John Mantooth teaches seventh grade English and drives a school bus in Central Alabama. His short stories have appeared or are due to appear in Shroud, Feral Fiction, and Haunted Legends (2010). Currently, he’s shopping his collection of short stories and working on a novel.
“The Water Tower” uses classical magic realism elements — mythical, dreamlike descriptions, real settings — to tell Heather and Jeremy’s story. Is magic realism your preferred sub-genre?
I didn’t consciously set out to write a story in any particular genre. It wasn’t until I had finished that I looked back on it and realized the mythic, dreamlike qualities the story possessed. As far as favoring any particular genre, I can’t say that I do, at least not on a conscious level. Almost everything I write, though, does turn out dark. That’s pretty consistent.
How do you reconcile your position as a middle school teacher with a writer of dark stories? Do your young students know that you write such dark stories?
I don’t have any problem reconciling these two roles. I teach English and literature. We talk about writing all the time. Their favorite stories are always the dark ones. I talk about my own writing process, though I don’t advertise my publications or promote my work to them. Most of my stories are definitely not intended for children. So, I suppose there is some tension there, but it’s not something I worry about much.
Heather and Jeremy’s walk becomes something of an epic journey.
They’d been walking for nearly two hours when the rain began. The journey turned to a slow crawl, as Heather lost her way several times, and had to backtrack through the muck to regain her bearings. Jeremy was little help without his glasses, and the deeper they traveled into the woods, the more Heather seemed to lose her grip on the world she knew. The trailer park seemed far away, and more than that, it seemed unimportant, like a relic from the past.
The journey is, at times, brutally revealing. Is this a common theme throughout your works? An honest look into life’s underbelly?
I think so. I’m fascinated by people on the fringe, people that live in places society has forgotten. I’m constantly drawn to rural settings and the outdoors. Several stories I’ve written have been about a journey, both literal and figurative. So there’s that too. In many ways, “The Water Tower” is the story that most represents me as a writer. At least where I am right now.
Do you have a particular author who you most revere? An author after whom you would most like to model your craft?
I love William Gay. He’s a Southern writer from Tennessee that a lot of people compare to Cormac McCarthy, but I like him better. His stories and novels have an almost mythic quality about them that I would love to emulate. Others I really like are Tom Franklin (another Alabama writer), Charles D’ambrosio, and recently I’ve discovered Ron Rash.
Will you share with us a little about the origin of “The Water Tower”? Any particular impetus?
“The Water Tower” was a rare story for me because as soon as I had the spark, I also had the ending. Usually, I have to find the ending through draft after draft, but not this time. I was driving through South Alabama (on the way to Disney World) with my family a few summers ago and saw an ancient looking water tower. Immediately, I thought: What if some kids find something in the water tower? I sat down and wrote the first draft in our hotel room at Disney World and it was essentially complete. I still put it through several more drafts to get the characters and language right, but the essential story never changed.
What is in store for John Mantooth this year? Any upcoming publications about which you are particularly excited?
I’ve got a story in the Datlow/Mamatas anthology, Haunted Legends, coming out in 2010 and another story coming out in a future issue of the Canadian magazine, On Spec. Other than that, I am looking for a publisher for my collection and plugging away on a novel.