly significant parallels between Alex's discovery of Mr Vonnegut and my own. For Alex, Kurt Vonnegut's novels become a springboard for thinking about the universe and life's big questions, in ways that previously would not have occurred to him. For me, I'm sure that Kurt Vonnegut's novels had the exact same effect - and they made me want to write. Beyond this, they also taught me a lot about the type of writer I wanted to be.

At this point I have a confession: I'm not an American. I'm a Brit - right down to my crooked teeth. (You may have noticed this already, from my peculiar way of spelling humor). But for some reason, it has always been American fiction that has sparked my literary imagination. More specifically, I've always been drawn to a certain type of American tragicomedy: Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Prayer for Owen Meany - the kind of left field, outsider fiction of which Kurt Vonnegut's work is emblematic.

So what is it about Kurt Vonnegut's writing, in particular? Like Alex, I'm also a fan of a good list. There's something very satisfying - almost therapeutic - about breaking things down and analyzing them in a logical order. With that in mind, here are the top three things I love about Kurt Vonnegut.

1) The simplicity of his style. As adjectives go, "simple" is a bit of a double-edged sword. So let me be clear from the outset: I'm talking about the kind of simplicity that cuts right to the heart of matters. Simplicity can be extremely beautiful, and it can also be profound. And in writing, it's surprisingly hard to do well - to write something simple that's also sharp and compelling and elegant.

Vonnegut attributed much of his style to his training as a journalist, where brevity is paramount. But I'd suggest that his scientific background was equally important here (he studied chemistry at Cornell). Scientists tend to have a great love of simplicity, of finding the simple law or equation that underpins the complicated natural phenomenon. For my money, Vonnegut's writing has a similar trajectory. He does a lot with a little, and is the master of finding the pithy phrase that describes perfectly a character, trait or situation. Which leads me neatly to my next point.

2) The big ideas. Among the many very quotable things Albert Einstein said, the following is my favorite: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." And it's a quote that makes me think about the relationship between the big ideas and the simple style in Kurt Vonnegut's writing.

It's fair to say that Vonnegut was never one to shy away from the big issues, and whether writing about politics or American history, environmental calamity or economic injustice, he has an incredible knack for taking complex, challenging topics and rendering them transparent. I'd go further and say that he makes his subject matter, and the ethical questions surrounding it, seem obvious, without ever being reductive. Again, his is a form of clarity, of simplicity, that gets right to the root of things, that offers an understanding of human behavior which is much deeper than it first appears.

3) The Vonnegut voice. It's unmistakable, and it's probably the number one thing that makes his writing so readable. I've heard the Vonnegut voice described as "manic depressive," and there's certainly something to this. It has an incredible amount of energy married to a very deep and dark sense of despair. It's frequently over-the-top, and scathingly satirical, but it never strays too far from pathos - from an immense sympathy for society's vulnerable, oppressed and powerless. But, then, it also contains a huge allotment of warmth. Most of the time, reading Kurt Vonnegut feels more like being spoken to by a very close friend. There's an inclusiveness to his writing that draws you in, and his narrative voice is seldom absent from the story for any length of time. Usually, it's right there in the foreground - direct, involving and extremely idiosyncratic.

Then there's the humor, which is related to voice, but really deserves a paragraph all to itself. Just to clarify: I'm the type of reader who draws a big distinction between humor and wit. I mean, I can enjoy an Oscar Wilde one-liner as much as any warm-blooded Limey, but I can't recall the last time Oscar Wilde made me shoot coffee out my nose on a packed commuter train. When something is witty it touches the intellect, whereas when something is genuinely funny, it seems to bypass the brain and go straight for the nerves. Of course, Kurt Vonnegut's writing is full of wit, but it's also bursting with humor - and incomparable comic timing. There are only a handful of writers who I'd describe as being consistently, irresistibly, laugh-out-loud funny, and Kurt Vonnegut is one of them. He's also a writer who uses humor like a scalpel, to reveal the tumor in all its terrible detail. Vonnegut's sharpest insights often come in the same instant that he's making your ribs shake - and this is a rare and wonderful thing.

Gavin Extence is the author of the new book The Universe versus Alex Woods.