The Biggest Villain: An Interview with Jamie Iredell
Belonging to a generation that was raised partly by Mr. Rogers, I find a number of my peers have trouble looking honestly at themselves and the choices they have made (or may be continuing to make). Jamie Iredell is not one of those people, and his new collection of essays, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, is a strong testimonial to that fact. Iredell addresses a variety of subjects throughout the collection, all through an eye that refuses to flinch even when things get ugly (both metaphorically and physically, as in the essay “How Unattractive People Really Are”). Writing with intelligence, self-awareness, and great tenderness, Iredell connects his own personal struggles and triumphs to a larger cultural fabric, which in part explains his chosen dedication for the book: “For ‘America.’”
Cumulatively, the essays cover Iredell’s transformation from bookish child, to drug-abusing college student, to self-described “bar slut,” to family man. Along the way there are essays on obesity, racism, gay rights, sexism, drug abuse, death, and the most disgusting things the author did when he was a smoker, the last of which includes the gag-inducing item: “Accidentally drinking from a beer-turned-ashtray.” While the essays are stylistically varied, the voice that emerges throughout the collection is consistent, compassionate, and better for the experiences.
Iredell recently discussed his new essay collection with Fanzine.
FANZINE: I have to start out asking about the final essay, “Dear Kinsey,” which seems to encapsulate the growth we see throughout the collection. The version of you who appears in that essay is very different than some of the earlier portraits you show of yourself, say, for example in “A Brief, Depressing, Hilarious, Disgusting History With Pickup Lines.” Can you talk about how becoming a father has affected your concept of yourself and has influenced your writing?
JAMIE IREDELL: Becoming a father has required that I be a far more responsible person than I’ve been since I was a teenager. I used to do things sometimes simply so that I could say I’d done them, things like smoking crack, or driving 90 mph down a country road in my hometown where no fewer than three of my classmates had died in fiery crashes. My daughter is, of course, important to me, so having her has changed the kind of decision-making I go through. I still like to have a good time. I like my beer and bourbon. But I’m usually in bed before midnight and I’m up between 6 and 7 AM each day. I’ve always liked to write, but mostly poetry and stories when I was younger. I remember in the sixth grade my teacher was trying to teach our class how to write an essay, most likely the five-paragraph version, and I had more trouble than anyone else. My teacher sat with me, trying to drill into my head the introductory paragraph and thesis statement, etcetera. I just couldn’t get it. To me, writing was all about having fun with words. The rigid structure threw me off. I didn’t really start writing nonfiction until after I was married. I did all this research for a historical novel I wanted to write, but when I began trying to write it what came out was a book-length lyric essay. And the essays in this book (IWAFDCSI) I started writing when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. So I guess you could say that impending fatherhood and fatherhood itself was the biggest influence on this book. Maybe that’s what made me look back at what kind of idiot I’ve been before, so that I might not become that idiot again.
FZ: You write with great openness throughout the collection, including when writing about moments most people aren’t proud of in their own lives–abusive relationships, suicide attempts, drug abuse, womanizing, and so on–does knowing that one day your daughter will read these essays or knowing that family, friends, and strangers are currently reading them affect how you approach the subjects? Or do you mostly not think about audience when you write?
JI: It seems best to me that if you’re writing the personal essay or the memoir, the biggest villain of the story ought to be the author. Who wants to read something where someone’s talking about how great he is? I guess that’s okay if it’s Chuck Berry, or David Carradine. Both of those guys’ memoirs are amazing, in part for the ridiculous grandiosity of their narcissism–much of it unfounded–that they seem unaware of, so their books have this strange almost unreliable narrator thing going on. But there’s no question that writing about yourself, even when you’re talking about the lowest points of your life, is narcissistic, too. So mostly I’m concerned first with anyone reading it and thinking that I’m glorifying myself or the things I’ve gone through, as that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m terribly ashamed of most everything I’ve ever done in my life. I feel like I have very few high points. But I think I write about those lows, those terrible things–or at least I have in this book–as a way to confront how imperfect I am. I would never try to present myself to my daughter or any other family member as perfect, or even good. I’m just trying my best to be good, and usually failing. Then again, I’ve often looked at personal essay and memoir as a vehicle through which the artist becomes his art. The words aren’t really the art at all; the artist is his art. The artist has learned to manipulate the language in such a way that said art transmits to the audience. So, I think a lot about audience when I write; I’m just ashamed of who I am, but I’m not afraid of it.
FZ: I’m interested in what you’re saying here about seeing the personal essay as “a vehicle through which the artist becomes his art.” In “This Essay Cannot Sleep,” you write, “I’m a fan of the definition of ‘essay’ as ‘an attempt.’ So I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I might be looking for answers, it’s okay if I don’t find any. What matters is that I tried to.” Is art for you more about the process than it is the final product or is there a balance that you strive for?
JI: I’m way more interested in the process than the final product. Just looking at this from the writer’s point of view, you spend so much time with a text, living in it, letting it be this big part of who you are, until it fades, and starts feeling like its own thing, like it’s no longer a part of you. You know you’ve reached this point when you haven’t looked at a text in a while and you read it and you’re like “Who the hell wrote that?” Hopefully you’re also thinking, “Whoever wrote it, it’s good.” After that, everything else that goes with doing stuff with texts feels like a job. I guess there’s the editorial process, and that makes you live with the work again, but sometimes this period feels somewhat artificial, as it’s forced. If you’re working with a good editor–and I’ve been fortunate to have that with most of my books–it’s a great and creative process. But by the time a book’s published and I’m going through the promotional stuff and doing readings and everything, I’m pretty bored with that book, or I’m deeply involved with the creation of another, and my head’s in another space. Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoy doing readings, going on a book tour, having a release party, all that stuff. It’s just that I feel most alive when I’ve spent a day inside something, something that’s so engrossing that when I’m jogging all I’m thinking about is that book, and before I know it I’ve run five miles and I feel like I’m only getting started.
FZ: How is writing nonfiction different for you than writing fiction and poetry is?
JI: I think a lot about essays before I write a first draft. I think about what I might want to talk about and how I’m going to talk about it. Sometimes I think of intricate ways to get ideas across, like with “Dear Kinsey,” a book review written in the form of a letter, that’s also a bit of contemporary cultural studies. I don’t really think about fiction or poetry beforehand. Whatever it is that gets me to the story or poem just comes to me. Sometimes it’s a dream or dreams, sometimes an image or character. With poetry it’s usually phrases or lines that come to me, and sometimes a whole story pops up fully formed in my mind, and I sit down and get it out. With longer things like novels, I obviously don’t get the first draft down in a single sitting, but I still don’t really think about the story. I like being surprised at where it might take me. It’s in revision that things start to take shape. What’s weird though, is that with that book-length lyric essay that I mentioned earlier, I didn’t even know that I was going to write it. I didn’t premeditate that book like I usually do with shorter essays.
FZ: There is a lot of variety in form in this collection, from lists, such as in “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I Was a Smoker,” to a sort of fragmented diary entry in “This Essay Cannot Sleep,” to second person address as in “What It’s Really Like,” to more traditional straight-forward personal essays. Can you talk about how you came to these various forms? And are there particular essay writers who you see as influences on your work?
JI: Some of these came about the way they did because of where they were originally published. All the list-like essays were originally published at Thought Catalog, and if you’ve ever been to that site, then you understand why those pieces are written as lists. I was, of course, trying to do something that was a little more than what you get in your typical Internet listicle. Don’t know if I succeeded at that. I like writing the straight-up narrative personal essay, but I get bored with it after a while, so I try different things. When I wrote “This Essay Cannot Sleep” I was thinking of when I have insomnia, and it feels fractured like that essay. When you can’t sleep–and I mean really can’t sleep, where you sleep very little over a long period of time, like a week–your experience of that time when you look back on it is broken into the chunks that seem distinct in your memory. Although, I suppose all memory is like that. Anyway, I wanted the form of the essay to be married to my experience of the subject matter. In something like “What It’s Really Like” I wanted the essay to be an address to myself, so it’s simply a thinly veiled first person. But that seemed appropriate, again, because of the subject matter. I think I’ve been influenced by many different essayists. The first essays that I really read were Montaigne’s, when I was an undergrad. I still go back to essays like “Of Cannibals.” But contemporary essayists I love include Maggie Nelson, Joan Didion, the John D’Agata of Halls of Fame and About a Mountain (I’m still not sure what to think about Lifespan of a Fact). Oh, and I really loved my pressmate Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray. The essay “What Is a Jagger” was inspired by Gloria Naylor’s essay, “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” And my guess is that readers would not have to read too far into this book to see the influence of David Foster Wallace.
FZ: The book is dedicated “For ‘America,’” which I think can be read a few ways. What does “America,” in quotations, mean to you?
JI: Yeah, that was kind of a joke, maybe. The United States is a pretty big and populous place, so I don’t think the particular things I talked about in this book affect all Americans, but they seemed to be some of the big things that come up in our culture: obesity, drug and alcohol addiction, race and gender relations, gay marriage, etcetera. It seemed to me that that was an apt idea to which I might dedicate the book. But I feel like that’s only a certain America, so that was why I put it in quotations. Seemed too much to not include the quotations. I can’t speak for a nation as diverse as ours.
FZ: What can readers expect to see next from you?
JI: I have a few books scheduled to come out in the next couple/few years. That book-length lyric essay that I’ve mentioned above is scheduled to come out in 2015 from Civil Coping Mechanisms. It’s about growing up as a Catholic in California, near the city where Junípero Serra, the Franciscan who founded the first of California’s Catholic Missions, lived and died. It includes early California history, combined with memoir and pop culture observation. Some of it is about bears, too. Also in 2015 I have a novel called The Lake coming out from Aqueous Books. It’s about three archetypal characters repeatedly trying to kill each other over thousands of years, all set around a real/mythical lake set in a mountainous area. And I’m still hard at work on another novel, called The Fat Kid. It’s about a fat kid who kills his father. But honestly, the only expectations that I can hope to meet for readers is that I entertain them. That’s always what I strive for.
I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac was published in November by Future Tense Books. Iredell is also the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. and The Book of Freaks (also from Future Tense Books).
Top photo credit: Koneko Photography