An Interview with Joshua MohrBy Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice
July 21, 2010
JE: Okay, so before I talk about Josh Mohr the writer, I just wanna’ say that I love the synergy Josh and his publisher Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio have going. A publisher and a writer helping each other help themselves. Josh is writing great books and hustling (I’m guessing not for huge advances), while Eric is really working to connect Josh with readers, and doing his damndest to make Josh a successful author (not just a title). I was one lucky sonofabitch to have had such a synergy with Richard Nash at Soft Skull. Sadly, in an industry where most writers are hung unwittingly out to dry, this is a rare situation.
A few words on Josh, the writer: Josh is one of those writers I like best because he writes stuff I would never write. Approaches narratives in a way I wouldn’t approach them. Pushes himself (and me) out of his comfort zone. That excites me. Josh’s characters rescue burnt sofas. Push their lovers down stairwells. Wallow in dumpsters. And his language never ceases to surprise. Josh’s second novel, Termite Parade, was recently unleashed on the world, only a year after his successful debut (Two Dollar Radio’s first bestseller), Some Things That Meant the World to Me.
I got drunk and interviewed Josh when I should have been writing. I’ll bet he was drunk too, and should have been writing.
JE: Josh, your narratives come from a dark and squalid place, as though your mental furniture might look something like Rhonda’s immolated sofa. What is it about squalor that attracts you? And when are we gonna’ see a paranormal romance from you?
JM: No paranormal bodice-rippers, per se, but I do have a bitchin’ idea for a new vampire book. I know, I know, the kidz are tired of vampires… but they’ve never seem them like this before…
Imagine: a young male vampire joins the navy and he’s stationed on a submarine. Once they’re underwater, it’s always dark, so he can “vamp out” 24/7. The tag line can be “It’s always midnight at 10,000 leagues!” And on the cover, it could have a sub with fangs sticking from the front. You know, John, if we actually wrote that as a screenplay we could both retire!
But about squalor, I can’t say that consciously I’m attracted to it. I like hyperbole, exaggeration; often the stakes are the highest for those bottoming out, either literally, psychologically, or both.
So for example, in my new book Termite Parade, the hyperbolic incident is that a man drops his girlfriend down the stairs. It’s an aggressive image, but these sorts of things happen all the time. It’s ostensibly a story about betrayal; it’s the same story if the man cheats on the woman–that’s just as devastating a betrayal, though its violence isn’t grounded in physicality, but emotion.
Infidelity, though, isn’t interesting to me. I want metaphors that indict us at greater volumes than the ones we’ve come to accept as pedestrian. I want to use inflated imagery to lure readers into the narrative and often that leads me into grim circumstances.
Great answer. Although, I think you’re a little hopeful about the screenplay market. Roger Corman would love it. I know a guy who worked for him twenty years ago (we’re on our way!). When we both get really rich, we should chip in on that submarine, for real–that’d be one kickass man-cave. And in addition to fangs, I think we should get it fitted with a jean vest. Talk to me about the genesis of your novels. Where did you begin with Termite Parade? With the situation? And what about with Some Things That Meant the World to Me? With the character of Rhonda?
I always start with image. For Some Things, I knew I wanted to write about a broken home, but that territory has been trampled so much over the years, I needed a new way into it. So I decided to literally break the home: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents.
Once I’d established the surreality, all bets were off in terms of “rules,” so as Rhonda told me more about who he is as a real person (and yes, I do believe our characters are real people), I filled the blanks in from there. I revise compulsively; that’s where the real hard work happens, where the clay gets molded into sculpture.
Termite started from an exercise I heard that the poet Robert Haas uses: he’ll spend months working on one poem, rewriting and rewritng, trying to earn that last line (the pay-off line in any poem). But this is actually just the beginning: because then Haas uses that pay-off line as the first line of a new poem (the one he’s been interested in all along). The logic is that his imagination will go to skyscraping places if he uses the “pay-off” as the beginning, to build up from it as a foundation and traverse into daring terrain.
So I wrote a short story using the image of a man dropping his girlfriend down the stairs as its climax. I worked on it for about eight months, got it to where it was ready to publish. Then I yanked the climax and used it as the point of entry to what eventually grew into Termite Parade.
I don’t write with an outline or any kind of plan; I like the reckless discovery of surprising myself with each plot point. Of course, this leads to lots of wrong turns–maybe why I have to revise so much–but I dig that wanton, blind strategy of building story without any scaffolding around it.
You have a great facility for talking about your work. I think a lot of writers like to mystify the process—kinda’ like ballplayers with their cliches. And speaking of cliches: writing really is rewriting. For me, that’s where the magic happens. I totally feel you on the reckless discovery. For me, that usually means discovering the character, and once the character is fully realized, they seem to have a destiny of their own, and I’m just hurrying to catch up, watching along with the reader. Tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now. Or are you one of those writers who thinks he’ll jinx himself if he talks about his work in progress?
I’m not a superstitious person, been known to walk under a ladder or two in my day. I’m happy to talk about what I’m working on now. I challenge myself with every book to try and tackle some literary feat of such an encoded nature that only I’ll notice. For example, in Termite Parade,”my goal was to try and create as much chaos on the page in the climactic sequence as Sam Shepard‘s play Buried Child. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a production of it or not, but by the time the action hits its peak, all hell has certainly broken loose. Shepard is one of my heroes.
I read a lot of plays because it reminds me not to rely too heavily on thought process, to let my “actors” characterize themselves on the page, via dialogue, gesture, and body language. Obviously, thought process is important, but when it’s overused/abused, interiority brings the narrative to a screeching halt.
In this new book (tentatively titled Machines that Ache in Their C: Drives), I’m working on an ensemble piece, hopefully a distant, debauched cousin to a Robert Altman film. These first 3-novels have been a cycle, all set in San Francisco at the same time, overlapping characters, locales, imagery and themes. Some Thingsintroduced a bar called Damascus, and a bunch of Machines takes place there.
The book is about an anti-war art show. A painter has put together 12 portraits of dead American soldiers. During the art opening, she nails a cat fish to each canvas, so as they hang, the room will smell like death, decomposition: it will remind the studio audience back home that soldiers are dying on their behalves. Some folks take umbrage with the artist’s expression and hostile shenanigans ensue. Where would we be without hostile shenanigans?
Of course, it’s about 38 other things, too, but that’s the only one that makes a tidy synopsis. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had on the page, though that might not be saying much: Termite Parade was quite a wrestling match. I’m not sure I won.
I love that you’re pushing yourself. If I’m gonna’ invest five to twenty hours reading a book, I want to know that the writer is pushing himself (or herself). And that’s the only thing I wanna’ know about the writer. Otherwise, I want the writer to be invisible, to get out of the way, and just let me to get lost in the story. You do a good job of that.
On the operations side, tell me about working with Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio. He really seems to have your back as an author, and that’s a lot rarer than it ought to be. Not all writers get the benefit of that kind of support.
Well, I was pretty busted up by the time my manuscripts made it to Eric and 2DR. And that’s not a typo, I meant “manuscripts”… plural. My first agent couldn’t sell Some Things (Pun intended). In fact, she told me to write a 2nd book and forget about number one, and when she couldn’t sell the 2nd, she fired me. About a year later, after regrouping and finding new representation, 2DR bought Termite Parade and we were able to piggyback Some Things onto that contract.
That’s why it felt like such a coup for the indie press when Some Things went on to make O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of ’09 list. I mean, people kept saying that the material is too grim, that it isn’t commercially viable, and here’s O, one of the most mainstream publications going and they pick it out of the haystack. I was stunned, wonderfully stunned. They changed that book’s life, and I’m immensely grateful.
Two Dollar Radio only puts out four or five titles a year. It’s Eric, his wife, Eliza, and Eric’s younger brother, Brian. And that’s it! That’s the whole shop. So it’s a family thing and that grassroots feeling permeates the whole experience. I love it. I’m very comfortable on the fringe. I like that role of being underestimated. There are very few expectations of me, and so if something goes well, it’s just gravy. I feel like I’m playing with house money… except in this particular example there’s no money. Or a house.
For any aspiring writers out there, don’t just assume that one of the big, swanky corporate publishers is the right fit for you. Especially if your material is transgressive, prurient, etc. You might be better served with a smaller house that won’t consider your book to be a failure if it sells 3,000 copies. Every writer should have an editor that shares your vision of the book’s identity. You don’t want someone who’s trying to water down your material simply to fit you into a shiny marketing box. I’ve definitely found that invaluable synergy with Eric and Eliza. It’s worth much more than a big advance.
I also think it creates a huge camaraderie between us because we’re doing it all ourselves. There’s no marketing or sales departments. It’s just us shaking trees, making the phone calls, pimping books. Probably because of all my years playing in crappy bands, but I like being involved with that stuff. The thing I’m the most scared of as a writer is investing 3, 4, or 5 years writing a book, and it comes out and vanishes without a trace. Unfortunately, it happens all the time–good books get lost in the shuffle (and bad ones get hype because of nepotism). So I can use my anxiety about this phenomenon as gasoline to hop on the phone or send a batch of emails or cyber-stalk those that need cyber-stalking. I’m a pro-active cat when it comes to these sorts of things.
Last thing I’ll say about 2DR, and maybe this is all that needs to be said: I just tattooed their logo on my shoulder. That should speak to how I feel about them. And so to end with another of those dastardly cliches, the proof ain’t in the pudding, folks, it’s inked on my skin.
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