It’s been a long wait between books for fans of Ed McClanahan. His 1983 debut effort, The Natural Man, was published to great critical and popular acclaim, and sold to the Movies, a best-seller by literary standards.
A successful free-lance writer (a title he often describes to his English students as one of his most glamorous aspirations), his non-fiction pieces appeared in Esquire, Playboy, and Rolling Stone, to name a few. A collection of some of his most popular pieces comprised his 1985 book, Famous People I Have Known.
But his latest and long-awaited work of fiction, a selection of two stories and a novella, has been thirteen years in the making. At least. McClanahan actually puts the number at closer to 98 — adding up all the time spent on each story. He began a draft of “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” the book’s opening story, in 1954. In 62 and 63, he worked on the novella “Finch’s song,” while on a Stegner fellowship at Stanford. A draft of “Congress of Wonders,” the book’s eponymous story, was completed in 1974. Applying these considerable powers of calculation to this other two books, McClanahan estimates his literary career (thus far) to be at roughly 217 years.”
McClanahan responds amiably to the constant question, “why the wait?” He compares the process of writing to “performing brain surgery on yourself; it’s not something you want to hurry…” As the conversation shifted to the discipline it takes to be a writer, McClanahan admitted “it doesn’t come easy.” He says, “I can’t proceed until I’m satisfied with what I’ve got. [I have to[ endlessly polish....I write so slowly, yet I have to have this feeling of spontaneity in the work. That's a straddle."
He admits to lying in bed at night, working endlessly on one sentence. The next day, he types it in. He acknowledges this process "probably explains a lot."
McClanahan also compares writing literature to writing music, having written a few songs in the seventies, "Drowning in the Land of Sky Blue Waters," and "All the Roads in the World." The chorus to the last one is, "All the roads in the world lead to home sweet home/and they all lead the other way too/some have to stay and some have to go/and some are just passing through." These are themes that resurface in the fiction as well, starting with the Natural Man.
The latest effort is being published by the relatively new Counterpoint, offspring of the now defunct Northpoint press. Other writers on the new roster include Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Evan S. Connell Jr. and Guy Davenport.
The jacket cover of Congress features one of the author's favorite paintings, "Hinky Dinky Parley Voo" by artist Paul Cadmus. McClanahan had described it as "like Norman Rockwell on acid." When he ran into Guy Davenport (who had written a biography of the artist), Davenport confirmed that the artist had intended the 1939 painting to be a deliberate parody of Norman Rockwell.
Congress has a darker tone in places than some of McClanahan's earlier comic works. "Finch's song," in particular, resonates with deeper themes and exhibits a refreshing willingness to consider its characters' multiple dimensions. McClanahan says it was a much darker story when he started it twenty years ago, "intended as a kind of naturalism...but it involved into a fairly spiritual story [of] unanticipated heroics.”
The story draws peripherally on McClanahan’s brief tenure as a schoolbus driver (the “worst job” he ever had), as well as a suggestion from a former teacher that he should write abut the Prestonsburg schoolbus tragedy. He didn’t go that route, but instead focuses on a character “about to commit the most villainous act imaginable” and turns him “into a hero of sorts.”
The book’s centerpiece story may seem familiar to readers who have already seen the film version of the story, made here in Lexington.
Congress of Wonders has already premiered locally, but has been selected to be shown at the Kennedy Center in the near future as part of a festival competititon. It also won Best of Show at the Indiana Film and Video Festival, a seven-state regional competition.
Now that the book has been put to bed, the author is preparing to hit the open road to sell it on a cross-country book tour. In May and June, he’ll swing through the South (Miami, Atlanta, Nashville) and then out West to Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and San Francisco. He’ll end this leg of the tour in Oregon, where his reading in Eugene will be introduced by his longtime friend Ken Kesey.
It’s a part of the job, McClanahan says, that he, unlike Kesey, enjoys. McClanahan likens having the chance to do a reading everyday to getting “all the candy bars you want,” but he also offers his friend’s quote on the subject,” the publishers set these up because they want to kiss the bookstore owners’ asses and they want the writers to be their lips.”
Hopefully, fans won’t have to wait quite as long for McClanahan’s next project. In the works is a reissue of Famous People I Have Known. The new version will include a piece called “Furthurmore, An Afterword,” an account of the Merry Pranksters’ reunion, among other things. Also on the author’s agenda is a plan to revisit Needmore. He’s been thinking about a sequel to The Natural Man in which protagonist Harry Eastep will “serve as a juror in a courtroom drama.” John Grisham probably doesn’t need to watch his back though; this courtroom drama’s bound to have a sense of humor about itself.
McClanahan will be at Joseph Beth Booksellers on May 29, 1996 for a reading and signing.