You probably know about Scott McClanahan already, either because you’ve read his books or because you’ve seen his manic and strange readings, which function more as a live show or performance art than your typical bookstore snooze-a-thon. What first drew me to Scott was all the white space in his books. I mean, I thought I could read them really fast. And the stories were these perfect little fragments, each about a shit’s length. I kept Stories in my bathroom for just that reason. Then came Stories II and Stories V!, and I realized I was a fan.
I loved the fierce energy of his stories, like the guy next to you in line at the gas station who smells bad and keeps telling you the truth loudly. There was something in there, like in my favorite Replacements songs, that seemed simple and true and impossible. When Crapalachia: A Biography of Place dropped, I had a better idea of where Scott was headed. The title is a nod to Harry Crews’ classic A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, and it follows that tradition of a heartbroke memoir of the stranger side of the world, a place that would seem impossible if it didn’t exist inside you, same as it does in everyone else.
I was really scared to interview Scott. For one, he’s real charismatic and I thought I’d kill the vibe. Plus I’d never interviewed somebody on the phone before. I figured I would mess it up by talking too much, which I did. Also I got real drunk halfway through the interview because I was so nervous. I had my girlfriend’s Amsterdam vodka and I kept mixing drinks because I accidentally bought all these limes from the Kroger. Scott was extremely gracious. We talked and talked until Scott politely excused himself to go to bed and I realized I’d kept him on the phone for almost two hours.
I’m an asshole, right? Yep, and here’s the first part of that two hour interview.
SM: Relax. You’re doing fine. Just go with it.
JC: Cool. Okay. I really like your books, and all. I mean that. Not in the ass-kissy sort of way where I’m buttering you up for the interview. I mean it in a real way. Like, I read all your books. Super pumped about Hill William and all.
JC: So okay, well. How do I start this? Do I just ask a question?
SM: Jimmy, I think we’ve already begun.
JC: Okay. Right. Yeah. So here’s my first question: in a recent interview with the Oxford American, you said something along the lines of “I’m trying to…just give you a fucking two minute song, in your face. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one.” You want to elaborate on that?
SM: Okay, well, what can I say? I was drunk during that interview. I’m no longer a drinking man. I actually fell down a hill a half an hour after that interview was over. I was supposed to take something over to Sarah’s work—she worked across the street from me, my ex-wife—and I thought I could sneak over there. It was like an hour before she got off. And I mean I was DRUNK-drunk, and I put it in between her windshield and her windshield wiper blade. And as soon as I turned, there she was, coming on out. I guess she’d gotten off work early or something. And she goes, “Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me?” because I guess she could tell I was drunk. So I tried to walk up the side of this hill, which is next to the hospital where she works, and as she drove off I fell down the hill because you know it was a Friday evening, and the grass was sort of wet. And the interview happened before that.
I would elaborate on it. Man, how can I say this without sounding like an asshole? I guess that… and I think I’ve said this before. I don’t know, man. How can I?
JC: Just sound like an asshole. Go for it.
There’s a filmmaker I love, Alejandro Jodorowski. When he made Santa Sangre, he took his kid to this strip club. The kid was like twelve years old and he said, “Mom’s gonna get mad.” And Jodorowski said, “It’s life, it’s life, you love this. It is the stink of life!” So he takes him to the club, and what Jodorowski didn’t understand was, it was a sex club. The woman wasn’t stripping on stage, she was having sex with this guy on stage. And the kid was fascinated by it, and his father was repulsed by it. He leaves the club frightened and horrified that he himself has witnessed these events that he set in motion. And of course at the end he has to give the kid money not to tell his mother that his father took him to a sex club where he watched two people copulating. So I guess anytime you say something like that, or try to do something like that, there’s always the opposite of it that twists back and bites you on the ass.
What I meant was it needs to be stripped back a little bit. I think there’s something bloated right now about American prose. I think with technology, language can compete with the image once again, where it couldn’t compete with the image in the 1960s and 1970s or even beforehand. I mean, you don’t get much better than Charlie Chaplin, even if you’re a real deal writer. And hopefully it has that feel to it, where there’s a quickness to it. I think people are trying too hard. That’s what I’m getting at. People are trying way too hard.
And not to say that there’s not a depth to my writing, because there is a depth to it, but it’s just right on your shoulder. I heard that on an episode of Oprah one time. Somebody, I think it was Sharon Stone, was talking about Death being right there on your shoulder, just constantly there. I guess the things that make you you, the stories that you tell, are always right there, right in front of you. I don’t mean the shit that’s in front of your eyes. Whatever makes you you is right there in your hands and your elbows and the backs of your knees. If you can tap into that, then there really is a depth to it, and that two minutes has as much complexity and contradictions and all the great things that make life life. Sometimes the two minutes thirty pop song gets really boring, too.
SM: Relationships are that way. You hope there’s an intensity there, that you’re risking something with another person rather than some la de da sort of thing that a lot of people have. Or maybe even it feels crazy.
I don’t know if this is part of the answer. Maybe it is. We’ll see.
You know that surrealist Marcel Duchamp? My girlfriend was reading this to me from a Wikipedia article. I like Duchamp and I didn’t know this story. He brought home a geometry textbook, and he hung it out his third-story apartment window, so that he could teach the elements—like the wind and the sunlight—the fucking facts of life. So I think if you could dangle that geometry textbook out the window and teach something to the rain, then you’re probably okay.
JC: How do you feel about St. Francis preaching to the birds?
SM: Ah, see I think that’s wonderful. Francis is the only Catholic I think I like. Wait, that’s not true. I like tons of Catholics. They’re some of the craziest. Talk about a great faith. Catholicism. If you can kill that many people, and also convert that many people, and also help create western civilization. Wow. That’s something else.
JC: The Catholics will be there for you. I mean, they won’t give you condoms, but they’re on the front lines, taking care of your babies.
SM: The new pope – Francis, right? – is walking through the favelas, a day or two ago, without the Pope Mobile, among a bunch of poor people, among a bunch of drug addicts. Yet at the same time, you have all these backwards ideas about things. That’s the reason why to be religious: to hate something. Or to think about one thing in a progressive way and be three thousand years backwards in something else.
JC: I think a lot of it – the hate stuff – is wanting to be a part of team, you know? I understand that. I like a lot of teams.
SM: I will tell you a part of Hill William. I once drank a whole container of grape juice when I was twelve. We were Church of Christ, and I seriously thought if I could drink that much grape juice I wouldn’t have to come to church for a year. I could get all my communions taken care of in an hour and a half. But if you drink that much grape juice you’re just going to get horrible bowel problems, you’re not going to get out of anything.
JC: Church of Christ is no music, right? No instruments, just singing?
SM: Yeah, it’s all acapella. It’s not even like sacred harp singing. What’s wonderful is when you get a full building together at a Church of Christ, it’s almost like Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. You feel the movement of the song but there’s this counterbeat that’s also happening, and some voices are catching up to other voices, and then the other voices are already ahead, and then you have the echoes bouncing around the room.
JC: And the tempos are slow as hell, right? Supposed to be slower than a heartbeat?
SM: Yeah, there’s this song we always sang for communion called “He Arose.” And it’s slow as can be. Want me to do it for you?
[sings] “Low in the grave, Jesus my Savoir—now people are falling asleep—he tore the bars away. Jesus my Lord.” Then it stops and it goes all jaunty, [starts sings again] “Up from the grave He rose!” Then it goes lightspeed. It’s like a weird accumulation of songs that don’t even go together.
SM: Oh god, I don’t even know. In some ways I am. I have a good joke.
Okay, so Jesus is on the cross and Peter’s down there. Well, Peter’s already taken off by that point, so the joke makes no sense, but for the sake of the joke let’s just say that Peter’s there. So Jesus is on the cross and he looks out and he says, “Peter come here. Come here my son.” So Peter crawls up, and the centurions beat the shit out of Peter and he crawls back into the crowd. And then like ten minutes later Jesus says, “Seriously Peter, I really need to talk to you. I have a few things that we need to discuss.” So Peter comes back up, he wipes the blood from his face, he’s like “Yes, Lord, yes, what is it?” And the centurions chop off Peter’s arms and throw him back to the crowd. Hell, why don’t we chop off his legs too just to make the joke go quicker? Jesus says one last time, “Peter please, please come up here. I have something to tell you.” And Peter crawls up using his chin to push his body up to the cross, and he says, “Yes, Lord, yes what is it?” And Jesus goes, “Peter, I can see your house from up here.”
It’s not even a funny joke. But that feels like religion to me. That feels like Jesus to me. But I guess that’s why he’s so fascinating. Like he’s angry, and he throws fits, and talk about mother issues, whew. We could go on and on.
I think I like Jesus better as a comedian. If you interpret some of those lines, like “I build my church and Peter is the rock.” Even the whole, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Like if that’s a joke, then he’s more like Coyote, the American Indian trickster god, or Zarathustra, or something like that.
I love Jesus though, too. Don’t get me wrong.
JC: Yeah, guess that was a weird question. Always wanted to ask you that, reading your stuff. Sorry. Just figured, if you’re from the South, like me, church put some kind of a permanent dent in your personality.
SM: Yeah, but what people don’t get is this: my dad’s a song leader at our church. Like if I were to go to church tomorrow, I know I would openly be emotional about those traditions and those people I grew up with. People who were fucking old when I was ten years old, and they’re ten years older and look just the same. I think that is what that stuff’s about. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why you can’t kill religion if you try to chop off its head with a shovel. There’s nothing worse than an atheist, nothing worse than that, militant atheism. That bores the hell out of me. It bores the hell out of me as much as the whole right wing Christian Right bullshit. Or even your basic everyday normal so-called Christianity.
SM: Then they didn’t even read the book. You’re supposed to go to pray in the closet. That’s the act itself. It’s supposed to be very humble. It’s not a show. But with all religion, it is the opiate. What we don’t want to admit about ourselves is that we want to worship stuff, maybe more so than we want to be worshipped ourselves. We want to bow down before whatever sort of idol, whether it’s Wal-Mart or a Big Mac. And I love that stuff. I would bow down before a Big Mac right now.
JC: Big Macs are so fucking good.
SM: You could have a Christian experience with a Big Mac, for sure.
JC: Were you ever in a band or anything like that?
SM: Yeah, me and Chris Oxley are in a band called the Holler Boys. We played the Empty Glass in Charleston. That’s where Hasil Adkins – you ever heard of Hasil Adkins? – always played. He got run over by a four-wheeler. That’s how he died: under mysterious circumstances. I think if you get run over by a four-wheeler it’s already mysterious circumstances. But maybe not in Boone County. And then we played at Square Books in Oxford two years, and made it a part of the reading.
JC: There’s a lot of music in your work, and you use a lot of musical metaphors and examples when you talk about writing, so I wondered about that.
SM: I think it’s the same thing. You ever heard that record label From Dust To Digital? They put out that Goodbye, Babylon compilation a few years ago.
JC: That’s the one with the cotton in it. Fucking rules.
SM: Yeah, yeah! And they include the sermons alongside the songs themselves, because they’re just as musical. You know there’s nothing more musical than the goddamn human voice, your mommy singing you a lullaby to get you to sleep, or hell, just talking to you.
JC: Remember that one sermon on there, “Black Diamond Express to Hell”? It’s got all that good rhythm.
SM: Yeah, yeah. I know that one.
JC: Shit, I interrupted you. That’s like the one thing I’m not supposed to do.
SM: No, nah, man it’s okay.
SM: It’s okay.
JC: Next question I guess. You have said before that you work really hard to make your stories sound conversational, and it pisses you off when people act like you just shit them out. I was talking about this recently to a writer who is much older, and better, and smarter than me, and he said you can’t do that in writing, the spontaneous thing. That you’re supposed to revise and revise and revise in writing. How do you keep your energy, the whole reckless rock and roll thing that you have in your stories?
SM: See, I would disagree with the revise, revise, revise thing. Barry Hannah, right? He’s one of your Mississippi greats. He said if you start on a short story and it’s not working and you keep revising it, you’re fucking wasting your time. It’s a stupid ass short story. What are you doing? I think people work way too much from the time they draft a story to the time they publish it. They should probably work a hell of a lot more on their life leading up to when they sit down to draft the story and then maybe the story would have a little bit more energy to it.
I think modernism has kind of sucked the life out of most literature that I’ve come across. A lot of it sounds like it was recorded at MCA or Mercury in 1983 and has that cocaine sound to production, where the life is gone. They don’t accept the echo. They don’t understand that kind of Sam Phillips idea where you have to let the Devil in the room with you. Or you fail. And the mistake is probably going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the revision that you’ve come up with. A lot of the people now that are doing this alt lit or indie lit or whatever term is given to it, I think that mistake is being accepted more.
I was listening to Lou Reed’s demos from Transformer today. And I like a lot of the demos almost better than the album, even though I love the album. We don’t have that in literature. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard, there’s a YouTube clip of all of John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” demos. A lot of stuff not even included on the anthology series. So it’s twelve minutes of him just fucking up a song. The excitement is in, oh fuck he found it! He went there and got that chord! He found it! Isn’t that fascinating! We sit around tables and take potshots at one another when we present our demos to each other, without realizing how beautiful and magical they are. Then we decide to bring in the backup singers and the Eddie Van Halen guitar – not that I don’t love Eddie Van Halen like the next redneck– and take all the weirdness out of it.
I mean, you listen to people talk about writing and it’s like they’re talking about their jobs or something. I have a theory – we can go back to the Catholic Church on this one – you know, it’s the reason why the Reformation happened. You had your first son that you give the property to, you have your second son that you send off to law school, and then what do you do with the third son, who just likes to get drunk and fuck? Well, you make him a priest. And he could care less about Jesus or the Church, right? That’s kind of how I feel when I run across folks that – you know, they’ll even bring up their CV for you. You know, this crap that doesn’t even matter.
This is my problem with these—I don’t know, we call them “diploma mills”—and they always hate when you talk about them. I don’t know, they probably do some people a world of good, and god bless them. Some of my favorite writers have done those. I think it would be much better if somebody learned how to be a chemist and started to write, or if someone learned how to be an architect and then decided to write. I could go on and on and on. Because then it’s going to be something that is a little bit more “you.” And I know, the whole postmodern “who is you?” Well fuck I know who I am. You don’t tell me who you is. That’s me. I know what makes me up. It’s about forty different messed up things. I’m in touch with them enough. I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about there.
JC: You were ripping on MFA programs.
SM: Hell, I love MFA programs. I do think they are an excuse to meet people who have interests like your own and hook up with them. Most of the time in college you’re hooking up with people who don’t have common interest. Also you have the added bonus that you can psychologically attack the person in class.
SM: Don’t worry about it. I agree with you completely. This is my thing, this is the story I wanted to tell to explain this. You hear all these people that say, “I needed to make connections” or “I needed to find other people doing what I did.” There’s this story about John Cassevetes – it’s not about him, it’s about one of his producer friends – and this kid got up and he was real nervous, and he said, “Hello, Mr. So and So, would you tell me what John Cassevetes did to become the person he became and the artist he became?” The producer friend said – and of course, this was years after Cassavetes’ death – “First off, John Cassavetes wouldn’t stand up and ask a fucking question like that. He would just go and be John Cassavetes.” And I think if you go and be who you are and I go be who I am, whatever the hell that means, then we’ll all just be a lot better off. With everything.
JC: When I was growing up and wanting to be a writer and hang out with cool writer guys, they would always tell me, “You need to go out and kill something with your bare hands. You need to go hunt.” Well, I never killed anything in my whole life. My grandfather owned a restaurant and my dad works at a bank, the fuck do I know about hunting? And then I went on and asked somebody else and they said, “You need to learn all your words and be real smart. Read all this theory and get smart, and that’s how you do it.” But then I read all that stuff, and it was cool, but I didn’t get any better. It didn’t help me tell a story.
SM: Exactly. What I’m saying is, you said the man told you to go and kill something with your bare hands? Your dad was a banker. It was right there in front of you. That man killed shit every day, right? In the life of a banker, whether or not this person gets a loan or that person. They lose their fucking house. He killed stuff on a daily basis. So it’s there, it’s always right there in front of you. You just have to pick it up and go with it.
Come back soon to read the second part of this sweet, sweet interview.