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Sunday Rumpus Interview: Joshua Mohr and Michelle Haimoff

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Two nocturnal authors talk shop about insomnia.  Is it an affliction as it so often gets labeled?  Or can the witching hour bear the muses’ most delectable forbidden fruit?  Michelle Haimoff, whose first novel, These Days Are Ours, was recently published, and Rumpus family friend, Joshua Mohr, sit down to chat about insomnia.  This dialogue, of course, was conducted from midnight to 5 a.m.

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JOSHUA MOHR: Nobody treats our friend insomnia with much respect, Michelle.  I’ve been trying to champion it as I toured for my last book, “Damascus,” touting how long my work day is: when others sleep, I get to scribble.  In my world, insomnia is a good thing.  Have you been an insomniac long?

MICHELLE HAIMOFF: Ever since I can remember I couldn’t fall asleep at a normal hour. I remember standing in my crib late at night as, like, a three year-old, bored out of my mind. I read an article somewhere that circadian rhythms are like eye color and some people are genetically nocturnal. I refer to this article (which I could have read anywhere – The Huffington Post, a mattress ad) all the time.

Do you think nocturnality has a genetic component?

MOHR: Some people just wake up at 5 am, even without screaming kids.  Some people slog through the day until midnight and finally seem ready for action.  For me, what’s so exciting about the middle of the night is that the world is so quiet between midnight and 5 a.m.—no email, no texts, no nagging responsibilities.  It’s certainly my most creative time of the day.  Is it yours, too?  How does insomnia impact your art? What’s different about writing in the middle of the night?

HAIMOFF: I have a very hard time focusing during the day. I’m ADD during the day. But as soon as everyone else has fallen asleep, I can finally focus. Once I start writing late at night, I can just go. I can write till dawn without feeling tired. If I could do that during the day I would, but the day is too distracting. I’m not just talking about phone calls and the Internet, although that certainly plays a part, but I can sense that people are out and about, and their energy somehow makes it impossible for me to focus.

When I was nearing the end of my novel I would stay up from dusk to dawn and then sleep all day. I hated it. I didn’t like being off the natural schedule. It made me feel lonely and depressed. But it’s how the book was getting done. I felt like I had no choice. It was the temporal equivalent of hanging every page of the manuscript on the walls. I needed to be able to read through the whole thing in one quiet sitting.

MOHR: I think it’s really interesting what you’re saying about being lonely and depressed while being an insomniac writer.  We have to sleep sometimes, and that usually ends up being some time while the rest of the world is awake.  Loneliness is always one of the reasons I write: to talk to a stranger, to communicate with somebody I don’t know.  I love the idea that books can introduce people to one another that will never have the chance to meet in real life.

You statement about loneliness, though, makes me wonder if you’d rather be a daytime writer.  Does that appeal to you?  Writing books on more of the banker’s hours?

HAIMOFF: Writing in a coffee shop kind of appeals to me. I could never get anything done in a coffee shop, but I think it would be fun to get dressed up and sit there with my laptop drinking a soy latte like a writer in a movie. I find the freelance/creative lifestyle to be so much less glamorous than the corporate grind. Sometimes I have a fleeting moment of insanity where I want an office job just so I can wear the day-to-night looks I see in magazines instead of the KCRW hoodie I’m wearing now.

I’m with you on the fever dream thing. It’s hard to break free from the sobriety of daytime communication and let yourself write frankly. But night writing is like a temporary portal into a private writer’s retreat. It strips away that layer of civilized self-consciousness that normally only large quantities of alcohol can. Drinking and writing has never worked for me personally because I don’t care about being productive at all if I’m so much as buzzed, but I find that writing in the middle of the night can definitely reduce my inhibitions.

I write to talk to strangers too. I’ve always felt like there were so many friends I could make if only we had access to each other, and publishing provides that access. It’s like that Salinger quote, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I love reaching out to writers on Facebook or Twitter and getting a response and I love getting Facebook or Twitter messages from strangers (or long lost friends) telling me they liked my book. For me, that kind of feedback is the best part of the process.

What’s your favorite part of the process?

MOHR: Yeah, hearing from people that they’re reading the work is amazing.  It also relates to loneliness, in that it’s a temporary salve.  I always feel better when I’ve spoken to somebody through a book.   Especially as an indie writer—so obviously earning a living is off the table—the idea of connecting with other people who loves literature is cathartic.

I was thinking last night about my insomnia and pondering how it’s tied to my odd work ethic.  When I’m working on a book, I can’t sleep.  Period.  It gets pretty nuts.  But when I’m between drafts or taking time away, I always sleep better.  Is it like this for you, too?  Is your insomnia somehow threaded with your work ethic?

HAIMOFF: Definitely. I’ll do anything to meet a deadline, even a deadline I make up arbitrarily in order to motivate myself. If writing’s on my mind and I try to sleep I’ll just end up laying in bed thinking about it anyway, so I figure I might as well be up working. I can go on vacation mode and sleep great, but inevitably I end up feeling guilty about not working. As you know, when you’re a writer it’s not like you get paid vacation time.

Throughout my life, I’ve come up with different theories as to why it’s so difficult for me to get onto a regular sleep schedule. What are your thoughts on the following? Do you relate to any of these?

a) Too much international travel as a little kid (my dad’s family lives in the Middle East and we traveled there about once a year from Los Angeles).

b) My dad himself is a bit of an insomniac, so even if it’s not genetic, I still could have been used to someone futzing around the house in the middle of the night.

c) It’s a way to put off the tedium of getting ready for bed (flossing, etc.) for as long as possible.

d) It’s a mature way to be afraid of the dark.

e) It’s a sign of genius (this one’s obvious.)

d) Something about vampires, but I haven’t really fleshed that one out yet.

MOHR: I love this list!  I laughed out loud at the idea insomnia is just a way to avoid flossing.  That’s fantastic.

Besides the fact, it’s obviously a sign of genius, the one from your litany that stuck out the most to me is being afraid of the dark.  As I’m typing this now, it’s a bit before 1 a.m. and there’s not a single light on in my apartment, besides the creepy glow from the laptop.  I’d never really noticed or thought about this until right now, but I basically write completely in the dark.  And it’s not as if I can’t flip the switch.  I paid PG&E.  But I dig that nothing else in the world is visible to me except the words while I work.  It’s all about the art!

I teach in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco, and I always push my students to try timed-exercises—setting a stopwatch and just writing for ten minutes straight, fifteen minutes straight, whatever.  No editing.  No overanalyzing.  There’s no time to be self-conscious or hedge any bets.  And that’s the state I tend to work in late at night: the house is utterly dark.  I feel brazen on the page.  Is that a part of your process?  Does the literal darkness empower or liberate your imagination like it does mine?

HAIMOFF: Hell no! I’m terrified of the dark. I have all the lights on when I write. But I think the darkness speaks to the idea of writing in a vacuum. My version of this is writing in utter silence. I can’t compose so much as an email if I can hear someone else’s conversation or a song or the TV on in the background.

And I do timed exercises all the time. Seth Godin talks about the “Lizard Brain” or amygdala, which prevents us from taking risks, even relatively safe risks like self-expression. He argues that we procrastinate, not necessarily because anything more pressing demands our time, but because the primal part of our brain keeps us from publicly embarrassing ourselves (by thwarting potentially bad writing, for example). In order to override the irrational lizard brain, sometimes we need to force that first push. Writing quickly, even if it’s just for ten or twenty minutes, can do this.

Do you battle with your lizard brain?

MOHR: I always draft quickly.  But that just means I have to do like 25-30 drafts for every book, which is fine by me.  I have a compulsive personality and writing gives me something positive to fixate on, rather than booze or drugs.  So insomnia coupled with a book that’s not quite right, a chapter that’s a mess, these are the challenges that excite me.

I love how we both write books, both suffer from insomnia, and yet our processes are pretty different.  It just goes to show that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how a writer gets her work done—the only thing that matters is that she’s actually writing.  It’s about 2 a.m. and I’m just about to dive in on this new book I’m wrestling with.  The house is dark.  It’s raining outside.  There’s actually lightning, which is pretty rare in San Francisco.  For the next five hours, Mr. Hyde gets to do his worst.  How about you?  Will you scribble this evening?

HAIMOFF: I will probably do what I do way too often, regardless of how late I stay up. Fall asleep with a thought that I promise myself I’ll remember when I wake, and then lose it forever because I didn’t take the time to write it down.

 


Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at USF. His latest novel is Fight Song. More from this author →