Today, the discussion begins with Joshua Mohr. We will be publishing Josh's third novel, Damascus, in October 2011.
Not to get too melodramatic and touchy-feely right off the starter's block, but I believe that Damascus is the most ambitious piece of writing you've done. While maintaining a very personal intimacy with the characters, it's really broad in scope, and tackles a lot of sticky issues that if played poorly could be disastrous for a writer - such as cancer and the Iraq War. What was your approach? Did you say, I want to approach issues of self-esteem and wrestle with how we as humans choose to die, or were these hurdles that naturally presented themselves as you fleshed out the characters?
This is a broader story than either of my previous novels. Bigger not only in page count, but the soul of the story encompasses a lot of things about our world that confuse me. The old axiom is to write what you know, but I try to zero in on things that I don't understand: dilemmas that don't have clean tidy answers, but deal with morals and ethics - things that mean different things to different people. I don't so much care for questions that have answers, as much as the alchemy of the emotion. I realize that sounds pretentious, but I don't know how else to phrase it. Answers are boring. Questions, things that can be argued from varying angles, that's the good stuff. That's where a novel gets deliciously complex.
The filmmaker Lars von Trier talks about leaving open different avenues of interpretation in his work, so a viewer can compile her own meaning of it. I really like that idea and aim to involve my reader via that same tack: what do these weird images mean? Who are these characters on the page who are tough for me as a reader to pin down? It involves your audience in an exciting way when you trust them to build cogent versions of the "facts." I think it's important to write like your readers are brilliant.
I really enjoy working with you. Two Dollar Radio is definitely an all-consuming venture, and it makes all the difference when we're putting in late hours, investing everything we have (both financially and mentally), that we're working with someone who's freaking awesome and really wants to be engaged in a publishing relationship with us. Since I know you've had plenty of offers with the successes of your first two novels to move on, I just wanted to express our satisfaction and appreciation publicly.
Awww... you're going to make me cry and that will ruin my street cred! It was really important to me to stay indie. Way back when my agent was trying (and failing) to sell my first novel to the big swanky corporate publishers, they all told me to fuck myself. So the idea of pandering to them now makes me sort of queasy. You guys took a chance on me as an unknown writer and I'll never forget that. I doubt too many Random House authors have the RH logo tattooed on their arm, and I wear my TDR tattoo proudly. Loyalty is important. We're growing together. I dig that. I hope we can keep it up, though some day I'd like to have more than $300 in the bank.
A lot of reviewers of the first two novels have compared your work to Charles Bukowski, and even Hubert Selby, Jr. and John Milton, but this book really made me think of Sam Shepard, particularly Paris, Texas (which I guess he only co-wrote, but still), which is one of my favorite films. Who have been some of your influences from book to book?
I love Paris, Texas too. It's interesting that you mention a film script because one of my goals with Damascus was to write it like an old robert Altman film, an ensemble piece: many characters satelliting a loose set of circumstances that slowly coalesce and build toward a crazy climax.
My first two novels had pretty small casts of characters, and I wanted to play with more people this time. I didn’t want the story to “belong” to any one person, but for each member of the ensemble to share ownership. Can I call it a co-op? Is that silly?
Plus—and only literature dorks will think this is interesting—but the narrative voice, the 3rd person, lends itself to a more sprawling interpretation of story. Or at least it does to me. So I felt a liberty not to pare back quite as harshly as I compressed the first 2 books. They’re both very lean, like greyhounds; this one has a bit more meat on its bones.
A lot of your writing deals with what we do to ourselves and to others in the dark while scraping rock-bottom. Each of your books deal with characters battling alcohol (or at least abusing alcohol). You stopped drinking a couple years ago. Is your writing a means of confronting your previous addiction?
I’ve been off booze and drugs for 2 years now. It’s a strange new world. I’ll always be examining opulent self-destruction. There’s something mesmerizing about the way humans punish themselves. I don’t pretend to have any answers as to why we’re attracted to it. I once saw a guy smoke speed out of a broken light bulb. I remember thinking that sort of ingenuity could open many doors for the bloke assuming he ever got clean.
I love the opening to Damascus:
“Let’s start this one when a cancer patient named No Eyebrows creeps into Damascus, a Mission District dive bar. For years the place’s floor, walls, and ceiling had been painted entirely black, but that afternoon the owner added a new element, smashing twenty mirrors and gluing the shards to the ceiling so the pieces shimmered like stars, transforming Damascus into a planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.
“When the first customer of the day had walked in and witnessed the bar’s broken-mirror constellations, he said to the owner, “There must be 10,000 years of bad luck hanging here.””
Damascus appeared in your first two novels, and now is the title of your third. How will you move on when this fictional place seems to have inspired and grounded so much of your work so far?
To be honest, it actually scares me. Since 2003, all I’ve worked on are these 3 books (they are all related, though self-contained; I call them “The Heresies Cycle”). It’s the world I’ve been writing about nonstop. So on one hand it’s exciting to embark into the unknown, new territory, flex some different muscles. But the terrifying part is what if I don’t have any other muscles? What if I’m a one-muscle kind of guy and the rest of me is just useless and scrawny? Jesus, now my palms are sweaty!
Hopefully, something will catch my fancy and the “what’s next?” question will take care of itself. That’s my delusion du jour. And if I’m out of ideas for good, is anybody looking for an assistant? I can wax a back like you wouldn’t believe.
Here's a cover, designed and drawn by Damian Demartino:
Also, through Sunday, February 6, you can purchase our Year 5 Book Subscription for a tidy $45. Year 5 Book Subscription includes You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; and two titles to be announced over the course of the next two days -- stay tuned!