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Writing Craft, Vol. V: Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus


I spoke with Norfolk, Va., fiction writer John McManus earlier this week for a Belligerent Q&A. This is a follow up with some of his responses to questions emailed earlier this summer.

A full disclosure reminder: McManus is one of my professors in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program.

In addition to being a wonderfully wise, insightful and encouraging educator, McManus is the author of a novel, Bitter Milk, and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down. 

McManus is one of the core contributors to “If You Read The Paper,” a terrific feature at AltDaily. Worth checking out, especially on Fridays when McManus is writing the column.

And you can read more by and about McManus at his site via this link.

Without further ado …

Q: I hoped to focus on one story, “Mr. Gas,” before asking some more general questions. Generally speaking, the story deals with a teen’s relationship to his homebound mother and a relationship with a boy who works at the Mr. Gas, where he buys milk for Mama. This originally was to be a larger work. What did you originally envision the story to be?

The story is all that remains of a terrible novel draft I wrote in the winter and spring of 2000.

Q: What led you to reconsider “Mr. Gas” as a short story? How did you refocus the story?

In March 2001, when I sat down to revise the novel, I started deleting the parts that made me cringe to read them. After two weeks I was left with about ten pages. As I recall, I had the Radiohead song ‘Nice Dream’ on repeat during this process, which helped in my effort to refocus, if not to focus.

Q: There are a number of images that strike me in the story, but one of my favorites is Jason’s journeys to get milk for his mother. Given the apparent roles in their relationship, this simple mission, undertaken for various reasons, really resonated with me. Would you talk about how you develop images that are both concrete and how you find them within the story, if that is the case?

I hope you won’t think me disingenuous for saying I can’t talk successfully about how I developed images in ‘Mr. Gas,’ because I don’t seem to have conscious memories of craft choices I made while writing it. In general I’d say I try to enter a meditative state where I can just stare semi-absently at things until the solutions strike me, and then do that again and again until finally, if the story ever comes to feel right, some metaphorical systems will have magically developed that function together properly in a way that makes both literal and figurative sense. Since this lucky process happens once in a while when I write stories, I’ve wasted time in the foolish hope that it might occur in a novel as well. But novels turn out to be a different deal.

Q: There’s a real history to the characters, especially Mama and Jason, that comes across seemingly effortlessly and informs the events and certainly informs the events of the story. Sometimes I struggle with making the past of characters come across. How are some ways you address that issue without engaging in large stretches of backstory?

I think I tried to make the characters’ pasts implicit in what they desired and lacked and yearned for and wished had happened and dreamed.

Q: I’ve struggled with whether to discuss the ending, because I hope people will find the story. Safe to say, there was a bit of surprise to it in how it explores what Jason seems to want or has been programmed by to want and fear – so even that possibility that an object of desire might have feelings back, something that simple becomes a revelation and a source of conflict. When I say “surprise,” that may not be the word, because groundwork is within the narrative, but it was presented in a way I had to think about. It’s not simple, which, of course is a point of literature compared to, say, a potboiler. Do you work toward that kind of complexity going into it? Does it come about naturally?

In general I tend to structure a story somewhat like this: the main character, in this case Jason, wants something, maybe wants it so desperately that it seems downright out of the question. Various types of conflict bear down on him to prevent him from getting the thing he wants. He struggles forward anyway, dealing with more and more kinds of conflict (as well as more and more of those kinds of conflict) until it seems impossible to proceed. At this point the climax has to happen in a manner that answers whatever question the story has been asking (the question typically being ‘will the character get the thing he wants?’). For the climax to be satisfying, it has to seem both surprising and inevitable. One way to do this is for a thing that has seemed inevitable to happen in a surprising way. Another way is to show that the character has been believably blinded to the inevitable until a climactic moment when the thing that has blinded him somehow vanishes like an evanescent fog.

Q: I love the idea of writing down the opposite of what happened in a journal, and the idea of multiple truths, and how this comes back so organically in the story. Did you have that idea early on or was that something you found in the process of writing?

The opening line, about Jason’s mother telling him the way to keep a journal is to write the opposite of everything that happened, sounded good to me at the time, but now I look back and find it cloying and trite. I’m glad you love the idea, but it makes me cry inside to think about it, as it does to look back at almost anything I wrote this long ago. At least you chose a story from Born on a Train. My first story collection, Stop Breakin Down, seems no better than juvenilia to me now, and if you ever read so much as one story from it, there will be no old-timey photo booth and no Dippin’ Dots.

Q: You tell your students to write every day. Why is this so important? How do you make time?

If you’re not currently working on a project, it might not be so important to write every day; you could take six months off and come back and start anew and that would be fine. But if you’re writing a novel or a story, its setting and mood and style and plot are things you’re teaching yourself fluency in, the way you teach yourself fluency in a language. With any language you’re studying now or that you attained post-adolescence, you’ll start to forget it little by little after just a single day of not speaking or thinking or reading it.

Q: Where do you prefer to write? For example, I can write just about anywhere but I despise interruptions and certain kinds of noise. It can be tough for me to focus.

In October I bought a house in Colonial Place, and I use for my office an upstairs spare bedroom through whose windows I can see crepe myrtles, pine trees, the sunrise, the street, Haven Creek. This is far and away where I prefer to write. For two years in Norfolk I lived in houses that for various reasons weren’t conducive to serious creative thought, and so I sought a cafe where I liked to work. Nothing felt right. There are some new coffeeshops that might have served me well in 2008 and 2009, although you’re right that in public noise can always be a problem; these days I like to write in silence.

Q: I tend to play with dialogue, hoping to find characters in exchanges, and I practice writing full paragraphs. Do you still do writing exercises? How do you experiment?

In the early stages of writing a novel there’s plenty of exploratory writing during which I let characters think things or do things that almost certainly won’t wind up in the final draft.

Q: Who are you reading?

Today I finished The Literary Conference by César Aira, an intriguing little novella about a writer and mad scientist whose quest to clone Carlos Fuentes goes desperately wrong and threatens to destroy the city of Mérida, Venezuela, and probably the world. In my backpack is Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, which I’ll start reading when I finish answering these questions. My favorite new novel so far in 2011 is Open City by Teju Cole.

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m close to finishing a novel that I’ve been rewriting steadily since May of last year, at which time it had lain untouched since 2006 in the form of a sprawling, baroque, and semi-unreadable 700-page draft. Today it’s a svelte 370 pages. When it’s truly done, I’ll turn my full attention to Cooch: The Musical. Also I’ve got about five stories left to write or revise in a new story collection. One of those stories, ‘Blood Brothers,’ will appear this fall in the anthology Surreal South ’11. You can read a slightly different version of it in Rusty Barnes’s excellent Appalachian literature blog “Coffee and Fried Chicken.” Another story called ‘The Ninety-Sixth Percentile’ came out in The Harvard Review this year.

Q: One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the MFA program is reading and critiquing the work of other students. I learn a lot by considering other people’s work, and by hearing their responses to my work, in addition to critiques from professors. Do you share work with peers? What do you look for in criticism? What do you dislike?

It’s been a while since I’ve shared work with peers, but I’m preparing to show my novel to a few friends. I guess at this stage the criticism I’m looking for most would regard what’s missing, unclear, tedious, implausible, lugubrious, or overly obvious.

Q: You are one of the organizers for this year’s literary festival. Is there anything you can tell us about the lineup or the theme at this point?

The theme is ‘The Lie That Tells the Truth.’ The schedule is online. Guests include Megan Stack, Joy Williams, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Young Jean Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Yola Monakhov, and Scott Heim.

Q: I’ve written about my regard for the work you are doing as a contributor to AltDaily. Why do you continue to take the time to contribute? Why does it matter to you?

I appreciate what AltDaily is doing for Norfolk. When they perceive that something’s missing in social or civic life here, they immediately go about filling in the hole. They’ve completed so many successful projects in 2010 and 2011 that I feel exhausted just pondering it. I contribute each week because I want AltDaily to succeed and because they let me write uncensored about whatever I want and because I admire many of their writers and because the weekly column lets me feel like I’m no longer wasting my life by spending hours on end reading political blogs.

Q: Is there anything else I should have asked but didn’t? Or that you’d like to discuss?

I wish that you had asked me who I think you are.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol X: Novelist and short story writer John McManus


John McManus is reading in this photograph. Courtesy photo.

Norfolk, Va., novelist, short story writer, educator, and columnist John McManus visited France earlier this summer, dealing a crushing defeat to my dreams of getting this Belligerent Q&A posted in June 2011.

In America, we don’t look backwards, even if it’s only a month or so. We can’t get  within 1,000 meters of a month or so, I think, because we don’t use the metric system. Or, say, go back to 1799, when France adopted it. Philosopher Concorcet once said: “The metric system is for all people for all time.” A prediction that was only off by an inch or so.

Let me note I was surprised to learn practicing one’s chosen art in the French countryside is more enjoyable than answering a series of foolish questions emailed by one’s student (well after the semester ends, granted ) for said student’s blog.

C’est très choquant!

And that’s right — McManus is one of my professors in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program.

This is necessary full disclosure, but if you read this blog regularly (1) you are my Mom, suddenly computer literate, and (2) you already know I have more conflicts with these interviews than the Catholics had with the Huguenots from 1562 through 1598.

Zinged you there, France. (The Google translate function is giving nothing French for “zing.”)

Point being, McManus is the author of a novel, Bitter Milk, and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down, and he earned the Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000.

Félicitations pour cet exploit!

And McManus, as I have written for TReehouse Magazine, is one of the authors of “If You Read The Paper,” a terrific feature at AltDaily. Every Friday, at least, you should check it out.

And, look, I don’t want to overhype this, but this Belligerent Q&A is for all people for all time.

Et maintenant sur avec spectacle …

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

This question has stymied me for weeks. My three examples of not knowing who I think I am: (1) the weeks I’ve spent unable to answer it, (2) Being and Nothingness, (3) my responses below.

Q: You are an award-winning fiction writer, an educator, a world traveler, and an AltDaily columnist. Do you consider yourself the less self-referential James Franco of Hampton Roads?

Scanning down to this second question before answering the first would have taught me who I am, although I would argue that a difference between Franco and me is that he wants to obtain a PhD whereas I do not.

Q: Your storied appreciation for the work of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has popularized a nickname, “Cooch.” I often dream that you and the attorney general will star in a by-the-numbers buddy cop show/procedural on CBS. What would your nickname be and why? What crimes would you like to tackle?

If, after my writing partner and I produce our forthcoming musical about Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general remains willing to star with me in a buddy show, I’ll deem our musical to have failed. Let’s refashion the cop show in the iconoclastic-loner vein of cop dramas a la Dexter, although I’ve never watched Dexter and so could be wrong to assume that’s what he is. My character would be a forensic expert in an ancient Rome where forensic analysis is as advanced as ours albeit with mechanical equipment. The show would be filmed on location so I would move to Italy. Nickname: Rullus. As I contemplate this, I realize how much I’d like for Cuccinelli to play a character who worships pagan gods of antiquity, so I retract my earlier answer. There’s a role for him as a leery, superstitious coroner who spends his off-hours in the city’s many temples, making offerings to god after god.

Q: When two vowels go walking, which one does the talking?

Earlier I was listening to The National’s album Boxer and remembering how for years the LP was tainted in my mind by my belief that Matt Berninger was singing ‘your mind is racing like a pronoun’ rather than the real lyric, ‘racing like a pro now.’ That misheard lyric irritated me so much that I listened rather apprehensively to their 2010 album High Violet, waiting for similarly irksome lyrics. If I were to answer this question, someone might read my response and think thoughts about me that are similar to ones I thought unfairly about Berninger.

Q: When you take over for retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, what will be your first three agenda items?

  1. Taking down the gigantic pictures of Pat Robertson at the Norfolk Airport.
  2. Taking down the ‘No Right Turn’ sign on southbound Llewellyn Avenue at the approach to Delaware Avenue. (Was there ever a more absurd ‘No Right Turn’ sign?)
  3. Abolishing the electoral college.

Q: Why won’t The New Yorker publish my PBS NewsHour fan fiction?

When The New Yorker rejects a story of mine, I resubmit it as work of a different genre (e.g. dance critique, slice-of-life sketch, cartoon) and sign the cover letter ‘Malcolm Gladwell.’

Q: You are co-directing the Old Dominion University literary festival this year. How many days will be dedicated to Tami Hoag’s thriller Night Sins? And what else can we expect?

With apologies to Orson Welles’s 1970s-era Carlsberg beer ads, the ODU literary festival is probably the best literary festival in the world. Tami Hoag isn’t on this year’s schedule, but as you know I co-direct the festival with Michael Pearson and so I don’t have autonomy over these matters.

Q: If I make it through the ODU program and earn an MFA, will you and your fellow professors Janet Peery and Sheri Reynolds take me to one of those old-timey photograph places on the Virginia Beach strip? What costumes should we wear? Then can we go to Dippin’ Dots afterwards, please?

Yes. Shackleton and other Endurance crew members. Let’s play it by ear.

Q: France, huh?

In May I was in residence at the Dora Maar House in Menerbes, France, a hilltop village in the Luberon Valley about halfway between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. The only non-wonderful part of this fellowship was having to leave at the end.

Q: By the time you come back, there may be a Chipotle in Ghent. Will you be extending your trip?

This question reveals how pathetically long it’s taken me to answer your questions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than that I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

You can read more by and about McManus at his site via this link.

In the next few days, I’ll post a more serious craft discussion with McManus here at the blog.

À la prochaine.
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