If You Want to Hear America Singing, Try the Walmart Parking Lot
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
Scott McClanahan on celebrating a forgotten segment of the country and telling the literary establishment where it can go
The character of Scott McClanahan is always fucking up. He drives drunk and wants to get caught. He concocts elaborate fantasies of being hauled off to jail, begging for forgiveness from his weeping wife. But he can’t even do that — after he gets pulled over, he doesn’t get arrested. He burns a bible and waits for God to make him pay for his atrocious sin, but nothing happens. He tries to kill himself with gobs of Tylenol but, you guessed it, nothing happens.
This is the Scott McClanahan of The Sarah Book — a guy who can’t even get a DUI in West Virginia. A guy who can’t even kill himself. But, of course, that only tells half (maybe less?) of the story. McClanahan’s newest book, which may be his best yet, is truly a breathtaking and brilliant piece of literature. In it, he not only lays himself bare, but also America. McClanahan’s wife leaves him and he decides to live in the Walmart parking lot. There, he can be among his people; the drug dealers, the amputees, the freaks, the forgotten. Scott’s book is beautiful and holy because he gives space to a people and culture that literature has forgotten about. Who literature has deemed unfit for its pages, who publishers insist don’t buy books and aren’t worthy of art. He tells stories about balls of wax and eating chicken wings and masturbating in his car.
In an America where the white working-class have been blamed for a Trump presidency when the reality is that the wealthy suburbs elected him, McClanahan’s book feels even more necessary. This book will break you, there’s no doubt. But if you’re lucky, it will also baptize you. Scott is a prophet who sees the vitality in the mundane and insists you do, too.
Nicholas Rys: I’d love for you to talk to me about your love of Walmart. What does it represent to you or for you?
Scott McClanahan: It’s everything really. I think Whitman would have understood it. Blake would have figured it out. It’s the pure wild product of America going crazy, right? Maybe it’s the molested kid in me, but I can enjoy anything if I just try. It seems like all anyone does about anything anymore is complain and tell you why this is bad and that is bad. And Walmart is horrible and evil in a number of ways but that’s why it’s beautiful too. This is what you gave me, but I’m going to celebrate it. It’s that old notion that Tolstoy used to go on about. We have the enlightenment, the scientific method, and rationality and there are people who still believe in fairies. I think that’s amazing. But what can you do? As far as I’m concerned life is nothing but a tragedy with a happy ending to look forward to.
Rys: Your writing really is concerned with examining yourself and your experiences. I’m curious if you write about things in your life as they are happening or if you wait and write with hindsight?
McClanahan: Both. But most of it I just make up. I’m a fiction writer with an upper-case F. I make up more than a sci-fi writer to be honest. I’ve never understood that idea that you need distance from something to write about something. Bunny Wilson’s journals are amazing because he’s taking it all down as it’s happening. I’m not a fan of Cheever but I wish he could have written his fiction like his journals. All books wind up with a final reader, though. So there’s no use in worrying about it too much. You know that anecdote about the writer who is going through the used bookstore and they see their long out of print book. The writer gets excited and pulls it from the shelf and opens it up. What does the writer see? A dedication and the writer’s signature. To Mom and Dad. Thanks for everything. Of course, the writer’s parents are still BOTH alive. So there’s nothing to do then but shut the book and put it back on the shelf. That’s how we treat books. So why does it really matter? Our families are just going to end up taking our books down to the used bookstore anyway.
Rys: I absolutely love the opening chapter of this book. I think if I could distill the book into a few pages I’d probably pick the first few. Did you always know this would be the first chapter of the book or did it take some figuring out?
McClanahan: No, I’ve had that first chapter since about 2015. I knew as soon as I wrote it that it would be the one to punch the reader in the face with. It felt like the opening to Goodfellas or something. I’m so tired of the way novels open up with those 19th century, New Yorker framing devices like this is “the story” and this is my name and this is where I’m from. Most of these novels should just be titled Exposition. I wanted to blow all of that up. I wanted to punch the reader in the face. Literally punch them in the face. I needed a first chapter to present the book as a big picked scab from some sacred wound (which is what the book is). After a friend read it, they said, “You can’t show this to anyone.” It felt dangerous. So much writing now feels like an apology or something. Like a “I’m sorry I exist, but here is my story.” “I’m sorry I may not have the proper socio-political worldview, but I’m trying really hard to have the proper opinions.” I’m not trying. I apologize for nothing.
So much writing now feels like an apology or something. Like a ‘I’m sorry I exist, but here is my story.’ ‘I’m sorry I may not have the proper socio-political worldview, but I’m trying really hard to have the proper opinions.’ I’m not trying. I apologize for nothing.
Rys: I noticed a recurring theme throughout the book of the Scott character always wanting to get caught. A desire that never really comes to fruition in the manner sought out. I think about that opening chapter with the fantasies of the cop hauling you off to jail and crying to Sarah, or the burning of the bible not bringing forth any satanic consequences — there is this hoping for a catharsis in tragedy, (arguably the biggest cliché in memoir/nonfiction writing, or any writing, for that matter) but it never happens. Things just continue on and oh man does that feel like life.
McClanahan: I’ve been reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for the past few days. He talks about how it was a relief for people to get arrested. It was the individuals who lived their life in hiding or under constant paranoia of arrest that cracked up or died. Once, you were arrested you felt a sense of almost joy. And I think that’s life in a number of ways. We’re wanting to get caught. We’re desperately in need of being caught because there is no confession without absolution. It reassures us that there is order in the world and that a deity of some sort exists. It’s why social media is so obsessed with “issues” now. It’s a way to make sense of the chaos of this world. The truth of politics from century to century is you just trade one shitty set of problems for the next and it’s never ending. Imagine the problems we’re going to have with lithium-ion batteries or “green technology” in the future. You know people have to mine the materials to make those batteries. But that’s chaos and chaos is devastating.
My books are full of chaos though and I never try to comment on it. I re-read the Brontës this spring and that was what was so refreshing about Emily (in comparison to some Charlotte and quite a bit of Anne). She doesn’t tell you why Heathcliff does something. She doesn’t condemn. She just presents. And that’s problematic. And that’s why Heathcliff and Cathy will still be fascinating and troubling a hundred years from now if anyone is still alive to read about them.
Rys: I read somewhere that you are a daily, compulsive writer. I was wondering what your reading habits are, and if they are as compulsive?
McClanahan: Oh for sure. That’s all I want to do really. It’s like that old Dean Martin, “I don’t drink much anymore. I just freeze it and eat it like a popsicle.” That’s my reading life. It’s much more important to me than writing or anything stupid like that. I’ve made the books I’ve made because I had to. Not to get on a big press or to write one just because I had a second book on my contract. I just read Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom and there’s a section in there where one of the bands is meeting with a record company and they realize that no one there really LOVES music. It’s just a job. But that’s the way with any business. I’ve been reading all the French Romantic novelists this summer because I’ve only read Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. But they’ve been blowing me away. Hugo’s Les Miserables is so fucking amazing. I don’t know what I was thinking or why I was so stupid. I guess it was the musical that turned me off. I’ve also been reading a ton of books off David Shields favorite book list. One of the best book lists around. Here it is. I’m also going to read the Icelandic Sagas next because my friend Chris Dankland likes them.
Rys: I know you really like biographies — and I know you did the Daniel Johnston graphic novel, but is writing a full-on biography something you would want to do, or do you think your literary output will always concern your life or the autobiographical?
McClanahan: No, I think this is going to be the last book like this for a while. I hate most third person writing though. It just feels made up to me. I’m a snob that way. Oh you went to Sarah Lawrence or Columbia and you had really nice parents and you grew up in the suburbs and you have no anecdotes whatsoever to entertain me when I’m standing right in front of you, but I’m going to believe in the power of your imagination. Okay. Whatever.
At the same time, I’m totally full of it though because I’m interested in third person too. It’s my psycho-biography idea. Telling another “real” person’s story where I can just disappear. Like an update on Plutarch, but with a friend or my parents or my family stories. Maybe that’s the direction now. Of course, it’s pretty funny that the whole “author is dead” idea was thought up by an author. There’s an irony in that.
Rys: So your Daniel Johnston graphic novel got a lot of attention from some major outlets. Although your work is no stranger to critical love, I wanted to ask if you’ve gone through the process of being courted by a major press, and if you have any intentions or interest in signing with one?
McClanahan: I AM on a major press. It would be like being in the Replacements and wanting to hang out with some corporate rock band at some fancy, boring NY literary party where everyone is drinking out of tall glasses. I’d rather hang with Alex Chilton. Fuck the James Taylors and Carly Simons of the world. So I have that taken care of. Maybe if I wanted to win fellowships to go live in the woods or grants I’d do that. I already live in the woods so why would I need a residency to spend a month in the woods. However, I DO want to be the first person to win a MacArthur grant and spend it all on candy. A million dollars worth of candy. It would be amazing. I guess I’ve just always been interested in those editors who work on the outside. Like a Barney Rosset or a James Laughlin. Those who had vision and the rarest talent of all which is taste: Giancarlo Ditrapano is that. He’s my pirate. Even Gian’s shadow has personality. It would be easier to travel first class, but it sure wouldn’t be as much fun attacking the ships on the open sea with Gian and stealing all the loot.
I’m getting a gold tooth next week.
Rys: I want to ask you about a passage towards the end of the book. You are reading a children’s book to your kids called There’s a Monster at the End of this Book. To recap quickly, it’s a book where Grover of Sesame Street keeps warning the reader that there is a monster at the end of the book and to not turn the page, and yet of course, we turn the page. I love this section and find it to reflect one our deepest impulses — from Eve and the apple to this children’s book, we are always pulled to what we shouldn’t. I wanted to ask you about this and how this passage made its way into this book.
McClanahan: Oh I’ve had that for years. I want to say it’s been in other books and Gian has edited it out. Books are just broken down cars. You have a bunch of parts for this car that won’t fit and then finally you put it in your Chevy Nova and it roars. I just loved the idea of putting a book inside of my book. I think we cut one of the best lines, but maybe it’s implied. The monster at the end of every book is you and me. I think that There’s a Monster at the End of this Book is as powerful as any children’s lit: Barrie or the Little Prince or Dahl or whoever.
“The monster at the end of every book is you and me.”
Rys: From Walmart to stories of ear wax being pulled from the ear of an old man, you constantly are elevating the mundane or things from daily life or things that usually aren’t granted space in a (capital “n”) Novel. You insist that we pay attention to these things and places and people, and I think that’s very important. Is this a deliberate choice or do you just find yourself fascinated by these things?
McClanahan: Those things don’t feel mundane to me at all. They feel vital. If you live for years thinking that you’re deaf and then a nurse just discovers that your ears are clogged with ear wax — then that event is almost like a resurrection story or a creation hymn almost. It’s a miracle story. The problem with most books is we’ve turned them into fine art. Everyone is trying to make art with their literary historical novels or post 9–11 novels and that’s why books feel well-written, well-crafted, but utterly devoid of anything human. Like ballet almost.
Do you know the story about Faulkner and the snooty old lady in Oxford? She buys one of his books and asks him to sign it. She asks him if he thinks she’ll like it and Faulkner says, “You’ll love it mam. It’s nothing but cheap trash.” Trash is holy though. The stuff most people would throw away in order to appear civilized is the stuff you can live off of for days. Ask any bum or dumpster diver.
Rys: I live in a small town in Southwestern Ohio there’s a part about half way through the book where you describe fast food signs as monuments and I found such incredible truth in that. I wanted to ask why you think big corporations like Walmart and McDonalds dominate small town consciousness.
McClanahan: I don’t know. To have a horror of the bourgeois is so bourgeois. Is there any more gentrified behavior than to talk about gentrification? Sure as hell wish they could send some gentrification West Virginia’s way. My wife Julia wants a Whole Foods.
I guess my whole point is that I come from a nothing people who were branded as in-bred and stupid in order for a company to steal their natural resources. I mean how many think pieces have you seen about Trump country and West Virginia when the Trump votes for this entire state only equals the Trump votes of any one SINGLE major county in California. But then again it’s our fault. I say fuck you to that. But when you’re given nothing like fast food culture you try to understand that nothing and celebrate that nothing. You rely on that nothing. Most people I know just want to change things. It even seems like writers are asking how they can change society through their work like some shitty Naturalist writer sitting at the feet of Zola. I don’t want to change the people I write about in West Virginia. I want to love them, which is the only way to change anything. Loving something.
“To have a horror of the bourgeois is so bourgeois. Is there any more gentrified behavior than to talk about gentrification? Sure as hell wish they could send some gentrification West Virginia’s way.”
Rys: Can you share what you are working on now?
McClanahan: I’m working on a book called Vandalia. I don’t have a word written yet, but I have a title. It’s an old title of Gian’s that he wrote down as a possible title for Hill William. I don’t even know what the title means yet, but I’m going to take the next ten years to find out. I sort of wish technology would catch up though. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be books with in-text music and visuals and movie clips. A real fusion of all the art forms to make a new one. I want to be the D.W. Griffith of this new form. It’s going to happen.