I knew he believed in something that none of us ever do anymore. He believed in the nastiest word in the world. He believed in KINDNESS. Please tell me you remember kindness. Please tell me you remember kindness and joy, you cool motherfuckers.
― Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place
At some point in 2012, when the scales of my reading habits began tipping from “classic” authors to contemporary writers, I began regularly noticing the name Scott McClanahan on blogs and in my social media feeds. As a writer, I was interested in his style: using plain-spoken narration and characters to build a new mythology of small town America. As co-curator of Fireside Follies, a now defunct reading series, I was also interested in Scott’s performances, which were already considered legendary by those who had seen them.
I first met Scott in person in January of 2013, an hour before he was to read at Fireside Follies in the Bushwick bar/gallery Brooklyn Fire Proof. But he didn’t just read; he involved the audience, chanting and singing and passing out homemade peanut butter fudge. Months later, he returned to New York to read at Acme Studios in Williamsburg in support of his book Crapalachia, which was released earlier this year by Two Dollar Radio. Since then, McClanahan’s been working on a novel, The Sarah Book, recording songs and working as half of Holler Presents.
I recently chatted with Scott over instant message and asked him about vulnerability, love and how long you can wear a pair of jeans without washing them.
Eric Nelson: What makes you feel vulnerable?
Scott McClanahan: Everything, but mostly the truth. It's like the Oscar Wilde thing: "If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out." I was born with an honest face and a dishonest heart.
What about the line from Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know?"
Sounds like a bullshit artist who is suffering from TB. Writers are like actors. Truman Capote gave the best line about actors: Carson asked him if he said, "All actors are stupid." He said no; he said, "Only most actors are stupid." It goes the same for Keats. He should have spent more time making Fanny happy instead of coming up with lines like those. He should have had her, like he says in his letters when he's dying.
In your opinion, what exactly constitutes “a good man?”
It's like the baseball player Cool Papa Bell: A good man is a man who is so fast he can turn off the lights in his bedroom and be in bed before the lights go out. Writers with lupus don't understand that.
What about in terms of love? What makes a man a good lover besides knowing how to use the equipment?
Who knows? You tell me. We live our lives like fools. Jack Nicholson was interviewed by Life in the mid ‘70s and found out his mother wasn't his mother; his sister was his mother, and his mother was his grandmother. It was a secret to him that his family made up to protect him. All you can do is love the person you love or try to love them.
What do you think is more important: seduction or tenderness?
Both. Both. However, seduction and tenderness are locked together. When you think you're a seducer, it's probably a lie, and when you are finally being tender, it may actually be a seduction. It's like vegetarians: The true tragedy of that movement is they don't understand vegetables. A tomato is more alive than most cows. I can guarantee it. Lettuce is alive and feels our teeth; they just don't have the ability to express their pain or love or life. A cow has beautiful brown eyes, and therefore we feel connected to it. Ask a farmer. A potato is as alive as anything and enjoys the symphonies of Mahler as much as me. We just don't know how to understand it. Seduction and tenderness are the same in that sense.
Can I ask about West Virginia? … How is West Virginia different from the South?
Ugh. I don't even think the South is the South. Go to urban Atlanta, and you're going to find a very different world from what you expect. I was in Brooklyn early this year at a party. There were two guys from North Carolina, and they were making fun of me to my face about my accent. These were guys wearing Brooklyn uniforms ... They looked like fucking Harvey Pekar. So I don't think geography really exists anymore. There are just dicks and non-dicks. Sadly, the numbers of non-dicks are decreasing rapidly.
When was the first time you left your home state?
Oh shit. Who knows? When I was a month old, I went to Texas. Some people haven't been out of New York in their entire lives though, and I fucking love New York with all my heart because I can smell the dollars there. You can be a genius anywhere, but only geniuses like myself know this.
How are you assured you're a genius?
That I don't answer questions about it! Also, my momma told me. I hope my momma wouldn't lie to me about it, but who knows.
I worked with a girl years ago. I always thought, “She looks like she has the jawline of the pro wrestler Sergeant Slaughter." One day when she was off, another of my co-workers said, "Did you know that her dad is the wrestler Sergeant Slaughter?" It was true. So it's something like that: When you have the jawline of a great man, you try not to question that jawline. She was a great girl, by the way. With a great jawline.
I read a story that your grandfather was arrested for hitting a police officer, and then I saw the documentary Dancing Outlaw, where you have Jesco White in Boone County. What's the appeal of the outlaw as a figure in American culture?
Outlaws just wind up dead. Jesco is nothing more than a drug addict people have used and exploited. That's all. I'm not a genius; I'm just a man who was molested when he was a kid and who lives in a shitty apartment now and doesn't get to see his kids as much as he would like, and I'm going to get it just like everybody else is going to get it.
I smoked pot with Jesco's sister once in a parking lot in Huntington, WV. She was just a very fucked up, sad person like the rest. Most people aren't outlaws; they're just disappointed. Think of Hitler: He was just a disappointed artist. Think of the lives that would have been saved if someone would have bought one of his watercolors.
I have no clue about outlaws. I wish I could remember what it felt like to wake up in the morning with the heart of a child.
Is that feeling universal? Isn't that something everyone can relate to?
Of course — at least I hope it is. When I've looked into your eyes, you've made me feel this way.
That was a while ago, but hopefully it won't be long before we can physically see each other eye to eye again. I have one more question for you.
How long should a man wear a pair of jeans before washing them?
Oh god. I've went weeks. Sadly, my mother does my laundry again. After being married for almost a decade, you don't realize how much you still need your mother. I hope she knows how much I love her and how amazing she is. This is the woman who showed me Hitchcock's Vertigo for the first time.
In terms of jeans though, you can go three weeks before the fibers start breaking down. However, I'll leave you with Wilde again. He said, "All art is quite useless. It is only through disobedience that progress is made — disobedience and rebellion and unwashed jeans." And Wilde was a man who loved a pair of dirty jeans.
Eric Nelson is a fiction writer and critic living in Queens. He is the author of The Walt Whitman House and The Silk City Series. His E.P. of recorded stories, They Make a Wasteland, They Call It Pastiche, is out from Diabetic Koala.
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