Interview: Clay McLeod Chapman

My introduction to Clay McLeod Chapman was memorable. It started with walking into a room with eight or nine other people. We were a group of young writers starting a series of classes on the craft. All of us had been chosen to have our plays produced for a festival showcasing young writing and acting talents. The writing classes were part of the three weeks we had to spend in Richmond to develop our plays. Chapman was one of the writing instructors. The only thing I knew about him was that he had published a couple of books, was an alumni of the program we were in, and had a lot of theater experience. I’m glad now that I wasn’t a fan of his before that introduction. I think it made what followed that much more jarring.

After we had filed into the room and sat down down, a very unassuming looking guy we all figured to be Chapman suddenly started talking to us. Only it wasn’t anything someone normally says when addressing a group of people for the first time. It took a moment to realize Clay McLeod Chapman was telling a story. It took a few more moments to realize that he was telling the story as a character. Standing still in a busy room, Chapman isn’t someone who is going to dominate the surroundings with his physical presence. Several of his writings have toyed with the notion that the quiet one standing behind you at the ATM, or someone who looks as though they haven’t glanced up from the book they’re reading on a bench in the park in years, is the one who can surprise you the most. The potential outcome for meeting someone like that can be good, bad, or something in between. Chapman has written stories that cover all three of those scenarios. In the end, no matter what happens, the effect sets off a profound spiritual, psychological, and perhaps even biological change.

Once Chapman starts talking, he becomes the physical embodiment of the potential that exists within his own creativity, of his own shock-and-awe writing. He had (and still has) a number of theatrical talents. He can assume voices, move through a variety of tones in a single block of dialog, and create a wide array of prop possibilities with his hands and his eyes. I don’t want to speak for the other people who were in the room that day. If I had to guess at their reactions, I would imagine they were initially as confused as I was when faced with this guy who just started talking about his daughter.

The confusion eventually gave way to captivation. That eventually turned over to horror, as we all realized over the course of Chapman’s monologue why the father character he was playing couldn’t find his daughter at the rest stop. Nothing is implicitly stated as to what happened to the girl. We’re left to make assumptions based on a weird smell coming from a car that’s only mentioned by the father off-handedly. As we later learned, the story was written by Chapman and included in his collection Rest Stop. It’s still my favorite story amongst an offering of the hapless, the hopeless, and the monstrous; All of whom are either shredding reality, trying to exist even partially outside of it, or are reacting with genuine surprise to the fact that it has already devoured about half of their entire being. Much of the book has moments of comedy so black, they make you wonder about yourself a little for having been amused in the first place.

You can go through the books, films, plays, performance art pieces, and everything else Clay McLeod Chapman has done. You’ll find a lot of that black humor. You’ll also find monsters and human beings who are technically from the same species. You can really find a range of characters and moods with a level of diversity that runs to exhaustive lengths. I don’t believe for a second that Chapman has run out of stories or characters. It’s true that horrible people doing or experiencing horrible things are a strong element to a goodly portion of his output. It’s equally accurate that you just can’t label Chapman a horror writer and leave it at that. Horror is a dominant figure in Rest Stop, in his ongoing performance art series known as The Pumpkin Pie Show, and certainly in the upcoming film project The Boy(taken from the Henleyshort film he wrote). Chapman is a fan of the genre. It’s because he’s such a fan that he understands the myriad of possibilities that exists. He explores them in his stories of serial killers, secular demons, and people of varying degrees of madness who are free to roam the world at large. It’s because he has a strongly defined, affectionate sense of humor about these things that his stories are often funny beyond our comfort levels.

Clay McLeod Chapman has given us the rarity of material as complex and enjoyable as his films, stage performances, short stories, novels, and more. For me, it started with a monologue about a guy trying to find his kid at a rest stop along some highway. Everything he’s done since then has built on my initial impressions of that story. All of it has continued the first thought I had after he finished performing “Rest Stop” for the handful of us who had walked into the room: What the hell just happened?

Drunk Monkeys: I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since we met! I swear, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since you introduced yourself to me and the other kids in the room by launching into a performance piece from your book Rest Stop. If I remember correctly, it was the one in which a father has been searching for his little girl for days at a rest stop along the highway. And he hasn’t quite made the connection between his kid being missing and the smell that’s coming from the car. I’ve always wanted to ask you where that story came from.

Clay McLeod Chapman:God’s honest truth? The idea for “Rest Area” totally came from watchingHalloween: H20 when it first came out back in 1998. No lie. I’m not saying that film has aged all too well over the years, but I owe that movie my life. Or at least my publishing career.

It all boils down to this one scene—probably “the scene”—where a mother and daughter pull into an empty rest stop for a quick bathroom break. Michael Myers may or may not be hiding in the neighboring stall. The mother senses something is up and panics, bolting herself and her daughter into the stall—only for Mr. Myers to steal their car and head off, leaving them behind.

In that moment, watching this movie at age… 19? 20? I thought to myself—Dude, it would suck to get stuck at a rest stop. From there, the writerly mind took over and began asking a series of specific questions—Well, what would it be like to get stuck at a rest stop? Why would someone get stuck at a rest stop? What would compel someone to stay at a rest stop for an unnaturally extended period of time? The questions kept piling up until the answers eventually led to the story.

The cover for Rest Area (Hyperion, 2003).

The cover for Rest Area (Hyperion, 2003).

DM: I became a fan of your work right away, going through the collected stories in Rest Stop in a single afternoon. So much of your work, the short stories, your novel, the short films, and certainly you’re upcoming feature film project with Elijah Wood’s production company all point towards someone who is capable of finding humor in the kinds of horror stories that even someone like David Lynch might stay away from. Do you consider your sense of humor to be a morbid one?

CMC: Morbid? I don’t really think so… Honestly. But I should say two things:

First off, I think humor is a mechanism we can use to cope with whatever horrors we face in our everyday lives. I think laughter can be a perfectly natural response to things that frighten us. It’s not necessarily the first response, or the only response or even the best response—but sometimes laughter can be that quick release on the ol’ pressure valve that fear tightens up within us. I think horror and comedy co-exist quite nicely with another, and oftentimes support one another on the level of catharsis.

Secondly, if I’m being honest with myself, I have become a terrible gauge on what is appropriate to laugh at and what isn’t.

DM:Where do you think your sense of humor came from?

CMC:I was an avid reader of The Far Side as a kid. My grandmother would take me to the library and allow me to check out two books at a time. One of them would always be Gary Larson. His single-frames carried this crazy cognitive dissonance, the setup and punchline all contained within one panel… I loved them.

My mother would suggest I lost my sense of humor at some point in my childhood… Or, more exactly, she mourns the loss of an earlier version of my sense of humor.

I entered my middle school talent show in the 6th grade and performed a standup routine. We’re talking about twelve minutes of jokes cribbed from MTV’s “Half Hour Comedy Hour” and whatever show was on VH1 that Rosie O’Donnell hosted. I don’t know how—but I ended up winning, much to the chagrin of the 8th grade dance troupe that assumed they had it locked. For the rest of the school year, nearly all the 8th graders wouldn’t let me live that down… Do you really think you’re funny? Your jokes sucked. Hey, Mr. Funny Man… etc. The halls were filled with this sort of thing forever. So—if anything, that may have been the end of my optimistic sense of humor for something a little more… I don’t know. Morbid?

DM: And that’s not to say that your work is dark comedy all the way around. I can easily find examples that are pretty bleak and horrifying all the way through. You can certainly say that aboutHenley, which easily has to be one of my favorite short films. Grim doesn’t even begin to describe the story of a child psychopath in transition. I know the short film is based on a chapter of your novel Miss Corpus, but I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about where it came from.

CCM: Brooke Priddy. One of my closest friends from high school. I totally stole the idea from her. Somewhere in her family, some relative owned a road motel. They had a cat… Posey. Well, one day Posey discovers a nest of birds tucked into the motel’s rusted sign by the roadside and decides to crawl in. The cat gets tangled up in a few of the sign’s wires and—zzzst. There’s a short. The nest catches on fire, Posey catches on fire, the sign catches on fire. What an amazing story.

I stole it. I took it and used it as the beginning of my own story—about a ten year old boy named Ted who lives with his dad in their own motel, who earns his allowance by scraping the roadkill off the highway in hopes of keeping things clean for customers… You see a boy who is essentially isolated from the rest of the world, who has no friends or interaction with the outside world beyond customers coming and going… even though their numbers are dwindling each year. Death, or Ted’s understanding of death, revolves around this simple business interaction between him and his father—a) an animal gets run over, b) Ted scrapes it up, c) Ted’s father gives him a quarter… How would this stunted level of understanding about death and commerce seep into the rest of Ted’s ten year old existence?

DM:The short film certainly seems to have resonated with people, since it’s being expanded into the feature film I mentioned earlier. How’s that coming along?

CMC:Pretty darn good. I’m over the moon for this feature. Craig Macneill, co-writer and director on the short and feature, is phenomenal. He has been the heart behind this project for over a decade now… He read MISS CORPUS ten years ago and refused to let that chapter go. For a while, we discussed the idea of adapting the entire novel—but his gut was telling him to focus on The Henley Road Motel. For over five years, he tried to get the short together… Raising money, finding the right location. The lot. Then—it happened, HENLEY made it into Sundance, the short got into the hands of Elijah Wood and his new production company SpectreVision (along with Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller), and here we are, two years later, over fifty three drafts later, in the thick of production. We’re making a movie. A movie!

DM:You’ve got a hell of a cast for this movie. David Morse and Rainn Wilson are amongst those who will be involved. I think people are really going to be surprised with Wilson in a project like this. What do you think?

CMC:Have you ever seen Hesher? Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Rainn Wilson is in it and I believe you see a new dimension to his capacity as a performer. I love that film and the depth of mournful humanity Wilson brings to it. If you watch it, you can see where Craig is steering Wilson’s character in our film.

DM:I loved Hesher, and I get exactly what you’re saying. Your film isentitled The Boy, the film is going to be part of a trilogy. How much of the other two films have you already worked out?

CMC: Craig and I have mapped out the entire trilogy with SpectreVision’s guidance. A lot of long nights, a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails… We’re about to embark on writing part two, as soon as the dust settles on production for part one. God help us.

DM:The Boy is definitely dark stuff. Would you say it’s the furthest into that kind of territory you’ve ever gone?

Furthest into what? Into horror? Into darkness? That’s a tough call. MISS CORPUS is really, really dark. Turgid. Opaque. There are a lot of stories in REST AREA that are much, much darker than The Boy. And that’s not to mention the stories that will never see the light of day because they are way, way too dark.

But you may need to clarify what type of territory you’re talking about here.

DM: You answered my question. I was just thinking in terms of the movie’s tone, how deep it’s going to get into its subject matter. You’ve kind of answered this already, but have you ever written anything, or even simply come up with an idea, where you looked it over and thought “That’s pretty damn horrifying.”

CMC:Horrifying? No, I don’t really write horrifying. It’s a difficult thing to articulate, to navigate through and not sound completely pompous—but I rarely write straight-out horror. I’m hoping to find the humanity within horror. So, if something is pretty damn horrifying, then the element I need to find is the humanity that counterbalances the horror. That equilibrium keeps things from tipping too far into horrifying. It’s rarely if ever a goal of mine to purposefully shock, or repulse, or horrify my reader/audience. It’s bound to happen, but I don’t know. There’s more to it than that. At least I try to. The pieces that don’t have that balance end up collecting dust in the drawer.

DM:Hope is not something that’s particularly prevalent in your most popular works. Would you consider a pessimistic person?

CMC: I would disagree with you on this. But maybe I should ask you what you consider my most popular works.

DM: I guess I would consider Henley to be one, Rest StopMiss Corpus to be amongst your most popular works. I loved the one Pumpkin Pie Show performance I saw in the fall of 2003 in Richmond, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an optimistic story, in terms of the characters and how it ends.

CMC: You are the first person to tell me Miss Corpus was popular. Seriously. It tanked. Some of the worst reviews I ever, ever received come from Miss Corpus. I can recite my Kirkus evisceration practically word-for-word. I’ve got a couple thousand copies sitting in storage right now, spared from the pulp-machine, waiting for someone to read them. I couldn’t get a book published for ten years because of Miss Corpus. You think Hester Prynne had it bad—I had the Scarlet Sales Talley pinned to my chest.

As far as The Pumpkin Pie Show from 2003 goes… Was that Ringside Seats? The musical, right? Dude—that was a musical about a serial killer! In that total Dancer in the Dark vein, that Pennies from Heaven vein—we wanted to utilize the mechanics of a musical, the format of a musical, the escapism of a musical, but while telling a very dark, dark story of something rather un-musical. So yeah. Dark.

DM: Don’t misunderstand me about The Pumpkin Pie Show. I loved it. It was beautifully dark and quite funny in places. It was one of the most creative, engaging things I’ve ever seen live. AndI had no idea the book was that poorly received. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I made the wildly incorrect assumption that everyone else did. I’ll still defend that book as being excellent. Let’s move on to slightly happier topics. Has the birth of your son changed anything, in terms of how you look at the world as inspiration for story ideas?

CMC:He’s changed everything. I’m more scared of everything now than I ever was before. Life has value, I am full of love for this little creature—and it makes everything feel immensely terrifying. So… I believe having Jasper has deepened my writing, on some level.

DM:Do you have any film ideas beyond the trilogy?

CMC:Oh yeah.

DM:Late Bloomer is another short film you wrote (and narrated) that I love. I wasn’t surprised when it became a big hit at Sundance in 2005. The heavy Lovecraftian influence on the story of a boy having the worst possible reaction to his school’s sex ed class is wonderful. You’re often combining things in that way. With Late Bloomer we’re getting Lovecraft meets The Wonder Years. Is there a process for creating something with such contrasting ideas?


CMC:With Late Bloomer in particular, the notion behind the story was: What would be the most inappropriate place to stage an HP Lovecraft story? When the answer came back—A 7th grade sex ed class, of course—the assignment, as it were, was to find the parallels between these two superficially disparate elements and simply find how they connected together. Lovecraft and a 7th grade boy are eerily similar in their understanding of the female anatomy.


DM:I, uh, have no comment on that at this time. It’s hard to believe The Pumpkin Pie Show is rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary. I realize people can read reviews, or certainly check out the show in the various New York venues where it’s regularly performed. However, I’d be very grateful if you could give us an overview of The Pumpkin Pie Show. I’d also love to know about its origins.

CMC:I’ve always been a fan of first-person short stories. I’ve always been a fan of Flannery O’Connor. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with theater. I’ve always wanted to be a musician but lacked the talent and patience to play an instrument… Back in high school, I wanted to believe there was some meeting point for all these disparate elements—literature, theater, and music. I was attending North Carolina School of the Arts at this point, back in ’96, and here it was Halloween, and I figured, what the hell? Let’s tell some campfire stories in a black box theater, with a little musical accompaniment. That was the first Pumpkin Pie Show. The following year, I moved to New York—and on a total lark, I applied to the New York International Fringe Festival with the Pumpkin Pie Show, assuming I wouldn’t get in. But—surprise. I was now on the hook for thirteen performances in the Lower East Side. I was eighteen and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It was just me and couple friends who put together this goofy show who had no right to charge thirteen bucks to our poor unsuspecting audience… And I’ve been doing it ever since, god help me, each year, for better or for worse. Usually worse.

DM:Is there a Pumpkin Pie Show performance from the past 18 years that stands out to you? A strange crowd, or something wonderful or awful that unexpectedly occurred as a result of the fact that the show is performed live?

CMC:There have been a lot of standout memories. Little things. Silly things. Too many to really recount in one answer—but I do want to say this: I have been very, very lucky to have worked with so many talented people over the course of these last seventeen or eighteen years. Blessed, I’d say. The Pumpkin Pie Show is my baby, my pet project, my hobby, my money drainer—but my friends have supported me, provided their ample talent to me, enabled me, challenged me and always lifted my words to a higher level. When I look back through all the shows we’ve done throughout the years, I feel very fortunate to have lived a rich, plentiful artistic life that couldn’t have happened without them. I owe them, all of them.

DM:What was it like working with Bruce Hornsby on STRANGER?

CMC:Bewildering.

DM:Music figures into a lot of the things you do, particularly with The Pumpkin Pie Show. What is it about using music that appeals to you? I’d be curious to know what kind of stuff you listen to while you’re working.

CMC: I’m just a guy who always wanted to be a musician but had zero musical talent. Zero. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, would die to be in a band—but it was just never going to be in the cards for me. Ever. The Pumpkin Pie Show is as close to a band as I’ll ever get, which is pretty darn close, which is close enough.

Sometimes I’ll listen to music while I write, sometimes I don’t. I used to a lot more—things like Meredith Monk or John Zorn, or the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line. Usually I’d put one song on repeat and drift off into whatever somnambulant state takes over when writing. Just slipping off into the zone… I steer clear of songs with lyrics, but every so often I’ll throw Animal Collective in or Battles just to get my mind energized and the blood flowing.

DM:What are five books you’ve read in the past year that you can’t stop recommending to people?

CMC:Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Zero Fade by Chris L. Terry
Lost Girls by Robert Kolker
I Hate You, Kelly Donahue by Mark Svartz

DM: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of those books. I’m actually working my way through Haruki Murakami’s novels and short story collection collections right now. I want to take a stab at the massive IQ84, but I keep thinking about how you and a couple of other people I know didn’t particularly care for it, so I keep resisting. Was it that bad?

CMC: It is an amazing 500 page novel. You just have to find it within its 1184 pages.

DM: I know I’m going to read that book. It’s just a question of when. Same question, but with movies.

CCM:Before Midnight
Rust and Bone
Berberian Sound Studio
Gravity
Upstream Color
The “Safe Haven” segment from V/H/S 2
You’re Next
No
Inside Llewyn Davis
This is the End


DM: I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the most enjoyable, strangely intense experiences I’ve had with a movie in ages. How did you respond to it? I’d also love to know what you think of Before Midnight and Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films with those characters.

CCM: I’m just amazed at how ruthless the Coen Brothers are with their characters. Just when you think Llewyn hits rock bottom, dad has to poop in his pants. That movie was amazing. Definitely my favorite film, post-Lebowski.

As far as Before Midnight goes, I subject my parents to a marathon of the trilogy over the holidays this last year… It was interesting to have the discussion with my family about which film which family member gravitated more towards. For me, of the three—Midnight really blew my mind. That argument? Come on. How could that not have won an Academy award. Highway robbery.

DM: Spike Jones should have won a screenplay Oscar ages ago. So although I think Before Midnightdeserved to win, especially for that argument scene you mentioned, I’m not completely disappointed that Jones won for Her instead.Speaking of trilogies, writing a trilogy of novels for children called The Tribe had to be an interesting experience for you. I’m at a loss to think of something you haven’t done yet. You’ve worked on radio plays, adapted other works for the stage, co-host an interview show with horror movie actors, filmmakers, and other figures from the genre, and that doesn’t even cover it all. I have to imagine there are some dream projects lying around. Are there? Is there an unexplored creative frontier for you?

CCM: Yes. Totally. But here’s the thing… I can’t say I’m doing well at any of these particular mediums. Jack of all trades, master of none. I think it would be wise for me to keep circling around the things I’ve been doing and try to get better at them. I’ve been very fortunate—blessed again—to have been able to write novels, short stories, screenwriting, comics, musicals, plays… I think I’ll circle around these for a while. I’m not sure if that’s the same as saying I’m forging ahead into some unexplored frontier, but each project is some uncharted territory. If I’m doing my job right, it is, at least.



The Boy, starring Mike Vogel, Rainn Wilson, and Zuleikah Robinson, is now in production. For updates on the project and all of Clay’s other work, visit his website, http://claymcleodchapman.com/.