Although he was born in Knoxville, the tendrils of Blount County are wrapped around the soul of author John McManus.
On April 8, he will return home to be celebrated as one of the newest members of the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame, which named him a 2022 inductee for fiction writing. He has written three short story books – ‘Stop Breakin’ Down: Stories’, published in 2000; “Born on a Train”, released in 2003; and “Fox Tooth Heart”, released in 2015.
He was 22 when his first collection won him the Whiting Award for fiction, and his first novel, “Bitter Milk”, was released in 2005. The novel’s setting, he recently told the Daily Times, is off the beaten track. of the county in which he grew up.
“The main character is a boy growing up on a mountain, and even though it’s a fictional location and fictional geography, it’s roughly where Six Mile Road is,” said McManus, a 1995 graduate of William Blount High School. “A lot of my short stories have taken place in and around Blount County, and even when I write about other places, I imagine the scenery and hear the voices I heard growing up.”
There’s an ethereal glow to McManus’ Southern Gothic tales, but make no mistake: the beauty he writes about often obscures darkness and tragedy in equal measure. Part of it comes from the Larry Brown/Chris Offutt/William Gay craft school exploring the darker sides of human nature, and part of it revolves around his personal experiences of growing up in a community where he sometimes felt like an outsider.
His parents met at the University of Tennessee, and they moved to a house on Arrowhead Drive off US 411 when he was 1 ½, he said. Her father, Barry, was a writer for Maryville Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Blount County which closed in 1983, and for a short time thereafter was a reporter for the Daily Times. Around 1982, the family moved to the Highland Acres subdivision, where they lived for the next 10 years before moving to Louisville.
Until third grade, he attended New Horizon Montessori School (now Little River Montessori) on Alcoa Highway before transferring to Fairview Elementary for fourth grade, and at that time, he said , he was already fascinated by storytelling.
“I think I knew pretty innately, even from the age of 7 or 8, that I wanted to write and I wanted to tell stories on paper,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t a great oral storyteller – I got shy and lost my train of thought, and I could express myself much better on paper than I could in person.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had gerbils and I learned that they came from the Gobi desert in Mongolia. So I set out to write a novel about how my gerbils somehow escaped and crossed the Bering Strait, to the Gobi Desert where their ancestors came from. But I got to page 3 or 4 and realized I couldn’t quite achieve my vision.
As a middle school and high school student, he voraciously devoured “every science fiction novel” from the Blount County Public Library, he added, and occasionally tried his hand at writing fiction – “but I was going to page 2 and realized it was a lot harder than it looked in my head,” he said. “I was getting these wonderfully done stories that I couldn’t translate on the page.”
His teachers, however, saw the potential and, recalling his years in Blount County, he credits many of William Blount’s teachers at the time with helping him realize that literature could be something not only studied, but adopted as a career path. Latin teacher Jean Padgett (now Jean Susie) and his English teachers – Carolyn Payne, Sophia Metz, the late Pat Lane and Bud Burtnett – helped feed his smoldering love of the written word into a roaring hell.
After graduating, he attended Goucher College, but the conventional wisdom that he couldn’t earn a living with a degree in English won out. So he first majored in psychology with a pre-medical concentration, intending to go to medical school. The books, however, beckoned, and one particular English literature teacher’s course became the class he arrived at early and the assignment he was most excited to do.
“Turns out I also ended up at a school with a great undergraduate writing program, and I was right at home there,” he said. “We were allowed to submit work as often as we could produce it, and I took it as a challenge to write a new short story every week for a while.”
Acclaimed novelist and Tennessee native Madison Smartt Bell was the director of Goucher’s creative writing program at the time, and he was suitably impressed with McManus’ work – so much so that he sent half a dozen stories to his own literary agent in New York. York.
“And so his literary agent called me one morning on my dorm phone and offered to represent me,” McManus said with a laugh. “I thought it was a joke at first. It’s almost unbelievable that it happened this way, but somehow it happened.
He went on to earn his master’s degree from Hollins University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas-Austin, and today he is director of the MFA creative writing program at Old University. Dominion. And he’s still writing: He has three novels in the works right now, he added, including one called “Magnetic South.”
“He’s a shrill young political blogger who thinks he’s an investigative journalist, but in reality he’s just blogging the news and overselling his own abilities in a way that earns him an assignment to cover the Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ bill (a controversial piece of 2019 legislation in the African country),” McManus said. “He, my protagonist, arrives in Kampala and finds himself in over his head.
Among his other projects — two additional novels and a television pilot — two of them involve the land that looms large in his imagination, he said. The TV project involves a group of “radical libertarian bitcoin miners siphoning electricity from the TVA to fund their nefarious mining operations,” he added, and the other is a novel called “God Gave Us Animals “.
“It’s set in the Smokies, in an imaginary space between Blount and Monroe counties, and it’s about a boy who ends up meeting a character based on (convicted domestic terrorist) Eric Rudolph during the time when he was running from the federal government,” McManus says.
“Southern Appalachia, small towns, suburbs — I feel like I can speak those landscapes, those idioms, and those geographies fluently because of where I grew up,” he said. . “I’m very proud to come from such a place.”
Steve Wildsmith worked as a writer, editor and freelance journalist for the Daily Times for over two decades. In addition to covering entertainment and occasional news stories, he is also the social media specialist for Maryville College. Contact him at [email protected]