Author Josh Mohr talks to Evan Karp about addiction and redemption, The Flaming Lips, and his new book Damascus.
Shortly after I moved to the Bay Area in 2009, I met Stephen Elliott and asked him, essentially, who and what I should pay attention to. Stephen gave me some great advice but only two names, and one of them was Josh Mohr. I was excited, a few months later, to see Josh on the Literary Death Match bill. It was winter in the upstairs, black-and-candle ambiance of the Mission District’s Elbo Room, and Josh read about his longing to share the camaraderie of World Series champions as they slapped one another on the asses, even while deploring their lifestyle: “The drug addictions and infidelities and steroids and depression, and the nights they beat their wives with championship rings. The celebration silences these realities. But, see, I need a celebration more than these arrogant millionaires” he said, leaving the TV to purchase an entire case of champagne so he could join in the celebration. Josh ended his reading by pouring a whole bottle of champagne over his head.
Looking back, this was a fitting introduction. Josh wrote his first book, Some Things That Meant the World to Me (an O Magazine Top 10 Terrific Reads of 2008) on booze, he wrote Termite Parade (a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice) mostly on coke, and both books deal directly with self-pity. But since then Josh has sobered up, a decision that naturally influenced his routine and his attention to craft in his third and most recent book, Damascus.
I sat down with Josh in June, several months before the early October release date of Damascus, at a small café in Bernal Heights. We talked about his creative process, his decision not to “lobotomize” his first book for Random House, the ensuing relationship he’s had with small press Two Dollar Radio, the new book Damascus, and his fourth book.
Evan Karp Tell me about Damascus.
Josh Mohr It’s very easy for me to take this kind of nihilistic viewpoint, this fatalistic viewpoint of life; not only does none of it matter, but we’re all alone, and we’re all going to do terrible things to each other. But with this one, there’s this huge optimism running through the book that I’ve never had before. This is the first book I’ve written since I’ve been sober. It’s just crazy to watch my vantage point of the world kind of go from black and white to seeing colors again. It’s been really fun.
EK It seems like it. It seems it’s been paying off, too.
JM I think the fun part is to watch your . . . mental health is too strong a word . . . The art is great, but it’s also cool to see you’re enjoying your life more. At the end of the day I’d rather be a good person than a good writer; if the work ends up suffering because I’m clean, I’m totally fine with that. It’s just been fun to see—especially at the end of Damascus—there’s a genuine hope there that I don’t think was really present for the first two books.
EK Yeah, everything is sort of grotesque. Even if you hit that optimism at the end of Termite Parade, I think we’d still be overwhelmed by everything that’s happened and how awful everybody is.
JM True. Some Things That Meant the World to Me was written mostly on booze and pills, so there’s a lot of self-sympathy and a lot of maudlin-ness running through that narrative. And Termite Parade was mostly coke, and I think that anger . . . on one hand it leads to this cool kind of velocity, because I think that book is really readable in terms of the way it’s put together, but yikes, what it ends up saying at the end of the story is pretty rough. No wonder that book didn’t sell.
EK I remember you telling me that you work on two books at once. Was that true with Damascus? When and how did you start this book?
JM It was. I think the last two drafts of Termite Parade I would work on those for three months at a time and then take a break and work on Damascus. The whole book, Damascus, started with that closing moment of the wife dressing her husband’s dead body, which is very autobiographical. When my father died he was naked, and my step-mom and I were there, and the nurse asked if we wanted to dress the body as a way to say goodbye. It was this amazing cathartic experience, and I tried to write about it for like a decade, but it was never right. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. Then, when I edited myself out of the scene, that was when it came to life. Because it wasn’t about a father and son; it was about two lovers. It’s almost ironic that once I left it became more autobiographical because I was able to kind of tap into the real heartbeat of that moment.
Once I had that finished I worked my way backward. I knew where I wanted to end up, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. Other things sort of sprung up around it from going backward. I knew I wanted to write about addiction, and that I could use the character Shambles to do that—and Owen to an extent too. And I wanted to write about self-esteem, and I could use Owen for that. And I wanted to write about art, and I could use Syl and Daphne to do some of that stuff as well. And my own inner Rev could get a chance to come on stage. Hopefully even the marine, Byron, to an extent too. That idea of just unrelenting grief, where circumstances that are totally out of your control sort of sideswipe every idea you have of your identity. Like, I was this on Thursday, and I was very comfortable being that, and suddenly it’s Saturday morning, and I’m not that person anymore. What the fuck are you supposed to do with that, you know? Hopefully all those forces come together in the book. That’s where the chaos and that’s where the fun comes from. If I did my job right, anyway, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
You know we build those dams around things that we either can’t deal with yet or are hoping that we never have to. Suddenly when you start to poke holes in some of that stuff it comes at you in whole new ways. I mean this book, Damascus specifically, is as transparent as I’ve ever been. We all ricochet between all these different kinds of identities; no one’s ever one thing all the time, you know. Getting a chance to kind of watch those ping-pong balls was really fun. And then to try to talk about something socially relevant, too; both of the first two books were very much like, Here’s a particular person dealing with a certain kind of pathos. And the third one was very much like, Wow, there’s this whole big world that’s going on around us. Sometimes we need to look outward; sometimes we need to look in.
EK I agree that subconsciously we build walls around what we don’t want to think of. Do you think the process of creating art is exclusively to do away with those or also, sometimes, to do the opposite: to create walls around something we want to protect?
JM Yeah, I think the first part of that is the very intentional construction of partition, where you say I can’t allow myself to think about certain cataclysms of my past or I’ll malfunction or shut down. As soon as you put novel on a book instead of memoir suddenly you can assign those behaviors to other people. Maybe it allows you to be even more honest than you would be in your own story. It can be really hard for most people. Great memoirists are able to get around this, but most memoirists aren’t. When I try to write an essay or creative nonfiction, I find myself being more dishonest than being honest. And if it’s somebody else’s litany of negative attributes in a fictional world, that’s easy for me. I can let them be as ugly as they want to be, and it’s not my problem.
I think the other side of that too. That idea of bridging that gap can be cathartic too, though; instead of creating those partitions maybe art can also help knock some of that stuff down. Maybe your art gives you permission to peek past those barriers a little bit. I’d like to think that each project pushes the artist out of his or her comfort zone, and if you’re really living up to that challenge of pushing yourself on a book-by-book basis, you’re going to be theoretically learning something new as time goes on—not just growing as an artist but growing as a person too.
EK In that sense, of growth, what do you think was the biggest difference between writing this book and the first two? And what are you working on right now?
JM I just finished a book. I think it’s done-done, not just a draft. It’s been weird, this weird comedy I’ve been writing. I noticed—especially in Damascus—that I was starting to develop some habits. I had my little bag of tricks. When I start to notice patterns in my own work, that really scares me because I still feel like I’m really young and the idea of repeating myself already makes me want to curl up in a little ball and cry. So for this project it became a matter of what are a couple of things I hate? The first of those was the second person—I hate the second person, I don’t like reading it more often than not, so I’m going to challenge myself by doing that. I’ve always not taken comedy as seriously as drama; it’s always seemed a little bit easier. So I said, Well, I’m going to write a comedy in the second person, not in an urban environment. It’s a weird suburb about people that I really have no idea—I’m definitely making it up as I go along. And it was a blast. It was the first time I’m not actively writing about addiction, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on the page.
I used to think that it took me about three years to write a book because the revision process itself was so arduous; now I think that it took me about three years to write each of those first three books because of the emotional toll writing about those landscapes was taking on me as a person. So I’d pick all these scabs, be able to write about them for a little bit, and it’s exhausting. And I would need to like go away for a while, build my armor back up and then go back down the rabbit hole. But with this comedy thing I wasn’t picking any scabs; I was just having a good time. As for whether or not that makes for better or worse art, I don’t know the answer to that yet. I just know in terms of the genesis of the actual script, it was really fun.
EK And you finished this one in what, six months? Are you shocked by this, like, When did I write this book?!
JM Something like that, yeah. But in my mind, nothing in life is supposed to be easy. That can’t be the good one; it has to be these other ones that I’ve been toiling over, like punching myself in the face for years and years and years.
Termite Parade taught me a lot about audience, too. In the sense of getting more comfortable with my role, having maybe more realistic expectations. I think we all have those fantasies where you’re going to put a book out, and even if you’re asking your audience to go into a stark or macabre place, you’re going to do it differently, and they’re going to be willing to go there with you. And this has been a big learning process of just . . . it’s never going to be my world, you know? I’m more realistic about my own sense of place.
EK It’s not just that people won’t go there with you, it’s just . . . I was talking to Daphne Gottlieb a couple weeks ago about poetry, specifically, but she was saying that it’s a small group of people talking to a small group of people. And it’s the same thing with the kind of literature that you’re writing.
JM I think those sorts of realizations about audience—I don’t find those to be intimidating or depressing, or anything like that. In fact, I find them to be really freeing. Because suddenly it’s like, this is what I do, this is where I am, and you just get good at your thing. Like don’t be thinking about all this other stuff that you can’t control anyway; just try to write the best book that you can.
EK Does that make it harder to really put yourself into it? How do you push forward when you’re only speaking to such a small amount of people?
JM It always reminds me of The Flaming Lips. I always think about them. How do those people have a career, and some sort of successful career? I mean they write these muling, terrible . . . structurally they’re all over the place—and over the years, slowly but surely, they’ve consistently put out really good music. So it’s been this totally grassroots thing. Some people find Soft Bulletin, some people find the next one, some people find the next one, and the next one, and it builds momentum in a really authentic way. If you like the band, you’re a fan. There are no peripheral Flaming Lips fans. I always think about writing like that too. When you write like I do, it’s never going to be about this one bestseller. Hopefully Some Things finds some people, Termite finds some people, and Damascus finds some more.
James Baldwin, I remember reading, said to a young writer: “Your job’s not to write a good book; your job is to fill up the bookshelf.” I think that’s a really freeing attitude. Because no one book or commodity ever becomes too precious then. It’s nice to be deep into something else when one book comes out so you can be worried about something else, rather than Googling yourself like a cunt.
EK Tell me more about the fourth book. I mean you’re past addiction now, everything’s going well. You just got engaged. You write a second-person comedy . . .
JM Yeah, which might end up being a total problem. I don’t know yet, it’s too soon to tell. It’s in this weird thing, though, it’s in the second person, but there’s this intruding first person plural voice. So it will be like, you know, You did this Bob, You did that Bob—somebody’s talking to a character, but then at the same time there’s this, We think, this kind of a Greek Chorus, for lack of a better term, drawing attention to themselves and making observations on the action as it happens. So it’s kind of a weird collision of points of view in that sense.
I was trying to do something that I’d never seen, and whenever you do that, the big debate becomes, Cool I just tried something that’s never been on the page before, but maybe it’s never been on the page before because it’s a stupid fucking idea. I just don’t know yet. It’s going to have to steep for six months when I’ll read the whole thing and say, Right on, I was able to try something different out or, This is just a bad idea.
It’s hard to invest a year of your life or two years of your life and then shove it in a drawer, but at the end of the day would you rather get a $30,000 advance and have everybody experience that work of art and never pick up anything else of yours? That’s one nice thing about being poor; my work will always be for the art’s sake. I’ve got no ulterior motives when it comes to shit like that. Those have all been beaten out of me over the years, and hopefully in a positive way. Beatings can be good, right?
Evan Karp is the creator of Litseen.com and Quiet Lightning, a monthly, submission-based reading series-turned nonprofit that publishes each month’s show as a book. He writes a literary culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle.