Interview: Scott McClanahan’s Bell Bottoms (and Stories, too)

jmww editor Jen Michalski talks with writer Scott McClanahan about his latest collection, Stories II (Six Gallery Press, 2009), communion crackers, men named Issac, and bell bottoms. Scott may or may not have been wearing bell bottoms during this interview, but the best description of what they looked like (add your thoughts in the comments) wins you a copy of Stories II. Have at it! (And read the interview below:)

Jen Michalski: There’s a lot to like about Stories II–there’s an atmosphere of place, or people, in West Virginia that pervades throughout rather than it being a collection of unrelated stories. Yet it’s not a novel in stories–it’s more a patchwork of anecdotes dispersed with a few traditionally structured stories, all of which are very conversational in tone. Did you plan Stories this way deliberately, or did it just sort of happen?

Scott McClanahan: Yeah, I planned it that way. I think anecdotes are future of writing really. It’s either anecdotes or public service announcements. For instance, I never realized what a problem pet suicide was until I wrote the story “Hernia Dog.” It’s about a dog I knew who committed suicide a couple of years ago. I think it’s time for people to wake up and realize what’s happening in this world. I just stopped a cat from trying to set itself on fire this morning. Weird.

JM: You start off with a wicked little story, “Kidney Stones,” about a guy who discovers he has kidney stones on the way to work. The ending is so unexpected, and it evokes this sort of revivalist feeling, that the book you’re going to read is full of God and wonder and dirt and redemption.

SM: Dirt is one of the greatest things in the world if you ask me. Dirt is the only essential element in my view.

I have all kinds of stories about god though. When I was a kid I used to go to church all of the time. We were Church of Christ and took communion every Sunday in order to be forgiven of our sins from the past week. That’s what communion was all about.

I really hated going to church though. I mean I hated it. So I found a loophole. I snuck into the back room where they kept the communion juice and crackers. I drank a whole bottle of the communion juice and ate a whole package of crackers. It was like 30 years of communion at one time.

I don’t think I’ll have to go back to church again until I’m like 50.

JM: Do you have a favorite story in II? Mine are “Hernia Dog” and “The Prisoners,” and “Suicide Notes.”

SM: I could give you that horrible, clichéd answer of they’re all my children, but I won’t. They’re all like children, yes, but they’re more like mentally retarded children. You may have made them, but after they rub shit in their hair at the family reunion—you are slightly embarrassed and looking for a place to drop them off.

JM: I hope my stories never have such a faux pas the second or third time around! Of course, sometimes it does seem that way to me, too, after I’m come back to them months or years later. But your stories are different in that a lot of them, if not all, are narrated by a man named Scott McClanahan, who has a wife named Sarah. Your name is Scott, and your wife is Sarah. Are the stories in Stories II autobiographical, or are you just playing with the reader’s expectations of intimacy?

SM: No. There’s nothing meta about it really. I just want to become a book. I’m not being ironic here. Honestly.

One of my favorite lines is from Cocteau’s Diary of an Unknown Man, where he says, “There is a whole difference between a book which is only a book and THIS book which is a person turned into a book.” That’s what I want. My arms are already turning into paper right now. I want my books to be as functional as flesh–like some sort of communion almost, which is what reading is, or at least what reading used to be.

I think the only rule is never bore people. So let’s move onto the next question.

JM: I love it. The whole conversational tone, the eccentric townspeople–Stories II reminds me a little of John Kennedy O’Toole’s first novel, Neon Bible. Are you influenced by a particular writer or do you just do what feels comfortable, ie, tell a story?

SM: I’m pretty much against books as artifice and the idea of the writer. I mean most of the “living” ones I know are like Bob Barker’s. Instead of wanting you to spay and neuter your pets, they want you to spay and neuter your life. Even the so-called indie writing world has so many people plopping down rules on what you can and can’t do. It’s worse than accountants.

These people are bell bottoms to me.

I guess I’m really just bored of what is being sold to me as “new.” It’s not really new at all—just dumb French language theory that was stale even back in 1973. I hear writers all the time talking about someone trying to do something “new.” It’s like saying, “I’m interested in a new way of breathing. I’m interested in a new way of expelling my human waste.” Listen up folks: I HAVE FOUND A NEW WAY TO WALK. Blah.

Give me a break. There’s nothing new under the sun. You can find the entire concepts of modernism and post modernism and post-post modernism in The Old Testament if you ask me.

There’s so much FREEDOM in knowing that.

If pressed, though, I would say my influences include John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Boswell’s Journals, Thomas De Quincy and his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Gorki’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev, the diaries of Anais Nin, Issac Singer, Issac Babel, Isak Dinesen.

I really like writers who go by the name Isaac. I think I might change my name to Issac.

JM: So, Issac McClanahan, how is it to work with Six Gallery Press? They’ve got such a great stable of authors—Karen Lillis, Jason Jordan, fellow West Virginian Che Elias.

SM: If I had to describe Six Gallery Press, I’d probably say it’s like trying to eat a delicious bowl of soup with a fork.

Karen Lillis though is a literary knight if you ask me though. She’s like the Ezra Pound of Pittsburgh. By that I mean she’s always kind towards other writers, always supportive and encouraging, always full of solid practical advice. Hopefully, she won’t start broadcasting radio announcements about how great Mussolini is though. Her story “People I Know in Pittsburgh” is one of my favorites.

JM: What are you reading now?

SM: I just finished a great book by a British journalist called Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed.

Here are a few of my notes concerning the Oliver Reed sections:

It was his first day on the set of the musical Oliver, and by noon every child actor had to be sent home because they were completely belligerent and passing out in the middle of takes. Little did they know, but Reed had spiked their kiddie lemonade bowl that very morning with two bottles of vodka. Also, Reed died on the set of Gladiator after arm wrestling 18 German sailors.

I want to die a death like that someday. Wow.

JM: How long did it take to get all the stories together? What do you imagine will be in Stories III?

SM: Stories III will never exist. I’ve actually decided to skip Stories III entirely and move right on to Stories V. Only a title like Stories V can truly contain the immensity of the next batch of stories. Actually, I write a new book about every two to three months. Honestly. The whole modernist impulse of taking 14 years or even 2 years to complete something is ridiculous to me.

My new book is a novel/autobiography called Hillbilly. The great renaissance artist/sculptor/writer/courtier Benvenuto Cellini said a man shouldn’t think about writing his autobiography until the age of 40. I’ve never followed directions very well so I wrote mine when I was 25.


8 responses to “Interview: Scott McClanahan’s Bell Bottoms (and Stories, too)

  1. His bellbottoms are blue, with great doodads on them, and swirly doo-hickeys, and pink purpley things, and velvet thingies, and great balls of Johnsons, including Magic Johnson and Wilma Johnson, who was not a famous Olympic track star but her name sounds like she might have been. Etc.


  2. No way, no how, was Scott wearing bell bottoms during the interview. He was wearing a light colored suit and darker slacks and some kind of regular men’s lace-up shoes and the pants were from the VFW store. Scott dresses up for readings and interviews. The pants belonged to a man who has been dead for at least 14 years.


  3. Each leg of his bellbottoms cut through the confetti and the dandelion fluff like cake knives; the edges were so sharp they whistled in the wind from the west, and ululated in the wind from the east. The bellbottoms moved fast, leaving indigo eiditic images on the walls, and ghosts of lanky dancers high on speed in the ’70s.


  4. I loved Scott’s first book and am looking forward to Stories II.

    I could be wrong, but I think he was wearing a sequined robe with a large feather boa. It’s an homage to the time his dad took him to see Ric Flair wrestle Ricky Steamboat at the Beckley Armory. “Wooh!”


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