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BOOKS: Q&A w/ Jim Knipfel, Ex-Slackjawed Local

 

BY MIKE WALSH Jim Knipfel came to Philadelphia in the late 80s with no job prospects, little ambition, and zero professional writing experience. But he did have a wicked sense of humor and a mocking distaste for everything held sacred in modern day America, and he soon found a way to leverage that nihilism into a column he wrote for six years for the now-defunct Welcomat (which morphed into the Philadelphia Weekly) called Slackjaw. By the early 90s he’d moved to the Big Apple and the column started running the New York Press and it would continue to do so for 13 years. At the New York Press, Slackjaw won numerous Reader’s Choice awards and gained a loyal readership, which included a fellow by the name of Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Since the late 90s, Knipfe lhas been building on that success publishing eight books, three of which memoirs. Since 2006, Slackjaw has appeared online at Electron Press. Twenty years ago, Knipfel was diagnosed with a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa and has been slowly going blind ever since. Phawker recently spoke with him about Slackjaw, which started 25 years ago last month, and his writing career.

PHAWKER: When did you move to Philly?

JIM KNIPFEL: 1987, right after being thrown out of grad school.

PHAWKER: What were you studying?

JIM KNIPFEL: It was a fancy philosophy, social commentary, French, whatever program called Contemporary Studies in Discourse and Society. University of Minnesota. They told me that I didn’t have an attitude befitting an academic, and I agreed with them.

PHAWKER: You were hospitalized right around that time too, right?

JIM KNIPFEL: Right. I was institutionalized for about six months after an overdose of barbiturates. Which did not help my case with the school. They were hoping I would just go away.

PHAWKER: Why Philly?

JIM KNIPFEL: My girlfriend at the time got into grad school in Philly, so I went with her. I had no place else to go and no plans, so I tagged along. And I thought Philly was just the ugliest, nastiest place on earth, and that’s where I wanted to be. Within a couple weeks, I picked up copies of the Welcomat and City Paper, and read through them. And with the hubris of youth (I was maybe 22 at the time), I thought, I can do better than that. I had never wanted to be a writer. I never even considered it, but I sat down and wrote something and sent it in to both papers. The editor at the City Paper yelled at me, and Derek Davis at the Welcomat published it.

It was a review of an Iggy Pop show at the Chestnut Cabaret. It was a long, rambling thing that was about damn near everything except the show. It wasn’t technically a “Slackjaw” column—those didn’t start until a few weeks later—but I still consider it the first column because that was the form they would take. Rambling and pointless. It was my first published piece, and garnered me my first death threat (which I still have). It was that threat more than anything that convinced me I’d found my calling.

PHAWKER: And you went on to write Slackjaw for the Welcomat for how many years?

JIM KNIPFEL: Six-and-a-half years, along with writing restaurant and music reviews. I was making $35 a week. Philly was such a delightful town back then because they were so many maniacs around, many more than I’ve met in New York.

PHAWKER: The Welcomat seemed to attract them.

JIM KNIPFEL: Oh, sure. It gave them an outlet. Some people were writing radical and potentially dangerous things, especially in the letters section, and God bless the Welcomat for running that stuff.

PHAWKER: Why did you move to New York in 1990?

JIM KNIPFEL: My girlfriend, who was by then my wife, got into grad school up there, so we moved up to Brooklyn. But I kept working for the Welcomat, commuting to Philly two days a week and crashing at people’s apartments.

PHAWKER: How did Slackjaw start running in the New York Press?

JIM KNIPFEL: The Press wouldn’t run Slackjaw while I was still publishing it at the Welcomat. But then in 1993 we all got fired at the Welcomat, and the New York Press started running the column the next week. It was a freelance thing for a year or so. I had another part-time job, but I was still fairly destitute, so the Press took pity on me and hired me as their receptionist. That was 1995.

PHAWKER: You soon became a staff writer at the New York Press.

JIM KNIPFEL:
Yeah, I was the receptionist for like three years, and I couldn’t really take that anymore, so they made me a staff writer in like 1998. And I was there until 2006, when they fired me for not being a team player. That newspaper didn’t last much longer anyway.

PHAWKER:
And the Slackjaw column continues to appear on the web.

JIM KNIPFEL: Yes. I’ve been writing that column for over half my life.

PHAWKER: You’ve also published eight books and continue to write books, yet you keep writing the column. Why?

JIM KNIPFEL: It keeps me in practice. It also gives me an outlet to try new stories. I always need to be working on something, or I’ll go mad. I’d be writing these things even if I wasn’t publishing them some place.

PHAWKER: I assume the name Slackjaw refers to someone who’s out of it?

JIM KNIPFEL: Right. Someone who’s dumb, backwards. The name goes back to my college days. I was out with a friend drinking, and I had reached that point of drunkenness where my jaw just kind of fell open. He called me ‘Slackjaw’ and the name stuck. When the book Slackjaw was translated into German, they named it Blindfisch. And I asked the editor where that came from, and he said, It literally means ‘blind fish,’ but it’s also a euphemism for ‘idiot.’ I was like, Oh, all right. (Laughing.) Works for me!

PHAWKER: So you started writing books in the late 90s. The first was also called Slackjaw.

JIM KNIPFEL: For a long time, I insisted I would not turn the column into a book. See, I always liked the disposability of newspapers. I’d write a column or article, a few days later people would read it, then they’d throw it away, and I’d start anew. I loved the non-permanence of it. But then I started thinking about making something that was at least minimally more permanent, something more solid. And I was lucky enough to meet an amenable book editor, and we agreed to write a book. And there was also an advance involved.

The first draft was like 700 pages. The day I finished it, I was very happy, so I took a walk, and ended up in a little book store. I mentioned the book and that it was 700 pages long, and the guy says, “No one wants to read that much about you.” And that was a very good point, and my editor agreed. He took the manuscript, went through it, and said, “Now cut it in half.” So I did and turned it in, and he said, “Cut it in half again.” And we just rebuilt it from there. It was an entirely new process for me, which turned out to be very valuable, and I was able to cull two other books from what I cut.

PHAWKER: I want to ask you about Thomas Pynchon’s endorsement of your first book. This is what he wrote:

Slackjaw is maniacally aglow with a born storyteller’s gifts of observation, an amiably deranged sense of humor, and a heart too bounced around not to have earned Mr. Knipfel an unsentimental clarity that is generous and deep. What begins as a cautionary tale turns out to be an exemplary American life. The Park Service ought to be charging admission. Long may he continue to astonish us.

That is amazing. You must’ve been completely stunned.

JIM KNIPFEL: Yes, absolutely. Before the book came out, we sent out copies to all these famous people hoping to get blurbs from them for the book cover. This was 1998. We didn’t hear back from a soul. We had one promotional copy left, and my editor asked me who I wanted to send it to, and I said why not try Mr. Pynchon. And he started whining. “That’s just throwing one away. These things are expensive. It’s a waste of time.” Nobody else was responding, so I said, “Then just throw one away. Send it to him.” The book was supposed to come out at the end of the year and the day before Thanksgiving my editor calls, and he couldn’t speak. He was just making weird noises, but he faxed something to me. And it was the blurb from Pynchon. Then I couldn’t speak. How could I have expected such a thing? I considered him the greatest writer of the 20th century.

PHAWKER: You’ve written mostly fiction for the last six or seven years.

JIM KNIPFEL: The first three books I wrote were memoirs, and by then I was sick to death of writing about myself. So I called my editor before the third was published and said I’d like to write a novel. And he said, ‘Great idea.’ We could put it out before we put out the next memoir just as a break. And I said, ‘Fine.’ And he said, ‘When can you get it to me?’ The problem was, I hadn’t really thought this whole idea through. I had no idea for a novel, so in sheer panic, I went home and in the next couple of weeks I made up a novel. It worked out, and hopefully I will never have to write another memoir.

PHAWKER: I noticed that These Children Who Come At You With Knives was your top selling book on Amazon.

JIM KNIPFEL: Yes, and I don’t know why. I don’t know why people buy what they buy.

PHAWKER: It’s unique compared to your other books. It’s not a memoir, and it’s not a novel. How do you go from those types of books to fairy tales?

JIM KNIPFEL: You just write a story and make the protagonist some kind of bug, like a talking maggot. There you go; it’s a fairy tale.

PHAWKER: Where did the fairy tales come from?

JIM KNIPFEL: They’re all based on actual events or people I’ve known or situations I’ve been in. For example, the story called “Toothpick” originated with a comment by Morgan [Knipfel’s significant other]. It’s about a guy on a boat, and the boat sinks, and he makes a raft, and the raft is attacked by sharks, and he’s down to a plank, and the plank is destroyed by a whale. And that’s based on a conversation I had with her one day while the New York Press was getting smaller, and people were getting fired, and we went through several editors, and she said, It’s like you’re on a sinking ship.

PHAWKER: Your last two novels are apocalyptic wherein civilized society has already broken down or is in the process of breaking down. In Unplugging Philco, a totalitarian regime is running the country, and Big Brother-ish video cameras and violent security thugs are everywhere.

JIM KNIPFEL: That was a satiric exaggeration of the world I was seeing around New York in the years immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center. Before 9/11, I saw a report that someone going about their normal business in New York on an average weekday would be filmed by something like 25 separate video cameras. I thought that was horrifying. Now, of course, surveillance cameras are everywhere–intersections, lobbies, stores—there’s no getting away from them. That reaction to the World Trade Center attacks inspired that novel. That’s one of the fun things about writing fiction–you can take a slightly skewed perspective and see where it goes.

PHAWKER: The Blow-Off, your most recent novel, features a crime blotter.

JIM KNIPFEL: I love crime blotters. After bugging them for years, the New York Press finally let me write a crime blotter, which I did for a couple years. That was a lot of fun.

PHAWKER: Were you able to write the kind of blotter pieces that the main character of The Blow-Off writes, where he has fun with the absurdity of it?

JIM KNIPFEL: Absolutely. They encouraged it. In fact, a lot of the blotter pieces in the novel are based on pieces I wrote for the New York Press. The blotter is a sorely neglected American literary form. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important and telling American literary forms. These are miniature novels. There’s conflict, people’s lives change, resolution–all in 150 words.

PHAWKER: Wasn’t there a case in India of while back of mass hysteria about some kind of beast attacking people, like in The Blow-Off?

JIM KNIPFEL: That was a huge story. Back in 1999. That’s what really got me thinking about this novel. In a tiny village about 250 miles from Delhi, a woman reported that she had been assaulted by something she called ‘The Monkey Man.’ In the days that followed, a couple other people reported attacks. Then five people, then a dozen people, then 20 people reported seeing this Monkey Man, and they all had elaborate descriptions of him, and soon The Monkey Man had magical powers. Soon a couple of people were beaten to death by roving mobs because they were mistaken for The Monkey Man. Other people died after running off their rooftops thinking they were being chased by The Monkey Man. Things got so bad that the government sent a high-ranking official to investigate. And he did, and he held a big press conference and announced that it was just case of mass hysteria. So everyone went back to their lives. But two weeks later in a village a hundred miles away, The Monkey Man popped up again. Then the next summer, the sightings started up again in another village, then another village, then another. But what really got me was the American media coverage, even on NPR. Coverage of this story was so smug and snide. They were pointing their fingers and chortling, Oh, look at these poor savages and their superstitious ways, as if to say that something like that could never happen over here. But America has a long and rich history of remarkable cases of mass hysteria.

PHAWKER: Mythical bogeymen?

JIM KNIPFEL: Yeah, there’s the Winsted Wild Man, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, strange ape-like creatures on Long Island, Cropsey on Staten Island, all over the country for the last couple of centuries. And I just think that in this day and age, as sophisticated as we think we are, if you were to start spreading stories about something like The Monkey Man in a place like Brooklyn, the results would be a thousand times more violent and ugly than in those Indian villages. I wouldn’t put it past anybody. We’re a very superstitious people.

PHAWKER: So you don’t necessarily see The Blow-Off as a satiric exaggeration?

JIM KNIPFEL: Oh, yes, it is, but I absolutely believe something like that could happen. But the book is supposed to be a funny satire of what we think of ourselves. At least, I hope it’s funny.

PHAWKER: The main character seems to be modeled after you somewhat.

JIM KNIPFEL: I’m sure a little of me makes its way into all of my main characters. After all, they’re all out-of-shape guys who hate the modern world.

PHAWKER: Was the annoying, overbearing editor modeled on anyone specific?

JIM KNIPFEL: He’s a combination of two clownish, absurd people I worked with, one of whom fired me. So that character is a very quiet form of revenge.

PHAWKER: Parts of The Blow-Off are set in an area called the Gowanus. What is the Gowanus?

JIM KNIPFEL: The Gowanus is a long canal that runs through Brooklyn and was recently declared the most polluted body of water in America. It’s an industrial waterway, lined with warehouses and factories. It’s an unearthly shade of green, and absolutely nothing, nothing lives in the Gowanus. For a century and a half they’ve been dumping God knows what in it. To this day there are sewage systems that empty into the Gowanus. The city has been talking about turning it into a park, but it’s a deadly toxic area, so that ain’t gonna happen.

PHAWKER: It’s amusing that you gave the main character, Kalabander, a job at a penny saver, which is the worst type of newspaper. It seemed like you were tormenting him.

JIM KNIPFEL: Well, after I left the New York Press, and I was looking for work, it looked like I was going to end up at a publication like that. So it’s not so far-fetched.

PHAWKER: He’s also very politically incorrect. He uses derogatory terms for gays, and he calls a waitress at an Indian restaurant an “injun.”

JIM KNIPFEL: And no one has noticed that. He uses the word “Chinaman” frequently. He refers to a Dominican as “Mandingo.”

PHAWKER: But he’s the only one who realizes that the Gowanus Beast story is nonsense, and no one will listen to him, so maybe that’s why readers pass over that part of his personality.

JIM KNIPFEL: I don’t do this intentionally, but all of my main characters end up being extremely unlikable characters. They’re loudmouths, or sniveling little creeps, or just general assholes, so it’s funny when people consider them sympathetic. I love them, but they’re jerks.

PHAWKER: Now Dirty Dingus. That’s quite a character. He’s probably the most outrageously funny and absurd character you’ve ever created.

JIM KNIPFEL: He’s a cryptozoologist, which is a very rare occupation in America today. It’s someone who tracks down species of animals that have not been proven to exist. A monster hunter. Some track Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster (without much luck, I gotta say, but that makes them even more interesting), and they write books and sell magazine articles. You won’t find a degree in cryptozoology. These people bestow the title on themselves. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated, even a little obsessed, with legendary monsters supposedly roaming the world. And if you’re interested in things like that, you’re going to get to know a bit about the cryptozoologists. Since I was writing a book about a supposed monster, I needed a character able to explain what the hell we might be dealing with. He’s a true believer with a supposedly scientific analysis of the situation, even if he is a buffoon wearing a cape. In Jaws Richard Dreyfuss had the same type of role–the nerdy ichthyologist who understands sharks.

PHAWKER: So what else would you like to write?

JIM KNIPFEL: I’d like to write crime blotters for other publications, but they all thought I would be too mean.

PHAWKER: And that just shows that an independent writer, even one as successful and accomplished as yourself, still has to hustle for work constantly and deal with lots of rejection.

JIM KNIPFEL: Yes, especially given the publishing industry nowadays. Nobody’s buying anything. No one is getting advances. It’s a terrible business right now. So I may well be working at that penny saver before too long.

PHAWKER:
Being blind, I’m sure people wonder how you’re able to continue writing.

JIM KNIPFEL: I have software that reads every keystroke aloud as I type. It can read words or entire manuscripts. It tells me what my cursor is passing over, the options on a menu, everything.

PHAWKER:
So you can’t see the screen anymore?

JIM KNIPFEL:
No, that whole bending and squinting at the screen–that went on for years, but that ended as my vision got worse. Now that the computer is talking to me, I can type as fast as I could 20 years ago. It’s actually much easier to write now. It’s a dream!

You can read Jim Knipfel’s Slackjaw columns going back to the early 1990s HERE.

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