Scott McClanahan, Appalachian Literary Outsider, on His Harrowing Divorce Book

Author of 'The Sarah Book' talks writing about his failed marriage and what people get right, and wrong, about his home state of West Virginia

"I don’t even know if I can do what I've done before. I'm not a drunk any more," says author Scott McClanahan. Credit: Tyrant Books

When you talk to Scott McClanahan, there's a subject that inevitably comes up. It isn't the multiple books he's written or the music he's made or the art over which he obsesses. It's West Virginia, the state he calls home. "I didn't know one single person who made art from this place," he says when talking about his youth to Rolling Stone. "My dad worked in the back of a truck for Kroger's, throwing around bags of potatoes."

For McClanahan, not having writers and artists around as he came of age proved to be something of a benefit in his own creative growth. "[W]hat I mean is, there's a beauty in not knowing that you can't do it," he explains. "There's a beauty in just doing it and being stupid about it and being country about it."

Now, McClanahan is the author of a number of acclaimed books – most recently, The Sarah Book, a harrowing work inspired by the end of his first marriage. He's a cult author who's attracted readers both for the unabashed honesty and clarity of his prose and the unique methods by which he's given readings – including concluding some by walking through the audience as a haunting melody played on a hand-held recorder. He's a literary outsider in the vein of Flannery O'Connor or Harry Crews; a writer who doesn't live in a major city, and whose uncompromising style paints a picture of a part of America that readers don't usually get to see. That, and he's from a place that currently has a spotlight on it for all the wrong reasons.

West Virginia saturates McClanahan's body of work. The titles of his books allude to aspects of the state's landscape and culture, like 2012's Crapalachia and 2013's Hill William. The autobiographical stories in his earlier collections –many of which are available in The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan, Vol.1 – are largely set there. And his 2016 foray into comics, a collaboration with artist Ricardo Cavolo, was a surreal biography of another cult figure with West Virginia roots: musician Daniel Johnston.

McClanahan is an encyclopedic source of information on the state, his experiences coming of age there and some of its other noted artists. "Fred 'Sonic' Smith from the MC5 is a West Virginia boy," he notes. "If you understand the MC5, then you understand West Virginia. That perfectly encapsulates how that band sounds."

Understanding West Virginia has taken on a newfound relevance since the aftermath of the most recent Presidential election. The state has occupied an unlikely place at the center of American politics so far this century, inspiring thinkpieces on the regular every four years. Since 2000, the state's electoral votes – once solidly Democratic – have been cast for the Republican candidate in the race. Also taking on a newfound relevance: coal's central place in the state's economy, and the way that Donald Trump used it as a wedge issue during his Presidential campaign. West Virginia also boasts the unfortunate statistic of having the highest death rate from drug overdoses in the nation. The state is in the middle of an opioid crisis, with agencies on the state and federal levels seeking a host of methods to rectify this while the outside world looks on. The West Virginian psyche is something that looms large in America right now – and McClanahan is one of the leading chroniclers of it.

It was with his short stories that McClanahan developed the style that he's become known for: at once all-knowing and extremely fallible, rooted in the oral tradition and yet impeccably literary. "I had all of these stories that I would say out loud, and people would react to them," he recalls. "I decided to start writing them down. And that's really all I’ve done up to this point. The stories all have the lies you tell about yourself."

"The stories are all fictional in some ways," he continues. "Not in some ways – I guess I'm a fiction writer with a capital 'F' in a lot of ways. I've always just thought that if you can sell that lie, if you can make people believe it's true, then there's something holy in that."

For McClanahan, the familiar and quotidian can lead to revelations. "I think these stories are always right in front of you,” McClanahan says. "It's like a Wizard of Oz thing, right? There's this weird-ass dream you had, and you realize that you were there, and you were there, and you were there, too! It's these people you’ve known who were magical and were a part of the dream."

While McClanahan's work has moved from short stories to novels, it's kept that connection to the oral tradition. He'll address the reader directly towards the end of vignettes or scenes; sometimes he'll make a reference to himself and the reader together, creating a sense of intimacy. That same sense of hearkening back to an older tradition has come to the foreground in the readings that held audiences enrapt.

When McClanahan talks about reading his work in public, it's telling that he doesn't bring up other writers – he first cites a performance by artist David Wojnarowicz, and then ventures to another figure whose work bridged confessionals and larger-than-life characters.

"Johnny Cash played prisons because he felt like he could create a riot if he went far enough with it," he says. "I kind of felt the same way. I felt like I could change the molecular makeup of the room."

That hasn't necessarily extended to doing a lot of events closer to home, however. "I know that's weird to say, but I'm a really private person in a lot of ways," he explains. "A lot of the things that I do at readings is a character. I mean, it's me, but it’s a character, too."

And McClanahan himself has changed since the days of the emotionally exhausting readings that he became known for. "If I do do readings again, which I guess I’m going to have to for this book, I don't want to do what I've done before," he says. "I don't even know if I can do what I've done before. I'm not a drunk any more."

The Sarah Book is McClanahan's most emotionally raw work to date. It's about the end of his marriage, and opens with a particularly gut-wrenching scene of drunk driving. What follows are scenes from a marriage bottoming out: alcohol-fueled bad behavior, the destruction of a computer and obsessive viewings of the video for "November Rain." McClanahan juxtaposes these emotionally brutal scenes with moments from more hopeful times, before things turned sour – what he calls "sort of a Godfather II narrative structure."

While the process of bringing The Sarah Book to fruition was several years long, McClanahan has also had some additional creative endeavors in the works. ("I've always hated writers who were just writers," he says.) Among his projects is Holler Boys, a duo with Chris Oxley, who released a companion seven inch in conjunction with Hill William.

"Chris and I don't think we're going to be pop stars," says McClanahan. "We're slightly overweight 40-year-old divorced dads. Maybe that’s the part of rock culture that I love: Elvis Costello with his glasses and Joey Ramone. Why can't you have divorced dads as the next big thing?"

All of which comes back around to McClanahan's conflicted relationship to West Virginia. Some of that's evolved – he has become, for a new generation of writers, the sort of art-making inspiration that he didn't have in his formative years. He cites poet Keegan Lester and novelists Joe Halstead and Matthew Neill Null as three figures also doing interesting literary work with West Virginia roots. But when summarizing his own relationship to West Virginia, it's a writer from another time and place whose words come to mind.

"This is going to sound horrible," McClanahan says, "but there's a George Bernard Shaw quote where they ask him where he wants to be at the end of the world, and he says, "I want to be in the home country of Ireland, because we're always 50 years behind the times." And I feel the same way about West Virginia."

While the rest of the country looks on with curious eyes at his home state, McClanahan has found it to be an endless well of inspiration. 

"I love the backwardness, almost. Not to say that West Virginia isn't other things, but that's the image you get, of this backwards kind of place," he continues. "I mean, there are doctors and lawyers. It’s like every other place. Anybody with any sense understands that. But there's a purity to saying, ‘Fuck all of that,' right? There's a bliss.”