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 thered be an attractive womana media guide, in the
parlancewaiting 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 shed help me see to my luggage, lead me to her carusually
a Lexus or a BMWand chauffeur me in opulent luxury on my appointed rounds,
take me to lunch and/or dinner (on the publishers 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 shouldve 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 Id 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 Id 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?
Actually, 13 years doesnt even begin to cover it. I wrote first
drafts of these three stories in, respectively, 1954, 1974, and 1962which
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 Ive 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; its not something you
want to hurry with. For me, its a painstaking, intricately complex process
that I can only liken to composing music, because in my writing the language
itselfI mean the sound of it, the internal cadences, the way the various
sub-voices play off contrapuntally against each othersometimes becomes the
engine that drives the narrative, rather than the other way around. Id like
to think its 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 OConnor, 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?
I think what Flannery OConnor is talking about is the possibility of personal
redemption through Gods grace. In my stories, the heroes are those characters
who redeem themselves, who find grace in their own suffering and thereby
rise above the readers expectations for themwhich 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?
I think comedy and tragedy are indivisible; theyre just different aspects of
the human experience. Faulkner, Flannery OConnor, 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
Anyhow, Ive said that my favorite characters in my own work are the ones who
rise above the readers expectationsand 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. Its 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?
Magic is, by definition, a mystery; its unknowable, unfathomable. But life
itself is a mystery; you never know when its 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
whats real and what isnt? A guy with two noses escapes both jail and his
own ugly mug with the aid of a magic toadstone? Hey, whats so strange about
Interviewer: Critics always search for autobiographical tidbits in a writers work.
Does A Congress of Wonders contain anything from your own life?
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 dont come across many magic toadstones in real
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?
No, I dont think so. For one thing, Famous People I Have Known was
published just two years after The Natural Man. Its true, of course,
that Id 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 dont
think The Natural Mans 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, Im
Interviewer: What writersSouthern or otherwisehave had the greatest influence on your
My earliest influences were Twain and Faulkner, of course, and later Salinger
and Mailer and Henry Miller, and then Flannery OConnor, 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. Im 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?
I dont think its 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, theres OConnor 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 Southespecially the rural Southdeveloped 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 writers career?
I expect fame could be a distraction to a writer, and an annoyancea wart, as Ken Kesey says. Still, I dont 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 isnt because he got briefly famous; its 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 beto borrow another Kesey locutionEarth Shoes, its all Earth Shoes.
Interviewer: Will we have to wait another 13 years for your next work of fiction?
I certainly hope not. Ive 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, Id swear off fiction forever, and go forth and sin no more. But that was then, this is ... Earth Shoes?