Preaching the Gospel of Scott McClanahan
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I did a reading a few weeks ago at Book Thug Nation in Williamsburg for Perfect Day Publishing and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. I’d never heard of any of the other readers before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can tell you that Scott McClanahan wasn’t it. Listening to McClanahan read was sort of like listening to a Southern Baptist preacher spread the gospel, but with most of the creepy aspects removed. Instead, the Jesus and brimstone was replaced with modern-day issues and cuss words. He’s got a pretty thick Appalachian accent and had part of his reading memorized; he played music and even touched some audience members on the forehead and chest like he was anointing them. The reading — actually it was more of a performance — did what any good piece of writing should, in that it made me feel like I had been transported to a different time and place. I was so impressed, in fact, that afterward I immediately went up to him so I could spend my last few bucks on his books.
I was curious to see how his work translated when he wasn’t there to read/perform it for me, but fortunately his stories included many things that I really like to see in writing: unadorned but powerful prose, a weird and concrete setting, a definitive narrative voice, lots of fucked up shit, hope, and even some twists of love. For instance, in “Razy,” McClanahan tells a story about a childhood cat that loses its tail in the fan belt of an Oldsmobile, and there is “blood, and a trail of blood,” and “O shit screams,” and the whole thing is very strange and gross and a bit childlike. But then it ends on such a nice note, one that’s surprising and lovely but not in a corny way. No, even McClanahan’s nice endings feel more like an uplifting surreal dream than a rosy-hued fairytale.
The author of three short story collections — Stories, Stories II (both Six Gallery Press) and Stories V! (Holler Presents) — McClanahan lives in West Virginia (a fact that is integral to his stories), but he’ll be back in Brooklyn on Monday night for Franklin Park’s monthly reading series, and I highly recommend that you get down there to check him out.
In hopes of getting you all as excited about him as I am, I interviewed him recently and got the chance to ask him about his writing process, his wife, and “BEING A LITERARY OUTSIDER.”
JJ: I feel weird, like I am being nosy and reading someone’s private journal or something, when I read your books since the character is always named Scott McClanahan, and the wife is named Sarah, since that is your IRL wife’s name, and so on. So are your readers supposed to take your books as fact? And, if not, how much of it is true? How much is complete fiction? Please illustrate with specific examples, and possibly a bar graph and/or Venn diagram.
SM: Actually, it’s all fiction. Sarah is a very large Russian man who I have lived with for years. Instead of drawing you a diagram, I’ll simply give you three words to describe our relationship.
GENTLE. LOVING. BEEFCAKE.
JJ: If you had to pick a credo to live by, what would it be?
SM: A writer as amazing and powerful and magnificent and beautiful as Julia Jackson should be treated like a GOD by this culture. How about that?
It’s either that or the lyrics of Roger Miller.
JJ: Do you have any weird patterns or habits in terms of the process of your writing, from inspiration to publication? You seem like you might possibly be a strange neurotic creature and I really like those.
SM: I think it’s bad luck to be superstitious. I’m not sure if I’m in the position to talk about my own neurosis, so I’ll just read this question to Sarah and let her answer. I’ll write down what she says.
Sarah (laughing): You’re easily the most neurotic individual I have ever come across.
Me: For example.
Sarah: For example, you only write sitting on the floor. I vaguely remember the reason being that you didn’t want to be a part of any “bourgeois bullshit” or something like that. I was never really sure what that meant and I’m not even sure if you know what it means. We also had a big fight about the use of bookshelves in the house. Remember? You think bookshelves are “made by the devil to domesticate people’s spirits.” Again, I’m not really sure why a person would think such a thing, let alone say it out loud.
And don’t even get me started on the snake bite this summer and how you think your writing is on a whole new level now.
Me: It has improved my writing. I have copperhead venom in my veins.
Sarah: It wasn’t even a copperhead. It was a garter snake.
Me: It was a copperhead.
Sarah: Even your dad said it was a garter snake. And I have no idea how that would improve your writing.
Me: It has. Okay, that’s enough.
JJ: What was the last book that you got really excited about?SM: I read The Autobiography of Chuck Berry this summer and found it to be a hell of a lot richer and crazier than the Kundera, Ballard, Bernhard, and Nicole Krauss novels I was also trudging through at the same time.Here is one of the countless great lines from the Berry book: “I’ll never forget that when Jack pushed me out on the stage I broke into a sweat but broke wind as well. Saved by the roar of ovation, the bitter fright in me was diluted with the sweet applauding.”Chuck Berry also went to cosmetology school. All the great ones have been to cosmetology school.
JJ: I read in your interview at The Rumpus that a lot of your inspiration comes while stuck at red lights. So what do you like to listen to while you’re in the car?
SM: I just walked out to my car to see what’s sitting in the front seat. There’s a Merle Haggard album, Patti Smith’s Easter, Gorecki’s 2nd Symphony, a Leonard Cohen bootleg from back in the 70s, a live Otis Redding album, The Velvet Underground’s third album, Loretta Lynn’s greatest hits.
I’m probably more likely to be writing songs for Angel Babies rather than listening to music. We’re recording our album this year.
JJ: I feel like it would be easy to slap a label on you and call you an “OUTSIDER” of the literary world because you don’t live in Portland or Brooklyn, you publish on a tiny press, you have a weird accent, and, as far as my research has gone, it appears that you don’t have an MFA. Is this accurate or complete bullshit? How does BEING A LITERARY OUTSIDER reflect on your work?
SM: Well, Ms. Jackson, I’m trying to change that outsider thing. It’s my destiny to eat potato salad at some party in the Hamptons with Salman Rushdie surrounded by people who are skinnier than spiders.
I’ve read in both Brooklyn and Portland this year and found one thing in common besides the bad indie music and shitty wheat beer. People are paying way too much in rent. Seriously folks. What are you thinking? I know it’s great being able to see any art movie you want when it’s out in theaters, but if you just wait a few months it will be out on DVD.
Of course, all art has a weird accent. Andy Warhol wasn’t Andy Warhol. He was a weird little immigrant kid with bad skin from Pennsylvania named Andrew Warhola.
I read this article in Vanity Fair last month about this novel about baseball and how it sold for big bucks. The guy spent years writing it and he got a big advance. That feels like “insider” literary stuff to me — novels about baseball and sad young literary men. It’s the type of stuff that makes you want to perform an abortion on yourself even thirty years after your birth.
I mean one of the agents in the article even said, “I judge writers on how well they write queries.” Are you fucking kidding me?
You’re either one of the Last of the Mohicans or your not. Do you really think Rabelais spent hours on his query letter?
God bless the outsiders of this world then.
JJ: Of all the mistakes you’ve made in life, what do you most hope your new baby will grow up to repeat?
SM: Ah, I’ll let her make her own mistakes. That’s pretty much the only salvation there is in this life: the ability to make your own mistakes.
by Scott Mcclanahan
— Julia Jackson is the editor of Electric Dish. Feel free to say hi to her at Franklin Park on Monday.
– Sunny Katz is an MS Paintmaster.