Scott McClanahan is a man of convictions. Known for his striking, unpretentious prose recounting a backwoods youth in West Virginia, his work and passion for the rise of small press stand in contrast to New York’s scene of literary elite. While virtually unknown at the time of publication, McClanahan‘s Crapalachia: a Biography of a Place, amassed rave reviews. A reputation as an intoxicatingly powerful reader followed, as did a deal with indie-lit powerhouse New York Tyrant. However, now that McClanahan‘s first “novel” (his line of truth and fiction is a blur) Hill William has launched him to the stratosphere of every writer’s dreams, he’s not yet convinced it isn’t all a bunch of bullshit.
I’ve seen him read before at an installment of The Franklin Park Reading Series a few months back. McClanahan exceeded his praises. What began as a shaky rendition of “Anger Problem,” a portion of Hill William, snowballed into a beautiful, rambling sermon. Smashing radios, screaming the eulogy of his family, reflecting a pocket mirror telling the audience they’d been visited by ghosts. He repeated in an unsteady drawl, “everything is broken in the end.” McClanahan possessed a nervous, wild, energy, channeling something of a charismatic cult leader. After the event, we sat down to wine and cheeseburgers and talked about, well, you’ll see.
What keeps you in West Virginia?
I don’t know, stupidity I guess. And I have kids there now, so that makes it difficult. But it still feels like the frontier a little bit, not a bunch of kids just wanting to lead the artist life. I like it for a number of reasons, maybe because it doesn’t make sense. There’s a quote that Paul Newman used to always say, “A man without enemies is a man without character.” That’s what it feels like.
So in part an air of lawlessness?
Oh for sure. But not as much anymore now that we lead the nation in prescription drug overdoses.
I’ve read about that. You guys have those pill mills like in Florida?
Oh yeah. But even before that, take Oxycontin, that was first prescribed in Appalachia to injured coal miners. We have heroin now too. People like it because it’s cheaper. It comes from Detroit down, we’re just a stop on the way to Florida. But yes, there’s still a general air of lawlessness.
What was your favorite thing to do as a teenager?
Read and watch HBO. We’d have HBO free weekend preview, or even late at night when they’d turned HBO off you could kind of see a boob, like, is that a boob? I think that’s a boob, oh no… that’s a dick. I Played a lot of sports, that’s pretty much all there was to do besides getting pregnant as a teenager, and I wasn’t a female so I couldn’t get pregnant. I didn’t really have friends. My mother was a public school teacher. She taught in a town ten miles away from my home, so my friends were all in a different town. Not only that, it was post-mechanization in the coal mines. In them early eighties, like in the first Reagan administration, there was nobody living on my street except for me.
So you were straight up in the woods.
Yeah, it’s not even really a town. We have “unincorporated towns,” which means they don’t have a post office or anything like that. You pass through a few scattered houses, and that’s just the place you’re from.
Does your family know you write about them?
Yeah, I guess they do.
Do you they read your work?
No, I think they’re concerned. I was on C-SPAN doing a reading a couple weeks ago and I got a phone call from my dad and he was like… concerned. And I guess maybe he should be. I’ve been in a rough spot for a year or two.
Where is the line of fiction in your work?
It’s one of those things I don’t even think of. I just don’t even care.
People are bent on labels, whether fiction or nonfiction. Were you pressured to choose?
No, people just publish as nonfiction now. People don’t buy novels anymore. And usually a nonfiction book is more expensive by like two dollars because people buy them. They think that research has gone into the writing of it.
How did Crapalachia manage to gain so much critical attention from a relatively small Ohio press (Two Dollar Radio)?
Actually I think they’ve had something like eight of their last ten books reviewed in the Times. All this stuff is breaking up. It’s like with the music business, the same thing is happening in publishing now. So many of the people in there tonight, they wouldn’t have been there five or four years ago. The insurgency is coming with our broad swords to lop the off their heads. We’ve had this model for a long time now, where the small presses are a minor league to major league publishing, and I don’t think that exists anymore. Because it is an insurgency, and with a typical insurgency you don’t fight the battle on their terms, you fight it on your own terms.
I like this notion of full blown war.
That’s right. It’s war. We’re comin’ for them and they’re runnin’ away.
Can you talk a little bit about HIll William?
People are calling it a coming of age story. It’s not a coming of age story. It’s more like butt cheeks and seminal fluid. And at the end I have sex with the earth.
Reality TV loves West Virginia. I recently saw this show My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, bizarre. Is living there the way reality TV portrays it to be?
Oh yeah. We have a huge gypsy population. We have a lot of Romani Gypsies, but we also have the travelers who are like Irish Gypsies. They run scams in the summer to seal your driveway and then it rains and it washes away. We also have this group of people called the Malungeons who are supposedly one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Wait so they’re Jews who just wandered from Israel to West Virginia?
Well, there’s a theory that they are. What really happened is a bunch of Europeans and Native Americans had sex and they produced these people. They’re real beautiful, incredibly dark. A dying breed.
There’s an extreme performative aspect to your readings which is great, because I hate readings.
Oh I hate ’em more than you. I’m sick of readings. So boring.
Would you ever leave West Virginia?
I’m going to have to, for a woman. I’m thinking about somewhere close, where I could still drive on the weekends and see the kids. It’s getting to a point. There’s a Willie Nelson quote… oh god I’m quotin’ WIllie Nelson… here we go: “Be careful about your dreams, because pretty soon your dreams start dreamin’ you.” That’s where I’ve got to now, my dreams are dreaming me.
What do you mean by that?
It means you have to fly New York on a Monday morning at five o’clock to read at a reading series and talk to a lovely person like yourself, then have to go all the way back home tomorrow. Then I’m going to Atlanta on Friday. Then I’m in Columbus, Ohio Saturday night, so I fly back into Charleston, West Virginia on Saturday at noon. Then I’m driving to Columbus. I’m already ready to stop.
Is it worth it?
No. I’ve lost everything over this shit. The writing stuff, it’s a very solitary experience. I’ve lost the damn family over it, and now here you have all these things coming to fruition. But you realize the bullshit of it, too. It’s just so much bullshit. But that’s life though. My life, I still live in a shit trailer, I’m still on the verge of bankruptcy. But this deal (Tyrant Books) is gonna to save me, for a short period at least. So no, I don’t think it’s worth it. I mean it’s been worth it because I went after it. I mean, I went after it and I did it. Because, I came from fucking nowhere. I came from fucking nowhere.