Several years ago I read a story by Scott McClanahan at a literary event in Sydney. I had been helping to organise this event for several years by then, and usually we would read our own stories or poems or essays to a room of thirty of forty people, but that evening I told the audience that instead of reading my own work I would like to share the work of an author who had been profoundly important to me. The story was ‘1,2,3,4,5’ by Scott McClanahan, a story that begins in typical McClanahan fashion with a series of jokes before breaking your heart, and afterwards ten or so people came up to me, somewhat speechless, asking just who the hell this guy was. I told them the same thing I had been telling everyone for years: that he was a genius; that he was from West Virginia, and then in a grandiose statement I still standby today, that he was the greatest writer under fifty currently alive.
It’s hard, sometimes, to put into words the gratitude we might have for an author, but suffice to say, like Denis Johnson or Valeria Luiselli or Alejandro Zambra, McClanahan’s writing changed me. It must have been 2011 or 2012 when I first read his transcendental short story ‘Kidney Stones’ from Scott McClanahan: The Collected Works Volume 1, and to use that terrible cliché – it was like someone switched on the light. Prior to that, I had not known, not even for a second, the degree to which humour could be used like a knife, but with that story, and in Crapalachia, Hill William and The Sarah Book, those deceptively simple, yet devastatingly tragic books published afterwards, he proved, at least to me, that if you were fearless enough you could tell any story, even, or especially, if they were painful; he showed me how to mix tragedy with hope. As Allison Glock writes in the New York Times, his prose is miasmic, dizzying, repetitive. A rushing river of words that reflects the chaos and humanity of the place from which he hails. He writes in an elliptical fever dream so contagious that slowing down is not an option. It would be like putting a doorstop in front of a speeding train. Perhaps it goes without saying, but, even now, I could not tell you the amount of time I have spent reading, then rereading and studying his work, trying to learn from it, to understand how he writes, how he makes his stories grab you by the throat, how he makes his stories sing, but what I can tell you, more than a decade after first encountering his work, is that he is a magician with that rare ability to translate all the heart and courage and vulnerability and tragedy and humour of the world.
Talking with Scott was effortless and wonderful. Prior to the interview, I had written a note reminding myself to tell Scott that he had written my favourite paragraph in the world, although, swept up and thrilled by his book recommendations, I forgot, and so, in closing, and because seems to summarise the interview and man himself, I would like to leave that paragraph here:
I knew he believed in something that none of us ever do anymore. He believed in the nastiest word in the world. He believed in KINDNESS. Please tell me you remember kindness. Please tell me you remember kindness and joy, you cool motherfuckers.
Although, perhaps, because I can, I will leave this too, written by Michael Schaub in NPR: ‘If there’s any justice in the literary world – and there occasionally is – McClanahan will get the widespread recognition he’s long deserved with The Sarah Book, his tragic and beautiful second novel. It’s an unsparing primal scream of a book, and it convincingly makes the case that McClanahan is one of the best American writers of his generation.’
Oliver Mol: I remember the night a group of us went camping in the Flinders Rangers, and that evening I read your story ‘Kidney Stones’ around the fire. The story was – and still is – one of my favourites, and had that enviable first line I still wish I wrote: I just wanted to be changed. Afterwards, when I finished my friend came up to me and said, Who is this guy? I didn’t know stories could be like that. I never forgot that line – I didn’t know stories could be like that, because it more or less describes my feeling each time I finish one of your works. But your readings, your performances are legendary too. Could you talk a bit about those performative years? Why is performance important to you?
Scott McLanahan: Well – I haven’t done a reading in quite a while. Talk about getting burnt out. But I started in 2008 or 2009. I guess I knew how difficult it was to get people to look at your work, especially when it was just a manuscript or words on the page, people have so many weird hang ups before they even encounter a writer, and I felt that doing readings could maybe get me in the room. I guess reading a novel is almost like a seduction in some ways, you know, the reader is kind of allowing themself to be seduced, and I knew I could do that if I could get in front of people.
We have this dumb American Western from back in the 50s or early 60s called Have Gun Will Travel, and I was like: Have Book Will Travel. And that’s what I did for a couple of years, and it ruined my life. Like, I lost my first wife over it. I went into debt. I ended up having to declare bankruptcy a few years later. It’s funny. Your Australian accent makes me remember being in Baltimore. I was performing at a hostel and I met this Australian guy named Derrick, and he was in the states for a Camaro convention; he was big into Camaros, and I remember him telling me he was going to go check his electronic letters, and I thought that that was so amazing, and I was talking to him about Nick Cave, and he was like, Yeah, The Bad Seeds, mate! and that night he came to the reading in the hostel and I could feel he had respect for me afterwards, and I thought it was interesting: this incredibly, macho Australian dude who was into cars, and I realised that if I could get somebody who was from a different continent to connect with me then that was going to get me a leg up on a lot of writers. Because I believed in that stuff. I believed in the story. And I wasn’t nervous, you know, that typical sort of – back then I was fucked up a lot of the time. So maybe my confidence was just, Oh, people love it, people love it, but really they probably didn’t love it. And I took it as sort of a challenge. I thought of myself as like Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg or something, like I had the spirit of literature, the ghost of story inside of me. I can remember being fucked up and thinking: I’m like Johnny Appleseed. I’m spreading this stupid gospel. But it’s weird. I haven’t really thought about those things in a long time. But yeah, I mean – I went for it.
OM: Did you memorise your stories?
SM: I thought of doing memorisation, but I just – they were heavily rehearsed. Like, I had read the stories so many times it was almost memorised, but I liked having that paper in front of me. But every little reading was rehearsed. Like, towards the tail end I was doing what I called The Boom Box readings. I would play a song in the middle of the story, and then I would destroy – it would somehow work into the little John Donne poem I was reciting – that boom box, like, smash it. And then I would have another Boom Box somewhere else in the room, like, hidden, that had the exact same song on it, and I would hit play on that and the song would play after I’d already destroyed the first Boom Box. But it got to the point where I was having to buy at least a Boom Box every other reading just simply because I was destroying Boom Boxes. I had a reading in New York once. I couldn’t figure out how to get those fucking Boom Boxes on the plane. So I had to mail the Boom Boxes ahead of time and trust these New York cool people to come to the reading with my Boom Boxes. So, it was always something like that.
OM: You can’t put a price on magic!
SM: Oh! And I had my magic trick too with chicken noodle soup that I would perform at the end of some of them. Because I’d read Jim Carroll’s book Forced Entries, and he was describing what used to happen at Saint Marks where someone would take chicken noodle soup and put a tomato soup label around it, and that was one of my things I did for years: turning chicken into tomato soup, all over the damn place.
OM: I love that. It’s a good metaphor for what literature can do, that transformation.
For sure! But also the reading event as a structure, right, to take the expectation, change those expectations, then change those expectations again: it’s part and parcel of really great writing, typically.
OM: Clarice Lispector has the line: this is coming out too easily, I should be suspicious. Can you talk about instinct when you write, and how you trust or distrust that process? How that has changed over the years? Are you a slow or fast writer? And how, when things are going badly, do you hold the faith that everything will be okay?
SM: Let me think how I can answer this. Because I think there’s some truth to that quote on the surface, especially when you’re a young writer and you haven’t written story after story after story. You know, those readings I was doing in 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013, those were stories that I had been working on for decades. So I think there is that sort of idea that you’re inspired, and you write your story and it’s all flowing, but then you realise that it’s just awful, that inspiration is the enemy, often times, and if you’re in that inspired headspace you’re going to go awry. I’m a pretty slow writer, I guess, probably because of my process that I go through. Back in the day I used to try to write a draft of the entire story, and then I would start wading my way into the story itself. So I would take my first little paragraph and write that paragraph again and again and again. At this point in time I’m a little more piecemeal. All of my stories have like ten paragraphs. The first three paragraphs kind of set up the action that happens between paragraph four and paragraph six and then usually a twist kind of occurs in paragraph seven, not even a pronounced twist, but a shifting of the action somewhat before – I usually flip the story again by the time I get to the end of it. So I work a little more piecemeal and I’ll focus in on those first three paragraphs and work on that again and again and again before I even move on to the next section so that slows me down.
But I can almost tell, and I think it’s wonderful, and I’m not knocking it or anything, but I can tell people who write on their phones or write on their laptops – I think you can tell. There’s something about the style that feels typed to me. There’s something about the style that feels as if someone is working on a device. So I’ll write by hand because I do want to get slowed down. So that I can have those things build. I’ve been reading a bunch of Balzac, the French writer, and I always thought that Balzac was poor man’s Dickens or like French Dickens, and I’m not a huge Dickens fan by any means so I was like, I’m not going to read Balzac, but I’ve discovered Balzac in the past couple of years, and in those novels I think he probably didn’t even remember the first sentence of the novel when he got to the end. He gets characters mixed up, like, you can tell that he’s writing quick, which in some ways goes against what I’m saying, but there’s an energy within the story that is kind of unexplainable, but for me I can always get the energy to work in my favour if I slow myself down a little bit.
At the same time I think instinct is incredibly important. I think, probably, the reality of this writing stuff is that it’s 98 per cent instinct. It truly is. We talk about talent and tangibles and all these – you know there are so many writers out there who can write a more complex, interesting, simple declarative English sentence than I can, but their work feels real fucking dead to me. Instinctually, the story works on the surface or it doesn’t. Probably the instinct question also goes into publishing. I’ve never written a book to get published, if that makes sense. I’ve always written the book just for me, and what I want to read. Even if I have an idea of like, Well I want this to be shorter because people’s attention spans are – my attention span is short as well, and if I can write something that grabs me a little bit then great. I’ve gotten away with publishing books that probably no one else would publish or that don’t necessarily fit in the sort of cookie-cutter industry of publishing. Because I think I’m still questioning what a book is. No one has been able to explain it to me. No one’s really been able to give me a good answer of what a novel actually is. And then if you look back just to like the last century you know the things we called novels or that are held up are like the masterpieces of culture – they don’t fit into those boxes. So many of those books are someone’s instinct of: this is what I want to do. Proust is going on and on and on and on to show you how a human brain goes on and on and on and on. You know, nobody really wanted to publish that at that time. So I think instinct is really important in that way.
OM: Have there been any books that you’ve started and abandoned?
SM: I’ve abandoned tons of books. For example, I abandoned a book a few years ago called Fights. It was chapters full of Julia, my wife, and I getting into fights. Like, real deal hardcore fights. And they’re funny, and they’re fucked up, and I put it down for a while. Because I felt like I was doing something a little too similar to what I had done in The Sarah Book. You know, The Sarah Book came out in 2017. So I was working on fights in 2016 and 2017. I also put the The Sarah Book down multiple times in 2009 and 2011. I wrote another version of it then picked it up again and started working on it from there. Crapalachia was a different book if you wanted to look at it in 2006 or 2007. It was even a third person book where I wasn’t even in the book for a few years. So I’ve never put something completely away because I knew I could pick it back up. There’s a thing that happens in literature – Huckleberry Finn is a perfect example. You know, the book is put down for a while, and then it is allowed to kind of change within the mind of the writer who happens to be working on it, and I think this gives it a strange sort of energy that it wouldn’t normally have. You know, people get a contract for a book and they’re like, Fuck, I have to write a book now. And they sit and they work on that book for a year and half or two years. That just seems crazy to me. I put things down all the time, and they reconfigure in my mind. I just finished a new book this summer that I started in 2017 or 2018. It’s longer than anything I’ve ever done. And about half of it is third person, which I’ve also never done. I’ve always wanted to change and do something different than just Scott McClanahan stories.
OM: What’s the new book about?
SM: It’s like all the stories that I heard as a kid from my mum about her family. So the first third of the book is this family history, and then it turns into a biography. I had this idea that it would be fascinating to have this book that moves from third person to first person where the author is born inside of the book and then starts speaking halfway through the book. I mean, there’s Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and then I found this amazing Russian book by Sergey Aksakov, I think he’s like pre-Tolstoy, post-Pushkin, called Family Chronicle, and he gives birth to himself, which is amazing. And I just discovered it. I’d had it on my bookshelf circa 2010; I found it at an antique mall, and I felt like I had to read it. Then I lost the copy, but felt drawn to it like a year ago. So I ordered a copy off the internet and then I was like, Oh man. This is so weird that there was this Russian guy from the beginning part of the nineteenth century was also giving birth to himself inside a book. So it goes from a family history to a biography – I’ve always been fascinated by biography so I did a biography of my mother as a child and then as a teenager and then I get born, and we had a flood in 2016 that killed like 23 people in the little community that I live in, and I drove into the flood and almost died myself, and that’s the way the book ends: everyone dies. So you meet all these people and then I kill them all throughout the book as well, which is probably really bad dramatic writing.
OM: Hard to do a sequel!
SM: I know! But I wanted to write a book like the Bible, and so now I’ve got this big old beast of a book. Julia, my wife, she’s read it but we’ll see what happens. Partially, though, I just wanted to get these stories down before everybody’s dead. It’s weird with family stories knowing that they’re not going to make the next leap to the next generation.
OM: In a LitHub article titled ‘The 10 Books I Needed to Write My Novel’, Ocean Vuong wrote of your book Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, ‘Scott McClanahan is one of those rare writers who achieves Kafka’s credo that a book should be the axe that shatters the icy soul of our interior … but what’s most indelible about this book is its commitment to wonder and awe.’ Your stories are some of the saddest, yet funny and hopeful works I know, and that book, like all your books, destroyed me, yet there was a healing that happened too. Can you talk about the importance of humour and wonder and awe in your work? And how do you summon the courage, time and time again, to write from that place one might call the authentic self?
SM: It’s kind of strange isn’t it? I think I respond to humour. I think funny things happen. For instance, in this room, about a month ago, somebody shot a fucking bullet through our house. And as traumatising as that was, looking back – it’s kind of funny. Because I’ve been on a couple Zoom calls over the past couple weeks. Like I did this German literary festival and I told them about the bullet through the wall and at first people were shocked, but then people just started laughing. So I think if you’re a little past it things get funny. And sometimes the darker it is the funnier it can be. I’ve always tried to put humour into my work because it’s kind of what life is about. Maybe it goes back to that seduction thing: like, if you can make somebody laugh, it disarms them. And then you can do any sort of fucked up thing in a book after that. And we all know, like, transgressive writing, and usually what it’s lacking is humour. So they really can’t get to the fucked up places they really want to get to because there’s something kind of cold in this steely resolve around the prose. And I think that’s what American literature does well with its writers: it’s so ridiculously funny and so ridiculously fucked up at the same time. There’s the film director Nicholas Ray who made Rebel Without a Cause and he said in some interview that a film’s like making a necklace, and you want to put each little bead on the necklace to create narrative drive, and if you front weigh your necklace with humour you can really get a strange sort of balance when you put all the stuff that is troubling in there as well. But maybe I’m babbling. What was the question again?
OM: Not babbling! But how do you summon the courage, time and time again, to write from that place one might call the authentic self?
SM: You know, I was reading Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece which is this little forty or fifty page story that is part of his Human Comedy, and there’s these painters and they know this like old real deal painter and they’re young painters and they’re trying to figure out how to do this thing and he’s wisely admonishing them that you can get the lines of a face perfect but if you don’t infuse it with yourself then it’s not going to look like a human face. I guess what I’m saying is that I think writing is similar to professional wrestling. There are some professional wrestlers that can sell it to you, and you believe it. I grew up in America – we had Dusty Rhodes. He was in the NWA. This was like regional wrestling in the south, it’s not like WWF, not popular, this was like white trash wrestling, and Dusty Rhodes was big and fat and we used to call him my mom’s boyfriend, and he had big boobies on himself and dyed blonde hair that was really curly and his forehead was cut where he would blade himself so blood would drip down, but you believed him. He wasn’t that wrestler, but he kind of was. I guess the same is true with Robert De Niro. Why do you believe Robert De Niro has killed someone? Why do we believe he has killed someone in some sort of mob hit? He was an artist’s kid. How is that explainable?
The authentic self, you know, whatever you want to call it, you have to keep going back to it. But I think it’s more about vulnerability. Being vulnerable. I think so often people stop being vulnerable and they don’t even realise they’ve stopped being vulnerable. So they’re just kind of repeating the brand or what they’ve done before with a slight deviation. I don’t know – like The Ramones. As great as The Ramones are, if you listen to The Ramones album number nine, it’s going to be no greater than The Ramones album number one, although that’s sort of what they were selling as well. But this is just becoming a mature adult, isn’t it? It gets so much harder being vulnerable in front of a readership. There is no person on this world that has more to lose than I do. I’ve always thought that way. I have the love of my family. I have the love of my children. I have the love of my wife. I have the love of my one friend, actually I have a friend or two. I’ve always felt like I have a ton to lose and I’m always risking losing that. But I’ve always had – I don’t know if it’s some sort of weird tic or some psychological thing, it’s probably unhealthy in a way – but I’ve always had it in my head that I have to keep going back to that vulnerable spot where the wound is, the real wound. It’s like the writing advice, you know, write what you know, which I think is great writing advice. The problem is how many of us really know what we know? We think we know something when in reality we probably know this other thing. So, you know, you have to kind of keep going back to that vulnerability. There’s this Leonard Cohen quote: it’s easier to show a scar than a pimple. So maybe the real vulnerability is showing your pimple. It’s not showing your scar that you carry around, it’s showing the microscopic details that make up your daily life. So I try to be vulnerable and I try to scare myself.
OM: I remember reading The Sarah Book in about three hours, pausing between each chapter, then again in the middle, trying to savour those words, trying to make the work, the magic within the work, last, because I knew, from that opening page, that I was witnessing something rare and terrifying and special, that you had brought the reader as close as artistically possible to your lived or so called lived experience, and even if the story was invented, I felt and still feel that book did what so many, perhaps, nearly, all, books fail to do: bridge the gap, the translation, between the story on the paper and the story in the mind. What I’m trying to say is that it tore me beautifully, horrifically apart. How hard was that book to write? Were there ever any moments that you doubted your ability to build the fictional world that your fictional protagonist required that you may or may not have resolved in real life? And if so, what would it have meant to abandon that fictional Scott McClanahan in that horror you had already escaped?
SM: I was almost completely sober by the time I began writing that book, although that book went through so many changes over the course of time. And it was nothing but doubt, like, daily doubt. Even today, I find myself – because, like, I have a fancy agent and they’re like, Ohh, Someone’s going to turn this into a TV show, or someone’s going to turn this into a movie, and my natural inclination is like, Why would someone want to do that? No. I don’t want to expose the people I care about to any other sort of attention than what I’ve already exposed them to. So there’s that kind of weird thing that swirls around that book for me. But I also knew when I was writing little sections of it, I was like, damn, I had a good day with that one. Like, I can remember showing the first chapter, that drunk driving chapter, to Julia and we’d just been married for a year, and she was like, You can’t let anyone read this. And I was like, It’s good, right! And so there were those things in the book that I felt uncomfortable about, and yet I went ahead and did that anyway. And some of that is just publishing, just writing, like I’ve always felt you should treat the reader like they’re your best friend, and you tell your best friend all these things, and if they’re any sort of reader they’ll go along with you. Right, they’ll know. They won’t judge you, although I get plenty of that sort of stuff where people send crazy emails and tell me what a horrible person I am, but I guess I’ve always been really naive. I’ve been naïve since – I think to do these things like we do you have to be really naive. To think you can do it at all, which has an element of ego to it, to think like, right, there are all these books and I’m going to be the one – these other people, like, forget about them. But I think you need that gift of naivety. You know, in West Virginia, we call it country dumb. I’ve always been country dumb to put work out there without fear of being ridiculed. Because I’ve been ridiculed in the past. You know, I grew up in West Virginia and I was interested in writing when I was like fifteen years old. And I was writing little poems that eventually got published in our student newspaper and I had people making fun of me in the hallway on a daily basis and threatening to kick my ass and stuff, and some of them were girls. But I’ve always just went ahead and done it and let the chips fall where they may.
One of the things I did with The Sarah Book was flesh the stories out a bit more. I think writing is nothing more than an act of concentration, and I think that the best writers are the best concentrators, where they can completely cut out things and sit there and they can do it. And so I tried just to concentrate more on the intention of each chapter. And then, just, fucking around with it, I figured out, Oh shit, I can put this chapter that’s happening right now against this chapter that happened in Sarah’s childhood, and then I can jump to something here and create this almost weird structure to it, and that was quite late in the game when I discovered that.
You know that thing I was telling you about how I wanted to give birth to myself inside the book? I’d worked on that book for a couple of years, and I was like, Why am I telling these old coal camp stories that my mom told me? And then I was like, Oh – I can give birth to myself in the book and then I can kill everyone in the flood. Sometimes, you just have to wait. You have to concentrate. Of course, there’s the uncertainty. You have to be able to live with the uncertainty of it, and the uncertainty knowing that you might completely change something in six months, or you might completely cut this particular chapter a year down the track.
One other thing with The Sarah Book was that I would just sit down with Julia and tell her the stories, and if she laughed I was like it’s good! If she didn’t laugh I was like that sucks. If I could shock or appal her I was like, It’s good! If she was like, hmmm or I didn’t get a visible reaction I would think, Oh well I don’t need to do that.
OM: Wow. I haven’t heard of anyone doing that before.
SM: I mean so much of literature is tied to oral storytelling. And that’s always been my thing. Like, my voice has always told the story out loud. I have students in English 101 and they tell me they can’t write, and I just tell them to tell the story out loud and then to write down what they’re saying. And, you know what? Bam – all kinds of crazy shit comes out.
OM: I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried – recommended, I’m fairly sure, in an interview by you or Julia – and realising, suddenly, that literature was time travel, that literature had the power to heal and save, that literature, good literature, could make us feel less alone. Who are we not reading that we should be reading? Are there any authors that stand out that solidified your desire to become a writer, or that spoke to you and made you feel less alone?
SM: I was never that interested in Tim O’Brien’s individual stories, it was the little titbits in between the stories that I found so fascinating about that book. It’s one of those books where you’re like, How does this thing work? And I don’t necessarily think you can even come up with a good reason why it does.
Writers we should be reading? Gosh, I don’t know. Contemporaries I like: Alejandro Zambra is always important to me because I think he’s questioning what a book is. I always read the latest Shelia Heti book. Kate Zambreno has a book called The Book of Mutter that’s my favourite book of hers. I’ve always loved books that are kind of questioning their form, and you’re not really sure what exactly the book is. I think I was kind of Maoist or Stalinist in my reading for a while. Because I was pretty broad and read in depth when I was 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 but then somewhere towards my late 20s I got real snobby about the type of books that I wanted to read. It’s like the Dostoyevsky conundrum – you think they’re going to be incredibly dense or boring. You think that you’re not going to like Henry James or something, and that’s just stupid. I mean some Henry James are bad, but some Henry James are fucking amazing. But, for me, personally, I mean let me look at my bookshelf. I’ve been into W.G Sebald, you know, the German writer. I came to him late, though, after everyone else had read him, and I thought he was a fucking bore. But then I discovered the walking books where he just starts talking about writers that he likes, Vertigo is one of them, Rings of Saturn is another, and I was like, Oh – I totally get this now. But just like in the past year, I’ve been real into Annie Ernaux, the French writer. Have you read her, Oliver?
SM: Oh, Oliver – you would love her. She writes these first person narratives about the death of her mother, the death of her father, her abortion, but it’s all in 100 pages. Like it almost feels like it’s transcribed. I also discovered the sagas of the Icelanders, and I’d never read Icelandic sagas. I thought they were incredibly dry and stupid, but they’ve been really important to me because it’s third person – there’s this amazing Icelandic literature that scholars don’t even know why it exists, like are they telling these stories to entertain each other? Are they telling them for historical reasons? But it’s kind of third person that always used to tick me off, similar to that Old Testament third person that just goes on and on, like, here’s another name, and here’s another name, but, just like with the old testament, these Icelandic sagas have this weird emotion that comes out of what almost feels like a legal document in some ways. Another writer that – now you’re like, Oh shit, he’s really going for it.
OM: No! I love this.
SM: Well one writer who is really important to me is Vita Sackville-West. I always thought she was just a snooty British lady, but then I read Pepita, which is the biography of her mother, and also her grandmother. Structurally it’s one of the only books that I’ve been able to discover that was really similar to what I was trying to do. There’s another book of hers that’s even crazier, and it sounds really bad but I loved it, which is a book about her family house, called Knole and the Sackvilles. So she tells you about the people who were living in it, in 1100, and the people who were living in it, you know, in 1500. Both of her books blew my mind. More contemporary type things, though – I love the stuff New Directions puts out. Maria Stepanova, the Russian writer: her book on memory. A lot of the times I’ll just go through reading lists. Like, when I was a young man I used to go through like Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list, and you’d find all kind of weird, fucked up things that you wouldn’t expect to be there, and I just went through a book of interviews with Roberto Bolaño and found all the writers he was talking about. There’s the poet, Joseph Brodsky, who has a list of a hundred books, it’s on one of those websites, and you’ll just find all kinds of crazy shit, like I got into Byzantine histories written about 900AD because I was interested in a history that becomes a narrative of a first person voice, and there’s tons of those in Byzantine literature.
OM: Something I’m obsessed with is the lineage of ideas, or influence. I remember reading Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai and drooling over a scene where two characters lie to one another about reading Proust. Then, several years later, though the title of the book escapes me, I read that same scene or almost the same scene in a work by Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño’s work, of course, was published first, and I realised that rather than stealing, Zambra was paying his respects to those who had come before him. And are there any sections of your works that pay homage to somewhere else?
SM: Yeah, for sure, but more like in terms of sentences, like there are sentences in The Sarah Book that are just completely stolen from other writers. There’s the Hungarian writer who used to do this, Péter Esterházy, I think you’d like his books too, Oliver, and he published a ton in the 70s and 80s, but he would often times cite those sentences he had taken from other works. So there’s stuff from The Sarah Book that comes from the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. There’s a section in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin where he’s coming into town and he’s passing by this lady in this house, and she pulls back the curtain and she looks at him and she’s all snooty because he looks so dirty and filthy and then of course Franklin says, Within a year I would be married to that woman. And then there’s a sentence in the candy story scene where Sarah is older than Scott and she’s working and I do that same thing in there. Another thing I remember Julia saying, You should something really stupid in the book. And I was like, Oh, okay, like what? And she was saying I should put a Limp Bizkit lyric in the book, and know one will even know. So I have the: He said, she said, bullshit, in one of the chapters and nobody has ever brought it up with me.
But, you know. It’s the story of literature. Influence, and being influenced. One thing that I think people do when they’re young is they start thinking about their parents’ deaths or their own death. I’ve started doing this thing though, I have kids, one of them is eleven and the other is nine, and it really fucks me up in the head but I’ve started thinking not only about their deaths, but about their future, like 80 years in the future, right, there’s going to be an earth that they’re not going to inhabit, or their children’s children – like that’s so fucked up to think about. But the thing that brings me comfort is that there’s some little kid somewhere who’s going to write down their story, the same way people have been writing down their stories since Mesopotamia. It kind of calms me to think that.
OM: I recently read Battles in the Desert, that seminal text by the Mexican author Jose Emanuel Pacheco. The story concerns a boy and his impossible love for his friend’s mother, which is to say the story is a story of lost innocence, growing up and the disappearance of youth. Fernanda Melchor, in the 2021 reissue by New Directions, writes, ‘Cementing the widespread love for Battles in the Desert isn’t only its detailed portrait of bygone days, its appealing brevity and intimate, confessional tone, but also its glowing emotional credibility, so strong that many readers believe the story to be autobiographical, to the amusement and astonishment of its author.’ Reading Battles in the Desert, I couldn’t help but think of your work, Scott. Your voices, while beautifully, masterfully, simplistic, are different, of course, but you share an interest, at least, thematically, in writing about a specific place during that confusing and mystical time called childhood – and in some ways using that childhood to look at the horror that lays beneath the splendour of the world. What draws you to childhood? Are you attempting to catalogue a West Virginia that no longer exists? Or rather, how has West Virginia changed?
SM: I mean, shoot, that’s a big question. Those first short stories were the stories of my boyhood, and I was writing down those stories when I was 22 or 23, way before I got the actual version of them that would appear in a book ten years later. Those were the stories that were entertaining to me. Those were the things that I thought were sad, or really funny, and I guess I’ve just been interested in place because that’s what I know. It’s this place that I’ve stayed. I was doing some research for the book where I give birth to myself on ancestry.com and I found out that I’d been told this lie my whole life. I’d been told that the McClanahans were potato famine Irish and that we’d only been here since the 1860s. Supposedly, we came over on Newport News and then we were in the Virginia area, and then we came up and started working on the coalmines. But I found out that was totally a lie, that the McClanahans have been in West Virginia, in this area, in like a 100 mile radius of the same place, since the fucking 1760s, which means that we were probably like Jacobite rebellion Irish. So yeah, it’s weird to think – I don’t know. There’s something about this area. It is some of the oldest land in the world. My mother just went to visit her sister in Colorado and she was like, They have real mountains out there! The Rocky Mountains! And I was like, Mom, those aren’t real mountains. Those are baby mountains. Our mountains were higher than the Himalayas but we went through various ice ages, not just the tail end of this last little ice age – so the ground feels so fucking ancient. It feels like it’s full of blood, because it is.
In some ways I wonder whether I’m going to be the last generation of McClanahans in the mountains of West Virginia. It’s even hard to explain to people how the place is. My dad’s boyhood, the twentieth century, is gone because it was labour camps that were left over from the decades before, and the house he was born in was a coal camp house that his dad had bought for fifteen dollars. He broke the fucking shack down and took it up the hill, and then rebuilt the shack and started adding – but it’s shocking, even in my own childhood, how much the place has changed. We had a flood in my town, Rainelle, in 2016 that wiped out the town and it feels like a ghost town. My childhood is gone. All the stores that I once knew – where did they go? I wanted it to mean something because it’s always meant something to me, and that’s why I’ve always kind of put West Virginia in my books. I don’t idealise it. You probably have to deal with this as well with your geographic region in Australia, but in Appalachia we get this sort of idealised Appalachia where the grandmother is always wise, and we didn’t have anything but we had each other, you know, that sort of attitude, and I’ve never written about that. I’ve never tried to idealise this place, and I’ll keep writing about it as long as I’m here.
I used to always say, We’re behind the times. You know, it’s like that George Bernard Shaw story: they ask him where he wants to be at the end of the world and he says, Ireland, because we’re always 20 years behind the times. Well, I want to be in West Virginia, but I’m a little bit afraid that we aren’t behind the times. We’re just an image of the future for everyone else. And that’s sad, but what’s beautiful about it is: who gives a fuck about the people? The mountains are going to be here, right, even after the people are gone, and if we give them enough time that coal will turn into diamonds – I grab hold of that.