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James McManus is one of those writers who can write about any topic and no matter the subject, and you’ll be hooked. He’s got that ‘knack’ for turning out a good story. Apparently, that ‘knack’ works at the poker table, too, as a $10k advance on his latest book paid out almost $250k in wins during his (ahem) research. You don’t have to be a gambler to get caught up in the thrill of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (Picador, September 2010, excerpted here on PopMatters)


In addition to his books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, watch for his byline in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, a The New Yorker and others.


cover art

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

James McManus

(Picador; US: Sep 2010)

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask made me cry with laughter about 25 times.


2. The fictional character most like you?
The unnamed narrator of Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” has, like me, reached late middle age and begun to look back on his youth, especially his 21-year-old self, kind of jealously.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Can’t narrow it down to one, especially with so many different kinds of music to choose from, but the ten greatest white-boy rock albums ever are 1. Sticky Fingers 2. Let It Bleed 3. Modern Times  4. If I Should Fall From Grace With God 5. Rain Dogs 6. Elephant 7. In Utero 8. Time Out of Mind 9. Get Behind Me Satan 10. (tie) Gasoline Alley and 8 Mile.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Most assuredly, neither.


5. Your ideal brain food?
The New York Times, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Google, and the books on my nightstand.(Right now it’s Anna Karenina, Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan, Denis Johnson’s Angels and Jesus’ Son, Munro’s Runaway and Open Secrets, Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace—all being read both for pleasure and in preparation for teaching at SAIC [The School of the Art Institute of Chicago] next semester.


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Teaching young writers and readers for the last 37 years, including Beth Kohl, David Sedaris, Anchee Min, Baird Harper, Adam Novy, Eileen Favorite, Kyle Beachy, Samantha Peale and Zach Dodson.


7. You want to be remembered for…?
One or two of my books, TBD by whoever’s still reading in 2110.


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Physical: An American Checkup

James McManus

(Picador; US: Dec 2006)

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Tolstoy (before he became a saint), James Joyce (before Finnegans Wake), Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, Raymond Carver (both Bad Raymond and Good Raymond). Among the living: Alice Munro, J.M. Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy, Stuart Dybek, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mamet.


9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Love in the Time of Cholera, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, American Buffalo, Jesus’ Son, Runaway, Amsterdam Michael Clayton, Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here”; Lost in Translation, The Usual Suspects, The Sopranos, “Coin” by Jim Nutt, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Don’t Run Wild”, Faces’ “I’m Losing You”, Ron Wood’s slide guitar on “Cut Across Shorty”, Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”.


10. Your hidden talents…?
Ad-libbing (I won’t call it rapping) short rhyming songs for my kids when they wake up, come home from school, or whenever I happen to bump into them during the day.


11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Don’t fuckin’ do it!” delivered by my friend Reid Schaefer as my parents and grandparents were furiously pressuring me to enter a Jesuit seminary at age 14.


12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
A $4,000 advance from Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to cover the World Series of Poker Main Event in May of 2000. I neither bought, stole nor borrowed it from Lewis; rather, I persuaded him to advance me the money, and he generously and optimistically did so. I then cajoled my wife Jennifer to let me use this money to buy into a satellite (a small feeder tournament) into the $10,000 Main Event, instead of to pay a few of our mounting pile of bills; and I borrowed or stole it from myself, in a sense, because when I put it on the poker table I had yet to write a word of the article. But I did win a seat in the championship event and wound up finishing fifth, which paid $248,000. The article, brilliantly edited by Lapham and Colin Harrison, was featured on the cover of the December 2000 issue and widely anthologized. It also became the basis of Positively Fifth Street, published by FSG in April 2003.


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Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker

James McManus

(Picador; US: Mar 2004)

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levi’s (black).


14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
At the Ritz in Wingham, Ontario, it would be Alice Munro.


15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Kierling, Austria, spring 1924, with the ability to speak German. Would love to tell the dying Franz Kafka, most of whose work was unpublished then, how beloved and widely read he would become. “Listen, Franz, I’m from the future and we have these time machines, see . . .”


Then I’d fly (take a ship? what are the rules here?) to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a few blocks from where I would be born 27 years later, to watch Ruth and Gehrig play, and perhaps place a few bets on the outcome of the ‘24 World Series.


Then back into my time machine to the early evening of April 14, 1865, just outside Ford’s Theater, to warn the president, one of America’s greatest writers, that maybe it would be better… or simply to kill John Wilkes Booth.


16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Wine, whiskey, marijuana, time travel, shuffling poker chips.


17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
TriCor, red wine, Volvic, ahi, fish oil pills, low-dose aspirin, bicycling, shuffling poker chips.


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
A two-hundred-square-mile synthetic-cubist landscape combining New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, Kailua Beach, the Beartooth Highway, and the Bellagios of Las Vegas and Italy.


Photo by © Roberta Devlin

Photo by © Roberta Devlin


19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
My wife Jennifer and I were in the Oval Office with President Obama last spring, and we wanted to (and did) congratulate him on getting at least a foot-in-the-door national healthcare plan passed. He told us that the prime minister of the Netherlands had recently asked him, “Mr. President, you extend healthcare coverage to millions more of your citizens, make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions or to cancel people who get sick, and they hold up signs calling you a Nazi?” All we could do was nod, groan and sadly shake our heads.


What I thought but didn’t say: Anyone gullible enough to believe that a federal health-care program would be more likely than an insurance company to make a callous decision about coverage, let alone convene “death panels” to eliminate the sick or the elderly, deserves their place in the faith-based “Solid South” and whatever justice John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin et al were likely to grant them.


20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
The Winter Casino, the novel I put aside ten years ago to write Positively Fifth Street, Physical and Cowboys Full.

Karen Zarker, Managing Editor at PopMatters, works with a talented array of writers throughout the magazine. She manages the PopMatters Books Series, and also holds many behind-the-scenes operational responsibilities. She can be reached at zarker(at)popmatters.com.


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By James McManus
2 Nov 2010
"Nothing is more natural, or more essential to human achievement," writes James McManus, "than gambling— than risking something, taking a chance."
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