An Early Afternoon with John McManus [Interview]

by Maggie Libby Davis

On a Saturday afternoon in October 2015, John McManus, award winning author although he’d rather not discuss that, stopped by my house for an interview. We’d scheduled our meet up for 2 so he’d have time to run a race that morning and rest. And we decided on my place as he was still unpacking boxes following his recent return to Norfolk, Virginia, from his year-long fellowship in South Africa. We sat in my kitchen snacking on relatively healthy junk food.

John’s new book of short stories, Fox Tooth Heart, would be released in early November 2015. Earlier in the week as part of ODU’s 38th Annual Literary Festival, he read from one of his stories from that collection, “Elephant Sanctuary.” He started the interview asking me how to manage his finances. I think he thought that, being an accountant, I could help him.

MLD: What should you do? Get an investment advisor.

JM: I’ve never understood any of this. I’m good with math but finance just doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s because it’s all based on a system of make believe.

We moved into a conversation about the psychology of investing and mob think while I looked for my interview questions that I ultimately pulled up on my phone which was also being used to record the conversation while I typed notes.

MLD: Here’s the first question. What do you think about Percival Everett?

We laughed. John struck a thoughtful pose, considering the question.

JM: My thoughts about Percival Everett’s reading are as follows: the woman with the cell phone that went off four times… I’m generally against the death penalty, but when your cell phone goes off in a reading, I just think: death penalty.

Like John, Percival Everett was also a featured in ODU’s Literary Festival. However, during his reading, a student’s phone went off four times. After that, Mr. Everett graciously stopped reading from the essay he was in the middle of and moved on to a short story. When the audience indicated a desire to hear the rest of the essay, he shuffled papers, indicated the mood was simply lost and said, “It’s just half an inch of water, after all,” loosely referencing his new book.

JM: During a lot of the readings I stood in the back. In the front two thirds of the auditorium, people were generally fairly well behaved. The back third of seats were filled by students who very openly and brazenly texted, whispered and even spoke out loud during the readings, and giggled, took selfies and were on Facebook and Twitter and playing video games on their phones. I wanted to be able to cause them physical pain. I wanted a Taser to use on them. At the very least I wanted some kind of Super Soaker water gun to be able to spray them and their phones, ruining their phones. I felt like they should suffer.

MLD: I wonder how to make them learn, how to turn that into a learning opportunity.

JM: Well, the Taser…

MLD: Right, but do you think they would understand? Do you think they would equate the Taser with their bad behavior or would they be confused because they didn’t understand what they were doing wrong?

JM: I don’t know. I guess it’s a larger philosophical debate. Does punishment deter crime? In this case, I wouldn’t care. It would give me enough pleasure that I just wouldn’t care.

MLD: So the means would serve the end which is making you feel better.

JM: Right.

Then we laughed some more and ate more. I should note at this point there was a lot of laughter and eating during the interview.

JM: I saw the woman with the phone. She didn’t look nearly embarrassed or contrite enough. Also, the phone had gone off four times, and that was the point she said, “I am turning it off,” in the present progressive tense as if she had not thought it was worth turning off after the third ring. Or even the fourth ring. It was only Janet [Peery, one of the directors of the festival] standing up that seemed to cause her to think, “Okay maybe I should turn it off now.” I was embarrassed on behalf of the whole university. We invite Percival Everett to read here, and he has to stop reading the essay that he was in the middle of because he was so derailed by the phone.

MLD: Okay, we are going to talk about you now. At least for a little bit. I know you don’t want to talk about how successful your career start was, but it was pretty successful. When you start that young, you could pretty much do anything you want. You could be a successful writer and be something else. Is there anything else you ever wanted to be?

JM: [after a long pause] I can think of lots of funny answers that would be half true but really there’s not anything I wanted to be besides a writer. I wanted to be a writer even when I was a little kid. There were various other things I had planned to be, but my heart was never in becoming those things. But I have to disagree with the question as it was worded. About when you start that early you can do anything you want. That never felt true to me. Having one book come out doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly easy for you to write and produce the next book. Even as Stop Breakin Down was being published I was trying and failing to write a novel. At any point in my career I’ve been struggling with some manuscript or other. At any given moment there is always some piece of writing that I feel like I’m failing at. Also, I saw Stop Breakin Down on your shelf and I’m going to have to ask you to throw it away or burn it or something. I don’t like for people to read it or even know that it exists.

MLD: Well, that’s the one that won the award?

JM: It didn’t win an award. Shortly after its publication, I received the Whiting award. The Whiting award isn’t really for a book. And then the following year I got the New Writers Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. That’s also awarded to an author, not a work, but that was the only book I had out, so you could in some sense say that it was for that book.

MLD: Well, if it helps any, I haven’t read that one –

JM: Good. Don’t.

MLD: But I did read Bitter Milk and about half of Born on a Train

JM: No, no. Don’t read the rest of it.

MLD: Actually the more I read it, the more I like it.

JM: No.

MLD: There are some beautiful spots in there.

JM: Stop.

MLD: And then some really creepy ones where I’m, like, what the [expletive]? So what is your favorite story that you’ve written?

JM: It would probably be one of the last two stories of my new collections. One’s called “Gainliness,” and the other is called “Blood Brothers.” My least favorite story from the new collection I still like better than my favorite story from either of my two previous collections. Those books feel like juvenilia to me. And it’s horrifying to imagine anyone reading even a page of either one of them.

MLD: How do you feel about your novel?

JM: I’m okay with it. I’m ambivalent. I wish many aspects of it were different. However it does not send me into throws of despair to see someone reading it.

MLD: Can we talk about “Gainliness” and “Blood Brothers” and what it is that makes you like them?

JM: Sure.  In “Blood Brothers,” it’s a story about a couple of closeted meth-heads in east Tennessee near where I’m from. One of the conceits in it is that it’s narrated by a guy who is high at the time of narration or he’s strung out – somewhere in between high and strung out – so, as he remembers some of his previous methamphetamine hallucinations, he begins to believe them again, believe that they really happened. Or forgets that he ever realized in the past that they didn’t happen. Usually it takes me months or even years to feel like I’ve gotten a story right, but that one kind of came out all at once. It was the first time I’d written a short story in a few years after steadily working on novels, and I think I’d been kind of working on it in my head subconsciously over the course of a few years.  There was a lot of pleasure that I derived from feeling like I was getting it right on the first try – not that there wasn’t plenty of revision that came after but the basic structure was there in the first draft. I don’t know if that answers your question?

MLD: It just felt right? Felt like you got the story right?

JM: Yes. “Gainliness,” on the other hand, took years for me to figure out. I don’t think I’ve really answered your question, but I’m going to stop talking.

MLD: You do a lot of writing in what I would consider rural America. Would you agree with that?

JM: No. All of my stories take place in penthouses on the Upper East Side.

MLD: Okay, well it just seems like that with what I’ve read. I don’t know what’s in your new collection, but it sounds like potentially it’s –

JM: I wish I would’ve brought you a copy –

MLD: Me, too. Thanks a lot, John.

JM: You’re welcome.

MLD: I’m guessing your new collection has a lot of stories that are also written in rural America. Do you have conflicting emotions about, say, Knoxville, or rural America in general?

JM: I guess I write about places I feel like I understand. I grew up in a fairly small town, Maryville, Tennessee, which had about 20,000 people in it when I was growing up. I spent my whole childhood in the South. I hadn’t been out of the South until I was an adult. A place like Atlanta was thought of by everyone I knew as almost alien somehow because it was such a big city, because it was a metropolis. Even though I’ve lived in large cities most of my adult life, I never really feel like I have a fluent understanding of a place like Brooklyn or Baltimore, to be able to write well when I’m writing stories that take place there.

MLD: What about technology helps you as a writer? And what do you wish someone would create to make things better?

JM: I write first drafts by hand. I would be fine writing on a typewriter. I use my computer but I don’t feel like I need it.

MLD: Nothing you would like to see created that would be useful?

JM: Maybe this shows the poverty of my imagination, but all I’ve ever needed as a writer is a pen and paper.

MLD: Before you went on your fellowship, I remember you saying something about how you read a lot and wrote a lot and were very regimented about doing those two things in great quantities every day. Are you still like that?

JM: I try. I write every day. I read every day. The quantities change from day to day. Today I woke up at about 7:30 and read for half an hour. Then I worked on my novel until noon.

MLD: You didn’t run?

JM: Mike [Pearson] and I ended up doing this bike ride yesterday on the Capital Trail which just opened last week.  We were going to ride the whole thing.

MLD: The Capital Trail?

JM: The Virginia Capital Trail. It starts in Williamsburg and goes to Richmond. It’s a 52-mile paved trail. We were going to do the whole thing, 104 miles; we got into Richmond but didn’t go all the way downtown. We turned back. We were worried about the time because it was going to get dark. So we rode about 80 or 90 miles. I still could’ve run today but I was tired from that and there’s this thing, this muscle right here [indicating his hamstring area], maybe I pulled it or something. I’m going to yoga later to try stretch it out. I’ll try to rest it for a few days. I think it was more of a gardening injury than it was a cycling injury. I was crouching down in this position like a baseball catcher, and it’s not a bodily configuration that I’m used to. I spent an hour in that position pulling up weeds. Later I went and ran 5 miles. Ever since then, I’m so sore.

MLD: What do you think about when you are running?

JM: I don’t know. It’s hard to summarize. Anything. If all goes well, then new ideas come to me for whatever I’m writing. Sometimes some horrible song will get stuck in my head, and I’ll just hear the lyrics to that song over and over for two hours.

MLD: Is it the same when you are cycling?

JM: To a degree. Cycling is less monotonous. You are seeing and encountering new things at a faster rate, so you get jogged out of repetitive thought patterns more easily.

MLD: Did you use the word “jogged” on purpose?

JM: No. I’m not quick witted enough.

MLD: You are a tenured professor. Do you think teaching helps or hurts or both for your writing?

JM: My job affords me so much time to write. With a research professorship, half of what you are getting paid to do is your research, which in my case is writing the books that I would be writing for free if no one were paying. My job in that sense allows me to write way more than probably any other similarly paying job that I could find.

MLD: Your stories sometimes feel like they have a common thread. It might be something like a little bit of despair, survival, or sorrow. There is something to it that’s a little bleak even when there are moments of light. Do you feel like that’s just something you have that comes out of you or do you think it’s something you are drawn toward. Just wondering why you go in that direction, if you even agree.

JM: I guess the world is a pretty bleak place. I don’t think I could write truthfully without being bleak.

MLD: What do you think has changed about your writing since your trip to Africa, if anything has changed?

JM: The novel I was researching in South Africa is on the backburner while I try to finish this other novel that I’ve been writing off and on for years. I’m sure my writing is gradually changing all the time, but the specific answer to that question would probably apply to the novel in progress of mine that takes place in Uganda, in South Africa, which I have not written a word of since arriving back in this country. So ask me again in a year.

MLD: You don’t think that your experience there, and your writing there, is changing what’s happening with what you are working on right now?

JM: What I’m working on right now takes place in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in 1992, so it’s only in a very abstract sense that my research in Africa informs the writing of this novel that takes place in the Smoky Mountains twenty-five years ago.

MLD: I guess I was looking for more of the abstract sense.

JM: In the abstract sense, it’s just too abstract to put into words.

MLD: I guess I’m wondering what’s changed in your view on humanity, your view on the world? With what you saw there, that experience, did that influence the way the words are coming to you now and the people that you are writing about?

JM: I wish my view on humanity had changed, but sadly I believe it’s exactly the same as it was.

MLD: So, bleak?

JM: I’m really a lot better answering questions about running rather than writing.

MLD: Do you want to talk about running?

JM: Yes. Let’s talk about running.

MLD: Can I just make up some questions?

JM: Talking about writing is just horrible. Wait. Are you writing that down? Are you typing, “Talking about writing is just horrible,” really?

MLD: Maybe.

JM: How long are you running this weekend?

We made plans for an early morning run in a couple of days. Then we sat on my back deck talking about nothing for another thirty minutes before he left for his yoga class. In the end I learned he played the flute in middle school and that he started running around the time he won the Whiting Award, although he insists on no causation between running and the award. But what I really learned was what I already knew: John is just a regular guy – a crazy-talented, highly-driven, regular guy. Do yourself a favor and pick up his new book, Fox Tooth Heart.


Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1977, John McManus lives and works in Cape Charles, Virginia. John McManus is the author of three widely praised books of fiction that have been reviewed in over 100 print publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. In 2000 he became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Whiting Writers Award for Stop Breakin Down.

Maggie Libby Davis spends her days accounting and spends her nights pursuing her MFA at Old Dominion University. It isn’t hard to imagine which one she enjoys more.