texasmonthly.com: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
John McManus: Around the time I finally admitted to myself I’d never be a world-class mountain biker.
texasmonthly.com: How do you come up with story ideas?
JM: I go for a ride on my bike.
texasmonthly.com: Tell us the process you go through when you first sit down to write.
JM: There’s nothing at all interesting about my process. I get up early in the morning and sit down at a table in a quiet room and start writing, and around noon I break for lunch. Then by mid- to late-afternoon I call it quits for the day.
texasmonthly.com: Are there any quirky things you do when you write? If so, what?
JM: I pick at scabs on my arm until they bleed onto the page, and then I write words with my blood. No, maybe I’m mistaking myself for Nick Cave. I can’t remember.
texasmonthly.com: Is there a message you hope your book Bitter Milk conveys? If so, what?
JM: I tried to convince my editor to call the book The Bitter Milk Diet, but he wouldn’t go for it. If he had, I’m quite convinced it would have sold millions of copies and the message would have been obvious.
texasmonthly.com: Was your childhood anything like the childhood of the main character, Loren?
JM: I was overweight as a kid, and so is Loren, but this isn’t an autobiographical novel; my family isn’t a bunch of hillbillies—they don’t go to turkey shoots and they don’t have counterparts in the Book of Job.
texasmonthly.com: Do your own experiences in Tennessee factor into the book?
JM: I’ll never get why people need for narrative art to be based on real life. Movie previews always shout that they’re based on a true story as if that’s a selling point, and people who ask writers about novels always want to know if the novels are real. It’s the same instinct that makes people ask that ubiquitous question you hear at readings, Where do you get your ideas?, as if they’re worried somehow about their own paucity of imagination. Doesn’t everyone have ideas? I write about East Tennessee because I grew up there and know it pretty well. There’d be a gaping hole in the verisimilitude if I wrote about Luanda or Brazzaville. But my novel is a novel, and none of what happens in it is real; it’s all invented.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have a favorite section or line from Bitter Milk?
JM: That would be irresponsible of me, I think.
texasmonthly.com: Do you prefer to write fiction over nonfiction?
JM: I’ve never written nonfiction. If I had the intestinal fortitude for Third World war reporting, my answer might be different. This summer I’ll be doing a nonfiction piece for the Oxford American; whether or not it appears in the magazine should be a good sign of my success or failure in that medium.
texasmonthly.com: Was the experience of writing a novel different from writing a short story? How so?
JM: It took longer to write a novel than a story collection, but since I had to think of just one title instead of thirteen, things evened out.
texasmonthly.com: Did winning the Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000 change your writing career? If so, how?
JM: The award gave me a brief glimpse of what it’s like to have a real job and make money, but then before I knew it I’d spent it by traveling all over creation and was back to eating meals from the sample trays at Whole Foods.
texasmonthly.com: What’s next?
JM: I’ve been working on two novels for about three years now and hope to finish them before books are rendered obsolete by e-texts, which everyone pirates and reads for free, rendering writers powerless to earn another dime ever again.