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SCOTT MCCLANAHAN INTERVIEW

Scott McClanahan is the author of The Sarah Book, The Incantations Of Daniel Johnston, Hill William, Crapalachia, and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1. He is the owner the finest small volume library in the state of West Virginia

What’s a book that first put the hook in your heart? Or if there isn’t a single book or author that got you hooked on reading, maybe you can tell me what age you were when literature started playing the pied piper song to you.

I think I’ve always fetishized books. There was a ton of children’s stories my mom used to read to me. “The Little Fir Tree” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” The stories she told me about herself were just as important though. I checked out John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the Rainelle Public Library when I was in fifth grade. My mom said, “You’ll like this. He’s easy to read.” I read that book the same weekend I played Tecmo Bowl for the first time. Sort of a life changing weekend. I was a weird kid though, reading a lot of biographies. Weird shit like Oliver North’s autobiography and Norman Schwarzkopf.

I think probably the book that made me start discovering things was a biography of Jim Morrison called No One Here Gets Out Alive. It’s embarrassing to say, but true. I found out about Antonioni, Artaud, Godard, Van Morrison, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Beat writers, Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince. It was all stuff that I had absolutely no access to in West Virginia. That would have been in the 8th or 9th grade. I always used books to find out about other books.

I used to imagine books before I read them just simply because I couldn’t find them. I don’t know if we do that anymore in the age of on-line books. I used to imagine what a book was like and sadly the book was never able to measure up. I remember reading about The Executioners Song in high school for a long time before I actually found a copy. I used to read the World Book Encyclopedia and that book was mentioned in three different places, but then when I read the book I was like, “This sucks.” I feel differently now, but you know.

 

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME (MINUS ISAK DINESEN, JEAN RHYS, JOHN AUBREY)

The Collected Short Prose of James Agee

The Life of Alexander the Great by Plutarch

Mishima: A Biography by John Nathan

The Portable Rabelais (The Viking Portable Library) by Francois Rabelais

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

My Life by Benvenuto Cellini

An Egyptian Childhood by Taha Hussein

A Christmas Memory: One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote

The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs

Pages From A Cold Island by Frederick Exley

Death On The Installment Plan by Celine

Epitaph Of A Small Winter by Machado de Assis

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Nick Tosches Reader

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

The Whole Motion: Collected Poems by James Dickey

Careless Love: The Unmasking Of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

 

Do you read compulsively? Do you feel like reading is an addiction for you, sometimes? What do you think is the main driving force behind your desire to read more and more books? Are you looking for something?

Yeah I’m compulsive. Reading has always been kind of weird necrophilia. I can’t think of a more intimate act with a living writer as well than reading. The only thing that can compete with it is music and even that’s not the same. I usually go through 2-3 books a week. I’m sure it’s tied in to OCD or some slight autism. I always think of that robot from Short Circuit. Need more input. At this point I don’t think I’m looking for anything. But when I find a new writer like Machado De Assis or Lu Xun (two writers I read for the first time last year) it feels like a conjuring. I may be the only person who went bankrupt buying books.

 

 

BEST BOOKS I’VE READ IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS

Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson

Roughing It by Mark Twain

garden, ashes by Danilo Kis

The Garbage Times / White Ibis by Sam Pink

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

Memoirs From The House Of The Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

Coma by Pierre Guyotat

The War by Marguerite Duras

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere

The Anatomy Of A Moment by Javier Cercas

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

Wartime Lies by Louis Begley

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann

 

How often do you put a book down? Do you have rules about how much of a chance you’ll give a book before moving on to something else? If I book doesn’t catch me by page 75, I usually throw it out. But some books are late bloomers.

I don’t put down any books usually. I have lists of books that I want to read. If it gets slow, I start to skim and sometimes by skimming you can get back inside the book again. Most of the times I’ve read about the book so much that I know I want to read it. This is what is in my Amazon cart right now.

Denton Welch, In Youth is Pleasure

George Perec, Life: A Users Manual.

Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness

Nathalie Sarraute, Tropisms

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Sei Shonogan, Pillow Book

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

Gustaw Herling, A World Apart

Anita Brookner, Look at Me

Hopefully someone will buy these books for me and send them to me.

 

 

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe

Nothing Like The Sun by Anthony Burgess

Rimbaud Complete (Modern Library Classics) by Arthur Rimbaud

Justine by Marquis de Sade

King Of The Jews by Nick Tosches

The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet

Miracle Of The Rose by Jean Genet

Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov

The Selected Letters of John Keats

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

My Childhood by Maxim Gorky

The Bible

Martial’s Epigrams

Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

 

You seem to read a lot of biographies, which is a big blank spot in my reading life. Can you recommend five or six great biographies that I should read this year?

Oh I don’t know. I guess these are my favorites.

Elizabeth Gaskell Life of Charlotte Bronte, Richard Holmes: The Pursuit: A Life of Shelley, James Boswell: The Life of Johnson, Emanuel Carrere: Limonov; and I am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde. Judith Thurman’s bio of Isak Dinesen is pretty great.

I also love a book by Gorky called Reminiscences’ of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Andreyev. Not a biography, but just these little moments or impression and anecdotes. The description of Tolstoy’s hands is something else and easily tells us more than a 1,000 page biography would.

 

THE BEST BOOK THAT NO ONE HAS EVER READ

Reminiscences Of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Adreyev by Maxim Gorky

 

Does a biographer need to be trustworthy, for you? Should a biographer carefully research a life and stick to the facts as much as possible, like a journalist? Or should a biographer just try to tell the most interesting and entertaining and compelling story they can, even if it involves exaggerating or making up lies? Does a journalist need to be trustworthy?

1. No. 2. Not necessarily. 3.Yes to an extent. 4. Yes trustworthy journalists are essential to any representative republic.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Criminal Desires: Jean Genet And Cinema by Jane Giles

Selected Poems And Prose by Paul Celan

Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader

The Complete Poems Of John Keats

Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

The Beleaguered City by Shelby Foote

Patriotic Gore: Studies In The Literature Of The American Civil War by Edmund Wilson

The Lives Of The Artists by Giorgio Vasari

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

The Creators: A History Of The Heroes Of The Imagination by Daniel J. Boorstin

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann

You Can’t Win by Jack Black

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan

The Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter

New York Tyrant Vol 1 Number 1

Seven Plays by Sam Shepard

 

In an interview, you said: “I don’t think there’s a novelist today who can even compare with Robert Caro.” What do you like about his biographies? What can novelists learn from him?

Oh the usual. I think all great writers have just three skills. The ability to surprise and transform, the ability to propel you through a narrative, the ability to conjure emotion or laughter in a reader. Caro and John Richardson and Hilary Spurling and Jimmy McDonough all have that. Even some of our best writers can only do two out of those three things. Somehow I feel like biography still feels sort of primal or primitive and still connected to something very old in stories and magic. They’re sort of still interested in these things. Also, some of these folks are spending whole decades writing these books. I’m talking about losing homes and running through advances in order to make something. I think that’s beautiful and almost monastic in the age of corporate fiction, and experimental tenure fiction.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell

Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret

The Civil War: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Selected Writings by Gerard de Nerval

Lectures On Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

The Rise And Fall Of Athens by Plutarch

A Confederate General From Big Sur / Dreaming Of Babylon / The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan

Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas

The Complete Works Of Nathanael West

Genet by Edmund White

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

Selected Writings by Antonin Artaud

 

If you had all the time in the world, whose biography would you write? (I’m thinking about a famous person or a historical person, but it could be anyone.) Would you be a trustworthy biographer?

I’m going to write about my mom and dad. So no. It’s going to be a book called Vandalia or Rainelle Stories or something like that. A big family book. Like a Tristam Shandy or Rabelais almost. I’m going to see if I can’t take what I’ve learned from these books and write about two people who are just ordinary. I’m going to write it for my kids. Been struggling for six months though so who knows. This writing shit is hard.

 

 

 

BOOKS I’M READING/REREADING FOR THE BOOK I’M WORKING ON

Reminiscences Of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Adreyev by Maxim Gorky

Tristram Shandy & Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

True Stories by Sophie Calle

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas

Memoirs From Beyond The Tomb by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

This Is Not A Novel And Other Novels by David Markson

Dark Back Of Time by Javier Marias

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Collected Writings Of Joe Brainard

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald

In Search Of Lost Time Volume 6: Time Regained by Marcel Proust

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 

What are some poems or other pieces of literature that you have memorized and could recite at any time? Do you have a trick for memorizing things like that, or just have a good memory?

Oh gosh I have reams of stuff. I’ve known Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” since I was a boy. I’ve done that so many times in readings I’m sure people are sick of it, but it makes me think of my mom. There’s some Neruda I know, a section of Under Milk Wood, John Donne always kills. I used to do a section of Virgil’s Georgics in a reading. I don’t know if it’s a trick, but I can memorize pretty easy. I’ve always liked doing it in readings because it gives you an element of control. You can move around, etc. I wanted to memorize the whole of Sarah Book for these final readings I was going to do, but I ran out of time.

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

The Portable John Steinbeck

The Red And The Black by Stendhal

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Ramones by Nicholas Rombes

Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere

The Blacks: A Clown Show by Jean Genet

The Art Of Destruction: The Films Of The Vienna Action Group by Stephen Barber

Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Ferdydurke / Pornografia / Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Odi Et Amo: The Complete Poetry of Catullus

Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera

Lost Highway: Journeys And Arrivals Of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick

My Mother’s House and Sido by Colette

 

Who are some of the readers, living or dead, that you most admire?

I guess Amelia Gray is always the gold standard. Lindsey Hunter as well. I think Sam Pink is the most likable reader I’ve ever watched. He just has that quality about him. People like him. Chelsea Hodson is a great reader too. I saw Kiese Laymon read in Iowa City a few years ago and he really blew me away. It sort of feels like readings are dead now or something, but maybe that’s just me. Five years ago people used to talk about them more and seem excited. Now it seems like they’ve dried up or something. I had a great time though at the Franklin Park Reading Series a month ago, which is easily the best reading series in the country.

Oh and I’m biased, but I saw Juliet Escoria give a reading with a video back drop in Brooklyn a few years ago. It was with some witches. One of the top three readings I’ve ever seen.

 

 

IMPORTANT BOOKS TO ME

Son Of The Morning Star: Custer And The Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus

The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

The Education Of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Boswell In Holland, 1763-1764 by James Boswell

Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard

Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays On Art And Artists by Robert Hughes

Voyage In The Dark by Jean Rhys

The Poems Of Francois Villon

William Faulkner And Southern History by Joel Williamson

Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

The Georgics by Virgil

 

interview by Chris Dankland

Read Next: SAM PINK INTERVIEW by Benjamin Scott

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