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October 26, 2012 | Interview

AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT MCCLANAHAN

Matthew Simmons

AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT MCCLANAHAN photo

This is going to hurt a little.

This interview with the astonishingly talented storyteller/performer/filmmaker/musician/fella Scott McClanahan took place over a month and a half by email. It was mostly supposed to be about Scott's collection of stories, Scott McClanahan: The Collected Works, Vol. 1.

And it's mostly about that. But a lot of other things get into the interview, too. And a lot is happening off-text, as well.

Scott's the best. This fucker (the interview & the man) really breaks my heart.

—Matthew Simmons

 

I'm trying to decide whether or not the stories you tell are "true" in the fiction/nonfiction sense. Or, I read them, think of them as nonfiction-y, wonder if that's an accurate way of describing them, and then suddenly think, Hell, maybe it doesn't matter.

Does it matter?

I'm not sure.  
 
As far as I can tell the only difference between fiction/non-fiction is about $3.50. At least it seems to be like that.  I'm sure the bookstores would back me up on this.  
 
I just flipped over a paperback book of fiction and then a paperback book of non-fiction and this seems to be the case.   My hypothesis is somewhat true.
 
am publishing a work of non-fiction next year with Two Dollar Radio called Crapalachia.   I have often wondered though if it's just as morally or spiritually wrong to publish a work with all of these autobiographical, real, "true" elements and then just call it "fiction"?   We never talk about stuff like that though.
 
Of course, I think that Mark Twain is true.   I think that Samuel Clemens is the lie.  Only a dishonest person wants you to know that a story they are telling "really happened."

 

Have you identified the kind of moral or spiritual transgression that occurs when one (i.e. you) publishes autobiographical work and calls it fiction? Do you worry you are diminishing the real people involved by saying they are fictional, maybe? Or is it that, say, the guy with the running chainsaw riding his bike down a hill has that story within himself, too, and when you tell it, and then call it fiction, you're not allowing him ownership of the story about the time he started up his chainsaw, got on his bike, and rode down a hill? If you called it nonfiction, he'd be a guy we could maybe track down and talk to about his version of your story. His story. The mutual story that you are cutting him out of?

Yes, all of that.   Think about all of those real life characters with strong names like "Robert" and then when the shitty novelist gets around to writing about them they turn the character's first name into "Bernie."   How do you justify this?  Sadly, this is what novelists do.   If they're not writing about post apocalyptic nightmares or some "realist" roman a clef about the summer they spent at the beach house on Cape Cod trying to find themselves, then they're changing the names of the people they know into shitty names and stealing what these people did in real life and turning it into their fiction.   

I think this is just as nasty.   I wonder why Oprah doesn't focus on stuff like this?  Oprah is a horrible, horrible, person by the way.

I even have a family example of it.  My mother's great uncle Al Kipfer was in the army with the novelist James Jones.   Jones always told him he was going to put him in one of his novels.   He did, sort of.  The name of the madam of the whorehouse in "From Here to Eternity" is named Kipfer. Think of all of the hell Al Kipfer took from his wife when that novel came out.   "He used your name for the woman who runs the whorehouse?   What kind of man are you?"

I have no clue why writers even care about questions of morality.   It's just a ploy to keep graduate schools in business.

 

We should probably be ashamed of ourselves. And yet, I don't think most of us are. I think, for the most part, writers think they are doing a good thing when we take other people's stories and names and hairstyles and mash them up in our minds with other people's stories and names and haircuts and make something new out of them. We should all be expelled from the republic.

Hey, here's something you wrote:

Want a Bible? Nope.

Want a Bible? Nope.

Want a Bible? Nope.

Want a Bible?

—"The Firestarter"

Why no "Nope." after the fourth "Want a Bible?" It feels to me like the right choice. Why?

No, it's wrong Simmons.  Damn. It's probably just a copy-editing mistake.  I can't stand it now that you've pointed it out to me. I want to change it. There should have been a fourth "Nope."  What have I done?
 
You know what Dr. Johnson said about the Irish?   "They are a beautiful race but they will disagree just for the sake of disagreement."   This may be the case for hillbilly writers as well.
 
Let me answer as the typical literary interviewee or if someone asked me in a writing workshop (insert writing workshop voice here).   "Actually, it's an aesthetic choice that was made.   Whenever you're dealing with the question of rhythm in a passage, it's always best to create a certain surprise that will undercut the expectation of the reader.   It's the same as when I am making love.   I always follow two short strokes with one powerful thrust, or perhaps..."   You get the point.
 
I think you're right though.   I probably eliminated it because of reading it back to myself.   That's all.   Readers are children.  Writers are children.   We just want to hear a voice reading something to us (even if it happens to be our own).   We want to believe that writing/language is so modern and unique, but it's primal.   It's as primal as the death rattle.

 

It's so right without the "Nope," though. I was reading it as an open syllable vs. closed syllable thing. Bible ends with that "l" sound, You, reading this story aloud, can get there, hit those three phrases,
ask yourself, answer yourself, ask yourself, answer yourself, ask yourself, answer yourself, and then get to that last ask, and say, "Bibleeeeeeeeee" and linger on that "ulllllllllllllllllllll" as long as you want. The closed syllable at the end of "Nope," stops that thing dead. And then you have to get to that next sentence. Imagine everyone listening to you, leaning forward. You say, "ulllllllllllllll," and they float out there with it. Trail off, and they sort of float into the air. That "Nope" would just make them fall forward out of their chairs.

Promise me you won't put that "Nope," back in and make me fall, Scott. Promise me. My inner child is asking.

Do you write a passage and read it back to yourself? A whole story? A sentence? At what point do you read aloud?

Oh, of course.   You caught me on that one.   I would kill someone before I put back in a fourth "nope."   I may act like a philistine, but it's all bullshit.   Your question pretty much sums up the idea behind eliminating the last "nope."

Okay, I will continue with the question after a night without dreams.  Here goes: I think I'm reading inside my head the whole time I'm writing.  I think the voice inside my head is the one I write with.   I know a ton of writers who do that weird Ginsberg, Robert Bly voice at readings, but I think it's crap.  Have you ever heard these people? I don't think anyone sounds like this let alone speaks like this.  The voice in your head should be the voice in your voice.   The voice you speak with should be the voice you speak with.
 
I think the best answer to this question would be an anecdote.   Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Broderick Crawford were all drinking in a bar one night in LA.   Joe DiMaggio came in.  He was depressed and estranged from Marilyn Monroe and looking for Marilyn Monroe.   Frank Sinatra knew she was in an apartment in Hollywood.   Frank told Joe not to be so depressed.   He knew where Marilyn was.   "Please don't be so depressed Joe.   We'll get you kids back together.  We promise."   Of course, Sinatra knew where Monroe was because he was having an affair with her at the time.  Sinatra told Dimaggio he would take him to Marilyn.
 
So Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford, and Joe DiMaggio went over to a Hollywood apartment house.   They knocked on the door.  No one answered.   They knocked on the door.  No one answered.  "We know you're in there Marilyn.  Open up."  Crawford was drunk and pissed off.   So he kicked down the door.   Then out of nowhere an old ass woman started screaming her face off inside the apartment.  She was terrified.   This wasn't Monroe's apartment.  They had picked the wrong one.   They took off running.
 
The old woman called the police and said someone had broken into her apartment.   When they arrived they asked her who had broken into her apartment and she calmly said, "It was Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Joe DiMaggio, and Broderick Crawford."  The cops immediately took the woman to the crazy house.   She spent a week there before they finally released her.
 
I think this is the truth about answering any specific question about your writing.   Writing is craziness and absurdity.   Someone who would give you a straight answer is just kidding you and kidding themselves.   They don't know.   It's instinct.   Instinct is wrong sometimes though.

 

I should probably defend "craft." I have an MFA. But, really, sometimes I think "craft" is just "practice." Just keep practicing. Here's a new way of practicing. Maybe if you keep at it, some day you'll get it right. There's a recording of Eudora Welty reading "Why I Live at the PO" on, I think, the New York Times website, and one time, I listened to it while reading along. And she was making changes. Changing sentences. Still trying to make it better. The version I was reading along with was in a Library of America edition, too. Library of America! Is nothing sacred?

All we can do is fuck up and try again. And fuck up a little less. "Ever tried. Ever fucked it up. Meh."

Speaking of failure, and practice, I thought we should talk about the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Quite unexpectedly, I read your story "The Prettiest Girl in Texas," and was reminded how important the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were to me in the early '80s. What a long shadow they cast over my understanding of what is and what I'm supposed to think is beautiful. You?

Also, how can you tell when instinct is wrong and when it is right, though?

You can't.   That's the story of life though.   It's all just so hard and it gets me down sometimes.  Do you feel this way Matthew?  We like to tell ourselves that we know best (every writer I know pretends they know everything about their work), but for the most part I just feel confused about what I do.   I don't even know who the hell I am to be honest.   I seriously wonder sometimes if I even exist or why I'm even doing this.   I really mean this.
 
I used to work in a women's study center when I was in school.   We used to go the local women's shelter to do workshops and stuff.   I mean these women were in love once and now the people who they loved were hunting them down like animals.   How the hell do you deal with that?   One time a woman at the shelter started screaming when she saw me because I looked like her ex-husband.   She thought the guy had come back to murder her.   I couldn't do anything to help her.   How do you help a person who is being hunted?   I wanted to scream myself.  I was probably as fucked up and near death myself at that moment.   Hell, if I would have told her the thoughts in my head during those months she may have ended up helping me.
 
I guess this is what "craft" is about right?  It's the little white lie we tell ourselves to make up for something like this.  Psychology, sociology, prose style, history—they're all just these myths we conjure to make up for this fear of "What the hell is all of this about?"   It makes us feel better to use words like "motivation" or explore the mind of one of those bastards who just knocked out the teeth of his girlfriend in front of her child.   It makes us feel better, but that fear is still there.
 
The world's a big crazy zombie and we're all afraid.

 

What should we do about the zombie? What should we do about people? What should we do about literature? What should we do about interviews?

You seemed to genuinely tear up at the end of your last reading in Seattle. Is something going to happen? Do you know something the rest of us don't know?

I have no clue Matthew.   I really don't.  I'm just trying to get through the day and make it to the next day.   The only thing I know to do is to try and fight against the pain of this world and celebrate the pleasures of this life: babies, chicken wings, beer, laughter, pretty faces, ice cream.

What else is there?

I think the only answers for zombies is this: pussy and assholes and death and drugs and hugs from Special Olympic participants. That's all. We all win gold medals but it means nothing.
 
Of course, I did crack up at that Seattle reading.   I've always wanted to get to a place where I don't have any skin anymore.   I'm almost there.   Elizabeth and Chelsea are wonderful people and I was in awe of them, but there was something about that tour that felt sad for me.   I felt totally alone and naked at the end.  I just suddenly realized how much I was going to miss them.
  
I rode in the back of a pick up truck through the streets of San Francisco (It belonged to Chelsea's boyfriend) when we read with Jimmy Chen.   I haven't been in the back of a pick up truck in years, but it made me feel like a child again.   Even the worst of us wish we could be children again, perhaps the worst of us most of all.
 
When I got back Sarah told me she wanted a divorce. She's pretty much the only god I've ever known for the last fifteen years, and my god has thrown me out of heaven. At least I know my destination now. I'm in exile. And my destination may be coming soon. Who knows?  Oh Bartelby. O life!

 

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