Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Scott McClanahan about Crapalachia, his genre-defying book set in contemporary Appalachia.
Who first coined the term “Crapalachia?”
From my perspective, I coined the term. It kind of reminded me of the word “megalopolis.” But I think “Crapalachia” has been around a while. At a reading in Kentucky recently, some guys were laughing about all the “Crapalachian Studies” courses they had to take in college.
What are your favorite books about West Virginia/Appalachia?
I really like Howard Burton Lee’s Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia’s Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents of Its Coal Fields and Lon Savage’s Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21. Its funny, though, about books about places. I mean, you look at the Koran and there’s not much mention of camels. You know they were everywhere, but there’s not a damn camel in the whole thing. They’re so present, you don’t even see them anymore. It’s like the poem “To a Louse” by Robert Burns. There’s this upper-crust woman who comes to church all dressed up, looking lovely, but the poem’s narrator notices a louse ranging across the back of her bonnet. He reflects that the louse doesn’t know the difference between pretentious and plain. Maybe we don’t want to know what we look like in other people’s eyes. So I’m writing more about an idea than a place.
The cadence, the language, the rhythms of Crapalachia want to be read aloud. Are there videos of you reading from the book?
You talk about the “Crapalachian/Scot/Irish” concept of the extended family. What about the Scot/Irish tradition of storytelling? Has that influenced you and this book?
There’s something about the storytelling thing that kind of bothers me. I mean, there’s the Aunt Robin principle.
The what now?
You know how everyone’s got an Aunt Robin who’s going to tell you about what happened at Walmart that day, but she does it in the strangest, most roundabout way? Everyone’s got a storytelling tradition. I did a reading last week in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has a large Hasidic Jewish population, and they have a storytelling tradition. Crown Heights also has a large Caribbean population, and they have their own storytelling tradition. Grandma Ruby had Swiss in her, and my mom had Welsh. But we have no identity now, in this country, so we call ourselves this or that to link ourselves to a tradition. I guess you could say this book was influenced by a range of traditions, or none at all. All my characters have their stories, their anecdotes. The book’s as much their story as mine. I’m just the puppet master.
What’s your definition of Americana?
The word reminds me of bad music on The Mountain Stage, which is a public radio program here in West Virginia. All the songs are about highways or birds or wildflowers. I’m surrounded by fast food and Go-Marts. I don’t know where these songwriters are, but they’re not here.
You invoke Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” in the book. When you write or think about your “formative years, coming of age in rural West Virginia,” what music are you listening to? Are there songs or bands that conjure those years better than others?
There are. Let’s see:
Guns N Roses
Peter, Paul, and Mary, but the children’s songs, like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor.” That last is still the truest song ever written. It feels like somebody dying to me. You are being swallowed by a boa constrictor right now and you don’t even know it. You are. Look down. One is at your feet, but it’s probably invisible.
Merle Haggard. I remember my dad had an 8-track tape of Merle, live in Cleveland. That seems like a weird place for Merle to make a live recording, but I remember playing that 8-track all the time in Dad’s car.
The Fat Boys and lots of other ‘80s rap
We had this Time/LIFE classical collection and another one of Big Band music. We listened to them a lot.
Frank Sinatra’s version of “I’ll Be Seeing You”
Franz Liszt, “Hungarian Rhapsody”
What do you consider your personal anthem?
I don’t have an anthem, but if I did it might be Dean Martin’s “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On” or Johnny Thunder’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” I mention that song in the book. And did you know that Dean Martin was from Appalachia? Yeah, Ohio — Steubenville, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.
What spurred you to write Crapalachia? Was there an inciting incident, a string of incidents?
To be honest, I had a book contract, and I just wanted to put a bunch of stuff together. It’s a bit lopsided, but then … life’s lopsided. I mean, the first part of the book works and then the second part doesn’t really go with the first.
You have that sentence, “This is where the hero goes out into the world and encounters the people he meets along the way.” It’s an obvious transition, but it seems to work well.
Because when someone tells you it’s the second act, you go along with it. I was counting on readers to do that.
I was reading a lot of James Baldwin essays when accumulating the pieces for Crapalachia. I’ve never been able to classify their genres. They’re … kind of essays, but they’re more like stories. This was an experiment inspired by the Greeks. The Greeks, and the Romans too, would tell anecdote after anecdote, creating an episodic narrative. Maybe there’s a need to get back to that, especially with the changing forms of media we’re using to tell stories these days. Film, for example, is a third-person medium. Writing conveys the interior voice better than any other art. So I’m experimenting with ways to write within new forms.
I just read in another interview that you have an interview coach. What was that like?
I do a lot of interviews, and it wears you down. With some of the interviews, some of those sent as emails, I wasn’t even the one answering the questions. Once I got a roommate to answer the questions, and I had my girlfriend respond to another. [Note: the museum conducted this interview with McClanahan over the phone.]
OK, let’s bust out a really interviewish interview question: Name three smells that remind you of your adolescence.
Raspberries, hog slop, and beef jerky. I remember this one time as a kid. It was my dad’s day off and we went over to this property he was building on. It took him like 20 years to build on it, but anyway, we were sitting there sharing a Dr. Pepper. It was such a classic father/son thing to do — share a bottle of Dr. Pepper. And I was eating beef jerky. I guess some of my jerky backwash got into the bottle, and my dad was like, “Sheee-eet!” And I remember him pouring out the little boy jerky backwash.
Seems like there are two camps of people regarding the appendix. One camp loves the appendix, in which you throw back the curtain on the book’s wizardry. But then, some people do not love the appendix, wish they could erase the memory of reading it, feel it stripped away the magic of the book. Do you feel the same way about the appendix now as you did when you wrote it?
I think the appendix is the only thing I like. It tells me what I need to know. That is, it’s what I’m trying to do now, make the writing feel a bit more present. I wanted to write one thing after another and see if it holds together.
People want to be sure of their lives. They want some sort of control. I was reading in an airline magazine about all these people getting into juice cleanses. That’s why they’re doing these juice cleanses, to grasp for some sort of control in their life. But I can tell them, nothing is going to work out. That’s not the way it’s going to go. Anyway, I thought the appendix was funny. There are as many lies in the appendix as in the book. People only believe it because I say it’s true. There’s this story about Winston Churchill at a party, and he’s getting drunk. Lady Astor says something along the lines of, “Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink.” Churchill’s supposed reply: “Madam, if you were my wife, I would gladly drink it.” Of course, that never happened, or it might have happened, or it happened with someone other than Winston Churchill. But the point is, the story says something about the culture. Take Marty Robbins’s song “El Paso.” It was about a cowboy in the 1880s and Robbins was writing it in 1959. He wasn’t there. Does that take away from the song’s narrative? No.
Tell me about Hill William. It has West Virginia in common with Crapalachia. Anything else in common or overlapping?
People should be happy to know that Ruby’s back in this one. But it’s different in that it’s being published by Tyrant Books. Also my parents show up in this book, whereas they were sort of invisible in Crapalachia. Even though we’re calling it a novel, Hill William is probably more “truthful” than Crapalachia. You know that story about Frank Lloyd Wright and his assistant, where the assistant is holding the blueprints and they’re going to meet this big client? The assistant is trying to help him out, but Wright gets pissed and rips the blueprints out of the assistant’s hands and says, “Give me those. There is only one rule in life. The architect always carries the blueprints.”
Really all that matters is whether or not you’re carrying the blueprints. I know where those things came from. They came from me. I made them. They’re here and they’re real, whether people think they’re true or not.
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Scott McClanahan is the author of Stories II and Stories V! His fiction has appeared in BOMB, Vice, and New York Tyrant. McClanahan is also a co-founder of Holler Presents, a West Virginia-based production and small press company. He lives in Beckley, West Virginia. His novel Hill William is out this week from Tyrant Books.