YOU CAN CATCH SADNESS AND DEATH LIKE A FEVER:
An Interview with Scott McClanahan
Brian Alan Ellis
Scott McClanahan is an award-winning author from West Virginia best known for writing several autobiographical stories and novels, the most recent of which (The Sarah Book, out this month from Tyrant Books; Talking Book is doing the audio version) chronicles the unraveling of his previous marriage in devastatingly kinetic albeit humorous fashion. McClanahan also makes documentary films. He even recorded a folk/country single for Fat Possum Records, and has collaborated with artist Ricardo Cavolo on a graphic novel about Daniel Johnston, a singer/songwriter/artist struggling with mental illness. The dude also digs soap operas and has had guns pulled on him.
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS: First off, the Use Your Illusion II cover concept for The Sarah Book proof is sick. Who muscled that concept?
SCOTT McCLANAHAN: I think that was actually all Giancarlo [DiTrapano, of Tyrant Books].
BAE: Is it being used for the actual cover?
SM: It might change before the final version comes out. The Hill William cover started out as an Ozzy album (like Blizzard of Ozz, I think), but then we changed it before the advance copies went out. We also had an idea for The Sarah Book. We were going to do it like a Sweet Valley High cover but when Gian got on the phone with the guy who paints those, the guy couldn’t hear well, so we didn’t do that. We’re snobbish that way. Gian and I have perfect hearing.
BAE: Are you and Giancarlo anticipating a cease and desist via Axl Rose?
SM: I guess that’s every little boy’s dream though, right? To get sued by Axl. That’s what’s so refreshing about Tyrant Books—you can risk lawsuits like a bunch of pirates and nobody cares. I don’t even think we care about the book anymore. I think we just want to get sued.
BAE: I mentioned to you before that Guns N’ Roses was the first band I ever became obsessed with. When I was ten I remember putting a tape recorder up to the TV and recording the audio of the “You Could Be Mine” music video. My best friend and I eventually got the Use Your Illusion albums—I got the blue one, he got the red one—and the song “Get in the Ring” was the most bad-ass shit we’d ever heard in our shitty little lives up till that point. Were you a Guns fan growing up, and if not, what bands/artists did you listen to back then?
SM: I listened to my mom’s music primarily as a kid. Big Band music: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey’s band. My mom was a strange child. Pretty much the only contemporary group she liked were the Carpenters, which I still love as well.
BAE: My mom was more into the visual aspect of music, which meant she went nuts over artists like Prince and David Bowie and Boy George because their looks were so bombastic. She didn’t own albums or cassettes but she’d watch the shit out of Purple Rain, which is probably why the visual aesthetic of music is so important to me. Maybe it explains how and why I got so into KISS and professional wrestling. Still, what was the first cassette/CD you remember playing the shit out of?
SM: My actual first tape purchase, with my own money, was Appetite for Destruction. I was in the 4th grade. I boughtAppetite and Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl on the same day.
BAE: Mystery Girl is a great fucking album. The soundtrack to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was the first cassette I ever owned. Appetite was the second.
SM: I was a religious little boy and thought Guns N’ Roses were nothing but sinners and going to hell. I used to fast forward through “It’s so Easy” so I wouldn’t have to hear the word “fuck.” I saw them drunk on the American Music Awards and I was totally appalled by their behavior. Julia [Scott’s wife/author Juliet Escoria/Axl Rose super fan] and I talk about this all the time. The musical heroes of our generation were getting arrested for spousal abuse, blowing their heads off with shotguns, and the biggest pop star of our time was probably molesting little kids. How can you even explain this in the bland, boring world of today?
BAE: I gravitated towards the heavier music as a kid, the bad behavior stuff, probably because I lived in a trailer park and was allowed to rent slasher/horror movies, so stuff about the devil and murder and fucking appealed to me in a fantastical way. I think the biggest influence that kind of music ever left on me, besides a slight rebellious nature, was a pension for showmanship, meaning I never blew anyone’s face off with a shotgun but I’d spend a lot of time getting the rips on my sleeveless Aerosmith shirts to look just right…. Speaking of music, what’s up with your folk/country duo, Holler Boys?
SM: We have a whole new album ready. We did it with a real producer this time. Clay Jones. We’re going to try and get it out this year.
BAE: Killer. Earlier you mentioned Ozzy, who I love. Are you a fan of the Ozzman?
SM: I could take or leave Ozzy. Sabbath and Ozzy make me think of the rednecks I grew up with. Imagine trying to have a conversation with these guys when you’re a kid who says stuff like, “Karen Carpenter’s voice is so beautiful, guys.” I could watch Ozzy’s Behind the Music all day long though.
BAE: Behind the Music may have been the greatest show of all time. Besides maybe Unsolved Mysteries, or Married with Children.
SM: See, I was against Married with Children too. Nothing but bad behavior and sin. Unsolved Mysteries was my show though, until I started having emotional/pissing-the-bed problems because it made me so scared. And my mom had to sleep with me at night until the end of 6th grade. Thanks, Unsolved Mysteries.
BAE: Yeah, Unsolved Mysteries was scary as fuck. That music, man. They should do a Behind the Music episode about theUnsolved Mysteries theme music.
SM: Julia and I have been watching them again on Amazon and we were trying to figure out the elements of why it was so scary. We talked about [Robert] Stack’s voice and the music, but I think we settled on the silences. It’s sort of a quiet show in comparison to today’s Investigation Discovery type shows. Makes it even creepier, and then also the recreations are sort of fragmented and badly done. For me as a child it was always the composite drawings.
BAE: I recently got introduced to that television show Snapped. Also very disturbing. The voice-over narrative is unsettling because it sounds like it’s coming from someone’s GPS, like it’s very cold and monotone.
SM: Yeah, we’ve watched a ton of those too. Something boring about the murders that just involve people in relationships though, I think. There are some great episodes of this show A Crime to Remember. Something about the elements of crimes happening in the distant past make them creepier.
BAE: A Crime to Remember sounds like a very sentimental title, like the show would air on the Hallmark channel or something.
SM: Yeah, it’s a pulpy soap opera title for sure. But I love soap operas.
BAE: Yeah, I think melodrama is underrated. Like, I don’t think soap operas, or even shows like Degrassi, are very different from films made by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder or even Douglas Sirk. Hyper-reality on TV is considered trash whereas in film it’s considered high art.
SM: Exactly. I agree totally. The visual elements perhaps, but in terms of the DNA, nothing more than shitty pulp. But then that’s art, right? I mean the novel wasn’t too far removed from pornography in the public’s eye in the early 19th century.
BAE: Do you think soap operas had any influence on the documentary-like films you’ve made for Holler Presents?
SM: Hah. No, I think those Holler Presents films were more about watching a ton of Maysles Brother docs/Ken Russell BBC docs/Ross McElwee. But those films taken to the nth degree. Like, can you take an ordinary person who is very boring on the surface and make them interesting? Maybe the talking head elements that are there. Maybe. That’s a big no-no aesthetically with docs now. But as John Ford said, there’s only one thing to shoot. The most dramatic landscape in the world. The human face.
BAE: What about the influence of the crime shows we’ve discussed?
SM: I think Unsolved Mysteries had to have influenced my writing. The best of them are sort of perfect 15-minute short stories.
BAE: Have you written, or even considered writing, a play, or maybe even something for film or television?
SM: Yeah, I’ve done screenplays and plays, but I don’t think I’ve ever understood how to do it. Feels like a different set of skills. Sort of mathematical almost.
BAE: I wrote plays about ten years ago but I didn’t know how to get them produced so I just turned them into short stories. Math sucks.
SM: I’m sort of sick of all the writers who seem like they’re writing so that one day they can write a shitty TV show. I guess it’s about money. But I think most writers don’t want to be writers. They just want to be rich. TV appears to be the quickest way to do that now. You can almost hear the TV or movie pitch in most of the novels I read today.
BAE: I assume it was hard enough writing and then publishing The Sarah Book, which is a based on your previous marriage, but what if the book was optioned to be made into a film? I feel it would probably put you in a stressful situation, but would you potentially be on board, or do you have no interest in that whatsoever, regardless of the money you may be offered?
SM: Oh, no, I’d take the money in a second. I’m not saying that. I’m pretty stupid but not that stupid. I’m a hypocrite just like anybody else, but I just think books and movies and TV have nothing to do with each another.
BAE: If they were to do The Sarah Book into a film, what actors and actresses do you envision playing the principle characters?
SM: Oh god. Hah. I don’t even think that way. I’d just cash the check and keep my mouth shut. I really can’t think of one great film that was a book. It’s like asking trumpet players to paint a mural. Guess Jim Thompson was a pretty great novelist and a great screenwriter. There aren’t many, though. [Pier Paolo] Pasolini maybe.
BAE: The Last Picture Show comes to mind. It’s not common, though. That’s for sure. Unless of course Revenge of the Nerdswas originally a book.
SM: Yeah, I guess [Larry] McMurtry is another. But maybe it’s the pairing that does it. Maybe Thompson isn’t that great without Kubrick, or McMurtry without [Peter] Bogdanovich. I could still picture those filmmakers making those films even without the help of the novelist/screenwriter. I met McMurtry once in Archer City Texas one time. He was very grumpy. Wonder if McMurtry ever saw Revenge of the Nerds…. Supposedly [Terrence] Malick loves Zoolander.
BAE: I like when smart, talented people lighten up. Like, I’m pretty sure Pauline Kael gave Pluto Nash a good review.
SM: Yeah, the great critics always love curve balls. Richard Brody thinks Eddie Murphy is an auteur. Norbit is one of his favorite films. I think Step Brothers is a great American film, for sure. Nacho Libre too.
BAE: Do you and Julia hit the AMC ever?
SM: Oh god we’re watching movies all the time.
BAE: What are some of the best you’ve seen this year?
SM: Over the last six months we’ve streamed Justin Kelly’s King Cobra, American Honey, The Love Witch, Silence, Weiner-Dog…. Actually, one of the best movies of last year was one called Little Sister by Zach Clark. My favorite movie of last year though was Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog.
BAE: Oh shit, I still need to see Weiner-Dog and that new Paul Schrader. I haven’t kept up with newer movies as much I used to. I just watched that movie Airheads again—the one where Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi and Encino Man are in a band and they hold a radio station hostage until they can get their demo played. White Zombie is in it, and so is Chris Farley. A bunch of people, actually. 5/5. Highly recommend.
SM: I have FilmStruck so I’m always watching old-ass art movies. Saw a bunch of great children’s films last year ’cause I have kids. I only go to the movies now with them…. Oh, I really loved Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women… Paterson is the best movie [Jim] Jarmusch has made, too… The Handmaiden was great…. Okay, I need to shut up…. Movies are like books. Too many of them to just list one or two…. Oh, and I re-watch the OJ doc about every other month now.
BAE: The OJ doc was incredible. Also, I didn’t even know there was a new Jim Jarmusch… Damn. Are you into Hal Hartley?Ned Rifle was really good. It’s the last in the Henry Fool trilogy.
SM: Yeah, I really loved Ned Rifle. Wish Hartley would make more films. But that’s the world now, I guess.
BAE: For real. Trust is so good. I’ve seen a lot of them. Though I haven’t seen Amateur.
SM: Good old Isabelle Huppert. She can do anything.
BAE: Switching topics real quick. You wrote a really great story in one of your books about an experience you had teaching in a prison. Do you still do that kind of teaching or do you just teach in schools now?
SM: It was a program where we taught college classes in the prison. I just got real spooked by the place—it had nothing to do with the guys in there. They were great. Most electric audience in the world and probably pound for pound the sharpest guys I’ve ever encountered. Prisons are something else though. I think you can catch sadness and death like a fever. So it’s best to stay away from walls where it’s all over. So, yeah, I just teach my regular classes now.
BAE: So it just became too much?
SM: I stopped because it was a pain to get in and out of the prison. And once you were inside you were inside for a while until someone in education could escort you out. One day the woman who worked in education was taking me back and it was raining. She put her coat up over her head so she wouldn’t get wet and then sirens started. A voice over the loudspeaker said, “Remove your jacket!” I could see a rifle trained on us from the tower. I guess putting your jacket on your head was a big no-no. It had just slipped her mind.
BAE: Holy shit that’s nuts…
SM: I guess they thought someone had taken me hostage and was posing as someone in the education wing. I never figured out what happened, but I watched her get her ass chewed for about ten minutes by a guard.
BAE: Was that the only time you’d ever had a gun pulled on you?
SM: No. Once when I slowed down to 25 on a 55 mph road and these redneck guys took offense. The guy in the passenger seat (as they were passing me) just flashed it at me, but it was def. pointed my way. Then, when I was in the 8th grade, this older kid, Randy (he was probably 17 and still in the 9th grade), was on the playground after school and he kept pointing this bb gun at us and telling us he was going to shoot us. It turned out it was a 22. He later helped murder a lady in town. Not help. He was just the look-out guy for the robbery that went bad but he was convicted under the felony murder rule.
SM: Guns are so stupid. I saw my dad chew my friend’s ass for pointing a bb gun my way. It was a real bb gun. He later shot and killed a co-worker accidentally at a sporting goods store they worked at. Pointing a gun and thinking it was unloaded shit. People just fall into the stupidest fucking habits. My bus driver shot and killed his grandson accidentally doing the same thing.
BAE: I’ve never had a gun pulled on me but I did have a neighbor who blew his head off with a shotgun. He was a really nice guy who kept to himself. Didn’t hear the gun go off. I wasn’t even there when they discovered the body. I only caught on about his death when his mail piled up and people started leaving flowers on his door. That’s when I knew for sure.
SM: Guns are just allowing chaos into your life. I want no part of them.
BAE: It’s a scary fucked world. You must lose lots of sleep thinking about the kind of garbage your kids will have to navigate through while they grow up, so, like, do you think there is hope for a better world or nah?
SM: Every generation thinks it’s the end times. Every generation thinks they have it worse than anyone else. Which is hilarious. If you make 25k a year you are part of the world’s richest. I’d sure as hell have the problems of today than the problems of the 6th century or the 12th century or the problems of one hundred years ago.
BAE: So how does Scott McClanahan cope with life?
SM: I don’t know the last thing about coping with life. I see my friends on Facebook and Twitter who seemed to have figured out everything for everybody. And on top of that, they want to tell you about it. Maybe you should ask them. I’m sure they can write you entire essays about it.
BAE: Nah, I’m good. But now that The Sarah Book is done, what’s next?
SM: I’m going to disappear for about ten years. I’ll keep writing, but no more publishing for a bit. I want to write a big-ass book called Vandalia. But it was one of the original titles Gian came up with for Hill William. I don’t know what the title means yet, but I’m going to find out. In the meantime I’m just waiting for Juliet Escoria’s book, Juliet the Maniac, to come out. I know a mega book when I read one and it’s a mega book. Yeah. It’s amazing. Like really. No bullshit. Hopefully, it’s going to destroy a lot of what’s left of that dying dinosaur we call lit culture.
Scott McClanahan is the author of Hill William, Crapalachia, and other critically-acclaimed books. He lives in West Virginia and likes chicken wings and beer and cheese. For more McClanahan, visit hollerpresents.com.
Brian Alan Ellis is the author of several books, most recently a story collection, Failure Pie in a Sadness Face, and a novel,Something to Do with Self-Hate. He lives in Florida.