Kipp Friedman is the youngest son of writer Bruce Jay Friedman. A native New Yorker, Kipp holds B.A.s in History and Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He began his career as a reporter and has worked in public relations and marketing. He is also a professional photographer and tennis coach. Kipp and his wife, Anne, live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and they have a grown son, Max. Barracuda in the Attic is his first book. Kipp is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Do you need to put the past behind you when you write memoir?
Kipp Friedman (KF): I could say something clever like the past isn't dead. It's not even past, but that would be plagiarizing Faulkner, wouldn't it? I'm just happy to remember what happened yesterday. Speaking of which, I wrote a new story about something that happened two days prior. So, yes, you do need a little distance in which to write memoir, but the past is relative.
I've always been a little slow in reacting to things. I see things, experience them, but my mind takes a moment (or years, sometimes decades) to process. Perhaps that's so we don't go nuts trying to internalize everything that happens to us?
One method I used in writing my memoir, Barracuda in the Attic, was that I tried to recall specific things such as smells, objects, phrases which evoked strong memories from my past. Proust had his beloved madeleine cookies to transport him back to his youth.
Fortunately, I had many madeleine cookies in which to draw upon. For instance, there was a pipik (belly button of a chicken) my grandfather once offered to me as a gag during a Passover seder when I was six. The important thing is I was back in my grandparents' musty Bronx apartment in 1966, recoiling in horror at the slimy matter dangling from my grandfather's pudgy fingers. I can still hear the warm laughter in the background.
When I latch on to a particular item from my past, it's as if I have opened up a cabinet in my mind where I store a whole host of memories. That's the fun of writing in memoir style--all the revelations and discoveries that you have kept hidden or thought you forgot about. You have to be careful, though, that what you remember is in fact what happened. I was fortunate in that I was able to use family members as fact-checkers. And I'm happy to report that no one has said "you can't write that" or has threatened to sue--yet.
LK: Let's talk about your memoir, Barracuda in the Attic. How did you come up with the title? What is its relationship to your story?
KF: A number of people have asked me if there really was a barracuda in the attic, or was it symbolic of something mysterious, perhaps a dark family secret. My Russian friend, Sergey, even asked if I was the barracuda.
The truth is my dad caught a barracuda off the Isle of Bimini while on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post while trying to interview the controversial New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1968. He failed to get a proper interview with the illusive congressman, but he did manage to snag a barracuda. All my brothers and I remember was the barracuda coming back in a box. My dad was proud of his accomplishment and placed the barracuda in his attic office of our home in Great Neck, Long Island.
My brothers pointed out that the barracuda was missing some teeth and that it looked a little old. Dejected, my dad concluded that he had, indeed, caught an elderly barracuda. But I used to marvel at its craggy teeth and button-like dark eyes, and colorful gills. Its razor-sharp incisors reminded me of a picture I saw in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine of Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent horror film London After Midnight.
In the story, I noted that while the barracuda wasn't exactly the 400-pound blue marlin in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, it was still a respectable-sized fish. I guess I was making an analogy between Hemingway and my father in the food chain of writers. I thought the sleek barracuda was an amazing creature.
The barracuda was a nice literary device in which to transport me back to what it was like in my dad's attic office. He placed it above his leather recliner. Remembering the barracuda, I was able to piece together the rest of what his office looked like.
My publisher, Gary Groth from Fantagraphics Books, thought Barracuda in the Attic would make a compelling book title. I agree.
LK: I love the passage at the start of the book where you talk about your father. You write: "No matter where we went, or whomever he introduced me to, my father taught me never to feel out of place or intimidated by people, no matter how famous they were." How has his advice impacted you? Have you given the same advice to someone close to you? Who?
KF: Growing up in the New York arts scene of the 1960s and '70s, we met a lot of famous, talented artists. It was common to be introduced to actors, musicians, writers. That was my father's orbit. While my father admired many of the artists we met, he had most respect for fellow writers. Occasionally, he would remind us that celebrities were normal people like us--albeit, successful people in their chosen fields, like a doctor or university professor.
But this wasn't always the case, especially when it came to sports stars.
Once, while having dinner at a New York restaurant in the early Seventies with my brother Drew, my father had just told Drew the "celebrities-are-just-like-you-and-me" speech when in walked New York Knicks superstar Walt "Clyde" Frazier. When my father spotted Frazier, he immediately stood up, mumbling "It's...Clyde!" and wandered over to shake his hand. Star stuck, my dad remained in a haze throughout the rest of the meal. Years later, my dad had a similar reaction in the men's room at Chason's in Hollywood when he found Muhammad Ali next to him at an adjacent urinal. He kept chanting, "Ali! Ali! You're the Greatest!"
I have taken to heart my father's overall advice about celebrities being normal people. There are few people I would fawn over (Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Brett Favre being the exceptions). The corollary to this is that I'm not afraid to go up to anyone--celebrity or not--and tell them I admire their work if that is how I truly feel. I'm pretty sure I have given this advice to my son, Max, who reminds me that I have a tendency to repeat myself.
LK: In the book you have a hard time explaining why you wanted to go to Israel to "explore your Jewish heritage." Do you know this answer now? Or is it still a mystery? Would you go back today?
KF: I was raised as a cultural Jew. In fact, growing up in the New York area, I thought everyone was a little Jewish including Italians, Blacks and Irish. It was a revelation, then, when I went off to college in the Midwest and discovered that I was, indeed, a minority.
Not attending synagogue or belonging to a JCC, I was only marginally aware of the State of Israel. Then the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 occurred--ironically, a day before my thirteenth birthday. I remember my father appeared on a New York public TV fundraiser helping to raise money for Israel.
But what really sparked my interest in Israel was the dramatic Entebbe Hostage Rescue in 1976. I was moved to tears by the joyous celebrations that broke out on the Tel Aviv airport tarmac following the return of the rescued hostages and soldiers who carried out the successful raid. At that moment, I knew I would have to visit Israel. I went on a memorable summer teen trip to Israel in 1978 before leaving for college. Since then, I have been back to Israel twice, and I am certain that I will return to Israel, hopefully several more times.
LK: How have horror movies impacted your writing?
KF: The real question is, how horror movies have impacted my life. My earliest memories include monsters as if they were members of the family. My oldest brother Josh used to collect Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines. We had monster movie posters in our bedrooms and played with monster models and statues in our basement. My cousins, Chuck and Scott, were practically celebrities because they had appeared in Famous Monsters holding their award-winning Frankenstein and Dracula plastic models that they had built.
When I was about three, I moved into a room with my middle brother Drew, who didn't take kindly to having to share his room with his little brother. As a sort of housewarming present, Drew taped a life-size cartoon poster of Frankenstein's monster over my bed which scared the hell out of me. Fortunately, our quick-thinking housekeeper, Mrs. Sullivan, a devout Catholic, christened the monster "Percy," and called him my guardian angel. From that moment on, I saw monsters as benign, almost friendly agents.
All that changed in 1968 after we saw Night of the Living Dead when I was seven. Midway through the film--I think in a scene where a preteen girl-turned-zombie feasts on her dead father and hacks her mother to death with a cement trowel--my father looked at us and asked if we should leave. But my brothers insisted that we stay. I was practically catatonic in my seat. Indeed, one of the zombies reminded me of our fleshy housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan in her nightgown.
Fortunately, I did not have nightmares from Night of the Living Dead despite Drew's attempts to give me nightmares. That night and for weeks after, he would look at me and say: "They're coming to get you, Barbara! There's one now!" and I would turn and look in fear.
For the next five years my brothers and I were on a mission to see the scariest horror movies, many at dingy theaters along 42nd Street and Broadway. They wanted to equal the sheer terror that we felt from Night of the Living Dead. Being the youngest, I was brought along for the ride. We nearly achieved our goal when we saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1973. I remember we all sat frozen in terror. Interestingly, that was the last horror film I would see with my brothers.
LK: Can you talk about your relationship with your brother Drew, who is a renowned cartoonist? How have you both affected each other when it comes to art?
KF: Drew and I are about two years apart in age. My oldest brother Josh is nearly five years older, so I was closer to Drew while growing up even though I experienced many adventures with both brothers. It's hard to recall Drew not drawing something. He always seemed to carry a sketchbook. And his bedrooms were more like galleries to an ephemera of pop culture.
I'm not sure how much I affected Drew--other than as the sometimes annoying little brother--but he certainly had an impact on me. When I went away to sleep-away camp, he would send me care packages filled with comic books and horror magazines. I still have a few postcards he sent informing me of what he was doing and about important things for us to look forward to like upcoming comic book conventions. Naturally, the postcards had his doodles of grotesque faces.
At a certain point, Drew had discovered EC horror comic books from the 1950s and he shared his passion for comic books with me, informing me about the quality of the particular artists and the story lines. At times, it felt like I was living with a comic book historian. While most kids followed the statistics of their baseball stars, cartoonists were Drew's heroes. I had only a marginal interest in comic books but I became swept up in his enthusiasm. I was soon accompanying him to comic conventions at New York hotels and convention centers.
Many of the stories in Barracuda in the Attic include little interactions I had with both my brothers. Drew had a number of pet names for me like Flip, Mr. Flip, Flip Kipson (after the comedian Flip Wilson), Mr. Kips (something an Indian waiter Drew imagined used to call me at a favorite Indian restaurant ("Hello, Mr. Kips"), Schmip, and probably a number of other names. He also used to tease me with made-up words designed to enrage me. He'd make sure a parent wasn't looking and repeat, "klaintz" or "sauce" until I would howl with disapproval--typical older brother stuff. But deep down, I knew that all the teasing and attention was his way of showing affection.
After writing half a dozen of stories for various magazines and online webzines, it was Drew's idea that I seek a publisher. I then contacted Gary Groth at Fantagraphics and within a few days he sent me a book contract. Thrilled, Drew asked me to send him a few photos so he could draw the book cover. My dad says Drew sees things in other people's faces that most miss--which is apparent in his cover portrait of me. He really captured this wonderfully befuddled, slightly sad, tremulous look on my face like "what the hell is going on?"
LK: Is writing a memoir like being a bystander?
KF: I certainly was no innocent bystander in my stories. Can one be a participating bystander? That was my approach to writing my stories in Barracuda in the Attic. I tried to be objective, like the trained journalist that I am, but still give myself the flexibility to write from my perspective. After all, it is my memoir, the way I saw things.
It felt a bit strange at first to write about myself in the first person. I was a newspaper reporter for the first six years of my career, so I had to get over the restraint that most journalists face of avoiding expressing an opinion. I think I did a good job of letting the action and words in my stories inform the reader without "telling" the reader what to think.
I hope anyone who reads Barracuda in the Attic will come away with a better understanding of the magic and whimsy of what it was like to grow up among a family of creative artists. We certainly had a lot of fun.