INTERVIEW: John Manderino, author of 'The True Meaning of Myrrh'

JOHN MANDERINO grew up in the Chicago area but now lives in Maine with his wife Marie, where he teaches college writing and provides coaching and editing services to other writers. He has three novels, two short stories collections and a memoir published by Chicago Review (Academy Chicago), and a Christmas novel published by Ice Cube Press. John has also written plays that have been performed at theater festivals and other venues. A stage version of his memoir Crying at Movies was produced.


About the Book:

Set in suburban Chicago during the 1960’s, The True Meaning of Myrrh is an amusing, but gritty, look at the holiday season as it used to be. The nostalgia classics: turkey, snowball fights, droopy

One brother can’t shake his profound disappointment at receiving slippers when he thought the box held hockey gloves. Meanwhile his older brother receives a tape recorder and is trying to capture all the “magic” in his “special holiday broadcast” with mixed results. The boys’ politically divided parents have a serious falling-out about the Holy Family versus the welfare state and aren’t talking.

And then there are the wounds that only family can inflict on each other like the too-clever comment that devastates their Santa-dressed uncle. 

Will Len manage to rise above the bitter disappointment? Will his parents reach across the aisle for the sake of the day? Will Sam learn a Christmas lesson that doesn’t fit smoothly into his “holiday broadcast”? In The True Meaning of Myrrh, this and other questions get answered, including what is myrrh, anyway.
Christmas trees, and midnight Mass are leavened with a drunken Santa, oedipal anguish, prostitutes and an aggressive midget.



Q: Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

As kids, my brother and I always had a sincere regard for the Baby in a manger, the Wise Men and the shepherds, all that. And both of us got genuine goose bumps at Midnight Mass when the choir sang “The Little Drummer Boy.” But that was all just a pleasant prelude to the real joy of Christmas next morning, the joy of getting stuff. But it had to be the correct stuff. And if, for example, you opened the one box you were absolutely sure contained the hockey gloves you’d been hinting at since before Thanksgiving, and they turned out to be house slippers, then all the little drummer boys in the world could not console you.    
           And yet sometimes, often in peculiar ways, there were these sudden openings during the day, into something deeper, something actually in line with the Baby in a manger, the Wise Men and the shepherds, all that.

Q: How hard was it to write this book?

A novel is always difficult because no matter how wonderfully high-flown your over-arching idea might be, you still have to somehow manage to move people from one room to another, give them things to say and do, things to wear. This book came somewhat easier as it was developed out of a chapter from my first book.

Q: Do you have any tips you could pass on which would make the journey easier for others?

Don’t wait to be inspired. Set aside a block of time every day, even just an hour, and treat it as a job at which you’re punching in and punching out. I usually manage three hours, and if all I do is sit there pounding my forehead on the desk, that’s all right, I’ve put in my time.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them?

This publisher is Ice Cube Press, out in Iowa. Steve Semken runs it. He phoned one evening and told me about reading parts of the book aloud to his wife, which was quite a nice thing to hear.

Q: Anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

That was back in ’94, a book titled Sam and His Brother Len. I was so thrilled when Anita Miller at Academy Chicago Publishers phoned me one rainy afternoon. The book wouldn’t be coming out for over a year, however, and that turned out to be unfortunate because, instead of moving on to something new, I did a lot of tampering with it, making substantial changes which, I’m convinced, did the book real harm. It still pains me to think about it. Anyway, I’m much better now at leaving something alone once I finally like it.

Q: What other books are you working on and when will they be published?

I’m in the middle of one more draft to a novel titled Bopper’s Progress, which takes place in a single rigorous day at a Zen Buddhist monastery—which sounds a lot more solemn than it turns out to be. I don’t know if this one will ever make it into print but I’ve enjoyed writing it quite a bit.

Q: What is one fact about your book that would surprise people?

The illustrations for the Christmas book are by my sister Nancy, who’s one of the few remaining shy, modest people left on the planet. No one besides her students and family knows how talented she is. Now, hopefully, lots of others will see.

Q: What message if any are you trying to get across with your book?

I’m not sure I agree that fiction ought to provide some sort of message, that it should “mean” something, any more than a tree or a shoe does.

Q: Do you have any final words?

I just hope that, regardless how hooked on gizmos we become, there will still be plenty of people who enjoy reading books. It’s depressing to think otherwise.

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