I had these books called “World Books” at my house as a kid growing up. Encyclopedias, they're called. This was before or maybe concurrent with the world's other great encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta. To be honest, I'm not sure of the timeline of the rise and fall of Microsoft Encarta. But, these World Books were actual books, objects for the shelf, full of the world's knowledge.
Freak Questions with Jamie Iredell
Jamie Iredell has created something similar though not as long as World Books or as time-sensitive as Microsoft Encarta; however, it is thorough just the same. Jamie created a book of freaks. Actually, it's The Book of Freaks (Future Tense, 2011). Every freaky thing is in here, from “Action Film” to “Ze-end” with “Environmentalists” and “Flea and Snake” and “Romance Novel, The” and “Tiny Head” and other stuff all in between. It's comprehensive, I'd say. I ask Jamie a few questions about The Book of Freaks below.
Freaks. A whole book of them. How did you go about selecting these particular freaks? Since it's the season, i'm interested in “football announcers,” and “High Life” was pretty funny.
Most of these just kind of came to me. I wasn't planning on writing a “Book of Freaks.” I was basically just writing shit–whatever came to mind, sometimes when something pissed me off (see your question about scorn below) other times when I was bored in a bar and had my cell phone. I drafted almost the entire book on my phone. Over the course of successive revisions I noticed some thematic similarities in the things I'd been writing and I started then to collect them. I saw these A&E shows before my wife and I axed the cable: one about the world's most obese man, another about a woman whose legs were growing a thousand times faster than the rest of her body, a guy whose fingers looked like the root system on a banyan tree. Then I figured that it was very limiting and kind of a cliche to focus solely on people who had physical deformities; aren't regular people just as fucked up? So I started making fun of mostly American stereotypical perceptions of various racial and ethnic groups. It carried on from there. I drafted the “Football Announcers (American)” one during football season of course. I love watching football, but it's an idiot's sport. Seriously: listen to the announcers during a game and count how many times they say the word “football” when the word “ball” works just as well. It's the only sport I know of where the announcers do that. They're really in love with that word. On top of that football announcers say the most ridiculously stupid things in attempts to make themselves sound smart. The “High Life” one was a response to Opium Magazine's call for a 300 word biography. It's really just made up of truncated accounts of things that happened in my own life.
To say this is sarcastic, well, that would be an understatement. High vitriol in some parts. Sounds like you were saving some ammo for a few particular groups while others had a few more niceties. Who deserved your love and who deserved your scorn and were you ever torn on what emotion to give a particular subject?
Honestly, there's one where there is true vitriol, and it took a minute (and I mean a Southern minute) to let that die down before I could revise with any kind of objectivity. That's “Jerks.” The cops in Denver, Colorado are assholes. Really, Denver, Colorado itself just sucks. I'm not only saying that because I'm a Raiders fan. They call it a western town, but it's the midwest: Jesus and flat plains. You can see the mountains, but you're really on a high plateau and not in those mountains. Try Virginia City, Nevada, or Truckee, California if you ever want to experience Western mountain town. So, yes, the vitriol has not gone away. The others, though, I really had a kind of persona or speaker speaking through each piece. That speaker's a kind of misinformed cynic. I guess the speaker kind of reflects an information age that's misinformed because it seems like the openness of the Internet has only made each person's world smaller. I wasn't really torn about how to feel about what this speaker was saying because it wasn't me saying it. So however they (of the “compilers” from the book) felt about something was how it was going to come out.
Please tell the compelling backstory to “People Named Spencer and Their Wives.” This sounds like a traumatic experience.
It was more funny than traumatic. Blake Butler and I flew from Atlanta to San Francisco. When we boarded that plane the couple in the seat in front of us got on after we did and as the husband sat he wiped his brow like a sitcom character and said, “That was awful. Sherman should've burnt the whole thing down.” He did not say this quietly. Blake and I looked at each other like, what the hell? First, we live in Atlanta. It's our home and we like it, and this guy's talking shit–while still sitting at the gate in Atlanta, mind you. Second, he didn't know a thing about history, because if he'd spent time learning anything he'd know that Sherman didburn the whole thing down. Anyway, we didn't say anything about it but went on with our own conversation about writing, what books we'd read recently, those we'd liked and those we hadn't. We talked for about a half hour into the flight then did our own thing for the next three and a half hours. We talked for another half hour as we came into SF. At one point, Blake overheard the wife call her husband Spencer, and Blake told me this, and we thought, Of course he's a Spencer, he's a total Spencer. We think the wife heard us whispering this, and that could've been the reason she was pissed. Before deboarding, this wife turned to Blake and said something like, “Writers must be horrible people if they're all like you two. I've been listening to your terrible conversation the entire flight and it's been very unpleasant.” I was getting my stuff together and didn't know what the woman said, but Blake responded with, “That's nice.” The wife said, “No it wasn't very nice at all.” Then I realized something was wrong, so I asked, “Is there a problem?” The wife then said the same thing to me, that she had to listen to us and it was awful, etc. So I said, “You can go fuck yourself.” Then Blake said, “Or at least get out of the way so we can get off the plane,” because she was standing in the aisle and we and everyone on the plane behind us watching this transpire wanted as any human does desperately to deboard. So that's what happened and I drafted that when my wife picked me and Blake up on our return to war-ravaged Atlanta. Rather than make a total bitch out of this lady (which she totally was; they seemed like people bent on making others miserable, with Spencer patronizing the flight attendant by saying that she only had to “Get him one little Coke and her workday would be over) I just exaggerated her insufferable character.
Should this book be filed in reference or fiction or humor?
I don't care. In fact I kind of hate defining things in such terms. It makes me think of what some of my past students have sometimes said: “I read nonfiction because I like stories that are true. What's the point of reading anything if it isn't true?” True stories. The same people also do not know the definitions of the words “paradox,” “oxymoron,” or “irony.” Without such divisions in a bookstore readers might more readily come across books they might not otherwise have read.
No, not really. That's not a very realistic way to think. It would be a pain in the ass to find what you're looking for without these genres, right? I like that Powells in Portland has their small press section, divided into poetry and everything else. It would be nice if more bookstores could justify having a small press enclave. But if, for whatever reason, this book were to ever be selling well enough to end up in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, I suppose the most appropriate places for it would be in fiction or poetry.
How hard was it to come up with the categories and then craft a backstory to each? Do you have to separate a few categories up, or consider combining them — maybe Contrarians and New York Citians for example (ha!)?
I guess each entry came up organically on it's own in a first draft. I didn't usually think of titles first. I'd write then rewrite then revise and somewhere in there slap a title on it. Many “entries” did not make it into the book, although at one point I was considering multiple volumes, and that's still not an impossibility. I never thought about “Contrarians” and “New York Citians” going together or being related, but I see that now. My wife always calls me “contrary,” saying that I naturally want to be a pain in the ass, and New York and New Yorkers are just–well–something else.
You live in Atlanta right? Do you have a certain place you write or you just stay at home? My favorite place to write in Atlanta was that random ice cream/used book store near Candler Park…forgot the name of that place…
I do indeed live in Atlanta. I think you're thinking of Dr. Bombay's on McLendon Ave in Candler Park, which has used books, ice cream and cupcakes. It's a funky little place. I can't say I've ever written there, though. My wife and I just had our first kid, so recently I do all my writing at home. But before fatherhood, I would sometimes like to walk up the street to one of the local bars or restaurants to work. I really like working in public places–I like the din of white noise, people in conversation around me–but I don't care for coffee shops or libraries, to work in, that is. I like to drink beer while I write sometimes, and you obviously cannot do that in most coffee shops. One place nearby is a taqueria that serves great chorizo tacos and nachos for me to get fatter on. Sometimes I overhear great snippets of language. Every once in a while I'll actually interview someone and record the conversation. I have the beginnings of a series that I might call “Conversations with People at Bars Who I at First Thought Were Jackasses But Who Turned Out to Be Pretty Interesting.”
Find more about Jamie at his blog, Picnic Cannibal.