(dana) Thu 29 Jan 09 12:16
It's a pleasure to welcome Ed McClanahan to the Inkwell. Ed McClanahan is the author of The Natural Man, Famous People I Have Known, and several other books. In 2003, he edited Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey, a tribute issue of his late friend Ken Kesey's self-published magazine. O the Clear Moment, a "fictionalized memoir," was published by Counterpoint in 2008. His work has appeared in Playboy, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and many other magazines. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky. Leading the discussion is our own Scott MacFarlane. Scott is a writer from the Skagit Valley in western Washington. He has been a member of The Well since April 2007 when his book, The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture was also featured on Inkwell.vue. When not working or writing, he especially enjoys kayak fishing in the inland salt waters of the Puget Sound. Thank you for joining us, Ed and Scott.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Mon 2 Feb 09 13:25
Thank you, Dana. Hi Ed. Thank you for taking the time to join our conversation on Inkwell.vue. Ive very much enjoyed reading your latest collection of creative nonfiction, O the Clear Moment. I also had great fun reading your autobiographically inspired 1983 novel, The Natural Man, as well as your other story collections. Suffice to say, that Ive become a McClanafan. Were here for the next couple of weeks to focus on your newest creation, which draws from the rich life that youve had in the hill country of Kentucky both growing up and upon return after two decades in the Western U.S. where you experienced first-hand and Merry Prankster style, the great social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. Im looking forward to discussing both your literary approach and some of those fascinating life experiences you allude to in O the Clear Moment. Let me start with a question regarding your literary approach as a writer: Late in this book, in the story Dog Loves Ellie, you are at your 40th high school reunion in Maysville, Kentucky, looking out from a balcony of the new Ramada Inn: a panoramic vista of northeastern Kentucky farmland stretching off to the distant horizon, rumpled as an unmade bed, with ridges and gullies and hollers fanning out into infinity. This lovely, descriptive sentence is tucked in the midst of a comic description of your classmate Dogs lifelong obsession with Ellie, a high school sweetheart whom you also fancied during your adolescence. Without getting into too many particulars of the story (we do want the readers here to buy the book!), this sentence, for me, was indicative of your literary craftsmanship. For example, rumpled as an unmade bed, with ridges and gullies and hollers is a comic visual simile with strong Southern flavoring. However, even more than how you evoke the image of this place, I was impressed with the way the line helps you set up the ultimate irony of the scene. Fifteen pages earlier in this story, with seeming innocence, you describe yourself as a high school freshman moving to Maysville. One of the first jobs you have is hoeing weeds from a tobacco patch at the edge of town. Then, again with this passage, you are taking a half-breath of innocent reverie during your high school reunion. You are in the midst of rescuing the high school sweetheart from her obsessed ex-boyfriend, who is an unprepossessing and besotted forty years older then. You are on the balcony looking out, when you realize this is the precise spot where you had weeded the tobacco patch. This scene and passage worked on several levels--, especially how this place with its change and sameness is juxtapositioned with the core timelessness but undeniable change of your mature characters. The way you set up the comic scene was, for me, an excellent example of the seamlessness and subtle depth of your prose. Clearly, you were no innocent writer with your careful foreshadowing of the later scene and the tone you present. Your writing flows so easily through the comic situations you depict, but, as you admit in your closing story of this bookThe Imp of Writing: Ars Poeticasuch appearances are illusory. Paradoxically, the crafting only seems effortless. As a writer, do you work from an outline, or do you dive in with a premise and allow the story to emerge? For example, with this example, when you seized upon the ironic twist of the Ramada as the site of the tobacco patch, did the idea become one outlined element around which you crafted the story, or did this comic irony surface as you progressed through the story?
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:22
1) I love this question, Scott, because it provides me with what I like best: an opportunity to bloviate about how, as an excruciatingly deliberate (not to say self-conscious) writer, I compose my stories. For many years after I returned permanently to Kentucky in the middle 1970s, whenever I visited Maysville, I stayed at the "new" Ramada Inn, and every time I was struck by the wonderfully ironic coincidence that this "Air Conditioned Nightmare" (thank you, Henry Miller) was situated on the very ridge where I'd labored in that heat-blasted tobacco patch all one miserable summer so many years ago. In my mind it was a vaguely magical place, a place where two strains of my experience (youth and age) converged, sort of like one of those tourist-trap Mystery Spots, where gravity is turned on its head, and water supposedly runs uphill and birds fall from the sky and what-not. And of course the Ramada really did happen to be where I, along with many of my old Class of '51 schoolmates, had ensconced ourselves during our 40th reunion in 1991. So when I was writing "Dog Loves Ellie," as the story advanced, I began to think about precisely where it ought properly to end, and of course the obvious answer was the Ramada, since that was where this momentous day itself had ended. That naturally set me to posing "what does it all mean" questions to myself, which in turn led me to contemplating the small but unique role the little plot of ground where the Ramada stands had played in my personal history. And at that point, I went back to the early pages of the narrative and planted a passing reference to my tobacco-patch summer, quite specifically so that I could allow it to re-surface when needed, near the story's end. I suppose that amounts to what could be considered an "artificial" manipulation of the material--"crafty," good ol' Henry Miller would probably call it, sneering disdainfully--, but reiteration of detail can hold a story together, and bring purpose and direction to an otherwise aimless narrative. All of which is a very roundabout way of saying No, I don't really work from an outline, but I do like to have a game-plan or master strategy stashed away somewhere in the back of my mind, around which the story can develop and evolve--a grain of sand, if you will, that aspires to become a pearl
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:38
Interesting approach, Ed. There's nothing wrong with well placed, innocent-seeming artifice to set up later scenes. It's fascinating to learn how different authors approach their works. Your literary chops yield humor through a fascinating mix of caricature, exaggerated circumstance, word play, first person self-deprecation, ironic juxtaposition, adolescent angst and idiom. In the humorous vein of Mark Twain and Flannery OConnor, there is no mistaking that the imp on your shoulder is from the South. How do you see your voice in relation to this literary tradition that has been called Southern Grotesque?
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:55
In my misspent youth, I used to put in a lot of time hanging around the paperback rack in the local drugstore, sneaking peeks at, among other inspirational literature, a wonderfully trashy 35-cent novel called Tragic Ground, by Erskine Caldwell. The protagonist is a downtrodden, penniless, unemployed white southern factory worker named Spence, who is given to such gloriously colorful language as " ... like a rabbit with his balls caught in a sewing machine!" and (my favorite) "Dogbite my pecker!" (Years later, I realized that Spence is just a latter-day version of Huck Finn's Pap, a character with whom I was already thoroughly acquainted.) Spence has an unwashed, over-sexed, over-ripe adolescent daughter who was just my age, and who, you may be sure, immediately got my undivided attention. But as I feverishly thumbed through the book in search of the Hot Stuff, I gradually began to discover, more or less in spite of myself, that for all his coarseness, Caldwell had serious issues on his mind: poverty, social injustice, ignorance, racism, etc. The application of these high-minded, principled considerations to such an irrepressibly unseemly cast of characters was, in itself, a lesson for me in ironic juxtaposition--and in humility as well, in that it provided me with a whole new way of thinking about some of the folks that I myself, as a small-town Kentucky boy, was growing up among. Eventually, I read everything by Caldwell I could get my hands on, and even, in some of my earliest attempts to write creatively, emulated him. And when I moved on to Faulkner, and still later to Flannery O'Connor, I emulated them as well, having recognized their characters right away.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Feb 09 10:00
The Natural Man, was your one and only novel, as you describe the book in this collection. Clearly, this work of fiction borrowed heavily from your real-life upbringing in rural, small-town Kentucky in the 1940s and 50s, and I know you started the book in the early60s but didnt finish it until the early 80s. With this fine novel under your belt, why do you think you havent written more works of pure fiction? What draws you to shorter works of creative non-fictional memoir?
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 10:07
Well, first of all, let's not forget (although everybody does) A Congress of Wonders, my little collection of three long stories, which (because it isn't autobiographical) is perhaps "purer" fiction than is The Natural Man, and which is to my mind the very best book I have written, or will ever write. (I'm hugely fond of all three of those stories, but for the record, my all-time favorite is "Finch's Song: A Schoobus Tragedy.") But I think that stories, be they fiction or non-fiction, determine their own length, just as water seeks its own level--and it just so happened that, except for Natural Man (and the sequel to it that I've been plugging along on for years now), none of my stories ever piped up and said, "Hey boss, I wanna be a novel!" ("Finch's Song," which, like Natural Man, was written over several decades, did make a stab at turning itself into a novel--it once reached a puffed-up length of about 135 overwritten pages--, but then it slowly settled back into being a mere novella, just as nature intended.)
Steve Silberman (digaman) Tue 3 Feb 09 11:42
Ed, thanks for being here. I'm really enjoying O the Clear Moment. The vignette about the run-in at the auto body shop was hilarious. At the risk of asking a question in a predictable area, I'd like to focus on Neal Cassady for a moment. I am not naive about him; I was a friend of Allen Ginsberg's for 20 years, and I've read all the usual books, plus The First Third and Neal's letters from prison. I'm too young to have met him, but I've heard his voice, seen the Prankster footage, and talked for hours with his wife Carolyn. I once had the pleasure of eating dinner in Chinatown with Allen, Neal's son John Allen and his girlfriend, Al and Helen Hinckle (who are Ed and Galatea Dunkel in On the Road), and Anne Murphy as they reminisced about Neal for hours, including memories of Denver. Such as the time that Neal and his pals broke into a summer house in the mountains and turned it into an ongoing tantric fiesta for a couple of months, and Neal instituted a rule that at midnight, everyone had to stop what they were doing and start doing it with someone else... or the time that he attempted to address the regrettable horniness of one of his buddies who was confined to a wheelchair by tooling into Denver and returning with a pretty young woman in a wheelchair announcing, "Tom, I found the perfect girl for you!!" So, what I want to know is this. Like other writers and folks I respect, you seem to have been very impressed by Neal as a person, and invoked the Superman metaphor to describe him. But now that the writing is done, and the mytho-image-archetype is firmly established, and every Deadhead thinks they have an idea of who Neal was... please tell us something that No One Really Knew about him, something that was underappreciated or undernoticed even by the people who loved him best -- but that you saw, with your sharp writerly eye. Thanks, and welcome!
Dana Reeves (dana) Wed 4 Feb 09 10:11
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- please include "O the Clear Moment" in the subject line.)
David Gans (tnf) Wed 4 Feb 09 12:45
Hey Ed! Great to have you here. I loved "O the Clear Moment," too!
Donna Atwood (bratwood) Wed 4 Feb 09 13:53
Hi Ed! I need to catch up a bit. In the meantime, your book is sitting next to my copy of "Me talk pretty one day."
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 15:20
Hey y'all, glad to be in this so-called space in such excellent company, and thank you, Steve and David, for your good responses to OTCM. (You're gonna love it, Donna! Just ask Steve and David!) I've pretty much exhausted my personal supply of Neal stories, Steve, in Famous People and My Vita, If You Will. But there was one I always anjoyed that Kesey used to tell:
no disrespect to our friends the chum (wiggly) Wed 4 Feb 09 16:38
The suspense, it it is killing me...
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 4 Feb 09 17:47
I'm trying to figure out if the silence is a koan. :)
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 18:06
Sorry, Steve (et al), this is far and away the most frustrating process I've ever found myself caught up in. I blame it all on Stewart Brand. I'm now going to try again .. one mo' time!
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 4 Feb 09 18:24
Ed, don't worry. Ease and comfort with this stuff is not far away. We really appreciate you being here.
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 19:22
Okay, gang, here (once again) is the Kesey/Neal story, as best I can reconstruct it (with the occasional McClanaflourish) after thirty-five years (not to mention three successive cyber-fuckups): Neal, loaded on Obetrol (which Google tells me a weight-loss amphetamine), is driving around Palo Alto in one of those old bangers of his when he gets pulled over by The Fuzz. (Yes, we actually called them that.) The cop orders him out of the car and, noting that hes a bit befuckled, demands, Okay, what are you high on! Obetrol, officer! Neal chirps brightly, without a moments hesitation. Obetrol! The cop, who presumably doesnt have access to Google (this being ca. 1968), has no idea what on earth Obetrol might be, so he ignores Neals answer, and instructs him (in no uncertain terms) to empty his pockets. Certainly, certainly, sir, right away! Neal says. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, palms his little vial of Obetrol tabs in one hand, grabs the bottom of both pockets and pulls them inside out, spilling a whole cascade of small change, keys, lighters, and other pocket detritus onto the pavement at their feet. Pick up that shit! the cop commands. Neal, of course, happily obliges, blathering away all the while about this and that as only an Irishman can do, busily picking up every single dime and nickel and penny and re-pocketing themalong with the vial of Obetrol. All done, officer! he assures the policeman, holding out his hands, palms up, to demonstrate his perfect Irish innocence. Ah well says the policeman, get along with ye, thin.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Thu 5 Feb 09 01:06
Excellent. Thanks, Ed. And thanks for braving the cyber-tsuris.
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Thu 5 Feb 09 04:55
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 5 Feb 09 07:27
(Stewart Brand intended The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link as a hero's quest, perhaps. WELL, You've braved your first dragon with only a singe, Ed!) Speaking of Ken Kesey, you have said that you were standing in the authors yard at La Honda when the bus Furthur and the Merry Pranksters departed on its picaresque trip across America. As a fellow Prankster, you hinted at regret that your own family obligations kept you from joining your friends on this grand adventure that became the iconic on the bus metaphor for the countercultural epoch. As a Prankster insider to that scene, have you ever imagined how different your approach might have been to telling that story than what Tom Wolfe, a not-on-the-bus outsider, wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Thu 5 Feb 09 15:56
Gurney Norman tells an anecdote about how Ken once asked Tom, who happened (like Gurney) to be visiting the Kesey farm up in Oregon, to help him and Gurney extricate his old rumpsprung Cadillac convertible from a barnyard mudhole. (Ken liked to buy elderly Caddie ragtops and basically drive the wheels off them, then literally put them out to pasture, using them to haul hay out back to feed his cows.) Wolfe, who was wearing one of his trademark white outfits, was (understandably) reluctant. "See, that's the thing about Tom," Ken griped later, "he never wants to get any on him!" If I had made the 1964 bus trip, I woulda got plenty on me, of that you may be sure. But the story I would've written wouldn't have been about the Pranksters, it would've been about me! My writing generally tends to be pretty self-referential, as anyone who's read my 1972 Playboy essay about the Grateful Dead knows all too well. So I think Truth (whatever that is) was probably much better served by Tom--a great reporter even though he wasn't really "there"--than it would've been if I had written some McClanaversion of the story. I should add that Art was probably better served as well. Ken had his own misgivings about the effect Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had on his personal life--"Fame is a wart," he was (famously) fond of saying--, but I also heard him say, more than once, that he thought it was "a helluva book, just a helluva book." I couldn't agree more. (Once in a while, someone would show up at one of Ken's book signings and present him with a copy of EKAT to sign. "Sure!" Ken would say delightedly ... and then he'd take the guy's book and write "Tom Wolfe" on the flyleaf!) I'll mention too, in this connection, that in 1990, when Ken resurrected Furthur and Prankishly declared his (thoroughly bogus) intention to take it to the Smithsonian, I went along for the ride (it was a great trip, though we only got as far as Stockton) and wrote an essay about it all, of which I'm especially proud. The piece, "Furthurmore: An Afterword," originally appeared in the Gnomon Press edition of Famous People I Have Known, and is reprinted in my collection titled My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998).
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 5 Feb 09 20:30
Self-referential, but uproariously astute... for those who haven't had the pleasure of reading Ed's prose, here, for your educational expansion, he does the counterculture proud with his aforementioned article on the Grateful Dead: http://www.kazart.com/bus_stop/playboy1.htm
Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 5 Feb 09 21:06
Ah, lovely! One of my favorite works of music journalism ever. I still have the original issue around somewhere (one of those rare instances where I could refer unironically to reading Playboy for the articles!). The description of Garcia gleefully if ineptly playing third base for the Dead in a softball game against Jefferson Airplane is priceless. And the self-referential quality is, I think, one of the very things that makes the article great. As someone caught in the Dead's gravitational pull for more than three decades as fan and employee, I can say the "Grateful Dead I Have Known" painted a more vivid and accurate portrait of the Grateful Dead *I* have known than any number of pieces that aspired to present a more detatched or objective view. Nice to finally get a chance to thank you for that, Ed!
Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Fri 6 Feb 09 06:57
Thank you so much, Gary. Y'know, when the Dead piece came out in Playboy, I thought Omigod, I'm gonna be read in every poolhall and barbershop all across the land! My name will be on America's lips! Fame is mine! The silence, as they say, was deafening; it was as if I'd dropped the story down a well--and now, after all these years, it resurfaces, where else but in ... the WELL! Actually, of course, over the years I heard from many folks who'd read and enjoyed it. But that was nonetheless an instructive--and humbling--experience. When I published another piece in Playboy a couple of years later (about Lexington, KY's own Little Enis, "The All-American Left-Handed Upside-down Guitar Player"), my expectations were a lot less elevated, fer sher. And thank you, Scott, for posting the old GD warhorse. But because Playboy's editors couldn't resist tarting up and trimming my story as it was written, I'd also like to remind anyone who's interested that in my collection titled My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998), I reprinted "Grateful Dead I Have Known" and restored it to its original splendor after those accursed editorial depredations. My Vita is no longer in print at Counterpoint, but it's available, I'm told, via the internet in a print-on-demand version.
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 6 Feb 09 08:28
Amazon.com shows new copies of My Vita for $16.95, by the way.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 6 Feb 09 08:32
Thanks <jera>. In this Grateful Dead piece, more than the others I've read, you write with a stream-of-consciousness style (dithyrambic even) that's reminiscent of the Beat writers. Of course, the myth surrounding Kerouac was how ON THE ROAD poured out of him spontaneously. It's a fascinating paradox that also seems to be at work in the Playboy piece. Earlier, you stated how you write slowly and deliberately, yet this richly descriptive and free-spirited work lends the appearance of pure spontaneity, of a kaleidascope of words pouring off your pen. Yet, when examined more closely, it's filled with some tightly crafted prose (including my nomination for the best extended-single-sentence-page-of-prose to emerge from the counterculture). In other words, could you do all aspiring writers a great service by exposing this myth of first draft fine literature that comes from the muse like-manna-from-the-heavens?
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