Scott McClanahan is the author of the novel Hill William (2013), the nonfiction work Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013), and the short story collections Stories (2008), Stories II (2009), Stories V! (2011), and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), which includes the out-of-print Stories and Stories II. He cofounded the production company and press Holler Presents with Chris Oxley, who plays beside McClanahan in the band Holler Boys. McClanahan also makes films, available online via Holler Presents. Crapalachia received positive reviews from the New York Times, The Paris Review, Paste, and The Washington Post, among others; The Huffington Post gave Stories V! a heartfelt rave, and The Fader has called McClanahan “one of [its] favorite writers.” He appeared on Dzanc Books’ “20 Writers to Watch: An Alternate List” list in 2010 and won Philadelphia’s third Literary Death Match in 2012. He lives in West Virginia with his wife, the writer Juliet Escoria, who has also been featured on Points.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
First, I’d never introduce myself as a writer, but I’d probably ask them about being a nun or a penguin. That seems a hell of a lot more interesting. I think if you found a penguin talking you should probably ask the talking penguin about how it learned to talk rather than babbling about your stupid writing. “Well, it’s called flash fiction Mr. Penguin because it’s really short and flashy.” Nah.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
Oh god, I have no clue. I’m not into the whole mind reading racket. I guess things aren’t really ever about what you think they’re about anyway. Take any supposed drug writer: Ana Kavan, Thomas de Quincy, Alex Trocchi, Isabella Eberhardt, Hubert Selby, etc. etc. Those books aren’t about drugs. They’re about something else. Bret Easton Ellis isn’t going to tell you a fucking thing about cocaine in the 80s and early 90s but the Beach Boys appearing on Full House doing “Kokomo” will. That’s drugs. Laugh tracks and catch phrases. Full House. Identical twins trying to pretend to be one funny baby.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I don’t think I do or at least I hope I don’t. I’m drinking soda sometimes in my stories but I don’t think I write about soda. I usually hate “drug” or “alcohol” or “addiction” writing anyway. Not always, but quite often. There is usually something that feels so self righteous and self serving about It. Or even “ooh you’re so edgy.” I think writing about your mom is probably a hell of a lot edgier.
It’s that old boring conversion narrative we’ve been kicking around since the first century that’s typically a lie (we’ve just replaced the Christianity with more modern concerns).
I guess most drug and alcohol books are about how drugs and alcohol made you an asshole and now you’re not an asshole and that’s just not true. You were always an asshole who just happened to be drunk or high. And now you write about how you’re really into running.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
Yeah, I’m not sure subject matter has that much to do with form or narrative or anything like that. I always thought leaving something out of a work usually tells you more about it. Drug and alcohol references in writing usually feels false to me. It feels as false as explaining the behavior of a mass murderer because he was abused as a child. It’s just too easy and too simple.
I guess I’ve always felt that if something is really a part of you or really a part of the work, then it would probably fall into the background somewhat. I think some dead historian said there are no camel references in the Koran simply because camels were all over the fucking place (he was slightly wrong, but I know what he was getting at). They’re such a part of your life that you don’t even need to mention them in the holy book you’re writing.
I’m sure Burroughs could have written about grocery stores or the online shopping world and it would have said the same thing as Junky. It would have still been Burroughs.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I’ll answer this one with some Dean Martin quotes. “I don’t drink anymore. I don’t drink any less, but I don’t drink any more.” “I don’t drink anymore. Now I just freeze it and eat it like a Popsicle.”
I think these are perfect, little koans of the addicted brain actually. Full of mysteries. They probably say more than most writing about drugs and alcohol do.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Hill William, Crapalachia, or one of your short stories gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I wouldn’t want them made into films. That’s why they’re books. If they were movies then I would have made them as movies. It would be like saying, “Hey, The Rite of Spring is a really great ballet but I really want to see what James Franco or Reese Witherspoon would do with it on the BIG SCREEN.” Movies are about as dead as the airport novels we call “literary fiction” these days.
But if I had to pick, I’d say Hill William plus a resurrected Pasolini to direct, plus a great soundtrack full of Alabama and Oak Ridge Boys songs.
That’d be okay.