It is clear that God, or fate, or destiny, or whatever force you believe in has marked John McManus as a writer. His life is too full of serendipitous events, coincidences that defy logic, and having doors opened when he didn’t even know there was a portal there. In anyone else’s life, this would just be dumb luck. But with McManus’ skill and talent, he has been able to capitalize upon these events and build a solid body of literary work that is the envy of much older and much more experienced writers.
Raised in Maryville, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville. After high school, McManus enrolled at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. Although attending this college would prove to be a life-altering decision for McManus, it didn’t seem that way at first. “Goucher sent me this admissions fee waiver, and I totally wouldn’t have applied if they hadn’t waived the fifty dollar application fee. Because I had applied to all the other schools I was going to apply to and it was like, you know, three in the morning on the day before I had to send in the essays and stuff,” McManus said. Once at Goucher, he originally intended to study a science such as neurology or psychology. However, “my first semester I was in an English class that I loved and I was in bio and chemistry classes that I hated and dreaded. I was always destined to study English and literature. My parents were both English majors and I grew up loving to read. I remember telling my mom I wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but then I would faint at the sight of blood. But I took my first creative writing class sophomore year at Goucher, I had never written anything creatively, so I just signed up for the class and loved it and kept taking classes,” he said.
Madison Smartt Bell taught McManus’ classes, and the author of ten novels including the recent The Stone that the Builder Refused, took the young student under his wing. After talking to McManus, it seems hard to overstate Bell’s influence on the young writer. “Towards the end of the second semester, I wrote this story that was terrible, but he helped me try to get it published at Esquire and some other literary magazine and thank God it didn’t get published. It was an atrocity. But after I felt like he took an interest in me, I was determined to keep going.”
Bell was instrumental in helping McManus find an agent which led, ultimately, to publishing his first collection of stories. Bell “sent everything I had written the fall of my senior year to his agent, who is now my agent, Jane Gelfman. I guess it was like seven stories. I don’t think I even knew he was doing that at the time, he just told me after the fact,” McManus said. The agent liked his work and encouraged him to keep writing with the request to read more stories. At the end of the school year, McManus bundled up all of his work he had completed and sent it to Gelfman. “It was all just too serendipitous and easy really because she started sending the collection out maybe in May and I got like three rejection letters and then she called me up one day in June, after I’d just quit my third consecutive job that I’d had in a month since graduating because I hated them all so much, and said that she had an offer.”
That first collection Stop Breakin’ Down was published and received rave reviews. One critic wrote that the collection was “electric,” “complex and assured,” makes you wonder whether he is a naif savant,” “he has a remarkable talent,” and others described McManus as “a phenomenal talent blazing up suddenly on the horizon.” After Stop Breakin’ Down was released, serendipity continued to play a role in his career as McManus was awarded the prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award as a result of an anonymous nomination.
Bell encouraged McManus to continue his education in creative writing, pushing him to attend the writing program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. McManus, however, had other plans. “I didn’t even know that there were MFA programs in fiction until I was like a senior at Goucher. I just thought the idea of getting your master’s degree in fiction sounded so ridiculous. I guess I vaguely knew of the Iowa Writers Workshop, but it almost never occurred to me to go to graduate school in writing. He had tried to convince me that Hollins would be a great step for me. I wanted to go out and live in like Colorado and Wyoming and just ride my mountain bike all day and hike the Continental Divide trail all the time.” Once again, fate would change McManus’ life by taking the shape of an insistent bladder. Driving back to Goucher, McManus found himself on I-81 near Roanoke and “I really needed to find a place to use the bathroom and I happened to be at the exit that said Hollins University. I think if I hadn’t needed to use the bathroom so badly at that point I never would have gotten off and seen the Hollins University campus and been persuaded to apply there,” he said. Nature assuaged, McManus wandered the campus and chanced into a meeting with English department faculty who convinced him to attend the graduate school. “Again, there was no application fee,” McManus laughed.
McManus humbly sums up these events, and a personal phone call from Denis Johnson, when he said “I’ve just been very lucky with all these things.”
McManus’ newest book is a novel entitled Bitter Milk focuses on nine-year-old Loren Garland as he struggles to make sense of his life and family beneath the shadow of an East Tennessee mountain. Confused by his circumstance, isolated by his family, and eventually abandoned by his mother, Loren’s imagination grows and develops Luther, a cohort that may be his imaginary friend, his conscience, or his evil twin. There are two very noticeable mechanical aspects of this novel: no quotation marks and no chapters or section breaks.
McManus eschewed quotation marks because “I just didn’t feel that the dialogue should be disparate from the description because it seems like it was just part of what was being described in a way.” As for Bitter Milk‘s continuous, unbroken scene, McManus felt this was the best way to reflect Loren’s claustrophobic existence. “I just felt it was the most honest way to portray Loren’s situation was to make the reader stuck with him and since Loren can’t jump three weeks into the future then neither can the reader,” McManus said.
The avoidance of section breaks yields a valuable writing tip for aspiring authors and is definitely something to consider. “I do think there’s way too much of proliferation of section breaks often in contemporary fiction. It seems like it makes things easy on people. They get to the end of a paragraph and they don’t know what’s going to happen next and so they just hit return a couple of times and they can start over and there’s no good reason for the scene to change. When a 200 hundred page book has 400 section breaks then I feel like its sloppy writing often, unless there’s a really good reason for it,” he said.
McManus pointed out that he’s not afraid of reading fiction while working on new stories or a novel. “I often hear writers say they don’t read fiction while they’re reading fiction because it would cause them to become overly influenced and I think that’s crazy. For one thing, if I never read while I was writing, then I would never read,” he said. If a writer is reading Dostoyevsky and ends up with a little of the Russian in his work “it seems like it would be nothing but a good thing,” he said. Too many writers don’t actually read very much, either because they say they don’t have time, or they aren’t interested. “If you were a lawyer, you’re trying to pass the bar exam, you wouldn’t go into the bar exam not knowing any case histories and you wouldn’t be a doctor without reading medical journals. I’m always really surprised by how many people in MFA programs read so little, they might read ten books a year. They don’t read the cannon, they think it’s not important because they don’t want to write like Henry James or Marcel Proust, think they don’t need to read them. And that’s a shame.”
McManus maintains a regular writing schedule, trying to work a normal 40, 50, or 60 hour work week. “I try to treat it like a fulltime job,” he said. The initial inspiration for a story can be almost anything except “definitely not plot. Plot always comes last for me. Sometimes I’ll just start with a mood or I won’t know anything more than the way I’ll want to make someone feel reading the story. I suppose if there’s anything concrete I start with, it’s probably place, it’s setting,” he said.
When asked what his single-best, most-important, can’t live without writing tip is, McManus recalled a story he heard about Nicholson Baker. “I didn’t hear this myself, but Pickney Benedict told our class about it. He was asked in front of a large audience, what advice do you have for younger writers and he paused a long time and said in a very slow, ponderous way, he would tell them to go meticulously through all their writing and eliminate every instance of the word very.”
Meticulous is a good way to describe McManus’ writing and work habits. Bitter Milk was several years in the making and he said “it was a three or four year process where I’d have to write a draft and let a year go by and write another draft and let another year go by. And that’s the same way I’m finding the stuff I’m working on now is going.” That steady, refined, hard-work attitude is what makes John McManus an author worthy of the serendipitous moments he’s been presented. Cynics and bitter, frustrated writers may lament the connections and luck McManus had: the Madison Smartt Bells who passed his stories along to agents, the anonymous readers who nominated him for prizes, the need for bathroom breaks, and even a call from Denis Johnson all played a large part in creating his writing career. But the key is that McManus has the talent, skill, and determination to make the most of these opportunities.