Nobody’s Life Is a Joke: An Interview with John McManus

JOHN MCMANUS, now a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, received the Whiting Award at 22 in 2000, becoming its youngest-ever recipient. He has written one novel, Bitter Milk (Picador, 2005), and another is on the way. Fox Tooth Heart is his third collection of short stories.

McManus’s work lies broadly within the “Southern” writing tradition of haunted eccentricity, but he writes amid a wide range of influences. If early on he took due note of Cormac McCarthy’s ability to match prose style with landscape, he also owes much to Joan Didion, Charles R. Jackson, Edward St. Aubyn, and Richard Yates. McManus’s unstinting drive to cut to the core of each moment, to show rather than tell, and to avoid explicit moralization, gives his writing its toughness and latent urgency. Virtually all of his characters are existentially shattered in one way or another, and some are downright depraved. Yet they emerge from his stories less as downtrodden wrecks than as obdurate avatars of inevitable human strangeness and damage. The most interesting players in McManus’s world are fugitive musicians, meth heads, sex offenders, closeted teenagers, solitary outlaw athletes, and youthful Satanists, and they invariably make the case that anyone could wind up like them. His authorial eye is cold, but it also twinkles. More clearly than any writer I have read in recent years, McManus sees the terrible humor in loss while lodging the admonition that nobody’s life is a joke. 

I went to hear McManus deliver a captivating reading from Fox Tooth Heart at Housing Works in SoHo in early November, and a few days later he sat down and answered some questions.


JONATHAN STEVENSON: I have read your novel Bitter Milk and a number of your stories, including all of those in your commanding new collection Fox Tooth Heart, and I come away thinking of you as an identifiably “Southern” writer but one devoid of any of the derivative tics of or obvious tributes to forbears like Faulkner, O’Connor, Hannah, or McCarthy. Do you in fact consider yourself a regional writer?

JOHN McMANUS: I grew up in East Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Except for one trip out west with my grandparents at age 12, I never traveled outside the South until I got to college. Maybe places are like languages and you have to visit them prior to a certain age to attain total accentless, idiomatic grasp of their nuances. For whatever reason, Southern Appalachia is the one place I consistently feel I can write about with confidence. Despite having lived in New York, I can’t seem to write a successful story that takes place there, from the point of view of someone who grew up in the city. So I stick with the South, mostly. I do despise Southern clichés — people sitting on porches sipping sweet tea.

I know another novel from you is imminent, but formally Bitter Milk was like an extended short story, and you’ve now published three collections. Are you more comfortable with the short-story form than with longer fiction? If so, why?

I hope a novel is imminent. You sound more confident about it than I. Today I’d planned to revise 10 pages before sitting down to your questions, and instead I spent six hours on one page. It’s exasperating. With a short story I can see the whole geometry at once. Whether or not a story winds up being good, I can feel like I know what I’m doing while writing it. Writing novels leaves me wanting a Benzedrine prescription. I wish someone had warned me away from them before it was too late, especially now that National Book Awards for story collections two years running have made it clear that stories, not novels, are what the country clamors for.

Your writing style is especially penetrating and purposeful. By that I mean that every sentence seeks to drive closer to the subterranean heart of the matter; your work is largely free of extraneously prosaic description like “she passed him the fork.” Is this quality the product of a conscious effort on your part?

I get so bored when stories spend half their time moving characters across rooms and chronicling gestures. After a story grips me, I quit noticing that stuff so much, but too much early fork passing means I’ll never be gripped in the first place.

Your characters tend to be outsiders in one way or the other, whether due to impulsive indiscretions as with Stephen the hapless exhibitionist in “The Gnat Line,” or to idiosyncratic choices as with Max the hermit-spy in “Bugaboo.” Do you consider yourself an outsider?

You don’t decide to be a writer without some self-consciousness and anxiety. I didn’t come out until I was a college senior, plus I was a fat kid who used to weigh a hundred pounds more than I do now, so those things among others have probably led to a disparity between how I see myself and how others see me. That is, I go around feeling like an outsider yet seem halfway normal to other people, unless they’re only saying so to be polite. I hope I’m not as weird as either of the two Maxes. Now that I don’t drink, I’m pretty sure I’m less impulsive than Stephen.

In particular, you seem to have a wry affection for lowlifes that rivals that of great genre novelists like Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, and sometimes you even near Jim Thompson territory. Have you read these or kindred writers? Other literary short-fiction writers — George Saunders comes to mind — like ethically compromised people. Where does your taste for louche types come from? More generally, which authors do you count as your main influences?

I do admire George Saunders. His story “Escape from Spiderhead” is a work of perfection. I haven’t been inclined toward much hardboiled crime fiction, not to knock the writers you name; that’s just my idiosyncratic taste. The louche types I prefer are Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend, Emily Grimes in The Easter Parade, Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays, Patrick Melrose in the Edward St. Aubyn novels. Maybe on some spectrum of all humanity these are extreme cases of degradation, but I feel like anyone whose story is worth telling is fueled at least sometimes by shame and confusion. The dissolute are also more fun to read about, and for that matter to hang out with. More generally regarding influences, it was a revelation at the age of 18 to read the early Cormac McCarthy novels, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark and Child of God. They take place where I’m from, and the prose style struck me as being exquisitely matched to the landscape.

Treachery and loyalty seem to be major McManus themes — notably in the stories “Elephant Sanctuary” and “Cult Heroes.” Talk about why that is.

I wish I could tell you why some themes recur in so many of my stories. One piece that I pulled from Fox Tooth Heart wound up being so uncannily similar to another story that it was like I’d written the same story twice. Somehow the resemblance hardly occurred to me until I’d finished writing them both. Treachery and loyalty are interesting intrinsically (at least to me) but also dramatically. Deciding where your loyalties lie has got to be a charged dramatic moment. In “Cult Heroes” the story offers Hunter the chance to decide to be loyal to his mother after all, which I guess is a kind of unearned grace. In “Elephant Sanctuary” Ike is too narcissistic to be loyal to anyone but himself. His father punishes him for that, but then again his father is a con man who would probably have betrayed him anyway.

Sports — in particular, climbing and cycling — have featured prominently in your stories, and seem to constitute solitary refuges for your characters. Am I wrong?

I spend enough time cycling that it’s probably an obsession. I would train for endurance races if I could handle the sleep deprivation. My best story ideas have come on bike rides. In four of the nine stories in Fox Tooth Heart I’ve managed to get characters onto bikes, although only in “Cult Heroes” is cycling significant to the plot. Cody and Hunter set out to ride together, but, you’re right, the sport becomes a solitary refuge for Hunter by the end. In “Bugaboo” Max decides that the only way to silence his thoughts is to put himself in deadly physical peril. The real danger subdues all his irrational anxiety. At some point I was trying to make sense of ropeless climbing — to find a reason why any sane person would do it. Max is my answer to that logic puzzle.

In a famous 1992 interview, Cormac McCarthy said he credited only writers who dealt with issues of life and death. Certainly these are among your literary preoccupations. Do you find much of current fiction trifling or inconsequential?

I doubt that a greater percentage of fiction is trifling now than in the past. Some is trifling, but I like good stories about any subject. I imagine it’s harder to write a truly momentous romantic comedy than to write a momentous story about life and death, which means that if I came upon one, I might admire it all the more.

Your work is not overtly sociopolitical, but it has a steady undercurrent of political corrosion. I’m thinking especially of the salience of Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy in “Gateway to the Ozarks,” Max’s casual engagement in government surveillance in “Bugaboo,” and the effective segregation of sex offenders in “The Gnat Line.” Is your sardonic take on American history and politics front and center when you write, or just there in the background waiting to surface occasionally?

I used to be addicted to political coverage. I mean the consumption of it wasted as much time as any other addiction. From the coining of the word blog up to the beginning of this decade I had two dozen websites saved in my favorites bar, with their names abbreviated so they’d all fit into a single horizontal line. I’d click on them all from left to right, and when I reached the end of the row I’d start over because by then there’d be new content in some of them. I used to be able to name every US senator and half of the House, not from conscious memorization but as the accidental result of reading so much about politics. Then in one fell swoop I got sick of it, which isn’t to say I no longer care but that I worry more abstractly now about elections.

I’ve been working on a novel that’s more political than most of the stories in Fox Tooth Heart. Not the novel I mentioned earlier, but another project, which is on the back burner this year while I finish the current one. Its protagonist is a journalist who gets caught fictionalizing nonfiction stories about several subjects, including gay refugees in South Africa. It gives me more room to comment on mainstream American political journalism than when I’m writing about alienated teenagers in Appalachia. But it’s a novel about a character involved in politics, rather than a nakedly political novel. I tried writing one of those, and there was no mystery in it. I’ve got a whole junkyard of failed novel drafts to plunder for parts, but with that one I managed to salvage one sentence.

Staying on the subject of sociopolitical content, I was impressed — and moved — by your subtle deployment of Hurricane Katrina, immigration, and the Iraq War to contextualize the hollowness of Caidin’s very American life in “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile.” It put me in mind of the ghostly bluffness of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Is that a quality you strive for?

That story began with an idea about a closeted 16-year-old who drives recklessly in order to seem macho. I figured he would tell lies to make other kids think he’s straight, and I wanted to look at the consequences of those lies. That was pretty much all I knew at the start; it didn’t then take place in 2005 in Houston or involve a boy from El Salvador. I figured out the setting and the rest of the characters as I went along. For me those realizations often happen in a kind of semihypnotic trance that I try to put myself in while writing a first draft, which means afterward I lack accurate memories of how they came about. For that matter my answers to a lot of these questions rely on a sort of false hindsight, because a lot of writing feels almost as random to me as biological evolution — that is, you test a hundred things and keep the one that works, then do the same again, and again, until the end product is a series of previously unpredictable choices whose original likelihood of emerging would have been one in 10 to the trillionth power.

The pull of family is strong in stories like “Gainliness.” Please talk a little about that.

There’s at least a glimpse of the parents or guardians of every point-of-view character in the collection, including any sex offender who gets his own chapter in “The Gnat Line.” For me that’s part of making them seem real, like giving all the adult characters jobs. The exception is the “Blood Brothers” narrator, who never states his occupation unless meth cook’s assistant counts as a job. Before he met Ray, he worked somewhere or other, but that no longer matters to him. His mother does matter to him, no matter how high he gets. If it were otherwise, he wouldn’t make sense to me. That’s true as well of Victor in “Gainliness.” Victor goes years without talking to his family, but guilt and dread accumulate as a result. If there weren’t some system of cause and effect resulting from his relationship with at least someone he loves, I wouldn’t believe in him enough to write about him.

Finally, in a McManus story, life ranges from deeply fraught to outright catastrophic. In “Betsy from Pike,” I think, you capture the insidious inevitability of despair in reflecting, “What a fool she’d been, praying for oblivion when it was already hers.” Then, in the collection’s devastating finale “Blood Brothers,” you depict — though in a disarmingly jaunty tone — a living nightmare of permanent shame and desultory self-loathing. Do you consider tragedy an existential given?

I get accused of writing stories that are too dark. Most people’s lives aren’t as bleak as Betsy’s; I’ll acknowledge that. But if even one percent of people’s lives are that bleak, that’s still 72 million. Betsy comes to realize she’s living a nightmare. The narrator of “Blood Brothers” doesn’t. At the time of narration he’s high, and in that state of mind a memory of how much he once loathed himself might gratify or amuse him. But if it’s a yes-or-no question, I can’t say no.


Jonathan Stevenson is Senior Fellow for US Defense and Editor of Strategic Comments at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading international relations think tank.



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