Interview with John McManus

Contributing Editor John McManus

Dan Wickett from Dzanc Books (editor of Visiting Hours from Press 53) recently lent us an old interview with Fiddleblack contributing editor John McManus. While the interview is a bit dated, it’s worth the read. Dan pulls a good everyman transparency from the questions about John as a fiction writer (rather than an award winner).

Dan interviewed John in 2005 for the mammoth blog Emerging Writers Network, but EWN has since moved platforms and the interview, on EWN’s turf, was lost in an old database. We’ve republished the whole EWN interview below:

Dan: Hello John, thanks for taking some time to answer some questions as you prepare for the release of your debut novel.

John: Thanks for having me. Good to talk to you.

Dan: I know you grew up in Blount County, TN. Was that in a more rural or urban section of TN? If it was more rural, is it still that way now, or has urban sprawl moved in?

John: I grew up in Maryville, a little less than 20 miles south of Knoxville, and it was much more rural then than now. You could drive into the country and get lost pretty easily in the hills—there weren’t road signs, and Tellico Lake had just flooded a big area, so you’d round a curve on some dirt road and find yourself driving into the lake. These days they’ve four-laned the highways and built big-box chain stores and put a traffic light at every intersection. Whenever a farmer dies, his kids sell the land they’ve inherited to a developer. The place has gotten so big it’s not even a dry county anymore.

Dan: You studied at Goucher College. I’m assuming you had a class or two with Madison Smartt Bell–Narrative Design, his book on writing, is wonderful–what was he like as a professor? What is the best bit of wisdom he passed along to you?

John: If I hadn’t gotten to study with Madison at Goucher, I guess I’d be laying bricks for a living. Actually, I’d make way more money that way. Maybe it’s thanks to him I’m so poor. He was a great teacher. I took as many credit hours with him as the department would let me. I’d started college as a science major with a pre-med concentration & didn’t know the first thing about writing, but I began the first class by turning in a half-baked, plotless, unreadable story about some disaffected kid who runs away from home and lives in the Smokies, in the national park, and when I sat down for my conference with Madison, I asked, So, do you think I’m a good writer? He must have squirmed uncomfortably or something, but he didn’t laugh out loud or roll his eyes, which is what he rightfully should have done, but he just explained what was wrong with it and said to go write another one, then he told me what was wrong with that one and said write another one. He wasn’t big on revision in undergraduate workshops; he just wanted us to write as much and as often as we could and learn from mistakes, which was the best advice anyone could have given me at that point.

Dan: A Google search of your name will find a page linked to the www.goucher.edu site that appears to be either a short story, or an excerpt. It’s titled The Bugler. What exactly is this piece?

John: Google’s a terrible thing, really. That’s the second story I wrote in that first class with Madison back when I was eighteen years old, and I thought it had been stamped out of existence.

Dan: Your first collection, Stop Breakin Down was published and then went on to win a $35,000 Whiting Writers’ Award. My understanding of that award is that you have to be nominated to be eligible. Any ideas on who tossed your name into the ring?

John: It’s an anonymous process. The organization won’t divulge a word about it. I wish all the major awards worked that way.

Dan: Once winning that award, you continued your educational process by attending the esteemed Hollins University program. Did you ever consider not taking any more writing classes after receiving what must have seemed like a huge monetary windfall?

John: I was already at Hollins when I won it, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of quitting; Hollins was the perfect place for me at that time. I wrote all of Born on a Train there and made quite a bit of progress on Bitter Milk. It was a great program with great teachers. If I’d been arrogant enough to decide I had nothing more to learn simply because I’d won an award, I doubt I’d have a novel coming out now.

Dan: Based on tales I’ve heard from other writers, I’ve got a fifty-fifty shot on this one–did Pinckney Benedict ever brandish a firearm while teaching any of your classes? On a slightly more serious note–I think Benedict is one of the authors more deserving of wider recognition out there, what is he like as a professor? Had you read his work prior to arriving at Hollins?

John: Someone in my workshop used lay in his story when he should have written lie. Pinckney pulled out a Ruger Blackhawk and shot him between the eyes. I’ve never confused lie with lay since then, not even in casual conversation. Idioms that render lay as intransitive (e.g. laying out of school) screw with my head, thanks to Pinckney and that revolver. I read one of his books before Hollins and the other two when I got there and was enamored of all of them. He’s a wonderful teacher and a brilliant writer and deserves a recognition as wide as recognitions come.

Dan: At that point in your life, you’d lived in Tennessee, Baltimore and Roanoke, VA (and possibly England–I’m not sure where England falls into place). You currently also spend time in Austin, TX. How important is the location of your residence to your writing?

John: It used to be more important than it is now. I wanted to live in awe-inspiring surroundings and grew convinced if I could just afford to move to Crested Butte, Colorado, and ride my mountain bike all day, the great books would start pouring out of me. These days I’m satisfied with a quiet room and a desk. I spent January at Caldera, an artists’ residency in the Cascades in Central Oregon, and it was a great place to work, but a writer has to be able to write anywhere. I’m in Austin because most of my friends are there, but if someone gave me a fellowship or free living space or stipend, I’d take it in a heartbeat no matter the location.

Dan: A 2003 article in the Austin Chronicle about you mentions your first novel would be published the following year and that it was set in Baltimore and titled Waystation. As Bitter Milk is not set in Baltimore, can I assume it is a completely different effort? If so, what has happened to Waystation?

John: It was one of two novels I started when I moved to Austin (both of which are separate from Bitter Milk), and as usual my process was a bit myopic; I spent about a month in summer 2001 writing what was basically an outline of a novel but nevertheless convinced myself it was perfect, then took a year to understand it wasn’t, then spent a month in summer 2002 revising it, thinking it sure was awful before, but it sure is great now! then took another year to realize it still stank, then did the same thing over again in summer 2003, and finally decided I’d have to spend longer than a cumulative three months to get it right.

Dan: This actually brings us to your current book–Bitter Milk. If I’m not mistaken, the narrator of the novel doesn’t really exist, making a case that you’ve created one of the most potentially unreliable narrators ever. You’ve done it in an incredible way though–without the occasional reminder, the reader easily forgets that this is the case while reading. What led to your not having Loren, the protagonist of the story, tell his own tale?

John: When I wrote the first draft, it had no plot and no narrative; it was just 300 pages of vignettes that tried almost farcically to be lyrical. There wasn’t a moment of levity in the whole thing. I guess I used the Book-of-Job structure as a crutch, initially, to give myself a form to work around, which brought about the character of Luther. In the first draft there were about twenty different characters, for no good reason, so giving everyone a counterpart brought some discipline into the picture, because I could only have as many main characters as Job had. Plus I wanted the book to be funny. I’d just read The Poor Mouth, and I decided it was a bigger challenge to make people laugh than to make them feel sorry for someone.

Dan: Bitter Milk is also filled with quite a collection of characters. It’s almost as if you took the opposite route to most television sitcoms where there is always one person who is kind of crazy, just because. Instead, nearly everybody in the novel has some major issues–Loren is 9 years old and topping 150 pounds (plus he has a pretty strong relationship to imaginary friends), his mother wants to be a man, her sister is an alcoholic, etc. How hard was it to have such a collection of people, but rein things in just enough so that that book never seems over the top? Was that even a concern for you?

John: When I read a book whose characters aren’t beset by insecurities and perversities that they don’t want anyone else to know of, I don’t trust it. People don’t like to be reminded they’re animals, maybe. The best rejection letter I ever got was from the Atlantic, two sentences long: The stories you sent us are quite good, and we like them a lot. However, your vision is dark, and we resist it.

Dan: How did it come about that you are published by Picador?

John: My agent started sending my collection (Stop Breakin Down) to editors the summer after I graduated from Goucher, in 1999, and I got about three rejections before George Witte at Picador made an offer. After a few months he was promoted to editor-in-chief at St Martin’s, so my current editor, Josh Kendall, who was the asst. editor at the time, assumed the project and I’ve worked with him ever since.

Dan: Do you have any worries about the book not having a hardcover issuance? Or is the pricing trade-off something that you believe might attract more readers?

John: I guess I was disappointed that there wasn’t a hardcover. Picador doesn’t do hardcovers now, so it would have had to come out through FSG or Holt or St Martin’s, and Josh thought it would be easier to market it with Picador, as a paperback original. The whole idea of paperback originals is pretty new, and I guess I’m skeptical. Maybe it’s the way of the future. Soon Google’s electronic library will be running and books will be downloadable for free; Gillian Welch has a good song about how I feel about that. I think it’s track nine on Time (The Revelator).

John: Picador is strongly behind Bitter Milk, which has to be a nice feeling, and Poets & Writers’ most recent issue included Bitter Milk in their Page One section. I know there are also a few articles coming out or in the process of being written for some decent sized magazines. Do you see this as a continuance of a steady development in notice for your work?

Dan: I’m told that Out and Genre and Instinct will all be doing reviews, which is the first time any gay publication has acknowledged my existence, so I’m happy about that. The publicist, James Meader, is doing a great job. I’m hoping next he can get Dr Dobson of Focus on the Family to single the novel out as a tool of Satan that’s turning innocent children into deviants and destroying families. There’s a legislator in Alabama now who wants to ban all literature by or about gay people—I’d like to dig a hole in the ground and put all those books in it, he told the Guardian—so if we get him involved in the publicity process, I’ll be thrilled.

John: If you had been given a choice up front, would this have been your hoped for path–awards and growing recognition, or would you have preferred the instant stardom of, say, Jonathan Safran Foer, with the negative pitfalls (jealousies?) that come with it?

Dan: When I first started I probably wanted instant fame, which is why I tried time after time to write a novel in about six weeks. It’s really best for everyone involved that I didn’t have the technical ability to achieve that goal.

John: Your style of writing is almost a manic one. It is rare that the page shows any signs of breaks in time or place, even when they occur. Where do you believe this style developed?

Dan: Writing without section breaks seemed to me to fit this particular novel; Loren is trapped in his situation and can’t leap through time simply by saying six months passed, and winter came, so I felt like I should stick with him and account for all the time that passes over the course of the narrative. It’s not how I always write; the novel I’m working on now has plenty of chapters.

John: Having written both stories and a novel (or two), which do you prefer? What differences did you encounter when you sat down to write a novel?

Dan: Stories came easier for me than novels. I think I managed to figure out kind of by accident how to construct a story. The progression of difficulty from writing a story to writing a novel is exponential rather than arithmetical, i.e. a hundred-page-long story doesn’t take ten times as long as a ten-page one, but a hundred times. That was the case for me, anyway. However, I’ve worked only on novels for about four years now and I’m not sure I’d remember how to write a story even if I wanted to.

John: Do you have a favorite story or character that you’ve written? I’ll toss out up front that The Earl of Crediton is my favorite of your stories–I can’t believe how many little storylines are moving forward while the main one does, with interesting characters and the perfect blend of laugh out loud humor, and bittersweet realities of what is going on.

Dan: I wanted The Earl of Crediton to be the lead-off story in Born on a Train, but Josh thought it was one of the weaker stories in the collection. I’m terrible at evaluating my own writing. Typically, if I’m particularly fond of something I’ve written, there’s a good chance it stinks. I’ve found it’s best to go through a draft and delete all my favorite parts before anyone else gets a chance to read it.

John: What is your opinion of your author photo?

Dan: It’s a little over four years old now, and I wanted a new picture, but I didn’t get around to it in time. My friend Kate took this one—her name is misspelled on the back of the book; it’s Preusser, not Prusser—and I think she did a great job with it, but my hair isn’t quite so tall these days.

John: Having been 22 when you won the Whiting in 2000, you are obviously still very young. What are your future plans? Continue writing both novels and stories? Just one or the other? Teach?

Dan: My plan is to keep writing, to finish the book I’m working on and then write the next one I’ve got planned and the next one and so on, until they send all the writers off to labor camps in Alaska to drill for oil until we fall over dead of exhaustion.

John: Lastly, if you were a character in Fahrenheit 451, what work(s) would you memorize for posterity?

Dan: In Search of Lost Time. I like to give myself a challenge.

John: Thanks again John. Good luck with Bitter Milk, it deserves a very wide readership.

Dan: Thank you very much.

Not wanting to leave us in the oughts, John offered Fiddleblack a summary of his current work, The Cultivationists, given here as an addendum:

My new novel transpires mostly in Echota County, a fictional sliver of the Smoky Mountains near the Qualla Indian Reservation. Two of my main characters, Obie and Link Mantooth—father and son, respectively—are ostensibly Cherokee, but Obie’s claims of Indian ancestry grow increasingly aprocryphal as the plot advances, until readers eventually discover Obie to be only one-eighth Native American. A Primitive Baptist preacher, Obie writes polemical tracts in support of a Cherokee uprising to seize more land for the reservation, to achieve greater legal power, and eventually, as his delusions of grandeur grow, to obtain independence as a nation. He dreams of founding a new religion whose prophet he imagines to be his son, age twelve; Link therefore is forced to read every work of theological literature and philosophy in the Western canon—Dante, Milton, Kierkegaard, etc—in preparation for his preeminence. Link has been told that the absence of his mother, Hannah, is due to her life sentence in a federal prison, but in fact Link was stolen from her at the time of his birth. A fundamentalist Mormon whom Obie seduced and then took prisoner when he feared she would abort their child, Hannah lives sequestered in a fundamentalist town in northern Arizona without knowledge of Obie’s whereabouts. Her discovery of his location and her subsequent journey to Appalachia coincide with Obie’s arrest for a murder he hasn’t committed.

The novel, through Obie, Hannah, her sister Blanche, and Blanche’s cult-leader husband, looks at the genesis and evolution of religious ideas and their power to influence and hold sway over populations. Obie abhors what he deems the anti-Indian racism of the Mormon Church, and he sees his new Biblical covenant as an antidote to the lies in the Book of Mormon. Another of my aims is to explore the power and appeal of apocalyptic and prophetic language, to investigate how disciples of a religion come to believe in the imminence of the world’s end. Obie, who claims to receive commands from God directly, is flummoxed by people’s unwillingness to trust that he talks to a deity when those same people believe in a literal Bible that tells the story of Abraham and Isaac. The novel asks why rational men follow irrational men and embrace irrational ideas, and it’s my hope that in so doing, like the ideas themselves, the story will be entertaining and funny and scary and strange.

The Cultivationists will be John McManus’s fourth book of fiction and second novel. He is working toward the manuscript’s completion.

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