Meg Tuite Interviews Scott McClanahan
In Conversation with Scott McClanahan
Meg Tuite: Why do we call it a mental illness when everyone has one?
Scott McClanahan: Yeah it’s funny when you go to the library and there’s whole shelves about abnormal psychology but no shelf that says normal psychology. I’ve always thought that was strange as well. Adam Phillips is one of the great writers on Freud and he always says that psychoanalysis is an art and not a science. He catches all kinds of hell because of this. Freud and Jung were poets. Not doctors in my mind. But I’ve been soothed by poets as much as doctors in this silly thing I call my life.
MT: Absolutely. I asked you before about how you got sober. You said you married a woman who was eight years sober and you replaced beer with cigarettes.
MT: Did you ever relapse?
SM: Oh gosh. I can’t stand most 12 step talk. Relapse. Recovery. It makes me feel like I’m on Oprah.
MT: I’m sorry. I get it. I don’t know how to even talk about it. I went to a 12 step program once when I first moved here and it was insane. It was a group of vets and I was one of the only girls and had to run for my car and never looked back.
SM: Oh, no worries. Yeah it’s just weird. I’m probably more addicted to soda than I have been to anything else in my life. Who knows what Aspartame or Yellow 5 has done to my body. But nobody asks you about those things. [laughs] I guess it’s weird because that character in the book is a drunk but only for story reasons.
I think I’ve made a big mistake with press for this book by talking about my own life actually.
MT: You did talk about Coors Light in the AM and now it’s been replaced by Mountain Dew and kombucha? I have this weird deal about setting a time when I start drinking, but does it really matter? It’s just a time and the time changes according to how shitty the day is or how good.
SM: Yeah for sure.
MT: Have you ever gone through a period when you couldn’t read? Or the books you picked up seemed to be dragging?
SM: Nah, not really. I’ve always ripped right through them for the most part. Maybe that was always my problem about anything. Consumption. I’ve always felt like that robot [in] the movie Short Circuit. Need more input. Need more input. I can always tell if I’m depressed if I have problems reading though.
MT: That’s a yes.
SM: I don’t know if it’s age but I don’t really deal with that anymore. Sometimes I have problems trying to pick what to read.
MT: I just read through all of your books in one solid wind and am now ripping through Juliet Escoria’s books. You both bring to the page that mix of straight-up “this is who I am” and it’s hard not to believe the written word because it’s so relatable to my life and I get that it is as well for so many others after reading some of the reviews.
SM: Yeah, but those are characters too. I don’t think Juliet is anything like her books in real life. I mean she is. But that character she writes also really exists only in those stories. It’s weird: writers and their books that way. Because now that I think of it she is exactly like them, but she’s not too, if that makes any sense.
MT: We are always trying to read the writer into the book, I know. But a truly great writer is like an actor in that we forget they are acting.
SM: Yes. Exactly. I think about this a ton. I just read Thackery’s Barry Lyndon and we have this tradition in the 19th century of trying to tell people this is true. Jane Eyre is even subtitled an autobiography.
MT: I love it and that’s the beauty of getting lost in a book when the roar of outside and all the shit we’re setting up to do goes away and it’s just the story and us. And also, as a reader, I like to find myself in a book. Do you ever do that?
SM: Yeah we all do that I think. Flaubert makes fun of readers like us in Madame Bovary. He puts readers like that just below readers who are looking for a moral. Hah. Trying to find their experience in another experience. I guess I read now for the tricks.
MT: Have you read Tristram Shandy? Another beauty that brings us in to a story within no plot and I LOVE Sterne so much for that.
SM: Yes, that’s such an AMAZING book.
MT: And how difficult to do.
SM: Do you know the story about Sterne’s head?
MT: No. But, I need to now.
SM: No one knows where his skull is now. I guess when he died we were in the midst of bodies being stolen.
MT: A phrenologist must have grabbed it. I would have.
SM: An acquaintance of his who was a doctor recognized his face on a table of stolen bodies.
MT: Don’t you wish you could study a skull by its bumps and get something from it? Did the doctor grab it?
SM: I don’t believe he did. But they picked Sterne’s skull out of a bunch of skulls and put it back with his remains. I think that’s how the story goes. Poor Larry.
MT: [laughs] Poor Larry.
SM: Picked his skull out a year or so later from the lab where the grave robbers would sell the body parts. Yeah. I love all those 18th century guys.
MT: I used to read backwards. Start with the writer, say Poe, and then find the writer he mentions the most and then move from there. It was a happy three years in Montreal in a library every day. Have you ever spent days not talking to anyone?
SM: Oh of course. That’s the best way of reading. When I was 13 I found out about writers by reading a Jim Morrison biography.
MT: I believe we have a similar background in the self-taught arena. I hated school, but loved reading what I wanted. You didn’t get an MFA, did you?
SM: No. I didn’t. Never even took a creative writing class.
MT: Now that’s true grit. I’m not as brave as you are.
SM: It’s all there in the books. All the tricks, etc. You can get a public library card and do it for free.
MT: The best place and the only place where nothing is bought or sold and you can sleep all day if you want.
SM: Juliet has an MFA though. It worked for her.
MT: Yes. It sure did. DAMN! I love the interview you two did. Did you fall in love then?
SM: No it took a little while. Gian Ditrapano doesn’t even believe you pick a writer because of the book. You pick a writer because of the heart. A good book will come out of the vibe of a person. I sort of believe that too. Like Sterne.
MT: I get that from Clarice Lispector. All of her books, though. She is what I would call a philosopher, but all great writers are. Have you read her?
SM: Yeah I like Clarice Lispector. Think the stories more than the novels. That Benjamin Moser bio is pretty good too.
MT: Or Fernando Pessoa. I did get Carrere’s books. Working on Kingdom right now.
SM: Word to the wise: Don’t smoke in bed.
MT: I love the Moser bio. [laughs] Absolutely. Shit. And her friend had the premonition and called her, but I believe her son got her out. That was amazing.
SM: Yeah I really like Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet is Morrisey’s fav book too.
MT: I love him. I keep The Book of Disquiet with me at all times. Also Bruno Schulz’ Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.
SM: Yeah, I found Schulz from this series of Eastern European Writers that Roth helped edit. There’s a really great bio of Schulz too called The Great Heresy. I think that’s what it’s called.
MT: I have that and everything of his! Even a tattoo on my arm of him with the quote “reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks.”
SM: Oh man, that’s awesome.
MT: Have you had premonitory dreams?
SM: I don’t really believe in all that dream stuff to be honest. My grandma and my folks do though.
MT: Do you remember your dreams?
SM: Not anymore. Not really. For instance, last night I remember two dreams but that’s rare. In the first one I was at the beach with Julia and her dad and they were marking off a camping space for us to sleep. The second one I remember is this guy Kris at Talking Book. I was at a parade with him and his wife and their son took off running in traffic and I ran out and saved the kid. But they didn’t even say thank you.
MT: Dreams can be crazy amazing! I used to write them down but then had between seven and ten I remembered each night and never got any solid sleep. Well, maybe got too much REM.
SM: I like the post-modern dreams that people have. You know when a dream is meta. When you realize inside the dream that you’re dreaming.
MT: Love that. Have you flown in a dream?
SM: I’m on psych meds now so it’s more just like a nice black pit you fall into with sleep. Yeah, I fly and crash quite often.
MT: Can you control it sometimes?
SM: No. It seems like I like it. Like if I’m flying I’ll want to crash. Like I’ll will myself to fall.
MT: [laughs] I like that.
SM: I like the losing your stomach part of falling and crashing in a dream. It reminds me of roads on my way to my grandma’s. My dad was a master of speeding up and slowing down on hills to get you to lose your stomach.
MT: [laughs] Do you ever talk aloud in your sleep or walk?
SM: Yes I’ve done both. I wandered naked out of this woman’s apartment one time. And I said “fuck” in my sleep when I was in the 7th grade.
MT: [laughs] Beautiful. Where did you end up?
SM: In the hallway of her apartment building. I think I was only out there for a second. Then she came and got me.
MT: I would have loved to hear that you ended up at the Piggly Wiggly or something like that and needed to buy some licorice or tampons.
SM: No. We’d been drinking and taking pills all night and you know how that goes. When I said “fuck” in my sleep I got in trouble. My argument was [that] I was asleep but my mom said, “Well if you’re dreaming it then you’re thinking it.”
MT: Did you really live with your Grandma and Uncle Nathan?
SM: No. I mean I used to go and visit them sometimes. But no. Living with them made the story easier to tell.
MT: Great story telling. I did hospice work for a long time and had a few guys ask for me to pour booze into their feeding tubes. Did Uncle Nathan get his beer?
SM: Oh no. That wouldn’t have been allowed. It was a joke he said once though. Saying he wanted some.
SM: Yeah. He had mother issues. She was always watching him like a hawk. I don’t think he got to do much of anything he wanted to do. They were like an old married couple in many ways.
MT: Maybe I was a felon for giving the booze when they asked, but I thought if I had a feeding tube then I damn well better get what I want.
MT: You really portrayed that relationship well!
SM: I made up all that stuff for the book though. The majority of it. Their relationship is probably more interesting in the book than real life. Lots of sitting around. Lots of watching trucks passing on the road.
MT: But the beauty was in their companionship and fights. That’s how they showed their loyalty. I know many relationships like that.
SM: Oh yeah. Fights are good for books. There’s a John Ford story that if a movie is getting boring just have a stranger ride into town. Same with books. If the book is getting a bit slow just have them get in a fight.
MT: Yes. Do you still love Carrere and consider him the best or one of the best out there?
SM: I don’t think you see enough fights in fiction. Everything feels very Updike and Ford. Like people are mad but they never say it. In my experience people say it.
MT: Oh yes.
SM: I love Carrere and Javier Cercas. Sophie Calle is one of my favorites too.
MT: I’m putting them on my list.
SM: They’re showing a new path to jumbling all these forms together rather than more literary historical fiction. So tired of that shit.
MT: Have you read June Caldwell from Dublin, Ireland?
SM: No, I haven’t.
MT: Room Little Darker is kickass.
SM: Cool. I’ll check it out.
MT: Have you been listening to any new podcasts?
SM: I like this podcast. Best new literary podcast.
MT: Adding it. Thank you. Bud Smith, oh yes! I’m on it. Living inside a boiler.
SM: They’ll probably get a Nobel.
MT: Nice. Are you still thinking of doing a podcast with Juliet?
SM: Yeah, I am. I’ve just been so busy here recently. And our friend we used to live with moved to Charleston so we have some geographical issues to deal with.
MT: Do you have a publicist? Or do your publishers pay for you to travel?
SM: Yeah. Oh wait. Let me hunt up this other podcast quick. This is pretty amazing!
MT: How does all that come through?
SM: Yeah. Tyrant is good about the travel stuff. And also these book festivals are usually a good racket.
MT: The readings you mean? Nice! When are you going to read in NM? Not many come here. Would be so cool to have you and Juliet together.
SM: [laughs] I’d like to make it to NM. Usually people contact you or Fat Possum asked me where I wanted to go with this book. I’ve been kind of lazy about things though. I’m really burned out with readings. So I just did NY and Oxford, MS and Asheville, NC and the Decatur Book Fest and then next month I’m doing Chicago and St. Louis. Might try to do an LA date but that’s probably it for me.
MT: Collected Works is a great bookstore here in Santa Fe to read at and you and Juliet could stay at our house. We call it the compound. We have a 2000 square foot barn. How about music? I know I need to update my old lady music list. Any good ones?
SM: Listen to Fat White Family. Insecure Men will have an album out soon but it’s not out.
MT: Love the names. Look forward to it.
SM: Been listening to this crazy ‘60s singer Bobby Jameson. But you can only find his music on Youtube.
MT: Don’t know him, but love that you talked about Tom Jones as an artist.
SM: Yeah. You should listen to Robin Gibb’s first solo album, too.
MT: When my sister turned sixteen we chased her around the table singing “Well she’s a lady, wo wo wo wo, she’s a lady.” She’s a lesbian and beat the crap out of us later.
SM: Robin’s Reign is the name of it. [laughs] That’s funny.
MT: Spending time with you is damn fun. I can’t thank you enough for giving up the lawnmower for this back and forth.
SM: Oh, of course. It was fun. Thank you for asking me.
MT: Are you working on something now? Just a last question. I may send you some weird package again with corn nuts and Mountain Dew.
SM: Nope. Think I’ve given up writing.
MT: Bullshit. It’s in the blood, bloke.
SM: Nah. I’m done for a good long while. At least publishing. I’m sure I’ll get back to it. Writing anyway. But I’m kinda spent.
MT: Do you take periods off from writing, and then when it comes to you, get back on it in a frenzy?
SM: Yeah, sometimes. But it’s just getting to be a bit much for my nervous system to handle. Feel like I could write a really shitty historical novel if somebody gave me some more money. [laughs] So I’m just gonna step back for a bit. Maybe I’m just getting old. Don’t really have anything to say either. [laughs]
MT: You’re a storyteller! I see the podcast. A new venue for your blood.
SM: The worst thing to be in the world would be Joyce Carol Oates. That just seems like a nightmare career to have. Cranking out a book cause it’s what you do. Yeah, maybe. We’ll see.
MT: Or Stephen King.
SM: Yeah. People like money, though. I guess I do, too.
MT: And just want to end on the Bible. I tried to read that bastard over ten times and wanted to make it through from beginning to end, but you get me to numbers? Are you shitting me? SORRY! End of game. Although, I do love Job and Ecclesiastes and the new testament’s wild ride.
SM: Yeah. Numbers and Chronicles is like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon.
MT: [laughs] Thank you. Hope to meet you in real life someday. Sending Meg LOVE to you and Juliet! xoxo
SM: back atcha. Oh, and this is the best album of the past few years.
MT: On it. Thank you so much, Scott! You and Juliet always have a place to stay in Santa Fe.
SM: Thank ya. I’ll tell her.
Photograph in banner cited from: Tom Woodward (flickr)
Edited by Literary Ophans