Scott McClanahan: “Most Fiction Feels Like a Bunch of Dumb Stories”
The Author of The Sarah Book in Conversation with April Ayers Lawson
We spend much of our lives as literary and art-loving people searching for the next thing—the thing that will move and inspire us, or even, if you are like me, the thing that will totally hold our attention because we have gotten to a point where so little does. But imagine what it would be like if one day, without any effort on your part, one of the best writers of your generation as a total stranger came to you, when you were broke no less and in crisis, and sent you his book.
I am writing this now because every once in a while the art you most need comes straight to you, at absolutely no cost and when you least expect it, and is called by titles you’d never imagine, such as Crappalachia. I am writing this now because years ago a man named Scott McClanahan, after reading a story of mine, friended me on Facebook and we began to write and now he has written yet another wonder of a book that he sent to me and was what I needed, a book that captivates, moves, disturbs, horrifies, comforts, invokes the shivers—that I think you need too. It is called The Sarah Book and it is written by arguably the most authentic and gutsy and best young writer working today and reading it will make you feel you are not alone, which is what we are all often searching for and for which we too often accept superficial approximations.
April Ayers Lawson: The voice of The Sarah Book is at once so companionable and powerful. Can you talk about the moment you struck on it? Where you were in your life? What it felt like?
Scott McClanahan: I’m not really sure there was a moment when the voice came. My books have always just been my voice. It’s never been something I struck or found. The idea of finding your voice sounds like a writing teacher scam. I can remember when I figured out about telling the story in a non-chronological way. I guess that was the one light bulb moment.
It was the winter of 2015, which was a horrible winter. I was smoking a cigarette on the back porch of this place we called the apartment of death. It was about one o’clock in the morning and I just thought, “Yeah I can just mix up the chapters.” I’ve always loved what Inarritu and Arriaga did with their early films and I was reading a Saul Bellow novel at the time called Humboldt’s Gift and I just thought, Yeah, I’m going to do that too. It actually made the book much more manageable for me. I felt like that was the key to the book. Putting the nasty bits with the sweet bits so that you’re reading about the end of a relationship at the same time you’re reading about the rise.
But I know what you mean by the voice thing. It’s why I’ve loved Stendhal or Chateaubriand more than Flaubert. I can see why Flaubert is technically a better writer, but the sloppiness of a voice has always been more interesting to me. Something more human and wild and fucked up and boring and bold. I mean when you’re a real-deal reader, it’s always a weird thing. It makes you feel like you have hundreds of friends because of their books, but the only problem is they’re all dead.
AL: I love how you ordered it. Some people think everything should be written in chronological order and I think that’s so weird and funny because it’s always made more sense to me to order stories emotionally and aesthetically.
I’m fascinated by this statement “my books have always just been my voice.”
So do you mean you haven’t had the experience of writing something that isn’t it, that you rejected because it didn’t seem to come from a deep enough place? Or that didn’t seem alive? I want to know the story of you becoming a writer.
SM: I’ve been at this writing racket since I was 14 years old. I wrote some stories about playing football, I wrote this long-ass rhyming poem about a bluebird. Don’t know why a 14-year-old boy would fixate on a bluebird. But you had to read the poem while listening to Ravel’s Bolero. Man, what a pretentious little hick.
Then I spent all of high school writing all of these Burroughs’ Cut Up imitations. I got Finnegans Wake for my 16th birthday and a Merle Haggard box set. So I wrote Finnegans Wake prose that no one could understand. I couldn’t either and I was convinced that’s why it was so genius. Mom threw away my William Burroughs’ novels because she said (insert mom voice) “We don’t want to support that man’s bad habits.” I wrote a Vietnam war novel during high school and then when I was a senior I started writing plays. I can remember sneaking my 12th grade English book home each day on the bus and my old football buddies thinking I was weird.
I spent probably a year or two writing one act plays. I even gave one to my theater 101 teacher in college and she just gave it back to me without comment. I’m sure it was horrible, but I still hold a grudge. Then from probably the ages 19 to 21 I went through this weird period where I wrote like quasi surrealist porn. I guess it excited me. Sort of just seems like mental illness now thinking about it. But I did a lot of masturbating. I was better at masturbating than writing anyway. So there you go. I wrote a version of Hill William when I was in my early twenties. But it was about a kid in Rainelle who works on a garbage truck and then goes and shoots up his old high school. Again, quasi mental illness.
I can remember going to see my grandma in Texas and when I was driving back just feeling so depressed about writing. Like totally depressed. It was all wrong. So I went to law school and didn’t write anything except suicide notes in my head. But then I dropped out and wrote a version of Crapalachia that was all in third person. It was all wrong too.
I can remember sitting at Sarah’s kitchen table when I was 26 though and everything finally started working. I decided just to write down all of the stories I had. The ones I would tell to people and they would laugh. Stuff about my family, stuff about friends going to jail, weird things I’d seen. I realized how simple it was, and it was just like The Wizard Oz. The stories and the characters were all around you and you wake up saying, “And you were there and you were there.” And maybe this life isn’t a dream. So that’s more than half of my life now. Don’t know if it was worth it to be honest.
AL: Speaking of writing the stories you had—you’ve just written a novel using your ex-wife’s actual name. How did that go over with her? Was she on board from the beginning or did you end up in the position of say, like, dropping off the kids one day and being like, “By the way, I wrote a book about our divorce that’s getting published.”
SM: Ha. Maybe I’ve just been lying all this time? Maybe I was never married. If I wrote a real book about a divorce it would be the most boring and mundane thing in the world. I know that sounds like some bullshit writer answer, but it’s true. The trouble I have with most fiction is it just feels like a bunch of dumb stories made up by rich kids.
For example, this is the way most fiction feels to me:
Richard Madden looked down from his window on the 58th floor and wondered if he would die today.
That’s just a bad liar who starts a story like that. People believe lies that contain the details of a real life. That’s what I do. I’m a good liar. Have you ever heard that story about Barry Hannah who came to class late one day? This was during the bad period in Hannah’s life and he was late a lot. But when he finally showed up 20 minutes late he told them all these details about why he was late. Details drawn from his real life that were totally false. He finally just got up and told them all he was lying. Then he left the room in disgust at their belief and said, “You know why you believed it? Because of the details.”
My real-life Sarah is super cool though. She’s not a fink.
AL: That’s a good story about Barry Hannah. It’s like by doing that he not only got out of the first 20 minutes of class but also got to leave early.
And I guess I was lying in that last answer as well. It’s really weird in a lot of ways. I worry about that stuff on a daily basis. What people think? You say you don’t want to care what people think, but you do. I’m horrified my Mom is going to read it and think I’m a bad person. It’s hard to explain “fiction” or whatever to somebody and especially when you’re often times using real names. I’m horrified Sarah would be horrified by it. She just sent me an email months ago after I sent her the book saying she wished me the best of luck and knows how hard I work, etc. I went through like three months of panic attacks over this dumb book. And it really is pretty dumb in the scheme of things. I know there is a reason why “wound” books or personal books used to be published after people died. I don’t even do readings in West Virginia or around Beckley because of that very reason. I’ve blocked co-workers on Facebook so they couldn’t share any press stuff about me. It’s like this horrible masochism I’ve developed. Like the worst thing somebody could say to me in real life is “I read your book and I liked it.” It just makes me embarrassed. Isn’t that pathetic?
And I guess I’ve always just tried to make these statues of the way I see life. But it horrifies me that the person might not like their statue. I’ve only tried to carve the statue out of love and honor and this ridiculous need to destroy time and make the person live again in case anyone ever reads these dumb things in the future. So I usually just go through my life ignoring it and pretending like it’s not happening. There’s a reason Long Days Journey Into Night is published after O’Neill’s death. I totally get that.
AL: I feel weird too when someone I come in contact with in regular life has read my book. Say I’m dating a guy and he reads Virgin—I feel this impulse to reassure him that the women in that book are characters and that if we sleep together, I’m not going to flip out and beat him off of me. It’s awkward.
In regard to the statues you carve—I find them loving. You write with love. Even when what you’re writing about a character isn’t the most flattering thing—and of course if we wrote only nice things about human beings our characters would have no gravity—I still feel what you’re doing is ultimately coming from a place of respect for the mystery of another.
SM: Sure. But as a reader, I want writers to write great books more than I want them to have a comfortable relationship or a stress-free day. As a reader, I could care less about how it complicates their life. And also, I can think of a ton of great books where the writer is working out of spite or anger or callousness and the thing still works. Aristophanes always portrays his Spartans as no more than inbred rubes and hicks, but his disgust towards these characters still makes me laugh thousands of years later.
The problems of being a writer are so funny to me compared to the problem of a truck driver or a school teacher, but it’s fun to complain.