The last time I spoke with Jamie Iredell, he’d just released a collection of essays. Two years have passed since then; Iredell‘s latest book is the haunting, confessional Last Mass, in which he juxtaposes the often-harrowing history of Catholic missionaries in California with his own relationship to Catholicism. It’s a powerful work in which Iredell moves seamlessly from the present to the past and back again, accruing the weight of history along the way. I spoke with him via email to learn more about the book’s origins and the process by which it was created.
When did you first get the idea to write about California’s history?
I think I’ve always wanted to write about it, from learning early California history in elementary and middle school, and, since I left California, it’s been this part of me that’s missing and I live it by writing about it. I wrote a novel called The Lake, which, incidentally, Civil Coping Mechanisms will publish next year, and that deals with another aspect of early California history: that of the encounters between the Washoe people and the first European-descended Americans who showed up in the mid-nineteenth century in the area near Reno, Nevada, before attempting to cross the Sierra into California. That book I basically was writing in one form or another from about 1999 or 2000 until 2011 (not continuously over all those years, but I wrote many drafts of that book and finally got it down). I’ve always been fascinated with history, with how what we live in now became what it is. It will not surprise anyone to know that I have a subscription to National Geographic Magazine. I can dork out on NOVA episodes about early humans like no one else. It’s simply something that interests me.
How much of that history were you familiar with, and how much did you end up picking up over the course of your research?
I was familiar with a good bit of it, having the education I mentioned above, which was just part of the curriculum for students in public schools in California. I knew who Father Serra was and what time period he lived in, and I was familiar with the Missions. But there were many particulars I didn’t know about. I knew that Native Californians had–for the most part–disappeared from the region in which I grew up, but I didn’t know why or how. I didn’t know that Father Serra was such a fervent–even almost-psychotic–adherent to his dream of converting native peoples to Catholicism. There are a ton of other things, but if I were to go into them all I suppose that would defeat the purpose of having written the book.
At what point did juxtaposing it with your own relationship with Catholicism enter into the picture?
Basically, what happened was, I went to this artist colony in North Georgia with the intention of beginning a draft of a novel wherein Father Serra was the protagonist. But when I got there to my little cabin in the woods and got settled and opened my computer, that blank Word page with its blinking cursor just stared and blinked back at me and I was blank. I couldn’t think of what to write. I’d researched Father Serra and early California history for two years. I’d brought with me a stack of the books I’d read for reference. But I ignored all of that and I went for a run. When I came back I sat down and wrote a paragraph about the fact that I’d gone for a run. It was this paragraph: “Early autumn leaves just starting to turn, a splash of red in the green. My first morning I ran six miles: three miles up a mountain, three back down. Who runs up a mountain? I had no idea the road would take me there.” That was the first thing I wrote that is now Last Mass. The rest of the time I was at that artist colony I simply penned paragraph after paragraph, not caring about order, not caring about cohesion. Sometimes the paragraphs were little factoids that I’d retained from my research, other times they were about movies I was watching during breaks while stuck there in that cabin, and often, it was about growing up as a Catholic myself in the same area that Father Serra had settled nearly 250 years before me. So, it just sort of happened organically.
Was there anything that you learned in the process of researching the history featured in Last Mass that didn’t make it in to this book, but might show up in something else you’ll write?
There is a decent amount of material that I cut. Most of it has to do with tangents I got on while I was drafting. I’m also very interested in the period of early California history that people are probably most familiar with, the latter part of the Spanish-controlled colony, and the near-thirty years of Mexican control. This is the time of the ranchos, of the Californios–Spanish- and Mexican-descended peoples who were born in California. Usually, a very romanticized version of this history is what you get, like in tales of Zorro, with fiestas and rodeos and dashing heroes and bandits. The reality was of course far more complex. I’d love to return to that period some more. I don’t have any particular plans though, and haven’t a clue what a text that uses that information would be.
You’ve woven the writing of Last Mass into the text of Last Mass. How has the manuscript changed since the writing process you describe in it?
It changed dramatically over the years (I wrote the first draft in 2010), but what you’re actually reading is very close to the original draft. I wrote nine drafts of Last Mass. Some of those were organized in slightly different manners (like different loops of logic). And at least one draft was a far more conventional nonfiction book where each chapter was an essay that focussed on some aspect of the California history, or my personal history, and it alternated back and forth, etcetera. But after writing all these different drafts I ultimately returned to the original, which more or less retains the form that you see now. As I mentioned above, the first paragraph I wrote was the one about the run I took, but originally it was more simple: “Six mile run today: three miles up a mountain, three back down. Who runs up a mountain? I had no idea the road would take me there.” The second paragraph that I wrote was the paragraph that begins the book now: “I am a Catholic . . .” And all of the things that happened to me while I was drafting the book actually happened. It was a freakish time, and I felt like the only way I could deal with what I was going through was to write about it, so those paragraphs found their way into the book as well.
You’re very candid about moments of excess in the book; did you hesitate at all about working these in?
I did not hesitate about writing them, but I did about publishing them. Anyone who’s ever read anything I’ve written might be surprised to hear me say that, since holding things back is not exactly my style. But I did have some reservations about many things. I had discussions with family members about what I was writing and what they thought might be okay and what might not be. I was particularly worried about what my wife might think of what happened to me while I was in that cabin writing this book. She knows me all too well, but most of my hedonism she understood to be part of my past. But I was in a real state while writing this book and I let myself get there, then I pulled myself out of it. I told my wife in person about all of it. Still, I worried about her reading it. My family is everything to me, but I feel like the truth is important. It’s there for a reason. So I told it.
Has writing this book changed your relationship to Catholicism at all?
I’d pretty much already made up my mind about where I stood with Catholicism before I wrote this book, but the act of creating it was a spiritual awakening of sorts. I will likely never be able to rid myself of Catholicism, even if I’m not a practicing Catholic. A couple years ago I was in Rome with my family and my in-laws, the latter of which are irreligious. We visited Vatican City for the obvious reasons (museums, the Sistine Chapel) and, while I tried to hide it, my wife and father-in-law couldn’t help but comment on the fact that I took Holy Water and genuflected upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica. And, while I didn’t tell anyone else, I blessed my then-infant first-born with Holy Water as well. I mean, I was in St. Peter’s! What was I supposed to do? Catholics spend their whole lives sometimes trying to make this pilgrimage. And I can’t walk into a church without genuflecting. Yet I know what kinds of horrors have been sanctioned by and committed in the Church’s name. Despite that blessing I would never raise my daughters as Catholics. It’s a large church, the world’s largest religion, and there are very progressive Catholics, and there are radicals. People like Rick Santorum or Mel Gibson are flat-out dangerous and they discredit the many other believers who espouse the love and tolerance that I experienced in my own church while growing up. Yet, despite the inclusion I feel I experienced, I am not a practicing Catholic, and I will never be again because ultimately that adherence to the faith stifles intellectual development, the ability to understand a frame of reference different than your own, and it can lead to horrific ideas and actions. I learned many wonderful things from being a Catholic, but ultimately the faith has done more harm than good the world over, and I choose compassion for others over any adherence to laws created to govern them.