AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT MCCLANAHAN
By John McElwee
Open one of Scott McClanahan’s books, and you’ll meet a rush of clipped, bellowing sentences, feverish repetition, contradiction. People compare the experience of his prose—and it is an experience; you don’t read it lying down—to events like Baptist revivals or looking down the barrel of an oncoming train.
Interviewing Scott isn’t much different—his responses crowd in, pile up, loop around, interrupt one another—but have a look at what we managed to iron out, and you’ll see just how carefully crafted Scott McClanahan’s vision is. Scott’s writing messily eschews literary artifice, genre, and authorial coddling. He rejects irony, because the hurt and hopeless people he writes about don’t have time for it. The result of stripping away these cushy barriers is an earnestness that’s rare in contemporary fiction.
I saw what Scott was doing for the first time when I read a loaned copy of Stories V!, which showed me a list of things Scott’s ashamed of and a love letter to his wife, then thanked me for reading and wished me a happy birthday. A little key turned, and things moved around inside me. I was a literary agent at the time and, in a rare moment of clarity in a breakneck industry, I knew I had to work with this guy. I count myself lucky to have done so.
Each of his books since—The Collected Stories of Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia, and the forthcoming Hill William—prove Scott a writer of fierce sweetness and honesty, who writes with his chest wide open, fully exposed.
His stories, set in West Virginia, are full of darkness and grotesquery, but it’s comedy, not tragedy, that Scott writes. This is important because in comedy not everyone has to die. Comedy provides so many more interesting options. In comedy everybody gets to live forever, which is just long enough to remind us that kindness and joy exist, in spite of it all, and that, in Scott’s words, “shit makes the flowers grow.”
I’m going to start with a boring one to get the ball rolling, okay? One time you said, “If you don’t like these stories I can write another fifteen tomorrow.” But my understanding is that your new book, Hill William, took you a decade to write. Can you account for that difference?
I’ve lied so much about that book and other books too. Who knows how much time a book really takes? This book was probably a year working on it, but spread out over the course of ten years. I mean there were football games to watch, albums to listen to, meals to eat, life to be lived, people to be kissed, babies to be held, dances to be danced, nerves to be broken . . . You get the point.
I wondered if it took you that long because of the book’s difficult subject matter. Sexual abuse, which you suffered as a child, features prominently. Was confronting that a challenge? Any apprehensions about seeing it published?
I don’t know about a challenge. I have tons of apprehensions about seeing it published. I almost accepted an invitation to go on the Dr. Phil show for some crazy reason. It was going to be a crisis management show where you come face to face with an abuser.
I don’t feel like writing is therapy—ever. And I don’t think any redemption has come with the completion of the book. This writing stuff has actually helped me to lose everything I ever cared about. I lost a family over the amount of time I’ve spent on it. It’s some weird graphomania I can’t stop. I wish a doctor could cure me. My books are my demons and I want to be rid of them. I’ve finally found someone who understands, but she lives three thousand miles away. I’m not complaining though. As Mr. Dylan says, “He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously.”
You talk about demons, but your books also call up a lot of angels. A father who works at Kroger to feed his children. The folks who took care of your sick grandmother. I could go all day.
Well you know who the most famous angel of all is? A guy named Satan. There is always joy. Always. Not happiness but joy.
Crapalachia was a “biography of place,” a genre-bending book billed as nonfiction. Does it mean anything to you to be returning ostensibly to fiction with Hill William?
Nah, Hill William is probably more “truthful” than Crapalachia. You know that story about Frank Lloyd Wright and his assistant, where the assistant is holding the blueprints and they’re going to meet this big client? The assistant is just trying to help him out, but Wright gets pissed and rips the blueprints out of the assistant’s hands and says, “Give me those. There is only one rule in life. The architect always carries the blueprints.”
Really all that matters is whether or not you’re carrying the blueprints. I know where those things came from. Me. I made them. They’re here and they’re real, whether people think they’re true or not.
Do you remember when you called me for the first time last year and said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “I want money and cocaine. And MONEY.” You paused and said, “We can get that for you. We can.” That was such a great day. You cheered me up for sure.
I do remember that phone call. It was a Friday, and I was sitting at my former boss’s desk with my feet out the window looking at a row of Federal houses that used to be Aaron Burr’s estate. Why were you in such a bad spot then?
Oh you know, typical shits and giggles stuff. I don’t even really think you understand it sometimes as you’re going through it.
I remember when I was thirteen or so I had to have a neighbor shoot my cat because it was so sick. It had leukemia and it was Saturday night and I knew he would just suffer more until we could get him to a vet on Monday and have him put to sleep. So my neighbor put him down and we buried him in the woods at this spot where he took all his lady friends.
There were these girls I really liked who were like a year younger than me. They told me one day they were going to dig my cat up and I just laughed and thought they were joking. But they went and borrowed a shovel from my father and they went into the woods where Iggy’s grave was. I don’t even think it would have happened if they weren’t egging each other on. So they dug him up and I watched them do it and I really couldn’t believe it was happening. Then the smell hit them and they all gagged and one of them vomited.
It’s that image of a cat carcass and those beautiful young girls gagging that sticks in my mind now. I don’t think I was even bothered by it at the time but now I think back to it and go, “What the fuck was that all about?” I guess the bad times are like that. You only really get scared when you’re past them a bit. I love Aaron Burr.
Giancarlo DiTrapano, your editor on Hill William, told me a story about recognizing your accent when he saw a clip of you reading on YouTube, and knowing you too were from West Virginia. What was it like working with him on the book? Did he give you any editorial lashings?
Yeah, we ripped up that book a bunch. It’s great working with him. He goes over things and goes over things and goes over things. Our relationship is mostly around gambling though. We lost $4,000 at the roulette table back in the spring at the dog track in Charleston. There aren’t many people you can lose $4,000 with. We started with $300 and hit a lucky streak and then watched it all disappear. But it was fine. Sometimes it purifies your spirit to lose $4,000 between people in an hour.
The reason Gian is the best editor around is he understands the roulette table is more important than the work. He was always able to bring something fresh and just completely sweet and wonderful because he’ll bet it all on #10. That’s who he is. We need more editors like that.
We went back and forth about the ending though. Another thing I love about him is if you believe in something enough, he’ll throw his hands up and say okay. I think he picks books because of the people he loves, not because of the words, and that’s why he’s a great man. He believes in people.
How important is revision?
There’s a great clip of Joe Strummer saying, “Songs don’t pass through you. You have to beat them out of your head.” And you do—that’s why revision is incredibly important. But I think people do it wrong. I don’t think the sentences are nearly as important as what is in between the sentences. Books work in the same way songs and films work. It’s the sequence of events or the way sections are put together that allows a book to spark and roll. It’s not the note in the song or the way a tree looks in the shot. If fiction writers want to be poets, they should go be poets, although very few of them know anything about poetry. It’s this fixation on the sound of the sentence that has helped turn writing into a fine art for the elite, rather than a diversion for the masses. The sound of the sentence is important, but it’s like a film editor wanting to tinker with a shot, rather than put one image with another. I’m not saying the shot is worthless. It’s just that the dream is created when things come together. Stories are like people that way. Put them together and they make this mysterious thing we call a baby. Ringo by himself is silly, but put him together with his friends and suddenly you have this wonderful thing of evil and joy. You have the Beatles. Sentences and stories work the same.
One of Barry Hannah’s characters says that “all art should aspire to the condition of music.” I love that line and I think it’s true. Are you calling bullshit?
SM: Sentences sound already. Alliteration and assonance happen naturally; you don’t have to manipulate language that much. We can probably have one of our conversations transcribed and there are going to be one or two or three sentences that sound like we crafted them. I’m looking for little surprises. I’m much more interested in amateurism than professionalism. Prose needs to get sloppy again and then maybe we can find something useful. We need more pimples on asses, less air brushing and spray-on tans, because books need to be more like us, human.
To use a guitar player analogy there are a lot of virtuosos out there. I can name a shit ton of writers who can write circles around me technically, including some of the writers I love. I’m not saying they’re not incredibly talented, but they are Eddie Van Halens, and that’s all. (No disrespect to Van Halen. I love them.) I’m much more interested in trying to be Luther Perkins or Scotty Moore. Sam Pink is Sam Pink not because he worries about the way his sentences sound but because he has spent his time becoming Sam Pink. Take naked pictures of yourself in a bath and you’re bound to write differently.
You seem to invest a lot in the being part of being an author. Are you saying an author is a life-processing machine—feed it experience, the weirder and gamier the better, and it churns out Art? Some people, healthier, might say that’s a fallacy that drives many a starry-eyed aspirant to board a boat to Spain, or whatever, and that energy burnt off the page doesn’t end up on the page. I’m not sure I believe in either view. Borges just sat in a library his whole life, didn’t he? But then I guess, in the end, he was being himself all that time, and that was what mattered?
Borges is Borges because he sat in a library. Exactly. And he’s amazing because he figured out he could write about that. A simple library and the maze inside of those books.
Your uncle Ross McElwee is an amazing artist because he saw that the people around him were holy. It’s not in Spain. It’s in your girlfriend’s eyes. It has nothing to do with experience or learning technique or this bland two-way argument. And it has nothing to do with weirdness. Your mother is the weirdest person you know and you can’t even see it. Most people don't know what real weirdness looks like. It has to do with being a jewel. But how in the hell do you teach that? You don’t. Only the pressure of the earth makes diamonds.
The idea of people around you being holy makes me think of Allan Gurganus, and his currency of local souls. I rely on both Gurganus and my uncle when I need a transfusion of North Carolina. Your work to date has been similarly embedded in, or engaged with, place. Is there something particular to West Virginia that makes it produce so much narrative meat and existential fodder?
I think there is a wealth of material anywhere. The people aren’t any holier here than anywhere else. But there’s a spark in the people here that I love. They seem to be having fun a lot of the time. One of my cousins was a state wrestling champion in the heavyweight division. He got married and bought a trailer. He actually died putting it up on cinder blocks. It fell on him, but what a death. The people who took care of my grandmother Ruby when she was dying lit three state police cruisers on fire and blew them up. You have to love that. There are still people alive in this world who will blow up police cars. I have a good friend from college who is involved with professional wrestling in the area. I met one of his wrestlers named Diablo Jr., who told me I could be a manager. I think that might be my future, actually.
Will your writing ever leave West Virginia?
Parts of The Sarah Book are set in Iran and Amsterdam, where Sarah, lived for a long while, and Denver and New York and all the other places she loved.
Is that a significant departure?
Nope. There are assholes and angels everywhere.
Just to clarify, this is the book about your ex-wife that you said you were going to write at the end of Stories V!. Have you been working on it since then? Tell me about it.
Actually, The Sarah Book was started before that. It’s the big thing book-wise for me now. I’m already getting lawsuit threats, etc. But then again you’re not doing something right if you’re not getting sued. I want The Sarah Book to be like Sandinista by the Clash. I want to put everything in it. Everything. Also I’ve read ten Nicholas Sparks novels to figure out how to make it a bestseller. I need Mandy Moore to be Sarah in the film version. If not, I’ve failed.
Is it a novel?
It’s a McClanahan.
Read an excerpt from Hill William here.