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Interview: May 1, 2009

May 1, 2009's Joe Hartlaub recently spoke with author John Manning about his debut thriller novel, ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS. In this interview, Manning traces the inspiration behind this book to one of his favorite movies from the ’70s and sheds light on the facets of some of his characters. He also shares his thoughts on spiritual phenomena --- which play an important role in the story --- muses on the possibility of a sequel, and gives details about his next project, hopefully due out next year. In ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS, Sue Barlow, a freshman at a private college by Lebanon, New York, discovers not only that everything she knows about her life is wrong, but also that she is the endgame element in a plot that began some 200 years previously. Abductions and murders of young women have occurred on a 20-year cycle at Wilbourne College for as far back as records have been kept, yet no one seems to recall their occurrence. Where did the idea for this story begin for you --- with the character of Sue, the plot, or something else?

John Manning: I'd always loved the movie Satan's School for Girls with Kate Jackson back in the ’70s. So, I admit the idea was inspired by the film, though I took the concept in a whole different direction. But I wanted to keep the central character a young woman, because in stories like these, it's usually a man who's in the position that Sue finds herself in, who has to make the choices she faces. I pretty much had my vision of Sue all laid out even before I began writing.

BRC: The book functions well not only as a straight thriller novel, but also as a parable. There is quite a bit of intermingling of religion and politics and current events, even as the story deals with a plot that has been brewing for centuries. This is quite ambitious. When did the idea for the book take hold for you?

JM: It came to me over the last few years. What I --- as well as many others --- have noticed is an escalation in hate language and calls for violence from certain segments of the culture today. I'd be watching some of those out-of-control political rallies and listening to commentators, and it seemed to me as if these were the kind of passions that some dark demonic force might enjoy stirring up. People who make livings from the peddling of hate and intolerance. That would be something the Devil --- the Master of Chaos --- would just love to exploit.

BRC: ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS is set primarily in upstate New York, but some important revelations occur in Hammond, Louisiana as well. You demonstrate a marked familiarity with both places --- in the scenes describing Hammond, I felt as if I was driving through the town --- that seems to have been acquired through extended time there. Have you ever resided in either area?

JM: Yes, I have lived in both areas, as well as various places all over the country. I like bringing in as many authentic locations as I can into my work, because I know readers will come from all over, and I don't want to pigeon-hole myself as a writer who only writes about one region. But if you're going to write about a place, you have to know it well, otherwise it will ring very untrue.

BRC: I found Deputy Sheriff Perry Holland to be a particularly tragic, yet inspiring, figure. He is the first person to encounter Sue Barlow when she arrives in Lebanon, and their relatively innocent meeting --- over a speeding incident --- foreshadows what is to come. Though he is almost driven mad by the personal tragedy he experiences over the course of the novel, Perry never stops trying to do what is right. What, or who, does Perry Holland symbolize for you?

JM: Perry is the everyman of the book. I think readers will be sympathetic to Sue, but of course her personal struggle is something most people are going to personally experience. (That's a bit of humor and those who have read the book will get it!) Likewise with Bernadette --- again a character I think readers will latch onto as a moral voice in the story, but who also is beyond their everyday experience. Perry, on the other hand, survives personal tragedy and allows the reader to identify with him. If ever they faced such an extraordinary situation in their lives, they might respond like Perry. He has his father's inherent decency.

BRC: Father Fernando Ortiz is another interesting, if enigmatic, character. Though Ortiz originally came to Lebanon to investigate the veracity of a sighting of the Blessed Mother, his ultimate role went far beyond that. How was his character developed?

JM: In movies of these kinds, there is often the noble priest who represents good. While I think Ortiz does represent good, I wanted to make him a bit more human. He understands the situation and gets that it's not just about faith but also about how it might affect his bosses, which are the church hierarchy. I liked writing the scenes of his interactions with Ginny Marshall. The man of faith and the professional agnostic become good friends.

BRC: I also found the ending to be quietly haunting. You seem to leave at least the possibility of a sequel open, though ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS is complete in itself. Do you have plans for a sequel at this point?

JM: Oh, yes, there is room for a sequel! Sue is still a teenager and has many choices and conflicts still to make. But whether I might write a sequel, I'm not sure. As you say, ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS stands on its own. I like ambiguity in fiction. I never wanted to know, for example, if Scarlett ever got Rhett back. I like allowing readers to imagine their own futures for the characters. What does Sue do from here? How does she choose to live her life? Readers can answer those questions on their own. Of course, I might decide to pick up her story again and come up with my own answers.

BRC: A great deal of the book involves the issue of appearances of the Blessed Mother. I was impressed with the fact that you also note the occasional manifestation of the stigmata concurrent with such sightings. What is your own opinion regarding stigmata, and sightings of the Blessed Mother? Are you a skeptic, a believer, or uncertain?

JM: I have an open mind to everything. I believe that it is the height of hubris of humans to think we can ever state definitively anything about spirit. Science can tell us only so much. I have great respect for science and scientists, and believe science will continue to unlock the mysteries of the physical world. But spirit is something that science can't touch or explain.

BRC: On a related note, what forms did your research take with respect to visitations of the Blessed Mother? Did you have access to Vatican archives or perhaps visit any of the sites where such visitations have been reported to take place?

JM: I have visited some sites of visitations. Not only of the Christian feminine divine, which is represented by the Blessed Mother, but of other religions as well, such as Hindi. I felt it was important to understand that it is not only Christians who have reported seeing manifestations of the divine, but all religions. But access to the Vatican archives? I can only dream! What must lie inside those walls is fascinating to contemplate.

BRC: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Is writing a full-time passion for you, or do you fill some of your day with other work? And if you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?

JM: Yes, writing is a full-time passion. I write other books under pen names in various genres. I can't imagine doing anything but writing --- unless it was investigating psychic phenomena like Ginny Marshall!

BRC: Many of our readers are aspiring authors, and enjoy reading about how successful authors such as yourself get the job done. What was your writing schedule like while you were writing ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS?

JM: I can only write in the mornings. For whatever reason, my writing brain shuts off around 2:30, or sometimes earlier. So as the book progressed, I found myself getting up earlier and earlier. When I wanted to get more done in the course of the day, I'd have to add hours at the earlier end, rather than try working later in the day. Afternoons are reserved for correspondence, with editors, publishers, agents, and returning phone calls. Some people can only work at night. I always say: Find what works for you and stick with it!

BRC: ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS is primarily a thriller, but it also possesses a number of elements of other genres, including horror, supernatural and mystery. You've obviously engaged in a wide range of reading. Are there any authors who have influenced you?

JM: So many authors have inspired me in so many genres, but since we're talking about ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS, I'll keep it focused on thriller or supernatural writers. I love Anne Rice. And of course Stephen King was a huge influence on me as a kid. I devoured everything he wrote. But in later years, Dean Koontz came to be more of an influence. Koontz is able to write about the everyday mysteries of our lives, occasionally weaving in a supernatural theme.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

JM: It's a book inspired by Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." With a mix of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR thrown in! It's a story about several generations of one family, and I'm having great fun creating all the characters and keeping them straight on a family tree. If I can finish it this summer, maybe you'll see it late next year? That much only my publisher can know for sure!

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