Interview with Joshua Mohr
Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels, most recently Fight Song, launched on February 12th. An Arizona native, San Francisco has become Mohr’s literary home and the setting of his first three novels, among them Some Things That Meant the World to Me. Fight Song is a departure from his SF trilogy, a Wizard of Oz inspired fable that takes place in a gated community.
I was introduced to Mohr’s when he was on tour for his book Damascus in 2011. He referred to one of his characters as the “patron saint of the handjob,” a description that was put to the test in one of the scenes Mohr read from. When I met Mohr, I found myself saying that handjobs were the new first base. I’m not sure whether I believe that, but it felt like the right at the time.
In anticipation of Mohr’s new novel, we used the internet to speak to each other in late January, discussing handjobs, masculinity, tuna melts, writing sober, baseball and whether Mohr would ever use the word Bro.
-Erika Anderson for Electric Literature
EL: I was talking to one of the editors at EL about your writing, who asked me how I would characterize your work. We were on the subway coming back from a panel at Housing Works. I said, “Well, it’s sort of like the San Francisco, hand job, dive bar genre.” Which I realize Fight Song is a departure from. How does that six-word description of your work sit with you?
Mohr: The milieu I was trying to examine with those first three books was seedy bars where I spent my twenties in the Mission District. I wanted to talk about the weird addicts and the oddball artists that I spent many a year with before I got sober. And it was really fun to recreate that zeitgeist because it was so pivotal in my coming of age. That being said, I think you get to a certain point with one aesthetic, and you risk turning into the literary AC/DC, where you’re just writing the same song over and over again. So very consciously with Fight Song, I tried to get as far away from my comfort zone as I possibly could. As artists, I think that’s when we do our best work, when we’re the most vulnerable. So I set myself the challenge to retell the Wizard of Oz set in a twenty-first century American suburb, and that was the conceit that launched this madcap narrative that ended up turning into Fight Song.
EL: How did Fight Song come about?
Mohr: I wrote what I thought was going to be a short story about Bob riding his bike home from work and Schumann ramming him off the road. I’m not a very good short story writer, because I get what I think is a complete draft and then my mind starts to say, “What would have happened three weeks ago? What’s going to happen five months from now?” And suddenly my short story is in this weird 90-page no mans land. And I go, “Fuck it, I might as well just turn this into a book. I’m already halfway there.” I think you’re either programmed organically as either a sprinter or a marathoner, and I like to have more canvas to play with.
EL: You just jumped metaphors.
Mohr: There’s a line I think in Fight Song where they’re talking about Bob Coffen’s stupid boss and they say he macerates his metaphors to a pulp. I’ve been known to do that myself.
EL: What was different about writing this book from your first three?
Mohr: I had never written a book from soup to nuts, as the kids say, sober. I was sober when I revised Damascus, but the whole book was conceived when I was lying in a patch of oxycontin. In Fight Song, I was dealing with the ubiquitous fear whenever you stop using drugs: Am I still capable of doing this? Do I need substances in order to tell compelling stories? You’ll notice that in Bob Coffen’s trajectory, the technology of gaming has caught up to his area of expertise. And now he feels obsolete. His niche is no longer. I wanted to work with a metaphor to map the things I was personally struggling with — what if I can’t write books anymore without drugs? If you think about it, it’s a really crazy mindfuck, because on the one hand you would say, “Well, I would rather live a happier life than be a better writer. I’m not going to relapse just to write a book.” But that being said, if writing books is your passion and you can’t do it anymore, that’s a pretty crazy place to be. I was really happy with the way Fight Song turned out. I think that was the bridge book — I don’t think satire is where I’m going to end up.
EL: Well, congrats on your first sober book.
Mohr: Yay sober books! My first couple books were written in a complete and total blackout. I would start writing around midnight, work until five or six in the morning, pass out, and then next afternoon I would read things and be like, “Pretty good, Drunk Josh. This isn’t so bad.” Then I would read it and sometimes it was terrible. But I literally I had no idea what I was writing for both Some Things That Meant the World to Me and Termite Parade. They were written mostly by my subconscious.
EL: I read that one draft of Fight Song was written in second person.
Mohr: It was not one draft. It was probably four or five drafts. And then you have to have that come to Jesus talk with yourself where you say, “Well, I’m glad that I gave this idea every chance to succeed, but fuck all if this is terrible.” And then it was a matter of would this be better in the first person or would this be terrible in the third person? So I tried it in the third person first and felt like I was able to get the balance in tone and voice that I was hunting for. I’m a big advocate in the revision process of artists giving opportunities to all their ideas, even their shitty ideas. Sometimes I feel like we hedge our bets too much, we try to prioritize and problem solve in our psyches and we don’t actually collect active evidence on the page. So no matter how inane or how stupid an idea is, I’m going to let it go in a draft. For example, in an earlier draft of Fight Song there was a crazy goat who talked in prison lingo —
Mohr: — even saying that to you is so terribly embarrassing, but at least I had the actual evidence rather than my system of hypotheses about what would work and what would not work.
EL: What other ideas that came and went?
Mohr: In Damascus I had a genie living in a whiskey bottle that Shambles was talking to almost in every one of her chapters. I kept that for probably ten or twelve drafts. And then finally it was pointed out to me by some trusted readers that that was, how shall we say, fucking stupid. [Laughs]
EL: [Laughs] I love the idea of letting every idea rise to the surface because as I think of my creative journey, I think of all the times I’ve been told — as I’m sure we’ve all been told — that I can’t do things. And then all we’re left with are dead ends.
Mohr: I have my grad students hold up their thumbs. I say, “I think that the human imagination is as unique as our fingerprints.” It’s the ultimate currency that we have as artists. And it has to be the strength that we play to on the page. Don’t just write the book that you want to read, which is what conventional wisdom says, but write the book that only you can write. That talking prison goat was a bad idea, but it was my bad idea, and I bet that no one else would have that bad idea. But I feel like if we give all of our bad ideas a chance to succeed.
It also reminds us that the drafting process has to be fun, that we should maintain the whimsy and the joy later in the process. If we’re open to exploring, we’re open to those deviations and those dislocations. Where writers get themselves in trouble is when they’re only on draft five, which I would call a very nascent draft, and they think, “Oh, I know what this is. I’ve mastered this world.” They lose that sense of exploration. All the really cool things that I learn about a narrative come later in the drafting process, once I really know my characters thoroughly. It takes so much time to get to know a consciousness that’s not our own. A metaphorical heart that’s not our own.
EL: You said that you wanted writing this book to be more fun than your San Francisco trilogy. Did it turn out that way?
Mohr: Certainly. I had a blast on a daily basis putting this book together because whatever inanity or sordidness I could cook up, I would toss right in the book. I never write with any sort of plan. I only know what the first image is going to be. And then I don’t know anything after that because I love that sort of wanton and reckless journey through the book.
A couple of the Cohen brothers’ first films, Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing, navigated macabre and dangerous territory. Yet the Cohen brothers gave themselves the artistic freedom to go on to do things like The Big Lebowski. I love that idea that you don’t know what an artist is going to give you until you open the front cover. That’s the kind of artist that I want to be. I don’t just want to be, “Handjob Guy.”
EL: [Laughs] I don’t get that.
Mohr: Most men would wear the moniker “Handjob Guy” as a badge of honor. And I’m fine with being “Handjob Guy,” but I’d also like to be “Fable Guy,” or whatever I turn out to be.
EL: Do you have a favorite handjob scene in literature or in your own work?
Mohr: I can’t actually think of all that many handjob scenes. I can think of a lot of jerk off scenes but I can’t think of a lot of handjob scenes. In Damascus specifically, it seemed like an apt metaphor to launch that particular narrative. One of the main characters is seeking human affection, he just wants to be touched, and when he gets jerked off by that character Shambles in the first chapter, it’s this prurient exchange. And as the book pushes on, those touchings morph in terms of what they mean on an emotional level as they start to build some sort of contorted camaraderie. They’re both salvaging something from the other. They probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it. But they’re recognizing some sort of kindred and distressed spirit. And they’re able to offer a semblance of sanctuary along the way.
EL: While I saw Fight Song as a departure from your San Francisco trilogy, I also saw an overarching theme in all four of your books of the emasculated man, and I connected that to Judd Apatow’s movies, and to the Junior character in the fiction of Junot Diaz. It made me think of what it means to be a man in America today.
Mohr: With Bob Coffen, I’m talking about someone I don’t really know a lot about. I’m not a suburban father of two who programs video games. With the first three books, I was writing about myself and my struggles with drugs and whiskey. With this one, it was a different frame of reference. I wanted to write it as a fable, I wanted to write it as a cautionary tale. Because I’m sure there are a lot of happy people who live in the suburbs. But my own paranoia and my superimposition about what that life would be like is almost like something out of Dante. Fight Song is actually scary if you think about what’s going on in that narrative.
The emasculation is one thing, and then the ennui is another — they’re all treading water, which is a metaphor that runs throughout the book literally with Jane’s sport. But you can stand back and watch them all barely keep their heads above water solely because they’ve stopped trying. From the outside, there’s nothing wrong. They have plenty of money. They’re a nuclear family. They’re in the same house together, and yet when we examine them under a more detailed proximity, we can see the fissures in their existence. When they finally get to the end of the yellow brick road, what are they going to be asking for? What is their actual goal? Is there something here worth salvaging?
EL: It seems like they’re all striving for connection and yet that’s not what they get. The kids’ electronic devices come in between them and their dad. What’s at risk? Why is it so dangerous to have real human connection?
Mohr: It’s so interesting to ponder the different definitions of connection because the daughter is twelve in the book and is constantly glued to her iPad. She would consider herself a world traveler although she’s probably never been within ten miles of their gated community. Where satire can function at its best is where we take the time to occupy everybody’s mindset. If I did my job right, the daughter has a valid viewpoint, the father has a cogent viewpoint, the wife has a cogent viewpoint and it’s up to the reader to parse through all that and then she or he can fend for their own affiliations. Lars von Trier talks about trying to leave open the avenues of interpretation at the end of his films. We don’t want to steer our audience to this inevitable conclusion.
EL: The ending to Fight Song brings up questions.
Mohr: Sure. It ends in this moment of magic realism where hopefully a lot of the audience will be like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ And somebody else will be like, ‘I love that.’ And somebody else will be like, ‘I hate that.’ I love those extreme reactions. I don’t really care if someone likes the book or not. I just don’t want an ambivalent or tepid response. I’ll take hate or love any day of the week.
EL: I want to say that seems brave.
Mohr: You can never go wrong calling someone brave. That’s the exciting thing about being a storyteller. You spend two, three, four years on one book, and tell that story as thoughtfully as you possibly can and then as the poet Jay Z says, move onto the next one. Who cares? I can’t do anything about Fight Song anymore. It’s bound. It’s shipping as we speak. There’s no reason for me to worry about that anymore. I’m onto what will be the next weird adventure.
EL: What’s the next weird adventure?
Mohr: With the early stuff, you can never tell what’s going to be the prison-talking goat, but I’ve been clacking away. I try to do as much as I can before I can on tour because I’ll have about five or six weeks where I don’t get to do anything except eat hotel food and gain ten pounds. Which is awesome. “Another tuna melt, please” as you cry to yourself.
EL: Are tuna melts your thing?
Mohr: I grew up pretty white trash so all of those things are in my wheelhouse. A Reuben, tuna melt, a BLT, anything that could waft out of trailer I’m a huge fan of. That’s how I can tell if it’s the sandwich for me.
EL: Some of your male characters address each other as buddy and fella, a phenomenon I find fascinating. How do you refer to your male friends? Are they buddies?
Mohr: I don’t know that I would ever say the word buddy. As an aging hipster, I would have dude in my nomenclature, cats in my nomenclature, but I like that idea of trying to render the false camaraderie that develops between bar stools. Your bars stay open a little later than ours do in San Francisco, but usually if I go in a bar at six or seven in the morning, there is this weird, horrible connection with the guy drinking next to be because he hates himself just as much as I do. We’re here because we have to be here right now, and suddenly it’s like we’re having the time of our lives — could it get any better than this? Let’s play a game of pool, Bro. Let’s get a bottle of Fernet, Bro. I like to render that dynamic. I’m not one of those people who look back on all my years of using and shake my head. I don’t say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Fuck that. I loved those years. I would probably still be in those years if my health didn’t start to fail. I look back on some of those things with toxic revelry. Those memories aren’t all awful. I wasn’t in Reno when I started drinking, and my nose wasn’t broken when I started drinking, but I’m glad that I’m here now, sitting on this weird stool with a broken nose.
EL: It’s rare to hear that measured perspective. So often the story of the sober is “let me tell you how bad I was.”
Mohr: It might be some sort of defense mechanism, a very binary relationship: you love spirits and drugs or you hate sprits and drugs. My mind doesn’t work like that. That’s one reason I like narrative so much. I get to pose all these questions in the book, questions I don’t necessarily have to answer. I just have to lob them at the canvas and see what happens. I look back at those years fondly: going to jail, getting in lots of fist fights, making tons of mistakes, ruining my first marriage. I don’t necessarily regret those life experiences because they’ve led me to where I am now. And I’m in a really happy place in my life.
EL: Married with a baby on the way.
Mohr: Yeah, it will be a totally rewiring of my world. We have this really big closet, it has a window, so it’s not really a closet, but it’s the baby’s room. It’s been funny to watch people’s reactions when we tell them that the baby’s going to live in a closet. A lot of hipsters are like, “Oh, that’s great.” A lot of other people look at us like, “You can’t do that. You have to find a place for your baby to sleep that wasn’t manicured for socks.”
EL: You’ve said that the sign of a bad interview is asking a random question about baseball. How do you feel about baseball?
Mohr: I don’t have the attention span for sports where things don’t happen. I’m kind of myopic that way. And you can be fat and play baseball. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Shouldn’t they be working harder? Shouldn’t they be doing more … things?
I box. It helps me clear my head. When you get sober, you have to find other ways to get high. And boxing is one of those things for me. I get that adrenaline and endorphins and then the rest of the day makes more sense to me. I go down three days a week and put the gloves on. Maybe that would be a setting where I might drop a bro or two. That was a good shot, Bro! Way to give me a concussion, Bro!
EL: Always “bro” never “brah”?
Mohr: I would have to get hit really, really hard to say brah. I’ll go through Boston on tour. I’ll see if I can cultivate my inner brah hanging out with all the Irish kids up there. We’ll see what happens.
-Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels, most recently Fight Song. He teaches writing to graduate students in San Francisco.