Jim Knipfel is one of those authors who I had never heard of before These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales landed on my doorstep, sent unsolicited by the publisher's publicists who, this time, read my mind and knew I'd love it. Then the next day they sent me a book which showed that maybe those publicists don't QUITE have a bead on me yet – it was a book by a Republican Christian politician about bible meetings (I'm a liberal Unitarian Universalist.)
Jim's book, which is officially released tomorrow, is one of those which will cause you to laugh out loud, then look around to count those now staring at you, then re-read the last paragraph to see if you had read it right, then laugh some more.
Now THAT is not the normal reaction to the ending of a fairy tale but it has been my experience for at least two of the stories I have read so far from this collection.
If you think Shrek or Politically Correct Bedtime Stories did a great job tweaking, twisting or updating traditional fairy tales, then you will definitely enjoy this book, which makes them at once more realistic and much more amusing.
As Knipfel explains below, though, he is not just being funny for the sake of being amusing or weird for weird's sake but rather is returning to the original fairy tales which are freaky as hell.
What was your goal with this book? Why a book of fairy tales? What was the appeal or draw?
Goal? Jeepers, I can’t say as I’ve ever had much of a goal in writing any of these books, apart from entertaining myself. The fact a few other people out there seem to like these stories too is a happy fluke, but one that allows me to pay the rent. Ultimately it’s a very pointless, nihilistic endeavor on my part — but one that offers me a few cheap yuks and results in a check. And what’s better than that?
As for why I chose fairy tales, well, the story goes like this. Back in 1997 a photographer I knew was putting together a book of sock monkey portraits. (Yes, sock monkeys.) He asked me and a few other writers to write short, fictional biographies based on the photos. I was lucky in that the photo I was working with was of a microcephalic sock monkey dressed in a white Nehru jacket, which made my job very easy. In the end, however, his publisher decided against using any of the stories.
That mean I was left with an orphan story. And I’ll tell you, there is no obvious place to put a story about a pinheaded sock monkey. Now, if I was a smarter man I would’ve simply started pitching it around to this or that magazine. That takes work, though, and it seemed pointless anyway. So instead I decided to write a whole book’s worth of other short stories. And since the sock monkey story felt like a fairy tale to me, that’s what the rest of the stories became, too.
So in short, the impetus for writing the book came from an effort to find a nice home for this orphaned story about a sock monkey.
(I should really come up with more “literary”-type answers for these questions, but I get the feeling it ain’t never gonna happen.)
If these fairy tales were read to most kids instead of the traditional favorites what do you think the kids would grow up to be like?
My guess is that — like the children who were hearing the original fairy tales back in the Middle Ages — they’d be much better adjusted and more prepared to face the horrors of daily life in the modern world than these pathetic little moonpies we have today.
Either that or they’d be complete sociopaths, which is fine, too.
Is it fun to turn this genre on its head or is that now how you see these stories?
If you compare these stories here with the soft and sterile crap that’s being foisted on today’s kids under the guise of “fairy tales” then yes, it might seem I’m trying to screw with the genre. But if you go back to, say, the original versions of the Brothers Grimm you’ll see my stories aren’t that different. I’ve updated the settings and the situations and added more jokes and cursing. Though in terms of darkness and bloodshed and torture, my little stories can’t hold a candle to the Brothers Grimm, hoo boy. So I guess you could say (if you wanted) my stories are a reaction to this modern pap, but only a small step back toward what fairy tales once were.
In reality, though, I just wanted to write some funny stories with talking maggots and foul-mouthed gnomes.
You have written in your memoirs about your vision problems. How has that affected your writing? Also, for those who have not read those books can you explain what the problems you have are?
Explaining “what problems I have” might take awhile and require the testimony of several doctors, lawyers, and bartenders, so I’ll just limit myself to the eyes. I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, which is an irreversible degenerative eye disease that results in blindness. So I can’t see. I no longer consider it that big a deal. More an annoyance. But there you go.
While it may have altered the focus of my writing for awhile there — people noted a shift from visual imagery to aural imagery — once I made a few adjustments to my typing and acquired a few hi-tech whazzits and gimcracks for the computer, it wasn’t really much of an issue. Not nearly as much as trying to find my way around a grocery store.
Why the shift with this book from memoir to short stories?
Well, if you consider everything it might not be that big a shift. I wrote the three memoirs yes, but then over the past couple years I also wrote three novels. So with the novels and memoirs balancing each other out that way, it seemed a good time to do something a little bit different to act as a sort of fulcrum. I wasn’t about to start writing cookbooks or sonnets, and I had all these fairy tales sitting around, so the choice made itself pretty simple.
I’m sorry. That isn’t a very literary answer either — but it’s an honest one.
What is your own favorite fairy tale and why?
I consider myself lucky in that I was born into a world that had yet to be infected by political correctness, and one in which parents weren’t yet paranoid about cartoon violence, and still let their kids play with incredibly dangerous toys. So the fairy tales my parents read me were still a little rough around the edges. Of them all, there are two that stick with me to this day.
The first was The Five Chinese Brothers, about five identical twins whose different bizarre physical afflictions allowed them to avoid execution. That instilled in me a life-long fascination with medical anomalies and sideshow performers. The other was The Three Billy Goats Gruff. It seems a fairly mild story nowadays, but the version I heard was savage — eyes were gouged out, limbs were severed, ribs were crushed. It was really something. When I was a kid it terrified me, but I couldn’t wait to hear it again, and I always pressed for more details.
I dunno, maybe there’s something wrong with me. I was a very disturbed child. But I think that story specifically can explain a lot of what went into These Children Who Come at You With Knives.
What are you working on next? Are you still writing a regular column?
What have been the high and low points in your writing career?
Hmm — that’s interesting. It may be cliché, but publishing is an unpredictable, perpetually tenuous business. You’re always measuring it out from job to job, contract to contract, and once one ends, there are no guarantees you’ll ever get another. So it’s a rickety roller coaster, and the time between jobs is always pretty iffy.
Okay, the nadir first. There have been any number of times when I’ve found myself scrabbling and starving, but lowest point was probably the summer of 2006. I’d been with a newspaper here in New York for 13 years when I was abruptly canned for (in their words) “not being a team player.” So I suddenly lost my income, my insurance, my column, and quickly learned how much all those favors people claimed they owed me were worth. Nobody, it seems, wanted to hire a blind guy. A book contract finally came through, but even that was kind of a mess. The editor and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye, and it became an ugly fiasco that resulted in a book I wasn’t particularly pleased with. I was sure it was going to be the last book anyone ever let me write. Plus I still had no insurance. Things started picking up again once all that was out of the way, but it was a pretty nasty and bitter stretch.
As for the best moments, there are three. The first was back in ’87, shortly after I first started writing. I’d never thought of writing anything before, but somehow ended up stumbling into a job with a local Philadelphia weekly. The editor there — still a dear friend — gave me a lot of encouragement, and for the first time ever, I’d found something I was kind of sort of good at, and people started to respond. Often with death threats, but that counts too. They were wild days in a wild place.
Jump ahead about ten years for the second one. It was a few weeks before my first book, Slackjaw, was set to come out. I didn’t think it was a particularly great book, but a lot of outside forces had come together on it, from the copy editor to Chip Kidd designing the cover. Everything was swell. But then two days before Thanksgiving, my editor received a blurb for the book from Thomas Pynchon. I was numb for three days after that. I still cling to that note as some evidence that maybe I’d made the right choice ten years earlier. To me it was more validation than any New York Times or Washington Post review could ever provide.
And the third high point, corny as it may sound, is right now. I’ve hardly grown wealthy in this racket, but there’s enough work lined up to keep me in beer and smokes. And best of all, I get to sit here all day writing silly stories in comfy pants. So yes, things are just fine, even if I continue to think of the world in general as a decaying shithole.
Funny—looking back on this, those high points only seem to come along every ten years, which gives me reason to dread the coming decade.
How did you get a blurb from Thomas Pynchon?
Well, a few months before the book was released, my editor and I came up with a wish list of people we wanted to get blurbs from, and sent them copies of the galleys. With a few weeks before publication, we hadn't heard back from anyone. That's when I suggested Thomas Pynchon. My editor was hesitant, thinking that we'd just be throwing a galley away. Well, given that no one else had come through, I figured what the hell? We didn't really have anything to lose at that point. So we sent one to Mr. Pynchon's agent's office, and hoped for the best. I don't think either one of us really expected to hear anything back, but at least we gave it a shot. Then a fax came through, and it changed everything.
What question do you wish you would get asked in interviews but you don't? Here's your chance to ask and answer it, my interview version of a freebie.