Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia is a book-length paean to the author’s adolescence in West Virginia. The first half of the book describes his time spent living with his grandmother, Ruby, and paraplegic uncle, Nathan, while the second half focuses more on his experience sharing an apartment with his obsessive-compulsive high school friend, Bill. McClanahan’s narration flows seamlessly, encompassing raucous storytelling, moving reminiscences, and poignant direct addresses to the reader. It’s never anything less than absorbing, the kind of book you pick up and put down a few hours later, finished and wondering why it had to end (I reviewed it here).
While McClanahan fills us in on various characters’ actual histories and provides some closing thoughts on the whole endeavor in the book’s appendix, I had a few more questions on my mind after finishing it, and the author was kind enough to answer them via email.
Nathan Weatherford: What have reactions from family or friends featured (in one form or another) in Crapalachia been like since its publication? How have West Virginians responded to the state’s portrayal in the book?
Scott McClanahan: I don’t think it really concerns them that much. I really don’t have any friends besides one or two people anyway. So I have no idea. I never ask them. I’m amazed by people who have like 10 friends. I don’t know where they find the time, really. I’m always someone who appears in people’s lives for an intense while and then I just disappear or the relationship implodes. I have no idea why I’m like that, but it’s been happening for years.
As far as West Virginia goes — it’s the same. They have ignored me for the past five years. I was finally in the Charleston Gazette this year, though, and on West Virginia Public Radio, so things have picked up on the local end. I’m supposed to be on the cover of Beckley Life for their August issue, which is hilarious. I feel like a big fat woman getting her glamour shots taken. Bring on the purple boas and let’s tease my hair some more, boys.
Other than that it kind of makes me think about the race car driver Darrell Waltrip. He used to talk shit about Earnhardt to the press back in the early ’80s. The press asked him if he was worried about saying these things. Waltrip said, “What does it matter what I say about him in the paper? He can’t read anyway.”
So it’s like that.
How has West Virginia changed since you were growing up?
I really don’t know. That’s a big question. I could go on about it, but people usually just sound like graduate students when they make sweeping generalizations about the changes in their culture. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Imagine that. Once upon a time the Vice President of the United States shot and killed the Secretary of the Treasury. Think of the op-ed page talking about the downfall of our culture and how our world has changed if that happened today. Things may be bad, but things have always been worse. Things may be good, but things have always been better.
It’s like this great Robert Mitchum story where he explained how when he first made it in Hollywood he went out and bought a horse ranch for a million dollars. You know what he realized he’d bought a year later? He realized he’d purchased a million dollars worth of horse shit.
Usually it’s like that story. When I say something about something I usually feel just the exact opposite if you give me a second to think about it.
I just miss my woman in California. I’m seeing her in two weeks and I just saw her two weeks ago but it’s killing me.
At one point did you know you were going to write about the events depicted in Crapalachia? What drove you to write them?
I’m not sure what drove me. I’m not sure if it even happens that way. I’ve been writing these books for fifteen years now. I’ve been working on The Sarah Book for about five months now and I’ve tried to quit being a drunk and cut out my tom-catting and be a good long distance boyfriend and get back to work. But some of the notebooks I’m working out of are all the way from 2008/2009 so even this book isn’t a new book. It’s just the one I have time for now.
I’ve never really even thought about publication or writing a book that will “sell” or anything like that. I mean I do. See there’s a lie too. But I can only do what I can do. Sometimes I feel like this is nothing more than grief on my part. There’s a great scene in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun where Jim is giving chest compressions to an obviously dead body and maniacally repeating, “I can bring him back. I can bring anyone back. I can bring him back. I can bring anyone back.” The body is dead as shit, but the boy keeps going. I guess the confidence man inside of me believes this, but I know it’s opposite too.
The truth is I probably wrote Crapalachia so I could forget those people. I know people might think it is about remembering, but it’s not. It’s about forgetting. I just want to be rid of them. God, I want to forget them so bad. I’ve never been able to let go of anything though really. Wish I could. I kept a leaf one time from this tree at Mount Vernon. I was in the 4th grade when I picked it, and I was a senior in high school when my mom made me throw it away. I wanted to remember what a great day it was and be reminded how much I appreciated them taking me.
I can’t even get rid of band-aids from the people I love.
The chapters in the book follow a fairly chronological order, and I was wondering if their creation did, too. What was your writing process like?
Dicks and Butts
Your voice in Crapalachia frequently alternates between first-person descriptions of events and direct address to the reader. Where did that narrative voice come from? How did it develop?
Dicks and Butts.
Wait, I just can’t write dicks and butts down to all of these questions. This is what I get, listening to my interview coach. I’ve had these questions for weeks now and thought it would be an easy way to zip through one or two of them this way, but let me answer.
The narrative voice. I’ll answer it like this.
My uncle got drunk with Andre the Giant in a bar in Manhattan once. My uncle said Andre was putting on one of his massive drinking displays. The Giant finally had like 50-60 beers and then all of a sudden Andre passed out. Of course, they didn’t realize but when an eight foot man passes out there is no way you’re going to be able to move him. So they simply put a bunch of chairs around him and people walked around him and came up to the bar and ordered their drinks and looked down and thought, “That’s Andre the Giant.” My uncle knew the guy who owned the bar. He said when he opened up the next day Andre was gone, but he left a couple hundred dollars to cover his bar tab.
Now was my uncle really there? Of course not, but it makes you pay attention to the story more than if I was just telling you a story about Andre the Giant. The voice is the same.
The inclusion of the chicken and gravy recipe in Crapalachia is a great way to give Ruby’s character agency outside the pages of the book. Despite the fact that the recipe is something you just made up (as you mentioned in the appendix), it effectively creates a physical association with her character in reality — now, whenever someone makes that chicken and gravy, they’ll think of Ruby. Are there any other tastes, scents, etc. that can immediately call her or any other characters in the book to mind for you?
The smell of Tupperware, fried bologna, farts, outdoor toilets, grass, the taste of raspberry on your lips, the smell of your mother. The sounds of people playing horseshoes and cigarettes, always cigarettes. When I sweat I smell like my uncle Nathan. It’s the weirdest thing. I was throwing the football with my Uncle Larry years ago and he smells the same way. Weird how families share that same animal smell. In the summer you could always smell cucumbers in the tall grass. That’s when you knew there were dens of copperheads and you should quit walking.
Mostly it’s the sound of hummingbirds flying around. Ruby used to have all these hummingbird feeders and Nathan used to watch them.
It’s all pretty absurd. Maybe we’ll find out one day that psychology is bogus and human behavior is only based around the attraction to smells and sounds. Maybe it’s not the sex act we love but the way people sound during the sex act. It could be like the principle of elective affinities. We are attracted to things and don’t truly understand. Time is a mountain lion and our behavior, too. Other smells remind me of them though too. I think of them when I smell Captain Ds, Wal Mart, gas stations, etc. I love Wal Mart, by the way. Whitman would have sung himself silly if he saw that great monster of capitalism. But it’s always the monsters who interest me.
I was moved by your memory of your high school roommate Bill obsessive-compulsively playing Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind”, and by how it came to function as an auditory stand-in for him and his habits when he was gone from the apartment. How does music influence your writing? What role does it play in your writing process?
I listen to music all of the time. I never listen to a complete song though, or if I do I have to play it four or five times. I think I have a bit of OCD myself. I hate psychology, though, so I’d never want to be diagnosed. Psychologists are worse than a disease. It’s all part of the 12-stepping, goose-stepping totalitarianists. Never trust anyone who has “ist “at the end of their title.
There is a great part from The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test where Paul Krassner is on acid with Ken Kesey. They are watching Abbie Hoffman give a speech and Kesey asks Krassner what he sees. Krassner tells him that he sees Abbie Hoffman — a great counter culture figure. Kesey tell him to look closer. And then he realizes. He says, “I can see Mussolini.”
I always fear looking closer at process because I might find Mussolini sitting there. It may seem dishonest but I take it very serious. It would be like abusing your muse. And I believe in the muse. Mine is far away, but if you cheapen it by talking about the secret parts of the muse — then you destroy the mystery of the muse, and the muse will leave you. That’s why pornography is such an abominable thing. It’s why I’m against going to the moon and space exploration and the mapping of the human genome. There should be some mystery to us.
Harry Crews wrote a memoir called A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early years in Depression-era Georgia. Upon discovering this, I realized how much I appreciate Crapalachia’s subtitle — “A Biography of a Place” — unlike Crews’s, it doesn’t assert that your version of events is the version of events (which the appendix makes explicit). Have you read A Childhood? Where did your title come from, and why did you choose it?
Yeah, we totally stole it. I love his writing — especially the essays on the drowning death of his son and the one about the University of Texas massacre. Also, he has that hinge tattoo on his elbow, which makes complete sense to me. We should all have hinges tattooed on the inside of our arms. He also used to eat earthworms. I sort of understand that too.
His journalism is actually the best. There is a book of his called Florida Frenzy that collects a bunch of it. I remember he did a great profile on Robert Blake, where Blake talks about seeing Alf Alfa drowning a mean goat in a lake on the set of the Our Gang comedies. Alf Alfa died in a bar fight. Dude shot him with a pistol.
What writers and/or specific works would you claim as influences on Crapalachia?
Rabelais, Villon, the Bible, the Koran, fairy tales, the rhooshuns, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Nerval, St. Exupery is easily one of my favorites. The Little Prince is a masterpiece. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. I also love this little Golden Book called There is a Monster at the End of this Book. I’m serious. It’s a piece of pop art genius. I don’t have an MFA so I’ve actually read quite a few books. I could go on forever, but I won’t. But I’m influenced by “mumbo jumbo.” I don’t know what it means, but it’s that weird ghost of electricity in the faces of the people you love. Sometimes you find it in books, films, songs, conversations, photographs, food, getting high, wasting money on roulette with Giancarlo Ditrapano. Let’s bet on the number 10. It’s something you can’t buy or sell or learn. It’s like grace. It’s given to you.
You ever gamble, darling. That’s a Townes Van Zandt pick up line.
No need for Martin Luther’s praying for 23 hours without ceasing and then having a seizure. Maybe it has nothing to do with books but epilepsy. God, all the greats are epileptics. Maybe they should try teaching epilepsy rather than “finding your voice.” Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Ian Curtis, and Martin Luther. That’s a pretty good collection. I’ll take that team.
You have another book set in West Virginia coming out soon with Tyrant Books, Hill William. Did its creation overlap with Crapalachia’s? Has one had any influence on the other’s composition? How?
No, it had no influence on Hill William. Hill William is a novel edited by the great Mr. Ditrapano. I think we’re describing it as a book for the whole family. That is if your family is the Manson family. Do you want a copy? Write me and I’ll send you one.