Fresh Air
Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the Peabody Award-winning weekday magazine of contemporary arts and issues, is one of public radio's most popular programs. Each week, nearly 4.5 million people listen to the show's intimate conversations broadcast on more than 450 National Public Radio (NPR) stations across the country, as well as in Europe on the World Radio Network. Though Fresh Air has been categorized as a "talk show," it hardly fits the mold. Its 1994 Peabody Award citation credits Fresh Air with "probing questions, revelatory interviews and unusual insights." And a variety of top publications count Gross among the country's leading interviewers. The show gives interviews as much time as needed, and complements them with comments from well-known critics and commentators.
John Darnielle's first novel, Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, was about a...
John Darnielle's novel, Wolf in White Van, is about a man who survives a trauma. The songwriter tells Fresh Air about his difficult childhood and finding shelter in music and the Incredible Hulk.

When The Mountain Goats' founder John Darnielle was a teenager, he went through a self-destructive phase.

"Your intelligence doesn't override your desire to destroy yourself," Darnielle tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really, really did not want to be in my own skin. I really wanted to get high and stay high."

The singer-songwriter's parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was abused by his stepfather. Darnielle says he had the feeling of "being uprooted a lot and not being able to make friends and keep them."

"It was a chaotic environment that I was a child in," he says, "and it makes you angry after a while."

Darnielle writes literary lyrics for his band, often telling stories about fictional characters or stories from his life, and he's expanded beyond lyrics into novels. His new book, Wolf in White Van, is about a man who, at the age of 17, shoots himself in the face with his father's rifle, expecting to die. He survives with chronic pain and a face so disfigured he seldom ventures into public, but he's always preferred to live in his head anyway.

His fantasies are inspired by heavy metal music and comic books like Conan the Barbarian. While recovering, Darnielle's protagonist, Sean, creates a fantasy game of his own that leads to serious trouble.

In addition to writing about troubled teenagers, Darnielle used to work with them as an assistant and counselor in psychiatric institutions. He says he likes helping young people find shelter through his music because music helped him as a young person.

It's an "honor so profound that I don't know how to talk about it," he says. "How often does a person get to feel like, 'Well, this was worth living for.' ... But that's how I feel about that — music was all to me and it's incredible to me that people can use [my music] in that way."

Interview Highlights

On his writing process for Wolf in White Van

I started just writing a scene with a bunch of teenagers in high school smoking cigarettes. ... And it wasn't going anywhere in particular. I was just trying to write a scene that was familiar to me, because I used to go across the parking lot at Claremont High and smoke cigarettes with the metal kids. ... I had no sense of where I was going, no outline. I had the title already, because I really liked that title, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do. ...

I started asking myself questions like improvisational comedians do [about the protagonist], like what does he do for a living? What does he wear? Who are his friends? How does he make any money? What does he wish he was? All those sorts of things. That performative element is how I wrote the book, by asking myself questions about what happens then? What if this happens, then what?

On his love of comic books and the Incredible Hulk

I was a huge comic book fan. It's weird because the era of Marvel I was into turns out to be very important in the long run, but it's not the one that anybody romanticizes. It was right when X-Men was becoming the thing that all serious comics people were into.

My dude was the Incredible Hulk — that was my hero. I get emotional when I think about it, because the Incredible Hulk was fiercely loyal to people who treated him well. It was the one major value in his life. ... He valued and treasured his friends and ... anyone who mistreated them, he wanted to destroy, utterly — not just to punish, but to pulverize. When he was angry or upset in any other way, when his emotions were too strong, he was transformed into this creature who destroyed.

And that was beautiful because it's how you feel when you have a very strong feeling of resentment or anger and you can't do anything with it. You wish you could make people see just how powerful it feels. You feel like if it were unleashed it would break things — and the Incredible Hulk is that, just made flesh.

On his early interest in heavy metal music

It wasn't the demonic stuff that attracted me then, because by then I was reading poetry that [talked] about the devil. But the thing about metal that attracted me then was the energy and the total lack of guile. Metal has its own code of cool, but it's not really trying to be cool. And that was very refreshing to me, that metal is very much about expressing something that seems awesome to you, even if at the time, much of the world was going to mock and reject it.

On getting arrested for heroin possession, an incident that in part inspired the The Mountain Goats song "Dance Music"

My girlfriend and I had gotten into really hard drugs, heroin, and we were doing it a lot and enjoying it. And we pulled up to her house one evening after an evening out, pretty high, I think, and she said ... "What's [the] police doing at my house?" Her mom had discovered our stuff and called the police, which is the right thing to do, I want to say, in retrospect. But at the time we were pretty angry. ...

When you're taking a lot of drugs, you go through these periods of feeling like you're golden and nothing can touch you and the police are stupid and they can't catch you and all of that stuff. And then, of course, at the moment when one of them taps on your window — all of that just crumbles.

On his desire to be in control as a teenager, and the self-destructive behavior that resulted from it

My suspicion is that it's different for everybody. You can't speak monolithically about why people do that. I think this is one major problem in the treatment of younger people is that there's this assumption that there's a model on which you can treat everybody. ...

For me, [cutting] hurt bad and that felt good, in part because it's about controlling pain. It's about remaining in control. I get to do this. I say where my limits are. ...

My friends knew. They didn't like it, but I think that's part of the appeal if you're 16 and your friends don't like it and you say, "Yes, but it's my body and I'll do what I like with it." And I think that's what it's about — or at least what it was for me — is stating that my body belongs to me and I will do what I like with it, whether anyone likes it or not.

On writing music that inspires fans to share their stories

I hang out and sign records for an hour or two hours every night and I like to hear as many people's stories as I can, because if somebody wants to share their story with me, I want to honor that. ... But if you're hearing a bunch of [stories], it gets very intense. It's a lot.

I feel a duty. ... I really think there's a lot of music you can use to heal and save yourself. It's not like I have some magic power and I reached inside somebody and said, "Oh, you didn't know this about yourself until I wrote this song." That's not true. What I did is I made a thing, and somebody who needed to find something found mine and chose to meet me out on that ground.

It's this area of communication that is unique to music, I think. That's a choice that the listener makes to share that part of themselves with the artist who hopefully shared part of himself. ... It's very intense to have those sorts of conversations, have people sharing stuff that may be a secret, but I try to be worthy of it. It's an honor. I've worked a lot of jobs — this is the best one.

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As President Jimmy Carter looks on, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) sh...
Lawrence Wright's new book examines the 1978 peace deal President Carter brokered between Egypt and Israel. During the tense summit, Carter had "never been angrier," Wright says.

When President Jimmy Carter decided to bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David in 1978 to broker peace talks, his hope that the two men would like each other was "completely naïve and mistaken," says journalist Lawrence Wright.

The first couple of days turned into a screaming match.

"His idea ... was that if he could just get these two honorable men alone — away from the press of their domestic politics — and let them get to know each other — that they would ... come to trust one another," Wright tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"He couldn't have been more wrong about that because after the second day he had to separate them physically. ... [First Lady] Rosalynn Carter told me she could hear them yelling at each other in the other room all day long. ... It was not a well thought-out plan on Carter's part."

After 13 days, a peace accord was brokered between Israel and Egypt. Wright illuminates the story in his new book Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. It's a day-by-day account of the meetings and the history leading up to it.

Wright has written extensively about the effects of religious beliefs — including extreme religious beliefs — on people's lives. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Looming Tower about the history of al-Qaida.

Even though Carter was able to bring about the historic agreement, there was fallout. Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

"When he signed those accords, he essentially signed his death warrant," Wright says. "There's no question that making peace with Israel was the first of the charges against him."

Interview Highlights

On President Carter's inexperience with the Middle East and why he wanted to help bring peace

It's an odd story. He was a one-term governor from Georgia. He had very little experience in the Middle East. The only Jew that he had known growing up was his uncle. ... The first time he had met an Arab was at the Daytona 500 when he was governor of Georgia, so he was inexperienced. He did go to the Holy Land with Rosalynn, his wife, in 1973 when he was secretly considering running for president and he was very affected by that experience. And [when] he came home, he had decided that he would do whatever he could to bring peace to the Holy Land. ...

[Carter] had this extraordinary Christian faith and he felt that he was mandated to use it. He wasn't daunted by the fact that everybody else thought it was completely impossible.

On what Sadat and Begin wanted from the peace talks

Sadat started a war in 1973 in order to regain the [Suez] Canal in the Sinai and it was such a shock to Israel that the Egyptians had crossed the canal successfully and came within hailing distance of Tel Aviv. And although the Israelis recovered and occupied actually more territory in Egypt, they were badly shaken by that event.

Sadat wanted Sinai back, but he felt like he couldn't make a separate peace with Israel, that the Arabs would turn against him if he did. So he wanted to have a comprehensive peace that would include the Palestinian situation, return the occupied territories and allow the Palestinians to return to their previous homes. Nothing could be further from [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin's mind.

Begin's whole career had been about expanding Israel's territory and guaranteeing its safety. Not only was he not intending to surrender any territory, he wanted to institutionalize the de-militarization of the Sinai in order to make sure that there was 150 miles of sand between Israel and the main Egyptian force — that was their safety belt in his opinion. As for the West Bank, he wasn't going to entertain any idea at all about surrendering that territory.

On Carter's affection for Sadat

When Carter came into the White House, he started interviewing leaders of the Middle East, looking for someone who he could work with. And he was not impressed at all as they came one after another to the White House to meet the president — until finally Anwar Sadat arrived and it was kismet of some sort.

Carter talked about how he "loved" him and that's not the normal language of diplomacy, but his staffers all said that there was something clearly going on there — that there was a genuine feeling between the two of them.

I think that encouraged Sadat to think they could make the relationship of the United States resemble the friendship of Sadat and Carter, and I think that also concerned Menachem Begin that Egypt would come to replace Israel as America's chief ally in the Middle East.

On the two leaders almost walking out and Carter's reaction

Implicitly, [Carter] was threatening war because he was saying that if there's another war, [the U.S.] is going to be on Israel's side and Egypt will be alone and friendless in the world. It was a very sobering moment. Carter told me that he had never been angrier in his entire life. It was clear that he made a real impression on Sadat. Sadat had already ordered the helicopter; he had packed his clothes; he was out of there. He was worried that he was going to be asked to give up too much at Camp David and he wouldn't be able to justify it when he got home.

[Begin] didn't really have a position. He didn't want to agree to any of the terms that Carter was putting forward. Finally, he began to realize that he was going to have to agree with something in order to preserve the relationship with the United States. Carter told him that if he left Camp David, he was going to make sure that the American people knew who was to blame [for the collapse of the peace talks]. He was going to go to Congress; he was going to lay it on them.

One of [Carter's] speechwriters was told to draw up a speech in which Carter was going to ask the Israeli people to overthrow their government, through a vote, but imagine! You can't believe how that would be received in Israel or even the Congress of the United States. Things had gotten so personal at the point. Carter believed so strongly that peace was worth it, but he was about to blow everything to smithereens — if either of these men walked out, they were going to pay a price and he wanted to make sure they knew it.

On Sadat's assassination

Many people in the Egyptian delegation refused to attend the signing ceremony, not only because they didn't agree with it, [but also because] they were afraid for their lives. They were worried that ... they would be hounded and threatened and of course, in the case of Sadat, that was true.

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Can you re-invent lively pop from the distant past? Fresh Air music critic Milo Miles says the songwriting team Tennis does just that with their new third album, Ritual in Repeat.

Can you re-invent lively pop from the distant past? Fresh Air music critic Milo Miles says the songwriting team Tennis does just that with their new third album, Ritual in Repeat.

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