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Beckley writer breaks down his youth in 'Crapalachia'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Scott McClanahan doesn't like to talk too much about why he writes the way he writes -- or why he writes at all.

"I don't really think about it too much, honestly. It's like breaking down your religion or if your girlfriend loves you or not," said McClanahan, whose fourth book, "Crapalachia: A Biography of Place," is out.

The 35-year-old Beckley man suspects most people have no idea why they take up the occupations they do.

"Probably if you asked a thoracic surgeon why he does what he does, he doesn't know -- which is kind of scary when it's someone who can open up your body cavity," he said. "I guess you're trying to do the same thing when you're a writer. It's just the words of it get in the way."

"Crapalachia" is the author's sometimes embellished accounts of his youth. The book is full of strange, or possibly familiar, characters, some of whom are totally real, while others are at least partly fictional or composites of several people.

"We're calling the book nonfiction lite," he joked. "It's better for sales."

The book, which careens from heartache to hilarity, has been lauded by The Paris Review, Paste and Vice magazines and The Washington Post.

McClanahan doesn't precisely know what to make of the attention, but he seems somewhat amused by it all.

"They're always mentioning my accent in interviews," he said.

It doesn't sound that strange to him, of course. He's lived in West Virginia his whole life.

McClanahan grew up in Greenbrier County, went to Concord College in 1996 and eventually earned a master's degree from Marshall University.

"Now I teach at New River Community Technology College. It used to be Bluefield State or a branch of Bluefield State College before the Legislature took all the two-year programs from the four-year schools and turned them into universities."

He sounded baffled that they bothered.

McClanahan teaches English, but he said he'd taught history and speech classes over the years.

"Now, it's just English."

He likes what he does and takes a certain amount of wicked pride in being part of a profession with a very distinguished list of celebrities.

"All the great madmen of the 20th century were teachers," he said. "Stalin was a teacher. Woodrow Wilson, Pol Pot, LBJ ... Chairman Mao, he was a librarian."

They also were ambitious, wanting to rule the world or parts of it, which seems not to interest McClanahan, though he acknowledged he talked to his agent about getting groupies and money.

McClanahan has been writing most of his life, starting sometime during middle school. How and when it began was sort of a mystery.

"I used to get these feelings," he said. "And I know this is going to sound weird, but it was like when you first start going to see great films, you know? Like the movies your mom watched. I'd watch and have these emotions, and the only way I could get a handle on them was to write."

He wrote about his family and the people around him almost from the start. That and birds.

"There's a whole year-long period where I wrote nothing but about bluebirds," he said. "I have no idea why. That was horrible. I didn't even care about birds. I don't even like birds now."

He comes from storytelling people, but he dismissed that as being anything really special. Too much, he believes, is made of that particular trait.

"I hate that kind of stereotype of Appalachian or Southern storytellers. You know what? You're going to meet great storytellers in Brooklyn, N.Y., or in Massachusetts, but yeah, in my family, there's always been storytelling."

A few weeks ago, McClanahan had a friend visiting from California. After a trip to the local cemetery to visit the graves of his Grandma Ruby and Uncle Nathan, "because this is what you do when you bring your girlfriend from California -- you take them to the cemetery and let them look at your dead people," she asked him what they were like.

He told her, "They just talked. You couldn't keep up with the talking. They weren't even stories. It was just constant talking, about anything, about everything."

To people who've never spent much time in West Virginia, there's a lot they don't understand. To people in the city, to people out West or up North, Southern West Virginia is weird, exotic -- the other. There is a tendency, he believes, in romanticizing the other.

He remembered that he and his friend from California were sitting at the Olive Garden in Beckley when she told him, "Well, it's not very poverty-stricken at all."

McClanahan said, "And it makes you feel bad when they say that. You feel like you let them down, like you didn't show them the poverty they needed to see, like the poverty in a Shelby Lee Adams photo."

People have their own ideas of what being from Appalachia means, and there's not a lot anyone can do to change that. It took generations for that image to be assembled. It would take generations for it to be dismantled.

And it's hard to say if "Crapalachia" will do much to alter any of those perceptions. The people he writes about in his book come from poverty and tragedy and would have little interest in the kind of books McClanahan writes -- if they were still living.

"These people don't read literary fiction," he said and then added, "They might read the Gazette."

Perhaps sensing that he's stumbled into a joke, McClanahan laughed and added, "Maybe."

While "Crapalachia" has gotten some nice notice nationally and internationally, McClanahan didn't know if he'd catch on locally as a writer.

"On Good Reads, all my two- and three-star reviews are from people who love Denise Giardina, people who love West Virginia writing.

"I don't know if this fits into that."

West Virginians can be prickly about how the state is portrayed, even by people from here.

"We're so worried about our image, aren't we? But why do we want to be another state like Ohio? Who wants to be Ohio or Pennsylvania? Is that what we're striving for?"

McClanahan hopes not, but even so, he expects to keep on doing what he's doing, even if he's not sure why.

"I've got a novel called 'Hill William' coming out soon," he said. "It's like hillbilly, only sophisticated. We're calling it a novel, but it's probably more nonfiction than 'Crapalachia.'"

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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