October 2015

Jill Talbot

features

An Interview with Joshua Mohr

In the spring of 2015, I passed a bookstore in an airport accented with the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird. A table of copies out front. A corner display. An entire back wall as if it wasn't a bookstore, but a TKAM store. Right, I thought, as the world anticipated the summer release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, the novel publicized as a sequel to the beloved 1960 classic. I could almost hear the leaves tripping down the street from the black and white film when Jem and Scout walk home in the dark, see Atticus Finch slowly rocking on that front porch swing.

And then it was summer, July 14th to be exact, and Go Set a Watchman was here. Facebook and Twitter had been shuddering for weeks under the deluge of links, speculations, and three-part series. Even my mother mailed me clippings from the Dallas Morning News's weeklong feature. On that morning, I sat in front of my laptop thinking, Of all the publication dates in all the world, she had to walk into mine. It was also the day my memoir, The Way We Weren't, was released. I scrolled through Twitter, finding an encouraging tweet from my editor at Counterpoint/Soft Skull, Dan Smetanka, with the words, "Your summer reading" and a photo of three books: Harry N. Maclean's The Joy of Killing, Joshua Mohr's All This Life, and The Way We Weren't. Moments later, Mohr replied, "Happy pub day, Jill! :)" I quickly wrote back, "And to you!" For a moment, I felt a little less bewildered as I imagined Joshua Mohr and me (or our books) holding firm against A Watchman's storm.

In the weeks that followed, I came across links to Mohr's work in The Rumpus ("Last Chance Out of Jonestown") and Lit Hub ("At Rehab, Talking to An Invisible Dog"), essays that were listed as part of a forthcoming memoir. I curiously clicked on each and read moments I knew well as if I weren't reading so much as I was remembering. In both essays, Mohr drives hard into the drinking, the black outs, the mind-warp of family visitation days in rehab. I read his dark nights against my own, remembered my Nalgene bottles of Chardonnay, the way I drew spirals on my notebook in rehab when I got nervous. I wrote to him and asked if he'd be willing to talk with me about the memoir, and he replied it wouldn't be out for a while but his novel had "plenty of substances to talk about." So I started All This Life, anxious for an opening chapter about self-destruction, but instead found a father driving across the Golden Gate Bridge listening to an AM sports talk show -- "another unfulfilling distraction" -- while his son "[films] things out the window with his iPhone." A different form of self-destruction? I wondered. I kept reading, riveted. Soon I found day drinking, dark bars, and one page-shuddering relapse.

In 2011, the Pulitzer committee awarded Jennifer Egan the Fiction Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad, describing it as "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed." So it goes, much more so, for All This Life as Mohr deftly examines the ways in which social media disrupts and disconnects us from each other and ourselves. San Francisco Chronicle describes Mohr as "a perceptive chronicler of how we live, feel -- and avoid feeling -- this very minute." Here are a few examples of the ways in which his characters think digitally:

Hashtags are like emotions that people can see.

"Without a connection, Noah911 can't compulsively check his Facebook page, counting the minutes he's being ignored."

"Jake pauses, wondering what exactly is the opposite of trouble. Pleasure? Happiness? Peace? Siri would know."

"I can live-tweet this betrayal."

"309 views so far. Not bad."

Yet one of my favorite scenes in the novel has no mention of social media, rather two characters who share a bottle of whisky one morning while fishing: "[T]here aren't any fish waiting outside, not even a body of water by their house [...] they're going to cast their lines in the street." The scene, in my mind, is a metaphor for the ways in which the characters in Mohr's novel live removed from their lives, their loved ones, their selves. Either through drink or casting a line into concrete, creating a Twitter handle or being the victim of a viral video, these characters struggle to know and be who they are in the face of a virtual world and their very real guilt.

I didn't ask Joshua Mohr what it was like to release a novel on the same day as Harper Lee, but I did ask him about his characters, their "struggle for recognition," how being a parent has altered his writing, and the impact of writing relapse and destruction from experience. Apropos of his novel, Joshua Mohr and I conducted our conversation via e-mail.

Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called "Beat-poet cool." He's also written Fight Song and Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine's Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as Termite Parade, an Editors' Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List. His novel All This Life was recently published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.

One of your characters, Kathleen, thinks, "[P]eople are never clean of their yesterdays. [...] We remember our shames and humiliations. We remember trauma." So many of the characters in All This Life suffer from "guilt that pumps like adrenaline," "visceral and profound shame," and "all the blame." Can you talk how you explore guilt and shame in the novel?

Shame, the other white meat! Yes, shamefulness is always a huge part of my characterizations. I like protagonists that reveal, either through "honesty" in their various thought processes or via their actions, perhaps telling us things they're not so keen on disclosing through their interactions with the outside world. Probably both during the duration of a novel. I always feel that as the author, once I know what a character is ashamed of, then I can go about making her truthful on the page.

The point of reading is to inhabit a consciousness that doesn't belong to the reader, immersing yourself in a life that's wholly realized. And a huge facet of our psychic and existential make-ups is the things we're not proud of, things we didn't ask to experience, the scenarios we flubbed. If a character is honest with a reader, then (hopefully) that will engage the reader's empathy centers; she'll meet that openness with acceptance, and they'll forge a nourishing and meaningful bond as the book continues.

Since you mention consciousness, I'll tell you that while I was reading I kept thinking of Hegel's ideas of self-consciousness, the self's "struggle for recognition" achieved only when the self recognizes its otherness. Not to get too heady, but this struggle seems central to your novel in terms of who we are in the real world and who we are in media or the virtual world. Some characters lose themselves in projected identities while others disappear behind their own projections. I'm thinking in particular of when Noah "becomes" Noah911 or when Jake tweets, "I'm here." Those moments blew my mind.

Thanks for saying that -- and double-thanks for noticing! I agree that one of the novel's chief interests is this "soldering" of our analog and digital identities. We've never had these two ecosystems vying for our attention, our time before, and since these technologies are so new, none of us are very good at it. I hope it improves.

But staying with this notion of our "struggle for recognition" and how it relates to these dueling identities, All This Life explores the idea that perhaps Hegel's Otherness might simply be a different version of the self: a digital narcissism. Who's to say that our in-real-life lives are more important than our avatars and usernames? If the computer makes certain people feel sated in ways that the real world can't, is that a peril or an evolution? The book doesn't look to answer these questions, of course, but leave the space for the reader to populate her own interpretation of the action. I like Lars Von Trier's notion of "avenues of interpretation" for the audience. My job as the novelist is to present the whole case, then the reader gets to render her verdict.

Yes! In an interview with Two Dollar Radio, you wrote that "it's important to write like your readers are brilliant." I agree -- trust the reader, yes, and I would also argue, challenge them a bit, make them do some work.

I'm fascinated and not a little weirded out when I meet people whom I only know virtually. It's as if I'm not standing in front of them, as if my profile photo, my Tweets, or my FB persona is who (they think) they're meeting. We're all digital doppelgängers of our analog selves, I suppose. In fact, I do most of my work, my writing work, with people I've never been in a room with beyond the halt-jar-freeze of Skype.

You bring up the filmmaker von Trier. Your work is certainly cinematic -- the parallel editing strategies you so deftly balance, the fade-ins, the jump cuts. Beyond stylistically, the framework for All This Life is a video shot on an iPhone in the opening chapter. As one of your characters points out, "There's always a camera somewhere." How influenced by film are you as a writer, and how do you see these new technologies influencing current literature?

Well, I used to consider myself to be a cineophile, and then I had a daughter. Ha! Now I barely see any movies. I finally saw Birdman two years later, and it's fantastic, but besides that my movie time is spent with Winnie the Pooh.

I love writing dialogue, and that stems from my fondness for both the screen and the stage. I remember seeing a Sam Shepard play in my early twenties, Curse of the Starving Class, and knew -- absolutely knew -- that I had to be a writer. It was a cathartic encounter, the way certain pieces of art just meld to your heart.

In All This Life, the biggest cinematic influence was Robert Altman, specifically Nashville. When I was trying to structure my ensemble novel, I re-watched this movie several times to see how he approached the mosaic of multiple main characters.

I have a PhD in contemporary American literature and film studies and spent most of my late twenties immersed in films and film theory. My daughter is thirteen now, so the most recent films I've seen are Pitch Perfect 2 and Paper Towns, so I hear you.

You've already spoken so eloquently about the role of shame and guilt in the novel and in your creation of characters, but I have to come back to it since you mention having a kid, which, as your character Paul believes, "is the ultimate risk."

So much of your novel examines the difficulty -- what I read as the ache -- in parenting. It's as if these characters are asking, How can we take care of another person when we struggle so much to take care of ourselves (our selves)?

Kathleen, in particular, fights this battle about her choices regarding her life and her son: "To ponder every day what she did and why and maybe she had her reasons and maybe they were cogent reasons -- at least understandable ones -- but maybe they were not." That's exactly what it's like for me. I wonder how having a child has impacted your writing and/or your view of the world?

It's impacted my view of the world in that I care now. Before Ava, I didn't necessarily concern myself too deeply about the future. I was worried about my little life, its little trajectory. Not only does Ava bring me a previously unknown joy, she makes me contemplate five years, ten years, fifty years down the line.

And maybe that's why I needed -- yes, needed! -- to write Kathleen, someone who had electric regret about her botched parenting, somebody struggling with her sobriety. I struggle with staying clean every day, and what really keeps me from doing something stupid is my daughter. They say you have to get and stay sober for yourself, and of course I agree with that, but I've really appreciated the added stakes of having someone relying on me for survival. She makes me want to do right. That doesn't mean I won't relapse again. It's happened to me before. But she adds a layer of love in my life that I've never known.

Writing Kat's relapse was a way for me to say to myself, Yeah, you think you wanna go back out and get high, but you know that it won't end well. When I relapsed the first time -- I had about 13 months clean at the time -- and I got liquored up, blacked out, and woke up the next day with a broken nose. I still don't know what happened. So it's in everyone's best interest if I keep my now-not-broken nose clean.

Man, would I love to title my next memoir Electric Regret. My initial reason for wanting to interview you is that we both have gone through the dark door of addiction and we both write about it. I even have a line in one of my essays: "I write myself as a drunk and disheveled woman because it's the only way I know how to keep her at bay." My daughter, Indie, keeps me from the hidden corners of blackout nights. It used to not matter how much I lost myself. But I can't bear burdening her with that kind of loss. So again, I hear you.

The scene of Kathleen's relapse rivals one of my favorite drinking scenes in literature from John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus. Steinbeck devotes a chapter to Alice Chicoy's beer-whiskey-wine afternoon in a closed café until, "She raised her head once and then put it down again and a rolling darkness dropped over her." When Kathleen's in that dark bar, "trapped in the bourbon's gravitational pull," I thought of her as a twenty-first-century Alice who knows that "she cannot have this one drink without reliving all the ones she already had."

I want to go back to that line of Kathleen's: "People are never clear of their yesterdays," which so clearly captures this culture of e-mail servers, Facebook posts, and viral videos, which is also echoed by these characters you've created in their relationships and in their regret. Yet All This Life is as much about our tomorrows as it is about our yesterdays, isn't it?

Absolutely it is! All those yesterdays, the ones we cherish, the ones that are ignominious, are over. We have today and hopefully tomorrow to be the best version of ourselves. Kathleen has been punishing herself for years, and her emotional trajectory in the book is one of self-forgiveness, which I hope is the trajectory for all of us. No matter what we've done, no matter the disappointments and sullied blunders, today is the opportunity to do right by ourselves. And isn't that what we really want, the chance to change? We might fuck it up, sure, but that chance -- that chance! -- is what it's all about.

And you can have Electric Regrets. It's the least I can do after you've asked this batch of thoughtful questions. In a sense, that's the invisible title of every book I've ever written and each one I'll write in the future. Characters who are at an existential crossroads, characters who are trying to try, ones with stakes stacked high, pasts prowling like ghosts: Are they finally going to get their shit together? Are they ready to stop treading water? I don't know one person who doesn't ponder these questions on a daily basis. We examine ourselves, we excavate down, and, in so doing, we summon the reckless bravery to heal.