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May1999
The Natural Man
by Ed McClanahan
Answers to Questions Nobody Asked Me
by Ed McClanahan

Photos by Dave Crawford, KET

When A Congress of Wonders, my collection of three long stories, was published in 1996, my publisher provided me, for the first and no doubt only time in my young life, with my very own professional publicist, a smart, fast-talking, hard-working New Yorker named Toni, who lined up a string of readings, signings, and interviews for me in a dozen or so cities here and there about the country.

I strongly recommend that everyone get himself or herself a publicist at the earliest opportunity. Thanks to Toni, when I stepped off the plane in some strange city there’d be an attractive woman—a “media guide,” in the parlance—waiting for me, holding up a copy of my book for all my fellow deplaners to see (talk about an ego charge!), so that I could identify her on sight. Then she’d help me see to my luggage, lead me to her car—usually a Lexus or a BMW—and chauffeur me in opulent luxury on my appointed rounds, take me to lunch and/or dinner (on the publisher’s tab, of course), console me when a reading was attended sparsely or not at all (at a huge bookstore in Nashville where I read to an audience of precisely one, my media guide suggested that I should’ve had the guy sit in my lap), show me the sights around town if we had lag-time, eventually deliver me to my hotel or back to the airport, where I’d fly off to the welcoming embrace (not really) of the next media guide.

Toni and I also cobbled together a sort of faux interview with His Edness which we sent ahead, along with a press release and a bio, to the ravenously insatiable press corps (Back off, paparazzi!) of the cities I’d be visiting. Inevitably, questions in the so-called interview were puffballs, intended to show me off to the best possible advantage. Still, when I recently came across the old interview I found that, questionable questions notwithstanding, I was sort of taken with my answers, which seemed to me to say a thing or three about the act and process of writing that might bear reiteration.

Some of the answers assume a familiarity with the stories in A Congress of Wonders. Readers whose education is wanting in this vital area are urged to see their bookseller immediately.

Interviewer: Why have you waited 13 years to publish your second book of fiction?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: Actually, 13 years doesn’t even begin to cover it. I wrote first drafts of these three stories in, respectively, 1954, 1974, and 1962—which means, when you add it up, that this book was 98 years in the making. And when you add my other two books to the calculation, it turns out that I’ve been writing for 227 years. Not bad for a lad of 63! [My new book, My VITA, If You Will, includes work written as long ago as 1952, and adds another 408 years to my career, a grand total of 635.]

Writing is like performing brain surgery on yourself; it’s not something you want to hurry with. For me, it’s a painstaking, intricately complex process that I can only liken to composing music, because in my writing the language itself—I mean the sound of it, the internal cadences, the way the various sub-voices play off contrapuntally against each other—sometimes becomes the engine that drives the narrative, rather than the other way around. I’d like to think it’s taken so long to write this book because, as the saying goes, my mill grinds slow, but exceeding fine. Which still beats the hell out of “My mill hardly grinds at all.”

Interviewer: Flannery O’Connor, with whom you have been compared, wrote that “a door is always open to possibility and the unnexpected in the human soul.” How is this dictum reflected in your work?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: I think what Flannery O’Connor is talking about is the possibility of personal redemption through God’s grace. In my stories, the heroes are those characters who redeem themselves, who find grace in their own suffering and thereby rise above the reader’s expectations for them—which is where the “unexpected” part comes in. In “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” Juanita Sparks puts her fate in the hands of a most unpromising protector, and is richly rewarded for her faith; in the other two stories, Wanda Pearl Ratliff and Finch Fronk (respectively) transcend their barren, joyless lives when Wanda Pearl reveals her capacity for maternal love and Finch triumphantly discovers that celibacy has not excluded him from fatherhood.

Interviewer: You are regarded as a Southern humorist, yet the events in the stories of A Congress of Wonders are often quite dire and the characters’ lives quite bleak. Do you view your stories as comic or tragic?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: I think comedy and tragedy are indivisible; they’re just different aspects of the human experience. Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Erskine Caldwell, for example, were all fiercely realistic or naturalistic writers who were nonetheless often very, very funny. The best comedy is ironic by nature, which makes it the perfect antidote for maudlin sentimentality; “tragedy” without irony is mere bathos.

Anyhow, I’ve said that my favorite characters in my own work are the ones who rise above the reader’s expectations—and since I, as The Man Behind the Curtain, am responsible for setting those low expectations in the first place, I figure I can afford to needle them a little, to make light (gently, I hope) of their failings and foibles. Tempered by privation and mockery, they gain the strength to effect their own deliverance. It’s all for their own good, so to speak. Tough love.

Interviewer: Why do you sometimes introduce magical or fantastic elements into your otherwise realistic stories?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: Magic is, by definition, a mystery; it’s unknowable, unfathomable. But life itself is a mystery; you never know when it’s going to reach into its hat and slap you upside the head with a white rabbit. Magic has been around in literature since David Copperfield wrote the first words of Genesis. Who gets to say what’s real and what isn’t? A guy with two noses escapes both jail and his own ugly mug with the aid of a magic toadstone? Hey, what’s so strange about that!

Interviewer: Critics always search for autobiographical tidbits in a writer’s work. Does A Congress of Wonders contain anything from your own life?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: Well, there was a man in my hometown who had two noses and who, in a fit of pique, set a homemade bomb for another man and blew him to a frazzle. And I and a teen-age buddy once treated a couple of Burdock County belles named Big Sue and Little Sue to the freak show at the county fair. (“See Joseph/Josephine, the Human Enigma!”) Moreover, I once briefly (not briefly enough) held a job as a school bus driver. And of course there are many other moments and details that are drawn from my own experience. But these stories are, finally, works of the imagination; you don’t come across many magic toadstones in real life.

Interviewer: Even though you were already 50 when you published your first [and only] novel, The Natural Man, did the success of that book temporarily hinder your subsequent writing in any way?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: No, I don’t think so. For one thing, Famous People I Have Known was published just two years after The Natural Man. It’s true, of course, that I’d already written many of the pieces in that book; but there was also a lot of new writing to be done, as well as a ton of reorganization of the existing material, to make a relatively seamless narrative of it. So I don’t think The Natural Man’s success, such as it was, slowed me at all. The kind of prose I write requires a certain amount of precision, a good deal of coaxing, and vast quantities of patience. What slowed me was ... well, I’m slow.

Interviewer: What writers—Southern or otherwise—have had the greatest influence on your work?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: My earliest influences were Twain and Faulkner, of course, and later Salinger and Mailer and Henry Miller, and then Flannery O’Connor, the greatest short story writer in American literature. And I loved much of the work of Erskine Caldwell, who I think will be rediscovered someday as a major mid-century American writer. But then about 20 years ago I stumbled, in my dotage, across the 19th-Century British novel, and became a devout worshipper at the shrines of Dickens, Trollope, and Jane Austen. I re-read their major works constantly, almost ritualistically. I’m awestruck by their mastery of the language; they influence, in subtle ways, almost every word I write.

Interviewer: What do you think has brought about the remarkable resurgence of Southern literature in the last decade or so?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: I don’t think it’s been a resurgence so much as just a continuation of a great tradition. After Faulkner and Caldwell and Robert Penn Warren and the young Eudora Welty, there’s O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and Capote and Carson MacCullers, then William Styron and Walker Percy and Reynolds Price, then Ernest Gaines and Wendell Berry and Alice Walker and Pat Conroy, then Bobbie Ann Mason and Harry Crews and Lee Smith and Alan Gurganus ... and the beat goes on.

But I think the reason Southern fiction continues to flourish so abundantly has to do with the fact that the South lost the Civil War. The North, victorious, was able to move to turn its eyes to the future; but for the loser, old wounds heal more slowly, and rankle longer. And so, as a way of keeping history alive, the South—especially the rural South—developed the habit of looking inward or backward, into the past, and of rendering it (and remembering it) in the form of word-of-mouth tales, anecdotes, legends, myths. Basically, the demands of telling a story well are the same as those of writing it well; in both cases, success depends on timing, articulation, and characterization. So it stands to reason that Southerners would be good at both forms.

Interviewer: You wrote about fame in your nonfiction book, Famous People I Have Known. Do you think fame helps or inhibits a writer’s career?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: I expect fame could be a distraction to a writer, and an annoyance—“a wart,” as Ken Kesey says. Still, I don’t imagine fame alone has deprived literature of a single word that would have been worth the ink to print it. When a baseball player has a great rookie season and then suffers the dread “sophomore slump” and sinks back into obscurity, it isn’t because he got briefly famous; it’s almost surely because he only had one great season in him to start with. Writers are the same; they write the good books that are in them. Anything else they produce is liable to be—to borrow another Kesey locution—“Earth Shoes, it’s all Earth Shoes.”

Interviewer: Will we have to wait another 13 years for your next work of fiction?

Ed McClanahan pic
Ed: I certainly hope not. I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about bringing Harry Eastep, the protagonist of The Natural Man, back to Needmore (as a retiree) to serve as a juror in a contemporary courtroom drama. A couple of years ago, I said that when I finished A Congress of Wonders, I’d swear off fiction forever, and go forth and sin no more. But that was then, this is ... Earth Shoes?

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