You’d think two writers like Joshua Mohr—author of four edgy novels, and the man the New York Times called “beat-poet cool”—and Janis Cooke Newman—who started out with a memoir about adopting her kid, and then moved on to historical fiction—would have absolutely nothing in common. But it turns out they do. They’re both total nerds about the process of writing, they both wrote portions of their recently released novels in the same office at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and they’re both big admirers of each other’s work.
Mohr’s newest novel, All This Life, is a provocative read about the confluence of our real and virtual lives. Newman’s latest, A Master Plan for Rescue, is a magical novel about the surprising acts of heroism that can be inspired by love. Since it also happens that these authors also shared a pub date, The Rumpus thought it would be an interesting switch-up to have them interview one another.
Janis Cooke Newman: Our editors are good at telling us what our books are about—and then putting it on the book flap. But what do you think your book is about?
Joshua Mohr: I always joke that every novel is really about the same thing: one person’s struggle against society. In the case of All This Life, it’s about several people’s societal angst. They are recovering drunkards and brain-damaged souls, they have sex tapes and suicides and run away from home. They are all damaged but in the ubiquitous ways we all are. No one makes it through life unscathed. And what about yours? Can you tell us what you think Master Plan is about?
Cooke Newman: For me the book is about denial. The young boy Jack’s denial about what happens to his father. His uncle Glenn’s denial about his own physical inability to become a war hero. In a larger sense, the German Jews denial of what was happening to them as Hitler was coming into power and America’s denial of its own anti-Semitism during World War II. In fact, that was the initial inspiration for writing the book—coming across the story of the refugee ship the St. Louis in the Holocaust Museum. The idea that the Unites States had turned away this ship of 900 Jewish refugees—allowed them return to Hitler’s Germany—when we have this idea of ourselves as the good guys. Here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you: You read my book as a galley; what was your favorite moment?
Mohr: Not to suck up, but I had tons of moments that spoke to me. Jack is such a memorable character, yet if I had to pinpoint one aspect of his characterization, it would be the passages in which you describe his withering eyesight. On a line by line level, those moments are so plangent and beautiful. Can you talk about writing those?
Cooke Newman: That was tricky, because I always thought I was getting it, and then readers—the helpfully annoying members of my writing group—would tell me they didn’t see how Jack’s eyesight was going bad. I think I just assumed everyone would get it, because I got it. My eyesight is truly terrible; without my contacts I can’t even see my own feet.
We both wrote parts of our novels in the same Grotto office. How would you describe your experience working there?
Mohr: It’s funny because I fled to the Grotto because my wife and I had a daughter, who completely obliterated the opportunities for me to scribble around the house. Actually, I wrote parts of All this Life in the laundromat underneath our house, dictating to Siri, looking like a fucking schizophrenic muttering to himself while the whites and darks spun, so as you can see, the Grotto was a godsend. I needed a space dedicated to being an artist and plus, moving into your old office gave this stupid boy a decorating scheme. I really needed that. Thanks.
Cooke Newman: No sweat. The Grotto is a great community—but sometimes it’s too great. Eventually I had to put a sign on that office door that said, Don’t knock unless the building is on fire, just to get some writing done. Do you still have that sign?
Mohr: I actually wear it around my neck when people are pissing me off.
Cooke Newman: But I did start Lit Camp there.
Mohr: I didn’t know that. For those who don’t know what Lit Camp is, can you explain?
Cooke Newman: It’s a juried writers conference we hold every May up in Calistoga. It’s short—basically a long weekend. And pretty intimate—we accept only 40 writers. And our faculty is generally amazing. Last year we had Adam Johnson, Paul Harding, and you!
Mohr: Two Pulitzer winners and a scumbag. I was just happy to be on the team.
Cooke Newman: Two Pulitzer winners so far.
Mohr: I have more in common with Russell Crowe from A Beautiful Mind than a Pulitzer winner. Did you ever see all those index cards splattered across the walls in my Grotto office? It was chaos.
Cooke Newman: Everyone at the Grotto saw them!
Mohr: I just thought it was important that people knew right from the jump that I’ve got problems. But in all seriousness, that’s a huge part of my writing process. A lot of heads do this digitally now, with Scrivener, but I’m a very tactile learner, so I need analog index cards, moving them all about, trying out various sequences for the book’s architecture. Do you do something similar in your drafting process?
Cooke Newman: I’m big on files filled with legal-sized sheets of paper. And I’m a big fan of Scrivener as well! But I do this kind of circular outlining for every scene that I write, asking myself questions like What does my character want in this moment? Why does he want it? What is the mood of this scene? What happens next? Mostly free-associating. It gives me something to stare at as I face the blank screen.
Mohr: I always wished to be a better planner. It seems more elegant, while my trial and error process is more akin to someone scratching an awful case of poison oak. We are all trying to accomplish the same goal, telling a compelling story, but it’s cool to see artists go about it in such varied ways. You’re a teacher; do you talk to your students about the not-one-way paradigm?
Cooke Newman: No, I just tell them to do what I do.
Mohr: “Write like me, bitches!”
Cooke Newman: Actually, what happens is I talk about my own outlining process and I see terror on their faces, so yes, I do talk about the not-one-way paradigm. I think students worry that if they’re not doing it your way, they’re screwed.
Mohr: I had a teacher in grad school who said that if your published book was three hundred pages, you would probably write twelve hundred along the way. I scoffed at this initially. Maybe she had to write with such excess, but not me. No, I was different and special, like a literary unicorn. But shit, she was spot-on in the math. For me, it was important to buy into the fact that the nine hundred pages an end-reader never sees are just as valuable as the ones that are bound and placed on the shelf. Did you have to cut huge chunks of this book?
Cooke Newman: When A Master Plan for Rescue went to my editor she really wanted me to cut an eighty-page backstory I had for one of my characters. I loved that backstory! And I tried everything to keep it—moving it around in the novel, reframing it, shortening it. But in the end, I thought, if I were turning this book into a movie, I’d cut this section. So I cut it. Interestingly—at least to me—those eighty pages became the beginning of a new novel I’m working on now. What I think happened is that I spent so long on Master Plan—seven years!—that at one point, I’d actually started writing a new novel.
Mohr: Can you talk about the sheer literary balls it takes to keep inspired five or six years into the same project? I’d imagine your morale flagged at least a few times.
Cooke Newman: Bizarrely, it didn’t. For some reason I totally believed in this book. And this novel is the first time I’d ever written a book without a contract—or an agent. And believe it or not, that made it a better experience. My previous two books—a memoir and a novel—were both sold on proposal, and while that sounds good in theory, it’s kind of horrible in practice. It’s very difficult to do your best work when your brain is in the background running the calculation of months left vs. chapters written. I loved having the freedom to experiment with Master Plan, to finally write without someone looking over my shoulder.
Mohr: To the “freedom to experiment”! That’s inspiring. And it really speaks to the necessary liberty we need as authors to write the book that only we can. Conventional wisdom says we should write the book we want to read, and I obviously agree with that, but we can push it further: We should write the book that only we can, playing to the strength of our unique imaginations. When I was deep into Master Plan, I felt a unique artist at work, especially with the expert ways you wove in and out of the various narrative tines. How long did it take you to find the right rhythm and pacing?
Cooke Newman: I did something on this book I’d never done before—I wrote most of the new material during free writes. And that’s where the voices for all the characters developed. In fact, originally, Jakob was not going to be such a big character. But as a free write exercise, I started writing his backstory, and the entire book broke open in a way I hadn’t expected. What about you? All This Life is like an Altman movie, filled with amazing characters. How did you pull that off?
Mohr: Thanks so much for mentioning Altman! He’s a huge influence; Nashville is one of my all time favorites and I used it as inspiration for the structure. Normally, we don’t think about structural influences, only content. But for me, it was important to pay homage to the forebears of ensemble storytelling. All this Life has seven main characters that we weave between and identifying a cogent way to introduce their lives, their worlds, their existential crises, took many drafts to get right. It was a whole Goldilocks thing, and by draft twenty—yes, I said twenty!—I cracked the beast’s code. Speaking of beasts, our books both came out on the same day as Harper Lee. Do you think it hurt her sales?
Cooke Newman: Absolutely.
Mohr: We owe her an apology, I guess.
Cooke Newman: I’ll send her something.
Mohr: I’ll wax her car.
Cooke Newman: I’m thinking they don’t let her drive anymore.