I interviewed myself once, years ago, and, having found myself to be charming, witty, and exceptionally well-informed, I was of course delighted when TNB offered me this opportunity to get together with myself again, and find out what I’ve been up to.  So I Googled myself, and sure enough, there I was!  I immediately got in touch with myself (so to speak), and we arranged to meet at our place where, over drinks (many drinks), we discussed our illustrious career and other subjects of mutual interest, as follows:

Golly gee, Mr. Clammerham, you sure have aged since our last interview!

Fuck off, sonny.

Age hasn’t done much for your disposition, I see.   Suppose we move along, Mr. Mackrelham.

Suppose we do.

Okay, for starters, why did you choose “Great Moments in Sports” as your contribution to TNB?  Isn’t that story getting a little … shopworn?

I wrote “Great Moments in Sports” and a companion piece, “Another Great Moment in Sports,” expressly for my book My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998), a genuinely good book which the reading public, to its eternal disgrace, largely declined to purchase.  So, ten years later, I thought I’d give the oblivious nitwits another chance by including both stories in O the Clear Moment (Counterpoint, 2008), now available in a nifty little paperback edition at fine booksellers everywhere.

More to the point, though, I love this story.  How could I not?  The characters—people—in it are very dear to me, as is that place and time.  And, for once, I get to be the hero!  The story is about as true as I could make it, and it takes place at just the right nanosecond in my life to serve as the beginning of the larger story that I wanted to tell in O the Clear Moment, my “implied autobiography.”  And the icing on this sweet little cupcake was that the story’s epigraph, the Robert Graves poem that begins “O the clear moment … ,” provided what seemed to me the perfect title for a book which is, when you come right down to it, all about those small epiphanies that grace our lives if we’re alert to them.

So this would be your favorite story, eh?

Nope.  My all-time favorite is “Finch’s Song,” the novella-length story in my collection A Congress of Wonders (Counterpoint, 1996).

That story haunted me for almost 35 years, and the tortured mutations it underwent over the course of all those years are, for me, a sort template of what was going on in the slow evolution of my own ideas about the kind of writer I wanted to be.

I spent my entire Stegner Fellowship year at Stanford (1962-63) writing what aspired to be a grim, unblinking, “naturalistic” account of a rural tragedy—a schoolbus wreck—somewhat after the manner of Erskine Caldwell, a writer whose work I still admire, by the way.  But I was no Erskine Caldwell, and my attempt to be one had produced a 130-page enormity called (saints forgive me!) “Consider the Lilies, How They Grow,”  with a cast of characters about whose real lives I knew, essentially, nothing at all.  Believe me, it showed; aside from good intentions, my novella had almost nothing to recommend it.  Worse, the story had been vaguely inspired by a real event that had taken place here in Kentucky, and I gradually came to realize that, inadvertently (those good intentions again), I had completely misunderstood and misrepresented the very nature of the people whose world I was presuming to explain and empathize with.

Yet I couldn’t quite let go of the story—or, more correctly, it wouldn’t let go of me.  The first version had portrayed the bus driver, a meager little fellow named Finch Fronk, as the Pied Piper reincarnate, a man so maddened by the derision and rejection of his townsmen that he literally wills himself a heart attack in order to destroy his tormentors’ children.  The writing had its moments—although even those were too often marred by faux-Faulkner stylistic flourishes (Faulkner having been my alternative southern literary hero)—, and I had also allowed myself to grow fond of some of the characters; but the story as I had written it became more and more an embarrassment to me.  Finally, I wanted to disavow it altogether, not just to abandon it but to unwrite it somehow, to unravel it like an ugly, ill-made Christmas sweater, as though it had never been, and then to fashion a whole new garment with the yarn.

Which is what I hope I accomplished in “Finch’s Song.”  After thirty-five years of obsessive reimagining and reshaping and reconfiguring and generally dicking around in a thousand ways with this long-suffering  narrative of mine—the Yarn—, I ended up with not a whole new story but rather a whole new way of telling the same story.  It’s still a story about Finch’s quest for vengeful justice, but now it’s also—and far more importantly—about the transformative power of revelation, whether the epiphany happens in a micro-moment of truth, as with Finch, or over thirty-five years, as with me.

My, how I do go on.  Next question?

(You are a windy old party.)  So Finch is your favorite fictional character?

Nope.  My favorite character is the original windy old party (I heard you say that!), the celebrated Dr. Philander Cosmo Rexroat, B.S., M.S., and PhD., “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 … ”—a man of  parts, by any measure.

Rexroat, “the Cecil B DeMille of Sex Hygiene Entertainment,” and his consort, Wanda Pearl Ratliff, first turn up in my one and only novel, The Natural Man (still in print after all these years!) as the purveyors of an appallingly cheesy, sordid “sex education” film and traveling roadshow.  The happy couple—my homage to the Duke and the Dolphin, although I’m certainly no Mark Twain either—return in A Congress of Wonders to play leading roles in the first two stories, and then make a cameo appearance in “Finch’s Song,” the third story in the book.

What I love about old Rexroat is just that he’s a post-Victorian fount of old-fashioned eloquence adapted to new uses, a spontaneous, jivin’ prose poet in the manner of Lord Buckley or Professor Irwin Corey or Neal Cassidy.  When he appears in a story, I always breathe a sigh of relief, because for the next few pages all I’ll have to do is sit back and take down whatever he says.  Rexroat is deeply, darkly cynical and as amoral as a pickpocket, yet he has what seems to me a discernible moral dimension, along with just the merest soupçon of human kindness, as well as a vast store of worldly wisdom:

“You must never presume upon the Cosmos, my lad,” he gently advises young Wade Capto, having just disabused him of every illusion the boy has ever possessed, or will ever entertain.  “That wouldn’t be … good policy.”

Wotta guy!

Well, while we’re on the subject of favorites, do you have a—?

Favorite sentence?  I thought you’d never ask.

By the oddest of coincidences, I was asked that same question years ago, on a literary panel at the University of Virginia, and I answered with some disingenuous piety like, Oh, I’m awfully fond of all my sentences, indiscriminately, even as the spawning trout adores all her little troutlings as they slip away downstream.  Or words to the effect.

But I’ve always been dissatisfied with that answer, because in fact I do have a favorite sentence, and I do wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of it,  and to read it aloud in my most stentorian tones before that august body.  The sentence I wish I’d thought of is in my novel, The Natural Man (still in print after all these years!); it’s about 400 words long, a great, lumbering freight train of a sentence, and it’s laden with the punch lines of, as best I can count, 35 gloriously indecent jokes—a cargo which I hope is sufficient, in its rich, aromatic variety, to offend all but the most jaded local sensibilities at every whistle-stop along the line.

Do not suppose for one second, however, that I’m about to disclose here, free of charge or obligation, the actual words of that priceless sentence.  For that, you have to buy the book—or at least check it out of the goddamn library.  The enterprising McClanafan will find my sentence chuggin’ fragrantly along on pages 68 and 69.

One last question, Mr. Clamhammer, before we let you go:  What the billy hell is an “implied autobiography”?

When I was a slip of a lad, taking undergraduate creative writing courses back in the 1950s, we used to talk about something we called the “implied novel,” by which we meant collections of short stories that had an over-arching narrative or a common setting (Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) or that focus on a single central character (Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, or, many years later, our own Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks).  The stories in O the Clear Moment are autobiographical to a fault (and largely true as well), but it took me a long time to realize that, amongst ’em, there was a narrative arc—an implied autobiography—striving to assert itself.

Thus was born a whole new genre!  And I was there!

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ED McCLANAHAN is a native of Brooksville, KY, born in 1932. A graduate of Miami (Ohio) University (AB, 1955) and the University of Kentucky (MA, 1958), he has taught English and creative writing at Oregon State University, Stanford University, the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University. His books include THE NATURAL MAN (a novel), FAMOUS PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN (a serio-comic autobiography), A CONGRESS OF WONDERS (three novellas), and MY VITA, IF YOU WILL (a miscellany of previously uncollected fiction, non-fiction, reviews, and commentary). The first two books were published by Farrar Straus & Giroux (1983 and 1985, respectively), the latter two by Counterpoint Press (1996 and 1998). NATURAL MAN has been reprinted by Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY), and FAMOUS PEOPLE has been reprinted by the University Press of Kentucky; both are also available from Books on Tape. In 2002, Larkspur Press (Monterey, KY) published McClanahan's memoir, FONDELLE: or THE WHORE WITH A HEART OF GOLD, in a limited edition. His latest book, an "implied autobiography" titled O THE CLEAR MOMENT, was released by Counterpoint in July 2008. Forthcoming in October is a CD of his reading of "Fondelle."

McClanahan is the editor of SPIT IN THE OCEAN #7: ALL ABOUT KESEY (Viking-Penguin, 2003), a tribute issue of the late Ken Kesey's self- published magazine, and he contributed an introduction to KESEY'S JAIL JOURNAL (Viking-Penguin, 2003), a volume featuring Kesey's art work.

The title story of A CONGRESS OF WONDERS was made into a prize- winning short film in 1993, and in 1994 McClanahan was the subject of an hour-long documentary on Kentucky Educational Television. His work has appeared in many magazines, including ESQUIRE, ROLLING STONE, and PLAYBOY, and twice won PLAYBOY's Best Non-Fiction awards. He has also been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, two Yaddo Fellowships, and an Al Smith Fellowship.

He lives with his wife Hilda in Lexington, KY, and is working on a latter-day sequel to NATURAL MAN, titled THE RETURN OF THE SON OF NEEDMORE.

17 responses to “Ed McClanahan: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m the first to comment! It’s appropriate because, Ed, I think I met you before anybody else on TNB did.

    If indeed anybody on TNB has ever met you. Their loss.

    I have to tell an Ed McClanahan story that I used to tell my classes each semester, when students would ask me “How are you going to grade us?”

    Someone asked you that question in a classroom in Palo Alto in 1963, and your so-useful answer went something like this: “I’m going to read your stories. Then I’ll have a mystical experience, and your grade will come to me.”

    O The Clear Moment indeed. I don’t know whether anybody in that room bit, but my freshmen often did.

    Thank you for that, and of course for starting me on the path that, with many detours, led me here.

    • ed mcclanahan says:

      –see, folks?–everything don knows, he owes to … me!–i think i should be paid residuals for all the good advice i’ve given away over the years, free of charge or obligation–

      • Simon Smithson says:

        There is no way I’m going to be able to resist stealing that line.

        Now, if only I were a teacher…

  2. Lee Quarnstrom says:

    Ed, I have loved all of your autobiographies.

  3. ed mcclanahan says:

    –hey lee, they don’t call me Mr. Autobiography fer nothin’!–i got a million of ’em!–

  4. Erika Rae says:

    I just love the fact that you use “billy hell” in your self interview. Totally killer.

    Welcome to TNB, Ed. I’m so proud to witness the reunion btwn you and Don. ( :

    PS – How cool are you to have invented your own genre?

    • ed mcclanahan says:

      –thanks for inviting me to ham it up on TNB, erika–my friend paula coomer suggests that there should be a sub-genre of Implied Autobiography called “self-adulational non-fiction”–i think she’s onto something–

      • David bailey says:

        I googles little enis and the web site had a picture of him with you in the front row. Natural man is the best book I ever read.

  5. Vickie Thornsberry says:

    I woke up at 5am this morning, got my husband off to work, turned on the T.V. and it just happened to be on KET. I watched this program featuring you, Ed Mcclanahan. I was immediatly taken in by your smart ass sense of humor, being that I suffer from the same condition. I say I am funny, others find me to be a smart ass. oh well, dosen’t really matter, I am only trying to amuse myself with my humor anyway. I will tell you how I became an immediate fan, your tone, and sense of humor sorta put me in the mind of my all time favorite musician which would be none other than the great John Prine. If you have not had the pleasure to hear his stuff, your really missin’ out. Anywho, I am puzzled. After becoming an immediate fan, and wanting to open my laptop and order up some books, and read them ASAFP, I was heartbroked, to see that you are against mountain top removal. Did I mention I got my husband off to work this morning? he hauls coal, I take care of all the paperwork and things in that aspect of it, and we support our family with it. Are you against all coal mining? Please come up with SOMETHING to make me feel ok to enjoy your work. I would appreciate it. Thanks a bunch, Vicke.

  6. ed mcclanahan says:

    –much as i’d love to keep you in my fan base, vickie, i’m afraid my opposition to mountain-top removal mining is not negotiable; one fly-over of an MTR site in perry county (think Ground Zero after 9/11), and i was hooked forever–(for what it’s worth, i have nothing at all against underground mining, although i wish the coal companies and government regulators would pay a whole lot more attention to miner health and safety issues)–

    –as to your and your husband’s line of work, here’s a little letter i wrote to the editor of the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader back in 2005:


    Whenever I hear the argument that mountaintop removal creates jobs, I can’t help remembering my first encounter, years ago, with a disreputable Henry County neighbor I’ll call Pee-Rooney Jimson, who had just pulled two years in the state penitentiary.

    “Well, Pee-Rooney,” said another neighbor (who knew Pee-Rooney’s history better than I did), “what do you plan to do, now that you’re out of the pen?”

    “Do?” cried Pee-Rooney, in high dudgeon. “I ain’t gonna do nothing! They wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do, so I just ain’t gonna do nothing!”

    “Well,” said my friend, “what did you want to do, Pee-Rooney?”

    “Why,” said Pee-Rooney, indignantly, “I wanted to sell pot and pills to the high school kids!”

    I don’t mean to seem cold-hearted about the matter of jobs for the guys who blast mountaintops into oblivion and drive overweight coal trucks and gigantic earth-eating bulldozers, but the fact is that these folks need to reconsider what they’re doing–to the land, to their heritage, and to the rest of us.

    • dwoz says:

      Mountaintop removal coal miners are the people (you KNOW who you are!) that leave the cap off the milk, mayonnaise, and urology sample. They’re the folks that never put the lid back on the trash can. They’re the ones that leave the toilet seat up. They’re the ones that leave a sinkful of dishes, and that pull out before before she’s had hers too.

      Bad parenting, apparently.

  7. ed mcclanahan says:

    –hey vickie, meet dwoz, the biggest smart-ass of ’em all!–

  8. Vickie Thornsberry says:

    Thats not bein smart assed Ed, thats showing ignorance. LOL. I am talkin bout a certain kind of smart assedness. the kind that can look at things with humor, like how I just spelled assedness. (not a word I know) Some would use it as a chance to make themselves feel smart. Well dwoz, I guess your such a big boy, and all grown up cause you know to put a lid on a urine sample. I guess he prolly even takes the dishes outta the sink before you pee in it. My husband will not haul overweight. And he works hard. But ask yourself this, have you traveled on roads that a mountain was blasted just so your car would not have to cross over it? Was any wood used in the construction of your home? have you ever bought a diamond ring? do you use paper? (being a writer I would imagine so) do you use oil in your car? these are just some random questions to ask yourself. If you bother to do so, I don’t think anyone can say no to all of these. So, If you have ever driven through a cut through, do you think about what had to happen to get through the mountain instead of over it? Do you think of the trees cut for building materials and paper products? Do you think of all the horrible things said about diamond mining? Do you think of all the oil spills that have happened? Although long and not well written, I am trying to make my point of saying that coal is a resource, just like any other resource, God put them here for us to use to live, in my opinion that is, I do think there is a right way and a wrong way to do anything. And I think that there should be regulations, but anytime I see anything about mt. top removal, it seems as though they are completly against coal all together. Maybe a new slogan could be “use the coal, save the mtns” whattaya say?

    • dwoz says:

      Well, my dear.

      Thing is, we DO have to think about exactly what level of insult to the earth we’re willing to condone to sustain our largess. Everyone has their threshold where they say “enough.”

      I appreciate the fact that your husband probably has exactly zero other choices when it comes to the problem of maintaining you in the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. His back is against a wall. It’s either commit ecological rape, or die. Literally. Starkly.

      I was, in fact, in the company of loggers just a few minutes ago. The kind that realize that if they rip the bejeezus out of the land, then that’s one more acre or 40 that they will never be coming back to. Instead of that, they tread as lightly as they can, practicing something called “stewardship.” It’s quite a concept, actually. It’s slow-motion farming.

      A tiny bit different than the fast-scale geological holocaust that is practiced today in your area.

      However, I think if I was faced with the choice of, well, death, or being a cog in that wheel…what would I choose? What would anyone choose?

  9. Vickie Thornsberry says:

    oops, that was supposed to be takes the dishes outta the sink before HE pees in it. LOL

  10. ed mcclanahan says:

    –well, here’s what i think: i think i’ll have a drink–over and out–ed–

  11. Vickie Thornsberry says:

    Enjoy it! wish I drank. LOL

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