With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Scott McClanahan might be today’s best-known indie press writer. He also makes short films and his readings are some of the most engaging pieces of performance art to ever hit your local bookstore. Perhaps best known for Crapalachia: A Biography Of Place (Two Dollar Radio) and the more recent Hill William (New York Tyrant), McClanahan’s short-story collections function as pseudo-memoirs with a crackling electricity rarely found in literary fiction.
But McClanahan has now entered into a realm previously unknown to him. He wrote a graphic novel—or a “doodle book,” as he calls it—which came out earlier this month. The Incantations Of Daniel Johnston (Two Dollar Radio) tells the story of the eponymous cult musician and artist from his earliest appearance in his mother’s womb to the present day. Written by McClanahan and illustrated by Ricardo Cavolo, the book explores music, mental illness, and art. There is humor but also real pain, provided by Johnston’s difficult story as well as McClanahan’s powerful narration. It’s a loose biography, a history imagined.
To get a sense of where he’s coming from, The A.V. Club caught up with McClanahan last week for his thoughts on art through some of his favorite books.
He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill, And The Pretty-Much Totally True Story Of The Making Of The Greatest Country Record of All Time, Jack Isenhour
Scott McClanahan: It’s a fascinating book about the making of a record. Really, to be honest, it has some of the best George Jones anecdotes I’ve ever read, like cocaine psychosis causing this personality called “the Duck.” He started speaking in a duck voice and also singing in a duck voice, too. [Laughs.] He would be at a county fair or whatever and decide to do one of his songs in the duck voice. He also had a personality called “the Old Man.” He was the opposite of the duck voice, and “the Duck” and “the Old Man” would start arguing with one another. There’s a great quote in there where George says that they’d start arguing and they’d be out in the car for hours. They’d be arguing back and forth because they didn’t take any shit off of one another.
It’s like that where these little anecdotes come through, and I guess that’s what I like about books like that. Fiction now is so experiential. It’s all about the experience of being alive and the thought process of consciousness, and then you have these polemical essay-type things going on for a couple decades now. Some of these music books are where you’re going to see an anecdote of a person behaving without some kind of commentary.
The A.V. Club: This is an example of an artist or musician coming out of extreme hardship or disaster. Does art have to stem from disaster or is there a way to separate that?
SM: I think that’s one of the questions, right? We do this with poetry, the novel, or a painter. We say that we don’t. We want to look at it from this new critical standpoint, where you’re just looking at the work itself, but life bleeds into that. How much influence does it have? I think it does bear a heavy weight.
I guess that’s one of those nature-nurture type questions. It isn’t one you’ll ever really be able to answer. But I still think it does. There is a lot of student stuff out there, right? The reaction is that this is really good, but there’s nothing really happening here beyond that. This person has lived a pretty normal, nice life. You can always tell. The things that I have loved have always been those extremes where there has been some kind of apocalypse in the person’s life, and they come out unscathed or scathed.
Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original, Robin D.G. Kelley
SM: This is another one of those books with the perfect blend of anecdote and analysis. The analysis is built into the anecdote. It has that right feel about it. It’s not too scholarly, either. That’s the trap of some of these books. They take themselves too seriously, and then they get inundated with footnotes that really don’t propel a narrative along. But many of these stories are that old sort of the provincial kid who goes to the city. It’s that American idea. You’re not this little Jewish kid from Minnesota named Zimmerman—you’re Bob Dylan. You anoint yourself in that way that we’ve done in American life forever, whether it’s Mark Twain or whoever. Samuel Clemens isn’t Mark Twain. Mark Twain is Mark Twain. He doesn’t become the thing until he creates himself. Sure, that makes sense on a logical level, but there’s a mythological level to it. That’s what I love about that book — the mythology.
AVC: Thelonious Monk is a guy who was pretty unrelenting in his career. He had a vision for how he wanted to make music. Considering that alongside your fiction, do you see some parallels between his approach and yours?
SM: I want to say that Thelonious Monk is Thelonious Monk because of the style and the way he plays the piano percussively. But the fact that he comes back from Europe with a whole suitcase full of empty soda bottles and they’re not letting him through customs because he wants to turn them in for the 5-cent refund—I think that has to color some of the work.
With these people we’re talking about who I revere and love—I don’t think they could’ve fit in. Even if you wanted them to, I don’t think they could’ve been marketed. Blue Note couldn’t have had a nationwide tour that ran for two or three years with Monk in the same way that Daniel Johnston couldn’t have been put on the road and toured Europe in this Led Zeppelin-y kind of way. But that’s the reason we kind of love them. So much of our culture is bought and manufactured—not to say great art can’t come out of that. Some art is really amazing that is manufactured and sold, like action movies and stuff. I guess the things I have always loved are from people who were just being themselves. They were doing these things because they couldn’t do it any other way. It was for them.
With my stuff, I think I’ve tried. I’ve been courted. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I’ve been courted to be someone who could sell a lot of books. I think maybe it’s my personality. People don’t like my face. [Laughs.] After a certain period of time, I don’t know if I could do that because I’m not interested in any of those typical things.
It’s weird. People want you to know that they write. They want you to know they’re a musician, rather than making music or making stories. It’s the strangest thing. Maybe I’m that way, too. I’m sure I am because you want your mom to be proud of you. [Laughs.] In some ways it seems that that’s the driving force for some folks.
Honky Tonk Girl: My Life In Lyrics, Loretta Lynn
SM: I bought that book at Kroger. [Laughs.] You can probably find it in a bookstore, but I found it at Kroger. It’s a book that your dad would buy and be impressed by. I got every Loretta Lynn lyric or every lyric I grew up with along with little anecdotes that go along with them as well as trashy pictures. A lot of these books are trash books but in the best sort of sense of the way. Literature doesn’t do that. We don’t do B-sides. We don’t do demos. I don’t know if our basement tapes really exist. There’s still something about the biography that has that element to it—that feels sort of slapped together. It’s refreshing. I wish more books did that. I think even literary novels should be published like that.
The first time I ever heard Loretta Lynn’s people, they were people using an accent and using an accent that wasn’t making fun of me or some condescending kind of bullshit. There’s something about those lyrics that are so refreshing. They’re political and apolitical. I mean, “Fist City.” [Laughs.] I mean, my God, it’s about abusing your spouse but written from the female perspective who beats up her husband’s girlfriends. How do you contextualize that? It’s human behavior to the nth degree.
AVC: Do you like that the lyrics are contextualized? Do you want to know where the things you love come from?
SM: I think I do. I want to know the “why” of where it came from. So much of it is probably bullshit. You make up the story about how it became something. The little man on the flaming pie who says, “You’ll be The Beatles with an A.” That’s real to me. That seems like true. That’s how those guys did that. There’s this little alien who comes to them and calls them The Beatles. That’s the reality.
But there’s also the flipside of that—the anti-myth. The myth is great, but the reverse can be great as well. Look at the life of Loretta Lynn. How did that happen? How does that person come from that particular place? You would think that place would destroy the person when in reality those places are incubators. The great thing about Loretta Lynn is that she reveals herself in her writing. Great politicians talk about power. Power doesn’t corrupt—power reveals. I think it’s the same way when these artists sit down and write a book about themselves. They oftentimes reveal who they really are through the writing of it.
Songs In The Key Of Z: The Curious Universe Of Outsider Music, Irwin Chusid
SM: That’s one of those great anthology books of all of these amazing musicians. Captain Beefheart is in there. Hasil Adkins is there. Hasil goes up to New York but leaves after only a day because he’s wanting to buy leather pants and can’t find any in Brooklyn. His manager keeps telling him that it’s Sunday, and Hasil is like, “What the fuck good is New York if you can’t buy leather pants on a Sunday?” [Laughs.] So he comes all the way back home. That’s weird America shit.
It’s that Greil Marcus idea that there’s a secret history that flows through our culture. They’re not on the surface. They’re not Taylor Swift or Kanye. I’m not knocking them, but it’s not the things that are getting pushed at you. It’s this weirdness that is in the underbelly that you can’t get ahold of. It allows you to find out about all these people who typically don’t get written about, whether it’s Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis.
The thing is I hate that outsider art type of idea. It’s condescending. Daniel Johnston for instance: 25 percent of his catalogue is crap, but you could say the same thing about anybody. Fucking Eric Clapton—50 percent of his stuff is crap and nobody is sitting there and making some kind of commentary about outsider or insider art. We say these things can be learned and practiced and it’s a craft in some ways. These folks don’t fit into that. Captain Beefheart thinks of crafts as buying a glue gun at Walmart, but that has little to do with the weird electricity that his music has.
AVC: Your graphic novel focuses on Daniel Johnston. Is he a guy pushed to the cultural edge? While he is considered an outsider, he still carries a huge amount of influence through the cult status he has earned.
SM: The indie audience is really similar to the mass-market audience. The mass-market audience buys things because they hear about it and they want to be part of this cachet that knows about Adele or whatever. The indie audience does something similar. They like the things that other people haven’t heard about. Therefore they put these people on some sort of mantle. It’s the same behavior. I mean, Daniel Johnston, in my cool-kid brain, isn’t as cool as he was because you’ve had documentaries and books and articles in The New York Times about him. It diminishes the cachet of someone who is out on the edge. It doesn’t totally for me, but it does for that Pitchfork mentality of “We liked this album last time, but this album we hate.” Why? Well, the reasons why are fairly arbitrary.
It’s the story of creativity. I don’t know if we’ll ever solve that. The weird thing that does happen is that someone who isn’t as well known earns more respect because of that. It’s so strange.
AVC: So why are you attracted to Daniel Johnston as a subject? Have you met him or heard what he thinks of the book?
SM: This is horrible to say—man, this is going to sound horrible—but I’m not really interested in Daniel Johnston. I’m interested in my Daniel Johnston and who I am through this person, which is the reality of relationships and marriages and friendships. Is a person really a separate entity from you or is that person a reflection back to you of all these things that you think or know or don’t know about yourself? I used Johnston in that way, as a mask for myself.
All those things I said in the book about how culture is made and sold and the way we like things even though we don’t like something because we’re supposed to say we like things. I’ve lived those things. I have that fear of being alone. I have that fear of being a 37-year-old man who has written a couple of books that are really personal and being 65 and doing something for bread or doing something because it’s an expectation and you feel like you have to.
AVC: This wasn’t on your Reading List, but Incantations is almost reminiscent of The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell by William Blake. Did you draw on that idea of a man trapped between two worlds?
SM: Yeah! Exactly. I’m a big Blake guy, so I love that. You’ve given me the example that makes sense in my mind. In my mind, as I was doing this, I was making this fucked-up children’s book, like a children’s book where you break that fourth wall to the reader. Instead of telling them they’re wonderful, you tell them that they’re shit. It’s an alternative version of that, so the Blake thing makes complete sense to me. From now on with these interviews, I’m going to run with the William Blake example. [Laughs.]
For sure, the subject matter pops out of that stuff. The simplicity is there, too, the simplicity of Blake. If you’re a writer and somebody says you’re simple, that always feels like a dig almost. It’s the same if you’re a musician or an artist. Everybody wants to be Thomas Pynchon. They want all these different layers and levels swirling above the text. The Blake stuff that has always been so dear to me, you can’t categorize. He’s his own entity. It’s like Aristotle’s mom saying, “The world doesn’t need more Socrates. You need to be Aristotle.” [Laughs.] Blake is that.
AVC: The idea of getting cursed as a reader seems to come from there as well.
SM: Yeah, that’s Blake. I just wanted to put a curse in a book. I wanted to make something that felt dangerous, and I was serious about that. It wasn’t a joke. There is something hidden and charged inside of what’s created that can also destroy you. I saw an opportunity to do that there. I’d said, “God bless you” and “Good morning” so many times in a book, and I’m sick of that. I wanted to do the flipside of that and ruin your day or maybe allow something really horrible to occur.
It certainly rubbed off on me. There was a big flood in my hometown on my birthday. There were dead bodies out in the streets. I was joking to my wife, “Did I do this?” She’s into magic, so she did this spell last week to remove the curse from me, but the problem was that it took too long. I started getting bored. [Laughs.] My 21st-century attention span couldn’t allow for the curse to be lifted from me because it was going on too long. It was like 45 minutes of this shit of putting bay leaves on your head and eating crap.
But my favorite part from Blake is something Kris Kristofferson always quotes when he’s talking about being a janitor. He goes:
If you, who are organized by divine providence for spiritual communion, refuse, and bury your talent in the earth, even though you should want natural bread, sorrow, and desperation pursue you through life, and after death shame and confusion of face to eternity.
You’re betraying your nature, and so you’re doomed. Maybe Daniel saved himself. When I think about it, I’ve dropped out of law school, I’ve dropped out of about four or five lives that were planned for me. What’s sad is that we do the planning. [Laughs.] You have planned things for your life and you have fucked yourself over! They were every bit as monumental as a car crash or a strange happening, like someone breaking into your house and robbing you. You’ve planned your own robbery—you’ve planned your own car crash oftentimes.
The thing with Blake that I think [Incantations artist Ricardo] Cavolo does and hopefully I did is find that powerful combination of pictures and words. It’s not a graphic novel. It’s not really a children’s book. There’s fear there. Those Blake images and stories of fear teach you something about life.