The Past Is Always Now: A Conversation with Scott McClanahan

For the past decade, writer Scott McClanahan has been cranking out a steady stream of semi-autobiographical books set in his native West Virginia. McClanahan’s writing is sharp and percussive and smart, blending elements of comedy and tragedy, his work manages to be serious and hilarious and seriously hilarious. The Sarah Book, McClanahan’s latest, is further proof that he’s so much more than a regionalist. He’s a national treasure. Recently, Scott was kind enough to answer questions about his process and his work. The subsequent interview took place via email in early-June.

Ryan Ridge: Let’s talk about your latest. It’s called The Sarah Book and it’s a mesmerizing and raw account of a doomed marriage. As Westerners, we like to label things. To categorize. To name. Could you classify the book for us? Is it a novel? A memoir? A “fictional memoir” (like, say, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes)? Or is it none of our goddamn business?

Scott McClanahan: I guess you could just call it a book. I like using the word “book” to describe books. When I read a book and say something about it I say, “Man, this is a really great book.” I never say, “Man what an amazing 1st person personal essay collection directed at a 20something audience.”

It would be like being a kid and your Mom shouting at 5:30, “Scott, time for quick fry pork chops marinated with salt and pepper and served with a baked potato smothered in butter and sour scream.” Usually my Mom just said, “Scott, it’s time for dinner.”

The word “dinner” was enough for me. But it doesn’t really matter what I say. People are going to read it the way they want to read it. I’m just surprised they’d even want to.

RR: I dig the structure of the book—the way it ping-pongs through 15 – 20 years of time in taut vignettes. When you initially conceived of The Sarah Book, did you always see it as a sort of a non-linear mosaic or did you ever try it as a straightforward narrative (i.e. Scott meets Sarah, loses Sarah, meets someone else, etc.)?

SM: I was thinking more of quilts. Like this giant image of a quilt that I couldn’t get out of my brain. Or family picture albums from when you were a kid. You know how when you look at old picture albums, you’re never looking at them chronologically? “Here is one of mom and her family from 1973 and here is another picture book from 1992 when I played little league.” And I guess I’ve been trying to get inside of this quilt for years. I think books would be better if people visualized objects and then made their books like those objects rather than thinking in workshop terms. Maybe it would solve our “label” problem of the first question. People could just say. “My book is a hairbrush. It’s not a swing-set you idiot.”

All of my books are one book though and The Sarah Book is just a single part of a bigger book. So I’ve had the structural problems of working on a single book at a time and then figuring if that structure works alongside the book that came before it. For instance, the order of the books up to this point should be The Collected Works, Crapalachia, Hill William, Stories V!, and then The Sarah Book. If you read them in that order it’ll all make sense.

RR: I heard you say somewhere that you’d been studying Nicholas Sparks’s novels when you were writing the book. Was Sparks really an influence?

SM: God, that sounds like psychotic druggie behavior, doesn’t it? For some reason, I had it in my head if I just inundated myself with something popular it would leak into the book and I would have a best seller. That’s when you need to start worrying whether your writer friend is suicidal or not and has lost all reason—when he is reading nothing but Nicholas Sparks. I even had the Sarah character die from a botched gall bladder operation in an early draft. The early drafts of this book are so demented and out there.

I’m almost embarrassed to think of all the things I did to help. Like I had Julia send me all of her nail clippings and I kept them in my desk. I could tell she loved me because it’s not every day someone asks you, “Could I have your nail clippings? I need it for my book.” The whole first draft was done wearing make-up. Just crazy shit that I shouldn’t even be telling you about.

In a weird way I think it all helped.

RR: I want to ask about the book’s cover. The ARC I read has the GNR Use Your Illusion II cover image as a cover, but in digging around online, I’ve seen at least three other covers for The Sarah Book. There’s a yellow one. There’s one with a pink heart on it. There’s one with a Roxane Gay blurb. How many covers does this book have? Why so many covers?

SM: I think every writer grows up wanting to get sued by Axl Rose. For a while there, I don’t think Gian and I even cared about the book really. We just wanted to get sued by Axl. We still do, actually. It would be great publicity.

There was also going to be a Sweet Valley High cover and we were going to use a picture of my agent as the basis for the cover without telling her. But then Gian talked to the guy who does the Sweet Valley High covers and that fell through.

So yeah, we’ve had a lot of covers. When you spend 5 years writing a book really the only thing to do while you wait is to come up with covers.

RR: Each section of The Sarah Book stands alone and yet, simultaneously, everything hangs together. Do you think that all of those early years of story writing, writing four collections of short stories, helped develop the terse and modular style of your longer works? A lot of writers who write short, can’t go long and vice versa. But you can do both well, which seems rare.

SM: Aww you sweet man. I think they’re the same thing actually. It’s pretty simple. I don’t know why short story writers stress so much over it. I think you could take 90 percent of short story collections and just change all the names of the various characters to just one or two names and then you have a novel. That’s all you need to do. Instead of giving all the characters different names just use two or three names and then you’re done. Your first novel is complete.

I can’t stand contemporary novels for the most part. You have the concept novel, and the way we live now novel, and the literary historical novel, and most of them are all pretty awful. It just feels like, “I’m writing a novel. Can’t you tell this is a novel?” Besides, the novel is a trash form and that’s what makes it so amazing. Just a bunch of anecdotes and episodes strung out over a long enough span of time. That’s all it is. I’m sure Cervantes wasn’t spending hours each day thinking about the narrative arc of his book. He was wanting to entertain the reader and make you laugh. More writers should try it.

RR: To date, how many stories have you written? Do you have a favorite?

SM: I’d count them for you but I don’t own any of my books—so I have no clue. Just the ones that are in Stories V! and The Collected Works. That’s pretty much it. Maybe five or six more that haven’t been published or turned into other stories. I sat down at Sarah’s kitchen table in the summer of 2007 and wrote that entire first Stories book. I’ve never put much time into them. No more than a week. Of course, you can always tinker with the endings for a bit. I think if you’re working on a story for more than a week or two you’re probably doing something wrong. But then again, most things just seem completely over-written to me.

RR: My favorite story of yours might be “Kidney Stones.” It captures both the otherworldly pain of the condition as well as the pain of the otherworldly. As a two-time member of the kidney stone club myself, I want to ask a question I never ask: Is it a true story? Did you really pass a stone shaped like a crucifix?

SM: No, that’s all a lie. I never even had kidney stones. Everybody I know thinks I did though because I kept telling them I did. One time I did have a pain in my back and I think I passed something. There was intense pain in my back. But that was all. I did stop at the gas station where the story takes place, but none of that stuff happened.

I can’t remember why I thought it was necessary to start telling people I had kidney stones.

RR: Among other things, The Sarah Book is about divorce, and accordingly, there’s a lot of emotional anguish in these pages (the psychological equivalent of kidney stones), but there’s also plenty of humor and plenty of joy and plenty of play (I’m thinking of the meta-fictional crossword puzzle contained therein). I know it’s a serious book. But at the same time, I lol’d a lot when reading. Long windup to the question: do you intentionally work bits of humor into your work to offset some of the graver thematic concerns (loss, death, failure) or do you agree with Muhammad Ali that there are no jokes and that the truth is the funniest joke of all?

SM: Yeah. Structurally I try to have a joke or two in each of the first 3 paragraphs. I’ve always written that way from the beginning. My stories usually always have 10 paragraphs. If you can make someone laugh up front (meaning make myself laugh as I write) then you can really fuck with their heads afterwards. Sometimes when my chapters or stories “turn” around paragraph 7 there’s sometimes a tiny bit of humor, but usually that works only on a level of dramatic irony.

I’m glad you think it’s funny though. I’ve always thought of my books as intense, fucked up comedies more than “serious” or “literary.” In The Sarah Book I was just trying to write my own version of The Divine Comedy. Three sections. A Beatrice. A Dante lost mid-way in his life, with his only Virgil being a bunch of talking chicken wings.

RR: I notice a certain narrative move I admire that you do several times in The Sarah Book. When things get super-heavy and dark for our narrator, Scott, the narrative itself often gets whimsical and wild. I’m thinking of the time early in the book when our guy is homeless and drunk and living in his car in the Walmart parking lot and instead of giving up and giving in to the gravity of the situation, he carries on an imaginary conversation with some chicken wings. Then, later in the book, we have a similar scene in the bathroom that begins with our narrator puking from anxiety and culminates with a talking baby as well as talking vomit. My question is this: can our imaginations save us from ourselves? Is creativity the answer to life’s questions? Do we need to fictionalize to survive?

SM: Those questions are probably too big to answer on a Friday afternoon.

RR: There’s a lot of Walmart in the book. Do you have any interesting Walmart anecdotes? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen at a Walmart?

SM: I saw a lesbian couple get into a fist fight in the parking lot one time. The one woman who was doing the punching kept screaming at what I took to be her partner, “I know you fucked her.”

One time Julia and I were coming out of the Walmart at 11 at night and there was this old man who was sitting in a car with a young woman. And all of the sudden we just heard him shout, “You ignorant bitch.” What was weird about it was the word “ignorant” was drawn out for a long time. So it was like iiiiiiiiiiigggggggeeeeeerrrrreeeennnnnt.

My friend Chris Oxley made a vow to himself not to step into Walmart again (after a disastrous trip) and he made it five years. He also went 10 years without vomiting. Which I think is quite an accomplishment in my book.

Those are the only two that come to mind. I don’t even like Walmart, really. The McClanahans are labor union people so I shop at Kroger. That’s why the world is in such a shit place now: all your progressive friends’ parents helped kill off the labor movement in the past 30 years. And now we get to listen to their children tell us what’s wrong with the world.

RR: I guess I should ask you about West Virginia. Are you tired of people asking you about West Virginia?

SM: No. I love talking about this place. It’s a little weird, I guess, but it’s a fascinating place so I understand why people are interested. I mean, who wants to hear someone talk about Indiana or Connecticut? I sure as fuck don’t.

RR: You keep a close watch on history throughout the book and there’s a crisp juxtaposition of personal history with collective history. You situate the micro right alongside the macro. Is history something that’s important to you as a writer / citizen here in our era of social media overdrive? Here today, gone today, they say. Is history something you study? What are some of your favorite historical books or documentaries?

SM: Yes. The past is always now. Herodotus and Thucydides actually created this thing we call prose and they’re easily two of my favorite writers. The best ones are better novelists than anyone I know of. I don’t think there is a novelist today who can even compare with Robert Caro. But if I had to make list: Herodotus’s Histories, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, Livy’s Rome and the Mediterranean, all of Tacitus (who is the best of the Roman stylists), Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars (which is actually one of my favorite books of all time), Plutarch’s Lives.

I could go on.

RR: I’d like to wind down by talking about endings. The Sarah Book begins with a short meditation on loss. But it ends with a scene of real human connection—albeit it’s an awkward dinner scene, but there’s a genuine something occurring here. These are some of the strongest closing pages I’ve read in some time. How many drafts did it take to arrive where you ended up? Or did the ending just come to you in a flash?

SM: I keep going back and forth with that ending. I don’t know if I totally got it. I was changing stuff in the final paragraph right up until the last round of edits. But oh well. That’s the ending now. I think I had that chapter about mid-way through. Originally, I’d stolen Thackeray’s ending for Barry Lyndon. But then Gian and I took it out. It came right after the “I was a Sarah too” sentence.

“It was at the start of the 21st century that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

RR: Last question: What are you working on now? What’s next?

SM: I’m going to disappear for a while. Going to work on a crazy multi-generational book called Vandalia. I’m going to tell the story of the 20th century through my family stories and my folks. That should keep me busy for 10 years. It’s going to be a big giant novel like Fielding or Sterne.

Thanks, Scott, for talking and good luck with the book. The Sarah Book is out now from Tyrant Books. Read an exclusive excerpt in Juked.  

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