A Conversation with John Mantooth
John Mantooth is not only one of my best friends, he’s also easily one of the best writers I know. The dude’s got voice, and that’s – what? – a 1 in a 1000 writers? He makes it all look so easy it’s hard not to hate the guy. The problem is, he’s too nice to hate. Must be something about that southern accent and easy-going nature of his. Today, his debut novel, The Year of the Storm, is released by Penguin Publishing. It’s an EXCELLENT novel – believe me, I’ve read all 15 drafts of it – and a great way to start the summer. Seriously, go buy it now. Here’s a conversation I recently held with John over the writing process with TYOTS and other things.
Me: Let’s start this off with a toughie – You’ve had a lot of success as a short story writer, garnering some really nice credits through the years and culminating with the publication of Shoebox Train Wreck. [Note: This collection is also excellent.] Now you have your debut novel, The Year of the Storm, coming out today with by Penguin. So here’s my question – To what do you ascribe your success? What do you think connects with editors and readers that sells your stories (and now, a novel)?
John: Yeah, that’s a tough one for sure. I’ll answer it this way. Assuming the slight success I’ve had isn’t just luck, I’d probably say my stories—the best of them anyway—stand out a little because they are often dark without being horrific, violent without being graphic, sort of uplifting in their own desperate way. I also tend to write like a storyteller, you know, the voice around the campfire that’s telling you something that happened ten years ago, and I think a certain reader and editor is attracted to that. But most likely it’s just dumb luck. Write enough stories and a few of them are bound to tickle an editor’s fancy.
You’ve read pretty much everything—published or unpublished—that I’ve ever written. What do you think helps my work connect with readers and editors (and you better not say dumb luck)?
Me: Luck? Bullshit. It might sell a story or two, but not with the publishing record you have. See, I KNOW why your stuff sells. Believe me, I think about it at night when I’m up making papier-mâché dolls of you to light on fire. Your stuff sells because you have honest-to-god voice. Call it campfire storytelling if you want, but there’s a very clear voice in your work, and that’s something not many people have. It’s a gift, and when added to the stories you tell, you end up with gold. And it’s why all of us secretly hate you.
What’s funny is, it’s definitely not a voice that comes out in everyday conversations with you. So it’s not your voice, necessarily, but some special writer’s voice you turn on when you start to write. You also have a poetic style that shows up at just the right time, especially when a character is reflecting, that always reminds me of James Lee Burke. Is he an influence, or am I totally imagining that?
John: Well, thanks, we all secretly hate you too because of your ingenious plotting and characterization. Seriously, we do. Well, I do.
As to it not being my voice when I talk, you are absolutely right. I’ve always been very shy and introverted. I hate conversations. The phone kills me. Parties kill me. Small talk is the worst. I’d rather be on the outskirts of a conversation, and maybe that’s why I write because being a writer is a little like being an observer, a reporter. I do think, in the right setting, I can tell a mean story. You’ve just got to get me talking, which totally depends on the right setting. I talk sort of slow, so some people don’t have the patience to listen to me.
My writing voice is something I try to find in everything I write. I often abandon projects because I don’t hear it. That’s one of the reasons novels are so hard for me to write. I might have the voice in the first chapter, but once I start dealing with some of the necessary storytelling mechanics like conflict, action, and plot, it can slip pretty quickly. The key for me is to keep going back to that voice and frame the action within the context of the voice.
James Lee Burke? I’m a huge fan, and yes, I’m sure he’s influenced my work quite a bit. He does first person really well, and I think I’ve tried to emulate that, especially the way he infuses his scenes with reflection without losing any of the narrative punch. Well, I’m still working on that. Also, I would consider him a great example of what I’m trying to do, which is write a good story that still has a certain depth and artfulness that doesn’t get lost in the plot points.
Me: With a novel like The Year of the Storm, voice is incredibly important, especially considering you have two first person narrators. How did you approach making those narrator’s sound different? Was it difficult for you?
John: It was very difficult for me. In early drafts that was one of the major problems readers had. Danny sounded too much like Walter and vice versa. I solved the problem by going back and paring down Walter’s language. Danny was very reflective, tended to use qualifiers with many of his statements. I cut out as many qualifiers out of Walter’s voice as possible. I tried to make him sound like a man who’d lived a long time and could cut through some of the bullshit. I read both sections aloud, listening to the way they sounded. Eventually, I got it right. I hope. I don’t know if I’ll try to first person narrators again anytime soon.
Me: And this is something you worked on with an editor, right? How did that work?
John: Now, as to your other question, yeah, my editor, Amanda Ng, was a little worried that they sounded too similar, so she told me to make them more distinct. She’s pretty smart like that. By the way, that’s why I think self-publishing is still hard pressed to produce the same quality as traditional publishing. The authors may or may not be as talented, but without an editor? Come on. Everybody needs one of those.
Me: So it sounds like this book has gone through various editing passes until it reached “finished” status. How long did you work on it and how many drafts did it go through? Even better, just how much of it can you quote by heart?
John: Believe it or not, very little. Sometimes my wife will say something about a character in the book, and I’ll be like “Who?”
“The character in your book. The one you slaved over for three years. Don’t you remember?”
And the truth is, I don’t. I don’t know if it’s age or what, but I can barely keep up with the characters and places when I’m writing the book much less a year after I’m finished. It sort of just gets vague, and honestly I like it that way. I’m done with that book. I want to be obsessed with the next one.
But back to your original question, I worked on it for maybe three years all told. It went through countless drafts. I’ll put it this way—the final manuscript was about 85k, but I’m sure I wrote well over 500k on various drafts. I hope this isn’t going to be “my process.” I did manage to write a novella this fall, and it only took me about two and a half months.
Me: This would probably be a good time for you to give a quick overview of The Year of the Storm, and how the novella, Broken Branch, ties into it.
John: The Year of the Storm is about two sets of disappearances that happened about thirty years apart. They tie together of course, but I won’t say exactly how. Because the story centers on two timelines, there are two narrators—Danny and Walter. Danny is remembering his childhood when he met Walter, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, and Walter tells him the story of his own childhood (that’s the second narrative). It all takes place in the woods behind Danny’s house that used to be a community called Broken Branch, which is where the novella by the same name comes in. The novella tells the story of Trudy, who is Walter’s grandmother and how she helped found Broken Branch and discover a secret underground storm shelter that plays a huge role in the novel. Taken together, the novella and the novel tell the story of those woods from the 1930’s up until the late 1990’s.
Me: Was it difficult coming up with an idea for the story or is the world of TYOTS large enough that you could see yourself returning there again possibly?
John: That’s a good question. I definitely think there are more stories to tell in and around the Broken Branch area. At the end of the TYOTS, there are some unanswered questions, which could possibly be developed more. It’s intriguing, but for the moment, I’m focused on the next book, and it is definitely not a Broken Branch book.
Me: With this being your first novel, what pressures do you feel? Or are you more of a ‘come what, come may’ person?
John: Ha ha, you know me better than that. I feel a ton of pressure. My wife was just telling me the other day that I seem super tense lately. She rightly pointed out that I should be enjoying the release of my first novel, that my dream had come true after ten (or is it eleven years now?) of working for it. Yet, I can’t stop worrying that people aren’t going to like it or worse, I’ll never be able to publish another one. And then there’s the whole “if your first book tanks your career is over” thing. Yeah, I’m feeling pressure like I’ve never felt before about writing, which in a way is justified, but it’s also really unhealthy, and makes me wonder why I’m doing it at all if I can’t ever stop to just enjoy some success. Then I realize that’s exactly why I am doing it. I’m sort of driven, for better or worse.
Me: So with the novel just out, what are you doing on your end to help promote it? Any ideas you can share with writers out there?
John: I relied on my two (yes, I said two) publicists to help me. I had two great ones, Beverly Bambury and Caitlin Valenziano. Caitlin handled most of the offline stuff, while Beverly did an incredible job setting up a blog tour for me. Caitlin comes with Penguin, but anybody interested in hiring a wonderful, independent publicist should definitely look Beverly up.
Me: So with today being the big day, how are you feeling? Thoughts about the whole process?
John: John: I’ve been really anxious about the whole thing up until today. But now that the book has finally arrived and made it into the world, I feel a little less anxious. I mean it’s out of my hands now, right? Hopefully it will sell, and hopefully people will like it. Now my focus has to be on finishing the next one. That’s the part I love the most anyway. Being alone with my laptop and writing stories. This other stuff is fun but it stresses me out. I’m excited to get back to the routine of the new novel and hopefully making it even better than the first one.