What do you struggle with—what’s that one thing in your life that you wish to control, yet the compulsion spins constantly, relentlessly? We all have that seductive adversary, the voice in our head calling us to calamity. What’s yours?
Thus begins Chapter 2 of Joshua Mohr’s latest electric work, Sirens: A Memoir. His previous works, all novels, include All This Life, Fight Song, Damascus, Termite Parade, and Some Things That Meant the World to Me.
The Rumpus: You’ve written novels that feature bars and drunks, lost men and absent mothers, hiding-out-in-motel rooms and run-into-the-ground relapses. In other words, you’ve spent years fictionalizing your past. Why memoir? Why now?
Joshua Mohr: I never wanted/expected to write a memoir, but this life thing, it has a way of sideswiping our worlds, scaring us so thoroughly that our past lenses of contextualizing events don’t work—they cease to matter. In my case, that happened two years ago when I had a stroke—I had three of them in my thirties—but with the last one, they finally figured out what was wrong with me: I had a huge hole in the middle of my heart, and if they didn’t operate, the doctors said I’d die.
Couple that with the fact I had an eighteen-month old daughter at the time, who if I died during the heart surgery, would never know me. So I set out to write The Truth for her, a love letter, trying to tell Ava my story, warts and all. I wanted her to know my most shameful secrets. I wanted her to know the things that make me despise myself. I wanted her to hear about all the needles and fistfights and all the brutal shit.
I NEEDED her to know that because my father deprived me of those truths about himself. He died without ever letting me know who he truly was. I only knew his facades, basically. And it breaks my heart that he never trusted me enough to tell me the truth. And I wasn’t going to let that happen. I was going to tell her all the mistakes and blunders and scars that comprise her dad.
Maybe I over-corrected. Maybe Ava doesn’t want to know these things about me. We’ll have to wait and see till she’s older. But she at least deserves the opportunity to make that decision for herself. My dad deprived me of that, and that’s a ghost that thumps around my heart like a shoe in a dryer.
Rumpus: In Loaded, I write about my own daughter: “I want her to know me. I want to know her. More than anything, I want her to know herself, and to not be afraid to be ashamed or afraid or alone. I also want her to know where she comes from.”
She was about eighteen months when I wrote those lines, and rewriting them here now, when she’s almost fifteen, I ache to know how I’ve failed her, or how the world has failed her in some ways. She does know me, and she does know where she comes from, so she’s already told me, numerous times, how much alcohol frightens her, how she never wants to drink because of the genes that roil through her.
Everything I write is for her. My two memoirs have a simple dedication page: For Indie. She’s not old enough to read of all of my mistakes and misgivings, but I wrote all those words for her. She knows some—because she went to one of my readings for The Way We Weren’t when it came out last summer, and on the two hour drive to Albuquerque, I had to tell her about rehab because I was about to read an essay that mentions it. Even though she was too young back then to know where I was—she knows now. All I can do is keep my head above water so that neither one of us sinks.
As you write, “It scares me so much that she relies on me to survive.” I walked out of rehab over ten years ago, but it’s always immediate. The threat.
This is one of the aspects I admire about Sirens, the immediacy, and I’m not talking about the intense scenes of drinking and drugging and their aftermath, what you refer to as “electric shame.” I’m talking about the meta aspects, the way it feels as if we’re looking over your shoulder, as in a moment when you mention your wife, Lelo, sitting in the next room as you write, or moments such as: “I’ve told terrible things about myself in this book.” “This book is my barrel of blame, and I’m going to guzzle the stuff.” Why did you choose to appear in the narrative in this way?
Mohr: I’m a semi-failed writer, but I’m a capital-F Failed musician, so I structured this book thinking about a guitar chord, a construction of three sovereign notes played at the same time. One note (one version of myself in the metaphor) was me having those strokes, preparing to have the heart surgery. Another note was me before I got clean, cocaine pulsing through me and running around like a caveman. The note that you’re zeroing in on was the person writing the book. That note seemed the most interesting to me, a kind of present tense that transcended the page, inviting the reader into the process of building the narrative. I never consciously thought of it as meta, per se, but I wanted to represent my life as the confused curator, trying to piece the book together, but not someone who has the answers. The book’s “chord” would be incomplete without the meta-presence supplying the human confusion. Memoirs need confusion. It’s the thing every human has in common. We are magnificently confused.
Music is important to Sirens on another level, as well. I wrote this book to be read aloud. I dig books with sonic constructions the beg to be experienced aurally. Writers like Kate Braverman, Lidia Yuknavitch, Kathy Acker, whenever I find myself reading a work of theirs I always do it out loud, so I can take in the concerts of their cadences.
I read Sirens aloud to myself well over a hundred times, trying to maximize each line’s effect. The book isn’t a prose-poem, but I wanted to bring that level of poetical scrutiny to each syllable.
If you’re reading this interview, do me a solid, will you? Will you read at least one paragraph of the book out loud? You’d be making my day.
Rumpus: More often than not when I’m writing, I listen to Philip Glass’s The Hours, because it relies on a three movement piano concerto, threaded with repeating rhythms. In his liner notes, novelist Michael Cunningham points out:
Glass, like [Virginia] Woolf, is more interested in that which continues than he is in that which begins, climaxes, and ends… Glass and Woolf have both broken out of the traditional realm of the story, whether literary or musical, in favor of something more meditative, less neatly delineated, and more true to life. For me, Glass [finds] in three repeated notes something of [a] rapture of sameness.
One of the reasons I admire your memoir is that your’e writing from inside the struggle, not beyond it. To that which continues, rather than what “begins, climaxes, and ends.”
Mohr: I’m glad you shared that quote about Glass and Wolff because I’d never read it before. My musical sensibilities were formed around punk rock, that quintessential dilution of an art that’s both ugly and lovely at the same time. And I wanted this memoir to be paced like a punk song. That’s why it’s so short, greyhound lean. So often I read these bloated memoirs that should have a fucking epi pen taped to page 250, so you can use that shot of adrenaline to help you slog through the book’s fatty midsection. Sirens is supposed to read like a two-minute punk song. It’s intentionally ugly at times, hoisting the reader into things she might not want to think about—for example, that chapter about me maybe/maybe not trying to kill myself in that motel room—but if I’ve done my job right, there’s beauty in this book, on the line level. For the book to succeed, it has to have equal parts ugliness and beauty, counterpoints adding up to emotional complexity. To me, there’s a dignity in letting your art be emotionally complex.
I like art that trusts its audience, that’s written for readers who like to work hard. I like art that knows its readers are up to the challenge of interacting with difficult material.
Rumpus: That motel scene, yeah. A scene that stays with me is the one when you’re waiting for a ride from rehab and you walk into the liquor store and grab a six-pack while talking to an invisible dog. A very true line: “There would always be a liquor store across the street, but I didn’t have to go inside.” I remember reading a version of that scene at Lit Hub in the summer of 2015, and I couldn’t wait to read the entire memoir.
Wait, let’s go back: why do you consider yourself a semi-failed writer?
Mohr: Oh, by semi-failed writer, I just mean I’ll never be the sort of author who sells that many copies. You’ll never see a book of mine being sold on a table at Costco, between the extra-large jorts and a barrel of salsa. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll be indie till I die.
But invisible dogs: I needed to find devices to speak to the kind of devastating alienation I felt as I bottomed out and entered recovery. I did speak to duffel bags after my first wife kicked me out. And that dog was my trusty copilot when I was in rehab, because he was one of the few people who would “talk” to me. It’s a beautiful aspect of narrative construction, hunting for the right images and metaphors to render our character’s hearts/minds/souls as though they’re ecosystems, full-fledged settings for a reader to inhabit like a place. In my memoir, I tried to make it so intimate that the reader felt as though she lived inside my congenitally defective heart for 200 pages.
Rumpus: On one of those 200 pages, you write, “I’ve spent so much of my life wondering why, and yet that’s not the right question.” What is the right question? Is there one?
Mohr: The question why, at least in my life, often leads to despair. Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t someone who claimed to love me treat me with respect, compassion, kindness? Etc. These questions never have answers. They are an ocean, and you’ll never swim to the other side. Eventually, you’ll tire and die.
So once I got sober, I stopped giving Why so much authority in my life. Yes, things happened to me—brutal things—but I’m not going to give them so much clout by dwelling on them, empowering them to haunt my heart years after the events transpired. And no good comes from that. These ghosts don’t need us to help them stay alive. If we’re after real deal healing, these ghosts must desiccate.
How do I try and do that? I focus on the What. The events themselves. Certainly, I wish they hadn’t happened, but they did, and I refuse to allow the past to detrimentally impact my present tense. No, today is going to be free of the past. Today, the past can’t hurt me.
In my life, then, the right question is simply this: What can I do to be happy today? Self-respect doesn’t come naturally to me. I need to constantly remind myself and do the work to err on the side of self-respect, rather than self-punishment.
Rumpus: I have a poem, “Antilamentation,” by Dorianne Laux on my office door at school. The first words: “Regret nothing.” I have it taped in a spot where I can see it every time I turn the key, to remind myself of where I’ve been, the whats of my past.
I remember that line from your novel, All This Life: “People are never clear of their yesterdays.”
So what do the tomorrows look like for Joshua Mohr? A return to fiction, a new novel?
Mohr: I’m always working on something. Addiction never gets any credit, always talked about as a total liability, and I’ll admit that most of its traits aren’t positive in our lives. But there’s one amazing thing it gave me: a tireless work ethic. You see, it takes a lot of time to be a good junkie or alcoholic—you spend hours getting the necessary supplies, then imbibing, then recovering, rinse and repeat. That’s like eighteen hours of a day. And assuming you get out of that lifestyle before it macerates your heart, you have that Junkie Tunnel Vision, except now you get to use it for something positive: you know how to work tirelessly for one thing. Instead of using that tunnel vision to get high, I use it to make art. I’ve published six books since 2009, all because of that Gift addiction gave me. My tunnel vision allows me to have a longer work day than most writers. I’m thankful for that.
I am deep in a new novel. I’m writing about the first female poker dealer in Gold Rush San Francisco. She’s a total badass and it’s been a blast finding ways to bring her story to life.
I don’t know if you find this in your own work, Jill, but I see a conversation happening between my books. They’re like stars in a constellation. Each new one I write tells me a little bit more about myself, a bit more about how I see the world. Hopefully, I get to write enough that the constellation reveals its code, its meaning. Hopefully, I’ll eventually get to stand back and see the shape revealed when I connect these dots.
Writing Sirens was the most painful experience I’ve ever had on the page. On several occasions I wanted to throw the whole thing away. What’s compelling me to make these dubious confessions? What’s the point in airing all this dirty laundry?
Memoir is a unique opportunity to revisit yourself. I don’t mean by memory. I mean in the revision process. You don’t just write a chapter and that’s it. You must constantly return to it. You must dote on it. And even if it’s saying something ugly about who you are, you have to find the poetry in it. You have to find the poetry in yourself.
Author photograph © Shelby Bracken.