Joshua Mohr Interviewed by Jim Ruland
INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA MOHR
By Jim Ruland
Joshua Mohr burst on the literary scene in 2009 with the publication of Some Things That Meant the World to Me, a book about man named Rhonda whose world is coming apart at the seams. Mohr followed up his debut with two more novels Termite Parade and Damascus. Together they comprise a trilogy set in San Francisco’s Mission District. In this interview, Mohr talks about the trilogy, his writing process, and what it took to get published. Mohr will be reading from Damascus at Vermin on the Mount at 3rdSpace in San Diego on Saturday, February 11 at 7pm.
SDWI: When did you realize that the three books were connected? Was it something you intended from the beginning or did it emerge over time?
MOHR: I knew the three novels were connected before I started the project. In the opening paragraph of the first book, you meet a dive bar called Damascus, which ends up being the name of the cycle’s culminating piece. So I had that as a rough frame. Within that system, though, I had a ton of wiggle room to let things evolve organically. There’s no immediate plan when I write. No outline or schematic. I just like listening to rock and roll and slurping coffee and making up weird stories.
SDWI: Which of the three was the hardest to write?
MOHR: Termite Parade was by far the hardest to put together. It’s non-linear, which always challenges readers. Plus, you have to juggle three storylines. I asked my audience to work hard in that one, maybe too hard.
SDWI: Do you have a favorite?
MOHR: Some Things that Meant the World to Me will always have a special place. You never forget the book that deflowered you.
SDWI: Your protagonists are without exception deeply flawed, sometimes extraordinarily so to the point where they are borderline grotesque. But you have a great talent for humanizing these characters so that we can look past their defects and connect with them as people. When you’re developing a character, what comes first: their situation or their personality?
MOHR: I always start with image and situation. I can only learn about who the people on the page are by watching them stalk their sordid habitats, listening to them speak, hearing how they think. And it takes time. Writers have to remain open to the idea that their characters are in charge, and we just happen to be writing stuff down, like underpaid secretaries. Characterization takes a long time for me. It takes years. Each subsequent revision unearths new details about my main characters. I can come up with plots pretty quickly, but building convincing, real characters is the hardest thing an author has to do. If you try to rush it, the people will seem like sketches or caricatures, rather than bleeding citizens.
SDWI: That’s interesting that you would use the world “citizen.” In your first novel, the focus of the story is an unreliable/unstable narrator. In the second, the emphasis is on a damaged relationship. And in the final book of the trilogy, the focus is on a community of derelicts that functions as a kind of family. Was this progression from the personal to the communal intentional?
MOHR: Honestly, Jim, it had to do more with my skill level as a storyteller. Damascus is in the omniscient 3rd, which requires the writer to know a lot more about the book’s ecosystem, whereas my first book is a simple coming-of-age story, narrated by one person. So I couldn’t have written Damascus first. Along those lines, it’s very important for me to keep pushing myself as an artist, getting out of my comfort zone, and continuing to try and be the best novelist I can.
SDWI: Your handling of the bar as surrogate family storyline feels familiar yet fresh. The boozy camaraderie that veer sharply into danger feels authentic, but did you worry that it might turn into a Mission District “Cheers”?
MOHR: I TRIED to turn it into a Mission District “Cheers”! I’m kidding. Sort of. I write about drunkards and addicts and odd artists because those are my people. I’ve lived in the Mission for a long time, and Damascus is a love letter to my neighborhood.
SDWI: When you sold your first novel to Two Dollar Radio, did you have the other two written? Was it a package deal?
MOHR: We sold the first two novels under one contract, and they were both finished. But I was pretty deep into Damascus at that point and knew that I wanted to do all three books with one publisher. Two Dollar Radio is amazing. A lot of writers think that they have to go with a big publishing house to sell books, but that hasn’t been my experience at all.
SDWI: Why did you decide to publish your first three books with a relatively untested indie press? Fact of the matter is that Two Dollar Radio was the only house interested! My agent sent it all over, but we kept hearing that the writing was too dark, too macabre. I trusted that I’d end up in a good spot, and 2DR has wildly exceeded my expectations. They’re great people, and any aspiring writers reading this, if you write transgressive material, I can’t speak highly enough of my experience with 2DR. Hit ’em up.
SDWI: Getting reviewed by The New York Times is something that most authors of indie, perfect bound, transgressive novels can only dream about. It’s happened to you not once but twice (right?) What was your response when you heard you were getting reviewed in The New York Times?
MOHR: Coverage in The New York Times is amazing! I feel so lucky. I never expected that kind of mainstream love, especially, as you pointed out, they covered my last two books. The only “problem” is once I found out the dates each review would run, I couldn’t sleep, was too excited. I already struggle with insomnia and didn’t need any extra help staying up all night.
SDWI: What advice to give for first time novelists who have been told they’re material is too dark or too sexual, too this or too that?
MOHR: It’s important we write the exact books we want to write. Fuck agents and know-it-all editors who give blanket advice. As artists, we have to follow our instincts.
SDWI: What’s next for Joshua Mohr?
MOHR: I’m just finishing up a new novel, an oddball kind of fairy tale about a guy named Bob Coffin. I think I’ll read something from him at one of the Vermin shows!
Jim Ruland was stationed in San Diego in 1986 and when he left two years later, swore he wouldn’t be back. After attending Radford University in Radford, Virignia and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona he returned to California. In 2004 he met his wife and she lured him back to San Diego for good. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a NEA literature fellowship and a Bread Loaf scholarship. His work has recently appeared in Annalemma, Keyhole, Mississippi Review, New Delta Review, and the Normal School. He writes book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, interviews for Hobart, and a column for Razorcale. He is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount. http://www.vermin.blogs.com/