Berry | Hall | Mason | McClanahan | Norman | TIMELINE

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Ed McClanahan
A Conversation

This interview with Ed McClanahan was conducted by KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words, on November 26, 2001.

Guy | Let’s start by having you give me your name and where you’re from.

Ed | My name is Ed McClanahan, and I’m from Brooksville, Kentucky, originally, then from Maysville, and currently from Lexington.

Guy | Tell me about your early life. Were there books in your home? What did you read growing up?

Ed | In fact, books were a part of my household because my mother and several of my aunts were schoolteachers. But, unfortunately, Brooksville had no library. And so the only source of books, aside from what my grandparents had in their house and what few books my parents had, was the school library, which was not a very good one, although I remember everything I read in it. I read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. What’s the book about the rabbit? I read Of Mice and Men countless times because all the dirty words were underlined in the school library. And I read Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure, which had pictures of Native ladies with no shirts on. It was quite good.

But my mother was a member of various book clubs, and so there were books coming into our house off and on, and I got ahold of a lot of those, some of which I wasn’t supposed to get ahold of. I read Forever Amber when I was in about the 7th or 8th grade. That was a quick read because I had to read it on the sly and on the fly. My mother would have shot me if she’d known I had it. Well, it was the raciest novel of the 1940s, I guess. It was a historical romance. I can’t even remember who wrote it, but it was a scandalous novel, and everybody read it.

But yeah, I was a reader from the earliest part of my life. I grew up, really ... I grew up wanting to write books, and to my great good fortune I’ve ended up being able to do that.

Guy | So you knew early on that you wanted to be a writer?

Ed | I did grow up wanting to write books. That was the only thing that I ever aspired to do as child, and it’s been my great good luck that I’ve ended up getting to do that. I haven’t had to do much else.

Guy | Tell me about your schooling after high school. You didn’t go to [the University of Kentucky] as an undergraduate, right?

Ed | I got my undergraduate degree, my bachelor’s degree, at Miami of Ohio, and went from there [to] oh, you know, a futile and ill-fated attempt to be a graduate student at Stanford. Went out there in 1955, and by the spring of 1956 I had basically flunked out. And I came back to Kentucky thinking I was going to be drafted that summer. When I wasn’t, I saw that I could possibly take a few courses at UK in graduate school in the summertime, and I came up here and signed up for a couple of classes. And to my astonishment, I got A’s in them, in a couple of graduate lit classes. And so when I still hadn’t gotten drafted by the fall, I came back and took more courses.

Guy | Tell me about your teachers at UK—Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel.

Ed | One of the things that really attracted me to UK, made me want to come here, was that I had read this wonderful short story in an annual anthology called New World Writing. In the summer of 1955, I read a short story called “How They Chose the Dead” by Hollis Summers. And when I got to UK to go to graduate school, I discovered that Hollis Summers was indeed on the faculty here. And that was one of the main reasons I wanted to continue to go to UK. And when I came back in the fall of 1956 after going to summer school here that year, that summer, [I] signed up immediately for a Hollis Summers creative writing course, and liked him and liked it. Liked the course. And I thought he was a really wonderful teacher—very ... He was punctilious. He made sure you dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s, and he was a very, very good, sharp critic. And so I really felt that I had learned a lot from him at that time.

And then I landed in the writing classes that were taught by this wonderful, attractive young guy named Robert Hazel. Bob Hazel. And he ... Bob’s method of teaching was a lot different from Hollis’. Hollis was really quite professorial, and Bob was anything but. Bob befriended his students very quickly and would actually go and drink beer with us and have us to his house for parties and made real friends of us. And he was a very exciting guy because he’d been to New York and lived in Greenwich Village. And he’d hung around with Saul Bellow, or so he claimed. And he knew Jackson Pollock and that whole fast crowd. Everybody wanted to be like Bob, you know. I actually went so far as to dress like Bob for a while. He had a lot of personal style, and he was very handsome. And he was a very, very good poet. He was a novelist, too. And his novels, I’ve come to realize in retrospect, weren’t really all that good. But at the time I thought they were wonderful because they were wildly lyrical and full of symbols and all the things that I wanted to put in my novels. And so he was an inspiration in a lot of ways. They were both just terrific teachers, in totally different ways.

Guy | Can you describe the writing classes for me?

Ed | Well, the classes were ... well, just open discussion classes. But Hollis, he was more inclined to analyze stories and dismantle them in a way, and talk about the elements of the story. Whereas Bob, Bob sort of went for the bigger picture. He wanted the language to come to life and be ... He was hoping to get a kind of poetry out of us, even in the fiction-writing classes. And so in their two totally different ways, they were both immensely helpful, wonderful teachers.

I was not writing well in those days at all. I was writing ambitiously. I was trying real hard to be Faulknerian. And when I wasn’t trying to be Faulkner, I was trying to be Twain. And when I wasn’t trying to be Twain, I was trying to be Salinger. And sometimes I tried to be all three of them in one big lump, which pretty well describes the result: It was a big lump. But yeah, I was trying—in some of my stories—I was trying very hard to be a naturalist, a real, gritty, realistic writer. And that wasn’t really my mode either, I discovered. In the end, what my writing depends on, I think, as its modus operandi, is humor. I like to think there’s more to it than just humor. But that’s the vehicle that works for me. I like to think there’s a tragic vision that’s underlying all that, but what moves my readers through my work, I think, is my next joke, or the punchline for the joke that’s hanging out there.

Guy | Let’s talk about the other writers—how you met them, your relationships with them early on.

Ed | Wendell [Berry] once described Gurney [Norman] as the Billy Budd of the ROTC program. Gurney was ... He was a beautiful boy. He really was. And Gurney looked like he was about 15 when he came to UK. He really looked so young and fresh and sweet and innocent, and he was. But he was writing stories even then that were absolutely true stories. I mean, stories that just cut right to the quick every time. And I still remember some of his stories from those classes that we were in together. And I daresay nobody would ever remember any of mine. Mine were ultimately forgettable, but Gurney’s were quite memorable, quite wonderful.

I don’t know that I ever was in a class with Jim Hall; I’m not sure that we ever did actually take a class together. But we knew each other very well. We were both editors of Stylus, the student literary magazine, at that time, as was Gurney. He was an editor of Stylus, and Wendell was an editor of Stylus, and then I think later on Bobbie Ann [Mason] was an editor of Stylus. I didn’t know Bobbie Ann during that time at UK because she was a lot younger than I was and had barely gotten here when I left—when I graduated, finally, after a couple of false starts.

But Wendell and I were in several classes together, and he was very impressive, Wendell was. He was scary to me. I was dressing in those days in my California get-up. I was wearing cycle boots and shades and Levis and a Levi jacket. And Wendell never showed up without a button-down shirt and a necktie and the whole graduate student outfit, the whole uniform. And I wrote in my book My Vita, If You Will, I wrote a little passage about how it was like the young Tony Curtis had come up against the young Abe Lincoln. And the young Tony Curtis was three or four years older than the young Abe Lincoln, but I was still intimidated. But Wendell turned out to be just an absolutely wonderful, delightful friend, and we immediately hit it off really well, too. So I have a lot of really good associations during those years at UK in the graduate program.

But my teachers—and not just Bob and Hollis; I had other wonderful teachers at UK: a man named Bill Jansen who taught folklore and who was a great friend of mine and a really dear man, a sweet man. And, oh my, old Dr. Cook and Dr. Ward and a wonderful old fellow named George Brady who taught a bibliography course and was hard to deal with. Man, he was hard, a demanding old guy. Really put me through my paces. Running around the library pulling cards out of the card catalog. So it was a good experience being at UK, it really was.

Guy | I’d like to know if you can somehow describe how UK or your teachers made you believe that you could be a writer.

Ed | I think for me it was, specifically, it was the attraction of Bob Hazel that made me believe I could do it, too. I could see myself being like him, somehow. Some way [he] made it all seem possible to me. Some way [he] made it seem like something that I could handle. But you know, the trouble was I wasn’t writing very well at that time, and I knew it. I knew I wasn’t doing the kind of work that I wanted to be able to do, and I just hadn’t gotten the right angle on my work at that time. And actually that didn’t happen until I went to Oregon after I graduated from UK and became an English teacher myself at Oregon State College.

At Oregon State College, I was teaching prescriptive grammar, and the result of that was that I had to get myself involved in the mechanics of the language to an extent and a manner that I had never been obliged to do before. I had always been able to write decent sentences just kind of instinctively, but I didn’t know, really, how. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what the components of the sentences that I was banging out, what they were. And at Oregon State I had to learn that in order to be able to teach it.

And then, at the same time that was happening, I had made friends out there with four young lyrical poets. All four of them were really language nuts. I mean, they were just ... There was one guy in particular, a poet named Bob Huff, who was a kind of an American Dylan Thomas. He just spouted poetry all the time, and being around Huff when he was full of wind like that was just a wonderful experience. And somehow or another the combination of these people who loved language so much that they made you feel the language, as though it were ... It was like hanging around with a sculptor and being allowed to handle the stone that he was working with, or a painter and mixing paints for him, or something, you know. Being with these guys was an inspiration, and that combined with the fact that I was actually working with the materials of the language itself and trying to teach these awful freshman composition classes ... Between these two things, they caused some spark to go off in me. And I wrote a story called “The Little-Known Bird of the Inner Eye” that kind of unleashed all my lyrical powers at once in a mighty whoosh. And the story—although it’s, you know, it’s a little bit embarrassing to read the story now for me, although I like it still because it meant so much to me in terms of my career—but the story succeeded insofar as having ... insofar as the fact that it found its way into print. It was published by Contact magazine. That was my first national publication, and that gave me a little start, and from there, the rest is history.

Guy | So how did you get from Oregon and teaching to Stanford?

Ed | I wasn’t very happy teaching freshman comp at Oregon State College, although one wonderful thing did happen, which was that I finally, the third year that I was there ... My colleague, Bernard Malamud, left Oregon State College, and I inherited the only creative writing class that they offered there. So I got to teach creative writing the last couple of years there, and that was rather wonderful—and was very instructive, too, because you know, you can’t teach unless you know what you’re teaching. And I was learning quite a lot while I was trying to teach other people to do it, and so ... But by the end of the fourth year I was out there, I just knew, or before the fourth year actually, the beginning of the fourth year that I was there, I just knew that I really was going to have to move on somehow. And the only way I could think of to do it was to write my way out of there.

And I, of course, as a former student at Stanford, I knew about the creative writing program there. And then by that time, my dear friends Wendell Berry and Jim Hall and Gurney Norman had all had fellowships in this program at Stanford, and I thought, “Well, you know, if those guys can do it, so can I.” And so I set myself to write a short novel, actually in the summer of 1961, and finished it late that fall and submitted it for a fiction fellowship at Stanford for the following year. And to my astonishment, I got the fellowship and went back to Stanford in triumph and did my year on the fellowship there and then was asked to stay on and teach at Stanford, which I did throughout the ’60s. I taught there from ’63 to ’72, and finally they pried me loose from the body politic there, the faculty, and I don’t know, I went out to ... I went to Montana and taught there for three years. I had already taught a year at UK filling in for Wendell. And then I taught at Montana for three years, left in ’76, and came back to Kentucky.

Guy | Let’s talk about your teachers in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. And about your colleagues. Who were some of the other writers you got to know there?

Ed | Well, Mr. [Wallace] Stegner was, he was a grand teacher, just a great teacher, as was Dick Scowcroft, who was his sort of right-hand man, and who incidentally died just two weeks ago [October 8, 2001]. I just heard this yesterday. But Mr. Stegner ... He had so much authority, you just had to pay attention when he told you something about a story. And he was very, very astute at telling you what was missing from your work and what needed to be there. And then I was fortunate enough after I finished my year on fellowship, when I worked with both Mr. Stegner and Dick Scowcroft, I was fortunate enough to ... When I was asked to stay on and teach, I shared an office with Mr. Stegner. He gave me a cubby in the corner of his office, and so that was absolutely wonderful because it meant that I got to sit there and listen to him talk to his students, and that was very instructive in itself. He was an education all by himself; he really was a wonderful man.

Then, in my off-campus hours, I was hanging out in the little Bohemian neighborhood which I also lived in, or near, called Perry Lane, which was the headquarters of the whole Kesey entourage, Ken Kesey and company. And I had very quickly gotten to know Ken when I came down to Stanford. I had met him up in Oregon, so when I got to Stanford I quickly found him again and, as I said, moved in nearby to the neighborhood he was living in, and we spent a lot of time together. We used to get together at night at least every couple of weeks, he and I and Robert Stone, Bob Stone, who was in my fiction fellowship class at Stanford, and a number of other young writers. Larry McMurtry used to show up pretty often. Larry had already finished his tenure at Stanford, but he was living in San Francisco and would often come down and join us. And we were all together one night in my house, reading to one another, reading our work to one another, and in came Neal Cassady, of all people, and so it was like living literary history walked in the front door, you know.

One of my favorite stories about Ken having to do with writing is that Ken was working, when I first was getting to know him, he was working on Sometimes a Great Notion, his second novel. Cuckoo’s Nest had already been published and was a big success. And he showed me the first 15 manuscript pages or thereabouts of Sometimes a Great Notion. The book opens with a scene in which a group of people are standing on a riverbank, and on the other side of the river, dangling from a long pole that’s suspended somehow out over the water, is a severed human arm. And it’s just hanging out there, and all these people are standing on the other side of the river looking at it and hollering to the people in the house across the river and so forth. And that’s the way the book opens. And I read the first 50 pages of that manuscript, and it never explained whose hand, whose arm it was. It never comes up. So when I took the manuscript back to Ken, I said, “Well, this is wonderful writing, but I don’t understand whose arm that is. How did it come to be there? Whose is it?” And he said, “I don’t know.” He said, “That’s what I’m writing this book for: to find out whose arm it is.” And sure enough, you don’t find out until the very last scene of the book, and it’s about a 400-page novel. So that was a wonderful piece of instruction right there. I’ve used that a thousand times in creative writing workshops and classes as an illustration of just how to get started. Sure would break up a case of writer’s block in a hurry.

Guy | Tell me about the milieu, the scene around Kesey, the Pranksters scene.

Ed | Well, Perry Lane fell to the developers in 1964. And Kesey and a group of people that had connected with him by then moved over to LaHonda, which was a little community on the other side of the Coastal Range Mountains, over near the ocean. And, in ’64—they had actually moved over there in ’63, I believe—and in ’64, my wife, Kit, and I also moved to LaHonda. We bought a house over there and moved in just down the road from Ken. And in the summer of ’64, of course ... You know, Sometimes a Great Notion was published that summer, and there was going to be a publication party for it in New York. And that was also the year of the New York World’s Fair. And Ken bought an old school bus and painted it up wildly and named it “Further” and took off with a bunch of people for New York. And I’ve kicked myself for 40 years for this: I stood in the front yard and waved goodbye as they took off. I could have climbed aboard, but I didn’t do it. And it turned out to be, you know, the Great Adventure of the ’60s, or maybe the Great Adventure of the Second Half of the Whole 20th Century, and ... at least up until the moon walk ...

Guy | Why do you say that?

Ed | Well, it was the Great Adventure because it defined one aspect of that whole period, that whole era. Of course, antiwar sentiment defined another aspect of it, but in terms of an announcement of determination to achieve personal freedom or bust, that bus trip was the defining moment.

And it was. You know, Gurney Norman once said that in Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when Chief Broom throws the control panel through the insane asylum window, he says—Gurney says—“That was the first shot of the revolution.” And I think maybe he’s right about that. That book became a kind of testimony to freedom and a testimonial to freedom. And you know, it’s very interesting that that novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was immensely popular in Poland during the time that Poland was under so much Soviet oppression. And ...

Guy | Go ahead.

Ed | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was immensely popular in Poland during the time of the Soviet oppression. And it’s because it was such a testimony to the absolute necessity of freedom, of liberation. And so, in the same sense, the bus trip became a further statement of that necessity. And I think the bus trip was a defining moment in cultural history in this country in the 20th century.

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