Indianapolis author stars in W&L Professor’s new documentary

Journalism professor premieres documentary in Stackhouse Theater, features author Kurt Vonnegut


Journalism Professor turned his interest in Indianapolis author, Kurt Vonnegut, into a project. He interviewed the author’s family and colleagues to produce a documentary on Vonnegut’s life. Photo by Kiki Spiezio, ‘17.

Alison Murtagh

Journalism Professor Kevin Finch screened his documentary “A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis” on Wednesday night in Stackhouse Theater. Finch fielded questions from the audience and discussed his creative process behind the film.

Audience member Lisa Tracy attended the viewing. She has read many of Vonnegut’s books, and said the documentary portrayed Vonnegut well.

“It was a great appreciation of a man and his city. To understand that sort of mundane, Middle Western Indianapolis had such an impact on American culture—I had no idea,” Tracy said. “And I really think it’s fantastic that Kevin Finch brought all this to light.”

The documentary premiered earlier this month on Indianapolis’ public TV station WFYI. It gives viewers an inside look at the public and personal life of author Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut is the author of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which climbed to the top of the 1969 New York Times’ Bestsellers List, where it remained for 16 weeks. Nods to much of his work are still seen today in both rock-and-roll music and movies.

Audience member Jane Dunlap met the best-selling author while in Cape Cod in 1970, and read many of his books earlier in her life.

“What I loved about [the documentary] was how enriching it is,” Dunlap said. “And to have this background that I didn’t really know, makes you want to go back and re-read it, and re-think it, knowing the man behind it, instead of just the author.”

Finch lived in Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis for many years before becoming a Professor at W&L. He first developed the idea of creating a documentary about the author’s life in 2009, but production only began just over a year ago.

“I’m a fan, not an expert,” Finch said. “A lot of people get introduced to Vonnegut sometime in high school, and that started it for me, and then I just kept going.”

Finch interviewed students, former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, and authors including John Green and James Alexander Thom. Vonnegut’s children make appearances in the documentary to share anecdotes about their father’s legacy.

“Part of my premise is that Vonnegut’s work makes him still very much alive. All of his books are still in print. He’s still being taught. He’s still being read. He’s still selling,” Finch said. “So one of the first things I wanted to do was to get into a classroom in his hometown to show that in the same school system that he attended decades before, they’re teaching his work.”

Finch went back to Indianapolis last spring to interview students who now attend the school system that Vonnegut once belonged to. The documentary includes scenes of these students discussing Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

But the documentary also includes scenes from Vonnegut’s personal life. It offers a glimpse of Vonnegut’s time spent at his family’s lakeside cottage, and his adolescent years.

“He’s part of the new guard of American writers,” Finch said. “They wrote more frankly, and they used language that wasn’t written in novels before them.”

Jackson Ellis, ’19, is a fan of Vonnegut and attended the viewing on campus. He has read many of the author’s books over the past years.

“[Finch] obviously did a lot of research not just in [Vonnegut’s] life, but in the books,” Ellis said. “And that blend of factual research and literary research was really well done and really evident.”

But this is not Finch’s only project. He helped write G-Man: Making of An FBI Agent, a documentary that premiered on the Discovery Channel, and was a co-executive producer of In the Child’s Best Interest. Finch was also a writer for New York Emergency.

Finch said he plans to teach “Cross Cultural Documentary Filmmaking” at W&L in 2017. Students will learn to create their own documentaries, based on different cultures found throughout the country, he said. But the class is not just for journalism majors, Finch said, and he encourages any student to register if they are interested.

“These days with the Web, anybody could be a publisher, anybody could be a filmmaker,” Finch said. “So get it out there in front of whatever audience you can, and build your portfolio.”