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Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation…

Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing (1999)

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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Writing Wizards’ Wisdom

A review of “Like shaking hands with God”, Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer – a conversation about writing¹


Is writing a craft, a calling – a curse? According to Vonnegut and Stringer, more a conversation and a conviction. What kind of conversation and what kinds of convictions? That’s what the book is about.


This booklet (70 odd pages) contains the transcript of two public conversations between Vonnegut and Stringer moderated by Ross Klavan. The audience were in a bookstore in New York, 1998. In the course of their conversation we learn a great deal about the approach to writing by men from different sides of the tracks. Considerably different in age, cultural background and life experiences, their chemistry is palpable through the page. If you want writing inspiration, spend some time in their company.

Body of the Book

There is a lack of pretentiousness from the authors as they talk about writing, although Kurt does a little grandstanding. I suspect that’s his nature. Comes across in his writing – tough, hard-edged and economical. The writer as someone growing through writing is a thread. From page 29, “I have said about the practice of the arts that practising any art – be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever – is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow. So you should do it anyway.”

About motivation in writing they point out that, “writing comes out of the questions… Trying to find an answer.… It’s not something I already know and I’m feeding down to them. I am making the trip with them.” (p54) That’s my best kind of reading experience – one where we’re sharing in what the author has learned and is learning. Hence it is a conversation, “someone said to me once, write what you want to write. But to me it’s a conversation: you have to be talking to somebody.” (p42)

In answer to the question, is writing a form of public speaking? Kurt answered: “Partly. It’s about how you hold an audience. Because they can leave.” (p60) These assertions give confidence to any aspiring writer. Can you hold a conversation? Then you can write. Can you speak? Then you can write.


The book highlights the significance of authenticity. The story must be yours. I find agreement with Lee’s observation about writing being a conversation with your audience.These are subtler and deeper waters of conversation-making, rather than shallow declarations of conviction.

Kurt seems to be less concerned about conversation, and more interested in writing about whatever captures his ire or excitement. He makes sense in emphasising that writing for its own sake is not the point. It must come from a place of conviction.

Both men are driven to write, based on experiences and events that spark their indignation or inspire their soul. “Like shaking hands with God” is a fascinating insight into the minds and motivations of two extraordinary writers. I recommend it to anyone interested in finding, maintaining or reigniting their writing fire.

Malcolm Cox

14 October 2016

¹ Seven Stories Press, 2010, New York ( )
  Malcolm_Cox | Oct 15, 2016 |
I think I could listen to Vonnget talk about absolutely anything. ( )
  katemo | May 16, 2013 |
An excellent commentary on the craft of writing and the experience of writing as a whole from two great writers. Their insights delve deep into the realities that writers face and what it means to be one. ( )
  bacis88 | Jan 9, 2011 |
This collection of two moderated conversations between Lee Stringer and Kurt Vonnegut is a rare and entertaining hour's read. The two authors discuss writing style, inspiration and subject matter. The longer conversation is peppered with passages from Vonnegut's Timequake and Stringer's Grand Central Winter. If you are fan of either author or just an avid reader, I would recommend this collection. ( )
  nickdreamsong | Apr 29, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0743410580, Paperback)

Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions): writer of wild, satiric, outrageous fiction. Lee Stringer (Grand Central Winter): one-time homeless crack addict who discovered that pencils are not just drug implements. Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer: a mutual admiration society. Like Shaking Hands with God: a transcription of two moderated conversations between Vonnegut and Stringer--one before a bookstore audience, one over lunch.

Shaking Hands has a slender profile and a pretty cover. But the only thing slight about these conversations is that they leave the reader wanting more. The book is billed as "a conversation about writing," but it is as much about life as about writing. Neither Vonnegut nor Stringer is interested in holing up in a garret to write. Vonnegut makes any excuse to go out and rub elbows with the folks who buy lottery tickets. Stringer wonders, "Can you write anything on Park Avenue, really?" Vonnegut laments his happy childhood as "no way for a writer to begin." Stringer panics--while he wrote his first book as if on a high, the next one may emerge from an awareness of Oprah and marketability.

Vonnegut and Stringer are passionate about one another's work, passionate about life, and passionate about writing, but not so much so that they ever, for a moment, lose their sense of irony or humor. In the age of the sound bite, literature can be deemed, on some level, useless. Stringer praises writing, in that context, as "a struggle to preserve our right to be not so practical." And Vonnegut? "We are here on Earth to fart around," he proclaims in Timequake (excerpted here). "Don't let anybody tell you any different!" --Jane Steinberg

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:41 -0400)

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Seven Stories Press

2 editions of this book were published by Seven Stories Press.

Editions: 1609800745, 1609801458

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