When Ed McClanahan showed up on TNB back in 2010 I was blown away. Showing up, without warning, on my turf? Amazing. Mostly I’ve turned up on his turf. We’ll set aside the question of whose turf TNB is, but you know what I mean.

So here’s a little illustrated essay about how Ed and I converged. “Oh,” you say, “I didn’t know you had a string of books and were a Living Treasure of Kentucky and knew famous people,” and I say, “I don’t. This is about how we look.”

In 1956, Ed looked like this:

 

And I looked like this.

There’s some serious convergence coming. But it’s going to take a few years.

In 1962 I looked like this.

And in 1965 Ed looked like this:

…but the Ed described in this TNB piece probably looked a lot more like the 1963 me.

I don’t think he had a feather headband, but he had more magic substances available than I did.

So in 1963 I signed up for Creative Writing and Ed was the instructor. Probably we all called him “Professor,” because it was the old days and we were polite even to young instructors. On the first day of class a student asked about grading and Ed said, “I’ll read your stories and have a mystical experience and your grade will come to me.” Or something like that.

Little did I know he meant it. It was a life-changing experience for me (the course, not the grading procedure) and although I didn’t set myself on a fiction writing path until many years later, I never forgot Ed or that course.

A friend of mine never did either. He emailed me a couple of months ago after reading something of mine on TNB and said, “Do you remember taking “Creative Writing” from that really weird prof at Stanford?  We made up the most outrageous horrible drivel imaginable, and it was the only course where I got an A+.”

Hey, if Ed’s mystical experience offered up an A+, it couldn’t have been drivel. I think I got an A myself, but I can’t remember. I do remember going over to the famous Perry Lane to hand in a story, and I do remember running into Ken Kesey at San Gregorio beach. I was too shy to say anything.

I don’t think Ed introduced me to a crunchy bowl of Heavenly Blues, but he might have. I don’t know who else it could have been.

In those days it wasn’t common for undergraduates to hang out with their instructors, but that didn’t matter to Ed and me and then, a few months later, to Ed and me and Ruth, whom I’d met in my next (and last) creative writing course. We were seniors so it was OK.

The summer spent with Ruth in the Portola Valley we went over to see Ed and his then-wife Kit often. I had acquired a wolf cub, perhaps the most foolish of all the foolish things I did in those days, and it was famous in the McClanahan household for having nipped Ed’s daughter. It really was a nip, but since we were all fiction writers or would-be fiction writers the nip was escalated to a “bite” and probably over the years into a frightening encounter with a bad-tempered carnivore from which she was lucky to have escaped with her limbs intact. Probably it’s been passed along to grandchildren by now.

Ruth (playing with the wolf) was always going to get a little fiction coaching from Ed, but she never did. I found a letter she wrote me before I dropped out of her life.

I went off East and Ed and Ruth stayed West. I came back in 1965 to find Ed looking as I’ve shown you above. Next stop, 1972. I was launched on my career as an anthropologist. Ed was in Kentucky and I was in Papua New Guinea, and I didn’t know where Ruth was.

 

Here’s a letter that made its way to me in the village. Kit was usually the letter-writer.

“The child whose foot your wolf bit (ah memories!) is now in 4th grade. Ed published an article on the Grateful Dead in Feb ’72 Playboy, which won an award for the best piece of non fiction by a new contributor. A dubious honor, even in the aftermath of women’s lib. But we have been poor. Ky is a very primitive state. Come visit us here. We do want a copy of Gardening for Money. Ed has several books in the making  . . . still writes the novel.”

I didn’t start looking for Ed again until 1995, a few years after I started writing again. But before that, we’d better have a look at what we looked like in 1983.

 

That was before Google, and Ed didn’t have have his own website. I knew that Wendell Berry had dedicated a poem to Ed, and I managed to get his address. I couldn’t be certain that Ed would remember me, so so of course I tossed in the bit about the wolf. He couldn’t have forgotten his daughter’s near-death experience.

 

 

 

Berry’s handwriting might not be legible. “Dear Ed – If you wish to be found, here is a fellow applying for the job.”

And thus to seminal year 2004, when not only did I find Ruth but went to see Ed in Kentucky.

Convergence. Surprise! We both got old. He kept his hair, but I’d say we look a lot more alike than we did in 1956. My friend Ed’s written many more books than I have — and you’re missing out if you don’t read them. I’m going to send him my novel manuscript, and the old guy’s mystical experience had better be a good one. I’m expecting him to deliver an agent and publisher instead of an A.

 

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.