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Writer Jim Knipfel Discusses His Latest Memoir.

Writer Jim Knipfel. His first book, the acclaimed memoir Slackjaw (Putnam), is his funny, irreverent account of loosing his sight and trying to take his life. In his new book, Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Tracher/Putnam), he writes about the time he spent in a psychiatric ward. The New York Times says Knipfel is “blessed with a natural, one might even say reflexive, knack for telling stories.” Knipfel is a columnist and staff writer for New York Press.

42:22

Other segments from the episode on June 12, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 12, 2000: Interview with Jim Knipfel; Review of Billy Bragg and Wilco's album "Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2."

Transcript

DATE June 12, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Discussing suicide, blindness, writing and life with
Jim Knipfel, author of "Slackjaw" and "Quitting the Nairobi Trio"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When Jim Knipfel started writing a column for a Philadelphia weekly in the
'80s, he prided himself on his angry and obnoxious tone, which he intended to
outrage, or at least irritate, his readers. And on those terms, he was often
successful. Apparently, he had a knack for irritating people in real life,
too. What I'm getting to is that you might not expect a writer with his tone
to publish two memoirs reflecting on his health problems.

His first, "Slackjaw," is about a congenital illness that has gradually
diminished his eyesight. Now at the age of 35, he's legally blind.
"Slackjaw" was number three on Entertainment Weekly's list of the best books
of 1999. The citation said, `He's grouchy. He drinks too much. He screws up
his relationships, and boy, do we love him by the end of this dazzling
memoir.'

His new memoir, "Quitting the Nairobi Trio," is about his early suicide
attempts, and the six months he spent in a psychiatric hospital when he was
22. It was a period when, he says, he was a bit of a thug and a petty thief
who never got caught. In his new book, he says he's now too old, too grumpy,
too tired and too curious about the things going on around him to be bothered
with trying to take his life anymore. I asked him to tell us more about how
he lost interest in suicide, assuming he's still uninterested.

Mr. JIM KNIPFEL (Author, "Quitting the Nairobi Trio"): Before I went into
the ward, I guess I had a very dark sense of humor, but it usually involved
laughing at disasters and the pain inflicted upon other people. But when I
got out, something had changed in that I was able to look at my own
circumstances, which were pretty bad, and for the first time was really able
to laugh about that, and came to realize that if you can't laugh at the awful
circumstances that we find ourselves in, then you're pretty much dead already.
And so I've just kept laughing at my own pain ever since, and I've been all
right.

GROSS: It's kind of ironic that now that you've lost your vision you're
better adjusted than you used to be.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, that in itself had a lot to do with it over these past
couple of years, because I used to be pretty out of control, you know. I was
a petty thief and a drunkard and violent and doing all sorts of terrible
things and setting fires, what have you. But when I lost my vision--well, it
becomes very, very difficult to do those things, becomes very difficult, you
know, to leave your apartment, and going out and trying to set a fire. Well,
that would just be a disaster. You know, it's hard to steal things anymore,
because you never end up with what you, you know, set out to get in the first
place. So it's calmed me down a lot, but I think it's also kept me alive.

GROSS: Well, let's stop right here for a second.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, I'm interested in how you found the tone you wanted for your
memoirs, one about your blindness, the other about...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...you know, your suicide attempts and your stay in the psychiatric
hospital. There are so many memoirs now about...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...horrible physical afflictions and so on.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, yeah, they're all so whiny.

GROSS: Well, look, I will say not all of them.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: But, obviously, you didn't--you wanted a certain kind of tone to
fit...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...your more, you know, anarchic, strange personality. So let's just
talk a little bit about the writing of those books before we talk about...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Sure.

GROSS: ...your actual experiences, what kind of tone you wanted and how you
found it.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, I had been writing a newspaper column about my own
various trials for a good 10 years before someone asked me to write
"Slackjaw," and so it had developed over the years. I mean, when I started
writing, I was a very, very angry young man, and was out to burn down the
world. And I--you know, I just wanted to offend people in any possible way,
which, I found out, was a very, very simple thing to do. And so after a few
years, it lost its charm.

And as other things happened to me, as--you know, as I had to become resigned
to things like going blind and what have you, the tone changed and
became--well, still grumpy, certainly, but much less hateful as I started
looking at myself a little more carefully, but still finding the situation,
you know, funny in a demented sort of way.

So that's where it came from, and when--you know, I'm not a big fan, strangely
enough, of the whole memoir genre, even though I've written two of them, or
the--you know, what I refer to in the first book as the `Oh, my God, I've got
a horrible disease' books. I'm just telling my own story the way I wanted to
tell it, and without trying to make any kind of point at all.

GROSS: In your earlier writing, you intentionally...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...set out to offend people.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: And I think that was probably your style in person, often, as well.
Did that kind of angry, in-your-face style affect the style of suicide that
you chose for yourself when it--during your suicide-attempt period?

Mr. KNIPFEL: You know--well, I didn't--I mean, I wasn't writing in any form
until long after this had happened. But as far as just my personal style, I
don't know that it affected it, because I tried everything under the sun,
short of firearms...

GROSS: What'd you try?

Mr. KNIPFEL: ...over the years. Let's see, starting when I was 14,
everything from throwing myself down stairs, I drank bleach, I cut my wrists,
I walked in front of buses, I tried hanging myself, tried hara-kiri, but as it
turns out, I wasn't any much better at suicide than I was at anything else I
tried to do in this world. Failed at all of them. Granted, most of them were
kind of half-assed attempts, but--except for this last one, which pretty much
did the trick. This time I ended up much, much closer to the final goal that
I thought I had for myself than ever before, and maybe that scared me away
from any future attempts, you know, knowing that I really could do it if I set
my mind to it.

GROSS: And that attempt was a combination of over-the-counter sleeping pills
and scotch.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah--really, really bad scotch. Yeah.

GROSS: And what were your immediate thoughts when you came to after that?
Like, `I'm glad I'm still alive' or what?

Mr. KNIPFEL: No. The immediate thought, as I was laying there--when I came
to, I was screaming--well, Nietzsche in German, some of the songs that appear
at the beginning of "The Gay Science," and...

GROSS: What a literary kind of...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. I don't know...

GROSS: A literary way to hallucinate.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. I don't know where the hell that came from.

GROSS: Well, I should tell our listeners you were a philosophy major in
college.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: You've had a lot of philosophy over the years.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Read a lot of Nietzsche and--but when I came to and I
realized that I was strapped down on a bed--strapped down on a hospital bed,
and was, you know, screaming German in rhyme, I knew that, you know, I'd lost
my mind, finally, and that I, you know, was going to--that I was now
completely insane. And I was tickled pink by that idea, because that meant
that I'd be, you know, locked away for the rest of my life, and all I'd have
to do to have a roof over my head and to be fed and have a place to sleep was
just to continue saying ridiculous things whenever anybody came around. I'd
be free to, you know, read, do whatever I wanted to do. But...

GROSS: But was this a big issue, that you were really worried about having a
roof over your head and having food?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Nah, it was just the end of all responsibility. It was the end
of all personal responsibility. I wouldn't have to worry about, you know,
going to work anymore or...

GROSS: No big decisions to make.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, I wouldn't have to sweep or wash any dishes. But, of
course, being a philosophy major, I immediately realized that being able to
think that--you know, being able to take that step inside and look at what I
was thinking--you know, namely, `I'm insane,' meant that I wasn't insane at
all. And that really--that put the knife in things. Then I was depressed,
because one, I wasn't insane, and two, it also meant that I had failed again,
you know.

GROSS: Well, let's get back to that failure.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Why, if you were so determined to kill yourself, why didn't you try
something more definitive like a gun, like jumping off the roof of a tall
building, a more definitive kind of overdose?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, I guess that's always the question, isn't it? You know,
people ask me why I didn't get a gun. Sometimes I ask myself why I didn't go
out and get a gun. I think at the heart of all of it has always been a sort
of cowardice. I mean, I'll admit to that freely. I also didn't know where to
get a gun, because I couldn't get one legally because I'd been in institutions
before, after you know--a year earlier after cutting my wrists, and I didn't
know where in Minneapolis--which is, you know, a very safe town--you know,
where I could go and buy one on a street corner. But I think in the end it
was cowardice. I mean, I thought at the time and I thought for months in
advance that I wanted to kill myself, but I think when it really got right
down to it, maybe I didn't.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Knipfel. He's a columnist for the New York Press, and
the author of two memoirs. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jim Knipfel. He's the author of the new memoir, "Quitting
the Nairobi Trio," about his suicide attempts and his six-month stay at a
psychiatric hospital when he was 22.

You know, there's a feeling--I think it's fair to say a lot of people have had
this--you're driving along the road and you're thinking, just for that split
second, `I could drive off the road,' you know.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: `I could drive off the bridge. I could...'

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: `...jump off the bridge.' But you don't. You know, you just kind
of...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...flirt with that idea for, like, a split second, and of course, you
don't do it.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: It's just this kind of, like, odd thing to wonder about. What would
it be like if--but you've actually kind of gone there, you know. You've slit
your wrists...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you've thrown yourself down a flight of stairs and drunk bleach...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: So w...

Mr. KNIPFEL: I tried to jump a bridge--jump off a bridge once, but I was
pulled back.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Anyway...

GROSS: Uh-huh. But here's what I'm wondering. Like, when you pick up that
razor and you say, `OK...'

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: `...I'm going to slice my wrists,' and then you actually slice them...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: ...what went through your mind during that moment when the razor
actually hit the wrists...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...and you actually--you went there. You know, you crossed over
that...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...border from...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, that's...

GROSS: ...`Maybe I'll do this,' to `I did this.'

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right. That's actually--I mean, I can't say what it's like for
other people, but from my own experience, that was always very interesting.
Having tried so many times, the process was always the same. I would think
about it for months. I would create a plan and obsess on that plan. You
know, it was all I thought about for months and months and months until
finally, I reached the point where I did do something like that. I did open
up a package of razors. And what happened with me in all of these cases is
that when I actually did these things, when I actually took that final step,
it was always very cathartic, you know.

When I actually did something it was a definitive action that I had taken,
because--you know, you haven't yet asked why I was doing this. You know, what
was wrong with me? And the answer--I don't know if it's an accurate answer,
but it was the answer I've been telling myself for, you know, 20 years now--is
that I spent so much time trying to kill myself because I was bored. Just the
repetition of everyday life was became almost tangibly painful. To be taking
a bus every day and taking it home, tying my shoes--it just got too much to
bear. And by putting, say, a blade to my wrist and drawing blood, that was a
step outside. Violent and self-destructive as it was, it still released
something in my head, and I wouldn't do anything for another, you know, 18
months. I, you know, felt cleaned out after doing something like that, which
I guess, saying it now, sounds kind of sick, but it worked for me.

GROSS: Well, if it was, you know, boredom with the routine of daily life...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: ...the tying of your shoes, the taking of the bus--there's other
options, like moving, or...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, I did move around an awful lot.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KNIPFEL: You know.

GROSS: I guess you still have to tie your shoes.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Well...

GROSS: I mean, that is a--you know...

Mr. KNIPFEL: ...I still don't know how.

GROSS: It is a kind of a extreme response to...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, there had to be something else going on. I mean, as tedious
as tying my shoes might be...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...it's usually not a compelling reason for killing yourself.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, it was enough for me.

GROSS: I mean, you obviously had a whopping case of depression.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Yeah, that went on for some time. And I, you know--and
I can't put my finger on, you know, why. I mean, I've talked to various
shrinks over the years. I mean, I came from a wonderful family, with, you
know, loving and caring parents and, you know--in Green Bay, Wisconsin, you
know, solidly middle class and, you know, things from the outside were OK.
It's just that something was very, very wrong inside my head.

GROSS: There's so many more pharmaceutical options than there were when you
were first depressed.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Have any of those helped you?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Nah. I mean, I've tried a bunch. I've had doctors throw them
at me, and I've tried them for a while and they may work for a little while,
but then they stop working, and whatever was wrong is still there, you know.
The best--having seen a few of these people over the years--the best one I
ever saw was--I was living in Madison, and it was after I did the wrists,
who--I saw him for maybe six months. And he sat me down at the end--we'd
decided this was the last session--and he said, `Now, Jim, you are not a
horrible person, but the world is a horrible, horrible place. So you've got
to take all of that rage and all of that anger that's inside of you, stop
trying to kill yourself with it, turn it around. Go out there and try and
destroy the world instead.' And that worked wonders for a good long time, at
least for--again, at least for me, because I did go out and try and destroy
the world for a while. Got into loads of trouble but had lots of fun trying.

GROSS: That doesn't necessarily sound like good advice for the rest of
society. Like if that advice resulted in you stealing, you know...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...shoplifting and setting fires and things like that...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...there are victims on the other end.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Well, at the time I guess I was not concerned about
that. That was my sociopathic period.

GROSS: Are you sure the doctor didn't mean try to destroy what's evil in the
world, as opposed to just try to destroy the world?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Maybe that was the part of the sentence I didn't catch.

GROSS: Yeah. Maybe you got the wrong message.

If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Jim Knipfel, and he has two
memoirs. His memoir "Slackjaw," which is in part about losing his eyesight,
just came out in paperback. And his new memoir, "Quitting the Nairobi Trio,"
is about his suicide attempts and his six-month stay in a psychiatric
hospital.

Boy, it sounds like you got a lot of problems when I say that, doesn't it?

Mr. KNIPFEL: I have not begun to, you know, list them.

GROSS: You say that when you're on the verge of suicide, the last thing you
can think about is the people you love or the people who love you, because...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right. ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: ...if you go there, you won't be able to go through with it.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: So--but when you come to, and people you love, like your parents, are
actually there...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: ...what do you feel about how they feel about what you've done? I
mean, they're obviously...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, that's...

GROSS: ...going to be very upset.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. That's actually how I open the book. You know, when I
came to and there's my mom sitting there. You know, that doesn't feel so
good, because you know you've let them down again, because they've, you know,
been through this before with me. And now I felt pretty rotten about that,
and was actually a little hesitant to, you know, send copies of the books to
them, you know, because I didn't want to bring all this back. But it worked
out, you know. You know, we got through it.

GROSS: Jim Knipfel is the author of the new memoir, "Quitting the Nairobi
Trio." His earlier memoir, "Slackjaw," is out in paperback. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Jim Knipfel. He's a columnist for the New York Press and has
written two memoirs. His new one is about his angry young man period when he
attempted suicide several times and spent six months in a psychiatric
hospital. His first memoir is about slowly losing his eye sight as a result
of a congenital illness. He's now 35 and legally blind.

Your first book is dedicated to your parents...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: ...about who you say they've never once given up hope even after I
have time and time again.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Right.

GROSS: I love them with all I have. When you were going through your extreme
angry young man period...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you were intentionally offending everyone around you...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did you intentionally offend your parents a lot and do things
designed to hurt them?

Mr. KNIPFEL: No. Never anything designed to hurt them. I'll tell you,
during the whole angry young man business, I was living in Madison,
Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and I never sent them the stories I was
writing. And I didn't tell them anything that I was doing. We kept in
contact, but, you know, I just didn't tell them. And so when I sent them the
dailies ...(unintelligible), I wrote a long letter and sent along with it
saying, `Look, you might know about some of these things and some of these
things may be painful to you, but just know, you know, I'm OK. I'm still
alive and I still love you.' And it was funny because after they read the
book, they called me and they said, you know, `We sort of had an idea that
something like that was going on,' which I think just goes to show that
parents are never really quite as stupid as you think they are. They had a
very good idea what I was up to, but just never bugged me about it. And
everything worked out again.

GROSS: Do you think you still are prone to depressions?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, hell, yeah. Nothing quite as--I'm just--I guess I'm more
grumpy than depressed these days, kind of slow moving. But nothing compared
to just the long stretches of impenetrable darkness that I used to live in,
you know.

GROSS: Of course, now you live in a more literal darkness because you've lost
your eye sight.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, that's true. Right.

GROSS: So is there a difference between literal darkness and metaphorical
darkness?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, literal darkness is more physically painful when I keep
kicking things.

GROSS: Oh, walking into things.

Mr. KNIPFEL: The walking into things and what have you, but I'm more
comfortable here than where I--you know, I'm more comfortable without eyesight
than I think I was with it.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Lord knows. Maybe because when I had my eyesight, I could see
how ugly things really were. And now I just have memories of sight. And most
of those were OK, you know, 'cause I remember the things I like, but that's
just a guess.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Knipfel and he has two
memoirs. His new book, "Quitting the Nairobi Trio," is about a period of his
life when he had several suicide attempts and spent six months in a
psychiatric hospital. And his first book, which has recently come out in
paperback, which is called "Slackjaw" is about another big problem that he's
faced, which is a disease which has caused him to lose his eyesight almost
totally, but not completely totally.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: What is the condition that you have?

Mr. KNIPFEL: It's called retinitis pigmentosa. Essentially it means that
beginning at birth, the rods and cones in my retinas, which are the cells
which capture light and send them on to the optic nerve, just started
dissolving from the outside in. That is to say, I lost my peripheral vision
first, my night vision and central vision held for a while, but that's pretty
much shot these days. I can still maneuver in the streets if the sun is
out--if--a bit awkwardly. I can still work on the computer if I, say, blow up
the fonts of the text large enough. So I can still see a little bit although
it's extremely limited.

GROSS: What kind of aides do you use when you're walking down the street? Do
you have a cane, a dog?

Mr. KNIPFEL: I use the cane. I don't use it nearly as often as I should,
which is sort of a twisted pride issue I suppose 'cause I don't want to make a
big deal of the blindness. You know, I just want to, you know, deal with it
in my own way. The cane's necessary when--after the sun goes down because
then I'm just--then I can't see a damn thing in the daytime.

GROSS: What about a dog? Some of those Seeing Eye dogs, they seem like such
magnificent animals.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, yeah, I got nothing against the dogs, but I have two cats
at home and they would kill it. And I live in a small apartment in Brooklyn,
you know. Yeah. Not yet.

GROSS: All right. There's--in your memoir, "Slackjaw," you write a little
bit about this technique you were taught when you were given your cane about
how to pull your arm away from people who want to help you when you don't want
to be helped.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, right.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Well, something that my various instructors warned me about
and--which I found to be absolutely true, is that if you're walking down a
street and you're using the cane, there are people out there, people who wake
up in the morning and somehow, for some reason, they get the idea in their
heads that they are going to help you whether you want it or not. And I've
had more than my share of situations where I have been walking down the street
and just had people swoop, swoop upon me and grab one of my arms and just
start dragging me along in some direction, you know. I can't see where the
hell they're taking me. And--because normally the way things work with the
blind is you're supposed to let us--I say `us,' I shouldn't say that--you're
supposed to let, you know, the blind person take your arm and not take theirs.
It just makes things easier and gives them a little sense of control. So I
was instructed in a little two-move gesture if someone does that, that
involved like shooting the arm straight up in the arm and then pulling the
fingers away, unclawing them. Though I've never used that. I'm still prone
to just hitting people with the cane. It seems to...

GROSS: Have you really done that?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, which really--yeah, which seems to work much, much
better. So...

GROSS: Well, what about if the person is generally well-intentioned and you
start banging them with the cane?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, I don't care. No, I mean, I tell them first, you know, I
warn them.

GROSS: First you say it nicely.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Of course.

GROSS: Right?

Mr. KNIPFEL: I'm a sweetie pie. You know, `Please, let the hell'--you know,
`let my arm alone or I'm gonna hit you with this cane.' But, no, I've had
people drag me through puddles. Most people--I found--and this was very, very
surprising living in New York as I do--that most people are real cool and
there are people out there who are genuinely helpful--and I appreciate
that--who will, you know, give me some verbal clues, you know, `a little to
your right or you're gonna run into this, or traffic's coming or not coming,
the light's about to change.' And that's wonderful and that's very, very
helpful. It's the--I don't know--it's the do-gooders that bother me.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Knipfel. He's a columnist for the New York Press and
the author of two memoirs. More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Jim Knipfel. He has two
memoirs. His first, "Slackjaw," just came out in paperback and his new book
is called "Quitting the Nairobi Trio."

You majored in philosophy in college...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and even before that were reading philosophy books. Obviously, you
had some--you know, some real genuine interest in that.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Has all the books that you've read helped you make sense of things
that have been out of your control that have happened in your life, like the
depressions, like the loss of sight?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Not in the least.

GROSS: Well, that's reassuring, isn't it?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, to be perfectly blunt, I studied philosophy for many,
many, many years and it didn't take me that long after I stopped to get over
it. I do, however, hang on to things I've read by Beckett, by Mr. Pynchon,
by Henry Miller. You know, the novels I've read have helped me out much more
than any of the philosophy.

GROSS: How has losing your sight affected your subjects as a writer? I mean,
obviously, you have a memoir about losing your sight.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: But like when you're functioning as a reporter or a columnist, do you
feel like...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...your subject matter has been closed down or opened up in any way?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. Well, it's been closed down a little. And it's an
interesting thing that I was--I was just thinking about a couple of weeks ago
is say you read--in the first two books, you'll see that most of the details
are visual. There are a lot of things about color, placement of objects and
what have you. In the more recent things that I've been doing, most of the
details are oral because I can't--you know, I can't see the details too well.
And so it's just--it's based on what I overhear on the sound rather than
sight.

GROSS: What about your dreams? Do you have sight in your dreams?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, actually I was asked this once by a woman who specializes
in dreams. But it is interesting that my--in my dreams I have sight, but I
can't see much better. I mean, it's still extremely limited because that's
all I've ever known. You know, I have very little peripheral vision in my
dreams. So there's a lot of scanning involved, swinging back and forth.

GROSS: Earlier we were talking--you were talking about--I think it was when
we were talking about learning to use a cane and you said something about
`us,' referring to blind people...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh.

GROSS: ...and then you kind of verbally crossed out the `us' and made it
clear you didn't want to...

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...what's wrong with using the word `us' in the context of being one
of a larger group of people who have lost their sight.

Mr. KNIPFEL: See I've never been much of a joiner to any sort of
organization. This is probably--this is an extremely un-PC way of looking at
things I suppose, but I think it's a very human way of looking at things is
that there's no way to avoid in one way or another sort of being uncomfortable
when you're confronted with the other as some philosophers may call it. And
I'm that way too. I still get uncomfortable around, say, the blind or the
crippled even though I'm one of them. But I'm just not interested in, you
know, group activities at all.

GROSS: So some people find solace and a sense of connection with other people
who kind of face the same problems that they face?

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah, that's fine for them.

GROSS: You don't get that?

Mr. KNIPFEL: I don't, no, uh-uh. I've never--you know, never joined a
political party. I've never enjoyed regular parties. I just--you know, I
don't work well with--I don't play well with others, I guess you could say.

GROSS: The subtitle of your memoir, "Slackjaw," is--let me get it so I
can read it exactly--"You Better Start Learning Braille Now."

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yes. Yeah. Actually that's not really the subtitle as much as
just a funny little thing they decided to put on the cover.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KNIPFEL: But it does come from a good story. When I was eight--no, I
was 12, 13--sometimes I forget, but my grandmother had died and I went to the
funeral, which is in northern Wisconsin, and while I was sitting there I was
approached by my Uncle Tom, who as it turns out--though I didn't know it then
and nobody knew it then except him, had the same condition that I had. And he
was much older, he was in his 30s, he came over to me, didn't say hello,
didn't greet me in any way, just said, `Well, you better start learning
Braille now.' And then he didn't say anything else. And I vowed to avoid him
for the rest of the afternoon. But he was dead on. You know, no doctor was
able to diagnose this until I was 23, 24. But he knew way back then and
nobody listened to him.

GROSS: Have you learned to read Braille?

Mr. KNIPFEL: No. You know, they don't teach it anymore. Well, there's one
little mail-order school out in, I believe it's Indiana that still teaches it,
but your basic blind man organizations don't. They think it's a waste of time
and they think it's too expensive and think it takes too long, which is true.
It's very, very difficult. And the fact of the matter is living in this
modern age as we do, most everything talks. And so Braille is fading anyway.
You know, you have books on tape; you have, you know, talking cabs and subways
and what have you, and it's funny that you still run across public Braille,
but it's always in the most ridiculous places--on touch-screen ATMs.

GROSS: Right. Yes. That's where I've noticed that.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah. What the hell's the point of that? Essentially--I mean,
I still think, you know, if I could read that, it'd say something like, `What
are you thinking?' You know, `You're out of luck here, Buster.' You find it
in museums. I know, I used to work at the Guggenheim. We had plates up
there. And they have them down in the subways--plates identifying the
station. But it's inevitably put on a post just four inches from the edge of
the platform in the darkest, narrowest corner down in the subway. It's
somebody with a very sick sense of humor who's putting up these Braille plates
around New York, and I want that job.

GROSS: Yeah, I was going to say, with a sense of humor like yours you could
do good at that.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Jim, it's been great to talk with you. I want to thank you very
much.

Mr. KNIPFEL: Oh, it's been an absolute pleasure, Ms. Gross. Thank you so
much for having me on.

GROSS: Jim Knipfel's new memoir is called "Quitting the Nairobi Trio." His
first memoir, "Slackjaw," is out in paperback.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Billy Bragg and Wilco's second volume of
Woody Guthrie songs. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Folksinger Billy Bragg's collaberation with Wilco and the
release of "Mermaid Avenue, Volume II"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Two years ago, the English folksinger Billy Bragg collaborated with the
American rock band Wilco to record a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics that hadn't
previously been set to music. The CD was called "Mermaid Avenue." Rock
critic Ken Tucker placed it on his list of the best new releases of that year.
Now Bragg and Wilco are back with a sequel, "Mermaid Avenue, Volume II," and
Ken is pleasantly surprised.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BILLY BRAGG: (Singing) Do you still sing at the mountain that are made
of limbs and leaves? Do you still slide out near the sky where the holly
berry bleeds? You laughed as I covered you over with leaves, face, breast,
hips and thighs. You smiled when I said the leaves are just the color of your
eyes.

Mr. KEN TUCKER (Rock Critic): The odds against a satisfying sequel to a
first-rate piece of popular art are steep indeed. What is there? "The
Godfather: Part II"? Certainly. "Phillip Roth Zuckerman Unbound" or John
Updike's "Rabbit is Rich"? Anyway, "Mermaid Avenue, Volume II" is a pleasant
shock. You'd have thought that Billy Bragg, wearing his archivist hard hat,
would have mined the mother load of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics the first
time around. But listen to this torrid piece of rockabilly that Bragg and
Wilco have made out of his fine political creed called "All You Fascists."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) I going to tell all you fascists you may be surprised.
People all over this world are getting organized. You're about to lose, you
fascists, you're about to lose. Race hatred cannot stop us, this one thing I
know. The poll tax and Jim Crow and greed have got to go. You're about to
lose, you fascists are about to lose. All you fascists about to lose, you
fascists about to lose, you fascists about to lose, about to lose, you
fascists about to lose.

Mr. TUCKER: On the other hand, there are also more of the gorgeously simple
romantic songs that made the first "Mermaid Avenue" a revelation to those of
us who thought of Guthrie primarily as the forceful patriot of "This Land Is
Your Land." Turns out, he was also a lyrical romanticist as well.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Who can guess the secret of the sea? Who can
guess the secret of the sea? You can guess the secret of my love for you, and
we both could know the secret of the sea.

Tell me, could you ever tell the secret of the sea as I roll in waves along
the shore? If I could tell the lovers that come here to love by the tides
washed away forever more. Who can guess...

Mr. TUCKER: Once again, the collaborators mesh styles with just the right
proportion of rough edges and a common belief that Guthrie's verbal rhythms
can hold up to all sorts of arrangements, instrumental accompaniment and
emotional tone. And then there are times when Wilco lead vocalist Jeff Tweedy
seems to be channeling Guthrie straight through his soul as when he delivers
this stern reminder of Christ's precepts called "Blood of the Lamb."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEFF TWEEDY: (Singing) Are your garments all spotless? Are they white
as the snow? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? Is your soul spotless?
Is it clean as the snow? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? I am
washed, yes, I'm washed. I'm washed in the blood. I'm all washed in the
blood of the lamb. I'm all clean, I'm all...

Mr. TUCKER: If anything, I think I almost prefer this "Mermaid Avenue" to
its predecessor. It's more extreme, veering wildly from a thunderous jeremiad
called "Feed of Man" that reminds you how Bob Dylan used Guthrie's work as
inspiration to lighter, dreamier songs like "Secret of the Sea" and "My Flying
Saucer." Maybe Billy Bragg has unearthed even more of this stuff while
investigating Guthrie's archives with Woody's daughter, Nora. If so, by all
means, let's visit "Mermaid Avenue" a third time as soon as possible.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2" by Billy Bragg and Wilco.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) Yes, I gives a lot of walk, I gives a lot of talk,
gives a lot of love, I gives a lot of work, gives a lot of
(unintelligible), I gives a lot of right, gives a lot of peace, black or
brown or white. Everything against the law. I'm a low-paid Daddy singing the
high-price blues.

Yes, I gives a lot of eat, I gives a lot of drink. Gives a lot of work or
gives a lot of sleep. Gives a lot of merit for trying to settle down, gives a
lot of ramble ...(unintelligible) I come from town to town.

Everything against the law. I'm a low-paid Daddy singing the high-price
blues.

Yes, I gives a lot of come, I gives a lot of go. I gives a lot of rock, I
gives a lot of roll. I gives a lot of hugs, I gives a lot of kisses. I gives
a lot shoot. I gives a lot of miss.

Everything against the law. I'm a low-paid Daddy singing the high-price
blues.

It's against the law to gamble. It's against the law to roam.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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