WORD with the WRITER
an interview with John McManus
Featured Books by John McManus
Twenty-two-year-old John McManus was one of 10 writers to receive $35,000 as part of the year 2000 Whiting Writing Awards. The award came just five months after the Picador USA June publication of his debut collection of stories — Stop Breakin Down — and two months into his enrollment in the graduate creative writing program at Hollins University.
Publisher’s Weekly has written that the 15 stories in this collection are “imbued with an admirable sense of urgency.” To add to this, it is the rich detail and character that enables a sense of urgency to come across. McManus is one fearless writer, not afraid to lay bare the emotional wounds of his characters, and for this, his book should appeal across the board, even though it is being labeled as a “voice of a generation,” within some readers’ comments posted at various online bookseller sites.
Like its content, Stop Breakin Down is traveling at a great speed and is already set for another printing, this time in paperback, due out in March 2001.
from “Megargel” by John McManus
“Grandma and Grandpa had him for three weeks every summer. Daddy said it would help his allergies to be so far south away from the pollen. You’re sickly, he had always said. He spoke the work sickly like he was bragging. I’m so proud of you for being so sickly.
Grandma served iced tea on the back porch. She bought them Matchbox cars. Phillip and Trey and Nathan and Luke. Everybody gets a Matchbox car. His cousins picked out black Camaros. Oh look, Trey said, there ain’t no more black ones. Looks like you’ll have to get a pink one.
Luke’s got a pink car. Luke’s got a girlie car.
His cousins all lived in Gulfport. The houses were only ten or fifteen miles away. How do you get to the beach from here? they asked him.
You get on forty-nine and you —
Shut up. How the hell would you know? You’re not from Gulfport.
He lived in Montgomery. It was a three-hour drive. Leave at four, arrive at seven. Leave at noon, arrive at three.
It was little things that always bothered him. He always had to take the last step on his right foot when he was walking. It had to be the right number of steps to the bathroom from the bedroom when he woke up in the middle of the night, and he had to end on the right foot.
He remembered that when he was three or four, he had been scared whenever his parents had gone anywhere after dark. He sat at the picture window in the living room and looked out at the road; he imagined them in their car darting toward the river as the green fields turned to black, the stars weighing down heavily, the summer heat stifling his breath as he heard the drone of the cars, the red lights flickering; it scared him. The fireflies, he thought, they’re blinking in patterns, bright lunatic eyes, they’re out there on the road driving, they’re speeding through the night.
I’m gonna be a doctor, he had said to Mama. I’m gonna have an office on the twelfth floor and I’ll have a big fish tank with big blue fish. He waved his arms swish swash through the air.
You can have as many big blue fish as you want, she had said. You’re gonna be the best doctor there ever was; you’re so smart you’ll be the best anything you want.
He had asked her to tell him about the words. Tell me what I’d do with the words in the books, he said. She had told him the story: she told about how he pointed at each word and asked about it, so eager; what’s that word, Mama, and what’s that other word and what’s the one after it.
You can never quit reading to him, she had said at the hospital. Luke sat in the hallway and watched the carts go by and listened to his parents talking through the door. He heard lots of noises. She was laughing but then he listened closer and she was sobbing. Read him twenty books a night, she said, always do it, don’t you ever stop. Tell him what the words are.”
© JOHN McMANUS
cs: Again, congratulations on recently winning the Whiting Writer’s Award. It’s my understanding that this award is done on a nomination basis — do you know who nominated your collection Stop Breakin Down?
jm: The Whiting Foundation keeps the process strictly confidential. I asked them that same question myself, and the response I got was, “If all goes well, you’ll never know.”
cs: I imagine some people would have skipped the graduate route after getting published and winning $35,000 on top of that. Since your writing career has already had a jump-start, what are you looking to get out of the one-year graduate program at Hollins?
jm: It’s an excellent creative writing program, and I’m happy (and very lucky) to be studying here. I’m currently in classes with Pinckney Benedict, Jeanne Larsen, and Richard Dillard, all of whom are remarkable teachers, and I know I’ve learned a lot here already–not just how to be a better writer, but also a better critic and a more discerning reader. And people in the program hit it off right away as friends, because there’s a common bond from the outset.
You hear stories about writing programs full of cutthroat competition, but there’s a strong sense at Hollins of working towards a common goal, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. And it’s an intellectually charged environment. It helps me fill in some of the gaping holes in my knowledge of literature–everyone’s always interested in hearing what everyone else is reading, and I discover writers I’d never heard of before. I knew next to nothing about contemporary poetry, for instance, before I came here; it’s good to have poets around who can try to clue me in on it. One of my friends just gave me Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares to read, and it blew my mind.
cs: Hollins is in Roanoke, Virginia and Tinker Creek (as in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) runs through it or something like that. Many of your stories have characters who relate to the land (the Kudzu planter in “Sleep on Stones” and the camper in “Gengenschein” come to mind), so I gather that a relationship with nature is important to you, and I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to explore much in the area?
jm: I moved to Roanoke in August, and until classes started (about a month later) I spent a few hours every day on my bike, particularly on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The landscape here reminds me a lot of the Smokies, where I grew up, and the Roanoke Valley (and surrounding area) is much less crowded than east Tennessee, where pollution and suburban sprawl have grown into major problems. It’s a beautiful area. It’s great just to have the mountains as a backdrop when I’m driving around town.
cs: A sense of locale is strong in your writing. Aside from the stories mentioned above, Portland is very present in “Die Like a Lobster,” the English countryside is the backdrop to “The Magothy Fires” the Salt Flats of Utah impress on the main character of “Deseret,” and of course, a number of the stories are rich with the flavor of Tennessee. I know you grew up in Tennessee, but this collection has such a variety in locale, I can’t help but ask if you have traveled extensively or if you’ve just channeled the places through research?
jm: I suppose I’ve traveled a fair amount–I’ve been in about 40 of the 50 states, I spent a year in England, did a sampler tour of Western Europe during that time, went to New Zealand for a month last fall. I’ve spent some amount of time in all the places where my stories are set. I wouldn’t know how to begin writing about an area I’d never seen before; I mean, I admire writers who can do that, but I think I’d be too afraid of getting things wrong (not that I haven’t anyway). I do find it easier to write about a particular place when I’m far away from it, though–all of the Tennessee stories were written in Baltimore, for instance. I actually find myself pretty much incapable of writing anything good when I’m back home in Tennessee. I guess I don’t have enough critical distance from myself when I’m there.
cs: I checked out the website for your undergraduate alma mater, Goucher College, and it states that you wrote these stories during your senior year — was that an intense period of writing or what?
jm: It was spread out over seven months, September to March, so it really wasn’t that much, only about two stories a month. I had a full schedule of academic classes both semesters, which probably kept me from writing as much fiction as I would have liked.
cs: Did you have Madison Smartt Bell as a teacher there, and if so, what was he like?
jm: I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to take his workshops. Back when I first applied to colleges, I was intending to major in some sort of science–neurology, maybe, or psychology–so I didn’t even look at the fiction programs. It was serendipitous that I ended up at a school with creative writing classes at all, let alone classes taught by a writer of Madison’s stature and ability. His criticisms were always right on target. He was very encouraging, and extremely patient, I’d have to say, considering the amount of utter crap I handed in for years before there was anything worth keeping.
cs: How did these 15 stories come to be picked up by St. Martins/Picador? Only one story, the title story, “Stop Breakin Down,” was published in Ploughshares, but that was after the fact, wasn’t it? Most writers get noticed after publication in journals; how did you bypass this route?
jm: I owe that particular piece of good fortune to Madison Smartt Bell to whom I’m eternally grateful. He sent the seven stories I’d written in the fall semester of 1998 to his (and now my) agent, Jane Gelfman (who has also helped me immensely, I should say), and he mentioned to me at some point that he might show her some of my work, but I never really got my hopes up at the time; I just pragmatically figured nothing would come of it. Then, in January or February, she called me up to tell me she liked the stories, and by March I had enough of them written to make a collection, so she sent them out to editors, and by June, after I’d seen three or four rejection letters, there was a contract. It was a little less than a month after graduation, and I got the news at a perfect time, because I’d just quit my third job in as many weeks and couldn’t afford to pay my credit card bill.
cs: St.Martins/Picador is promoting you in the same vein as Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson, what do you think of this?
jm: It’s certainly a daunting comparison, one that I doubt I’ll ever be able to live up to, but I’m certainly very flattered. Blood Meridian is perhaps my favorite American novel except for possibly Moby Dick. I’ve returned to it over and over. I’d say reading Cormac McCarthy changed my life and played a major role in catalyzing whatever vague, hazy notions I had at the time about wanting to write fiction. I didn’t discover Denis Johnson until more recently–this year, in fact–but I’ve since read all his works of fiction. Jesus’ Son is incredible. I could try all my life and never figure out how to write stories like that.
cs: The title of the collection almost seems as if it was a conscious theme. In “Megargel,” a so-called sensitive boy is harassed for breaking down into tears, in “Die Like a Lobster,” dread-locked Reuben freaks out and kills himself by spraying RAID into his hair and ears, in “The Future is Orange,” Duane breaks down and smashes a banjo into pieces. And after all of this, we get a final story, the title story, that punctuates all of it with “Stop Breakin’ Down” — were you specifically working with a “breaking down” theme?
jm: I picked that title after I’d assembled the collection. Out of all the individual story titles it seemed the most appropriate, thematically; as you said, there’s no lack of breakdowns in the book. I didn’t particularly want the overall title to be the same as one of the story titles, but in the end I couldn’t think of anything better. I tend to agonize for hours, even days, over titles, usually without success; even “Stop Breakin Down” wasn’t my own, of course, but a Robert Johnson song. I guess I’m thankful titles can’t be copyrighted or else who knows where I’d be. One of the reviews of my book–I think it was the Philadelphia City Paper–seemed to find fault with me for the fact that the Rolling Stones had covered that song; the guy spent a good portion of his review explaining why the original version is better and why I was probably wholly ignorant of its existence.
cs: Which story from the collection drew the most blood from you in the writing process?
jm: It’s hard for me now even to remember. The first one I wrote was “What I Remember About the Cold War,” which was difficult because I was returning to stories after trying (and failing miserably) to write a novel while I was in England. It took the longest to write and is one of the least successful, I think; the title’s the only thing I like about it anymore. … But it draws much more blood to reread the stories these days than it did to write them; I can’t help but cringe painfully at all the flaws I see now that I was blind to before.
cs: What’s next, more short stories or a novel?
jm: I’m working on both right now, but it’s hard to tell which will be finished first. The stories are probably better. The story is still a form I feel more comfortable working with and navigating my way through.
cs: For what it’s worth, my favorite stories are “Megargel,” “The Future is Orange” and “Vlad the Nefarious,” although I have to admit my favorite title is “Die Like a Lobster,” which I think is absolutely brilliant.
jm: It’s been interesting to hear what readers’ favorites are, because I’ve had such vastly disparate responses. “Megargel” seems to be a consistent choice, but “Vlad the Nefarious” is one I’ve heard several people say I should’ve left out of the book, although one review (The Denver Post) called it the strongest. As for the titles, Madison suggested at one point that I name the entire collection “Die Like a Lobster,” and I’d be intrigued to see what Picador’s designers would have come up with for cover art if I had.
Word with the Writer: John McManus Interview ©2000 Dara Albanese & collectedstories.com