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Q&A
Clay MacLeod Chapman, author of the novel Miss Corpus.

BY BECKY HAYES | Clay McLeod Chapman, 25, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in '00 with a contract to write a book of short stories, Rest Area, which was published in February of 2002. His "Pumpkin Pie Show," has been a staple of New York's Red Room Theatre for years and he has also appeared in the Fringe Festival in both New York and Edinburgh, Scotland. He's been able to do what so many young visionaries leave New York never having done—he is living off his work, and attracting the interest of both publishers and producers. And the buzz isn't stopping. Studio 42 is producing his new play, "Redbird," which opens this March at The Culture Project. And The New Yorker recently awarded him a feature in their "Reading Glasses" series. And Chapman's latest novel, Miss Corpus, came out this month from Hyperion. Here Clay stops to diffuse some myths and examine the ironies of his success.

Do you feel at all ostracized from people your contemporaries—other kids just out of college—who are struggling to get just a fraction of the notice you've received?
At that point it all makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. I feel it's very lonely-making. [The fame] strives to elevate you, and the majority of people use it to boost themselves up. They use it for their own selfish needs. And I know I have, but it's just a faulty foundation. I go to bed knowing it's a lie. It's easy to discredit people who come to me with [the fame] in their mind. Immediately I could say "this is not going to go anywhere because of what you feel I am." It's like the second you buy into what people say about you, you're screwed. And that's no fair—for anybody. Because then it's like some snake biting its own tail. Eating itself. The most frustrating thing about all this is that when you don't play the game, you quickly get run over. Ultimately I know the truth. The situation is that: it's not real. Whatever kind of persona people develop for you—it's complete and utter spin. It's a lacquer. It gives you the opportunity to be something you're not.

Do you feel that your new public image is changing you? Even in any positive ways?
No it doesn't change anything. It molds people's perspectives of who I am without them feeling the need to get to know me. I would rather take it away. Honestly. I don't like the idea of people knowing nothing about me but assuming they do. I think that somebody who bases their foundation of personal self-confidence or emotional stability on this turns it into a faulty power.

But, at the same time, I feel that the second you stop trying to convince the rest of the world that you're worth it, by whatever means necessary, you get lost. We're in a feeding bowl. The sharks are going crazy. It's this ravenous reaching for this higher level that's always above us and we're not going to be content until there's nothing left. There's always going to be that one extra step that's could get you farther up. We need more. We're a culture that thrives on this craven, wanton desire to be better than where we are now. And it's always assuming that we have to be one step ahead instead of looking at where we are not.

And I consider what I've been given as an opportunity to write something, and that's all that matters, ultimately, to me. They've given me time. This publishing company has bought me time. Whatever it takes for them to promote it, to sell it, to make it worth their while, I have no bones about it.

What was most essential in seeing your work through? How was this able to happen?
It's just a matter of developing a pious lifestyle.

What do you mean?
It's concerning yourself with a very specific act. Relegating your heart to one thing. Making whatever sacrifices it takes to make that, to hone that craft. Like monks who perfect the certain kind of pigment of ink that's going to write their one copy of the bible. It's just getting it right and taking whatever effort you have to make it happen; to really, sincerely do it right, with all that you're capable of. At first it was like "I've got to be the best at what I do." There are millions of novels out there and if I'm going to contribute to this pile of mush, then mine has to be one of the best ones out there. Well, that's impossible. It's not about that, it's about making the best that you can make and finding your capabilities, what expanse you have, mapping.

Like Rilke—not to let the lure of the audience plague you, or distract you from the writing.
Right. Or you've negated the quality of it from the get-go. Because it's with the intention of being something great as opposed to something earnest. Even though it's almost taboo to be earnest, too. Maybe when things are done and you've produced what you wanted, you can make up your intention.

I'm very lucky. All of this is just dumb luck. There are millions of people out there who are much better at this than I am who just haven't gotten noticed because they just weren't in New York, or that weren't on Fifth Avenue on four o'clock on Monday, January fifth 2002. Half of it comes down to chance. Then a quarter of it comes down to talent, and the other quarter comes down to piss and vinegar. Pushing yourself enough to get it into someone's hands. I was just scared enough. Honestly. Half of this, no, all of this was [accomplished] on the basis of fear. I was afraid that the moment I graduated I was going to enter the real world and not be anything.

A lot of people are terrified of graduation. It can be a terrible ether—once you wake up from all the adulation you're used to getting when you're in school. Did you have to simply disassociate yourself from your doubts?
I just believe that there's just this current. If you go out too far, you're going to get dragged into the undertow and it's going to take you. And I just put on a life preserver. And I wrote a letter to like twenty five different literary agents over my spring break before I graduated—my last spring break, my last chance to be a child, to do something frivolous and stupid—and twenty three of them wrote back and said "thanks, but no thanks, get out of your diapers and then we'll talk." And then two of them wrote back and said maybe you've got something, let's see. And then one of them stepped up to plate and actually did something about it. And it was all it took. Convincing this one person was that what I had was something worth their time. And then that person makes it easy—this literary agent who makes it her life to convince other people that her time is worth other people's time. She goes to a publishing company and says "this guy is worth my time and ultimately your time, so listen." I can't profess to anything more noble than utter trepidation over failing. Failure has been the cloud over my head. The main motivator.

So at this point, what would you construe to be failure?
Failure to me at this point is believing what we were talking about at the beginning. Believing the spin. It's like, "Yes I got this far, and this would be enough," it would be an easy time to rest on laurels. But it's like the second you stop looking over your shoulder…

You haven't eclipsed that fear.
Actually, I think it's gotten even worse. I'm just riding on the hope that it's gonna stay, it's gonna last. It's going to have a certain sense of permanence that can extend beyond me. That's as ego-maniacal and superficial as I can get; it's that fear of disappearing, that I'm going to slip off into obscurity someday, and I'll die and that'll be the end of it—that I won't have a child, or a grandchild, who's going to harbor this family name, that it'll be gone the second I'm gone. Art gives you that loophole. Art is like time-traveling. "Back to the Future" times ten. It's something that purifies your essence, whatever your kind of emotional core is, and gives it a time capsule.


Becky Hayes is a literary publicity director living in New York.

 

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