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John McManus Wrote the Best Short Story About a Thomas Jefferson Clone You’ll Read This Year

We spoke to the author of "Fox Tooth Heart" about his long break from publication and why shame is the most powerful and revealing emotion.

Michael Hafford

Michael Hafford

Photo courtesy of John McManus

John McManus is a reluctant interview subject. Before we started talking in earnest, he warned me, "I'm pretty terrible at this. I'll just let you know in advance. You might ask me questions and there will be dead air as if the call had been dropped." But he's not terrible. You'll see.

Unlike his purported interview style, the stories in Fox Tooth Heart, his fourth book and third story collection, have no space for dead air. If McManus's stories start with Fourth of July fireworks, they end with everyone going to bed drunk except one person, who has realized that he will never be able to live life the same way again. They're tales of guilt: "Elephant Sanctuary" shows us a rockstar after he's killed his girlfriend; "The Gnat Line" is about a group of pedophiles on the edge of conviction. They're stories of young, confused love: "The 95th Percentile" is about a teenager's romantic self-discovery through fast cars. And more than anything, they're stories of excessive strangeness: "Cult Heroes" shows a famous mountain biker before his conversion to Christian Science; "Gateway to the Ozarks" is the story of the first genetic clone of Thomas Jefferson's adolescence.

At the sort of cocktail parties where lots of writers talk about writing, you'll hear McManus get compared to Denis Johnson, but that's not quite right. Sure, his characters are junkies and derelicts, but McManus doesn't have Johnson's affinity for the divine. His are the down-and-out heroes of George Saunders or John Updike, captured just before their fall. They're people struggling for their place in the world or who must settle for something less than they've hoped for.

It's been ten years since his last book—Bitter Milk—and 15 since McManus published Stop Breakin Down at the geriatric age of 22, a book that made him the youngest-ever winner of the distinguished Whiting Award. McManus seems more than conflicted about the material in his first book, but acknowledges that he can't imagine life without it. Whereas Stop Breakin Down was material written by a "drunk 20-year-old," Fox Tooth Heart is the work of an older man still grappling with how we come by the beliefs that define us.

VICE: It's been ten years since your last book. And they were coming pretty quickly before that. What happened? Why the delay?
John McManus: [Laughs] One of the reasons is that I have two novels-in-progress that are both close to completion. One that I've been working on since before Bitter Milk came out and one I started worked on some version of in 2007. I've spent a significant part of the last ten years working on those two novels. I started working on the stories in Fox Tooth Heart in 2009 and finished the last story in 2013. I think probably after Bitter Milk came out, I waited until I had finished and published a second novel before I returned to writing stories. I was wildly underestimating the amount of time that it would take me to write a novel. At some point I realized how much I missed writing stories. And being able to actually have the satisfaction of finishing something more often than once in a decade.

Do you feel like your writing process differs from writing a short story to novel?
Yeah. Writing a novel can make me feel like a moron. Sometimes it can be so complex that my brain crashes like some overworked computer. I can't keep it all in my head at once. When I'm writing a short story, whether or not it ends up being successful, I feel like I have a handle on it. I feel like I have some sort of control over the direction of the writing of it. It proceeds in a way that feels natural and right to me. Writing a novel feels like endless trial and error for years and years until I finally figure out something that I can produce.

You're into your 30s at this point. Many of these stories are about youth. What is it that drew you to that age of late adolescence?
It's hard to generalize and pin down a single reason why I keep writing about children and adolescents. I guess one thing is I've always been interested in the weirdest things that people believe and how they came to believe those things. Whether it's religion or just wildly irrational or illogical notions about how the world works. Sometimes I try to trace those beliefs back to their origins. It seems to me like a lot of deeply held beliefs and ideas come to us in adolescence. Maybe that's the kind of coming out of childhood. That's one reason. I'm also always interested in what characters yearn for most deeply. What the fear most, what they want most. I suppose that yearning and desire and fear are things fraught in adolescence. At least for me when I was a young kid. I don't know maybe it just comes more easily about a 15-year-old than about a 40-year-old.

It's much more reasonable to have really intense feelings coming from an adolescent character.
Yeah, yeah.

Do you feel that you're writing especially guilty characters or characters that have come through trauma? Or do you think that's just what story is?
I guess I believe that a short story presents a character in a few moments of their life. That's the only existence they're ever gonna have in the world. If it's gonna be fair at all, you've got to dramatize a few of the most important moments. Moments that offer in some way an extrapolation of what they were like before and after the story. The story is likely to be towards the end. To do that, I feel like I have to get at what they want or what they fear most. And also what they feel most guilty about. What they feel most ashamed of. I feel interested in what my characters are most ashamed of. Shame is a pretty interesting dramatic force. It pushes characters towards dramatically interesting situations.

What do you find draws you to shame?
It's the most powerful and the most revealing emotion. It reveals so much about a character. It shows who they want to be, who they wish they were not. I don't know if that makes any sense. I warned you I'm terrible at this. I'm really the last person to ask about why my stories are written the way they are.

It seems like obviously you have a command of your stories. But maybe you don't have the language to talk about them?
I've never felt comfortable talking about them. I don't necessarily know why that is. I certainly talk about the narrative structure of other people's stories a lot. I'm a professor of creative writing down here in Virginia. That's why I live here instead of New York—I got a job teaching creative writing. That's how I've spent a fair amount of my career. I have no problems analyzing the mechanics of narratives, but when I start answering questions about my own stories, it makes me really self-conscious to the point of panic. I have a couple events coming up next week, and I was apprehensive enough about that to go get a prescription for Xanax yesterday in case I have a complete panic attack and stop being able to breathe as I'm answering these sorts of questions in front of an audience. This is actually easy. No audience at all until you transcribe the stuff I say and put it online. I guess maybe I became a writer because I feel far more articulate expressing myself in writing than I do in conversation.

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In middle and high school, they told us, "Perfectionists procrastinate." And writers have reputations as procrastinators.
This may have something to do with my publication history. My first book was the stories that I wrote in my undergraduate creative workshop when I was a senior in college. My writing teacher, Madison Smartt Bell, sent some of my stories to his agent during the fall semester of senior year when I was 21. I didn't know he was doing that. One day his agent called me up and said she liked some of my stories and would I be able to send her more. Of course, I frantically wrote more stories and sent them to her. She got a book contract for my first collection, Stop Breakin Down , which was 15 stories. Very little revision was done to those stories beyond the revision that I myself did prior to showing them to Madison and my workshops and the infinite thesis hours I was taking with him. Picador, to the extent that they marketed the book, marketed it on the basis of it being edgy and raw and visceral. It was very rough around the edges because I was 22 at the time of publication. It is excruciating for me to imagine opening that book up and seeing what's in it. I haven't looked inside it in many years. It fills me with dread to imagine my students reading it and seeing, I don't know, the 500 different things in those stories that I'm now telling them not to do. Eventually, I learned how to revise my own work. So maybe I'm erring in the opposite direction these days. Revising for ten years instead of ten minutes.

Do you feel traumatized by that first brush with success?
[Laughs] It's a little overblown of me to say traumatized. It's obviously an unadulterated good thing for my career for that book to have come out. I won a couple of awards in the wake of it. It worked out. I'm glad that the book got published when it did, overall. It does sometimes sound nice to start over from scratch with a pen name and publish everything under a new name from now on and developed a new identity as a writer.

Do you like Fox Tooth Heart?
This one I'm happy with. March 30 was the day that I made the final change to the manuscript during my last round of revisions so it's been seven-and-a-half months. Talk to me in another year, I might be appalled by it.

Do you think that dissatisfaction with your earlier work keeps you going? Maybe. Like, an impulse to correct prior mistakes?

Yeah.
Maybe, to a certain extent. I guess also it feels fairly natural, once the deadline is passed, for me to be able to make changes to it, there has to be a mental break. As I keep changing as a writer and as a person, the relationship in my head keeps changing. And I want it to change forever and ever. I want to have some kind of clean break and have the process of forgetting about it.

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