Fiction Editor Jamie Iredell picks Scott McClanahan’s brain on loneliness, hearing voices, and finding your own.
Jamie Iredell: At the end of Crapalachia you say you want to tell more stories about Lee Brown. Want to tell me a Lee Brown story?
Scott McClanahan: He’s actually an ER surgeon in Charleston now. I’ll tell you three.
1. He got in a fight with his girlfriend once and she slammed the door in the trailer where they were living. He asked her to please not slam any more doors. She went and slammed the door again just to show him. So he went and ripped out every door in the trailer until there weren’t any more doors to slam. He did this very calmly as well.
2. I once saw him asked to leave an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. He’s physically one of the largest people you’ll ever encounter and I can just see the poor manager of the restaurant repeating, “No more hot and sour soup. No more hot and sour soup.”
3. Also he had these great medical school stories about cadavers. He said you haven’t lived until you tell a beautiful woman (who also happens to be your lab partner) that she needs to remove a piece of human fat from her hair.
JI: Yeah, Lee Brown. Your characters have that quality–I mean all of your writing has this quality–of being very realistic, but at the same time mythic, and at the same time just like anyone talking to any one of his buddies who just knows to pay attention. A lot of people have talked to you about this in other interviews, or they’ve remarked on it in reviews. I guess all I want to say is that I played football with a giant, too. This guy got a full ride to San Jose State and literally pissed it away, drinking all the time once he got to college. I once watched him pour an entire jar of pickled jalapenos atop a large Little Caesar’s pepperoni pizza, fold the whole fucker in half, and eat it like an oversized taco. Do you still keep running into people who fill your life with amazing details, the kinds of details that really could only work in stories?
SM: I hope so, but I usually just make the details up anyway. I’m not a big believer in the whole “experience” of living in order to write. All writing is fake and all writing is imagination. I try to be as fantastical as H.P. Lovecraft or Ionesco. For instance, I could you tell you about this guy we called “One Eyed Willie.” He had a prosthetic eye that he used to drop in people’s beer at parties. You would be standing there and look down in your plastic cup and there would be Willie’s eye bobbing up and down in your beer.
But really that’s just a lie (I really just want to be Thomas Chatterton). We never called him that. His name was William and he would have never removed his prosthetic eye, and I didn’t even know him anyway. His family weren’t wealthy people so he would have never taken the chance of losing his eye. Besides that, I never went to parties. I was always home and alone reading and writing. I didn’t even go on a date until I was like twenty or something. I mean I can’t even stand in a room full of people without having horrible anxiety. So I always leave afterwards. People are much lonelier than you can imagine.
So it’s much easier for me to just make stuff up. But of course I’m probably just making this up too. Hah. Folks will find out one day that none of this exists–just a great ruse–Chatterton style.
JI: Every time we’ve ever hung out, it’s always been so brief, and I’ve always wanted to hang out with you more. And I guess it’s because of that anxiety that I haven’t hung with you more. I feel it too. I didn’t used to. I used to be all social, and shit. But now, I just want to be at home, reading and writing. How do I get you, who seems to like the things that I like, to hang out with me?
SM: Sadly, one of my horrible habits is saying I’m going to hang out and then I never do. Sarah’s friends used to joke about her “Howard Hughes” husband and when they would invite me to stuff I would say, “Yeah, maybe I will.” Of course, that always meant “There is no chance in hell I’m hanging out.” I think I’m finally realizing you end up hurting more feelings by being polite than just saying “no.” I have too much of my mother in me that way.
And I guess there is a narcissism in being alone. I always remind myself of this cat I had as a boy who would get nervous around people and start gagging. I’m sort of like that. He’d also hump your legs like a dog. I’ve never known a cat to hump a leg before but Iggy always did. I think I’m a pretty solid companion when you get me out though. I’m just such a little diva to get my butt moving.
My mother went three years without talking to my grandmother who lives in Texas. They weren’t mad at one another or anything. It’s just sort of their nature. I think it is a problem though. I think spending a year in bed like Brian Wilson just seems like paradise to me and I know you can’t live life that way. Did you know Dennis Wilson used to come over with a whole bag of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and if Brian would get up out of bed and write a song then Dennis would give him a cheeseburger? Isn’t that sad and strangely beautiful?
JI: Yeah, that is beautiful and sad. When I was a kid I could never understand why these guys who were brothers couldn’t just hang out together, make music, and make millions of dollars. But now my mom makes not-so-subtle comments about the fact that I don’t call my brother and sister very often. She says, “Have you talked to your sister?” And when I say no, she says, “That’s what your sister says.” But, honestly, I don’t know what to talk to them about. We don’t have much in common, besides the family, and there isn’t usually news on that front. I talk to them when it’s necessary. It’s not that I don’t love them; it’s just that I feel awkward trying so hard to talk to them. Your characters, though, don’t usually have that problem. They seem to communicate very clearly, if not directly. Take Bill in Crapalachia, for instance. The character might say the same things over and over again, but he expresses how he feels quite well. Or, I love the bantering dialogue in a story like “ODB, The Mud Puppy, and Me.” Most people–myself included–are pretty bad at writing dialogue. Are you a really good listener, in part because you’re introverted? Is that how you get the natural rhythms of speech down so well?
SM: I’m not sure. I always feel like my dialogue is horrible, but I just can’t stop doing it for some reason. Even good dialogue is fake dialogue to me. David Mamet’s characters talk a certain way that feels real, but nobody really talks like that. It’s the same with Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard or Christopher Marlowe or whoever. I think when you write in first person a bunch like me it opens it up a bit though. It’s probably more practical. It creates a third person feel to the first person voice. When somebody tells a story and then does the voice of another person in the story it focuses the attention.
I guess this is what all this internet writing is doing. It’s almost like someone just talking to you or a certain diary tone. Maybe it’s killing off written prose a bit and returning us back to something a bit more primal and full of sparks.
It reminds me of that Oscar Wilde quote where he talks about [how]anyone who can dominate a dinner table can dominate the world. But I’ve always heard voices that way.
I went to the shrink back in the fall and they asked me this question: “Do you ever hear voices?” I told them all of the time. I’m a writer. You know the comedian Jonathan Winters used to have to check himself into the hospital (or his wife would) because he would start doing the voices of these characters and then he couldn’t stop? Like for days, months. So I think it’s less about listening and more about letting the voices in your own head come out. I’m an only child and sadly I’ve never listened to anybody a day in my life.
JI: I know from talking to you before that you worked on the stories in Stories I and II for a while before they were out in print. Now of course you’ve got Stories V, Crapalachia, and Hill William. How long, altogether, would you say you’ve been working on these books? How long will you work on a single title?
SM: Most of these things are ten years older or more. At least parts of them are that old. I think I’ve rewritten Hill William more times than even Crapalachia. When Gian first started cutting on Hill William–the thing was huge. Really Hill William isn’t even my book, but our book (Gian and me). I rewrote it twice just for him. I put that whole part about me fucking the earth at the end just because I thought he would get a kick out of it. I did fuck the earth once, but not like in the book. I was even working on Hill William in 2000 and 2001 and I didn’t even know Gian was out there, but we found one another at long last. So now for better or worse the damn thing is coming out and I’m wondering if I’m going to be hurt by it. Maybe I would have just liked to have kept the book secret between the two of us. I don’t know–I’ll miss the working relationship I’m sure, now that we’ll just be friends again, but that’s the way it was in the beginning.
There’s even stuff from the Sarah Book that goes as far back as five or six years ago. I wrote some of the ideas for the stories in The Nightmares down when I was in high school. There’s a story in there that I wrote in 1998. I wrote all the stories in Stories V! in about three or four months though right before the book was published. I just wanted to see if I could do it. And then I published it. I picked that cover because I thought it was so sad, but of course everybody always takes the piss out of that cover, but they just don’t get it.
I don’t see why everyone takes the time element so seriously. I’m against the whole modernist idea of working fourteen years on a book. They should be like hip hop mix tapes or pop songs. Let’s record them today with enough intensity and then put them out and see what happens. It doesn’t matter if you work years on shit or six hours a day if you don’t have that spark about you. The spark is what counts.
Everything is really just an accident anyway. It’s the Jean Renoir movie idea about always keeping a door open. There’s no clue who might walk through that door in the middle of a scene.
Of course, I pick up stuff and then I put it down again. Really when it comes down to it I’m just so lazy and so disorganized that it takes that long for them to get into a manuscript anyway. For instance, my laptop crashed last year (the only computer I’ve ever owned and this laptop wasn’t even mine) and so I don’t have a word processing program on this computer–so I have to type everything up in email and send it to my email. So I have a whole book that are these weird emails to myself. I have no clue how I’ll put them all together. But this has been the story of all these books.
I think it’s less about finding what you want to do but more about finding what you don’t want to do. The whole, “I need to find my voice or the shape of this book” just seems silly to me–working years to find the shape of something. You have a voice. You’ve been using it since the day you were born. I think you learn a hell of a lot more from what you don’t want to do. I’ve been reading Nicholas Sparks novels for The Sarah Book for some reason. I think they’re going to help me. Seems like the hated things are always the most interesting.
JI: So you have the Sarah Book going on. What else is in the hopper?
SM: Chris and I are putting out a book of my interviews next year called SM. It’s going to have some fictional and some real interviews in there. It’s really just an excuse so that I can use this picture of me in a man-dress the great photographer Stacy Kranitz took. For some reason it seems funny to put out a book of our interviews. But maybe it’s only funny to us. I think the photographer may be mad at me as well–so we’ll see.
I hope to have a good solid draft of the Sarah Book done by January and on Anna’s desk and The Nightmares will be ready to go in the fall of next year as well. It’s this book of all the fucked stuff in my head–like how I used to write. It even has the first story I ever wrote in there. It’s also a book that helped in getting me kicked out of the house last year.
JI: Are you back in the house now?
SM: Oh no, that marriage ended about this time last year. I actually have a girlfriend now but I’ve been told not to talk about her–said it’s like a jinx or something. The girlfriend said I should learn something by talking about Sarah so much, and then putting someone else’s name in Crapalachia, but I think it’s a jinx to believe in jinxes. So whatever. There’s enough fear out there anyway. So many people are afraid even the ones who you don’t think are afraid. I’m actually living in a lonely ass apartment across from the hospital I’m writing about in the Sarah book.
pbssssssssssdddfghhhhhhkjkw1. Hah–my girl Iris just typed that into the answer when I went to get her brother a new diaper. Let’s keep that in there. That says it all. She’s a fan of public broadcasting. I’m turning that into my new mantra. It’s like the words of God. The words of a child.