The Beatrice Interview

James McManus

Ten-Speed Beckett

interviewed by Ron Hogan
Cover design copyright © 1996 by Chip Kidd

James McManus is tremendously excited about his first appearance in an online magazine. In fact, when I meet up with him in his San Francisco hotel room, we almost end up spending more time together talking about online culture, ways that HarperCollins could promote his novel online, and the future of novels and reading in the computer age, than we do about his book.

His fourth novel, Going to the Sun, is the story of Penelope (Penny) Culligan, a young woman whose life is defined by two traumas: her struggle with juvenile diabetes and a grizzly bear's assault on her college boyfriend during their Alaskan camping trip. Seven years later, a twentysomething graduate student unable to complete her dissertation, Penny leaves Chicago on a bicycle, pedalling her way northwest to Alaska. Her crosscountry trek is a compelling combination of action and personal transformation, both of which stem in great part from her encounters with Ndele Rimes, a young African-American who's either a carjacker or a star rookie for the Supersonics. The story is told with an intelligence and sophistication that allows McManus' themes and motifs to arise naturally from Penny's thoughts and actions.

RH: What was the first image that came to you and made you decide that you had a novel to write?

JM: I don't know that there was an image. My daughter, who's 21, has had diabetes since she was four and a half, and my father had it, so that's always been an issue of mine. As a parent of a child, I know a lot about the disease, and try to keep up with the efforts to find a cure. Then I'm a Beckett person, and those two themes started to come together...

...The first draft of the novel was from a male point of view at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about a man with diabetes who couldn't complete his disseration on Beckett. There was no road element, no bear, no female voice. I was remarried in 1992 and went to Alaska, where I saw grizzly bears -- huge blond grizzly bears -- in the wild.

And about ten years ago, I used to run and play tennis and basketball, activities where there's a lot of impact on my knees. Things happened to my knees that kept me from doing those sports the way I wanted to, so I started riding a bike and hiking. I took some long-distance bike trips.

The combination of these themes started to appeal to me. I wanted to add the road element, and the grizzly attack, and the way these themes came to me, there were female perspectives involved. For example, a colleague of mine had lost her fiancé in 1981, and she still hasn't fully recovered from that fifteen years later. My daughter has diabetes, and my sister has been in a graduate program for about seventeen years unable to finish her dissertation. Under those circumstances, it seemed inevitable that the protagonist of my novel would be female, and after that I considered it as a literary challenge, inspired by other men who had written from a female perspective, particularly Joyce's Molly Bloom and Norman Rush's novel Mating.

RH: How does your daughter feel about the book?

JM: She read the novel when it was in manuscript, and she said she liked it a lot. She cried a lot as she read it, and felt that Penny's story ended positively, optimistically. It was emotionally wrenching to write the book, but not as wrenching as raising a daughter with diabetes, and the book was able to help us share our experiences with her diabetes differently than we have before.

RH: As I read the book, the combination of diabetes and Beckett seemed very natural and uncontrived.

JM: I was very happy with the way the issues of Beckett, diabetes and bicycling dovetail. I teach Beckett fairly regularly, and have tremendous enthusiasm for his work, so there was originally too much Beckett in the book. The first draft was 950 pages, with lots of stuff on Beckett and the pathology of the disease, but not enough action.

RH: When did you decide to introduce Ndele Rimes?

JM: I needed action. Once you get out on the road, you have to have an adventure. In addition, I wanted to have a counterpoint in the story to Penny, a frail, physically impeded woman, and who could counterpoint that better than the ideal physical specimen of our age, an NBA player. Then, if I tear a ligament in his knee, he becomes vulnerable too. So the physical specimen and the regular person with a disease can be united in their vulnerability...A lot of good things are generated from his presence, such as the suspense. I thought it was important not to be certain if he was really who he claims to be, bringing up all the fears white middle class people have even though they don't want to be racist.

RH: One of the interesting contrasts in the novel is the one between the different sexual tensions that Penny has with Ndele and with Leona Marvin, her faculty advisor.

JM: Originally, I had written the scene between Lee and Penny in Minot so that Lee seduced Penny, who is very conflicted about whether she wants that to happen or not. I was persuaded, however, that it was a bit over the top, so I rewrote the scene so that the seduction is much more tentative and half-hearted, although Penny does get some of what she wants from Leona anyway.

RH: That tentativeness runs throughout the story, right up to the ambiguous ending.

JM: There are several possibilities to Penny's final destination, but it's my hope that no matter where the reader thinks Penny goes, they see it as a triumphant, positive courageous act on her part. I can't control how people will respond to it, but I hope that they won't see her as slinking away from her decisions at the novel's end. It's a long slow grind across the country, up the hill, but the accelerated pace of the last section of the book is one of the things I'm most pleased with.

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All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan