Jamie Iredell is equally skilled at writing heartfelt nonfiction and far more surreal works that defy quick classification. He can also tell you, on sight, what size jacket, pants, and hat you wear. The man has talents that extend far beyond the realm of writing; he’s also a remarkably congenial guy, a gripping reader, and someone whose participation in the literary community takes many forms.
Iredell’s new collection of essays, I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, touches on subjects as varied as drug use, weight, Iredell’s youth in California, and superhero films. Tying it together are certain overarching themes: Irdell’s love for his wife and daughter, his dedication to literature, and a deeply observed sense of the landscapes around him. It’s a moving collection of work, and contains some of the best essays you’re likely to read this year. I checked in with Iredell via email to learn more about the book’s origins, see what he’s working on now, and more.
You allude to a fondness for nonfiction about nature in these essays: is this something that you’re planning to delve more into in your own work?
I’ve always been a nature dork. I’m not a super eco-nerd, in that I don’t typically get involved in protests, or anything. But I’m conscious of recycling and reusing as much as possible and generally trying to lessen my carbon footprint. One of the reasons my wife and I live in Midtown Atlanta is that we don’t drive often; we can walk almost everywhere we need to go. So, these are concerns that have always been important to me. I grew up in California, near the Monterey Bay; I was a Boy Scout; I hiked the Ventana Wilderness and the northern Sierra Nevada. I lived in Reno for almost ten years, and there the outdoors is simply a part of your life. I have a degree in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada. I studied with Scott Slovic and Michael Branch. These guys are some of the seminal Ecocritics of our time. When I studied with them I read people like Leo Marx and Joseph Wood Krutch. Anyway, yes, it’s a big deal to me. Sometimes I’ll ask my students what they think is the most pressing concern that humanity has to deal with, and I’m a bit flabbergasted when they talk about things like the economy or racism. I don’t understand why more people can’t see that the destruction of our habitat is the single most important issue that we all have to deal with and do something about. But I try not get up on a platform and yell. And, yeah, I have this thing I’ve been working on called “The Trees of Atlanta,” which is essentially my thoughts about the trees in my city as I jog through it during the year. I imagine this project as a kind of Thoreauvian exploration of my immediate environment. You don’t need to go far to experience nature, right? Along with that, though, comes this voice that’s not really me, but someone whom I know pretty well, and he’s trying to make sense of his life and his failures, etc, as he jogs along. Now that I’m talking about it, it sounds like the most boring book in history.
How difficult was it to organize these essays into what turned out to be their final order?
Well, I guess it wasn’t that hard. I saw everything I’d written over the course of a few years, and there was a trajectory. A lot of the stuff I wrote for Thought Catalog — due to the audience — I wrote about my life when I lived in Reno. Then there was this other, more thought-out stuff, I guess. When looked at it all I saw a trajectory that was more or less chronological. There are essays in which I talk about my childhood and teen years, and then there’s this “section” that focuses on my life in Reno, Nevada, and finally it ends with my married and fatherly life in Atlanta, and all that seemed to come about organically, I guess. I will say, however, that the book is one that rewards the reader who goes through chronologically, from page one to the end. There is certainly intent in the organization, and there’s an arc, or story, or whatever you wanna call it.
Parenthood is something that plays a significant role in the book. Is this the first book that you’ve written since becoming a father?
Yes and no. I’m always working on multiple projects at one time, So I was working on this book at the same time that I was working on another book-length essay called Last Mass, as well as a novel called The Fat Kid. Parenthood doesn’t really factor into those books at all, or at least my parenthood. The Fat Kid is about patricide, lol. I was writing all these essays mostly because I wanted to not be some forgotten person in the lit world while I was working on these other books. But then I started really enjoying writing essays, and I kept trying more and more ambitious things. The last essay I wrote was “This Essay Cannot Sleep,” and prior to that it was “Dear Kinsey.” In the latter of these I wanted to write a book review in the form of a letter to my daughter that also discussed the current state of feminism and how women fare in our culture. I think a lot about being a dad, and trying to be a good dad, because I’m afraid of not being one. My father was a great dad, and I’d like to be like him, but I always worry that my self-destructive propensities will override my ability to be there for my daughter. Maybe writing about them is my way of excising those fears, or bringing them boiling to the forefront, so that I never forget about them and I can continue to try to be a good dad.
What’s been your process like for writing this novel? The last fiction I read from you was The Book of Freaks, and that’s a work that defies any kind of easy categorization…
This is the fourth novel I’ve written, with the first two being apprentice novels, and the third a novel titled The Lake, which is set to come out in 2015. In those first three novels I deliberately set out to write them as novels. With The Fat Kid, not so much. For the first year I simply had a MS Word file that contained transcriptions of dreams that seemed to stick out after I woke from them, sometimes in the middle of the night, and sometimes first thing in the morning. What was consistent about the dreams was a feeling of character and setting. Whatever was happening in these dreams they seemed to be taking place out west, sometimes in a desert that resembled the Great Basin in Nevada, sometimes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, sometimes in San Francisco. After that first year, when I went back and reread everything I had written in that file, I saw that these elements really cohered in a way that at least made something novel-like. I called that the first draft. Over the next year I worked on that draft, trying to tidy up the individual dreams grammatically — but maintaining their bizarre and disjointed qualities, and I tried to organize them in a way that to me felt like they were moving toward something. Towards what I didn’t know, but I wanted to make the draft feel like things were happening in such a way that action was moving forward, you know?
I’m in my third year now with this novel, and at the beginning of 2013 I had this new character suddenly come to me, and I knew that this character was important, a main character. I realized that I had to restructure the book so that the novel as a whole contained two books. This summer was particularly productive. I was revising Last Mass, and working on this third or fourth draft of The Fat Kid, and I alternated months with each book, which kept my eyes fresh on each one. But, yeah, you know The Book of Freaks came about organically like this, in that I didn’t know I was writing such a book until the final stages of writing it. So I think some of indefinableness of that book came about organically like that. For example, the decision to make the entire book, and even the parts of a book, alphabetical didn’t come about till I was nearly ready to send the book to the publisher, but once it came to me I knew it was a good idea. Similarly, with The Fat Kid, there are sections that are simply song lyrics to songs that don’t exist, and whole narrative points of view that aren’t necessarily connected to any of the main characters, but just kind of stick out there, but feel like they ought to be part of the same book. Anyway, it’s a process, working on it. Since September I’ve been teaching and getting things ready for this collection of essays, and I haven’t had much time for any writing at all, really.
In terms of cities in which you’ve lived, how does Atlanta feel relative to life in Nevada and California?
I love Atlanta. It took me a year to get adjusted. I moved to Atlanta at the beginning of football season, and I’ll never forget showing up at a sports bar at 5:30 PM, finding it deserted, and incredulously asking the bartender if they were going to be showing Monday Night Football. The bartender looked at me strangely, then at the clock, and said yes, they would be showing the game when it came on at nine o’clock that night. I was so used to the Pacific Time Zone. There was another time when I decided to try out the diner up the street from my apartment that I’d seen when I’d driven past. I walked up there and stepped inside and, had there been a record player playing, it would’ve scratched itself while it came to a miraculous stop while every set of eyes in that place turned to stare at me. There’s no legal segregation in the South anymore, but there are some establishments that simply seem to cater to a white or black clientele, and this was a place where black folks went to eat. Of course, in the years since this incident I’ve learned that no one really cares if you go into any business, but it felt like everyone was staring at me at the time. I ordered a cheeseburger, as if that’s an important detail. I’ve now lived in Atlanta for twelve years.
I’ve only lived longer in California, where I grew up till I was eighteen. It was a rural part of the central coast; we had to drive a minimum of three miles for anything, even a gallon of milk. Going to the mall or to see a movie, or something, was an excursion of at least twenty-four miles, roundtrip. So the big difference between that and where I live now is that Atlanta is a pretty big city and I live in the middle of it. I can walk to work, to the grocery store, the post office, the park, and a plethora of bars and restaurants.
Of these three locales in which I’ve lived, the place that stands out as most different is Reno. Reno’s kind of like a college town, but with casinos. I almost always lived and hung out in the crumbling neighborhood due west of the University of Nevada. I had a job for a while at the pizza place there called The Pub n’ Sub, and there I met a group of friends who remain my friends today. We were a group of young and stupid kids who got into all kinds of trouble, and did our share of drinking and drugging. Reno has so many dive bars — I’m not even sure if Reno has a “normal” bar — and we kicked it at Mr. O’s (which is now The Chapel), and The Hideout, places where most people would be careful about their skin touching anything. Also, the casinos in Reno aren’t at all like the casinos in Las Vegas. They’re like the trailer park version of a Vegas casino, with cheap buffets and bars, which was the reason my friends and I frequented them. They were filled with swirling carpets that reeked of cigarette smoke, and old people and transients pulling slot machines or dropping cards on the Blackjack tables. Some of my friends worked for Burning Man for many years, and ended up starting a chapter of the Black Label Bike Club in Reno. I’ve had too many friends from that group die, or become addicted to hard drugs. But Reno was also in the Sierras, and I couldn’t count how often we went camping, or simply drove into the desert to shoot jackrabbits, or to hunt deer and elk. During the winter I skied at Mount Rose and Squaw Valley twice a week. In the summer, we’d head up to Kings Beach at Lake Tahoe. We backpacked the Tahoe Rim Trail, and slid down the shoots on the Yuba River. Reno was a beautiful, magical, fun, and scary and dark place all at the same time.
You teach writing, and you’re also an editor at Atticus Review. How have these affected your own writing?
That’s a great question, and I don’t really know what the answer is. Teaching feels so separate from writing to me. I mean, I teach in an MFA program, so I get to teach students who are interested in the same things that I am, but I don’t often think of the kinds of things I teach when I write. Like, I don’t think about point of view or character development or free indirect discourse or profluence when I’m writing; I tend to simply think about getting the sentence right, or telling a compelling story, or organizing my ideas into an essay. I guess I often teach my students that, at some point, the goal is to get to where you don’t think about the elements of writing at all, and you just write, because you’ve internalized all of those things.
I have learned a lot as an editor at Atticus Review (and prior to that, as the designer at C&R Press, and as one of the founders and the designer of New South). I hardly ever get flat-out bad submissions, the kind of submission that came from someone who hasn’t a clue about submitting to literary magazines, or who blanket submitted the same story to thirty of them. Most of the submissions I receive at Atticus are pretty good. I start reading them and the characters are compelling, the writing at the sentence level is sound, etcetera. What I have noticed, is that very few stories start with a bang in terms of something happening within the first sentence or the first paragraph. It seems that many writers are coming to their stories with some kind of jogging start before they get to the conflict. I don’t think the short story has time for that. Also, there are many stories that haste the same register, same story feel to them. For lack of a better descriptor, I guess I’d say these are the cliched “workshop story” you so often hear maligned. It’s not bad writing at all, but it’s not exceptional either. So, I would say that such knowledge has had an effect on my writing, but I haven’t written a short story in years. I’ve tried. When I give my students exercises, I sometimes do the exercise as well to see if I can get something started. So far, I’ve been working on two short stories for almost a year. So, I’m not sure that I can write a short story anymore. I guess I’ve just been in essay-land, and book-length nonfiction-land, and novel-land for too long.