Interview: Scott McClanahan Author of Crapalachia: A Biography of Place

Shelf Unbound: Your fiction reads like nonfiction. Your nonfiction reads like fiction. Both read like truth. Do you give any thought to these labels when you are writing?

Scott McClanahan: Hardly ever. I’m usually thinking more about stuff like this: There is a storm out at sea. A sailor asks the captain of the ship. “Captain, how often does a ship like this sink?”

The captain pauses and says, “JUST ONCE.”

 Or maybe it’s more like when the writer is asked by the family member, “What is your book about?” The writer answers, “It’s about 160 pages long.”

These feel like little pieces of Zen wisdom to me.  I could spend hours thinking about them.

Shelf: In your Collected Works Vol. 1, released last year, an old abused dog commits suicide by running headlong into a coal truck In Crapalachia, you write about the coal miners killed in the Sago Mine tragedy. You reference John Henry. The hard-toiling, hard-suffering common man (or dog) transcends the crush of the world through an act of dignity, and is remembered for it. Crapalachia is largely an homage to your Grandmother Ruby and your Uncle Nathan, who suffered from Cerebral Palsy and couldn’t walk or speak, and to your OCD friend Bill, an earnest soul who ends up going wrong. Was it important to you that the reader see the dignity in these characters?

McClanahan: Did you know that Erroll Flynn’s friends kidnapped his body after he died? They snuck it out of the funeral home one night and took it out to a party. They sat him up at the table and let him play some cards and then they opened up his rigor mortis mouth and let him drink some gin. They put a lit cigar in his mouth and almost caught him on fire. They even had some party girls sit on his lap. Of course, they didn’t return his body until dawn, but dead Errol had one last great fucking time in his flesh. I don’t know if that’s dignified or not, but it seems to me like it is.  I don’t think dignity is a word that I really understand though. The shroud awaits us all. The evacuation of our bowels happens to everyone including Helen of Troy.

I guess it’s kind of like that scene from the Heller novel Catch-22. The young soldier is talking to the old Italian man. The old man is explaining his political principles. He says when the fascists were in power he was pro-facist. When the Germans came he was pro-German and now that the Americans are here he is pro-American. The young soldier says, “Well you’re without principles then. It’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees.” 

The old man stops him. He says, “No. It’s better to live on your knees than to die on your feet.” Then he says: “How do I know? Because I am 108 years old.”

Shelf: You write of your Uncle Nathan, “You’ll never know just how sweet he was. You’ll never know how alive he was.” Yet after reading this book I think I do know. Is that possible?

McClanahan: Nope.  

Shelf: The subtitle of Crapalachia is “A Biography of Place.” It is, of
course, that. But at the end, you write, “I wanted to write a book about all the people I knew and loved before I forgot them, but I see that my book is something else now … I see that I have been praying this prayer … 
Please tell me I existed … .” So is this very close and tender
examination of the lives of your people the cause of or the result of your existentialist thinking?

McClanahan: I’m not sure. I just wanted to see if I could resurrect the dead. I found out you couldn’t, but I think we need to get back to a place where writing is more like a spell, or a chant, or an amulet of some sort. Besides, the dead would probably be pissed anyway if we brought them back.  

I mean most of this stuff we do now came out of fertility cults, rituals, prayers to lead you through the underworld like the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

 I’ve just always been bothered by things. I mean bothered to the point I can barely function at times. One of my earliest memories is of this wild rabbit that got caught in a chain-linked fence behind our house. I was only four or five and the more it would fight to get free, the more it started to rip itself apart.

I feel like that rabbit sometimes. I’m trying to get free, but my hide is coming off because of it.

Shelf: You’re in a singing group called The Holler Boys. Did you by chance write the line “We all have hell and glory down in our hearts” in the song “I’ve Got the Sins!”? It sounds like it could be another tagline for Crapalachia.

McClanahan: Nope, that is my Holler Presents partner Chris Oxley. This is his picture: You can tell by this picture that he’s a genius. We got kicked out of Kohl’s last night because we were up to some no good shenanigans. We’re living together now because my wife divorced me and his wife kicked him out of the house.

We tell each other this before we go to work. “Don’t die today. Don’t die.” It’s the only mantra I trust anymore.

Shelf: We’ve got a dog theme going in this issue. Your long list of things you’ve loved includes Samantha the dog, Nanook the dog, Midget the dog, and Buddy the dog. In your setting-the-record-straight appendix, you say, “I wouldn’t put Midget the dog on the list of things I’ve loved anymore. I really hated that fucking dog.” What’s the story there?

McClanahan: She was a mean ass Chihuahua spoiled by my Aunt Nell. She’d bite you all of the time, but she was so old she didn’t have any teeth left so it didn’t really hurt.  

One person I would add to that list who I forgot to put on there is my ex father in law Elonza Turner. He’s one of those great human beings who still has some wildness in him.  One morning Sarah was making up his bed and she found a giant chunk of cheese under the sheets. One night he woke up because he was hungry and he went to the freezer and ate some ice cream. He thought it tasted funny, but he kept eating it. The next morning he told Sarah, “Sarah, I think you need to throw out that ice cream. I think it has freezer burn.” Of course, he didn’t realize that he had eaten doggie ice cream. He’s a wild ass peacock. We need more wild ass peacocks in this life. 

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