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Meet the WritersImage of Peter Manseau
Peter Manseau
Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Manseau:

"I had the lead in my high school musical. It was Bye Bye Birdie, and I played Albert Peterson, a part most famously played by Dick Van Dyke."

"I am very likely be the only son of a priest and a nun with a reading knowledge of Yiddish."

"My one true talent may be long distance driving. I can drive twelve hours with only a pit stop or two."

"I'm a poor guitar player, a fair cook, and a pretty good cross country runner, which is probably my most enduring hobby. In fact, it has been such a large part of my life for so long that to call it a hobby seems not to say enough. Much of my writing time is spent jogging on the backroads of the Virginia farm country in which I'm fortunate to live. It tends to be in motion rather than sitting at my desk that ideas come, sentences are formed, and structures take shape. Probably half of Vows was written this way, and it seems likely whatever I write next will be as well."

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In the fall of 2005, Peter Manseau took some time out to talk to us about some of his favorite book and authors, and how he got started as a writer.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Early on in my life as a writer, I stumbled upon The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton. It's the memoir of Merton's conversion from New York intellectual and would-be writer to a monk living in rural Kentucky. It caused quite a stir when it first came out in the 1940s, but by the time I was born Merton was dead and his kind of Catholicism was all but forgotten in many American parishes.

Reading his story my sophomore year of college, I was struck by just how little I knew about the world and the tradition into which I'd been born. Even though my parents had been religious radicals in their own way, Merton's probing, writerly approach to faith was to me a revelation. It caused me to consider both religion and writing in new ways; it allowed me see that writing could be a religious act, and that exploring religious questions could be a way of writing stories with our lives. On a more practical level, the book sent me briefly looking for a monastery of my own. As Vows recounts, that didn't work out so well, but my attachment to the book has remained.

What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Patrimony by Philip Roth – I love many of Roth's books, but this one especially jumps to mind. While working on Vows I thought a lot about what it means to write about one's parents. Roth's book is about his father's death, and though he does much less recreating of his father's pre-fatherhood experiences than I attempt to do in Vows, he likewise tries to get at the ways in which the life of another has made him the man, and the writer, he is. All of that aside, it is also just a powerful telling of a tale we all live through, sooner or later.

  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver -- A great multi-voiced novel about the potential dangers of faith. I had never read Kingsolver before this, but one day I happened to pick up an audio version at the local library; after listening for an hour, I decided that language this rich would be better savored on the page. I went out and bought a copy and have read it several times since then. It is haunting and wise in its depictions of both faith and family.

  • Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt -- Simply one of the best memoirs out there. In the sections of Vows in which I recount my mother's "miserable Irish Catholic childhood," as McCourt described his own, I looked for opportunities to incorporate something like Angela's Ashes humor into my descriptions of difficult situations. McCourt does it much better than I do, but I like to think Vows shares with his book a capacity for being honest about hard lives without bitterness.

  • World of our Fathers by Irving Howe -- Strange for the son of a priest and a nun to realize, but I might not be a writer without the influence of the Jewish mileu described in this book. When I first started writing seriously I worked for an organization that collected Yiddish books -- literature written, for the most part, by the Yiddish speaking immigrants who crowded the Lower East Side of New York City early in the 20th century. This literature, I discovered through Howe's book, was largely the work of writers I immediately identified with. Like me, they had been raised in very religious homes but from an early age wanted to know all they could about the world beyond their faith. Howe's book is a thoroughly readable history of a forgotten time that in many ways shaped the tastes and assumptions of the world we know now.

  • Blindess by Jose Saramago – This, to me, is a perfect short novel. Saramago is a master of picking a relatively simple premise and following the narrative through to its inevitable end. How he makes a painful story and an utterly hopeless-seeming situation so readable is a mystery.

  • The Quiet American/The Comedians/The Heart of the Matter/Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene -- I've loved every Graham Greene book I've ever read. Like Merton, he was to me a revelation of Catholic intellectualism. Having been raised in a rather bland suburban American parish, the idea that in the not too distant past serious, and seriously entertaining, writers explored religious themes came as quite a shock.

  • The Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud -- Likewise for Malamud. He doesn't receive the attention he should. The fifty or so stories here make this the best book I know of for picking up now and again. It's nearly biblical in its capacity to offer something new and unexpected with each random reading.

  • The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- I'm lucky I read most of Dostoevsky in college, because I cannot imagine having the patience to do so now. But still, when I finally slogged through this one, I could see what all the fuss was about. I love Dostoevsky for his humor, his appreciation of melodrama, and of course for his explorations of religious themes. Mostly I love him for his Rasputin-like persistence. I can still remember I biographical sketch I read as an undergrad that describes Dostoevsky's life while he was writing The Brothers Karamozov. One paragraph began with something like "Broke, sick, starving, still writing..." Someone ought to make him the patron saint of struggling writers. Hurrah for Karamozov!

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    I love the early films of Martin Scorcese, a few of which have quite searing and surprising takes on religious themes. Particularly Mean Streets -- I love the scene in which Harvey Keitel's character is doing his best to live a good life, to save his friends, but when he lets a little prayer escape his lips -- "I'm trying, Lord" -- his friends laugh uncontrollably, even though his good intentions are their only hope. Its theme makes it an unlikely twist on a medieval saint's story: the world will always ridicule the ones it needs most.

    I'm also a sucker for straightforward sentimental cinema: the scene in the great baseball movie The Natural (based on a much darker novel by Bernard Malamud) in which Roy Hobbes smashes the stadium lights with a game winning homerun gets me every time. I can hear the music swelling now.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I've gotten into the habit of listening to bands like Radiohead while writing: thick music with a lot going on and a driving, focused rhythm to keep me moving forward. I can't write to anything with lyrics that beg attention. When I'm not writing I like songs that tells stories (Springsteen, Dylan, Wilco and the like) but find it distracting when I'm working on words of my own.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    In college I had a great time reading big books I might not otherwise have gotten to without the pressures and encouragement of class. If I had a reading group I might suggest we use it to fill in the gaps in our reading life. I'd probably start with Dickens.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Awful for a writer to admit, but I love photography and art books. Most novels, memoirs, histories, etc, are read once or twice and then sit neglected on the shelf. A book of beautiful images can be enjoyed again and again.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing? My desk is an utter disaster; it is piled with papers and books and spare change and usually a coffee mug or two. I have no rituals other than chronic procrastination and surfing the web. I know things are going well when I pace a lot and talk to myself. In the late stages of writing I find it very useful to record myself reading my work aloud; then I listen to it over and over until it sounds as seamless as it's going to be.

    What are you working on now?
    I'm writing a novel that is the fictional memoir of the last Yiddish poet in America. I also continue to edit the weekly online magazine about religion for the not-necessarily-religious Mostly, though, I am working on getting used to fatherhood. As I type, my three-day-old daughter is sleeping in the next room.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I've been writing seriously, or at least seriously wanting to write, for about ten years. I'm thirty now, so that's a third of my life. When I began, I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I didn't begin to have some success until I switched to nonfiction and found a subject about which I thought I had something to say. Both of my books have been about religion in one way or another and so I take particular pleasure in remembering that in my one inquiry into graduate writing programs the director of the program told me he liked my writing but thought I should stop writing about religion. Had I taken his advice I'd probably be slaving away at an un-publishable novel about bowling.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    As editor of the online magazine, I am constantly reading new writers whose work deserves to be known. My frequent collaborators Jeff Sharlet and Laurel Snyder both have books in the works. Also, if you'll forgive a bit of nepotism, my brother Sean Manseau has written a great novel about sex, ghosts, and the early days of the Internet. Publishers take note!

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    When I was in high school, the principal made announcements every morning over the loudspeaker, and no matter what he said in the first few minutes he always signed off by saying, "And don't forget to believe in yourself." My friends and I found it so hokey then, but really with something like writing (or any work a person cares about), that's what it comes down to.

    If you don't believe it's going to happen in the way you believe the sun will rise tomorrow, then it's probably not going to happen. Of course, if writing about religion these past few years has taught me anything it is that belief in something is no guarantee of its reality. But it's a start.

    Practically speaking, when dealing with a business as notoriously difficult to break into as publishing, there's a lot to be said for finding another way in. I am certain I would not be writing books today were it not for the risk a few friends and I took a few years ago starting our online magazine, No one knew the word blog then, so Internet self-publishing was not as widely discussed as it is now. With a good idea and an enormous amount of work, we were able to gather an audience, which in turn won us some media attention, which eventually led to interest from publishers.

    Before this happened, I was taking the usual route of aspiring writers: writing short stories, sending them to literary magazines, getting no response. Frustration led me to look for another way to connect with readers; looking back, my early failures as a writer were exactly the inspiration I needed.

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  • About the Writer
    *Peter Manseau Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, 2004
    *Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, 2005
    Photo by J. Varsoke