Let it be known that John McManus writes like the love child of Denis Johnson and Joy Williams. The youngest ever winner of the prestigious Whiting Award and author of two previous books of short stories and one novel, McManus recently published his long awaited story collection Fox Tooth Heart to widespread critical acclaim. Feverish, psychotropic, bold, mesmerizing, painful, Fox Tooth Heart is full of stories about people living on the margins of society, characters born into dark circumstances, or like the free solo climbing narrator of the story "Bugaboo," driven there by their own obsessions and addictions. For those wearied by predictable fiction, Fox Tooth Heart is manna from someplace more interesting and sorrowful than heaven.
I had an email exchange with McManus about vampire elephants, his literary influences and reading habits, Elena Ferrante, curiosity, and Karl Ove Knausgaard.
In the story "Betsy from Pike," a teenage girl who has been sexually abused for years takes a three-legged dog to be euthanized in hopes she can steal euthanasia drugs from the vet to kill her abuser. Instead she joins forces with a group of young Satanists. In this story you write about truly atrocious things with the blackest humor, but also with a deep respect for Betsy and what she's suffered and the predicament she is in. Is that a premeditated balancing act? Or one born during the act of writing?
I don't remember how I came up with Betsy's plot to steal the pentobarbital from the vet's office. She's trapped in a trailer park in southeastern Kentucky and isolated from even her neighbors there, so devising a way to hurt her abuser requires some ingenuity on her part. I wanted to show that she's smart and curious, but I didn't want to sugarcoat the bleakness of her situation. Her story is loosely based on a crime that took place in East Tennessee in the nineties: some allegedly Satanist teenagers from near Betsy's hometown kidnapped and killed a family of Jehovah's Witnesses they met at an I-81 rest area. The kids in my story have different names, personalities, relationships, shortcomings than the real criminals--but I was trying to imagine how the most reluctant of the group of real-life murderers might have come to decide to participate in the crime.
In the story "Elephant Sanctuary," a drunken rock star hiding out--at, yes, an elephant sanctuary--composes an album about vampire elephants who live forever and never forget. What, I must ask, would vampire elephants eat?
This is a great question. I wanted to answer it in the story, but there wasn't room. They would consume the blood of other elephants, but it would be more complicated than that. The gender segregation in elephant society would come into play, and since elephants are herbivores, elephant vampires would terrify living elephants even more than our vampires terrify us. Probably some would also drink the blood of other animals.
Who would you cite as your biggest literary influences?
Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, E.M. Forster, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Joy Williams, Octavia Butler, Marcel Proust, Thomas Wolfe. Those are the authors who excited me when I was first starting to write. I tell stories in a way that's probably also shaped by the science-fiction writers I read in middle school and early high school. At the time, I read pretty much every sci-fi novel and story collection on the shelves of the Blount County Public Library. The ones I still admire when I look back at them include Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Vonda McIntyre, and Samuel Delany.
You've published three books of short stories and a novel. Have you ever been discouraged from writing short stories because they are "difficult to sell"? If so, what has kept you producing in that genre?
Sure, dozens of people over the years told me to write novels and not stories. My first agent said that. My second agent did too. I listened and believed them. From a generalized financial standpoint, they weren't wrong. In 2009, when I started writing Fox Tooth Heart, it had been eight years since I'd written stories. By then I had realized that life is short and I should write what I want.
Every year on New Year's Day you post all the books you've read the year before on Facebook. In 2015 you read an impressive 110 books. (If you are okay with it I'll post the list at the end of the interview. If not, I won't). What's your secret for getting so much reading done? Do you listen to audio books as well? And how do you decide what to read?
I start every day by reading over breakfast--at least half an hour before doing anything else. Also whenever I'm on the subway, on trains, in planes, in airports, in line at the store, or lying in bed before falling asleep. I guess the only secret is I enjoy reading more than I like watching TV. By all means, post the list.
If you had to pick your top three favorite books read in 2015 what would they be?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, One of Us by Asne Seierstad.
I see Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Volume Four was on the list. Have you read one through three? Did you read them chronologically? By volume four were you getting Knausgaard-fatigue?
I've read Volumes One, Two, and Three--sequentially--and also Knausgaard's strange and beautiful first novel, A Time for Everything. If there's such a thing as Knausgaard fatigue then I seem to be immune to it. I've been tempted to copy and paste the Norwegian text of Volumes Five and Six into Google Translate so as to be able to read them ahead of their English-language release dates.
Did reading Wheat Belly and Grain Brain have an influence on your diet?
Aha, here's the problem with publishing an uncensored list of every book I read: you can quickly zero in on its most embarrassingly lowbrow titles. When typing up 2014's list, I left out a few self-help books that my friend Jenny had given me to read after a breakup. One was called It's Just a Fucking Date. Without commenting on the influence on my dating life wielded by It's Just a Fucking Date, I'll say I'm not the slightest bit ashamed to have enjoyed Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. I'm a former fat kid. At age fifteen I weighed a hundred pounds more than I do now. Until recently I was still always gaining ten pounds then starving myself to lose it again. High-protein, low-sugar diets like the ones in Wheat Belly and in a book Fitness Confidential give me a sense of satiety that I'd never in my life felt until a couple years ago. But the last thing I'd want to do is proselytize about diets. Eat what makes you feel good.
Do you have any advice for someone about to dive into Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet?
I'm not poised to be the one to give that advice, because I've read only the first book in the quartet. I loved it, along with Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment. I have a terrible memory when it comes to character names, and there's such a huge cast of characters that I worry I'll be lost when I begin The Story of a New Name. I'm the one who needs advice.
Several of the characters in Fox Tooth Heart are frustrated by the lack of curiosity of the people around them. Do you ever suffer from this frustration yourself? Or did you growing up?
Fox Tooth Heart has some characters who are intelligent but don't have an education. Sometimes their lack of knowledge makes them feel dumb; sometimes it's other people's ignorance that they conflate with stupidity. The drug-addict protagonist of "Blood Brothers," even at his most confused moments, retains a sense of wonder and astonishment that I hope works to convey the complexity of his thoughts. Betsy from "Betsy from Pike" is a ninth-grade dropout with no access to books, yet she intuits that intelligence and knowledge are two different things. Curiosity comes to seem to her like a barometer of intelligence, and I guess I've often felt the same way.
And for the curious, here is the list of the books John McManus read in 2015.
Books i've read or reread in 2015: (asterisk=reread; <>=favorite new or new-to-me title)
On the Ridge Between Life and Death--David Roberts
The Narrow Road to the Deep North--Richard Flanagan*
The Faraway Nearby--Rebecca Solnit
Men Explain Things to Me--Rebecca Solnit
The Meaning of Human Existence--Edward O. Wilson
Letters to a Young Scientist--Edward O. Wilson
The Strange Library--Haruki Murakami
The Bookshop--Penelope Fitzgerald
The Balloonists--Eula Biss
The Laughing Monsters--Denis Johnson
Find Me--Laura van den Berg
To Kill a Mockingbird--Harper Lee*
Chasing the Scream--Johann Hari
Double Negative--Ivan Vladislavic
Escape from Lucania--David Roberts
In the Heart of the Sea--Nathaniel Philbrick
Wheat Belly--William Davis
Grain Brain--David Perlmutter
Dead Wake--Erik Larson
Turning the Mind into an Ally--Sakyong Mipham
Between You and Me--Mary Norris
So You've Been Publicly Shamed--Jon Ronson
Blood on Snow--Jo Nesbo
The Johnstown Flood--David McCullough
The Sorrows of an American--Siri Hustvedt
The Unspeakable--Meghan Daum
The Children's Crusade--Ann Packer
The Argonauts--Maggie Nelson
The Parable of the Sower--Octavia Butler
The Job--Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg
Never Mind--Edward St. Aubyn
Some Hope--Edward St. Aubyn
At Last--Edward St. Aubyn
Bad Feminist--Roxane Gay
Lost for Words--Edward St. Aubyn
Hotel Living--Ioannis Pappos
Primates of Park Avenue--Wednesday Martin
I Am Pilgrim--Terry Hayes
The Easter Parade--Richard Yates*
The Falls--Ian Rankin
The Alcoholic--Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace--Jeff Hobbs
The Unraveling--Emma Sky