Monday, December 12, 2011

The Advantages to Driving a School Bus

John Mantooth is the author of Shoebox Train Wreck. Below, he shares a little insight into his writing process.

I probably shouldn't admit this: most of my stories were dreamed up behind the wheel of a school bus. See, on a school bus—at least in my state—drivers aren't allowed to listen to music or audio books, or really anything unless you count the incessant noise swelling from kids who have somehow mistaken the bus for an amusement park ride. The afternoons are the worst. It doesn't take long to realize there are a couple of ways to deal with the noise. One, you get angry. Stopping doesn't help. Tried it. The kids get quiet the first time, surprised that the ride can halt at this unexpected place on the side of the road. But as soon as the bus gets going again, so do they. Even louder this time, as if to challenge you, as if to say, what will you do now, Mr. Bus Driver. Stop? Go ahead. Try it. We can do this all day. The other option is to ignore them, to drive the bus doggedly toward each drop, knowing that every time you open that door some of them will get off, and the clatter of noise will dissipate incrementally, and incrementally is better than nothing at all.

The second option works better than the first, and soon the noises from the back become part of the aural landscape, sounds that are heard but don’t register. So, the mind wanders. What is there to look at, to see? Plenty, if you’re paying attention. My route traversed the back roads, the forgotten places, where three-legged dogs limped down to trash heaps sniffing for their next meal, where old women sat in front of highway fruit stands digging through purses for pinches of snuff, where half-naked children appeared in the doorways of burned out shacks, hoping to glimpse their older brothers and sisters as they climbed off the bus. Where life burns a little brighter, a little closer to the bone, even if that bone is splintered and sharp and painful to behold.

I probably make it sound worse than it really is, but isn’t that what writers do? Take reality—the very best and worst parts—and knead it like dough until it morphs into something else, be it soft or coarse, palatable or bittersweet. In the end, the exterior noise became secondary to the noise inside my head, as I blended these back roads with older places remembered from a childhood visiting my grandmother in the north Georgia mountains. The stories started to take shape inside my head. Soon, my favorite time of the day was climbing aboard the bus, hearing the familiar blast of sound from the back, seeing the landscape drift past, and letting my imagination work. The stories—many of them—reached a kind of critical mass inside my head, and I had to write them down. Yet, some are still there, tucked away in the recesses of my imagination, a cluster of moving images, real, remembered, and imagined, shuffling and reshuffling themselves into a cycle of flurry that won’t hold still. But that’s okay. Some of them, I’ll keep that way, for myself. The rest of them are yours.

Shoebox Train Wreck is now available for pre-order in limited edition, author-signed hardcovers.