Jamie Iredell weighs in on body issues, substance abuse in essay collection

On a busy Thursday evening at Marlow’s Tavern in Midtown, Jamie Iredell sits far away from the happy hour ruckus in a quiet corner of the bar, nursing a can of PBR, fixated on his laptop. The Atlanta author is scrutinizing a story on screen, a submission for his current writing workshop.

In person, Iredell comes across at first as scholarly and soft-spoken — a distant echo of the brash, self-deprecating boozer who narrates much of “I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac,” his new collection of envelope-pushing personal essays published by Future Tense Books. But once the PBR is finished, Iredell relaxes a little and a more sociable personality begins to emerge.

“Human nature is really built on contradictions,” says Iredell, 37, a creative writing teacher at SCAD. “That’s OK. It’s good to embrace it and say, ‘I felt this way yesterday but I feel another way today.”

While most of the pieces in the book were written within the past three years, the source material spans the author’s life. The titles alone suggest years lived fast and, as Iredell admits, often foolishly, with entries like, “How to Survive an Abusive Relationship,” “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I Was a Smoker” and “A Brief History of Opiate Use.”

Taken as a whole, the personal stories in “Insomniac” form a raw and candid memoir of benders, dysfunctional love affairs and the author’s lifelong struggle with body image.

He moved to Georgia a dozen years ago to pursue his PhD at Georgia State University. Iredell and his wife Sarah, who is an attorney, live in Midtown with their 2-year-old daughter. “Insomniac” is his third book, following two genre-spanning fiction titles, “Prose. Poems. A Novel” (2009) and “The Book of Freaks” (2011). He’s also fiction editor for Atticus Review, an online literary magazine.

In “Insomniac,” Iredell writes with blunt humor about the many roles he’s played over the years: the “big-boned” white kid growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood of Castroville, Calif., (the “artichoke center of the world”); the undergrad in Reno, Nevada, who kept a bottle of Jack Daniels and three hits of acid in his desk; the depressed grad student who hung out in Atlanta metalhead dive bars wolfing down burgers and beer — among many other things. His warts-and-all attitude to these whiskey-soaked disclosures may bring to mind Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski, though Iredell’s confessional essays typically aim for more introspection and intellectual heft.

“When you’re 17 or 18, you think the Beat writers are like the best thing ever,” he says. “But after about 25, you’re just like, ‘My God, this is self-indulgent (expletive) .’ I can’t read Hunter S. Thompson anymore. I can’t read Bukowski.”

An ambition to rise above self-indulgence is undeniable in the opening piece, “FAT.” The disturbing personal essay considers the societal pressures the author has faced regarding his weight. It’s a forceful contemplation of body “norms” that reveals how physical issues affect both women and men.

“I’m clearly not somebody who is svelte,” Iredell says during our conversation at Marlow’s. He orders a whiskey, which he nurses, but resists a shared appetizer of crispy asparagus fries. “I’m not morbidly obese. I’ve been this way my entire life. And dealing with that has been a source of pain and, I hate to use this word, but tribulation with my family.”

In the essay, he seeks to uncover the roots of his so-called “heaviness” and suggests that genetics were partly to blame, making him stand out in a household of marathon runners. This seemingly innocuous investigation of family history has caused some awkwardness with relatives, Iredell says, but he doesn’t regret what he wrote. As both an essayist and a teacher, Iredell has spent years pondering the tensions between honesty and privacy when sensitive memories are involved.

“You have to tell the truth, but tell it eloquently,” he says. “There’s only one way to really write nonfiction, and that’s for you to be the worst person on the page — but at the same time to be sympathetic. The audience is thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is so awful, yet I see myself in him, I see redemption inside of him.”

The narrative arc in “Insomniac” follows the reckless, suicidal twenty-something of the earlier essays as he grows bored with hook-ups and hangovers. “What It’s Really Like,” one of the book’s strongest pieces, explores the progression from teenage binge drinking through the unpleasant tolls of alcohol on an aging body. The narrator eventually discovers stability in marriage and parenthood, even if his private quest for self-acceptance remains unsettled.

Despite tensions with relatives, Iredell says he finds writing personal essays “a hell of a lot easier than fiction.” He attributes this to his gregarious nature, a disposition that may not be obvious to the casual observer — and one not normally associated with writers.

“While I don’t care for crowds and things like that, I’m not really introverted,” he says. “When I’m writing nonfiction, I feel like I’m talking to a good friend or someone I just met. I’m OK with telling that person how I feel. I’m not afraid of who I am. I’m not ashamed of it.”

A long pause follows. The evening din of Marlow’s has grown tenfold as the dinner crowd takes over. The author is a drink deeper into the conversation, and his intensity and previously mentioned gregariousness have only grown more obvious.

“Let me revise that,” he says finally. “I’m ashamed of a lot of things that I’ve done in my life, but I’m not afraid of them.”

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