Navigating Scruff and Book Reviews: A Week in the Life of Author John McManus
Author: William Johnson
December 20, 2015
“[…] I check Scruff, where I encounter a guy who’s read my first book. He says he’s friends with my former editor. We plan coffee. Dinner turns out to be a pleasant affair, although at one point I get asked, ‘In an age of ISIS and Trump, why make art?’ Without Xanax, this might have gone badly.”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer John McManus.
John McManus is the author of the novel Bitter Milk and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down, all published by Picador USA. His latest short story collection Fox Tooth Heart was published last month by Sarabande Press. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Fulbright Scholar grant, and a Creative Capital Literature grant. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Oxford American, The Literary Review, Harvard Review, and other journals and anthologies. His MFA comes from the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.
I’ve been asked to chronicle a week of my life including my bad habits, sex life, sleeping patterns, and other banalities. I’m a fiction writer, a.k.a. a professional liar, so telling the truth in print is out of character for me and I’ll probably have to make a lot of it up.
December 5, 2015
Wide awake at 4:30 A.M.. It’s my second day at a Bay Area artists’ residency, and I’m still on East Coast time. After some coffee, I sit down to work on the novel I’ve come here to try and finish. I’ve done what feels like a day’s work by the time the sun rises over the chaparral and woodland out my window. This is the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, where writers, visual artists, choreographers, and musicians can apply for studio space. It’s located on a ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, more remote than seems possible when you see the place on a map. According to Scruff, the boys in Palo Alto are six miles away, but that drive would take forty-five minutes.
I take a break from writing and wander the trails awhile, through stands of live oak and madrone. A caveat: the morning I’m describing is far more idyllic than my real life back east, where only night before last I taught my last class of the semester. I’m known for skipping town the moment classes end, in large part because being a single gay man in Virginia isn’t my idea of a good time. San Francisco, on the other hand…
It’s an hour’s drive from Djerassi into the city, well worth it for the tattoo consultation I’ve set up in the Mission. For some time, I’ve wanted two of the falling buffalo from David Wojnarowicz’s buffalo photograph tattooed on my torso. When I first found his scarifying book The Waterfront Journals on a used bookstore shelf in Knoxville, I was nineteen and in the closet. He was the first contemporary gay writer I read whose work was explicitly sexual. Soon after, I read Memories That Smell Like Gasoline and Close to the Knives, not just once but over and over, trying to grasp on a mechanical level how his prose made me feel the way it did.
The consultation goes well. Gaspard at Black and Blue Tattoo can articulate better than I can how I want the image translated. He asks how Thursday would work. Thursday happens to be my birthday. I pay a deposit, book the appointment, and wander over to Eros. Last time I was here, a guy in the steam room turned out to write guidebooks for the Complete Idiot’s Guide series and wanted to get together to talk about writing. I declined. This time I don’t mention what I do for a living.
December 6, 2015
I wake up at 5:00, not by design. From 6:00 until I run out of seltzer, I work on my novel. Typically I guzzle about four liters of sparkling water a day, and my Sodastream is back home in Virginia. It’s either that or four liters of bourbon. So I drive to Skylonda for more, and back on the ranch I take a Xanax to prepare for a communal dinner with the other artists. Back when I used to drink all the time, I could make new friends in five minutes; these days meeting more than two new people at a time isn’t so easy for me. Waiting for it to kick in, I check Scruff, where I encounter a guy who’s read my first book. He says he’s friends with my former editor. We plan coffee. Dinner turns out to be a pleasant affair, although at one point I get asked, “In an age of ISIS and Trump, why make art?” Without Xanax, this might have gone badly.
December 7, 2015
I manage to sleep in until 5:45. Novel; coffee; then I take a break and read Sarah Vowell’s new book. Walking in the woods again I come upon warnings about mountain lions. FIGHT BACK, urge the signs. Normally, I’d be trail running instead of hiking, but I’ve hurt my ankle and am sidelined for the second month in a row. Scruff and Recon messages have accumulated, so I catch up on those. I’m quicker on this coast to unlock my albums, not that I’m slow to do it back home. I figure, what’s the point of being alive and gay in the 2010s if you can’t send XXX pics to strangers? Incidentally, you can find me on most of the apps by searching for anbealbocht, which is the Irish title of Flann O’Brien’s novel The Poor Mouth. My Recon name is different, though a persistent detective could locate me.
December 8, 2015
Today’s first six hours are as usual—awake ungodly early; coffee; novel—and then I consider driving down-mountain to the nude beach whose surf I can see breaking from my desk. I step outside and remember this is December. Instead, I don gloves and a hat and climb to a lookout where I sit thinking about my novel.
Writing this, it occurs to me how tedious writers’ lives must seem to non-writers. I sat thinking for three hours, then sat somewhere else thinking for three hours. Why do they make so many movies about writers? If you’re still reading, God bless you, because writers are the most boring people alive.
I drive into the Castro for oyster happy hour with a Recon guy. Later, alone, I stock up on sparkling water at the new Market Street Whole Foods. Miraculously, the store’s garage offers ninety minutes of free parking, which renders it a de facto free lot for Eros next door, where the guy at the window asks if I want a Frequent Fucker Card.
December 9, 2015
Up before five. Lack of sleep is causing the kind of low-grade dread that leads me to waste time on stupid shit like checking my Amazon.com sales ranking. At the moment Fox Tooth Heart is #516871. The number-one-ranked title: Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids. I finish reading the new Colum McCann, take another Xanax so I can face a Q&A for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and then go for a hike in the redwood forests to figure out a thorny chapter transition. A friend back east adopts Frequent Fucker Card as the working title for his play. Potluck with the other artists. I spend some time rereading A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara wrote that stunning novel in eighteen months in what she describes as a fever dream, and it was in a fever dream that I read it earlier this year. How does she sustain its fantasia where time doesn’t matter, where a naturalistic story unfolds in some eternal present where external historical forces never impinge? How can it be pleasurable to read so much summarized dialogue? Rereading, I still can’t focus on these questions of mine, because the story is still too captivating.
December 10, 2015
Last year, living in Cape Town where the ninety-degree Decembers make for beaches strewn with naked boys, I vowed to spend all my future birthdays in the southern hemisphere. Yet here I am in the northern again for my thirty-eighth. Up at 5:30, three cups of coffee, four hours on my book, a hike in the forest, and finally it’s off to the city to meet one of my best friends, the filmmaker and performer Tiffany Doesken.
She buys me a turquoise I ♥ Unicorns shirt, then we wander the Castro and the Mission, get tacos, and eat petit fours from Dianda’s until my tattoo appointment.
As soon as I see the design, I like it. It’s all lines and dots: scalene- and acute-angled triangles inside the two buffalo, and little triangles in the space between to suggest the cliff. So I take my shirt off and lie flat for some of the most searing pain ever. I’ve had three other tattoos before, but never on my solar plexus. Finally Gaspard switches to a smaller needle that feels like a gentle massage by comparison. Ninety minutes later it’s over. Around the corner, I order pupusas for the long drive back into the mountains. While I wait for my food, I send a Guernica article to a friend who asks my tattoo’s meaning. Rereading that piece, I’m struck to recall that David Wojnarowicz’s life ended only weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday. I’d known he died at thirty-seven, but I hadn’t considered the concurrence yet today.
December 11, 2015
This blog has been wildly inaccurate, I must now acknowledge. I’ve told a major lie of omission by skipping over the several hours daily I’ve spent worrying about an imminent potential disaster. Last month at my book launch, my editor informed me that the New York Times would review my new story collection on Sunday, December 13th. The Sunday Book Review’s content typically goes online on Friday—a.k.a. today.
My sense of the looming tidal wave that this presents has changed my behavior in all kinds of ways recently. For instance, I’ve been taking uncharacteristically close notice of other mean reviews. In describing the new John Irving novel, Dwight Garner coined the phrase “magical ordealism.” That got me thinking back on what Garner said earlier in 2015 about poor Larry Kramer’s book: “Like an old toilet, it is easily clogged.” This weekend happens to be the five-year anniversary of my sobriety. I decide if anyone compares Fox Tooth Heart to an old toilet, I’ll take that as a clear signal that sobriety has run its course, and drive to the Skywoods Trading Post for a fifth of Jim Beam.
By 9:00 A.M. I’m useless to do anything but hit refresh, refresh, refresh on the New York Times’ books page. A friend distracts me with a screen-grab of an ex-boyfriend’s unsettling rage-rant about how no one liked his latest Instagram photo. I tell him a trigger warning would have been in order. Facebook, as it does lately, targets me with ads for drug-abuse hotlines and rehab facilities. “Check your insurance right now and find out if you can admit to luxury rehab,” suggests RehabReviews.com, which is sounding not so bad until, suddenly, there it is, a full review with art. “Bold and ingenious,” Claiborne Smith calls the collection. So impossible does this seem to me that I do something I’d find cartoonish and melodramatic in fiction. It’s not quite so ostentatious as pinching myself, but I test my memory of some lengthy numerical sequences to I verify that I’m awake.