Scott McClanahan is a hot mess
Sex icon and he doesn't even know it
Scott McClanahan is a hot mess. He subscribed to this newsletter, but doesn’t remember how he discovered it. “I’m one of those people that searches through the tweets of my friends, even though I’m not on twitter,” he tells me in mid August. He’s on Instagram, his sole post a photo of a carpet. He’s a rare beast of a writer who’s relentlessly referenced as an influence and receives write-ups in Rolling Stone and Dazed.
In an interview with 3:AM Magazine he said that “there is no such thing as good writers or bad writers - only writers you want to sleep with.” I was planning on playing rapid fire with him, fuck or not fuck edition, to see which authors he’d bang and which he wouldn’t but got too carried away during our discussion that I forgot about it. In the same interview, he pulled a Lindsay Lohan by stating, “I’m not a writer, I’m just Scott McClanahan.” He remains as down to earth as ever but now comes with a significant amount of environmental concerns, betraying a sense of worry for the future. He’s also overflowing with romanticism.
He has a calm demeanour and an infectious laugh. We spoke about The Sarah Book, a true 21st century masterpiece, over Zoom. He spent the entire interview asking if he answered the question. He was also floored to find out that gay guys find him hot. If I’d had a shot every time he said “my wife” I’d be more wasted than the time I thought it a good idea to crawl across the Waterloo Bridge.
Scott McClanahan is a hot mess. He ordered a book based on my recommendation: “I love your Substack. I love anyone who loves Geoff Dyer. I love that it’s a mix and match where you’re talking about new stuff that’s out there. There's a writer you keep mentioning too that I haven't read yet. Rob Doyle? I put some of his books on my list because of your Substack…Threshold’s one of the ones I have in there, so I’ll get that.”
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Sarah Book follows the narrator, Scott McClanahan, as he fails to accept the disintegration of his marriage and the imminence of his divorce. Book Scott says he would have been different had he known how things would have turned out and that after the divorce, “there’s no new path, no revelation.” He also wishes people would “stop turning the page.” It doesn’t however sink in regret or nostalgia. Do you think those can be bad for fiction?
That book went through a lot of changes, a lot of different drafts. Gian and I lied about that book so much over the years that it’s hard to figure out or look back on it. I haven’t read it in years. The way that we frame stories today feels so false to me. So many novels that I read now feel like the author’s pitching for a TV show and you can immediately understand the motivation. The character oftentimes tells you what they want within the first couple of pages. Then you get to Chapter 2 and that’s the flashback, then you meet the narrator at the present in Chapter 3. In a long way of not answering your question, I think nostalgia and regret are important. They’re what our lives are swirling around. So, I was aware of that. And I think it was Tyrant Books’ trepidation in trying to publish The Sarah Book. Who wants to read this? This is stupid, right?
How deliberate were those choices?
Completely deliberate. That book was raked. That’s my editing process. I have this big manuscript and I start raking away and keep pulling back as much as I can. If you pull back from things as much as you can those emotions will still be there. The reader will still understand. Even the regret thing. He [Book Scott] is watching Tokyo Story. He’s miserable, drunk, watching foreign films by himself. The truth is, that’s not the way you would behave. Your wife dies, you’re only feeling that way because she’s gone. If she was back again, you’d be back to being human and finding new things to complain about and new things to disappoint you.
You mentioned the book went through several stages of editing. Have you ever read the final version from start to finish?
I did. I did the audiobook myself. So, I read it all the way through then and then I read it again a few years ago. I was having a little existential crisis in 2019, so I read all my work and I was like yeah I’m good!
Writers always say oh it could have been better. This is what I’d change. I was like no, these things are perfect. But all writers are different. I’m different. I always spend the last year [before finalising a manuscript] reading the book from start to finish. I go through it and I edit as I go along. When I get to the end I go through it again, reading it out loud, changing things. My wife just finished up a short story collection. She said, I’m at the end where I’m changing a couple of words here and there, then I’m changing them back the next day. I could do that for years. That’s not my endpoint. But maybe it would cause me a lot less pain and sorrow if it was my endpoint. You charge this language object with yourself, your spirit. It sounds new age-y but that’s the reason why great books are great books. Not that my book is, but that’s the reason why a Tolstoy or Proust [is a great book]. Those fucking things are charged with them. You can tell at the end that it was an extension of themselves. They may even have believed that the extension of themselves was more real than what they were and the flesh earth-suit they were inhabiting.
What brought on the existential crisis you referred to earlier?
A new book. It’s a similar process to marriages and divorces and breakups. I’m sure you’ve had breakups. Being a writer is like that every two years. You have to break up with that last book and talk a lot of shit about that last book, so you can move on to the next one, to the new one that’s exciting at that point. I was feeling stuck. Most writing questions are spiritual questions. They’re about your soul, about how you view the world, so that was what I was facing. I spent all these years trying to create this first person voice. The Sarah Book taught me that by the end Scott’s no longer Scott. He’s putting on another person’s clothes, putting on make up. He’s someone else. I can barely read first person fiction now. It used to be the opposite.
Are you over them because there’s been a massive explosion of these books in recent years?
Maybe. I think first person is difficult. When I was starting out it was the third person stuff that was hard. You’d see contemporaries who had written quality literary fiction with a capital L oh, they’re putting out a first person book that appears to be about their personal experiences. I’ve just always been out of time. I’m always coming into things backwards. Or sideways. That was what I was attempting in 2007 or 2008. Now the landscape is that and I haven’t been interested in it for years.
It might be the first person voice. I’ve got less Maoist in my reading. I had parameters, a way for me to burn half of a library down without having to worry about it. I could just concentrate on these particular books. I think I was a better reader when I was 22-23 than I was at 32-33 and writing the books I ended up writing. In the last two years, I feel like I’ve become young again. I don’t really read my contemporaries anymore. I still read friends’ books when they send them my way.
I went through a period about three years ago where I read Icelandic sagas. Their third person narrators are incredibly limited, they’re just describing the action of a character rather than entering into the character’s psychology. It almost feels like somebody’s listing down the events of a family or genealogy. I found the idea of why this is moving me on an emotional level rather than a first person narrator fascinating. It’s so easy to manipulate people [with a first person narrator] if you know how to do it. If you have a little bit of the con man. But it’s so difficult to do, it can go astray quickly.
I remember at the time the book was first published it was referred to as a ‘divorce book’. I’d describe it as a book about love and loss and being resilient as you go through the motions of loss. Sarah believes one thing, Scott believes something else. She has moved on, whereas he hasn’t. Do you think the reason Scott fails to move on is because he has failed to dream up a new story for himself?
Yes, exactly. Love and loss. But also storytelling. The way we narrate stories. Even within that book you have those weird third person sections that exist before Scott shows up. There’s this line from Proust, I think it’s from the first or the second book of In Search of Lost Time, where he says, all personality is social construction. It’s a phrase he has after a semicolon embedded within a sentence. I was fascinated by that idea when I was writing that book. We understand ourselves through others. If you remove that person that you understood yourself through, who are you? That was the tension I was interested in with that book. Oftentimes the way we construct our personalities is by telling stories about ourselves. I’ve told stories about Scott. It’s just a story that I created and latched onto rather than having any sort of reality to deal with. Scott was probably much more miserable, much more depressed. He probably wasn’t as manic. But there’s very few ways to make somebody who’s depressed interesting to a reader and to make it pop off the page and that’s someone who’s denying how depressed they are. That’s what I did with Scott.
As with the rest of your fiction, The Sarah Book is set in your home state West Virginia. How do you feel about it? Is this where you draw the surrealistic elements of your work from?
It’s been incredibly important to me, but places are only important because people are there. There’s a Michelangelo Antonioni quote, where he’s driving down an Italian road and there’s all these beautiful mountains. He’s with his beautiful wife or whoever and she’s like look at how beautiful the mountains are. He’s like they’re ugly and points to these abandoned factories and says they’re beautiful because people were there. I’ve always felt that way about West Virginia. The things that are happening in the rest of the world right now, such as environmental decline, West Virginia has been dealing with that for 100 years. There’s the George Bernard Shaw joke, where do you want to be when the world ends to which he responded Ireland, because we’re always 50 years behind the times. I’ve felt that way about West Virginia to an extent, but I’ve also felt this sort of foreshadowing of what’s to come for everyone else. People are now trapped in their little workspaces feeling incredibly claustrophobic. If you were working in the coal mines 100 years ago you knew that feeling.
Things still happen here, but I don’t know if I recognise them. It’s important that you have someone who recognises them. We came home a couple weekends ago and somebody had shot a bullet through our back window. It went through this room, which is where I write, past the bathroom over there and lodged in the doorframe. Something unusual is always happening. I called the cops and filed a police report. They were like yeah, somebody shot a bullet in your house. I’m thinking, what are you gonna do about it? He’s like, I don’t know, so I told him, the first thing I would do is follow the trajectory of the bullet. Go over to those houses and see if anybody shot a gun. We were gone Friday and Saturday night, that’s your timeframe. Things like that are always happening and I’m always aware of them. I’ve been worried though as I’m getting older about my capacity for stories. Sometimes I worry that I can’t even tell a story like I used to and I wonder, am I noticing things in the way that I once did? I believe I still am, but it’s one of my worries that I will lose that ability to recognise a story. I love the place. But I hate it too.
You’ve actually stuck with it too. You’re still there.
I am still there. I don’t know how long that will last. I always make the joke, it’s the dream for writers to just go off somewhere, win an award, get a better life. I don’t know. Could you imagine William Faulkner out of Mississippi? He decides he’ll move to New York. That’s so stupid, who would do that? He has all this universe surrounding him. There’s the story about Faulkner being invited to the White House. They called him in Mississippi, the President has invited you to the White House for dinner. Can we expect you? Faulkner just said no. I’m not gonna go all that distance just to have dinner with somebody. That’s how I feel about the rest of the world.
The book is punctured with photographs that have a disorienting effect. They slow down the narrative. Why did you choose to include these and why did you choose these sections of the book to include photographs in?
I don't know. This is the problem with writers. They try to sound intelligent about things that they weren't even thinking about. So much of this is instinctual.
I’ve always loved books with pictures. We have a long tradition of the novel that was illustrated. Would Charles Dickens be Charles Dickens without the illustrations? Probably not. And then there’s the Sebaldian idea and this newer tradition of putting pictures in books, which I love, like Ben Lerner. But now that you ask that question, yeah it’s fucking weird that those were the pictures I chose. There's the picture of me, where I'm doing, I think it's described as a double thumbs up, but in the picture it’s a single thumbs up. It’s not even connected to what’s being told to you in the text!
I had to fight for those pictures. There were a few more. The way that Gian and I worked was always, write something, get in a fight, don’t talk for a while, then get back to talking and then some parts would get trimmed and some would stay. He would allow something to happen for my sake and I would allow something to happen for his. I think he hated the pictures right up until the book’s publication. Because they were grainy. You can still see it though. It’s a bit blurry, so you have to look a bit closer, but the amateurishness of the photograph has a particular point within the book itself. I have all that Grover stuff at the end. I thought it was neat to turn this into a children’s book. So, you’re this little child and I’m reading to you in a way.
It's kind of fun to think back to those battles with the photographs. It’s what I feel being a music producer is like. We can play it this way and people will still accept it. You just have to trust yourself because it is your work. That’s what’s so shocking to me about the editing process with writers. I didn’t want to do this, but they said that I should do it. Your name’s on the book! It’s your ass out there on the line. Most fiction feels so fucking fake. It doesn’t feel like the person cares about it, it feels like the book contract is more important than the imaginative effect.
The book at times reads as a monologue to be performed in front of an audience. How much of that was based on your readings from back in the day?
I haven’t done readings for a long time, even before COVID. I was fucked up when I would do those readings and it wouldn’t be just the day of. I would be fucked up for a month before. I’d buy toy rings and marry the audience. One time I went around and put rings on everyone’s fingers and I did my magic trick that I got from a Jim Carroll book.
You start out with no one on your side. You just love these books, you love writing. That was how I could differentiate myself from every other person. I could stand in front of somebody because I believed in it an it was real to me. The stories from The Collected Works or even Crapalachia that was my routines or my acts. It was a performance. Weird. Me in front of an audience at some dumb poetry reading. I wanted the reader to have all these emotions. In a lot of fiction, you can close your eyes for a paragraph or two and it doesn’t matter. You’ll still pick up the story. With my stuff, if you miss a paragraph or two you can’t carry on.
The Berliner Ensemble are premiering Sarah Saturday night at the Bertold Brecht theatre. I’ll write something for them in 2022. It’s been strange working with Germans. My books have done well over there, which is strange. I’ve had books translated before, but nothing has ever been successful. For some reason though my work has done well in Germany.
Maybe it's the German search for a soul.
The Sarah Book doesn’t demonise Sarah but crucially it doesn’t romanticise her either. You couldn’t be accused of not writing women well. Among my favourite sentences is, “They went to parties and did mushrooms and fucked boys who had cars and boys who had jobs and they looked up into the sky together and talked about the boyfriends’ beautiful cocks, big beautiful cocks, and Sarah reached up and picked the stars and put them in her pocket still high on mushrooms.” You balanced the narrative between giving Sarah a voice, seeing things from her perspective, and prose through which readers can access how the narrator perceives her. How did you choose which scenes would fall under the former and which under the latter?
In some ways that was just chronology. It was gonna be a lot more of the third person stuff. It’s weird how books work because what I’m doing now with my mom book, it was the plan that I had for The Sarah Book. I begun writing it before we were divorced, so the first person story started to eat the third person story. Pre-Scott were the third person sections, the sections Scott didn’t have access to. Sarah would come home and tell me the craziest stories I’d ever heard in my life. That was just her daily life working as a nurse. I was dealing with the present divorce stuff but also reaching back to the past and had to try and balance those. The narrative had momentum cos I could always come back to that crazy Scott character.
I haven’t thought about that sentence. I married Julia as I was finishing the book. We were hanging out with her friends one night, walking around in New York, and those girls were talking about the beautiful cocks of their lives. They’re talking, I’m listening and observing like I typically do. I just found that fascinating, so I inserted it into The Sarah Book. So much of the Sarah stuff is from other relationships.
I don’t know if you know Emmanuel Carrère, but I read his book The Adversary and an interview with him from The Paris Review, where he was talking about the first person being more ethically true, that we all live these subjective realities. So, it is incredibly dishonest for Truman Capote to enter into the mind of Perry in In Cold Blood, it wouldn’t have been much truer if you got the story from his first person perspective. Of course. Emmanuel wrote a book about a serial killer from a first person perspective, so he’s built this philosophy in order to support his book. I was also thinking, I’m a huge James Boswell fan, huge Life of Samuel Johnson fan, that’s my Shakespeare. Was Samuel Johnson interesting? He seems like a bore after a few hours. Boswell is interesting. The little suck up, fame seeker, gossip monger, that’s who’s fascinating. He presents an autobiography of himself through this biography of another. So I was interested in that as an idea as I was working on the book.
You also balance the dramatic and the comedic in equal measure. One of the funniest scenes in the book is when Sarah mentions that people have all sorts of hallucinations but they’re always God or the devil, never a clerk at the local store. I thought that was brilliant. She also makes an observation on how the world is a hospital and everyone is trapped inside this hospital. How do we break out?
I don't think you do. I think we all leave the hospital in one way. One way that we have for momentary escape is stories. It's literature. It's to inspire. I don't mean necessarily to do good, the moral sort of concept for novels. But to have other people’s stories come out of a story. That’s how I think literature develops. Out of a reaction to a story. When I was 17-18 years old, I wanted to be a writer and I’d read about Ezra Pound or whoever and that was always the dream that you’re going to influence someone in the same way that you’ve been influenced and you’ll be forgotten eventually. 99% of writers are. But then someone else will be influenced and the story of the world will carry on. For our physical bodies, we’re only leaving the hospital in one way. Or maybe we won’t even make it to the hospital. Maybe the rising tides and the drought will get us. We’ll have this conversation in 2040 and see how we’re doing.
In Sarah, you mention that “we're only broken mirrors for one another” and that “we only exist in the stories of others,” but…
…I think it will be the very thing that we’ll do here in a few minutes when we got off this call. I’ll think, was this ok? Did I answer his questions right? Did he like me? You’ll do the same, I imagine. That’s the way that human beings interact. I’ll be going to sleep tonight and I’ll think to myself, fuck, why did I say that, I should have said this. Do you do that at all in your life?
All the time.
Exactly, I don't know if everyone does that though.
One of your questions that I want to get to…sometimes when I start talking about books I contextualise and I hate that, but when you asked about the movie he cries to…this is showing you how drunk I was. My friend and I went and saw Lincoln.
That's what you cried to?
I started crying in the first 30 minutes. It’s awful, right? I love Tony Kushner as a writer, but that's awful. Why did it get to me? Maybe it's all the drunk people that have helped Steven Spielberg to success. My friend stopped going to the movies with me because I would bring my little water bottle of gin and I would cry through Lincoln at all of Daniel Day Lewis’s speeches.
I haven't seen that movie, but that's not what I was expecting at all.
That's the movies we get in West Virgina. Killing Them Softly also got to me. There was something about the James Gandolfini character that made me weep. We saw two movies before he’d had enough and said no more. It was Lincoln on that Night of Apocalypse.
Early on in the book Scott and Sarah have a fight over his porn watching habits and there's a list of very impressive titles. How many of these have you been on yourself?
Probably not as many as on the list because I remember having to do a Google search to find all of these various websites. That was the time when websites existed, instead of the collective websites we’ve got now where all the videos are uploaded to. I was a big porn watcher. I don’t know if I am as much anymore.
I think people should go back to buying dirty magazines. That's more romantic.
Yeah and I can remember the reason why I put it in the book. I just found that fascinating, the sexual morays of 2012, where the person saying this is totally fine, this is totally normal that you enjoy these things, but I'm going to make you feel bad about the fact that you’re watching them. And of course, now, sexual shame is social media’s main business.
New age of Puritanism.
You would have never thought that would have happened in 2012, or that we would have come to this point collectively as a culture. My wife and I oftentimes talk about it. If I think back to my childhood, my teenage years, the things that were accepted as the realities of life…certain individuals would have never even made it to the point in time in which they could have been cancelled in today’s culture. We’re even a little past cancellation concepts. It’s weird the way that the culture changes within a few years.
Book Scott mentions that the students he teaches aren’t interested in literature in a real way. They just want to “talk about whether the characters were good people or bad people or whether the writer was a good person or a bad person.” Were the culture wars a reality on your campus when you were writing this?
That's the Scott of 2016 revising and placing the culture in his students. I sort of felt like literature’s ending, culture’s ending, it’s being replaced by something new and that this might be the last book and the last chance where an honest narrator is going to have an opportunity to perform in front of a readership. In reality, I think I’m starting to see my students catch up to that stuff now. They’re behind the time, which is what happens in West Virginia. All the fads, all the stuff that’s popular, you get them five years later. So that was me putting the social comment into my students’ lives. It was also a critique. What was the hippest thing in 2016? The Great Gatsby’s evil or whatever. Those people don’t care. You can’t even get them to have any sort of emotion towards a text.
We’re having this conversation, we think of this as antiseptic and modern, but these computers are attached to a hard drive somewhere which is attached to a network plugged in somewhere running off fossil fuels. Our cell phones that we’ve been emailing one another on have screens made out of a particular element that is mined, probably by children somewhere in Africa. I don’t know if we can grapple with those things anymore. It seems like the culture’s had a nervous breakdown over the reality of modern life.
You've been part of the indie scene. Your readings from back in the day have become mythic. You've influenced all sorts of writers. You've been profiled in the Rolling Stone. You've been called voice of your generation. You've got a huge gay fan base. How do you feel about it all?
Oh good, that's what I've always dreamed of to be honest with you. The people who make culture!
Someone I know described you as a sex icon.
I’ve gotten older though. I’m aging out of that unfortunately. Most of the pictures online reach up to about 2018.
It's so strange. You want all of these things and you feel like they’ll do something for you. I still feel as awful as I did when I was 28 or 18 or 11. I still feel as anxious. I'm a better person now and I've worked really hard on that. I'm a good husband now and I’m a good father and it took a long time because I was dealing with mental health stuff that I just didn't know about. You don't want to be that person where it's like oh, a Rolling Stone profile will make me feel great about myself. But I was that person to an extent. By the point in time when those things started happening, it was no longer as important to me as it once was. It’s like human being 101, you’ll continually be disappointed by whatever occurs. If you had told the 18 year old Scott who felt so alone and isolated, he’s discovering John Genet, but doesn’t have anybody who he can talk to about Genet or whomever, if you had told him the things that you just told me, it would have blown his fucking mind. And he wouldn't have believed it was true.
Now as an adult, I have these books translated in Germany. But I don’t know if they get it. I don’t know if they’re really seeing what I was trying to do. Never treasures on Earth, always treasures in heaven. Your heaven is the person sitting next to you or the person sitting in front of you and how you treat that person and how much you try to entertain that person with the stories that you tell. When you're a writer, and you probably know this too, you have to take a sword to that stuff and you have to keep trying to change and be different or you’ll get trapped. You have to shut the door on those things. That’s what The Sarah Book’s about. It's people projecting onto something that probably wasn't all that real to begin with or it was much smaller than you could imagine.
In 2012, when Tyrant Books and I were trying to put these books out, nobody cared. Thank you for saying those things that make me feel really good on a Friday afternoon.
We were hanging out with some of our friends, Megan Boyle and Jordan Castro, a few weeks ago and we were talking about how much we love to drink water. How disappointing must that be to a kid in NYC or somewhere else. They’re sitting around talking about drinking water? What has happened? It's like Wordsworth, the person who's gonna tear everything down. What does he wind up? He winds up a Conservative at the end of his life, receiving medals for poetry that he wrote when he was radical, when he was a younger person. That's the story of life and it's probably the story that has happened to me too.
Nico Walker was super kind with Cherry. Ocean Vuong has done me a world of good by saying that Crapalachia was an important book for him. Readerships are these little lanes and you're always trying to get into other lanes so that you can get more readers. Writers are nothing without readers, so it's been wonderful for me. You want your book to bounce up against these other books. So yeah, it means a lot to me. I love those writers. There’s nothing better than a young writer who emails you. You say thank you and they send another email with a story they’ve written. And no matter what you say, they’ll always be disappointed. Fuck you Scott McClanahan! I remember sending stories to poet Maggie Estep. She’s since passed away. I sent stories to JT Leroy before we found out who JT Leroy was and Laura was super kind. I’ve been on that same boat. You gotta get that shit out there, people need to read it. And that’s one of the ways that you do it. The history of literature is just a history of friends and other people who meet one another and say hey, check this out.
Does your agent know you agreed to an interview that will be titled Scott Mcclanahan is a hot mess?
Yeah, she wouldn’t care. But that’s because I don’t care.
Next up on Hot Mess: Gabriel Smith