i want to touch the face of god
George Sutton: Do you consider yourself a storyteller? Your writing has often been described as having a story-telling quality, an anecdotal quality. Are you a social or personal storyteller?
Scott McClanahan: I don’t really tell stories anymore, I’ve worried recently, “Am I getting stupider, as I age?” Part of it is that I don’t think I’m as entertaining as I once was, 15 years ago, but I guess I still tell stories. I'm sure I do. The page has always been something different for me, where I feel like I can kind of perform. I don’t think that I’ve ever told a story out loud and then said to myself, “I should write that down and include it in my new manuscript.” I don't think the writer thinks that way. Nabokov called the Russian language the most beautiful, the spoken flesh. I'm trying to do that with words in a text. I’m trying to make them feel as if they’re spontaneous, or if you’re hearing a voice. But if you were to just tape your conversations and your stories, it takes so much revision before you can get something that actually feels as if it has movement in the way a story typically does. A story is like a magic trick, I think. Sometimes I get lumped into “Southern writing” - West Virginia is not really a Southern state, it’s a very different sort of beast. I’ve also been pegged as a sort of “oral storyteller” - there’s not really anything oral about Faulkner for the most part, that’s a modernist, experimental, weirdo kind of text that probably could only happen on the page. It’s kind of fascinating, because for a while I felt like I had to rebel against that. If somebody called me regionalistic, it always bothered me. Something that has always bothered me, we have “Appalachian literature” and it’s become very identity-driven, “you’re not understood!” - and I’ve never felt as if I was pigeonholed or misunderstood. I’m just happy when people write about the books or read the books. A good review is sometimes every bit as depressing as a bad review. It took me a long time to realize that, that this person thinks they’re understanding it, but they’re understanding it for all of these wrong reasons. When I was first publishing, it was an interesting time culturally because I felt accepted at a reading in New York more than I did at a local reading. There are these little camps that happen, these little groups, people that are arguing back and forth about what a particular region is. Did I face that Vice Magazine, “Ooh, your work is so REAL” kind of crap? I’m sure I did. It’s always been funny to me that the character that I’ve created –– and I did, I made that first-person narrator a character –– that character in certain books is more of a Nick Carraway kind of observer, and in other books, the narrator is the one doing the bad stuff. It’s my own fault that people latch those things on to me. My life is so mundane, I read books and I write books and that’s what I’ve done for a long period of time. You can’t write books pretending that you’re in that particular lifestyle of what people would believe the Scott character is in, if you read The Sarah Book or if you read Crapalachia. Henry Miller said you have to have a warm place to shit, in order to be able to write a book, and I think that’s true. You have to have a comfortable chair, you have to have a room, you have to have those elements.
GS: There’s elements of memoir, there’s elements of fiction, real and fake are mixed up in all of your books. How do people in your life react when you’ve read them The Sarah Book or Hill William?
SM: I don’t know, I’ve never really asked them. It would probably be a problem if I asked them, but I’ve never asked permission. I’ve never done those things that you’re supposed to do in this 2022 era of ethics. There’s like a killer instinct with a writer, or an athlete, or a political candidate - it’s the line from In Cold Blood, where Perry says, “I respected Mr. Clutter right up to the point where I slit his throat” and I think there’s individuals that can do that, and still carry on with their life, and there’s other individuals that can’t do that and get lost in the minutiae of making stories or making books, and it will bog them down. There’s nothing worse than reading apology-type fiction, you want to cut out the apologies. If you’re an intelligent reader, you can understand, “oh, well okay, this person is behaving badly in this story.” You don’t need to have some sort of Victorian-era, George Eliot style comment to spell it out for the reader. In relation to people in my fiction, I really haven’t asked them too much. I’m sure it’ll become more of an issue the older I get, I’m gonna have children who’re gonna be older, and they’re already older, and I think they’re aware of that. But I’m not your typical writer who’s advertising that they’re a writer to people, I’ve lived this part of my life in secret in many ways. I haven’t put that front and center in my relationships, and I know people that do, writers are often such egomaniacs. That becomes their identity, and that’s never been my identity. I’ve always thought of myself as an amateur, in the Orson Welles notion of the amateur, that things are only good because somebody’s a true amateur.
GS: What are your writing habits like right now? Do you get to write every day, do you have time?
SM: Yeah, I put my two hours in. That’s one nice thing about being a college instructor, it’s one of the last dictatorial positions –– Francis Ford Coppola said that film directors are the last dictatorial position left in society. A college professor is almost that. That’s one of the most important things in terms of writing, time management. I never tell writers –– they have to have excellent time management and get their reps in on a daily basis or they’re not going to be able to do it. If I was working a typical 9-5 job, day in, day out, I’m sure it would beat the life out of me. It’s allowed me that, and it’s allowed me summers. This is gonna sound really stupid, but I heard Stephen King in an A&E biography when I was a kid, and he said you have to put in at least one hour a day. That’s always clicked into my brain, and I don’t even know if the number of words is necessarily important. With a Hemingway story, he could write 300 words a day and that was about it. I try to keep the words fairly manageable. I try not to overdo it, you can spin yourself and get stuck real easy if you’re not careful. I always try to put in those two hours, whether I’m drafting, whether I’m revising. I’m gonna type up some stuff that’s been sitting in a notebook for a while after I’m done with this interview.
GS: You’re working on a book right now?
SM: A couple of books. That’s the way I work, I published 5 books in 5 years on those little indie presses between 2012 and 2017, and I was working 7 or 8 years before I started publishing those books. I’m kind of like a painter in that way, I know most writers are weird in that it’s like one book, done. Next book, done, next book, done. I’ve never worked like that. I’ve always tried to create a body of work, where things can cross-pollinate and piss on each other. They’re like old cars, you rip shit out of one and you put it in another and you think that that’s gonna make the engine run in that particular car and then it doesn’t, so you rip that out and that starts a whole new thing. Right now I have two books, one that’s almost done, but I feel like I failed at it in some way. And this other book that I’ve been working on for a year or so, that’s from old stories from 2016. Around the time that The Sarah Book was being published I had a bunch of stories that I wasn’t sure I would ever publish, but now they’re finding their way into a book.
GS: When you finish a book or a body of work, do you usually have that feeling of having failed in some way?
SM: Oh, of course. Yeah, totally. I want to fucking touch the face of god, you know? I’ve changed my writing in some ways, I used to drink sugar-free Red Bull as I wrote, and about five years ago I started drinking the regular Red Bull with all the sugar in it, and sometimes, man, it felt like I was touching the face of god. I don’t get that sugar rush in the way that I once did, that’s why I have to go to the dentist so much now, because of all that Red Bull.
GS: Childhood is a part of all of your writing, do you buy into the 20th-century psychoanalytic idea that these little things that happen to you as a kid can have a huge impact on the person
SM: I don’t know. I was a young man. I hadn’t had to make excuses or apologies to the world, or contradicted myself. That’s what adult life is about, you reach a particular age and you go oh shit, I am this thing that I’ve been pretending to be. Some of that is just the amount of material I had from childhood, but I’ve always felt like I’m writing one big book, with these different slices of this particular character’s life. You can put it all together when I’m dead. Hopefully I’ll make it long enough to have three movements. I think I’m in the middle of the second one right now.
GS: Everything you’ve published is physically slim, and the physical books are smaller than the usual height of a book. Is this purposeful? Are you interested in concision as a writer, as an
SM: For a long time, I was. I don’t know if I am anymore. I think that writing is about compressing energy and then releasing that energy, and I think the compression and releasing of that energy happens really well between 150, 200 or so pages in a manuscript. I was interested in intensity in writing, and you really can’t keep punching readers in the face after 200 pages. Some writers are really good within that page count, and then there’s writers like Casanova - you can just read him and read him and read him, and I don’t know if he works with just 100 pages. You have to almost digest a big chunk of the work for it to make sense.
Scott McClanahan is the writer of The Sarah Book, Crapalachia, and Hill William. He lives in West Virginia.
George Sutton is from San Francisco. He is currently studying art history at Bard College in Upstate NY.