The Rumpus Interview with Scott McClanahan

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Scott McClanahan is the author of Stories and Stories II (both published by Six Gallery Press). His new collection of short stories, Stories V, is set, like most of McClanahan’s fiction, in Rainelle, West Virginia. It was published by “Holler Presents,” for whom McClanahan also directs videos.

McClanahan’s prose is unfettered and kinetic and his stories seem like a hyper-modern iteration of local color fiction. His delivery is guileless and his morality ambivalent and you get the sense, while reading him, that he is sitting next to you on a barstool, eating peanuts and drinking a beer, and intermittently getting up to pick a song on the jukebox. Check out Scott reading his story, “Kidney Stones,” in Atlanta here. Also, you can visit his website, or watch his stellar promo video for Stories V, in which he tell you about his baby.

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The Rumpus: How long have you been working on Stories V?

Scott McClanahan: About six months. I’m not really precious about these things though. If you don’t like these stories I can write another fifteen tomorrow. Of course, my six months equals six years in the typical writer’s life. It’s all a matter of intensity rather than the amount of time spent on them. I’ve been engaged to marry people after only knowing them for just a half an hour.

Rumpus: Your fictional persona seems very closely linked with the real Scott McClanahan. I don’t want to commit the fallacy of conflating narrator with author, but your stories do seem to problematize the issue: they are very good at creating an effect of realism and, oftentimes, their narrators are actually named Scott McClanahan. In a recent interview you said, “Probably, if was I telling the truth, about 75% of the stuff I write about is just stuff that happened to me. Of course, what’s different with me is I try to live my life like a fiction.” Could you expand on that idea? On the ways in which your life influences your fiction and your fiction influences your life?

McClanahan: I would expand on it by saying this: I was probably lying when I came up with that answer (at least 83.2% of the 75% percent figure is a lie). I’m not even a man really. My real name’s Beatrice.

Rumpus: Tell me about Rainelle, West Virginia.

McClanahan: It’s the most horrible, joyous, disgusting, beautiful place on earth. It’s the type of place where you can catch a lady peeing in her front yard one morning on your way to the school bus. The one I caught didn’t even act embarrassed. It’s the type of place where you see bumper stickers that say Earth First: We’ll Log the Other Planets Next.

I was scanning the Charleston paper the other morning and saw this little item. Charleston is about an hour from Rainelle.

Rumpus: Wallace Stegner once said in an interview with Richard Etulain that he thought that point of view was the single most important issue in fiction writing. Do you agree with that statement?

McClanahan: Yeah, I guess I would agree to a certain extent. I’m not really sure why anyone would want to write in the third person in this day and age, unless they were writing about a living, breathing person. I think cinema is the real 3rd person art form of today. I’m more interested in the idea of third person when it comes to biography though. Most of the big Barth/Pynchon/Gaddis novels of the last forty years are just farts in comparison to the great biographies of the past couple of decades like Caro’s LBJ books, or Edmund Morris’ three volumes on Roosevelt. These works feel like modern day Illiad’s to me, in terms of sweep and complexity. I think the “t-shirt” of biography hasn’t even been removed from these forms yet. There’s more to them than just left over belly button lint. Plutarch and Suetonius still feel like wild animals to me. The guys I mentioned earlier just feel like “novelists.” “Novelists” are pretty much the same thing as “insurance salesmen.”

So I guess just picking the right form is more important than even point of view. I’m sure most writers spend their whole life in the wrong form (maybe me too). Of course, I’m talking about biography as a “fiction” as well (which it is).

The Rumpus: What made you want to start writing?

McClanahan: Like most, I guess I just wanted to originate the future.

No, I think it’s more like a compulsion really along the lines of stealing a car or living life as a peeping tom. I’m sure there’s a large deal of ego involved. There has to be. Think about it. Okay, Nathanael West didn’t say it right, I need to add more. Collette didn’t quite get it right. I need to add my two cents. Every word is really a big wad of loogie in the face of the past when it comes down to it.

Of course, there’s really no originating the future when we’re all speaking Mandarin Chinese in a hundred years or so.

So I guess I look at it on a more personal level. Montaigne said he was writing for his future generations. I used to write for Sarah, but she doesn’t really read anymore, so I guess I’m writing my books for Baby Iris (our kid) or the granddaughter of Baby Iris.

I don’t know why she needs to know it, but I keep compulsively writing it. I used to have panic attacks so intense I vomited every day between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. I still won’t stay over at people’s houses when I’m doing readings because I’m afraid they’re going to hear me in the middle of the night.

I guess I want her to know that I had a nervous breakdown when I was twenty five, and that there were days when I didn’t know whether or not I was going to make it (or even cared for that matter).

I want her to know I moved to Huntington, WV when I was twenty two and pretended I was Australian for a whole month. I seriously pretended I was Australian and no one at the telemarketing place I worked even knew until I stopped speaking with an accent and people were going, “What the hell? You’re not Australian?”

I don’t know how any of this shit is going to be a comfort to them, but maybe it will.

Rumpus: What is the best writing advice you were ever given?

McClanahan: I stay away from advice of any kind (either giving it or receiving it). It’s especially dangerous to take advice, if you ask me.

Imagine a writing workshop sitting around discussing two of the most famous sentences in the language. Pretend these sentences don’t exist and you’ve just written them.

You write: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”

The person giving the advice: “But do you need the clause ‘In the beginning’? It’s the start of your book. We already know that this is the beginning don’t we?”

You write: “To be or not to be: that is the question…”

The person giving the advice: “I really wonder what would happen if you eliminate, ‘that is the question.’ We already have the question there. I think it may be a bit repetitive if the question is being pointed out as a question.”

So phooey on advice. This whole German university system of classification and qualification is pretty silly in my book.

Rumpus: Who are your biggest influences?

McClanahan: I guess I could give you the “writer” answer here and say Witold Gombrowicz or Manuel Puig, but if I were to be honest I would say the red light on my way to work has a much greater impact on me. It always catches me and pisses me off first thing in the morning. So it’s either the red light or Pizza Hut. If I had to pick between Puig and Pizza Hut, I would pick Pizza Hut. The other night I ordered that new stuffed crust pizza and tried to eat the whole thing myself. I failed and for the rest of the night I kept waking up with heartburn. It had a much bigger impact on my work the next day when I sat down to write than Mozart’s Requiem or some crap like that.

Rumpus: Joseph Conrad once wrote:

“A novelist who would think himself of a superior essence to other men would miss…his calling…I would ask that in his dealings with mankind he should be capable of giving a tender recognition to their obscure virtues. I would not have him impatient with their small failings and scornful of their errors…I would wish him to look with a large forgiveness at men’s ideas and prejudices…”

Do you agree with this idea? That the most fundamental skill a writer can have is a sense of empathy? A capacity to give “tender recognition” to someone’s “obscure virtues”?

McClanahan: That quote is as silly and full of purple as Conrad’s prose. Only a condescending ass thinks about mankind as having “obscure virtues,” or the need to point out to others not to feel superior to mankind. That’s someone who thinks he’s superior already.

I think writing is more like the Verlaine example. His mother kept all of her still-born children in jars of formaldehyde. She kept these sad little jars in a room of her house. One night Verlaine was drunk and he broke in and smashed and busted up all of the jars full of his still-born brothers and sisters. Then he ran away to Paris with his sixteen-year-old boy toy or something like that.

That’s what writing feels like to me. I keep fighting the urge to set myself on fire really. I’m not worrying about whether or not I’m “impatient” with someone’s “small failings.”

You have to watch those Polish dudes.

Rumpus: In Stories V you mention that you are “done with stories.” Is this true? What are you working on now?

McClanahan: Yep, I’m done. I’m just waiting for my book Hill William to come out. Hill William. Hill William, edited by the great Giancarlo Ditrapano (his aunt makes the greatest pizza in the world). Tyrant Books. Spring 2012. I spent more than six months on that one.

Rumpus: Who are you reading right now (give us a recommendation!)?

McClanahan: I just finished Brian Allen Carr’s Short Bus, which is amazing. I really loved XTX’s, Normally Special, and the Frank Hinton chap-book put out by Matt Debenedictis and Safety Third Enterprises.

I’m really looking forward to the new Michael Kimball book, too.


Daniel Gumbiner is a student at UC Berkeley. He has lived in Chile and Argentina. He blogs with his brother, David, at smartwool.tumblr.com More from this author →