John Mantooth is an award-winning author best known for his short stories published in numerous magazines including the Stoker winning anthology, Haunted Legends (Tor, 2010). In rural Alabama, deeply buried secrets are uprooted in Mantooth’s debut novel, The Year of the Storm (Berkley, June 2013). One of the buzz books at BEA, Penguin's Catherine Hayden called Mantooth's YA crossover an "astounding debut." Here, Mantooth talks about why he believes characters are paramount to great story, how he pulled from his own life to write The Year of the Storm, and the importance of small wonders - and how we can lose the ability to see them when we grow up.
What do you believe makes a great story?
A great story for me is a combination of things. I believe characters are paramount. All the plotting in the world goes to waste without people the reader cares about. After characters, I think style matters a great deal to me. This is the hardest thing to define. It’s one of those, “I know it when I see it” things. This is probably why a lot of popular page-turners don’t really attract me. Nothing against those books because they obviously have their place and are much harder to write than they are to read, but I crave a certain style to the writing, something that digs a little deeper. Sometimes it’s little more than the attitude the author brings to the novel. The third thing is narrative drive. I don’t call it plot necessarily because that brings to mind twists and turns, and I don’t think a great story necessarily has to have twists and turns. It can have those for sure, but narrative drive is that thing that keeps the reader turning pages, a momentum that builds as the books goes on. This only happens when something is at stake. It can be subtle or very overt. As much as I love style and characters, there has to be tension in order to create the story’s drive. Give me those three things and I’m hooked.
How, if at all, does Danny and Walter Pike’s Alabama differ from yours?
I did pull from my life. It’s the only way I know to write. Obviously, I relate more to Danny’s timeline, which takes place in the 1990’s. But even in Walter’s 1960’s Alabama, I added characters I knew or had seen before. Much of the landscape too—while purposefully not specific—is based on places I’ve seen or been. I used to drive a school bus out in a rural area of the state. It was one of the best things for my imagination. Every little run-down shack I saw had a story behind it (you have to occupy your mind with something when you’re driving, right?). In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, this was where I saw the storm shelter that eventually led to the one in the book.
What drew you to using the storm as a main character in the novel?
I never thought of it as a main character before, but I suppose in a way you’re right. It does play the role of a character at times. I’d say the storms were something I came around to in the revisions. They were there in the first draft, but more in the background. It was a conscious decision to bring them forward more, to have Danny mediate on them, to point out their deadly force, but also some other mysterious, and frankly, awe-inspiring things about them. Oddly enough, I was at a convention a few years back (this was when I was still working on The Year of the Storm) and I was asked to be on a panel to discuss how you can use weather in your fiction. It was totally random. The organizer needed an author, and he threw me on the panel. I figured I’d wing it and didn’t worry too much about it until it started. When it came my turn to say something intelligent, I could only think of one thing. “A storm is the closest we get to seeing real magic in the world,” I said. A few months later, this became a theme that I tried to thread through the entire book.
How important are the ripples of one small incident to the whole of a person’s life?
I think the potential is always there. Sometimes small incidents are just that—inconsequential, easily forgotten. Other times, those moments that seemed unimportant at the time, reach almost mythic proportions when viewed within the context of our entire life. It’s one of the great mysteries, I think, how one thing leads to the next. Is it random or is there some other force at work? I believe fiction can help people begin to sort through these questions, though ultimately, we have to accept that there are no universal answers, just individual ones.
Why do you think we forget the extraordinary exisists in ordinary lives, and did you write the novel as a reminder?We forget because we grow up. I know that’s why I forget. The small moments of wonder, the ability to believe anything, to hope anything, are always crushed by the reality of the world in which we live. In the real world relationships break down, a storm kills dozens of people, and the old man outside your door at night is really just a weirdo who wants to do things to you that might or might not be born out of his own inability to accept the cruel terms of the world. But when you’re a kid, you don’t know any of this stuff. Maybe that’s why God gave us memory, so we could take a small piece of that outlook and cling to it even as adults. It might be the only way I can think of to make the world a better place.
What do you hope your readers take away from The Year of the Storm?
First, I hope they enjoy the story. I hope it engrosses them for a few days and they’re able to forget about their life while reading it and get inside the mind of Danny and Pike. After that, I don’t know. Maybe it will make them try to remember their own childhood? Reflect. It almost seems a lot to ask of a novel, but I’m just being honest. So, yeah, I hope readers enjoy reading it, and then think about it afterwards. I hope they try to remember how it felt to be young and willing to believe anything.