It’s Weird That People Think That That’s Weird: An Interview with Jamie Iredell
Earlier this year saw the release of Jamie Iredell’s second book, The Book of Freaks, from Future Tense Press, on the heels of his much beloved Prose: Poetry, A Novel. Essentially an encyclopedia-style catalog of human oddities and the author’s wild ruminations on everything from Russians to People Named Spencer and Their Wives, the whole assemblage works as a collage you can dip in and out of with immediate pleasure, but also manages to construct among its pieces a hybrid narrative that is truly singularly Iredellian. Over the past several weeks, Jamie was kind enough to take some time to talk about some of the manners of the book with me via email.
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BB: Having published your first book that was largely autobiographical, but in some ways also a book full of freaks, how did you end beginning work on an actual, encyclopedia-styled Book of Freaks?
JI: I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it at all, in that I wasn’t thinking “I’m writing a book.” I was just writing shit mostly in the Notes App on my iPhone. Basically talking shit. When I thought something was funny or fucked or whatever, I’d write about it, and then in rewriting I’d make it better. Eventually I saw themes developing. I caught a bunch of these A&E shows about obese people, or folks with other debilitating conditions, like this woman with one part of her body (legs) growing out of control her entire life, so her legs were all fucked up huge while the rest of her was normal. Then I figured, if there’s something interesting about those people then there’s something equally interesting about Mexicans, or people who purposely style their hair into fauxhawks.
BB: You and I have talked a lot about different ways of writing. I write all mostly the same way every time, but you seem to often shift your mode based on the project, such as sometimes long hand, sometimes into the computer directly, and this one on your iPhone. You are a freak for having an iPhone by the way. Or I’m one for not having one, I can’t tell anymore. Anyway, did writing on the phone make you talk differently? How do the shifting between the settings affect the final work, do you think?
JI: Anyway, yeah, it totally makes me deal with the language differently, each project. Writing into the phone was similar in a way to longhand, because I’d completely rewrite when it got into a Word doc, and the process of rewriting was a serious revision. Stuff that I’ve written directly into Word I usually had written many times already, so I don’t even know what draft number I was on. I think about sentences and structures and stuff while jogging (yes, I jog, even tho I’m fat, or chubby at least, and I drink a lot), so I think of that as writing too, even if it’s not physical. The phone thing–or longhanding, too–makes me take shortcuts for expediency’s sake. That’s good and bad. I think too fast to get all the ideas on the page coherently? So I try to be concise, and that’s good. It seems to even out in the end, in terms of direct, visceral images that don’t waste space or words, especially since writing on a phone is a pain in the ass. It’s great, tho, when you’re out at a bar and you’re struck by a good sentence or image or something. I’ve also noticed that I can write books that are composed of these short parts, that they’re more conducive to writing that way, on a phone, or in short journaling bursts. If I had a continuous narrative or something, I think it would be more difficult to do that way? Maybe not. I’ll try it. Yes, for as much as you’re on your phone–texting usually–I would think you’d be a really good phone-writer. You should become a phone-writer. The Japanese already love you.
BB: A lot of the language of these pieces in particular too seems very cellular, in a good way. In that you are kind of free associating and making jokes and stating facts and bouncing off of observations and prejudices that certain people have or carry, all making into a hybrid form that seems more like ideas or rants than a traditional book, but also with this weird narrative of brain to it. How quickly did you write the whole, and how much of it was gathered from things you saw in public versus like ideas swarming in your head or things you read or had heard online? How is writing from data different than say, writing from your life story?
JI: I don’t think it’s different at all, you know, writing stuff you don’t know or writing stuff you do. They always talk about that in creative writing programs, don’t they? I know they do, cause I was in a creative writing program. I don’t think there’s any damn difference one way or the other. I mean, who cares if you write what you know (i.e., autobiographically) or not? I know some writers/professors swear by “writing what you know is sentimental and false and boring.” I think that those people are correct about their own lives and writing about them. But mine was/is so far pretty interesting. Still, I don’t write about myself all the time. Then again, what is not writing about yourself? I mean if you have a character who’s totally in love with the creaminess of vanilla ice cream you know that cause you’ve loved up on some vanilla ice cream, not cause you’re just imagining what it would be like. That’s a simplistic example. But, it didn’t take too long to write the whole book. It took a while to get it to coalesce in the right way. I just kinda wrote whatever I felt like, just as you were saying: rants, facts, observations, etc. The revisions and shaping it into a book took probably two years in total, from the time I drafted the first thing that I decided would end up in the book, till book was ready to be published. I had what I thought was something pretty tight, but Kevin Sampsell helped make it tighter. It’s a fat lady’s sock now, I think.
BB: So, in your exploration of what a freak is, did you find anything that was not a freak? Was this project always called The Book of Freaks? What kind of freak are you?
JI: I suppose most things are not freaks. Staplers are definitely not freaks. They serve a single function, and are quite remarkable. They staple things like skin and wood and paper, and before staples and staplers the world was simpler but less held together. As a freak I am kinda like “Human, A,” and “Asshole.” There’s nothing remarkable about me, but I do stupid things on the regular. In fact I excel at stupidity. The world’s stoplights blink for me. Post whiskey, in particular. I didn’t know what the book was called until relatively late in writing it. I realized that there were things that people–mostly Americans, since I’m an American and those are the people I know best–think are really strange, or freakish, and they’re really not. Example: Mexicans. Some Americans have serious problems with Mexicans of the illegal variety, and they apply these stereotypes to them. But Mexicans are pretty simple humans just like anyone else. They eat pizza. It’s weird that people think that that’s weird. That inversion, to me is what made these freaks freaks, or that you’re a freak for reading about them and thinking they’re strange. I’m no different.
BB: I was interested in the way the book as a whole seemed to take on a narrative as it continued, even though it is given its arc by simple alphabetical order of the entities. The elements that I recognize from your life, as well as the fantastical and encyclopedic qualities of other entries, build as the book goes on to a kind of a very specific world, or at least a view of a world, that seems much like ours, despite also being rather insane. When did you decide to do alphabetical order, and do you think other orders would have made different books?
JI: One of the reviews claimed the book as a novel, which was certainly flattering. That’s probably stretching things a bit, but there’s certainly a cohesive voice throughout. The encyclopedic voice and the decision to arrange the book alphabetically came while you and I were actually on that book tour out west a year and a half ago, when we were paging through that first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The voice of that encyclopedia’s “compilers” struck me as funny, antiquated, and–in today’s context–uselessly formal. It offered opportunities for a kind of unreliable narrator. Along with the single voice reigning over the entries, it only made sense to order those entries alphabetically. That created some happy accidents, like with the book starting at “Acknowledgments.” After I’d committed to that structure I worked some entries thinking of how and where they would fit, such as “Haves” and “Have Nots.” I had thought about ordering the book a variety of ways. The first idea was to have sections: here are what you might expect from something called “The Book of Freaks”–bearded ladies and giants, stuff from circus lore–then a section on nationalities and cities, a section on personality types, etc. I think a reader would feel less obligated to read through from beginning to end with that structure, that you could turn to a page, read, set the book down, and go about your more important day. Not that a reader would have to read from front to end with the book as it is; you can flip to any entry and it should stand alone as its own prose block that tells you something. But, alphabetically, there’s an inertia that carries you through from one entry to the next, each one a new surprise in some way, and often calling back to each other as you go along. Maybe that’s one way that it feels like a novel, that each part of the book works by itself but is dependent on the overall structure at the same time.
BB: I know you like research, and reading a lot about things before you write them, or during, though the way you integrate it seems compelling, in that it is fused with that self, and a kind of hyper-awareness, fantasy even. What kind of research, if any, did you do on the book, and how does that process of colliding fact with freak work for you?
JI: I like research way too much, and I easily lose myself in it. I don’t know how many hours I spent today reading about John Waters and watching clips form John Waters’ films. That had absolutely nothing to do with any writing I’m doing right now, either. I don’t think. Maybe it’ll end up being useful. I already mentioned that first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which we came across in Eugene, Oregon at a friend’s house. I know you like research also. We sat there for a couple hours that night just looking shit up and loving the fucked up way the Western world described things–like slavery, for example–in 1768. I copied out the introductory essay to that first edition, and that, along with an introductory essay from some kind of textbook for a licensing exam for something technical (I think it had to do with replacing transformers at electrical relay stations or something), made up the language for the entry under “Front Matter.” I changed many things, of course, so that the language was certainly mine. I guess it’s a kind of cut-up. I researched things like the Great Kanto Earthquake for the entry under “Japanese.” That entry’s not so funny now, in light of everything going on in Japan. I didn’t previously know the parts of tubas, where patchouli comes from, that San Francisco was once a pueblo named Yerba Buena. It’s funny that I want to get some things right, like the name of the Japanese Emperor during that earthquake, but I made up everything else. Yes, there is squid ice cream in Japan, although I’m not sure if it’s the favorite flavor, and there was no ice cream and squid purveyors mixed together in a massive jumble that resulted in the people eating their city clean. It could’ve happened somewhere and I hope it did or will. I want to be there for it. I’m working on this other nonfiction book that I definitely want to get right. There are parts that I’m “fictionalizing,” or putting into imaginative scene, since there’s no record of what was going on at particular times in Spanish Colonial California. So it’s a very different use of research for what I’m attempting to create as a finished product. With the Freaks I was not as concerned about having the details be exactly right and if I didn’t know anything or have access to the right answers, I just made it up. But with this nonfiction–or at least with big chunks of it–I want the info to be right, to portray an accurate description. It’s not history, or anything–more like lyric nonfiction–but still, I feel like it matters that you’ve got the info right if you’re gonna call it nonfiction.
BB: Do you think the novel has a role in creating and consecrating history, even changing it, on any scale? Is the Book of Freaks political at all to you?
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The Book of Freaks is now available from Future Tense.