Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Joshua Mohr

In books, fiction, writing on October 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Joshua Mohr, author of Termite Parade, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and the new novel Damascus (Two Dollar Radio, 2011). Mohr’s latest book details the intersecting lives of a few rough-and-tumble characters whose paths converge at a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s a novel that embodies the grit, uncertainty, and strength of desire that line real life. Don’t let the dark nature of the story be an obstacle, Mohr has a way of illuminating the heart of outwardly unsavory characters. Just as his candid prose pulls readers into his writing, Mohr’s genuine, warm manner will draw you in if you have a chance to meet him in person.

Quick Facts on Joshua Mohr

  • Joshua Mohr’s website
  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food: macaroni and cheese
  • Top reads: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Cruddy by Lynda Barry, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Hydroplane by Susan Steinberg, and Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel
  • Current reads: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished a third draft of what will be my next book. I’ve written these three interrelated novels all set in the Mission District [of San Francisco, CA] at the turn of the 21st century. There are concentric images, concentric characters. It’s been really stark, really macabre, an emotionally difficult ecosystem to write about, and to want to write about. This third one has taken me the longest to write. I think I wrote it for about 8 years. A lot of it was just that I needed to have breaks from the material; it would get so morose, and downright lugubrious at times. I needed to checkout, regroup, put my bulletproof vest on before heading back in there.

In the meantime, I’ve been writing this comedy thing, I wanted to try to write my version of The Big Lebowski, and I’m just having an absolute blast. It has been so fun.

Also, I’ve gotten sober since I wrote those books. I revised this book sober, but when I had the ideas for it I was still pretty strung out. It’s funny to watch your preoccupations shift as you get into a place where the world isn’t quite as dismal and monochromatic.

What was it like to edit, now that you’re in such a different frame of mind?

I tend to write in a compartmentalized sort of way where draft one is just a thought. I have these really malnourished first drafts, 150 or 175 pages. I just want to see if there’s enough narrative there for me to dig in and do the really hard work of creating three-dimensional players. That’s the really hard part for me—building convincing idiosyncratic characters. I want to see the skinny draft, and then decide if it’s worth me spending a few years to get to know these heads. Once I do that, draft two ends up being this incredibly disgusting, over-wrought thing that’s a lot of discovery writing; a lot of things that will never make it to an end reader—things that I need to know in order to tell the story in a thoughtful way. The trick of editing becomes figuring out which things will stay for the reader to experience and which ones I can cut. I tend to really squeeze things to greyhound lean. I’d rather have a reader say they want more than say I wish you’d cut this down.

“The trick of editing

becomes figuring out which things

will stay for the reader to experience.”

Where did the idea for Damascus come from?

The first idea for the book came when my father died. He died very young from lung cancer.  I tried to write about my grieving process. Also, I had a very young sister, who was nine at the time he died. She didn’t really know him at all, and what she did remember was of him cracked on chemo therapy and taking these serious steroids that made him really needy, mean, and angry. I wanted to write a story about what would have happened if he had decided not to let his family be privy to that experience. So, one of the characters in the book, No Eyebrows, leaves his family and flees to this dive bar in the Mission to die alone because he doesn’t want his family to see what he would call this disgraceful ending. I wanted to grapple with both sides of that argument, to let the reader say maybe he did the right thing, or what an egregious act, he’s not allowed to make those determinations on his family’s behalf. That’s the really exciting part about art: two truths can be equally valid, two different readers can see different things and then have a dialogue about it.

“That’s the really exciting part about art:

two truths can be equally valid.”

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

It’s kind of a love letter to my father, but also to the Mission District. It was a way for me to talk about what I was seeing in US foreign policy. There’s a war, and in the book the marines and artists are having a disagreement about whether you should be allowed to express your opinions about this. So, with my book I can say, okay, here’s this one dive bar, in this one crappy neighborhood, in this one crappy city and there’s one artist and one marine. Hopefully they aren’t one-dimensional. I hope that different people who read it will side with different characters, maybe some readers won’t like any of them. I hope the book doesn’t take too much of a moral stance, because I really want to the reader to provide their own, to think about it.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

When it comes to the implied audience, I believe it’s important that I know that this is a manufactured illusion. I want the audience to have an organic response. I don’t want to tell them what to think. We need to write as though our audience is brilliant—even if it isn’t true—if we’re going to do the work and leave that necessary subtext between what’s literally happening and what it means.

I like to imagine the people that I admire, even though some of them are dead, picking up the book and seeing what I’m doing—Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips, Virginia Woolf. I think there’s an inherent hubris in some of the artistic process. Why pretend that it’s not there?

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I have problems with insomnia, so I tend to write from midnight to about six or seven in the morning. I don’t know if it’s true, but I have a theory that in the middle of the night our subconscious and conscious minds are a little bit closer together, more able to see what’s going on with the other. Those are the times when my imagination is most out of hand, and the most reckless decisions get made, especially for a first draft. I can revise wherever and whenever, but certainly for that rough draft I need it to be the middle of the night.

Do you listen to music while you work?

Yeah, always. A lot of people say they can’t listen to music with lyrics, that somehow the words from the singer’s mouth ends up infiltrating their thoughts, but I don’t have that problem at all. I can’t work if it’s too quiet.  Even if it’s the middle of the night I have an iPod on. Lots of Tom Waits, Radiohead, PJ Harvey—never stuff that’s very aggressive, usually it’s stuff that’s kind of sleepy or jazzy.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I think fundamentally we all write to communicate. There’s that idea of how we’ve manicured our personal experiences in the system—whether we’re calling it fiction or memoir. We’re always writing about our own life, our own preoccupations, passions, biases.

As for why I write, personally, it started from playing in bands for years, and then I got tired of relying on other people to be creative. When I was in my early twenties, I initially wrote this terrible book. It was basically a way for me to drink a twelve pack of beer or have a couple grams of coke in a night and express myself. I got through that process and obviously the book was terrible, but it was fun. It was fun in a way the collective wasn’t as fun for me. You can think of the novelist as the ultimate control freak. You do the location scouting, the set dressing; you score it, you cut it, you edit it. I really like the totalitarian experience of being in charge of that world and getting to make all of those decisions.

How do you balance content with form?

“I like to do a lot of discovery

and exploratory writing.”

I always know what I want the opening image to be, but from there I never know where I’m going to go. I like to do a lot of discovery and exploratory writing and then create like a mosaic—this is just for me, this goes here, this is for the reader. With a novel, you have to have such a clear demarcation with what’s allowed to be on the stage and what needs to stay beneath the surface.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

The quote I come back to the most is from Picasso: “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” I even tattooed that on my arm. I think that’s such great advice.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I always come back to the idea of your ass in the chair. Our job is muscle memory. I don’t believe in geniuses. I think 90 percent of the novelist’s job can be taught in the classroom, but you can’t teach imagination.

The most important thing I try to convey to my students is that in draft one you have to be completely free. I write on the board, “Liberate yourself from quality.” It’s too early to deconstruct anything yet. They’re all rough ideas, and if you start to cut them you might not get past it to the really important parts. We all have an inner editor that gets negative and critical. That voice doesn’t ever really go away, but maybe we can turn the volume down and let draft one just come out and be a little wild. One of the reasons it’s a rough draft is because none of it will end up working. My final draft may not have a single page that’s directly from the first draft, but I had to write that first draft to get to the final draft.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

I had a teacher who always talked about pre-programmed responses. We’re all writing about the same things, we’re all trying to evoke emotion. How are you going to find a new image, a new way to say it that your audience hasn’t experienced before? If a character comes in and just blurts out, “I’m sad,” it’s a pretty bad way for a story to start. But, if I describe a woman in Dolores Park at three-o-clock in the morning, drinking tequila out of the bottle while sitting there hunched up, and suddenly the sprinklers come on. She doesn’t even move. She just continues to drink tequila. The reader comes out of that scene understanding she’s sad by putting the pieces together.

What question do you find surprising that people ask you about writing?

“I have to find the threshold

that the character has

for lying to themself.”

I get asked a lot about why I punish my characters. I don’t think about it like that. I think of it in terms of triggers. I have to find the threshold that the character has for lying to themself. I have to break them down far enough to get them to want to confess, or do the right thing, to come out of their comfort zone. It’s about finding the key to that lock.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

At a certain point in the revision process, all of your characters are going to seem predictable, boring, and flat because you know them so well. How do you find a way to maintain your level of enthusiasm? How do you trick yourself to stay involved while you’re editing? I always have this halftime where I don’t know if I can get any more into this world. It becomes this flawed baby; you know it has problems, but it’s yours. Once you fight through that lull, that’s often when you can make some of the most exciting discoveries. You have to find a way to use that ennui for the powers of good instead of evil, in terms of the book’s life force. 

Is there a book you wish you owned a first edition of?

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. A teacher gave it to me in high school and it blew my mind. I didn’t know literature could be like that. 

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I’ve kind of manufactured this weird little life that revolves around literature. When I’m not writing, I’m reading. I watch a lot of films, so I’m still thinking about narrative. A lot of my world is about how to become better at what I do.            

About Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle bestselling novel Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and Termite Parade, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selection. He lives in San Francisco, California and teaches fiction writing.

Buy Damascus, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Joshua Mohr.” Words With Writers (October 10, 2011),

Damascus by Joshua Mohr

Damascus by Joshua Mohr (Two Dollar Radio, 2011).

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