Germs and Ideas: An Interview with Joshua Mohr

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Josh Mohr‘s the author of a trio of fairly heavy duty fiction—Some Things that Meant the World to MeTermite Parade, and Damascus, each of which was published by the fantastic Two Dollar Radio. They were published in ’09, ’10, and ’11, if years and chronology mean too much. The years those books were written and published in end up mattering, to a degree, given the following, which is an email interview with Mohr about his latest novel, Fight Song, out presently from Soft Skull Press. You’re welcome to note the fact that Mohr’s got a different publisher for this book than his three previous ones, and if you read/know Mohr’s stuff, you’ll note pretty quickly that Fight Song is a vastly different beast than any of his three previous ones (though an argument could be made about similarities, style-wise, with Damascus, but that’s for some other reviewer and venue). I don’t know how much more info’s pertinent to what follows, which is the transcript of a series of emailed questions and answers. As ever: you’re much better off reading the book than anything *about* the book or author, but we all need our cavemarkings and arrows.

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I guess the first big question is: how did Fight Song get its start for you? I’m most curious about style, or tone. This one’s quite different from the earlier trio, and the difference reads/feels to me almost sum-uppable as: Saunders. There’s a sort of sort of hijinksy despair to this that reads, at least to me, as very like him. Where’d the tone come from for this?

My first three books all dealt with addicts and artists in the Mission District of San Francisco. I had great fun putting those books together, but I felt like I needed to push myself artistically—needed to completely dismantle my comfort zone. That’s when we do our best work as authors, when the potential to fail is at its greatest. I definitely could have written DAMASCUS 2.0, but what would be the point in that?  I don’t want my career to resemble a glam metal band, just writing the same song over and over again. Plus, I don’t own very much spandex, I’m out of hairspray, and my cocaine days are in the rearview.

I decided to try my hand at satire this time, which is probably where you’re getting the Saunders. It’s almost impossible to write social satire in our era and not see some Saunders. He’s our most recognizable writer working that terrain. His influence wasn’t conscious for FIGHT SONG. He’s never written a novel. Conscious influences were satirists that work in the longer form: Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter (specifically “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman”), Thomas Pynchon, and one Delillo book, “White Noise.”

I reread a lot of their writing during FIGHT SONG’s germination. A lot of writers tend to shy away from revealing influences, but nobody works in a vacuum. We’re all participating in the same dialogue that’s been happening since scribbles on cave walls and I like to pay homage to my forebears. In fact, I stole the end of FIGHT SONG from a children’s book, “If you’re afraid of the dark, Remember the night rainbow.”  It has a perfect closing image that I wasn’t going to top, so I ganked it.

What do you hope your books do? Your earlier work is pretty recognizably tougher, and gets into some weirder darker stuff, and it reads as if you’ve gotten lighter–not as in *insubstantial*, but as in less heavy, less fist+stick prose.

I love that you’re seeing my work moving more toward hope, openness. I was an addict/alcoholic when I wrote my first couple books, so my worldview is much different now. As artists, evolution is important. Learning and growing is important. I want to have the kind of career where I give myself permission to explore all kinds of aesthetics and styles. I want to keep myself off kilter, off balance, almost falling flat on my face with every subsequent book. That’s the kind of thing as authors we can wear as badges of honor: Push ourselves to attempt things that might lead to public humiliation. And you’re going to misstep along the way. We all are. It’s inevitable. The question is what we do about those missteps. Do we get stodgy, safe, conservative?  Or do we say fuck you! and keep being reckless on the page?  I hope that we all go the route of the latter.

When DAMASCUS came out, the headline for the Washington Post review said “Mohr is drunk on clichés.”  And that was probably the nicest thing they said. It was a 700-word skull-fucking. But you can’t worry about that stuff. All we can control as artists is the next book.

You mentioned Oz earlier in corresponding about this book, but I’m curious about how you feel that particularly applies. I can sort of imagine it, or feel it at peripheries, but I’m curious how it manifested itself for you. Is it just that, aside from Jane, everyone in this book’s got an obsession that is in some way about unreality, or another reality? Bjorn and his wizardry, the kids and their mediated living, Bob himself and the just-like-but-not-at-all-like-real-life games, etc.? 

I like books that straddle realism and un-realism, and FIGHT SONG has its share of “magic.”  “The Wizard of Oz” was another cultural influence, one of the driving conceits in the novel’s conception: what would happen if I tried to tell “The Wizard of Oz” set in a 21st century American suburb?  I doubt anyone will see it without me mentioning it, but its presence was a part of the scaffolding I used as I started to scale this unruly beast.

As the novel goes on there’s more and more of the unreal. We start in a place that’s recognizable, but slowly we sink deeper into images that challenge what we recognize as plausible. If I’ve done my job right, there’s Oz, and yet it’s mixed with some Dante’s “Inferno.” Suburban malaise can be interpreted as a modern notion of hell. I shook all these influences up and hopefully made a cocktail that a reader’s never tasted before.

Less on the book: you seem in a good and unique place to talk about small presses, having had 3 out from Two Dollar Radio, and now jumping to Soft Skull. Is it a good time to be an author with books being released from indie presses? Using you as an example, it sure seems to be the case.

Well, now indie titles have the potential to be reviewed just as widely and thoroughly as Big 6, conglomerate authors. We can be in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. Indie writers always had hubs online where we can find out about strange books. Shit, we’re talking on one of the mainstays right now!  But our odd novels are getting mainstream coverage. It’s a glorious time to be publishing with an indie press.

My first book, which is pretty deranged ended up making O Magazine’s top ten reads of 2009, and I remember saying to my editor, “Jesus, I wrote the book and I never believed a rag like that would like my filth.”  We just don’t know as artists. Our jobs as authors is to write the best, most original stories we can. Who knows what will happen when it’s bound and placed on the shelf?

I teach in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, and I tell my students that their imaginations are as unique as their fingerprints. Nobody on earth has an imagination quite like theirs—or better yet ours. It’s our ultimate currency and we have to play to that strength with every sentence we construct.

I want to try again on the first question a little, and maybe this is silly or frustrating, but I hope not. I’m curious about why you chose to tackle satire—what you chose that for, aesthetically and artistically. I get that you don’t want to cover yourself, but so why satire, then? There’s a pretty large variety of structural options for novel-writing, and a large variety of structural options that would’ve led you far afield from the aesthetic work you’d plied/established in your first books. So, again: why satire?

I’m pushing at this specifically because I finished the book wondering what was being satirized, or, maybe better, wondering at the limits of satire (insert the line from whoever/wherever about how satire’s tough at present in the US because real life’s always leapfrogging satire). I finished FS believing the satire was about the sort of broad-swath general stuff: suburban living/middle-age vs the gravity of youth/days gone by, attention paid to digital devices vs. attention paid to lived experience, etc. The wife treading water’s this perfect example of this. And it’s not that that stuff didn’t work–it actually, I felt, sort of worked *too* precisely at times, or that’s how it felt. Of course the wife’s trying to break the record for treading water–that’s the perfect ha-ha appropriate activity, you know? The stuff I ended up feeling deepest was the less overtly satirical stuff–a woman talking dirty at a taco stand’s drive through, for instance.

Basically: I don’t know. I respect and am fine with your first answers, but the big question, for me, still remains: why write a satire? Why was *that* the next move, aesthetically, for you, after the first three? Does that make sense? Who knows.

Also: I didn’t know you were an addict during the writing of the first books. I’m really, really curious about the difference in writing, as a felt thing, between those written during addiction and those not. Maybe this is a not okay question to ask, in which case: I’m really sorry. But I’d be curious. I guess the thing I’m most wondering about is: it’d seem, to me (who’s been addicted to nothing harder than cigarettes), that writing would offer totally different releases to an addict and to someone who’d recovered from that addiction. Again: if this is not an okay thing to ask, I’m really sorry.

I finally think I understand what you’re asking, and it’s—I think—more about drugs and booze than books. So let me start there.

When I wrote my first three novels—the trilogy of bar books—I wrote them in a blackout. Seriously. I would start writing about midnight and work until… well, I don’t really know how long I’d work. But when I came to the next afternoon, the first thing I did was to go back and read last night’s writing, having little to no idea what I’d done.

Some of it was god awful. Hell, most of it. But there were germs and ideas that I knew I could build around. My writing back then was tied to self destruction, doing lines and popping pills and swigging whiskey in between clacks on the laptop.

Yet I knew my run of booze and drugs was coming to an end. It had to. There were too many fist fights and a busted marriage and my health was failing. It was time to try something else.

For the first year of being clean, I didn’t write any new content at all. “Termite Parade” and “Damascus” were both finished but hadn’t yet been published when I went to rehab. So I was still sort of editing them, but I wasn’t coming up with any new ideas. In fact, I was petrified of coming up with new ideas!  What if I can’t write sober?  What if my books all suck now?

Those questions paralyzed me for almost a year. At the same time, I was learning to live sober, which is one of the biggest mind-fucks people can endure. Like many addicts, I’d basically been loaded since I was 12 or 13 and had no idea who the fuck I was when I wasn’t high. I didn’t have an identity outside of the dive bar.

Early sobriety is really hard for a variety of reasons. I’m not saying it’s harder for artists; all I’m saying is we have some extra concerns: mainly, what if the thing I love doing most in the world requires me to get high?  What will I do then?  Relapse to write?  Quit writing?

The mind-fuck continues…

Finally, I just said, fuck it. Fuck it, I’m going to try and write a book. Fuck it, I’m going to see what happens when I write with my head clear. Fuck it, I don’t care if it turns out shitty, at least I’ll know for sure.

So instead of a cache of booze and party favors, I armed myself with coffee. Sometimes intentionally not eating for too long, starving myself so I got all woozy, initiating a different kind of altered state. It’s probably not a healthy way to peck out a narrative, but I guess it’s a step in the right direction.

And honestly, there was no conscious moment when I said my next project will be satire. There was a disconnect between sober-me and my previous books. I barely felt like I’d written them. I wasn’t that sad or angry anymore. I hated myself way less. I want to say that I was actually happy. Yeah, I was happy. I wanted to try and have fun at the computer, wanted to enjoy the process. I only knew the opening image of FIGHT SONG, and then I just sort of followed those people around. The story grew from getting to know their consciousnesses and a suburban ecosystem, which is way far away from my status quo.

So maybe if you’re seeing something new in my work with FIGHT SONG, it’s because somebody else wrote the first 3 books. That’s sort of how I think of it.

It’s interesting—I appreciate the answer. On the one hand, I suppose the question had something to do with booze/drugs, but I was/am much more interested in directional stuff, which I think you somewhat got to. Maybe I’m just asking for something not quite articulable. Here’s what I mean: I happen to know Wallace’s stuff fairly well, critically, and when he talked about Jest as the book that came after his first novel [and his first collection of stories, which he mostly didn’t love], he was very clear that he wanted to write something big/with a lot of characters, and he wanted to write something sad [unlike Broom, which was neither]. I don’t believe *all* writers have [or should] some clear way of talking about the paths they’re taking as they’re taking them, but that’s sort of where the questions on this form come from: a matter of how much you were aware of the territory as you set out into it [lots of this has to do with my own writing too, I guess, which is very much based on exhaustion or binaries—I’ll write something dense and gnarled and then write something easier, stuff that’s got more fingergrips to it, and so was/am curious if that was at all part of your operating pattern].

But, at the risk of being obtuse or a dick or whatever, I’m still curious, and I want to ask again. Your answers are somewhat equivocating: you say you followed other satirists during FS’s germination, but say, later, that you only knew the opening image of FS. I can square those, but you’ve still, in various ways, sort of danced away from saying why you chose satire, why this book became this book. Again: maybe it’s not something that’s doable. Maybe it’s better left unaddressed. But given the shift in style/subject from the first three, even considering the change of mental/chemical state of their author, there’s a huge change. And that’s what I keep (maybe stupidly) trying to hammer at. Put it this way: Dean Young, one of my favorite poets, two years (I think) back came out with Fall Higher, which was the first book of his to feature rhyming. Lots of rhyming, in fact. It was sort of shocking to see this guy who’d done so much whiplashy, wordplay surrealism do this other thing. People felt about it how they did. But if I got the chance to talk to him and I asked him why’d that change happen, and he were to tell me of the life changes that’d had something to do with it (and this is a dude who’s had some for real changes, like literally getting a new heart), I’d keep asking: well, but why rhyming? Because there’s an almost infinite way of changing things, writing-wise, aesthetically, artistically. And Dean Young choosing rhyming, and you choosing satire, are choices. They may not be things deeply thought through, but they are choices.

And so far I’ve asked you about the changes in your work, and you’ve talked about dismantling your comfort zone, and about sobriety and its effects, and the need for artists to push themselves and risk failure—all of which, in a way, partly answers the question. But the other aspect (for me, anyway) remains: why satire? Saunders, simply because his name’s come up before, has basically said (recently in that big NYTMag spread) that he uses satire to show the corrosive dangers of capitalism. I’m sure he’s got other reasons, but I just am interested in the why of Fight Song. In the above, the second big question set I sent, there’s a long middle second-part of the question that didn’t much get touched on, and which I don’t think has much to do with sobriety or anything. I’m pasting it below because I’m still curious about it.

I’m pushing at this, specifically because I finished the book wondering what was being satirized, or, maybe better, wondering at the limits of satire (insert the line from whoever/wherever about how satire’s tough at present in the US because real life’s always leapfrogging satire). I finished FS believing the satire was about the sort of broad-swath general stuff: suburban living/middle-age vs the gravity of youth/days gone by, attention to digital devices vs. attention to lived experience, etc. The wife treading water’s this perfect example of this. And it’s not that that stuff didn’t work–it actually, I felt, sort of worked *too* precisely at times, or that’s how it felt. Of course the wife’s trying to break the record for treading water–that’s the perfect ha-ha appropriate activity, you know? The stuff I ended up feeling deepest was the less overtly satirical stuff–a woman talking dirty at a taco stand’s drive through, for instance.

This is pretty arcane, emotional, often subconscious stuff where chatting here, and the answer won’t be clean: It will be a big tangle of all these things. Yes, a change away from writing about bars, yes, blowing up a comfort zone, yes, learning to live sober, and, yes, I also agree with you that there must have been a reason “why satire.” I just don’t know what it is—or I didn’t know until sitting down to answer this question—and I feel like I’m wrapping my head around why I went this way.

Those bar books took a lot out of me. I was mining some incredibly personal stuff, working through years of chaos and terrible decisions. Especially “Damascus,” the culminating piece in the cycle: that one left me almost dead. Working through my dad dying so young—working through all the different faces of my seeming love for self destruction, when I finished that story I felt like I’d mined that material so thoroughly that there wasn’t anything much else to say.

I’m a voracious reader and (subconsciously) I probably started making some mental lists about where I’d like to go next. Barthelme is someone whose work I go back to fairly often. And also film influenced “Fight Song,” specifically “Being John Malcovich.” I wanted to do something more in those veins—the Barthelme veins, the Kaufman veins, and sure, the Wallace and Saunders veins.

So those influences led me to black comedy. In the book, somebody is building a bestiality video game to get fired. Someone runs an intercom-phone sex operation through a fast food drive through. These sorts of prurient gags run throughout all my books. I’m pretty childish. The difference with “Fight Song” as opposed to the bar trilogy is that the main character isn’t overtly hurting himself or the people who love him. In my other novels, that’s one of the dominant motifs: people who say they love one another are doing horrible things. Why do we do that?  What’s that error in human programming?  The first books were all direct investigations. I really wanted an answer to that question, which I never got. So I twisted the prism a bit and peered through it again.

I’m really thankful that you’ve sort of cornered me about these things because I’m thinking about these issues for the first time. “Fight Song” still has that core of people not doing their best, not being as nice as they should to people who care about them, but it’s more of a passive violence. There’s no physical abuse or substance abuse or pedophilia (unless you count what happens to that poor dog in the video game) in “Fight Song.”   But there are examples of people passively not living up to being the best partner/parent/friend. There are other ways to be cruel or malicious that never make us bleed.

One of the reviews of my novel “Termite Parade” said that I wrote like “John Milton living in a garbage dump.” I think that still sums up my writing. We’re still sifting through people’s trash. But the refuse in “Fight Song” is from Whole Foods.

And maybe Weston, to come full circle, maybe the book isn’t really satire. I might be totally wrong, and this is why doctors don’t self-diagnose. Maybe it’s merely an allegory, in the tradition of Milton, specifically in “The Divine Comedy”: in “Fight Song” we meet Bob Coffen in his own suburban hell and he journeys to break out of his self-imposed incarcerations. Hopefully, by the end he finds his remix of paradise.

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Weston Cutter is the author of the book of stories You’d Be a Stranger, Too.