Friday, February 10, 2012

Q+A with Scott McClanahan

In early 2012 we signed a book by a writer named Scott McClanahan, entitled Crapalachia. The book begins with Scott as a 14 year old going to live with his Grandma Ruby and Uncle Nathan, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and charts the following formidable years of his life coming of age in rural West Virginia. Peopled by colorful characters and their quirky stories, Crapalachia interweaves folklore and area history, providing an ambitious and powerful snapshot of overlooked Americana.

Here's a brief brief excerpt:
"There were 13 of them. The children had names that ended in Y sounds. There was Betty and there was Annie and there was Stirley and there was Stanley and there was Leslie and there was Gary and there was Larry and there was Terry.
Ruby said: “I like names that end in Y.”
They all grew up in Danese, WV, eating blackberries for breakfast and eating blackberries for lunch and watching the snow come beneath the door in the wintertime."

And here be another:
"Then we read about how you build civilization. They built the Hawks Nest tunnel by digging a big ass hole in the side of a mountain. They used a bunch of poor people to dig it. A poor person means either their skin was dark or their accents were thick. That’s the best way to do anything—get a bunch of poor people to do it. So they cut and cut into the mountain but there was a problem. They didn’t wet the dust from the cut limestone—so the men developed silicosis. The men started dying by the tens and then the twenties and then the hundreds and then—the thousands? Since they were poor the company just buried them. There was an investigation a few years later but no one cared. They were poor people. The official stat was 476 but the truth is over a 1,000 of the 3,000 men lost their lives in a few short days."

I’ve read two (possibly three) of your story collections. They all feel personal, but
Crapalachia feels like an entirely new level of personal. You – Scott McClanahan – exist in the story as the book begins when you’re 14 and go to live with your Grandma Ruby and Uncle Nathan, but you’re almost less of a character in this book as Ruby, Nathan, and your friend Bill really color the book. How did you know that you were prepared as a writer to approach something this deeply personal?

Boredom. I was getting ready to write a biography of my wife and all of her ex-boyfriends and she told me she would divorce me if I did (or sue me). I didn’t know how it would be living with someone who was actually suing you, but she was quite serious. So I decided to take some time and use the old McClanahan charm and convince her, and in the meantime I put together Crapalachia. I just ran out of other crap to write about. You can only write about how you passed a kidney stone and thought you were the new messiah only so many times.

Of course, I knew I was going to write about these people one day. So I wanted to try something ambitious. I wanted to see if I could resurrect the dead. I seriously wanted to see if I could bring back to life all of the people I’ve ever known. I’m not talking about metaphor here. I truly wanted to see if I could make my zombies emerge from their graves.

The Bill in the book is really two guys I know. I just decided to put them together and create one character. One of my friends named Bill murdered an old woman. One of my other friends suffered from OCD and we were roommates for a long time.

Nothing sells like sincerity, memory, murder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. I think Richard Nixon said that.

West Virginia and the history of its peoples is an integral part of this story. We read about the Pittston Coal Company calling a flood of mining waste that killed 125 people and decimated a town “an act of god,” or trapped miners eating their own shoelaces to try and survive. There’s also a story your Grandma tells you about your Grandpa’s reaction to his rejection by the mining company, after working for them for many years, for medical benefits. How much did it influence you growing up (and now, still, I suppose), reading and hearing about this ongoing story of oppression?

Oh, it’s had a huge influence. I think living in a place like this educates you in a completely different way from the rest of the country. You realize that they’re going to put it in your butt and keep it there. The only principle of politics my father ever told me was this. “The democrats are stealing just as much as the rest of the bastards, but there’s only one difference. The democrats just aren’t stealing from you.” He still votes a straight ticket without even looking at the ballot.

I know it’s trendy and modern and Dylan-like to say art and politics should be kept separate, but that’s just bullshit. I think calling yourself an artist or a writer is just a real good way to immediately marginalize who you are in this society. At the same time these “occupy kids” just seem like real jack-asses to me. Don’t they know that the leaders of the counter culture just wind up running multi-national corporations like Nike and have people working 20 hour shifts just to build your shitty IPHONE? Don’t they know that he who fucks nuns will later join the church?

Of course, it may sound cynical, but you know the definition of cynicism. Cynicism: A deep and profound understanding of human life.

Oral tall tales play a role in your work, and this book in particular. They grant Crapalachia this really vibrant texture of contrasts; on the one hand they lend your work this wonderful regional authenticity, while on the other hand they feel like magical realism seeped in Americana. Is this something that just sort of wiggles its way into your work?

I always get a little grumpy when I hear the word “oral” in relationship to writing. It always feels like an immediate way to connect a work to a “regional art.” Philip Roth is a regional artist, but he never gets called one. Babel, Singer, and Joyce are all full of folklore and oral elements but they’re always held up as great modernists. It’s the same with music as well. Merle Haggard is not a country singer. He is a master artist on the same level as Leonard Cohen, or Iggy Pop, or Nick Cave—but rural voices are always pushed aside and given labels.

Of course, I really love the sound of the voice. Most of the writing I come across now just feels like clunky prose to me. I don’t know how many novels I come across that feel like they were written by Cormac’s cousin, Barney. It’s all full of third person violence, apocalypse, descriptions of landscapes, murderous children, etc. Most of these books are from guys who are writing in sweaters their wives bought them for Christmas. You have to watch out for the Barney McCarthy’s of this world. I’m just trying to enter my own house justified.

I first heard of you when you interviewed Rudy Wurlitzer for Ain’t It Cool News back in ’09. You also have your own film production company in Holler Presents and have made a number of short films. How do you believe the two mediums inform one another for you as an artist? Or do they exist entirely separate of one another?

I think it’s the same. There’s a whole new type of cinema just waiting to happen where people are going to make movies about their bathroom behavior or sexual behavior. I guarantee the next Marlene Dietrich is going to be somebody’s kid sister or great aunt in the mountains of West Virginia. I’m still wanting to make an epic about chicken wings. I’m absolutely serious. I’ve been planning for years and I’m starting this year.

We also have a punk gospel band called The Holler Boys. We’re pretty interested in tag team wrestling as well.

And here’s a question that you asked Wurlitzer from that AICN interview that I’d be interested in hearing you answer: “Hal Ashby was an editor, Dylan a musician, Sam Shepard a playwright, [Wurlitzer is] a novelist, Robert Frank is primarily known as a photographer. In an age when people making movies typically get their references from comic books, TV shows and other movies, what is it about people coming from different mediums that make films more interesting? Do we need more of it in cinema as well as writing - fewer film schools and MFA programs?”

Oh yeah, it’s one of those things people hate talking about but it’s true. It really chaps their asses when you keep bringing it up—so I just keep bringing it up. It’s like reminding a friend they lost 60,000 dollars in a pyramid scheme.

MFA programs and film schools were created to sell stuff. The academy is one of the last places where people have to buy exactly what you tell them to buy. Colleges and universities also exist to allow “frumpy” middle aged people to have inappropriate relationships with more attractive younger people that would never happen outside the twisted confines of the classroom. We need more people doing things for the fun of it. I bet one of my heroes Rudy Wurlitzer still has fun.

Don’t we remember having fun anymore? I’m talking about just doing it for the sheer, hill, high, happy fun of it, rather than worrying about tenure or agents or crap like that. I run into artists everyday and they have no clue they’re artists. You should sit and listen to a bunch of nurses describe their day. The world is amazing if you just look around.

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