Very Rational People: Scott McClanahan in conversation with Chelsea Hodson
I’ve always admired how Scott McClanahan’s writing pairs ugliness with beauty, anger with love, and the mundane with the extraordinary. He puts these elements side by side and allows the reader to decide how to make them coexist. Losing one’s mind is described as an event to look forward to in his short story, “My Anger Problem” (from his 2013 book, Hill William)—the last lines are: “I’m going to go crazy again. I can feel it. I can’t wait.”
McClanahan’s terrific new novel, The Sarah Book (now available Tyrant Books), expands on themes and characters that McClanahan has written about previously (Sarah appears in “My Anger Problem,” for instance), but what I was most taken with in this book was the moments of unrestrained tenderness and sadness that occur without any irony or apology. Often, the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) seems to speak directly to Sarah herself, as if in an attempt to summon her.
There’s a Mary Ruefle poem, “Provenance,” I remembered while reading The Sarah Book—the poem ends: “I hated childhood. / I hate adulthood. / And I love being alive.” And here’s a moment from McClanahan’s book that occurs after the narrator has realized he’s shit the bed after passing out drunk: “My name was Scott McClanahan and I’d just shit the bed. I wasn’t what people said I was. I was Scott McClanahan and I was celebrating life.”
I interviewed McClanahan via email last month to learn more.
Something about your books always seems effortless to me—there’s the feeling that it couldn’t have been written any other way, in any other order, and that no one else could have written the book. I’m curious if you encountered any road blocks while writing this book, and how you maneuvered through them. Did the book take a long time to write?
I’ve been working on the thing since 2009, which means I just made up a story about how I’ve been working on it since 2009. Writers are totally full of shit. They’re more full of shit than actors or politicians. I did publish a chapter from it in 2011 in a book of short stories (which isn’t in this version) so I’m not that full of shit. I have been thinking about it since then anyway. At that time, it was a very different book and I was obsessed with my idea of psycho-biography. Like if Plutarch or Suetonius decided to write about an ordinary person they knew rather than Marc Antony or Caligula—checking sources, interviewing participants, etc. But then I realized I’m just too lazy. So I wrote it as a fiction.
Actually, I think this whole interview could be about the road blocks. [Tyrant Books publisher and editor] Gian [DiTrapano] and I had a disastrous 2014 meeting at a bar in Charleston. They’d discovered a dead body that morning behind his parent’s house floating in the river. That’s my advice to young writers: never meet with your editor when a dead body has just been found behind his childhood home. He had a picture of the dead body on his phone. I could tell Gian hated the book because he said, “I fucking hate this thing” and “What is wrong with you?” and I probably hated it too. I’d rushed to get a manuscript together because I was getting ready to go bankrupt. I needed the other part of my advance to keep going. I started pointing my fingers and shouting and we almost got in a fist fight. No joke. But then this stranger walked up while we were shouting at one another and said, “Are you Scott McClanahan? I love your books.” It’s the only time I’ve ever been recognized in public and it probably saved me from getting my ass kicked by Gian. I wonder if writers and editors have meetings like this at Henry Holt?
It wasn’t that big of a deal, really. I mean you get an Italian guy and an Irish guy together—we come from very rational people.
Then Gian and I didn’t talk for a year or so (which was totally my fault). I mean, I could go on. I broke my computer one day because I was mad at it. So I had to wait another year before I could afford a new one and type up the book. The book would have been done a year or so earlier but I didn’t have a computer.
Couldn’t you have borrowed someone’s computer or gone to a library or something? Not to go all armchair psychologist on you, but was there a part of you that simply wanted to spend another year writing the book? Do you ever write longhand just for the hell of it?
I did. I borrowed this old laptop of Julia’s but then I went snooping one day in her old pics and found a naked one of an old boyfriend. Like a super fit ex-boyfriend. Like a model or something. So that ended that and sent me into a “I’m fatter than Orson Welles” tail-spin. Of course, I write everything by hand. That’s the reason why my manuscripts are always such a mess and why it takes so long. But you can’t really type up 60,000 words at the library. Especially when you don’t know how to type. So I guess I should revise my earlier answer. The book was written out by hand, but then I had to wait to get “my own” computer to type it up.
If writers are full of shit, like you say, are there any artists that you think are more legitimate? I know you write and play music as well—are there things about music that seem purer to you than writing, or is it all the same?
No, those folks are pretty bad too. Musicians give better interviews though. But I’m not really a musician either. My voice is on those records and I helped to write some of those songs, but my friend Chris Oxley plays everything else. I might hum a melody like, “Diddle diddle dee” but it’s up to Chris to find out how to play the “diddle diddle dee.” I should include some of my voice memos full of melodies. Pure comedy. But I grew up in the Church of Christ and playing instruments is a sin. And I want to go to heaven so I found a loop-hole by letting Chris take the spiritual fall. He’ll regret it one day when I’m looking down from above. I’m not joking.
There’s something beautiful about an anonymous artist though. Like in the Orson Welles doc F is For Fake where he talks about the unknown architects of the French Gothic cathedrals. Maybe the builders and designers of the pyramid at Giza. Those folks weren’t full of shit. They meant it. They had the spirit.
Death is a consistent theme in this book, appearing in many forms. One of the most interesting elements to me was Scott’s death drive, which appears almost literally in the first chapter as Scott drinks and drives: “The children were still crying, but I didn’t care now. I was free and I wasn’t caught and I was driving our death car so fast and unafraid. I was destroying our lives now and it felt so fucking wonderful.” What is it about self-destruction that interests you? Do you think everyone has a death drive?
I don’t think I am that interested in self destruction. I mean I may be the only person in the history of the world to appear on C-SPAN while I was Robo-tripping. So maybe I’m lying.
But then again my anger problem was worse than any sort of self-destructive crap. I don’t even think I realized I had an anger problem until the L.A. Times started reporting on my anger problem.
This is when you know things are going wrong in your life: when the L.A. Times reports on it. I wish I was religious so I could truly believe in a special hell for those Tournament of Books folks ruining my Goodreads score.
As far as the death drive goes, I hate to be all Civilization and its Discontents Freudian era on you, but sure. To a certain extent. Eros and destruction. It’s probably a bit simpler. We just have a human need to tear shit up. Perhaps the goal is to destroy. This explains our modern political age better than yet another dumb think piece.
I had a neighbor who was a logger. He had a bumper sticker on his truck that said, “Earth First: We’ll log the other planets next.” I think there is something beautiful in this. Maybe much more human and true and problematic about our nature than the NPR, insurance salesman, world view.
This book made me weep uncontrollably several times—the sentences at the end of each chapter accumulate in a rhythmic way that feels relentless and brutal. What makes you cry?
Cabbage Patch Dolls or documentaries about Cabbage Patch Dolls. The one that freaked Julia out the most was when we watched a Vice documentary about the woman who invented the Cabbage Patch Dolls. She started making these dolls in art school. She was like the art school freak because she saw dolls as art and wasn’t making art about Nixon or painting with her tampons or conceptual shit or whatever crap people in art school think is art. So she started making these dolls with fake birth certificates and everything and making them for specific children. She got involved with this business guy who stole her whole aesthetic and sold it to Hasbro and put the stamp of his name on their butts like the idea was his. She was horrified by this because she saw the dolls as individuals. As real people. They were their own selves and didn’t need to be mass manufactured. They were dolls but they had a spirit of their own.
Anyway, the woman ended up dying of cancer and at her funeral all of the dolls that she had made showed up at the funeral. All the little girls and boys who were grown now brought the dolls back to her funeral and they made a row for the dolls in front of her coffin. There were the images of this woman in her coffin and all of the things she had made sitting in the front row. It was glorious. I started crying and I couldn’t stop and I think it made Julia think twice about marrying me. You should watch it. It’s amazing.
I still have my Cabbage Patch doll at my folks from when I was a kid. He is a New York Mets cabbage patch kid. His name is Reggie.
Do you think of your writing voice as a persona, even when the narrator is named Scott McClanahan? Part of me thinks you might answer, “I never think about it,” so I guess I want to ask: when you read your writing after you’ve written it, do you think of it as a curated version of yourself? I’m thinking about your line: “… I told him that was the best thing about reading. You can always be somebody else. You can see the whole world from a ghost.”
I was pulled over by a cop in Indiana once after doing this insane reading tour with a bunch of crazy people. You can tell a reading tour won’t go well when it’s called Real Pain: The Future Dead Friends Tour. I hadn’t slept the night before but I decided it would be a good idea to drive all the way back from Chicago at 3 o’clock in the morning. Anyway, I got pulled over by this cop in Indiana and he asked where I was coming from and what I was doing. I told him that I was a writer and I had done a reading the night before. The cop just looked at me and said, “A writer? Like children’s books or something?” I said, “Yes, exactly like children’s books.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is it doesn’t matter what you say about the books, the reader is always going to read the book the way they want to read them. I could say it’s a persona even though most of it is all fiction. Is the narrator in Colette novels a persona or Isak Dinesen? I always think it’s Colette. Probably that persona is closer to the true self than the real person you pretend to be.
In some ways, I view The Sarah Book about the ways that people try to change but can’t. Do you think people are capable of truly changing or are we bound to make the same mistakes over and over again?
I was in the same room once with FDR’s grandson, James Roosevelt. I’m sure he’d told this anecdote a thousand times with a thousand different people. He remembered a story about his grandmother Eleanor who was starting to get real annoyed with her husband whenever he talked to someone. He would listen to an advisor who would give advice and then FDR would reply, “I agree.” Then another advisor would speak and contradict the advice of the previous advisor and FDR would reply, “I agree with that as well.” So one evening Eleanor confronted FDR at dinner and said, “Franklin, you have a horrible habit of agreeing with people. It makes me think you have no back bone. It makes me think you have no political principals. That you are simply a political animal. Please stop doing this.” To which, FDR replied. “Yes, dear. I agree.”
All of human nature is contained in this little story. Really that’s all we have in this life. Our mistakes. But at least my mistakes have been my own. I consider this a blessing.
Reading The Sarah Book reminded me of this introduction Eve Babitz wrote in her book, Slow Days, Fast Company:
“Virginia Woolf said that people read fiction the same way they listen to gossip, so if you’re reading this at all then you might as well read my private asides written so he’ll read it. I have to be extremely funny and wonderful around him just to get his attention at all and it’s a shame to let it all go for one person.” Babitz begins her essays with italicized asides directed at a man who refuses to love her back.
In The Sarah Book, you write, “What can I do? I can go back and place all the pictures I have left of my life and I can put them together. I can put them together in a book and so when Sarah is old she can take the book and she will be able to see them again and remember.” I’m curious if, as you wrote this book, you were able to block out the idea that Sarah might read the book one day, or if the idea of her reading it was actually a driving force behind the writing? Is writing about someone an act of love?
That’s a big question and I don’t know. Probably both. I keep having these Montaigne-like retirement fantasies so I won’t have to worry about any of this stuff anymore. I’m 38. It’s time for my country life. I’ve pretty much decided this is going to be the last book I publish for a long time. I’m sure there was a reason why John Aubrey and Chateaubriand and all those folks waited to publish after their deaths. It’s just easier that way.
I could say it’s love but it’s probably also exploitation as well (or all of the above or none of the above). I could say I’ve exploited my family and the people I know for their stories. I’ve been like a vampire or a farmer that way. But at the same who else would write about these magnificent people except me. Most writers think they are singular people, but not me. I want to find the singular people and then chew them up for my fiction and be their witness. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but all of this stuff seems so silly to me now. I’m not saying I’ll stop writing. You know that story about Giotto in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. The pope or some Borgia-like family is wanting to commission a painting by Giotto. So they send a representative to find Giotto and have him agree to the terms and sign the contract. The guy sent to find him finally finds him after a couple of weeks and agrees to the picture. But when Giotto signs the contract he simply draws a circle. The representative is confused and says, “No, please sign your name so that they will know it is you.” Giotto says, “There is only one person in all of the world who could draw a circle that perfect and his name is Giotto. They should know that.”
So it’s sort of like that. I just want to draw my circles.