I interviewed myself for TNB a few years ago, when my book O the Clear Moment (Counterpoint, 2008) was published, and found myself irascible, disputatious, and cranky. Nonetheless, now that I have a new book out, I figured I owe it to myself to give me another chance. As before, we got together in our so-called office, where, over many a beaker of boxed wine, I sat on my own lap while we had the following exchange:
Well, Mr. Clammerham, you’re not looking any younger, I must say.
Must you indeed?
No need to get snippy about it, old timer. Now tell me about this new book of yours.
Hey, try and stop me!
I Just Hitched In from the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader wasn’t even a gleam in my eye until a couple of years ago, when I discovered, to my chagrin and dismay, that my book A Congress of Wonders—comprised of three long, inter-connected stories including the novella “Finch’s Song,” which I’m persuaded is the very best thing I ever wrote—had gone completely and permanently out of print. Horrors! So when Jack Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, stepped in and offered me the opportunity to put together an Ed McClanahan reader, I grabbed him by the shorthairs and wouldn’t let loose till he produced a contract.
The late William Maxwell says, in the epigraph to the book, “I would be content to stick to the facts, if there were any.” Just so. I suppose there really is a difference between fact and fiction, but insofar as it concerns my personal experience, I’ve usually long since forgotten what the difference was (if there was one). My non-fiction has been characterized (by myself, among others) as “a pack of lies”—because, as my friend Chuck Kinder says, “sometimes you just have to go where the story takes you”—, whereas my fiction is largely a re-imagined version of things that really happened in my life.
C’mon! How many two-nosed guys did you know?
Just one, but one was enough.
But I Just Hitched In is the very book I’ve dreamed of for many years, a hefty, generous helping of my favorite stories, an indissoluble admixture of fiction and non-fiction—or, if you will, of memoir and imagination.
You chose the story “The Day the Lampshades Breathed” to represent your book in TNB. Why that one in particular?
Because it celebrates a time and a place and a community of kindred spirits (Perry Lane, c. 1962-63) the likes of which I’d never known before, and haven’t encountered since.
In many ways, though, “Lampshades” isn’t at all representative of the book, because it’s just about one hundred percent straight reportage, whereas most of the rest of the stories are somewhat, um, embellished. One wants—always—to write artfully, of course, but the stuff that was actually happening during that Perry Lane time was so good that there was no need to “re-imagine” any of it. On the other hand, the portion of my life just prior to Perry Lane—i.e., the four years (1958-62) I spent teaching freshman comp in Oregon—got transformed through the magic of fiction (in “The Essentials of Western Civilization”) into an imagined thirty-year career in academe.
So what’s the organizing principle (if there is one) of I Just Hitched In from the Coast?
The three stories of A Congress of Wonders, inter-connected as they are by the presence in all three of my alter ego and favorite character, Philander Cosmo Rexroat, BS, MS, and Piled Higher and Deeper (“internationally acclaimed explorer, globe-trotter, author, archaeologist, zoologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, lepidopterist, philatelist, cosmologist, natural theosophist, minister of the Gospel, and licensed practitioner of colonic irrigation … ”), constitute the backbone or spine of the book. The other stories, all of which are autobiographical to some degree, and are therefore inter-connected chronologically, biologically, and emotionally, make up its fleshly corpus.
I had quite a lot to say about old Rexroat and the Congress stories, by the way, in my previous (March 2010) self-interview, which you can access in the TNB archives.
My late friend and ally Ken Kesey also looms large in I Just Hitched In; after his short turn on the stage in “Lampshades,” he reappears as Jean Genet’s foil in “Ken Kesey, Jean Genet, the Revolution, et Moi,” and finally as “the redoubtable Sage of Oregon” in “Furthurmore,” perhaps the most deeply personal of the non-fiction pieces in the book.
And there are other organizing links between and among the stories as well: For instance, in the aforementioned fictional story “The Essentials of Western Civilization,” there’s a cameo appearance by “young Dr. Toddler,” an American Studies scholar with an enthusiasm for the music of the Grateful Dead. Then, later in the book in the story called “Exegesis: A Fiction,” Dr. Toddler reappears as the author of an academic essay in which he explicates the lyrics of the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie.”
Well, the last time we spoke I called you “a windy old party,” and I see that, at least in that one respect, the passing years haven’t laid a glove on you.
You got that right, junior. Now get off my lap, you parasite.