The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Joshua Mohr
I’m interviewing Josh Mohr but there’s a problem: the table’s wobbly. I decide to wedge my passport under the clubbed foot of the table, all the countries I’ve visited supporting the weight of our interview. I turn the recorder on and Mohr says, “It’s like we’re hobos huddled around a garbage can, the only source of warmth.” We’re outside a café on 24th street in the Mission District of San Francisco, a neighborhood that features prominently in much of Mohr’s writing. However, his latest book, Fight Song, is set in a completely foreign world to Mohr, the suburbs. Fight Song is a call to arms against complacency, a rally towards reclaiming one’s own individuality. Mohr, now with four books under his belt, seems comfortable in his own skin as an author and a man, and is by all accounts a literary heartthrob. Generous, thoughtful, and underslept (though you could never tell), he sat down to open up about his latest book, and about the writing life. With my passport under our table, and caffeine in our blood, we went places.
The Rumpus: So let’s start by talking about how Fight Song came about.
Joshua Mohr: I was thinking a lot about the Coen Brothers and how in their early films, like Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple, they were working with stark macabre territory. My first three books chronicled self-destructive sojourns of addicts and artists in the Mission District. I really wanted to challenge that milieu and to get out of my comfort zone, into a world that I really didn’t know anything about. So I decided that I wanted to write about the suburbs and that I wanted to write comedy. I was tired of flexing the same muscles I used in the first three books and wanted to set myself up to fail to a certain extent, to say, “Am I capable of writing a black comedy?” I think as artists we have to challenge what we think we’re good at if we’re going to keep evolving and progressing, and Fight Song was way out of my comfort zone for sure.
Rumpus: It’s funny you say that, because your writing feels so comfortable and self-assured. Like you’re comfortable with every move at the gym. Was it a challenge? Because I rarely laugh out loud, and I found myself bursting out—I was surprised I found it so actual “ha-ha” funny.
Mohr: The comedy always has to come from the characters themselves. To keep the appalling gym metaphor going is this idea that we are still kind of working the same muscle groups as storytellers, regardless of what the novel’s ecosystem is going to be. But you want to challenge yourself from an aesthetic standpoint, too. I’m going in trying to write a black comedy and if that doesn’t work, then I’m going to let the book evolve into what it wants to be. I’m a huge advocate of letting the characters dictate to the artist what the actual narrative will eventually be about, but with Fight Song, as I got deeper into it, they were bringing the jokes to me. It wasn’t like I was superimposing them onto them—I thought it was going to be that way, but they corroborated and confirmed otherwise.
Rumpus: I believe that a book will push something out if it’s not working. But still, was it hard to be funny?
Mohr: Well even my first three novels can be pretty squalid, but I still think there’s a lot of humor in those narratives. I’m always drawn to the grotesque or the asinine. I had worked a job right out of graduate school in which I was doing some temp work for a video game company south of Market Street (SoMa), and it just seemed like a world that was ripe to have a little bit of fun with. I think the trick with satire is to also find the humanity in it. You don’t just want to poke the animals in their cages, otherwise it devolves into a Stephen Colbert skit where he’s just telling everyone how stupid they are. You also want to find the big beating heart in those characters, and bring them to life at the same time that you’re having fun.
Rumpus: That’s true. The literary critic Northrop Frye once said that with satire, the irony has to be militant. The culture we live in now, we’re in this strange relationship with irony. So in terms of the writing into of irony, how do you manage it while still being sincere?
Mohr: Well the irony can create this awful distance between your audience and your subject matter. I like the adjective “militant”; that really works for me. You have to think about it in terms of, how am I going to bring these people to life cogently? How am I actually going to occupy them as though they’re sincere, sovereign beings? I’m going to have some fun with them along the way, but I’m really going to do the hard work and the diligent and fastidious stuff that can only come with revision of really trying to bring them to life And once they’re animated and walking around onstage, I think the gags will spring organically from them, rather than me working them around like grotesque soft puppets.
And to say one more thing about irony, is to talk about influences in terms of literary irony. I love Donald Barthelme, so when I would start to get stodgy in this story or hedge my bets, or say, “This is too dumb, I can’t push it this far,” I’d read some Barthelme stuff and he’d give me permission to be as stupid as I wanted to be. And when I use an adjective like “stupid,” it sounds like I’m not taking this seriously, but what I’m really saying is that if there’s going to be tons of low-hanging fruit strewn throughout the narrative, how do you know which low-hanging fruit is going to work and which are going to lie flaccid among the page?
Rumpus: It’s funny you should mention low-hanging fruit, because the etymology of satire comes from Latin for “a mixed dish of various kinds of fruit,” and your book is like an insane black rainbow of fruit. How do you stop a book like Fight Song from becoming a circus? How do you keep the boundaries of its ridiculousness within reign?
Mohr: During the first couple drafts, I was not trying to delineate between good acid trip and bad acid trip. I was just letting it be this sprawling hallucinogenic romp, and at one point there was a goat talking to the various characters, and that would fall under the rubric of bad acid trip. So in revision, I had to cut that stuff. If you’re going to give yourself creative license to follow every whim of you imagination during the rough nascent draft, then it just puts more emphasis on you as a storyteller to really be savage how you’re attacking it in the revision process, and Fight Song took me forever to revise just because of the good/bad acid stuff. When I sent the book to my agent, the first thing he said, was, “So…the goat…” And there was this terrible ellipsis after. At a certain point as an artist, we need other readers. I had to invite other people’s eyes that I really trust to get me the rest of the way there.
Rumpus: Do you wait until you’re done before you let anyone read?
Mohr: I wait until I’m done with quotation marks, and then I will send it to five or six trusted readers that I’ve had since graduate school, and they’ll tell me I’m nowhere near done, and then I’ll take it to the next iteration of “done,” then send it to my agent. My agent is one of those people who actually gives really thoughtful criticism. A lot of people don’t have that relationship with their agent, so I feel lucky. My wife is a novelist too, and she—and I mean this in the most loving way possible—is a really malicious reader. When I think this chapter is so great, I’ll give it to her and she’ll say, “This fucking sucks.”
Rumpus: At least you know you can trust her.
Mohr: Absolutely. It leads to lots of uncomfortable frittatas in the morning, but I think we’re working through that. Our marriage is stronger than ever.
Rumpus: We should talk about this line in the book, where Bob Coffen’s wife says to him, “‘Your gender is ridiculous.'” I don’t want to call this a “male book,” like “dude lit”; it’s poised to be a dude book, but it escapes that. What I mean to say is that this book has all the hallmarks of male torment, the particular torment of being a man.
Mohr: Also the emasculation of realizing that you’re probably never going to be the person that you were emulating when you were a teenager. You’re doughy, bald, and your cock is half-hard.
Rumpus: Did you think you were writing a book about what it means to not be the man you set out to be?
Mohr: I’m going to answer that from two different standpoints. Selfishly, writers are always writing about their own lives. I had written my first three books on drugs. This was going to be my first book that was going to be soup-to-nuts that I was sober for. The metaphor I came up with was Bob Coffen becoming sort of obsolete, because technology had usurped what he had been very good at. There was a very strong parallel for me being a sober artist. Am I obsolete if I don’t have opiates or whiskey? I didn’t want to hit that nail on the head, because we’ve heard that story a thousand times, where to varying degrees of success, people are just talking about getting sober. I wanted to find a way to tell that story, but skin it in an entirely different way.
The second way to answer that question is that the themes thrumming throughout most of the book are existential questions that transcend gender to a certain extent. It was through the revision process that the wife’s conflict becomes almost more important as we get later in the story. In the first few drafts of the book, the wife was just this mannequin that I was shoving around, and once I really started to zero in on the fact that she has her own vital trajectory, that was when the book really started to have the sizzle.
Rumpus: The other great thing you do is take clichés of suburban life and use them literally. For example, you take the term “treading water” and cast the wife literally as a champion water treader. When that happened in the book, I was like, This is ridiculous. I have to put this book down.
Mohr: You didn’t trust me at that point did you?
Rumpus: No, I didn’t. At first I couldn’t believe the audacity of it, and then it turned out to be the most elegantly-rendered metaphor, and the most beautiful, salient point of the book. Was it…was it…
Mohr: Was it an accident? Is that what you’re asking?
Rumpus: I just think turning tropes literal seems risky and insane.
Mohr: That’s been a hallmark of most of my books. In my first novel, Some Things That Meant The World To Me, I wanted to write about a broken home, but I didn’t know how to do that in a way that hadn’t been trampled. So I decided that I was going to literally break the house, and the rooms are drifting apart from another like separating continents. So with Fight Song, I had that as a precedent that I could get away with it, so it gave me more fortitude and brazenness to see how far I could push this water-treading metaphor. From the perspective of irony, I’m not making fun of that. If I did my job right as a novelist, I’m occupying Jane’s thought process, and this is her big thing. She’s honestly trying to break the world record for treading water, which is about seventy-five hours. So we see her training along the way and we know how much it means to her, and hopefully it starts to mean something to us as well.
Rumpus: I was pleasantly surprised. Because at first?
Mohr: You asked earlier, “How do you give yourself permission to be inane?” At a first glance, there’s no reason that the treading water bit should work any better or worse than that stupid talking goat. But you have to just get out of your imagination and get some evidence on the page. A lot of apprentice writers go wrong when they start editing in their heads. And they don’t give their imagination the jurisdiction to try it out.
Rumpus: It’s so hard to abandon the critical mind when creating.
Mohr: In Damascus, basically through draft twelve, there was a talking genie living in a whiskey bottle that Shambles had. Every chapter of Shambles, she’s rubbing her bottle and the genie was coming out. I mean, you should be laughing because that’s ridiculous. But I gave that idea every chance to succeed, so that when I finally excised it, I knew without any doubt that it sucked. Anybody out there who is reading this: never have a genie in a whiskey bottle in your book, because that is a terrible idea.
Rumpus: Did you have any models for Bob’s character? Characters like Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s Sportswriter, or any other suburban men?
Mohr: I think that research can be an incredibly helpful enterprise, and it can also be an incarcerating force. In terms of Bob Coffen, I was basing it on somebody I met at this video game company that I worked at. He lived in Danville, had a polo shirt tucked into his jeans, Jerry Seinfeld white sneakers, and his last name was actually Coffin, like the thing you die in. So I was trying to ingest this on the literal and metaphorical level, and it just seemed like something I had to write about. I took some weird road trips and took pictures. I went to Palo Alto, Pleasanton, Corte Madera. If I was going to build my perfect suburb, which details was I going to yank from real ones to build a Frankenstein monster of suburbs?
Rumpus: In terms of satire, there’s two ways of going about it. There’s the lighthearted, slightly pointed, and the ruthless, almost unfunny kind. Did you see your book as a critique of suburbia?
Mohr: I was not interested in writing a book that was looking down its nose at its characters. I was interested in it from the standpoint of it being a cautionary tale. Like a modernized fable. One of the influences I had was, I was wondering if I could tell the Wizard of Oz in a 21st century American suburb? Dorothy is Bob Coffen, and hopefully I did it in such a loose way that no one will identify it, but it’s nice to have those subtleties running through the narrative.
Rumpus: Do you use elements from your real life in your work?
Mohr: I find it almost impossible to sequester my work from what I’m experiencing on a daily basis. For example, when I was putting Termite Parade together, they were tearing up Valencia Street as they are wont to do every three hours, and there were all these crazy jackhammers going on, and suddenly that worked its way into the narrative, and it actually became this extended metaphor that ran throughout the bulk of the book and was able to have a nice, emotional core when the book was finished.
Rumpus: Now that you’ve written four books, do you feel more comfortable, or do you feel equally as lost and daunted by the prospect of writing?
Mohr: I love feeling lost. The best frame of reference we can maintain as an author is trying to be an apprentice forever. I’m not trying to get good at telling a story, because that implies that I’m trying to master something. What I want to do is present these weird systems of challenges to myself where I’m constantly stringing the high wire up higher. I couldn’t have written Damascus first, because it was a harder book to execute than my first two. Fight Song strung the high wire a little bit higher in terms of writing something I didn’t feel qualified to write about. Hopefully what I’m doing now is stringing the high wire at a more scary altitude, and ideally you continue that over your career.
Rumpus: Naiveté opens you to limitless ideas, like a talking goat for example.
Mohr: I know what I’m trying to do more, and that allows me to be more relaxed on the page. I can have more fun in the process, because I kind of know what I’m trying to do. For example, when I was putting Fight Song together, I was having trouble coming up with the ending. I was asked to babysit some friends’ kids, and I was reading a story and the story was “Remember the Night Rainbow,” and the end had an illustration of a pitch dark sky with a vibrant rainbow, and I thought to myself, I’m totally going to steal that. And I wanted to reappropriate that from a literary standpoint and hopefully make it mean something else. I don’t know if I would have given myself permission to do that when I was writing my first book. I was all like following my own heart then, blah blah blah. It was great to say, I love this image and I’m going to steal it.
Rumpus: So, endings. For me, I can’t start unless I know where it ends. Do you ever know where the book is going to end?
Mohr: Oh, I don’t write that way. I know the first image. I have to know the first chapter, and I never want to know anything else, because I love the trial-and-error process along the way. Usually it’s about halfway through a rough draft that I start to see some climactic action. I certainly don’t ever know what the closing image is going to be until I get to the climax. I always operate under the assumption that everything in a rough draft is placeholder anyway.
Rumpus: At the end of the book there’s this line, “There’s no such thing as the end of the rainbow.” How do you end a book and acknowledge that there is no real end of the rainbow, that a character’s journey never really ends, but that the end is just the resting place of the book?
Mohr: The resting place is a great way to think about it. There has to be a suggestion of their life to come, but there also has to be this lovely taste in the reader’s mouth. The last page of the book is the longest white space in the world, so you want to end with an image that is going to speak to them and is also going to leave room for them to ponder it after-the-fact. Lars von Trier says that at the ends of his films, he tries to leave open the avenues of interpretation. I love the idea of not steering your reader too much. The reader has to be able to crystallize her own interpretation of the proceedings.
Rumpus: Do you see yourself continuing in this vein? What are you working on right now?
Mohr: What I’m working on now is definitely not a satire. I want to write something that can do a similar thing to San Francisco that Let The Great World Spin did for Manhattan. I’ve concocted this framing device that will ricochet through a bunch of characters, and I want to try to tell the social history of San Francisco from the ’30s through, at least, the AIDS crisis. It’s going to take me a long time. This is the first book I’ve ever done research for. My first four books have all been about my narcissism, and it’s been fun to get out of my own head and go to the archives and research.
Rumpus: Research is such a thing that fiction writers often don’t utilize. You hardly hear fiction writers really talking about research.
Mohr: Well it’s a very unsexy thing to talk about.
Rumpus: Really? I think it’s so sexy.
Mohr: That’s because we’re nerds. I think the cool thing about getting out of your own zeitgeist is it really challenges what you think you know that is true about humanity. Can you put what you think about the world in a time machine and have it stand up in the 1930s with any verity?
Rumpus: Ben Marcus has that great quote along the lines that the world is just all the things you don’t know about, things you haven’t thought yet.
Mohr: Marcus is a great example of a person who is giving himself the license to be that apprentice forever. He’s always challenging what he thinks he knows, and then defying himself to prove himself wrong. Vanessa Veselka is also a great writer. She came to one of my classes and what she said to the students is, “How willing are you to fail? Are you really willing to actually set yourself up to have this not work?”
Rumpus: We are built culturally to succeed. Failure is not embraced, so it takes a whole rewiring towards failure as a necessary thing.
Mohr: I was very lucky in that I didn’t get any bad reviews for my first two books and Damascus was really well-received everywhere, except for The Washington Post. It was the first time that I had ever really gotten my ass handed to me in a public forum. We say to ourselves, Oh I’m so secure in myself as an artist, that shit won’t bother me at all. I’m made of Teflon. But it really hurt my feelings. I spent two or three days doing my diva thing around the apartment, lurching around sullenly. Then you have to get back to work. The headline of the review was, “Mohr is drunk on clichés,” and that was the nicest thing she said. It was not short. It was an eight-hundred-word skull-fucking. It was so mean and terrible.
Rumpus: What do you think about writers who don’t read reviews? I always think they’re lying, trying to sound cool. How could anyone resist?
Mohr: I guess it depends on how you’re wired. I’m always pro-information. I want to see what people are identifying as the strengths and weaknesses of a book I put together. I think about my career as being a continuum. It’s not just one book, it’s going towards this greater good of trying to learn as much about storytelling as I possibly can.
Rumpus: Do you ever want to write short stories?
Mohr: I can’t! I try all the time. I want to, but I can’t. All my ideas get pulled into the black hole.
Rumpus: Yeah, me too. My ideas just always want more room.
Mohr: It’s very rare that a writer can do both well. I just get so interested in context and the legacies of poor decision-making. A short story might render the moment you make that poor decision, but my mind always wants to know what happens down the road, and suddenly my short story is eighty-five pages long, and I’m like, Fuck it, I might as well seal the deal.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about teaching. Do you ever stand up there and feel like it’s dangerous? Are you terrified of giving people ideas of “how it’s done”?
Mohr: I always tell my students that if any instructor ever stands up in front of you and tells you that he or she knows the way to do it, run the other direction. Because they’re trying to sell you something; I’m not trying to sell them anything. I tell them about my experience on the page, and ask them about their experiences on the page. We can teach the primary colors in grad school—plot, point of view, etc.—but at the end of the day, you can’t teach imagination. Either they have a great conceit for a book or they don’t.
Rumpus: Even though I don’t think school is necessary to write, I think it was essential for me and has been really helpful. I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without that education.
Mohr: It definitely compresses how long it takes you to get your head around those primary issues. Anything you learn in grad school in three years, you could learn on your own, but I think it would take you twelve years. You just have to write a lot and read a lot, and not just things you like. You need to read things you don’t like and pull them apart.
Rumpus: Do you think you could ever live a life just writing and not doing something else, like teaching?
Mohr: No. I need ways to get out of the house. If I sit around the house too much all of a sudden, I start to think my books are really important. I need to get out of the house and be a generous teacher, hear about what other people are struggling with on the page and try to help them rather than sitting at home Googling myself, which is a terrible thing to say.
Rumpus: Teaching really clarifies what you don’t know. It’s a learning profession.
Mohr: You also have to put together these verbose documents on things like characterization and setting, and it makes you constantly reevaluate what you think you know goes into telling a compelling story. Whenever I’ll say something in front of the class, I leave asking myself, Do I really believe that? It keeps you honest and it keeps you sharp. I think the biggest mistake you can make as a teacher is teaching the same stories over and over again, or fall into a rut and become a regurgitating robot. Your students can always sense if you’re going through the motions.
Rumpus: I think there’s a misconception that writers have that you’re supposed to be in control. Do you find that you ever solve your problems unconsciously in your sleep?
Mohr: I think of writing as on the page and off the page. I do most of my problem-solving in the shower, on a walk, working out, something where I’m not thinking. And cooking, I love to cook. Though I’m never usually trying to solve the problems for my characters. I’m usually trying to complicate them. Charles Baxter said that we want to write about people we like, then visit their lives with trouble. I think that axiom works well for putting long-form fiction together.
Rumpus: It’s amazing how the mind works, like when you drive a long distance and all you remember is getting in the car, and then arriving, and nothing in between.
Mohr: I have insomnia, too, and I typically write between midnight and five.
Rumpus: That’s dangerous.
Mohr: I’m okay. Insomnia gets a bad rap. If I had a day job it would be a big deal, but I don’t do anything, so it’s fine. The cool thing about insomnia is you get into a fugue state like this driving thing you’re talking about. I’ll look at the clock and it’s two in the morning, then I’ll look at the clock and it’s six in the morning. And I’ll have to reread everything and say, This scene works, this scene doesn’t work, but I have no recollection of putting it together.
Rumpus: That’s an extraordinary fertile place.
Mohr: I don’t know if there’s any proof to this or not, but I feel like when you’re in that zone, the gap between your subconscious and conscious mind dwindles.
Rumpus: So much of the time we divide that part.
Mohr: The nice thing about insomnia, too, is there’s no e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and I write with all the lights in my apartment off, so the only illumination in my entire world is the story. I love to have that. I usually have music on.
Rumpus: With words?
Mohr: Words. Always words. You hear writers complain about that, but at a certain point I’m not hearing it anyway.
Rumpus: Insomnia makes your brain weird, you know that right?
Mohr: I’m aware of the data.
Rumpus: Well it induced a hallucinatory state; that would account for the genie.
Mohr: Let’s blame all my bad ideas on insomnia.
Rumpus: Are there writers you feel like are influential to you?
Mohr: There are people that I go back to for different reasons. A local writer, Susan Steinberg, I go back to when I feel like my sentences are lazy. When I feel like I’m losing my recklessness on the page, I go back to E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, or Jesus’ Son, Cruddy. Amy Hempel’s first book, Reasons to Live, is a collection I go back to a lot, because I admire her ability to be emotionally naked on the page, and I feel that takes an immense amount of personal strength, and I really admire that in her work.
Rumpus: Jesus’ Son is great.
Mohr: Endings are an interesting thing in that book. They’re so unconventional, what you think you know about the ending, Denis Johnson is always like you don’t know anything about the ending. Tree of Smoke would be a great example, too. I’ve read most of him, and that’s my favorite ending of his. Getting there is pretty arduous, but the last thirty pages are profoundly beautiful.
Rumpus: That’s why I read a book always to the end, because you can never understand a book unless you finish it. You don’t know if it’s good halfway through.
Mohr: One of the lazy byproducts of the democratization of the Internet, is that if I want to be mean to myself, I’ll read reviews of my books on Goodreads, and some gas-huffer in Georgia says, “I only read twenty pages and this was the worst book I ever read.” They feel like their opinion is just as valid, but they didn’t even see what I was setting up. Also, it’s important to see why a book doesn’t work. What tactics were they using and how can you avoid those same pitfalls.
Rumpus: I’m excited Fight Song is coming out—are you excited or nervous?
Mohr: The six weeks before pub date are always fascinating because no one has said an ill word about the book yet. It’s just like this perfect being. My therapist says the best way to solve a problem is to get a bigger problem. Because we’re expecting a baby in June, it has given me this certain frame of reference with the book. Normally I’d be really worried about the book, but now I really don’t care that much.
Rumpus: Do you love seeing your books sandwiched between other writers?
Mohr: I’m always stoked when I go into a bookstore and I’m next to Toni Morrison. That’s good company.