Joshua Mohr knows how easily the dark parts of the psyche can be sustained and deepened by the seamy parts of city life — drink, drugs, chronic poverty, and sad selfish sex. But he also knows a lot about how those same things console the darkness, and can even be turned to virtues by a desperate logic.
Mohr’s latest novel, Damascus, rounds out a trio of novels he’s written about the Mission District of San Francisco. Together the books form an accurate, memorable portrait of the place, or at least of one aspect of its seedy underbelly.
I’m not going to pretend that this is an objective interview in any way. Joshua and I frequent many of the same places, and have had many a chat about art and life. What follows is a bit of a chat between friends who are also both writers. We conducted this interview via email over the course of a few weeks.
Joshua Mohr: These novels are love letters to San Francisco, specifically the Mission district, my home for many years. I wanted to write a cycle that characterized the Mission from a post-9/11 perspective. I love Michelle Tea’s Valencia. It’s an amazing book and it characterizes the neighborhood from a late 90s point of view. I wanted to talk about the changes that have occurred in the years since.
I initially conceived that each book in the cycle would take place in the fall of 2007, and the first two did; however, Damascus didn’t work when placed there. It needed the emergency, the immediacy of 2003 as a backdrop—when San Francisco was ferociously angry about America’s invasion (re-invasion) of Iraq. I’m not sure if you remember the protests, but we voiced our anti-war sentiments as loudly as we could. The book needed that animosity to create the right velocity on the page.
And it’s not a trilogy, in that you have to read book 1, then book 2, etc. Each novel is a stand-alone piece of art. If a reader chooses to read more than one, they certainly will see shared images, characters, themes, and geography, but being familiar with the others isn’t necessary to read Damascus.
Rumpus: It’s really interesting to me that you felt you needed the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq to give the book an urgent undercurrent, because my initial impression was that Damascus is much looser and even kind of upbeat in a weird way, as contrasted with your first two books, which I found much bleaker—I feel like Damascus is a much more affirmative book than the others. Do you see it in a similar light?
Mohr: I like that you used the word “looser” to describe the book. It’s an ensemble piece with probably seven main characters. So the reader hops amongst them, following the specific crises in each of their lives and how they intersect. My goal was to try and structure it like an old Robert Altman script from the 70s. I dig those old movies, like Nashville.
As for the hopefulness, I’m glad you picked up on that. I’ve gotten off booze and drugs over the last couple years. My world has more joy in it now, and that can’t help but seep into my art. My preoccupations—or at least the way I want to convey those preoccupations on the page—is evolving. It’s amazing how much better you feel about yourself when your days don’t include cocaine nosebleeds.
Rumpus: Speaking of connections between the three books, I really enjoyed the scene where some of the characters from your first two books made cameo appearances. Did you ever have it in mind to bring the same characters back to play more of a role in the book, or was this always going to be just a little nod to your longtime readers?
Mohr: Maybe it’s like having children and I’m the parent: I didn’t want to play favorites. I had to buy everyone an ice cream cone, or there’d be serious sulking on the way home. So if Damascus is the culminating book in the cycle—the grand finale—it felt right to have the other main characters come on stage and take a quick bow.
Rumpus: I was struck by the use, in both Termite Parade and Damascus, of a conceptual artist’s project in each plot—and in both books, the art projects are simultaneously ridiculous and horrifying, which is an interesting combination. At least as I recall, in Termite Parade the art project was a kind of counterpoint to the main narrative, but in Damascus it is actually a driving narrative, in that it sets the stage for the central conflict in the book.
Mohr: I dig writing about artists because those are my people. And I like test-driving other avenues of being subversively expressive, other ways to document all the things I see in the world around me that are so confusing. Art is a way to participate in the dialogue that’s been happening since scribbles on cave walls: art is a person’s way to try and make sense of the world around them. Whether you’re writing magical realism or making surrealistic short films, they’re inherently related to our zeitgeist. Nobody creates in a vacuum.
Someone just asked me if Damascus is a protest novel. I didn’t know how to answer. My instinct is to say no—that it’s only about a small cast of wayward souls trying to figure out how to do right by themselves. But certainly, it’s a story charged with the political and social climate of our times. The war rages outside our houses, our dive bars, whether we want to acknowledge its presence or not. There’s no vacuum even when we want there to be one or try to insulate ourselves.
Mohr: A few months back, I was re-watching The Big Lebowski, and I thought to myself: the Coens must have had a fucking blast writing that movie. I want to do something fun in my next novel. My goal with this new project is to get way out of my comfort zone, challenge myself to flex some different muscles. So I’m writing this weird fairy tale, with all kinds of magic and oddball characters and bad jokes.
I think it’s really important as an artist that once you start noticing habits, tics, patterns in your work that you need to shove yourself off into uncharted territory. I don’t want to keep saying the same things, but want to see if I’m up to the task of communicating in varied ways. It’s sort of like the band AC-DC. They’ve written the same song 80 times. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be like The Flaming Lips, where you don’t know what to expect until you pick up the new piece of art and plug your mind into it.