Street Talk

Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan is the author of Stories, Stories II, and Stories V!, the first two of which Lazy Fascist Press recently reissued in one book,The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan. His most recent book Crapalachia, a biography of place, is available now from Two Dollar Radio, and his novel Hill William is forthcoming from Tyrant Books this fall. Scott is also a filmmaker and co-founder of Holler Presents, a small press and production company based in his home state of West Virginia.

Itchy Traditions: Chris Lee interviews Scott McClanahan



Only blood will teach certain people.”—Scott McClanahan

Chris Lee is a writer and musician from West Virginia. After stumbling across McClanahan’s Stories and Stories V! and reading them both in a single sitting, Chris wanted to know how Scott managed to capture the heart of their shared home state on the page. Fortunately, Scott puts his personal email address in the back of each of his books. The following is a conversation between two West Virginians that took place over a series of emails in which Scott discusses his own work and the writing and storytelling traditions (or lack of them) that he comes from.


Chris Lee: I’ve gathered from a couple of your stories and an interview I read that at some point you, or the Scott McClanahan character you write about, played football. Going on the assumption that this is at least vaguely true, let’s start by talking about WV’s one true religion—WVU football. Any thoughts on their less-than-stellar first season in the Big 12? Next year?

Scott McClanahan: Yeah, football discussions always feel like writing discussions to me. It’s always a lot more fun to play than it is to analyze it. This ESPN analysis mind set is killing whatever sports culture we once had. They’re always complaining about contact sports in relation to brain injuries or the integrity of the game or some nonsense. I think they’re missing the point. The only reason to play football is to get a brain injury. That’s why it’s fun. It's like becoming a writer. The goal is to lose your family and feel like a thorn tree in the whirlwind.

It’s like what Paul Schrader says about the films of Peckinpah—“they’re all full of murder and misogyny and disgusting fascist behavior, but oh how I love it so.”

WVU is always a lost cause. 

CL: I guess we should talk about writing, though. Anytime I see a write up or a review of another writer from WV, it almost always includes something about how he/she “comes from the state’s great storytelling tradition,” and I wonder what that means, if anything. I seriously doubt that no one outside the borders of our state is telling stories. Everywhere I go, people are sitting around telling each other stories, everyone at the bar is telling each other about the last time they got shit-housed at the bar. So, if storytelling is everywhere, what’s different in WV?

SM: Yeah, I have no clue what that storytelling tradition means. I really don’t. It’s silly. It's like talking about a tradition of herpes among writers or the history of desks. Is there a difference between writers who use desks than those who write on the top of refrigerators or have VD? Maupassant died in a pile of his own filth barking like a dog.  Swift went insane at the end as well. Pepys fought against itches beneath the belt all of the time. Is this a tradition that binds them together?

I'm much more interested in how I can get an Italian tailor. It's my destiny to wear Armani. I feel like most of the literary fiction and tough guy/rural guy novels feel like bell bottoms to me. Or like the person was wearing bell bottoms when they wrote them.   I want to write in a little red dress.

I guess I think there is a much greater tradition of people talking about things that make no sense.

CL: Speaking of disregard for tradition—there are a few places in Stories V! that feel like a manifesto against it—“And Now A Note On Literary Reverence,” for example. Are Beckett and Joyce just boring to you, or what?

SM: I actually really love James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. I would DIE for these writers. They mean so much to me and have given me so much. I would put them in my prayers if I was a praying man and believed in god. What I hate about writers is how much they love the writers of the generation before them. I mean how many times do you have to have the David Foster Wallace or Roberto Bolano conversation with somebody? Can you imagine John Lydon telling you how much he loves Pink Floyd? A generation that is unable to hate their spiritual fathers is a pretty shit generation if you ask me.

It's like the story about Luis Bunuel on his deathbed. For years he had been a committed atheist. In his last days he thought it would be a great joke to give everything to the church and demand last rites. He joked that it would be wonderful to see his family pulled from their home and hearing them scream as the church threw them into the streets. Bunuel said he would repeat, "Yes, I am a Christian now" and then smile. That says it all doesn't it?

CL: Still, you do manage to get the feel of a story being told out loud onto the page in a lot of your work, and this has been mentioned in other interviews you’ve done. Do you agree with that thought?

SM: I guess I say “write like I talk” in a sort of abstract fashion. And I was probably just babbling. I don't know what it means. No one ever writes like they talk. Have you ever seen a transcription of a conversation? It’s like watching an abstract Russian film from the 20s. It makes no sense. All writing is fake. I guess what I’m getting at is to write like I speak in my head. I work my ass off to get the words to be as simple as those simple sentences that form in my mind. I work a hell of a lot more than those who write diarrhea sentences, and I understand and love the writers of diarrhea sentences. I’m going to hunt down the next person who says “simple” about my writing and put them in a headlock in front of their children. Only blood will teach certain people.

I think it’s about becoming yourself and creating yourself (whatever this means) and then hacking yourself apart with a cheap machete. I’m of the school, “I’ll probably learn something if I don’t have arms anymore.”

By the way, I don’t have arms anymore. I’ve had a lot of things taken from me recently.

CL: You say you’re done with stories at the end of the last book. So they won’t get boring? Or take any more arms? Or is it more so the Scott McClanahan in the book can go out and live his life outside the page?

SM: Yeah, I have absolutely no interest in writing another short story. There are too many rules, too many opinions. Writing another short story would just feel like a spinal tap to me. Writing is easy. It's living your life that is hard. It was much more fun to write back when I was doing it for shits and giggles.

I just want to make little movies now with Chris Oxley and perform with Holler Boys and put together these big baggy headed monster books full of things I’d never put in a book of short stories or even a novel. I want to be shocking and lazy and sloppy and wipe peanut butter on my chest and stay away from anything that would be endorsed by the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I want to hang out with the most interesting and talented and beautiful women in the world and I want to hang out with the most interesting and talented and beautiful men in the world.  And I want to see who they are after they stop being cool.

And then I want to be like Rimbaud and give it all up and wind up in Africa trading human souls.

CL: You must either have a stockpile of work from the last decade hidden somewhere that you’re doling out bit by bit now, or—with four books out in the last four years and two more forthcoming this spring—you must write an at inhumanly fast pace. Are you trying to get everything on the page so you won’t forget it, or is there another reason you write so quickly?

SM: I think I just care less or I’m careless. That’s all. It reminds me of the letters between Eliot and Roethke. Eliot says something like “These poems feel like they’ve been worked on a few days too long.” I’m just a chainsaw artist really. I start out with a block of wood and I whittle it down until it looks like something. Sometimes people go too far though and whittle it down to nothing. Most stories feel workshopped. I want to write a book that just stops in the middle and says in two sentences, "Okay I'm going to save you the work of reading another 100 pages of overworked prose and just tell you what happens. The dude dies and the woman lives. Okay, time for ice cream."
If people were lazier there would be no war, no murder, etc. I think laziness is an amazing virtue. It would sure cut down on the number of bad writers and bad poems that’s for sure. I'm lazy and I love it.

CL: What’s it like to be writing from a place that, most of the time, feels ignored in the bigger-picture literary community, even though West Virginia seems to produce good writers like clockwork.

SM: I love West Virginia, but I love other places too. I love New York.  I've talked enough shit about it in the past six months, but you can talk about a big thing like that.   That's why it's big. I may come from the provinces but I’m interested in the entire world. Besides that everybody from New York is usually just from Ohio. They were probably much more interesting in Ohio. I may be from the mountains, but I’m an international man. You wait and see. I won’t die in these mountains. My gravestone will say, “He was unaffiliated with anyone, anything, any place, even himself.”

The only reason to live in New York is you can get high without having to huff cleaning supplies. You can also find unusual sex. You can find unusual sex here but it usually involves someone who still wears sweatpants. That’s the only distinction between the two places.

However, I will say this. I have been treated like a prince by the people of New York City. My publisher is in New York, my editor and friend Giancarlo Ditrapano is in New York, my agent is in New York, my audience is in New York. My future publishers will be in New York, but not just New York. We need to be selling books in China and India.  In order to be translated properly in these places we need sloppy writing. It's why Dostoevsky supposedly reads better in English than Russian. I have no style. I want no style. I'm the worst stylist you know and proud of it. It's why Tex Ritter has great style.   He knows nothing about style and that's what makes him stylish.

And to be honest, I have been treated like shit at home. I’m looked at as a moral degenerate by the Stepford wives and the republican monster fathers of Maxwell Hill in Beckley West Virginia, 25801. I’m tired of being ashamed of who I am by the people who are ashamed of who they are. I have a mind of my own and that’s always a very dangerous thing.

We have the universities who specialize in “Appalachian studies” and they simply ignore me because I’m not writing about coal tattoos and crap like that. I want nothing to do with them really.

I’m just trying to be a pop star. The sad thing about writing though is you only become a pop star after you’re dead.