A no-bullshit gentleman, Scott McClanahan isn’t afraid to reveal the underbellies of the world, no matter how embarrassing or dirty or stinky or clammy. McClanahan reminds us that it’s essential to take risks. He helps us keep in mind that the human heart can benefit from being scuffled with. He assures us that fear is part of what makes the world go round. His stories grab ahold of us and linger gauzy and ghostlike. But there is no slight of hand at work in McClanahan’s stories. There aren’t any secrets hidden behind curtains. His stories move us because human truths run thick and bloody through the veins of them. The way Scott McClanahan moves people is by moving people. Everything is holy, but that sometimes means everything is tiresome, or terrifying, or overwhelmingly glorious, which is all the more reason to shake the world awake the way McClanahan never fails to do. He seems called to this role, and he makes shit glitter for us with unfaltering grace. I had the pleasure of spending a Sunday evening G-chatting with Scott McClanahan about all manner of things from Jeff Foxworthy to Gertrude Stein to Heaven to ass cracks.
McClanahan will be reading tomorrow at Vol. 1 and Two Dollar Radio’s Thank God it’s Spring event, and then again at Acme Studio for Writers Reading to Writers Reading to Writers.
So can I jump right in?
Of course. Jump right in.
How do you make a story sound conversational? How do you make a story sound like a sermon? How do you tell a story around a campfire? How do you achieve all of these at once in a story?
Okay. I would say this. Stories don’t work that way really. They’re like jokes. They follow a secret pattern of the person telling them. For instance this joke… (I will now tell this joke.)
There is a man. He is drinking at a bar. A voice inside his head says, “Quit drinking.” So he quits drinking. The next day the voice says, “Quit your job and sell your house.” So he quits his job and sells his house. He feels free and changed for the first time in his life. The voice returns a few days later and says, “Go to Vegas. Bet all your money on red 17.” He goes to Vegas, bets the money. The wheel spins, the ball bounces, the ball does not fall on the number specified. He has lost everything. The voice whispers, “Ah fuck.”
That’s how you tell stories.
That’s an intriguing explanation.
I stole that joke from Matthew Savoca btw.
It’s like what Stein says about Goethe:
His novels aren’t about passion. The subject matter may be about passion but the novels have nothing to do with passion.
It’s like when people are writing about sex. They usually know nothing about sex. Talking about sex is like talking about motorcycles. You talk about sex by doing it, not talking about it.
Right. I agree with that.
It’s like trying to understand your orgasms or your bowel movements. They’re just there.
Or trying to understand a table.
Well, a table’s different. So is a bowel movement. Motorcycles and sex have something to do with magic, no? What’s magic’s role in all of this? Or incantations? Is that what I mean? Spells? Spirits? Seances? Talk to me about these things.
No, a table is magical. It’s so magical you can’t even see how magical it is. Imagine being the first person who invented a table. You would have been a shaman to the tribe.
Magic is fake. I don’t want anything to do with magic.
I will say this: Stories are just illusions just like magic. It doesn’t mean they’re magic. I’ll give you an example:
Fidel Castro is in the mountains of Cuba fighting the revolution. He has about 40 men and they are struggling. They are losing. However, the NY Times decides to visit. So what does he do?
He has men come in every ten minutes and shout remarkable happenings.
“We have broken through the left front, Commandante.” “We have found a cache of ammunition.” Did they? Of course, not, but Fidel wanted the NY Times to believe they had. This is what’s so great about NY. People are so provincial but they believe they’re so sophisticated. Hee.
Man, that’s a long answer.
I feel inclined now to ask you more about NY.
Will the 29th really be your last reading here?
Yep. No more for me. I’m retiring from NY.
It’s the end. The end has come. Only ghosts and visions after this.
The 29th is the end.
Why? What makes New York different from other cities?
One of my favorite Fellini films is Roma. That’s all about a country boy coming to the city. The story of Virgil, Napoleon, Rimbaud, etc. is always about coming to the place. What you discover is this–the city is no different from where you came from. That’s the great trick played on people. The only difference is there are prettier boys and girls with better clothes.
And who doesn’t like pretty boys and girls with cool clothes?
I think it’s good to bring NYC down to earth. It isn’t a monster. It’s funny. It’s a comedian.
It’s like a giant fat man trying to keep his pants up and his crack is showing.
But he’s trying to play it off as if his ass is not hanging out.
Yea. And he convinces some people! But his stink is filling the subway car something awful.
I love the subways. That stink is life. You know that between the shit hole and the piss hole is the baby hole? That’s where life comes from.
Wow. Great point. About the holes.
New York cab drivers are the most amazing humans left in the world. Maybe our only humans left. They’re grumpy and tender and nasty and you can’t understand them. It’s like having a girlfriend.
Ha! Do you give money to buskers and the like on the subway?
Do you give to everyone who asks?
No. If someone is really trying or very polite. For the most part I just put my head down like the rest of humanity and pretend that people don’t exist. I also think I give off a redneck vibe which saves me most times from human interaction. Those people are my people though. I’m trying to get people to give me money too, just in a different way. We’re all whores at the end.
Interesting point. Back to the redneck thing. If I may.
I’ve been revisiting Jeff Foxworthy’s repertoire, and I’m curious to know what your definition of a “redneck” is.
It just means you work outside. That’s all. You have a sun burnt neck. We hate people who work outside in this country even though they gave us the 20th century.
Weekends, health insurance, breaks, lunch breaks, vacations, retirement packages were all fought for by rednecks. Immigrants and rednecks. The only folks still willing to punch somebody in the face to get a better life for their families. I love them. And then we put a nasty ass stereotype on them which makes no sense at all.
But I hate rednecks as much as I love them.
So you think Jeff Foxworthy is a bad dude?
Hah. I get Jeff Foxworthy and others get Celine and Genet. I can talk about them as well.
I’m going to move on. You’re really good at metaphors and examples that illustrate. I just read a really intriguing metaphor for, of all things, love. Do you have a favorite metaphor for that old thing?
All we are is metaphor. Love is a destroyer, a devil. The Elizabethans didn’t look at love like us. Imagine being a woman in the 16th century, and you fall in love, and then you are with child. That may very well mean your death — love is not a pop song.
But that’s why love is amazing. It’s risky and nobody is risking anymore. I feel like I’m surrounded by insurance salesmen. But I guess we just hate what we see in ourselves. Are you afraid of things??
Amen. I’m afraid of everything.
But then there’s this love thing, which makes me more and less afraid.
Oh shit, I think love is the most fearful thing there is.
Love makes some things less scary, but introduces other fears, right?
Yep. Love is just biology. A chemical your brain produces so you can fuck and pass on your genetic makeup.
Wait, do you believe love is just biology?
Yep, at times. But biology is holy as well, right? Do you know how babies find the tit? They smell it. Imagine that.
You have a kid?
SM: Yep. Two of them.
Amazing. Yes, I think science is religion. Is science is religion is science is religion, etc…
Scientists may be our last artists. I mean they’re discovering god now. But they’re fools just like us. “How do you explain a blade of grass?” (to quote Mr. Whitman.)
I think garbage truck workers are our only hope.
Say more about that. How are they fools? How are they artists?
They’re fools because they believe they know. They’re artists because they’re at least looking. When is the last time you heard a poet truly talk about god or love or cum or shit or life or babies?
They’re too busy writing about the internet.
Garbage truck workers? They can hang off the back of the truck as it drives down Broadway. They feel free, even if only for a moment. That’s all I want.
What’s your job?
Human being. I will be employed for another 50, 45 years, if we take statistics into account. But I won’t last that long.
Talk to me about endings.
You don’t even have to think about ’em. They just are. And sometimes the ending you think is the ending is not the ending. I had a girlfriend once. She was from Huntington, Long Island. We were together for three years. We had one of those teary break ups and you would think that is the ending.
But it’s not. I saw a picture of her with her baby just a few months ago. She’s happy now. She could care less about my old sorry ass. Right?
I could quote TS Eliot now, but I won’t quote that miserable anglophile.
Do you feel like it’s worth it? Writing?
Most of the time.
Well, it’s worth striving to write something great. Because of how reading great writing has made me feel, I think it’s worth the shitty struggle to attempt to write it. Plus, parts of the struggle aren’t all that shitty.
Reading great writing has made me feel like I’m not the only one, and so I think it’s worth the difficulty to potentially make someone else feel that way.
But you are, aren’t ya? The only one? I don’t know.
Yes. We’re all the only one. We’re all the only one(s). And that feels lonely most of the time, but when we’re reminded by great writing (or by great sex or a great song or a great sundae, or whatever inspires us) that we all are, it’s a little less lonely, no? Maybe that sounds very Sesame Street. I dunno.
Do you know what my great regret is?
What’s your great regret?
I wasn’t born a woman.
I’m jealous of being able to have babies. Books are so stupid compared to babies. Songs are so stupid compared to babies. Movies are so stupid compared to babies. I’m talking about entire universes.
And I’ll always be lost because I can’t do that. I can’t be that thing. Even my children are really Sarah’s children. She did all the work.
Pain is strength. Folks don’t realize that.
It’s true. Also admitting weakness is strength, because it takes so much courage, right?
Ah courage is overrated. What is is what is. No more. No blue ribbons in the afterlife. Just in first grade.
You’re just saying that because you’re brave.
Hell no. I’m scared, just like you Polly. The shroud awaits us all.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t interesting up until then.
It’s all practical. The practical is holy. It’s about tables and knowing that tables are heavenly.
Things are a bore. Aren’t you bored right now? I am. Existence is boring, isn’t it?
Do you want me to tell you a joke?
As we part, I’ll tell you a joke. Here’s the joke. It’s a grammar joke.
Oh let’s bring out those guffaws.
“Come eat, grandma.”
“Come eat grandma.”
“Commas save lives.”
I hate commas. I know what the hell you meant without the commas.
A student gave me a t-shirt that said that. That joke is a little depressing. I’m sorry.
No, it’s not. I say let’s get rid of commas.
Alright. Come eat commas.
Maybe we should eat grandma. She might be tasty. Who knows?