In the spring of 2015, the Oxford American published “Bugaboo” by John McManus, a story whose protagonist and unreliable narrator, Max, is addicted to the thrill of free-climbing. When he finds himself stranded in the lowlands of Florida, where he’d followed a woman, far away from any mountains, his intensity becomes destructive. He is a paranoid, obsessive, recovering alcoholic for whom every bump in the road is a dead body; every laugh and whisper signals ridicule and resentment. His biggest fear—that each private memory or moment of weakness is under scrutiny—is confirmed when he meets a surveillance enthusiast, also named Max, living deep in the Everglades. The story runs wild from there, with Max’s irrational mentality heightened by McManus’s brisk and manic prose.
McManus’s new collection, Fox Tooth Heart, in which “Bugaboo” appears, overflows with characters whose lives are full of doubt, anxiety, and disorder. There are teenage Satanist murderers, a drunken musician who exploits a telepathic elephant for songwriting material, an adolescent polymath clone of Thomas Jefferson. Some of McManus’s characters are trapped—by circumstance or their own mistakes—in places like the Ozarks, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Others careen into the Grand Canyon on mountain bikes seeking evidence of the divine, or burn through Appalachia on speed, en route to commit murder or worse. Reading the book, I had to know where stories like that originate.
McManus, who is originally from Knoxville (and published a pair of stories in the Oxford American earlier in his career), called me a few days before Thanksgiving. I asked about Appalachia. I asked about isolation and fear in the world and in his work. As he answered, I imagined the frozen landscape surrounding him, and winter’s early darkness.
Your novel, Bitter Milk, is set in Appalachia, and some of your new story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, takes place there. Does the region have any special significance for you?
I’ve always felt more capable of writing fiction set in and around southern Appalachia than any other place. I’m just totally incapable of writing about Brooklyn, even though I’ve lived there. And even other cities where I’ve lived, like Baltimore—every time I tried to write a novel or a story set in Baltimore, it fell flat with no sense of place. I don’t know why. If I have any kind of fluency in any landscape or setting, it’s the one that was around me where I grew up.
Is that where you start the writing process, with place? Some writers say they begin with setting, some with character, and some with language.
It’s probably different with every story. Well, I guess I usually begin with a situation, some kind of idea, maybe a “what if” question. In “Blood Brothers” it was “what if these meth heads in East Tennessee got their hands on Grindr?” That was back when the Grindr app had first come out, like spring or summer of 2009. I immediately wondered what the people I went to high school with in rural East Tennessee would make of it. So I guess hearing myself answer the question, I’m thinking, Yeah, I did start with place in a way, but it was an idea that took my mind to a place that I knew.
You begin the book with an epigraph from one of Tennessee Williams’s poems, and your prose is terse and effective like poetry can be. How heavily does language factor in?
Williams is a writer I admire, and I’m probably influenced by any number of writers I won’t even begin to name. In the past, when asked about literary influences, my knee-jerk reaction was to name writers like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, whom I really admired when I was a freshman and sophomore in college and I was first starting to write. In some email interview I was doing a couple months ago with Electric Literature, I was realizing maybe my lit influences are writers I admired most when I was nine and ten, eleven and twelve. I was trying to make a list of those people and it’s difficult because I didn’t keep a list of books I’d read like I do now. I wish I had, but it’s probably some unidentifiable mish-mash. Certainly I admired Southern writers when I was beginning to write seriously—and trying to take myself seriously as a writer—particularly people who came from where I grew up, like James Agee.
I read an essay recently that referred to Williams’s poetry as “sexual self-portraiture,” and I wonder if your work could be characterized that way.
Sure, I’d be flattered for it to be characterized that way. There’s this one poem of his I came across for the first time in an anthology of gay poetry; I think it was called A Century of Gay Poetry, and it was just so beautifully evocative to me. I didn’t quite know what it meant; I just kept coming back to that poem. I read it enough times that I memorized it, and the title, Fox Tooth Heart, obviously came to me as a result of that poem, but a long time ago. It was a title in search of a book for many years. The whole poem is four two-line stanzas:
Winter smoke is blue and bitter:
women comfort you in winter.
Scent of thyme is cool and tender:
girls are music to remember.
Men are made of rock and thunder:
threat of storm to labor under.
Cypress woods are demon-dark:
boys are fox-teeth in your heart.
After I’d mulled over it several times, it started to seem like maybe it was silly and simplistic and reductive, but then I decided to own my admiration of it.
I know a premise in “The Gnat Line” is taken from an actual sex-offender law in Georgia. Do you often develop material from true events or odd accounts you might find in small newspapers?
Sometimes. I guess I’ve always read the newspaper throughout my life, probably since I was a little kid. In my hometown paper, the police blotter would get printed, which was interesting and humiliating. I remember getting a citation for running a red light when I was sixteen years old, and I came to school the next day and everybody knew about it because their parents read the paper. They would say, “You go to school with this John McManus fellow?” Anyway, a lot of quirky and interesting and revealing crimes get written about, especially in small-town papers, and I’ve always enjoyed reading them. When I’m passing through a small town, I’ll often buy a copy of the paper and read through it, not necessarily for research, but sometimes—as a happy accident—I’ll get an idea for a story.
There are I guess three stories in the collection that you could say are “ripped from the headlines” in some ways. The characters are fully fictional, but they were inspired by scenarios that I’d read about. “Cult Heroes” was inspired in part by something that really happened. Some mountain bikers snuck into Grand Canyon National Park in November ’95 during the federal government shutdown when there were no park rangers. I think they had all these drugs in their possession, and they wound up getting caught and getting arrested. And in “Betsy from Pike,” although it’s about characters who came pretty much fully out of my mind, the situation is inspired by a real crime that was a headline story in East Tennessee in the late nineties, where a group of teenagers from southeastern Kentucky took a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses hostage at an interstate rest area, made them drive their van out into the country, and killed them all, except for this boy who lived despite their having shot him. And then the media wrote them up as Satanists and blamed them all collectively, even though it seems like the blame possibly resided with one of them. The story itself is not based on those people, but I used the real news story as a template.
Often, your stories get called depraved or violent—
The word depraved seems to have dislodged itself in descriptions of fiction.
That’s what I’m curious about. I see no lack of depravity in the world you are responding to. It’s not as if you’re inventing the violence within our society.
I’m thrilled to hear you say that. I’ve always felt the same way. I don’t know what world people are living in where they find stories in which bad things happen to be more depressing or depraved than real life.
What social conditions lead to those things? I keep coming back to the ideas of poverty and isolation and obsession in your work. Can you shed any light on the horrible acts that take place in the real world?
Maybe my identity as a writer was formed before I ever left East Tennessee to go to college, and I suppose in some way I’m always writing about the people that are new in places that I lived in or visited when I was an adolescent. I was never really around rich people, or upper-middle class people for that matter. The place wasn’t diverse. The population wasn’t highly educated. People face real problems in their daily lives—that never struck me as depressing, in the way that critics are likely to label the stories. Does that makes sense?
Before my dad retired, he owned a business that delivered lost luggage, and he had contracts with a couple of airlines at the Knoxville Airport. Working for him was my summer job, starting when I was seventeen. As late as I suppose my late twenties, I would go back to Tennessee and work for him for a couple of months, and then take money I’d earned and go write somewhere. Like, I’d go spend two months in Berlin and just write. Or spend two months in the country somewhere and just write. And the result was that I wound up driving at least once to every single little town in East Tennessee, North Georgia, northern North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, and west into middle Tennessee and sometimes even Alabama. So it was a great job to have as a writer, really. I would just be alone in the car with my thoughts and some music and drive around and get to know the map and the geography. That whole area is a beautiful place.
Do you see evidence there of the themes that emerge in your work? Are you responding to what you’ve seen?
I guess you don’t end up engaging with those people when you’re just driving in your car. But I still stay in touch with a certain number of people from where I grew up. And sometimes if a story takes place in Georgia or Tennessee, it might have characters I met elsewhere in the world or contain interactions that I had elsewhere. It’s kind of a grab bag of observations throughout my life. It’s hard to summarize, especially with a story collection. Sometimes I stumble.
Feel guilty for having left?
No. I’m very happy to have grown up there. I love the Smoky Mountains. When I’m back I always try to go on a hike or a trail run. It’s a landscape that still may be my favorite anywhere in the world. There are places I’ve seen that are objectively beautiful. I would not be opposed to living in Knoxville at some point in my life. But right now I don’t want to be living in East Tennessee.
You write poor characters and you write rich characters. Although their stories differ, they all seem to feel a certain intensity of experience. Is that a condition of youth or does it come from the types of pressures we’ve been talking about?
I guess I never realized that not everybody was always looking for that intensity of experience until my first book of stories came out and I got interview questions about how new it was for characters to be fueled by such intense desires to feel, live more vividly, and self-destruct. So maybe it’s just me, a pathological quality of my mind.
I do think one desire I have above all as a writer is not to be boring. I’ve wound up with a lot of failed, boring story drafts over the years, for different reasons. One thing they all seem to have in common is that the main characters don’t really want anything; they’re not driven by any desire. So when I write a story these days, I try to meet the character and the moment of his or her most interesting or powerful desire.
”The Ninety-Fifth Percentile” is set against the backdrop of war. Has it affected you personally to have these wars playing out in the background of your life?
I’ve never been in the military. And although I know some veterans, I don’t know them well enough to articulate their experiences in any worthwhile fashion. That’s just not who I am or probably will ever be as a writer. At the same time, if you’re writing a story that’s political in some way, that’s set in Texas in 2005, you can hardly ignore the Iraq War and the effects of it. It wound up seeming natural in that story for the spoiled teenager who is of status to have an older brother in the military and for them to have this father who is gung-ho about them signing up for the Air Force, despite the terrible devastating mistake of a war that had been ongoing for two years and showed no sign of letting up.
And surveillance is a theme of “Bugaboo.” That character of the other Max just fit in several different ways, because of his family history of schizophrenia and his paranoia and anxiety. [The first Max] always feels like he’s being watched, and in fact we are pretty much always being watched. When he’s faced with what he believes is real physical evidence of that fact, he’s able to consider himself to be rational rather than irrational. But I’m the last person who should try to explain what my stories mean. I’m the author. I’m patently unqualified to discuss this stuff.