Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.
Reading Jamie Iredell is like sitting at a bar counter with an old friend you admire and respect who is saying, “I have got to tell you this story.“ His sentences weave in a tone sometimes so languid, so poetic, that one feels as if they’re reading through softly crafted melody, no matter how harsh the content. His most recent collection of essays, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, is the rare kind of book that delivers painful stories, and in a way, he makes them our stories, too. We talked over email about writing, and his new collection.
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: When did you realize that you were a writer?
JAMIE IREDELL: The honest answer would be that I decided that I wanted to do this when I was nineteen and a sophomore in college and I took an introductory level creative writing course. But I had written before that. I was always a big reader as a kid, and often I’d finish a novel and think "I could write a story like that.” I’d start scribbling out my story, get a paragraph into it, look out the window, and decide that tossing the baseball around with my brother or dad was far more fun. So, while I wanted to do it when I was younger I had commitment issues, I guess you could say. When I left home for college I went through some pretty huge changes: I studied philosophy and psychology; I learned to play the guitar; and I started writing bad poetry. Just for fun though—no real work, no revision—until I took that creative writing class.
NE: What did you read in the creative writing class? What was moving to you in the class? What did you write then?
JI: Since the class was an intro, we covered both fiction and poetry, so we read The College Handbook of Creative Writing by DeMaria and What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Bernays and Painter. What I got most out of the class—besides general knowledge about practical writing advice, like showing and not telling and stuff like that—was the idea of revision. I don’t think it had ever dawned on me prior to that class that you didn’t just sit down, write a story and that was that. The idea that I was to go back, make additions and subtractions, rewrites, add characters, or change my characters completely, etcetera, was a wonderfully enriching discovery. And that was good, because I was mostly writing shitty, poorly rhyming love poems. A bunch of writer friends and I once had a juvenilia party, where we all read from our earliest stuff. I won, partly based on the excellent lines, “Nicole, Nicole, how I love to love Nicole / she’s made me sick with that heart of mine she stole.” Yeah, that.
NE: Do you consider your own relationship to your craft of writing equally sacred to your relationship to reading as a reader or more so or less so and why?
JI: They’re pretty equal. I often include research in things I’m writing, so I often pause to look up something, or to reference a passage from a text, or paraphrase it. I’ve been writing a novel for a few years, and I’ve been trying to read as many novels as I can that are in any way like the one I’m trying to write. When it comes to any genre I read it in order to see how the author achieved the thing she did, which for me is usually emotional (as opposed to intellectual, say), but often I’m looking at a text’s form and structure, too. I want to know how that author achieved the effect she created in me as a reader, and I store that up.
NE: What made you want to write this almost retrospective on a life (your life) collection of essays?
JI: To be honest, it came about after I’d written my second book (The Book of Freaks), and then another book in between there, which is a book-length lyric essay (it’s called Last Mass, and it’s coming out in 2015 from Civil Coping Mechanisms). I was still into reading a lot of nonfiction. I was reading a lot of David Foster Wallace essays, and I wanted to do some huge catalog-like essays about myself. I wasn’t really thinking about a book until Kevin Sampsell offered to publish one.
NE: What was your reaction when Kevin came to you with the idea?
JI: Well, I was excited, of course. I had a very positive experience working with Kevin and Future Tense with The Book of Freaks, so I was looking forward to working with them again. I was still writing essays when Kevin offered to publish a book, so I kept writing them for a while without really thinking about a book yet. Eventually, though, I started thinking about how I might fit the disparate material I’d been publishing over the previous couple years into a cohesive book. Kevin really helped me fine tune it by pairing it down and moving a couple essays around so that you get an almost narrative, or chronological, sense over the course of the book.
NE: What kind of writing speaks to you as a reader, and/or as a writer? Why?
JI: I typically like writing that’s pretty densely layered linguistically. I’m a big fan of an author who plays with the sounds that his sentences make. I’m probably also a bit of a grammar snob, and I get turned off by a lack of economy. Phrases like “She thought to herself” (who else would she think to, unless she’s one of the X-men?), and “He nodded his head” (what other body part does one nod?) really bother me. Generally though, I like to think that I’m pretty open-minded. I like a good story. I’m okay with it if it seems at first to be a little predictable. I can’t stick with it if the story doesn’t prove me wrong, though. I love Cormac McCarthy’s novels, Joan Didion’s nonfiction, Dean Young’s poetry. Depending on what I’m working on as a writer I’ll go through different phases as a reader. For a while I was reading a lot of David Markson and William Gaddis, then Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and CA Conrad poems.
NE: What three books have you always wanted to read and haven’t yet?
JI: All of Don Quixote (I got a third of the way in a couple years ago and put the book aside; gotta get back to that);The Origin of Species; and The Tale of Genji.
NE: I can break down Don Quixote for you: It said, basically, if you want to be a Knight, act like a Knight.
JI: That sounds about right.
I feel like the thing about an essay—that’s not all that different in certain kinds of poems—is the illusion of cohesiveness. Certainly there are guiding threads that you lay down to help a reader get through even the most lyric of essays. They change the pace you’re reading, and the rhythm, yet they’re directly related to the subject matter. But the essay’s form mirrors the chaos—or the seeming chaos—of the subject matter. You’re taking a risk when writing about ideas; you automatically open yourself to criticism. The adverse is true, too: the easiest essays to write were those that were solely narrative, but I did want the book to be a bit more dimensional than something that fits into one neat slot. In my opinion (emphasis, because I might catch some flak for saying this), nonfiction is probably closer to poetry than it is to anything else. You’re not bound by the strictures of plot and character that comes with narrative or dramatic writing.