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Scott McClanahan makes sense to me. He’s from West Virginia, and I’ll forgive you if you have no idea where that is (just south of Washington DC) or what it means (there are many negative stereotypes, of varying degrees of validity, with which I could paint a picture). When we met online, he said something like, “Holy shit. You’re from Huntington.” You don’t meet a lot of people from West Virginia in the online literary community.
Scott’s published six books, but his recent short story collection, Hill William, and 2013’s Crapalachia: A Biography of Place are the ones you’re most likely to have heard of; the former caused some drama when he tried to withdraw it from the Los Angeles Times’ annual Tournament of Books via typically sarcastic, fuck-the-establishment Facebook status update. His depictions of what life is like in southern West Virginia are unflinching, euphemized as “gritty,” and I bet they sound a little ridiculous. They make me uncomfortable, unsettling me because I know they are true – not always in terms of hard-and-fast facts, but always in keeping with Scott’s definition of the word – and that isn't something I want to have to deal with.
I caught up with Scott to talk dirty about alt lit, his self-made West Virginia ghetto and tiring of his rebel status in the literary world.
Do you ever think about living somewhere else? The sense of being "trapped" in West Virginia is one that many of my friends there still profess, and I've read interviews with you where you express ambivalence about the state—where do you think that comes from, as a broad cultural phenomenon or specifically?
Scott McClanahan: I've never really thought about leaving because I never felt like I needed to. I’m free to do whatever the fuck I want, rather than moving somewhere like a grad student for a few years and having the arrogance to feel like I know that place. That feels as arrogant and American as bombing people. Of course, I love the idea of being in exile. And Juliet (Scott is married to alt lit writer Juliet Escoria) and I will live somewhere else one day, I’m sure. I’m not a provincial man and never have been. Most people think going somewhere with their bodies is expansion, but their spirits are always provincial. I want to be like Isak Dinesen – I’m much more interested in being a spiritual traveller. I’m closer to Genet and Cervantes in my heart because I’ve read their hearts. I’m closer to them than some fat dude having his picture taken in Madrid, or a guy trying to look dirty in Portland when his father is a dentist. It's one of the oldest narratives, where someone from somewhere goes somewhere and discovers something else about themselves. I always thought that was a total bunch of bullshit.
Are you not curious to prove that it's bullshit, though? By doing it? Of course, if a person does go somewhere and discover something about themselves they can’t know whether that discovery would have taken place regardless.
Scott McClanahan: I’ve fought to stay in this place for some reason I don’t truly understand. I don’t even know who I am, let alone the place I’m from. The somewhere I'm wanting to go is inside of me and the million masks I wear. I'm at an advantage because I write under the name Scott McClanahan and I get to hang out with the guy (or gal) or whoever he is.
I guess you're just saying something about doing what you want vs. doing what people say you should want – travel, see the world, 'expand your horizons.'
Scott McClanahan:I feel like a rapper almost. I'm sure I want a Bentley and I want diamonds and I want all that shit that poor people want because we're stupid. But there is also a side of me where I want to stay in my ghetto.
What do you mean by your “ghetto”?
Scott McClanahan: My ghetto is West Virginia, but my real ghetto is Crapalachia. It’s the ghetto I’ve created for me inside of those books. It doesn’t really exist. It exists in my writing and that’s it. I don't want to escape to a certain extent; I want to stay and help destroy it. I want to watch this fucker go up in flames and maybe I’m talking about what I’ve been and written about up to this point. I want to go inside of myself and quit writing the way I’m writing now. The place I’ve lived in has always been an imaginary place.
Would you say you feel resentful of it, being born there?
Scott McClanahan: There is a big part of me that’s resentful, I guess. But actually I think my place has been more of an incubator. But my place is Gary and Karen McClanahan, not Rainelle. Now my place is Juliet Escoria, not Beckley. I mean, New York is one of the most provincial and isolated places I know. They never get asked questions about escape, or if they are it's always about the price-of-rent bullshit. I mean, there are still 60-year-old men in that city running around telling anecdotes about how they knew the fucking Ramones. There are people running around with the same tattoos and uniform on and reading the same shitty books. They're the ones who need to escape. Their fashion is the spiritual equivalent of bell bottoms, but nobody asks them questions about escaping. You can be a shitty artist anywhere.
Totally. But what about people who don't think to seek things out, who don't even have an understanding of what's possible online etc? Many people, if they aren't told, “Educate yourselves; become part of the world,” won't do anything.
Scott McClanahan: I couldn’t care less about those people. I have a hard enough time taking care of me – I’m a human being and selfish. I’d just use my best lad voice and tell them, “Buy a copy of Hill William, ya cunts” if I could tell them anything. That’s probably more honest. I just drove across the country with Juliet, and there's nothing there; there's plenty of space to fill. Cities are an old and dead idea. I'm much more interested in these invisible cities of the future. The invisible cities of what we’re doing here.
I think the worst thing people can do a lot of times is educate themselves and become part of the world. Who knows what great scientific breakthrough is not happening because we think gravity actually exists and just simply accept it when we may very well be missing something.
“Alt lit's just a bunch of people who hang out with one another so they don’t get their asses beat.” – Scott Mclanahan
I know what you mean, but it sounds like you don’t believe in progress? Isn't education/interconnectivity/worldliness inherent in the act of making things for other people? Like, sure, a lot of creation is selfish, probably most, but you can also ignore that selfishness and focus on the byproduct, which is that other people get to benefit and learn from it.
Scott McClanahan:I hear what you’re saying. And yes, I don’t know if I believe in progress or learning in the long run. I mean I could study Japanese Noh dramas for the next two years. I’m sure I could appreciate them, etc, but I couldn’t begin to understand them. And I wouldn’t be so full of myself to believe that I did. I’m just a person and I just make things for me so I don’t jump off the New River Gorge Bridge. Art comes out of people and not places.
But places affect the people.
Scott McClanahan:I don’t know if I believe that. People are always hideous as a group, and I’m sure affected by place, but real-deal individuals are individuals. They are anomalies and you couldn’t influence them if you tried. People make people, not places. I think I believe that now.
I know you travel for readings, but do you ever go to somewhere like Charleston [the state capital] for “culture” (whatever that means)? Do you know of any artistic/literary scenes in West Virginia?
Scott McClanahan: I did a reading/concert a few weeks ago in Charleston, and it was a disaster. I never want to go back. The so-called “arts” people of this place ignored me for years, so I'm going to ignore them now. The culture they go on about isn’t culture at all. They can go back to making quilts.
Scott McClanahan: The guy carving something out of wood with a chainsaw is the real artist around here. Gas stations, sweatpants, and Tudor’s (as in Tudor’s Biscuit World, a popular restaurant chain in southern West Virginia and Ohio) or Ryan’s are our real culture, and a shit ton more interesting than a woman in Lewisburg wearing turquoise jewelry and talking about Georgia O’Keefe. I love Ryan's. It's a giant buffet and people pay for breakfast and then stay the whole day for lunch and dinner. You can see people in wheelchairs and people on oxygen. It's wild. You can see people put on their nice sweatpants rather than just their ordinary sweatpants to go eat.
I know it.
Scott McClanahan: Yep. Paradise. The only real art scene I know is the one I started with Juliet and Chris Oxley in Beckley. Also, Giancarlo Ditrapano is a member, but he's in Hell's Kitchen. So he’s the holy ghost of our movement. Chris and I put out records on Fat Possum. We're trying to become pop stars, and we're doing a movie for Two Dollar Radio in the fall; Juliet is going to be the star, and Chris and I are directing.
You're talking about this as if it's a fixed club, the way people talk about alt lit as if you get a membership card for being part of a cultural/intellectual/whatever movement. Do you think you can actively “start” a scene, or should it have to be something that emerges because of cultural/social/etc factors?
Scott McClanahan: I’m just joking about this scene we have. It would be a pretty depressing scene, but who knows. I think the story of culture is more about a story of friendship and who is fucking who or not fucking who. There were only twelve dudes at the Last Supper because they were crazy fucks who needed one another; I’m sure it had more to do with the idea that their families couldn’t stand them and therefore they needed people to hang out with than what was happening socio-politically in Judaism at the time.
But that is socio-political. People thinking other people are crazy is socio-political/socio-cultural – “jargon” gets such a bad rap, and for good reason, but it also refers to actual shared characteristics, tendencies. Sweatpants and Ryan’s.
Scott McClanahan: No, I disagree completely. I’m saying “crazy” about guys who smear shit in their hair and eat bugs and self lacerate and tell their mothers to fuck off. When your ass stinks because you’ve been in the desert for a year and haven’t been able to wash it – this is not socio-political. This is your ass stinking. Have you seen photos of Presley and Cash and Roy Orbison at the time they’re recording for Sun? These are a bunch of freaks who have greasy hair and who know if they hang out with other people who have greasy hair then maybe they won’t get their asses beat. That’s all. Alt lit’s the same. Just a bunch of people who hang out with one another so they don’t get their asses beat. Freaks. (Me too.)
“People think books are holy or something, but they're products. No different than shitty television shows or shitty movies. But shit saves us. It's what keeps us going. It's fertilizer.” – Scott McClanahan
I often find myself using the fact that I'm from West Virginia as a kind of Interesting Person leverage. Do you know what I mean? I really liked the part in Crapalachia where you say college never appears in Appalachia stories, because it's so true –people from other places want to maintain an extreme vision of West Virginia as stereotypically abject, prescription drug use, etc.
Scott McClanahan: I use it all of the time. I'm using it now. I'll continue to use it and then complain about it one day.
But isn’t that counter to what you said about art coming out of people, not places?
Scott McClanahan: No, I’m talking about image stuff here. The whole trying-to-sell-books racket and doing interviews. Folks are interested in the “other.” I’m a guy with a weird accent and that’s why people want to ask questions. But that's how people work. All of us are playing roles.
Sure, but you can’t say gas stations and sweatpants and Ryan’s are interesting and then say the intellectual, guilty-conscience fixation on the “other” doesn’t have roots in legitimate place-related effects.
Scott McClanahan: Yes I can. I don’t think people are that guilty or intellectual when they talk about the “other” or that it’s even tied to place-related effects. I have a weird accent and people go, “Woah, you have a weird accent.” It’s the same as if I were peacock or a goat. People are dumb. People aren’t Edward Said. They saw some shit on television and think they know about it. That’s all.
When you show people from outside West Virginia around, or have them visit, where do you take them?
Scott McClanahan: We usually just drive around. I might take them mossing (you can gather moss to sell to make rope out of) or ramping (a wild onion that stinks), or I'll take them to Prince and make them car sick, or we'll go to the Exhibition Coal Mine. It's an old coal mine you can go inside and the guides tells you about getting killed in coal mine explosions and cave-ins. This is not the type of thing people want to hear when they’re underground in a coal mine. Actually, I just made up the ramping and mossing thing. I’d never do that. Probably we’d just sit around and look at our phones like most people.
Have you ever read anything about West Virginia (or Appalachia, or the South, or whatever) that approached an attitude you think is right?
Scott McClanahan: I think every book is an insult to the books that came before it. And it should be. We have Goethe and Shakespeare and Villon, and here I am adding my two cents. I'm spitting in their faces, and it feels wonderful. There's nothing so wonderful as to try to destroy the things you love. I don’t think it’s resentful. I think the real killing is usually done with kindness and polite boring applause. Books aren't conversations with one another. Books are battles and rapes and war.
Do you ever feel competitive?
Scott McClanahan: Of course. But it’s a competiveness that doesn’t make sense. It’s such a small audience when we talk about lit stuff that it doesn’t make any sense to be competitive. But it’s like the Oscar Wilde idea, right—there’s nothing more depressing than to see a friend succeed. I guess this goes for books about West Virginia, too. I don't think I'd write about this place if I thought someone had done it right. I could give you a whole list of books that I love about the place, but most of those writers are dead and dead writers don't do interviews. So fuck ‘em. They can figure out how to talk from the grave. I'm alive, by GOD, and I only answer questions about me.
Has staying away from New York (by which I mean: mainstream publishing) helped you to take more risks, to say, “Fuck ‘em,” to not feel like you have to ascribe to anything?
Scott McClanahan: No, it hasn't helped me at all. I know how to do it. The path is fairly easy in terms of New York publishing. It's called networking. You write a manuscript about living in Europe and how you struggled there, or you write a novel about your vacation to somewhere or a book sort of like another book and then you start dreaming about the bland cover you want for the hardcover edition and your quirky author photo. Then you also think about the non-fiction book or collection of short stories you can package with it in a contract. Writers should work on their networking skills. I think everyone knows this, though.
People think books are holy or something, but books are products. They're no different than shitty television shows or shitty movies. But shit saves us. It's what keeps us going. It's fertilizer. I love books of all kinds.
The part in the Quietus interview where you say, “So these are the rebels of our generation. This is what we get from big time NY publishing. Folks who get hurt feelings over their hair,” about George Saunders is so apt. Do you feel like a “rebel,” by virtue of your living in Beckley and going to Ryan's and maybe having the chance to live somewhere else but rejecting that?
Scott McClanahan: I'm tired of being a rebel. I don’t think I ever was one, though. I’m just stupid sometimes. That’s all rebellion is. I'm ready to sell out, but there’s nothing to sell. I was driving through Iowa last week with Juliet, and we decided to email the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and offer my services to their MFA students.
But that's not actually selling out, is it? It’s sarcastic and fly-in-the-face-of-your-values. And then if you had gotten their money or something, I assume you would have taken it and then done something bratty (in a good way) at the reading.
Scott McClanahan: Yes, it was just a dumb joke that we thought was funny at the time. But this is the stupidity I’m talking about. I liked that it was $500 and that I asked them to Paypal it. We can’t all be smart. What will I do one day if they start to respond? I’ll be ready.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler