The Rumpus Interview with Scott McClanahan

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I first became aware of Scott McClanahan when Lazy Fascist Press released his short story collection, The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1, in May of 2012. The cover looked a lot like a Penguin Classic and it made me laugh. Who was this guy, risking a lawsuit? I asked myself. It was clever, reckless, and endearing. However, it wasn’t until a year later, with the release of Crapalachia, published by Two Dollar Radio, that McClanahan’s words were put in my ears.

The subtitle, “A Biography of a Place,” highlights one McClanahan’s strengths—capturing place. Many of his stories are set in West Virginia, the state from which he hails, but to think of him as a regional writer would miss the point. McClanahan, in all his work, explores people—and those people exist everywhere. A keen observer of the world around him, McClanahan often taps into the characters who populate his family, breathing life into them, and exposing their motivations, their frustrations, and their struggles with the day-to-day.

Through the stories of his Grandma Ruby, a true matriarch; his uncle Nathan, wheelchair-bound from cerebral palsy; and the neighborhood kids who play pranks on unwitting strangers, Scott draws readers into a world that is both harsh and relentless, but also full-hearted and smirky—a cold reality with a sense of humor. Now, just out with Hill William, a short story collection from Tyrant Books, McClanahan shows once again that words can mesmerize.

Defying the laws of geographical assumptions, Scott spoke with me from California—early in the morning on the East Coast, a punishing hour on the West. He assured me that I hadn’t made him get up; he still hadn’t been to sleep.

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The Rumpus: I was just watching your video—I love the Camp Holler stuff—the one with you on tour. So now I have a ton of tour questions for you. You seemed like you had a lot of fun.

Scott McClanahan: You about have to. You laugh so you don’t cry.

Rumpus: No one has to go out on tour unless you get paid a lot of money for your book and the publisher says, “You need to go do this,” so what made you decide to take the trip?

McClanahan: Well, I did that kind of Southern leg with my friend Chris Oxley. He played the guitar part of the time. It’s a good show—you’d love it if you saw it. Then I also did, with some friends of mine, what we call the the Future Dead Friends tour last fall, and that was through the Midwest. People were smoking crack, but why do I do it? It’s um… oh gosh… yeah, that’s a good question. Maybe I should think about it a little bit more and I wouldn’t have the financial difficulties that I’m having. ‘Cause they’re not big tour budgets by any means.

I stayed in a place in Mississippi called the Ole Miss Motel and it was a den of prostitutes and pimps. It really was. I’m talking P-I-M-P as pimps. I almost went into the wrong room one night, and they came and let me know I was going into the wrong room. Big girls with black eyes type of thing.

So it’s fun that way but, this is my answer: I think it’s important for writing to connect back to actual people rather than somebody—you know, a big publisher in New York telling you you should like something. Because you know this is a game, you’re a publicist as well. We know it’s a game. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and all of a sudden you’re in Cosmopolitan or something talking about your book. I don’t want to be in Cosmo. Well, that’s not true. I do, but only if I’m on the cover.

I think it’s important to connect back to individuals who are out there—and by “out there” I mean, we’ve had cultural movements that have been in the middle of nowhere—Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s, right? Absolutely nowhere, and they’ve not only changed American culture but they’ve changed the culture of the world. These bunch of country boys at Sun Studios. And so I think when you are out there and you read for people and you see people, there’s not that disconnect of literature with a lower case L—it’s not literature, the oral word. It’s Carl Sandburg, it’s V. Lindsey, it’s Dylan Thomas. It’s attempting to get back to that place… oh, I don’t know.

Shit, that answer makes no sense.

Rumpus: I know what you’re saying. I’m a publicist and I work with media, but I’m also wondering how to connect directly with readers.

McClanahan: Yeah. It’s like the New Testament, right, where, I don’t know, it’s Doubting Thomas. You have to appear—now I’m using Christ imagery to talk about myself—but you have to let them touch you, you have to let them feel you. Johnny Cash always drank two bottles of warm beer before he went onstage because he said they actually want to see you sweat, they actually want to see you be nervous, they actually want to see you be vulnerable, and writers don’t like that. You know, popular writers now, they go on Charlie Rose with their glasses that color-correspond to the suit that they’re wearing. This is New York lit culture now.

Rumpus: I saw you at Housing Works recently and you’re known for your performance. It’s not just a reading—you don’t just read a straight story—you perform.

McClanahan: Yeah.

Rumpus: I’m interested in that on many levels. One, because it makes readings fun and the other is, you seem like you’re intentionally solitary—I don’t know if that’s true or not.

McClanahan: What have you heard? Have you been checking my mail?

Rumpus: I’ve read some interviews and you said you like to spend time alone.

McClanahan: You get a divorce you spend a lot of time alone. Also, I have a bad personality.

Rumpus: Why performance? Why choose to do it that way?

McClanahan: On one level there’s the bad performance, like jazz hands, that’s always annoying. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be that, but there is a certain amount of artifice about it that’s important that it is something different. What I’ve always loved about reading is, I don’t know if there’s a more intimate experience you can have with another human being. They might not even be alive, they might be dead—shit, man, 3rd century Greece or whatever, B.C.—but they’re there, they’re a poet, they’re drawing a breath, or they’re creating the picture in your mind with the words. They place this word after this word after this word, and therefore they’re controlling you in that way; but you’re creating that though, at the same time, which is different than cinema or music, right? Film’s kind of dictated to you. Fellini makes you look at the midgets and the gigantic breasts.

I think writers have always been performers, haven’t they? At least the ones I know about: Molière, Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, etc…

Rumpus: I think artifice is a good word for it. I go to a ton of readings and some authors read from their books with differing levels of audience engagement. Then others do something special like Colson Whitehead, who read an essay instead of from his book. I don’t think a lot of people are good performers. I think it’s a unique quality.

McClanahan: There is an element of stagecraft to it but, I mean, there’s artifice, too. But that’s who I am, whatever that means; it’s not like I’m putting on an act with the performance. I’m dressing in the clothes that I wear. I mean, I’m wearing stupid suits quite often, or I’m wearing a dumb leather jacket that I was probably wearing at Housing Works—that’s Marc Anthony collection by the way. I’m big into the Marc Anthony collection, available at Kohl’s. My girlfriend made fun of my red polo shirt when I was at Housing Works the first time, but it was the one I brought because it was the one that was clean.

Rumpus: You write autobiographically and yet you’re enigmatic.

McClanahan: Uh huh.

Rumpus: Watching your video, there’s something. You’re kind of a ham for the camera.

 

McClanahan: Yeah, but I think also writing, just even on the page, is often a kind of performance, or at least when it’s its best. Peter O’Toole just died. There’s a great Peter O’Toole story that I don’t think is even true, but it’s such a great story—I guess that’s what we mean by the word “apocryphal,” right, we keep telling it—where he showed up for lunch and started drinking wine with some friends, and then they had another bottle and another bottle and another bottle, and then they decided they were going to go to the theater, right? And Peter O’Toole’s sitting in the audience, and he realizes right before the curtain comes up, Oh shit, I’m in the show. I’m the star of this play. But of course he’s so drunk, he doesn’t realize he’s the star of the play he’s watching. So yeah, that hammy quality is there, but I think my favorite writers are hams, they’re show-offs, whether we’re talking about Twain or whoever.

I’m re-reading this book to help with this book I’m writing. You know the Russian writer Bulgakov? You know, The Master and Margarita. Anyway, he wrote a biography about Molière and it’s just a giant show-off piece. It opens up—he has a little introduction where he’s following this nursemaid to this commoner’s house in France, and the baby’s being born but he’s asking her, “But do you know that the child’s being born—you’ve bragged about all these noble births you’ve been a part of but—he’s going to be more famous than Louie the XIV one day.” You know, The Sun King. And at the end he goes, “Tell me he’s breathing, tell me he’s screaming now. …He’s alive” And then the book starts. And that’s performance. That’s showing off. I think we need a few more peacocks.

I’m going to steal that whole chapter for the Sarah Book I’m working on. I’m just going to change Molière’s name to Sarah.

Rumpus: Yeah. Drama on the page. There’s a sense of drama and theatrics.

McClanahan: Of course. That’s the rich tapestry of life, is it not, Gabrielle?

Rumpus: That leads me to something else I’ve noticed. Your stories have a darkness to them—or they could be very dark—but there’s something that keeps them from going to this place where you’re buried. I’m going to reference that movie again but you were saying how you had this story about a dog that you thought was fun, but the whole audience was devastated.

McClanahan: Yeah. It’s a different perspective. You bring up a dog that committed suicide and some people aren’t going to find that humorous. But it’s all those things together. It’s like your daily existence. Are you in New York?

Rumpus: I am.

McClanahan: So, you know, you’re about to get on the train and go into work and probably within an hour, an hour-and-a-half, you’re going to have all different experiences. Oh my god, like whoa fuck, whoa haha, that’s hilarious, but that happens anywhere really. But I think those are the good things. It’s like being in a relationship. Like, you hate the person, you love the person. There’s darkness there, there’s lightness. That’s part of any relationship—a real, a real relationship.

Rumpus: You’ve published with a few different presses now and I’m curious to know about your experience working with different people and different editors.

McClanahan: The first person I worked with isn’t really an editor. He’s a friend of mine. His name’s Che Elias. He’s a fascinating character. I didn’t know that publishers would set up your book for you. He used to constantly call me to ask if I had any advice on getting on SSI, because he knew I had an uncle who was a schizophrenic. I love Che to death, but you would send him all your money to purchase copies of your book and copies would never arrive, but you would realize he purchased a bunch of Robitussin to go Robo-tripping. That’s popular with the kids nowadays. That’s publishers: publishers just like to take your money and buy Robitussin. They should—like, maybe they need to.

But I learned so much from him. I learned about Polanski films I’d never seen and Fassbinder films I’d never seen and weird-ass music. I’ve really been more friends with my publishers than some sort of business relationship—or even editorial, writer relationship. I’ve been edited pretty heavily before and I’ve been left alone before. I’m never precious about it.

The small press world needs to keep having fun. I’m serious. Nobody is having fun anymore. I know I sure as hell am, and [Giancarlo] DiTrapano is, and Juliet Escoria is, but everybody is so damn serious. I mean, do you really need a book contract with a commercial publisher to make it or whatever? We treat ourselves like the minor leagues. I was made in 1978. I don’t need to make it again. Gary and Karen made me and it was totally free. We’re all going to be dead soon, anyway. Yeah, I think we need to believe in one another.

I still reserve the right to believe that two and two is five, and if we can’t believe in that—then you might as well bury us. You know that you can even write a book for free. You don’t have to pay anyone a goddamn nickel. But then, of course, I do want to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan. I have good legs.

Rumpus: I feel like there’s a lot of love for indie presses these days and it’s really nice to see.

McClanahan: Yeah, the people at the big houses can feel the barbarians at the gates, right? The barbarians are coming. I want my tomahawk to be ready. I want to be ready. I’ll smile at them the same way I’m smilin’ now. The scalps will make a nice necklace.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to read the New York Times Book Review and see Two Dollar Radio books and Tin House books.

McClanahan: Yeah. Well with the old… you wouldn’t be reviewed in a place like that if you were not with a larger press. Now, the money’s not going to be the same, of course, but still, at the same time, at least if you can get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review—a serious book review, even though it has its faults as well—on a small press, then I don’t necessarily see where it makes much sense anymore in this day. But I don’t know, I’m foolish. I’m sharpening my tomahawk.

Rumpus: I feel like we have a similar outlook on stuff. I go through life like, Life is absurd.

McClanahan: Yeah. Of course. And you produce things that are—well, like Crapalachia. That book’s about generations and the regeneration of generations and your face doesn’t matter because it’s going to be replaced by future faces, but at the same time—you know, Pasolini is one of my favorite artists, right, with a capital A—you also want to produce neurotic things that are fucked-up and nasty and they don’t fit in that same vein.

Hill William ends with “I love you.” It’s not a nice thing, though, this “I love you.” It’s a “fuck you.” Earlier in the book, I list all these things that we lie about. “I love you” is one of those. My editor and publisher Gian is the only one who has ever picked up on it. It’s a neurotic “fuck you” and a lie. But we need books that say “fuck you” sometimes, as well. It would be refreshing to hear that in the lit world, rather than this passive-aggressive junk that the MFAers go on about.

Rumpus: You’ve referenced films quite a bit. What’s your interest in them?

McClanahan: Yeah, well, I make films. My friend Chris and I are getting ready to put out an album. I wanna make films. I mean, not “wanna”—dreams are horrible things. People who dream are suckers, if you ask me. I think you should just go and do it, which is what I’m gonna do. Two Dollar Radio’s doing films now. We’re going to make a film soon called The Greenbrier Ghost. I want to subtitle it “a masterpiece.”  That way, it gets talked about positively, even when it’s getting hammered by a critic. It’s like I never can understand why people spend money on medical school. If parents were smart, wouldn’t they just name their kid Dr. and then you wouldn’t have to worry about all that education?

Rumpus: I heard about the films. So Two Dollar’s branched out into a film division.

McClanahan: Yeah, so we’re doing a film for them, my friend Chris and I—well, he really operates and runs it—I just kind of hang out and run my mouth—Holler Presents. And he’s the one who made Three Days or Four Days—whatever the movie was called—and then these little documentaries we’ve done over the course of a year.

So yeah, film’s important to me. I think film is in a similar place as maybe writing, or maybe—isn’t it the old Wagnerian idea (again, that’s not a very PC name-drop, “good ol’ Wagner”)—the combination of art forms and maybe technologies allow us to the point where we can be bopping some of these things off one another, and seeing what we come up with, and seeing what happens. And the reading is part of that, too. You know, the reading, the music. Oh gosh, now I’m sounding pretentious.

Rumpus: Is there anything that you’d like to talk about that no one ever gets around to?

McClanahan: No. Wait. I’ll talk about the Southern Festival of Books. Wow. I was on C-Span there—and you’ve never seen so many fucking tote bags in your life. They were good-lookin’ tote bags. I’m not gonna knock a tote bag. I don’t want this to be the headline, that I hate tote bags. It’s like a whole niche market, where that’s what “making it” is. If I have to go to book festivals ever again—you might as well kill me now. But if I do die, you can just stuff my body in a tote bag, except the tote bag is probably stuffed full of mom books. Sadly, there’s a whole section of my lit generation who like mom books now, except these people are like twenty-eight and should know better.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

McClanahan: The Sarah Book. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. The hardcover is going to cushy like a pillow. You know how some children’s books are like? So you can dream on it or use it as a sex aid. Sometimes people need to sleep instead of reading.

Rumpus: This has been really great. Thanks for waking up early for this.

McClanahan: I didn’t even wake up; this is me staying up late. We should probably let people know that it’s 5:30 a.m. here. This is the earliest interview The Rumpus has ever conducted—an experiment in the interview, shall we say.


Gabrielle is an incurable book pusher. When she’s not reading, or forcing others to, she’s listening to an inordinate amount of podcasts, taking pictures of weird things that cross her path, and drinking obscene amounts of coffee. She writes about art & culture over at The Contextual Life and can be found on Twitter at @contextual_life. More from this author →