Sometimes you get a book that has some buzz with it, a book you really want to tear into soon as you get a chance — for me, this is one of them, because it sounds right in my narrative sweet spot. Here’s author John Mantooth talking about his newest, The Year Of The Storm:
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I’m a southern boy, born in Georgia, raised in Alabama. I’m a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. In past lives I coached basketball, drove a school bus, played bass in a rock and roll band, and loafed with such effortless grace some observers called it sublime (others called it something else).
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH:
Nine months after Danny’s mother and sister disappear in the woods behind his house, a tortured Vietnam vet shows up at his door claiming to know their whereabouts.
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
I think it comes from wanting to write a story that actually explains where missing people go. I mean, I think I know where they go. Logic tells us that a missing person has moved on with their life somewhere else, been abducted, or they’ve been murdered. Illogically, I’ve always wanted there to be another option. I wanted there to be a “slip” that people sometimes could stumble upon, and when they did, it would take them somewhere else, some “other” world. So, I suppose that’s why I wrote the story. That, and I had an old painting that one of my grandmother’s sisters had done years ago that captured my imagination. It was of a little cabin at dusk, sitting on the outskirts of what appeared to be a swamp. That painting influenced the book probably more than anything else.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
Oh that’s a tough one. I suppose I’d say it’s southern, it’s gritty, and it has a speculative element. It also has a sort of hopefulness in the face of the hard (and inevitable) knowledge that the world can be a cruel and unforgiving place. I don’t necessarily set out to get that in my stories, and I hesitate to call it a theme, but it’s difficult to read any of my work without getting at least a whiff of it. I like to think of it as a sort of tough grace.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING THE YEAR OF THE STORM?
The ending. I must have rewritten it a dozen times, and when I say the ending, I mean the last fourth of the book. Endings are extremely difficult for me. It was important that the ending didn’t just resolve the action of the story, but also resolved or at least attempted to resolve the over arching emotional concerns of the novel. This was especially challenging because this novel called for a touch of ambiguity to tie it all together. But yeah, the ending kicked my ass.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING THE YEAR OF THE STORM?
I learned that I can get it right. I think in the past when a novel got hard, I just quit and moved on to something else. I learned that this is a terrible mistake because whatever you move on to is going to be just as hard in time. You have to work through the difficulties. Take a small break if necessary, but don’t abandon it. Others probably have different opinions on this, but for me, I’ve got to push through and make it the story I envisioned. Starting another story isn’t a solution. It’s a delaying tactic. Every story is hard in its own way.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE YEAR OF THE STORM?
I love the narrative voice. It’s told by an adult looking back on his childhood. I think it’s a voice I do particularly well. It seems natural to me, easy to write. I also love the setting. It’s no particular place except rural Alabama, but when I reread sections, I feel like I got it right, if not in specifics, at least in tone.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
Write it faster. The book took me three years. Part of that was a result of teaching full time, having small kids, and getting my master’s in library science. My kids are older now. The master’s is done. The next one is going to be faster.
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
This takes place near the opening of the novel. Danny, the narrator, wonders if the strange man in his front yard might somehow be related to the legends he’d grown up hearing.
“I’d been hearing the stories about these woods since I was a kid. Most of them were the generic campfire variety, the same urban legends reshuffled and personalized for different times, different settings, but one story was more than that. One story had the ring of authenticity. It was unique to these woods, and unlike the tales of hook hands and insane asylum escapees, it never seemed to fade away. Two girls, Tina and Rachel, lost in the woods behind our house. I grew up knowing their names just like I knew anything else. They were a part of the landscape, a part of the place where I lived. It didn’t matter if I’d never seen them or heard them speak or even gotten the whole story straight about their disappearances. I felt their presences intimately, and their loss settled on the woods like a heavy fog. When I walked through the darkest parts behind my house near dusk, sometimes I thought I saw them in the gloom, floating, transparent, made from spiders’ webs and dying streaks of light mingled with shadow. Their sad visages slithering round tree trunks and drifting past blooming moonvines. I shuddered, thinking that the man responsible for these disappearances might be standing in my front yard.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
Working on the next novel. I’m not going to say what it’s about because I’m superstitious like that and don’t want to jinx it.
Thanks for the interview, Chuck!