The Savage Specifics of Such a Finale: A Conversation With Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr’s Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a tightly packed novel about the lost, losing, and broken people who frequent Damascus, a dive bar in San Francisco. The story is moving, bitterly charming, sometimes depressing, but always engaging. I talked to Joshua about his book, character driven writing, writing as a form of protest and much more.

I read Damascus as very character driven. It’s really the people and what you show us about their lives that create the narrative. Would you consider Damascus character driven?

Absolutely. Books don’t work if the people on the pages aren’t alive. It’s why writing a novel takes so long. You have to dig around in other psyches, other hearts and souls. The book isn’t going to be any good until your characters are the ones telling the story, and you’re just the poorly paid secretary scribbling it all down.

I teach in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and when I talk characterization with my students, I emphasize the idea that actually the characters have to characterize themselves: the reader just sits back and watches the players stalk their sordid habitats. This kind of active characterization involves your reader in the story, too, making them put the pieces together for what each new scene means, how it contributes and complicates the action they’ve already observed. They become a kind of detective trying to compile an interpretation.

There was a real tenderness in how you wrote Shambles and Owen and No Eyebrows and Daphne, the whole lot of them. How close are you to your characters? Do you draw from people you know?

Part of that comes from the fact that I truly care about these people. I know that calling them “people” sounds schizophrenic, since I made them all up, but I’m serious—I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to them, bonding, fighting, kissing, crying, yanking teeth, cracking skulls, pleading my case, so my empathy for their sets of experiences is huge.

The other part is that I’ve gotten sober over the last couple years, and I really want my wayward players to do better by themselves. The whole process of getting clean allows me to extend tremendous empathy to my characters because no matter what dark, twisted things they might be doing on the page, I’ve made decisions of equal stupidity, if not ones that are even more insipid. That “equal footing” allows us to look into one another’s eyes and build trust. I know that sounds sappy, but constructing a realized, visceral connection with them is part of what we have to do as writers, if they’re to stand on their own and not read like pretentious sock puppets.

I didn’t specifically base any of the characters on actual people, but certainly my real life leaches into the narrative. My dad died of cancer; it was pretty brutal to watch, so the storyline of No Eyebrows sprung from the question: would it have been better if my dad had disappeared and gone off to die on his own? Is it better to spare your family the savage specifics of such a finale? The book doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but it gives the reader enough evidence so she can answer it on her own behalf.

Shambles did a really fine thing at the end of the novel when she sent No Eyebrows home. In fact, I thought she had the most humanity of any of the characters in this book. It’s interesting that a woman who stepped away from her marriage and her life and into this rather destitute life as a barfly and hand job whore is able to demonstrate so much wisdom and compassion. I loved that choice, for to have so much heart without turning her into a hooker with a heart of gold. Do you find it hard to make your characters make difficult, unexpected choices?

For me, writing a novel is a labyrinth of unexpected choices. That’s part of the fun. I don’t write with any kind of plan. I live for those on-the-fly surprises when the characters—totally of their own volition—supply what’s supposed to happen next. There’s a certain moment in every book’s genesis when the characters start to fight with the author about what they’re saying, what they’re doing, etc. This moment is crucial! This moment means that they’re becoming independent consciousnesses. This is when Frankenstein’s monster looks at the good doctor and tells him to go fuck himself.

Shambles is definitely my favorite character in the novel. If the book works, she’s its driving humanity. She has a huge heart. And like I said before, that doesn’t mean she’s making very good choices/treating herself with much dignity, but it does mean that there’s the potential for change. She hopes (and the reader hopes) that she’ll summon the courage to do better.

What were some of the other unexpected choices you ran into while writing Damascus?

I had no idea Revv was going to be in the story. He was mentioned in passing in an early draft, and I never imagined him becoming integral to the narrative; yet without his presence, the story would have a much different climax. Those sorts of accidental gems make me leery of ever writing with any kind of schematic. I’ll keep winging it and hoping for the best.

Owning a bar is a terrible business. Why did Owen open Damascus and why did he name it Damascus? That’s a pretty powerful name and not one you would expect to find in a bar.

I ran a bar for years, so yes, I agree that particular business can slurp your will to live. Most of the characters in the book—and most of the people I’ve ever met—no matter how self-destructive or fucked up, all want on some level to be nicer to themselves. Most junkies front a lot of attitude, but when they wake up in the morning, hungover, withdrawing, they’re begging for their lives to get better. That doesn’t mean they won’t get high again, but we all like the idea of our lives improving, even if every decision we’re making points to the contrary. So if Damascus represents some opportunity for change—the Biblical story of Saul turning into Paul on the road to Damascus—then maybe there’s hope that we’ll all figure it out, too. That’s what drove Owen to name the bar Damascus. He’s a big ol’ softie at heart.

I’ve worked in a bar too and it is, indeed, difficult at times. What part of running a bar diminished your will to live? What did you learn about bar life?

A lot of it was just the long and late hours, being up most of the night. And whiskey. And cocaine. And pills were good times, too. But bartending can teach a great life skill as well because it makes you talk to people you wouldn’t normally interact with, pushes you out of your social comfort zone. That’s important for an author—it’s one of our hardest jobs, occupying a consciousness that isn’t our own. So any research you can do picking at somebody else’s psyche is going to help your prose.

I have a couple strange technical questions because I think about these things. Why did you name the chapters and what was going on with the omniscient narrator who appeared in the story from time to time?

I’ve named the chapters in all my books so far. As a structural device, I dig the way they look: chapter titles act as a kind of guide, poetically tipping their hand a bit about what the upcoming chapter will be about. They’re usually pretty arcane—names like “Machines that Ache in Their C: Drives” or “Seducing the Dismal,” but once you’ve experienced that part of the story, they make at least a speck of sense. I hope. And if they don’t, well, at least they’re more ornate than names like Chapter 4 and Chapter 12.

As for the omniscient narrator, yeah, there’s this weird “we” voice that pops its head in throughout the scope of the story. Are they angels? Tour guides? Stunt-doubles for the reader? Poorly hidden voyeurs spying from the bushes? I don’t know that I want to decode this one. What I’ll say is this: I dig the idea that there’s a “we” in all our stories, whether literal or implied. One of the reasons people read/write is to communicate, to participate in a kind of running dialog that’s been transpiring since scribbles on cave walls. For me, because my stories tend to render rather grim, macabre, bleak places, the “we” voice can represent some hope: we aren’t alone; no matter how much all evidence points to the contrary, there are other people out there who know what we’re going through.

I too tend to write about darker, grimmer themes and places. What drives you to go there? How else do you balance that darkness with hope?

To be honest, I’m feeling less inspired to travel to that particular there. It’s exhausting. I was watching “The Big Lebowski” a few months back and thought to myself: the Coens must have had so much fucking fun putting that story together. I wonder what fun is like! So I’m trying to write something a bit less emotionally masochistic now, seeing how the other half lives.

We’ve been at war for a really long time now. Even seven years after when this book takes place, we have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq so clearly, little has changed in the world. Now that we, as writers, have had a lot of time to think about war, I’m starting to see more and more war-related fiction. Why did you choose to write about war from a stateside perspective? Is fiction up to the task of protest?

Somebody just asked me this morning if “Damascus” is a protest novel. I said I wasn’t sure. Then I felt dumb for such a flimsy answer. Then I walked away wondering if all novels fall under the jurisdiction of protest in one way or another. My first two novels were about personal apocalypse—explorations into what happens when those who claim to love us fail us. How do we learn to live with such gouging betrayals? Can we ever make peace with those who’ve splendidly failed us? And can we atone to those we’ve splendidly failed? What’s the difference between lying to yourself and being redeemed?

These questions are all present in Damascus, but the scope has been widened away from just our lovers, friends, and families. Now we look to America, as well. What—if anything—does it mean that GW Bush lied to us about WMDs being in Iraq and then we reelected him? I mean, if that’s not the definition of an abusive relationship, I’m not sure what is. So is fiction up to the task of protest? Probably not. We haven’t learned from our mistakes so far. But what other choice do we have except to hope the 43,621st time is our charm?

What books or stories do you think approach war and/or protest well?

My favorite protest novel—in fact, my favorite novel period–is E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. Holy shit. He’s doing things with POV that are completely out of hand. If you do read it, send me your thoughts; I’d love to hear. I taught it at Stanford this summer to undergrads and it was fun to see them react to its wildness

How does teaching influence your writing?

I really dig teaching. I have pretty serious insomnia, and it’s interesting because the nights I teach, I always stay up working on my own prose those nights, writing till five or six in the morning. For me, the students, a.k.a. other people who love words, who actually care about literature, are so important because they stimulate my brain, make me chew on theory and ideas and rethink strategies. Writers have to spend so many hours by ourselves—it’s the nature of what we do, and all that forced sequestering leads to a craving for community, to interact with other people who see the written word as an important cultural artifact.

What was the first story you ever wrote?

I came to reading and writing pretty late in life. I faked my way through every reading assignment until my senior year in high school when somebody handed me “Slaughterhouse Five.” That knocked me on my ass. Before Vonnegut, I thought reading was all tea and crumpets, and he showed how reckless it could be. Then I found Fante and Heller, and I was hooked.

Writing didn’t really occur to me until my early twenties, trapped in a cubicle in an ad agency after my undergrad. I had eight hours to do about half an hour’s worth of work and then I was stuck all day. So I started pecking away, tales of terribly executed magical realism. Thankfully, nobody will ever see that stuff.

What are you working on right now? What’s next?

I’m trying to write a Lebowski-inspired fairy tale, though it’s currently kicking my ass. But I really want to exercise some different muscles in the next book, something that might make people laugh a bit, rather than leap from the closest bridge. It’s still too soon to tell if it will amount to anything, but even if I never publish it, I’ve enjoyed being in the “rule-less” land of the fairy tale. Plus, it’s gotten me back in touch with the terribly executed magical realism I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, I’m still not much better at it.

What do you love most about your writing?

It’s all a labor of love. It has to be. There’s no money in indie publishing. I know a lot of writers find that to be depressing, but I see liberty there: with no money, I’m free to let the art be exactly what it wants to evolve into. It’s a permission slip for my imagination to be as nuts as it can possibly be. And hopefully, the books keep getting weirder. We need all the weird books we can get. So many books sound the same right now; I call it “Beige Against the Machine.” We should be celebrating the weirdness. Our imaginations are our fingerprints. Turn them loose to do their worst!