INTERVIEW WITH: Scott McClanahan
Interview by: James Williamson
I interviewed Scott McClanahan not long after he filed his divorce papers. His apartment sounded empty, like there were no pictures on the walls. He told me that he hadn’t left his place in two weeks, and he’d lost weight. “Maybe I should get divorced more often,” he joked. I looked down at the recorder thinking that marital complications aren’t the brightest of opening topics. He then told me he felt like a chunk of coal and compared himself to the country singer Billy Joe Shaver—“Gonna be a diamond some day.”
McClanahan is the author of Stories, Stories II, Stories V!, and The Collected Works Vol. 1. He has gained popularity for short stories that plop us inside episodic memories of the hardy community in Rainelle, West Virginia. His work proves that writers can be a fundamental ingredient to the story—there is no death of the author here. McClanahan’s impressive ability to blur fiction and nonfiction in a form that derails clinical and decorative prose pulls us away from the assertion that you’d just hear these stories in a bar. They’re more than bar tales. He paints the disfigured and strange, the obsessive and humiliated—a range of characters that are castaways from society. There’s a dog that commits suicide, a stripper who pulls a sock off her stub, a man who beats a deer to death with a thermos, or McClanahan’s conspiracy that he is the reason that cars run over women at the neighborhood stoplight. His short stories are conversational and abnormal, making his emergence as one of the most unrestrained writers of our time no surprise.
Even though Scott felt like a chunk of coal, he burst out his candid literary quips and told me he’ll be happy to hit the road again—to escape from West Virginia.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you tend not to submit to literary magazines. Is this still true?
SCOTT MCCLANAHAN: I’ve always thought that it kind of chews up more time trying to get published, even if it’s a well-known and recognized periodical. For the most part your readership is going to be pretty limited. Even if you do a POD book, like we’ve been doing at Holler Presents. Shoot, I sell twenty-five to thirty of those at a reading. I knew I was going to have to go in a different direction. But whether or not someone actually reads those submissions can be somewhat naïve. From what I can tell, it’s not Payola, but it kind of is.
I knew that coming from where I was coming from, I would just be wasting my time. I just like to write, and I feel like my stuff only works when it’s read up against another Scott McClanahan story. Always feels weird to me when you have a distinct voice here and another distinct voice there—like those compilation albums, That’s what I call Music 22! That’s sort of the way a lot of literary journals feel—like a hodgepodge.
THE OA: You’re frequently referred to as a Southern writer. How do you feel about that classification?
SM: Yeah, I’m usually lumped in with those folks. I don’t even consider myself Southern. West Virginia is a mid-Atlantic state. Usually when they review my work, they’re like, “It’s like having someone sit next to you at your local bar telling you something.” I hate bars! I’m a Christian. I get drunk at home! Bars are just old dudes smelling like urine and women with big asses and bad teeth.
Alongside of that I get lumped in with Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews. I mean, I think those writers are completely different, and I love them. Philip Roth has influenced me just as much, but no one is trying to lump me in with Philip Roth.
THE OA: So reviewers are missing the point? It’s about more than just being at the bar?
SM: Exactly. I usually get “this minimalist prose” or “simplistic prose.” If they’re so simple, you try doing it! I’ve worked my ass off to make those stories feel conversational. I’ve put a lot of work into creating something that’s practical—like a table, practical and to be used. Rather than this ornamentation, which most prose has about itself, where it’s very ornate, and it feels like prose. It’s this person who’s copying Cormac McCarthy or this person who’s copying this Southern style or whatever’s popular at that particular period of time.
THE OA: Have you felt pressured to keep yourself in the genre of storytelling?
SM: See even that, the whole word “storytelling”—for some reason, it bothers me. It feels like if you have an accent, they’re immediately going to call you a “storyteller.” Whereas Joshua Cohen in New York is a great post-modernist or post-post-modernist, it’s almost something where they can put a label on you and push you to the side—“Oh he’s just a storyteller,” and not someone who is experimenting. I’m an experimental writer.
If you look at the writing of my peers, I mean the people I’m surrounded by, they’re still writing like Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. I’m trying to pull it back from this “prog-rock” and just give you a fucking two minute song, in your face. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one. And to look at it that way.
THE OA: And right now you have three forthcoming novels: Crapalachia, Hill William, and The Sarah Book….
SM: Crapalachia is more or less a memoir; we’re playing around with the form. It’ll be made apparent once you read it. And Hill William is like a sophisticated hillbilly. [laughs] Probably a bad idea when the title of your book is a joke. And a joke that nobody gets. And I’ve started The Sarah Book.
THE OA: Crapalachia is a memoir? Do you ever worry about blurring fiction and nonfiction?
SM: Yeah, well I’d rather have a friend tell me an entertaining story and cut out all the boring parts, maybe even make up something within the story instead of giving me the litany of what has occurred to him throughout the day. And this goes back to some of those arguments that have been popular recently. I don’t think the Greeks gave a shit about that. Look at Herodotus—he’s blending fact, fiction, anecdote. He’s going to give you a description of how to mummify a body. I’m just following that.
You always hear those writers: “Well I mean the story always blends together and there are fictional elements, but I want something that’s true rather than fictional.” But you know, I could go through each story and say, this happened, this didn’t happen, I just put this in there, etc.
THE OA: Would you say a lot of your stories are based on chaos, physically or mentally? Do you think it’s possible to define chaos?
SM: Chaos? Yeah I guess so…. One thing, too, about these stories that I think is different from contemporary fiction or contemporary alt-lit or Southern writing, is that they address the reader directly, almost like spells. I don’t even know what meta means, but meta is a word that keeps popping up. I know what it means, but I don’t know what it means. I mean that as a spell—by reading this story you may be taking your life in a different direction from where you wanted to. And you know, the stories are oftentimes about chaos, but chance and coincidence and all those things in the twenty-first century world that we don’t like to think about come in. And we like to think we’re in control of our lives, when in reality maybe we’re not.
THE OA: Do you believe that your characters have control over their lives?
SM: Yeah, I don’t believe in a lot of nineteenth century or twentieth century conceits. I don’t believe in psychology. I don’t believe in motivation. I think Jean Genet said that he doesn’t write novels because his characters don’t want anything. Well, I think in my stories, there’s no motivation there…you’re just going about behaving in a reckless manner without any connection of what made you do it.
It’s like Iago. When they get him in the end and they ask him, “Why’d you do this? Look at what you created!” And Iago says, “What you know, you know.” Or the first line of Hamlet, “Who’s there?” That’s exactly it because I don’t know who the fuck I am.
THE OA: What makes your character, an amputee stripper, who excites the bar by pulling a sock off her stub, “the most beautiful woman from Texas”?
SM: Well, I put together a strip-club experience I had and a story my uncle told me. She would take off the sock from her arm and wiggle the stub around. But what makes her beautiful? She would reveal something. And I know that sounds like some bullshit-psycho-babble or writing-workshop shit. But she’s admitting that she’s missing something. It’s about being “normal” when that does not exist. It’s Victorianism for the modern age, to place you in a category, and I’ve always tried to be careful about having anything condescending that uses individuals as objects. I love Flannery O’Connor, but I even find her condescending. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded necessarily.
THE OA: Hernia Dog, who tries to hang himself with his dog chain, feels the same indifference to society as “the most beautiful woman from Texas.” How has that story been received?
SM: Yeah, he’s cast out of the community. That dog did commit suicide, though. Once I did a reading in Pittsburgh where I read that story. It was a revolt. People were coming up to me afterwards, saying “Why’d you read that thing?” “That’s so depressing, you bummed me out.” And I thought it was going to break the room in laughter because pets committing suicide? [laughs] It’s just so ridiculous, you’ve just gotta enjoy it. The people of Southern Pennsylvania did not feel the same way.
That was my crowd for a while because I did a lot of readings in Pittsburgh during the 2009 and 2010 era. They didn’t care for it all. I went out with them that night after the reading to a bar. And one of the dudes who I thought was my friend, and he didn’t say it in a nice way, he just turns to me and he goes, “Man that story was fucked up!” He meant it and was upset. [pause] If I was a pet, I would commit suicide. [laughs] There we have the title of this interview, I believe.
THE OA: Do you think it’s hard to be married to a writer?
SM: Fuck yeah! [laughs] That’s my answer. But what’s truly difficult about it is that you, as a writer, lead a secret life. You have your family, girlfriend, mom, dad, boyfriend, and while you’re inhabiting that world, you’re inhabiting this secret world and in some ways the stuff I do could be considered betrayal, even The Sarah Book. It’s like taking somebody’s innermost thoughts, feelings, events, and publishing them. Almost sociopathic in some ways.
THE OA: Does that make you nervous? Do you disassociate yourself from your art, your writing?
SM: I’m trying to eliminate all that shit. I’m trying to get back to something that feels mythic. Where the work is the person and the person is the work. And that’s dangerous.
I’ll give you an example: Hill William—I was abused as a child sexually. I have kept that inside. I started writing that book about ten years ago and finally that book’s here. And it’s a bloody, nasty, beautiful book. My parents don’t even know about that stuff. It was a neighbor boy. But my parents have no clue about the shit that I’ve gone through. I feel like I’m risking my nervous system. I don’t know if it’s worth it. It’s kind of like a compulsion, a confession of some sort, but of course you don’t have a confession without absolution. But I’m just wondering what the hell’s going to go down.
This is my big thing: You know how nonfiction writers always get in trouble because they create this element of fiction in their work? Like Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch? I think it’s every bit dishonest to take real events, real people, change names, change places, change the occurrence somewhat, yet still have that real event and call it fiction. I think that’s probably every bit dishonest. When in reality, like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, he writes about the people who he knows, and under the guise of fiction he’s somewhat protected.
THE OA: How do you feel about the writer in the twenty-first century?
SM: That’s the thing now too. It feels like the Reformation era of the church when the second or third son couldn’t get into law school or wasn’t going to inherit the property so therefore they become the clergymen and therefore corrupt the clergy. And the job mentality: Most of my peers are looking for jobs where they can wear a tweed jacket, grow a weird beard, and flirt with twenty-eight-year-old graduate students. And you can almost see them. Though there’s a much richer and greater tradition of Sir Thomas Malory, one of the psychopaths of literature, or François Villon, the French poet—murderers, thieves, liars. Those are our people, if we’re doing it right.
THE OA: It does leave room for riskiness.
SM: [laughs] I know! God bless prompts, but I’ve never been prompted in my damn life to write! I’m going to do what I’m going to do. Or the whole, “You need to have a thicker skin.” People have a thick skin because they don’t care about what they’re doing. When’s the last time when you saw someone pushing themselves to the point when they’re going to break apart right in front of you? And the art becomes who they are or they become the art.
THE OA: Would you say that your personality is a major component of your readings?
SM: That’s always been something I’ve been able to do from the beginning, the personality thing, the reading thing. And a lot of times the work actually is overlooked. A lot of people focus on, “He’s got a weird accent.” I’ve had articles written in which they say, “He’s got a very thick Appalachian accent.” I mean that would be like saying, “This person is so black.” And I know what they’re trying to do, trying to create this preacher image of me, this weird country guy, saying I might go into a trance like a preacher, and that I pant like a child. I’m panting because I’m nervous! There’s a room of three hundred people in front of you in Brooklyn, New York, and they’re all snobs and half of them are assholes.
THE OA: How much do you prepare for your readings?
SM: I prepare, prepare, prepare, and for a while I was doing something different for each and every reading. And now I’m always thinking I need to be “the Beatles come to America” and I need to just do the same kind of set place after place after place.
McClanahan will be at Franklin Park in New York on October 15. Stay tuned and buy his books here.