Mike Young is only 24 years old, but his writing seems wrapped around a wisdom that goes beyond his years. Not only is he wise, but he's gut-busting funny, as well. He's released two books recently: the poetry collection We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (Publishing Genius) and a story collection Look! Look! Feathers (Word Riot Press).
Jamie Iredell is a 34-year-old Southern gentleman by way of California. His previous book, Prose. Poems. A Novel. (Orange Alert) was a blistering semi-autobiographical blaze of stories. His new release, The Book of Freaks (Future Tense Books), takes a very funny and strange turn. It's like a dazzling and puzzling showcase of a wonky historian's skewed view of humanity, done in alphabetized order, or your favorite weird college professor going off on misinformed tangents on everything from action movies to Russians.
Right before they joined forces to tour the West Coast earlier this month, they had a conversation about their books, Ambrose Bierce, cooking, and how to submit work to literary journals.
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Mike Young: In America, Jamie Iredell, the horses are all confined to their pens without Nintendo. That's a line from The Book of Freaks. Do you realize your book makes you the new Ambrose Bierce? How does that feel? Let's say The Book of Freaks was turned into a serialized television show, consisting of one entry per show, dubbed over, I don't know, someone jump-roping next to an active volcano, or Pureto Ricans serving you frankfurters. Who would you want to read the voices?
Jamie Iredell: Maybe that's because my apartment sits in what was a field from which Lt. Ambrose Bierce, as topographer in Hazen's brigade of Wood's 3rd Division of the 4th Corps, along with the rest of the Army of the Tennessee, attacked the entrenched Confederates during the siege of Atlanta (in 1864). I'm not kidding. There's a plaque half a block from my house, which I discovered one day whilst mid-jog and which tells me this is true. Surprised, I then spent the rest of the day Googling "Ambrose Bierce Atlanta" instead of writing. Maybe it's good to be a modern Ambrose Bierce? He's an underrated writer, and these days saying someone is rated (over or under) is all the hype. Everyone's read "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but few have read "The Crime at Pickett's Mill." In the latter, Bierce points out General William Tecumseh Sherman's self-mythologizing. He was a rabble rouser, that Bierce, for the greater good.
Young: Absolutely, I think it's good to be a now-a-thon Bierce. What's so exciting about your project in Freaks is that you nurture the forgiveness and the non-forgiveness inherent in any truly smart act of cataloging. You bring the flashlight. And there are bellies of king snakes, M-40s shoved into apples, the people who walk on their hands. The jitter of contemporary walking around is that forms are always competing, and I like how your form does rescuing rather than excluding. This isn't Facebook. It's Freakbook. It's for people who stop long enough to wonder if we even have a face, and by then we're not allowed to remember our password. Lucky for us we're in your book.
Iredell: The show you describe sounds amazing. Fuck yeah, I would watch that. I would want a different voice for each freak/episode. Some of those voices would belong to Michael Keaton, Ish Klein, Ilya Kaminsky, Morgan Freeman (you can't do anything with voices without Morgan-fucking-Freeman), the guys who did the rare voices of Tom and Jerry, Benjamin Percy (I actually wouldn't be upset if Benjamin Percy just voiced the whole thing), and Maria Conchita Alonso (but I wouldn't actually want her to say anything from the book and instead just say, "I'm a homegirl, Pac man"). Is the active volcano mid-eruption or just sitting there, being active? That's important to know, because otherwise we might as well be talking about Look! Look! Feathers — almost all of the characters in that book do things right next to an active volcano called Mt. Shasta. They're also not far from another active volcano named Mt. Lassen, and yet another named Black Butte. In fact, all of your characters are surrounded by danger. This is good for fiction. Did you know to do this? Did it happen intuitively? How much does setting affect your writing, fiction or poetry?
Young: Michael Keaton, Ish Klein, Ilya Kaminsky: wow, what a great trio. As to set danger, that's a good question. Like, you know, dude, once you drive north of Weed, California, and start getting into the backside reflection of Shasta, you hit these volcanic fields, really dead and weird and moon-ish shit, or Mars after a forest fire. I think there's something to this idea of danger, and also something to this idea of living in the bombed-out history of previous danger. Waking up and going outside and squinting to check if the ash is still falling. Like Black Butte and Black Bart, and how there's a café near Truckee that used to be a bank once robbed by Black Bart, and they keep the bombed-out safe on display for everybody to stare at. Meanwhile, outside are all the obnoxious snowmobilers, living for the moment. I like the space between the ominous past and the hustle of unknown imminence.
Your first book, Prose. Poems. A Novel., feels to me very much indebted to the snow tires and bison jerky of Tahoe-area Northern California and Western Nevada. Your new book feels more like America, more like airports. Then again, in your first book, someone moves from Nevada to Atlanta, so there's America right there. What's the difference between nostalgia and wit?
Iredell: I write Westerns, whether they're about a guy moving from west to east or about the entire continent and the planet. All Americans write Westerns. They can't help it. Yes, my first book is nostalgic. There's no hiding the fact that much of it is autobiographical. I screwed with truth significantly though — enough to call it fiction. In that nostalgia I incorporated wit. It's a different kind of wit than found in The Book of Freaks, but how else to be a smartass when saying that Crystal Peak is called Crystal Peak because it's made of quartz crystals and it's a peak? In Freaks I take commonalities and de-familiarize them. That's all. It's so early-20th century to de-familiarize. But, it's a lot of fun.
Part of the reason we're going out West together is that you're also from the West, from Northern California. That doesn't as immediately come out in your first book, and I already asked you about setting. But, your wit is astounding. You incorporate so much of contemporary culture into your stories and poems: YouTube, Blogger, MMORPGs. Why? Do these modern facets bejewel you?
Young: Bejewel? Vajazzle? Well, I guess I don't think of setting as much in poetry because I like poetry that narrates the whirring by, like that video game where you're a giant ball that collects things, Katamari Damacy, which I always misremember as Katamari Democracy, which works, I think — the sort of chaotic democracy of over-inclusion. I don't think contemporary mishmash bejewels me more than anything else, but it's sort of inescapable for my mind that it exists in moments, that it exists in its linear melting away toward death. So, I do a lot of looking around and remembering. Ashbery said somewhere that he thinks of it all as one big poem-tape that he just cuts two ends off now and then. I like that.
Changing the subject, I want to say that you're an excellent cook. I have shopped with you for ingredients. I've also been with you as you're enthusiastically brainstorming a menu, and I remember thinking, Wow, this guy is describing some delicate cooking maneuvers; I'm surprised. Because you are a burly guy. You're a burly soufflé. How does cooking improve your writing? How does writing render your tenderness?
Iredell:I am very much a soufflé, especially when my hair gets long, because it's curly. I spill out of my own ramekin. Hey, I learned the other day that I don't have to use arborio rice to make risotto; I made a great risotto using the 69-cent bag of short grain rice. I love to cook. Writing and cooking I do — to steal a line from Flannery O'Connor — because I'm good at them. Unlike writing, though, with cooking I have no formal training. Maybe writing and cooking are the same that way; you can be really good at both if you do them both a lot. Also, like writing and reading, it helps to be a good eater if you're going to be a good cook. Having a sensitive palate is like having a sensitive ear. It's helpful to hear good English if you're a writer. I don't mean "good" as in grammatical, but, like, fun, beautiful language. Likewise, to be a good cook, it's good to have worked with many ingredients and tried many techniques. So, you need to know what a soufflé is and what can make one and how to bake it and for how long, to keep it from becoming devil's food or pound cake or a thick eggy brick. Soufflé should be light and fluffy. Not all writing should be light and fluffy, and not all dishes. Sometimes a dense winter meal is what you need to read.
Speaking of tenderness, there's a moment in your titular story, "Look! Look! Feathers," a wonderful moment, when Waylon takes Johnnie Mae's hand (the fingers of which she has been nervously biting at and sucking) and sticks her hand in his own mouth. It was weird, beautiful, and perfect for that moment. How'd you get there? I guess, essentially, I'm asking that dumb question: Where do you get your ideas?
Also, kind of like cooking and writing, we both write fiction and poetry. Do you get yourself into a different frame of mind or mood or whatever when writing in these genres? Do you feel or think differently when writing poetry than you do when writing fiction?
Young: That's a beautiful connection between cooking and writing. You really nailed it, I feel like. Nice work.
To switch to your question, that scene you're talking about, I think, as far as ideas go, it doesn't really come from anywhere else but itself. Like the simple (ha) inhabitance of the blow-by-blow — my imagination asking itself, then what, then what, not where from here or what to put. A lot of times I'll see something and tell myself to remember it, even if I don't have an immediate use for it, because I know my mind is better than I am at its acts of recall and meaning assignment. Even as I say that, I know I'm kind of cheating, because it's true that I want Waylon to do something interesting. I want that for my own enjoyment of the story, etc., so I have a curatorial stance toward my imagination. I let it do its thing, but then I try to pick the best thing. But it's also true that if someone breaks into your house and falls asleep on your couch, you don't have a lot of choice over their hair color.Fiction, to connect back to the setting question, feels for me more like camping, and poetry feels like driving.
Since this a small-press discussion, and since you've published two books and two chapbooks (that later got incorporated into the first book), describe for us some of the highlights of your small-press experience, like the slam-dunk-contest reel of working with four different presses. And if somebody biffed a dunk in an entertaining way, tell us about that, too. What I'm saying is tell us all the juicy shit, and don't jump over a car unless you're actually going to jump over the peak of the car.
Iredell: I have a weird thing about publishing multiple times at the same place. For some reason, I didn't like doing that with magazines. So, it was like, All right, got a story accepted at the Literary Review, done that. Where else can I publish? I have a friend who's published many times in Willow Springs and Crazyhorse, and he always sends work to those same magazines. And, of course, that's smart, because he has a relationship with the people who work there. They know his work and recognize his name when an envelope or email shows up.
I have published multiple times at a magazine, but not a lot. Now, it feels the same way with books. I suppose that if I had a two- or three-book deal with a large press, things would be different. I wouldn't mind simply having that contract in the first place, so I certainly wouldn't be bitching about publishing books with them. But, so far with independent publishers, it's been fun working with all these different folks. It makes AWP crazy, because there are too many people to hang and have dinner with, and I just end up drinking beer.
I don't think anyone's really biffed a dunk at all. I wish, quite often, that folks who run small presses had more time and resources, but that's hardly their fault. I kind of wish television would just die so people would read again. Only PBS, I'd want to keep PBS. I think I biffed things a bit. I mean, I'm really glad that I published my first book. I was a little overeager to get it out there, though. I submitted to many presses, and when I got some close-call rejections with nice notes from the editors (a nice note form the Dalkey Archive Press, for example, which I was of course stoked about), I knew that I'd written a good book. I mean, I knew the book was good before that, but that was validation. Because I'm not good at keeping records of where I've sent things, I didn't send emails to people to tell them that Prose. Poems. A Novel. had been accepted at Orange Alert. So, I ended up getting six acceptances. Some of those, honestly, I wish I had been patient enough to wait for. There's nothing wrong with Orange Alert, but they just don't have time or resources to really get the book out there. If I'd waited I could've published with a bigger, more established press, and gotten more press (the other kind). Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. I got the book out there. It garnered some great reviews. People like it. That makes me happy.
So far, you're the same way, with your books. You're also a publisher of a magazine and books. I design books for independent press but am not usually involved in reading submissions or making decisions about what to publish. How does reading submissions and publishing as a publisher affect your writing?
Young: I think publishing affects my writing in good ways. It pushes me to avoid cliché and hack-work, to be really self-critical and self-conscious and not spiffed out at myself in a rutted way. I think it's a lot of time and work, but I do feel a sense of enthusiasm and purity of excitement about publishing the work of others that I don't feel while self-promoting or "submitting" my own shit — not only submitting as in emailing stories and poems to editors of magazines, but also submitting my work for public comment, readership.
There are certainly conversations I feel like I'm in when I write, whether it's with writers I've never met or with friends, whether it's some sort of local campfire or the larger campfire of literary history, but there's lots of ways to be at that campfire. You can invite someone new, etc. And, really, for me, it's all somewhat motivated by how rescued and amazing I've felt during certain reading experiences in my life — Kenneth Koch, Denis Johnson, Suttree, Frank Stanford, many more. I like the invisible friendship model of readers/writers. But maybe friendship is wrong — that's such a weird word in 2011 — maybe it's more like kinship. And you can propagate that in a lot of ways. When somebody tells me how much they liked something in NOÖ Journal or a book that we put out through Magic Helicopter, that's a whole different feeling than when someone tells me they like something I wrote, and I like both those feelings a lot. To propagate feelings of permission or curiosity or electric motivation or awe (de-familiarization isn't 20th century, man; you're 3010 at least) or all that holy shit... I just want to push the ratio of holy shit in any small way I can.
Remember when books had to tell people about places they didn't know about? Bret Harte writing out West, publishing back East. Now there is Google Maps. In Book of Freaks you are talking about Americans that America doesn't know about.
What is the most interesting way you've ever seen someone cross a street?
Iredell: The other day this guy waddled up to my intersection and began his slow limp across the street. He hitched his pants, thumbing them up by the beltloops. He had a funny grin. His hair was combed and not. Halfway through he skipped into a jog, frowning, frightened. Our light was still red, the sign featuring a sexless white body, mid-walk. I don't know what scared him.Safely upon the curb he stared us all down, us sitting in our machines, some mirroring whorepaint onto our faces. He was right. We were dangerous.
In one of your stories, you say that "juniper berries shine like pellets of clear soda." Is that because there are lots of juniper trees between Weed and Shasta City? What trees are your favorites? What do you miss most about living in California? What do you not miss at all?
Young: Well, redwoods obviously are my favorite — Sequoias, old-growth, towering mindfucks of moss and only the light they feel like permitting. Who cares about the difference between AA and D batteries or how bad somebody's coffee tastes when redwoods exist? But, I also like junipers, Douglas firs. I was at a Japanese restaurant the other day and they rooted a parsley tree in the wasabi.
As for California, I miss the Pacific Ocean. I miss the sheepdog sunset. I miss playing tennis in the winter. I miss the way people in the Bay Area lean back in their chairs. As for what I don't miss, I'm not sure I want to live there again until my bones give me consistent trouble, so there we go.
Iredell: While reading Look! Look! Feathers, I was really struck by the changing tone and voices throughout the stories. I noticed that only two of them are not in the first person (one of them, "Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show," even in the first-person plural, like "A Rose for Emily"), and having that strong, captivating narrative voice seems tantamount to first-person-point-of-view stories. Did you know you wanted to write that way? Did the voices "come to you" or something? Do you write stuff in other POVs?
Young: That's nice of you to point out changing tones/voices throughout the stories. Some reviewers have seen the stories as pretty mono-voiced, and one time in a writing workshop some dude said he couldn't even read my stories because they all seemed "too cool for school." That's what he said, so that's why I used the quotes. I'm of a mind that any diction has its strengths, and that it's not sacrilegious to mush. I think about this line from The Road a lot: "ten thousand dreams ensepulchered inside their crozzled hearts." Huge rollercoaster from "ensepulchered" to "crozzled" there, and I like that, seems energetic, fires things in my brain in a new way.
In Look! Look! Feathers, four stories aren't in first person: 1) the Susan story you mention (town voice), 2) the story about a mosquito fogger (third), 3) the story about a band called Roach Milk (third), and 4) the story about a couple who want to drive their R/V until they die, except one of them dies before the other one (shifting voices). I think in collections of anything it's good to challenge yourself, to make assortments. Who wants an ice-cream truck full of one flavor? Even if you always get just the one flavor, you want the truck to be various. That said, I do feel like I'm most comfortable in first person and most urgent. However, Thom Jones's story "I Want to Live!" is a great counterexample of how close third can be more urgent than first. Another counterexample: Tom Drury's body of work, which is great evidence of how you don't need to be the dancer in the room to keep the eyes on you. So, bullshit artists like me should be constantly reading to reality check our tendencies, not just stuff that shines our wax. Self-conscious, self-critical, constancy in both those, that seems like a good practice.
You seem to do this really well. Your own writing has an incredible way of jostling between its brutal entertainment factor and its restless, very well-informed intelligence. Feel like you could keep a room rollicking and reflecting in tandem. How the hell do you do that? How the histrionics do you employ yourself? Also, say something very profound and beautiful to end this because this has gotten really long.
Iredell: I'm glad you mention Cormac McCarthy. If we — because I'm guessing you feel the same way — could ever write a book that comes within 24,901 miles to McCarthy's best (Blood Meridian, Suttree, The Road, so many others, too), we will have done the reading world a big favor.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir