Twenty Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW THIRTY FIVE
One of the most hard-hitting collections of short stories I've read was published just a few days ago by one of the nicest interviewees I've had the pleasure of talking with. And, I don't want this to go to his head, but the book is probably one of the best looking recent publications I've seen. If you're looking for a short story collection to knock you on your ass, you found it in Shoebox Trainwreck. Read the interview, then buy the book!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
A website devoted to basketball legends who never made it big in the pros…because of “The Goat,” Earl Manigault.
Either that or a site where some mysterious dude interviews writers.
2. ChiZine Publications is awesome, how has it been working with them?
I was so excited when Sandra informed me they were going to buy Shoebox Train Wreck. I actually submitted it to them not expecting much. I’d been collecting rejections from Chizine for years, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it one more time, so I sent it. They accepted it about a year later. Working with them has been great from acceptance all the way to where I am now—about a month from publication. Brett and Sandra are extremely author friendly. They’re approachable, knowledgeable, and very supportive. They’ve got great folks working for them too (Helen Marshall, Erik Mohr, Samantha Belko, etc.), and their books speak for themselves.
3. You landed a literary agent in 2010, Beth Fleisher, what has she meant to your career, so far?
Beth has been great. She helped me burn a lot of fat in my first novel, Slip, and showed an incredible amount of patience as I continued to flail around hopelessly with the ending. Now that the book is finished, she’s put it in front of some of the most respected New York editors in the business. Can’t ask for more than that. The book hasn’t sold yet, but we’ve received some very positive feedback on it, and currently have it out with a second group of editors.
4. Another Mourning Goats interviewee gives you a blurb on the new book, how did your book end up in Paul Tremblay's hands?
I met Paul through my writing group Snutch Labs. For a while, the group did online chats with writers we admired, picking their brains for tips and just generally trying to soak up their writerly aura. We did interviews with Joe Lansdale, Laird Barron, Tom Piccirilli, Nick Mamatas, Jack Ketchum, Ray Garton, John Langan, and more. Tremblay was one of the guys who seemed really open to helping out. I kept in touch with him through email, asking him mostly stupid questions that he always answered graciously. At one point, when I was thinking of doing the collection, I asked him for some tips about attracting a publisher’s attention since I was basically a nobody. He suggested I go to some authors I admired and let them read the collection to see if they would be willing to give it a kind of pre-blurb, a stamp of approval so to speak. When I got that email, I immediately emailed him back and said, “Uh, Paul, you are one of those writers for me. Would you give the stories a read?” Luckily, he agreed.
5. Where do you find the time with two kids, working on a thesis, and everything else going on with your life?
I write pretty fast. I can do 1000 words in forty minutes, so I can usually find the time. Sometimes it’s twenty minutes here and twenty there, but it adds up. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have four uninterrupted hours to write, but I’d probably do worse with that because my attention span is so short. And really—it sounds a little clichéd—but I’m writing all the time. Most of these stories were conceived and fleshed out while I was driving a school bus. When driving, my subconscious would make stuff up. That’s a huge part of writing for me. I had an instructor in graduate school who said real writing takes place away from the keyboard. For me it’s both. My best stories live with me when I’m away from my computer. The ones I only think about when I sit down to write tend to be the ones that never get finished.
6. How has being a part of a writing group helped your writing?
My writing group may hate me for this, but it’s mostly helped me with getting out of my shell and into a wider world. I mean, I love the critiques they give, and I wouldn’t trade those for anything, but the most important stuff I’ve taken from the group are the friendships with folks going through the same stuff I am. Without them, I’d probably have never gone to a convention, and now I’ve been to three. Without them I’d never had the guts to email Paul Tremblay. I wouldn’t have submitted my story to Haunted Legends. And so on. I should also mention that the other five people are excellent writers too. I’ve learned something from each one of them. For instance, Kurt Dinan is methodical, taking his time, going back, draft after draft to make sure the story works, never rushing. I followed that example with the collection’s title story “Shoebox Train Wreck” which Ellen Datlow bought for Haunted Legends. Without his example, I think I would have written maybe two drafts, sent it and gotten a close but no cigar rejection. Another member, Erik Williams, really gets plot, which is one of my weaknesses, especially in the novel form. He’s given me some great advice about the structure of stories.
7. Speaking of your writing group, what is the project you're working on? Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station?
It's called Tales from the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, and it's going to be a signed, limited edition hardback from Sideshow Press. It's something we've talked about doing for a long time, and when we finally got around to doing it, we had an absolute blast. The idea originally was to do a group anthology where all of us write a story based on the same theme. That eventually morphed into what we're now calling a "mosaic novel." Each of the stories spin out of a question asked in a diner: "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" So everybody did their own take on that theme, but we were also sure to work together closely enough to put in little connections here and there. It was a lot of fun, and it works pretty well as a whole thanks to the thru story that Erik Williams wrote. Talks of a second group novel are in the works, although we're still in the very early brainstorming stages.
8. How much input did you have in the design, layout, etc. with the new collection?
Very little, but that was how I wanted it. I’d be foolish not to trust Chizine. I’ve seen their books. I knew they’d release a quality product. I’m not one of these multi-talented people. I don’t do design or websites or music or public speaking. Just writing. And fantasy basketball. I’m a fantasy basketball stud.
9. What was it like winning the Barksdale-Maynard Prize in fiction?
Cool! It probably sounds like a bigger deal than it really is, but it was still nice to be recognized for a “literary” story. The story is called “Slide” and it’s one of my favorites in the collection. Interestingly enough, the story developed out of a writing assignment in Mort Castle’s short story workshop at the World Horror Convention in 2008 (or 2007, somewhere in there). The assignment was to write about an adult who had let you down. I chose my uncle, a very talented individual whose personal struggle with alcohol is the reality that the short story is based on.
10. Where do you want to be in 5, 10 years?
Pretty much doing what I’m doing now, although I hope to be making a little money off it. It’d be really cool to write full time, but I’m smart enough to realize there are no guarantees. Money or no money, I’ll be writing. When I first started ten years ago, I think my wife and some of my friends thought it might just be a passing fad for me, but I got hooked, and realized I couldn’t live without it.
11. I received Shoebox Train Wreck in digital form. Do you think digital publication is where everything is headed? Why?
I wish I was one of those writers who had something intelligent to say about this subject, but I’m not. I’m cool with digital publication. I have a kindle and do a lot of my reading on it these days. I still prefer a real book, but sometimes the speed and affordability of a digital version outweighs my love of paper. When it’s all said and done, I think this is the sentiment that will win out for most people, though that doesn’t mean there still won’t be physical books. There’s still nothing like walking into a bookstore and browsing until your heart’s content. So that was the long answer. The short answer? Your guess is as good as mine!
12. What's the best writing advice you've received/given?
Larry Wharton, probably the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, told me to always dismiss the first idea. His reasoning was that the first idea, the first instinct for most writers is familiar. He said to go with the second or third or your work runs the risk of becoming predictable or overly familiar. It’s funny because I saw exactly what he meant in workshop after workshop as fellow classmates submitted stories in which it was very obvious they went with the first idea in every given situation. I learned a lot from reading bad stories in graduate school too. Not to say they were all bad, but there were a few that were really painful. Of course, many of the other students thought my stories were painful as well, so there you go. Many of my classmates complained there was no one to root for, that my main characters were unlikeable, despicable people. In many cases they were right, but where we differed was that I found these characters engaging because they were so flawed, and they just wanted to stop reading.
The best advice I’ve ever given others is something I don’t always take myself—finish what you start. It’s so easy to get bored with something. While sometimes it’s not only acceptable but preferable to cut your losses and relegate a piece of fiction to the scrap heap, if it becomes a habit, you’ll never finish anything. Which brings me to a theory about why new writers struggle with endings so much: since many of them abandon stories and novels before ever reaching the end, they never actually get to practice endings. And writing is like anything else—at least for me—you’ve got to practice in order to see what works—and more importantly—what doesn’t.
13. With a full-time job, what does your writing schedule look like? Are you an every day writer?
I try every day. I was more fanatical when I started, and I think it was good for me early on to have the discipline. Now I see the value in taking a day off and letting a story breathe a little. But like I said earlier, just because I don’t sit down at the keyboard doesn’t mean something isn’t being accomplished that day in the subconscious.
14. Which of your stories are your favorite and why?
I’m partial to “The Water Tower.” A friend who read the advance copy told me that was the saddest story to him, and he recognized that the writing was good and it accomplished what it set out to do, but he didn’t like it because it was too sad. I’d like to think it’s sad because it touches something true, which is pretty much my definition of what good fiction should do—well that, and entertain of course.
I was very lucky that Paula Guran picked it up for the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2010 by Prime Books. It was definitely one of those stories that was written in the subconscious before I put it to paper. And in this case, it was written over a long period of time. It started when I was driving in South Alabama a few years ago and saw an old water tower. I remember looking at it and thinking that something scary could be inside of it. I imagined it might be something that kids knew about, but adults didn’t. At first I couldn’t decide what it was. I stopped thinking about it for a while. Sometime later the ending came to me and I knew what it had to be. Maybe a year after that, I passed another water tower and thought about the unwritten story again. I was reading Charles D’Ambrosio’s collection The Dead Fish Museum at the time, and I wanted to write something unrelentingly dark, but also something that spoke to me in a really sad, resigned kind of way, a story that really touched something universal like the stories in D’Ambrosio’s collection did. I wrote the first draft really fast, and though I tweaked it a lot, the basic story was there in the first draft (a rarity for me).
15. You're a middle school teacher as well as an author, do you have asperations of being a full-time writer?
Absolutely. It’s my dream, but like I suggested earlier, I’m realistic about it. The thing for me is to keep moving forward, keep improving, and learning. When I started writing seriously at 30, I had one goal: to publish a book by the time I was forty. I turned forty in December, and the collection is due out in March. The next goal is to publish a novel. After that, I’m sure there will be another goal.
16. How long have you been writing seriously and what got you started?
When I was a little kid, I liked to write, but mostly I loved telling stories to my little sister and my cousin. I can still remember some of the stories I made up, but more importantly, I can remember the way I felt when I was telling them. It was a thrilling thing, a feeling that has stayed with my entire life. In my teens and twenties I thought about being a writer everyday. I admired writers and devoured all the fiction I could, but the bottom line for me then was that I was too immature, too busy with other things to ever sit down and really do it. It was easier to talk about, to dream about than to actually do. When I was twenty-nine, I started thinking about it seriously, and decided that when I was thirty I was going to give it an honest try. The first couple years my stories were ridiculous, embarrassing. But I was hooked. That same thrill that I’d experienced as kid came back. Now, I only wish I’d started sooner.
17. You have a blog over at http://jpmantooth.blogspot.com/, do you think that you'll be blogging a lot in 2012? Why?
I’m going to try. Blogging has always been tough for me. It feels a little like small talk, something that’s not particularly a strength of mine. I should clarify that there are many, many bloggers who write about important and engaging issues, but for me it’s tough. I almost feel guilty doing it, like I should be writing fiction instead of blogging. But, I understand the value, and hopefully my blog will see more action in the future.
18. What was it like defending your thesis for your MA at the University of Alabama- Birmingham?
Nerve-wracking. I knew going in that one person on the committee would get the stories, after that, I wasn’t sure. Luckily, it went fine. The committee was receptive to the stories, but I was very nervous about it. The whole experience—getting the Master’s in creative writing—was worthwhile, but weird, too. I always felt a little out of place because my stories weren’t easy to categorize. Some of my classmates were really into horror, fantasy, and that kind of stuff. Others were into strictly literary stuff. Most of my work pulls from both places.
19. Can you tell us anything about your novel, Slip?
I’m proud of it. It’s about a kid whose mother and autistic sister disappear in the woods behind his house. It’s set in rural Alabama and told from an adult point of view. The narrator is looking back on the events that happened to him when he was fourteen. There’s a second viewpoint in the story too that takes the readers back to the early sixties. It’s a supernatural horror story, but a relatively quiet one. The emphasis is more on memory and loss, and the way youth slips away from us all. I hope it will see print eventually. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had editors rave about it, but always pass for one reason or another. I think we just need to find the right fit.
20. What's next for John Mantooth?
I’m almost finished with the first draft of another novel called The Running Kind. It’s a YA crime novel about a kid who makes a big mistake and ends up getting involved with a South Alabama drug lord. It’s probably a little grittier than your average YA story. It’ll need some revision, but I’m pretty pleased with where it is right now. After that, I’ll be starting another novel. Eventually, I want to get back to short stories, because I love them, but I’ve made a decision to dedicate some time to novels and see if I can’t find some success there.