January 2016

David Breithaupt


An Interview with Lucas Mann

Rimbaud wrote that all humans share a fatal compulsion to be happy. Such may have been the case of Lucas Mann's older brother, Josh, who struggled for a grip on stability during his brief life but instead died of a heroin overdose when Lucas was only thirteen.

After a lifetime of depression and then addiction, Josh succumbed to a fatal overdose after repeated attempts of sobriety. As a young teenager, Lucas had only a limited sensibility of what his older brother's death entailed.

Years after Josh's demise, Mann set out to put an adult spin on just who his brother might have been. Mann interviewed family and friends who knew Josh well for a reconstruction he might embrace in adulthood. The results were at turns terrifying, mournful, and humorous, Some were unflinching, others romantic, all of them tragic.

Josh was a writer and musician. His notes and poems (the latter from which the book title is taken), which are excerpted in the book, provide pieces to the Josh puzzle. What's left in the end is a stirring, wonderfully written portrait by a younger brother attempting to decipher his older sibling.

An Arab proverb states that when a person dies, a library burns down. Lord Fear is Lucas Mann's attempt to restore some pages. We conversed online recently about memory, death, and the genre of memoir.

In the process of interviewing friends of your brother, as well as family members, did you have a preconceived idea that was altered? I wonder what surprised you most.

Pretty much everything that happened with the interviews was a surprise, both in the conversations themselves and then in trying to figure out the best way to express those conversations. One of the things that made me want to write about Josh was that my view of him was stunted, stuck in the limitations of what a thirteen-year-old is allowed to know. I was an expert in the subject in that I thought and cared about him a lot, but I don't think I'd ever considered just how differently everyone would see him. There's a moment in the book where I talk about realizing that memory, particularly collective memory (which I guess is all memory), is a fight. That was a crucial realization. I originally envisioned sweet, cooperative eulogizing, basically, which would have made for a horrible book. It was embracing the friction -- everyone's need to think that they saw some detail, something special, that they got him or saw what was coming or refused to be charmed where many others were, etc. -- that made the interviews come alive. It made them scenes: two people in tight quarters with a lot at stake.

The next level of surprises came over many years and many failed drafts, as I became a different person and writer than I was when the interviews took place. So I was looking back at this material involving me that shifted in my mind constantly. I began to feel the tension in the way I had approached things, began to think about how others must have seen me and my questions. The distance never made things feel stale, which I had worried about. Instead, it reinforced the potency present in every conversation, how much meaning was lingering in everything we said and didn't say.

You excerpt many amazing pieces of writing that your brother wrote, during good and bad times. When you were editing these writings after he died, did you feel as though you were conducting another interview?

My brother's writing didn't feature in the book until the very last draft, actually. For years, I managed to convince myself that it wasn't about his words, but about the impressions he left behind, so I would read all this material of his and not use it. I think I was scared of it. In the last draft, I was still really frustrated with the narrative -- too flabby somehow, too much of my rambling and scene building for no real reason. So I started cutting everything that felt not entirely vital, all the connective tissue of a more conventional narrative. I was liking the sparseness a lot more, but there were these holes. I had all these bones in the skeleton that had no joints to connect to and move around. I was reading my brother's journals over again and I wrote an entry out, dropped it into a gap in the narrative and things started making more sense.

I never thought about it as an interview with him, but now that you say it that way, yeah, it did kind of feel like that. His voice was finally a part of the conversation even if just in little fragments and bursts. These were his attempts to tell his story, and once I started setting them down, they brought new significance to the other peoples' perspectives. His words often became the transitions in the text. Instead of a chapter break or any kind of long explanation, I felt like the force of what he was trying to say could pull the reader through.

Josh also seemed to use his writing as tool for survival, as he struggled with his recovery. Do you think it helped him? Do you have any thoughts in general on using writing as a coping mechanism?

I don't know if writing helped Josh. All I know is that it seemed to feel necessary to him to have some record of everything -- first of his talent, and then also of these moments of emotion that were too big and painful not to voice, and then finally of his effort to save himself. His writing was at such a high emotional pitch, whatever the emotion of the moment was. He seemed to really believe, or want to believe, at least, that there was a power to putting something on paper. I don't know if it was a healing power that he was looking for, but at least some kind of validation or maybe absolution. Sometimes it felt like he was trying to explain himself to himself, like if he recorded the fullness of his rage or sadness or hope, he could look back through it and understand his own life a little better. I can't know if that actually worked.

As for my own views on writing, and particularly personal writing, they're really mixed. I don't see my writing as a coping mechanism; I see my writing as the opposite, following a line of inquiry into unsettling and often unresolvable places. I tend to think that the idea of personal writing helping someone "cope" or being "cathartic" or, worse, "brave" somehow takes away from the intellectual rigor and art of it. But reading Josh's work challenged that thought for me, in a lot of ways, because it felt so vivid and alive, and the idea of believing that he found it helpful in some way became really beautiful to me.

Also, being a teacher has changed the way I look at all this. I mostly teach undergrads, and sometimes I teach this lower-level class that my university calls "autobiographical writing," which usually is full of young students who don't necessarily have any idea of what a personal essay is when the semester starts. We read all these great essays and I'm always going on about the fact that the writing needs to go beyond simply coping or working through something. Invariably, though, I see students who are dealing with some incredibly difficult things use the form to unburden themselves, finding a voice on the page to help them cope. That's what they want to get out of the writing. And I find myself thinking all the things that I argue against: "Damn, that's brave. Damn, I hope that's helping you cope."

You don't think a memoir that, say, resolves the author's personal issues and struggles, can have intellectual depth and art?

That's a good follow up, calling me on my shit. What I think is that it's really fraught to be called a memoirist, particularly when you see yourself as a literary writer. This isn't because there aren't amazing, complex literary memoirs being written all the time, but because you have to fight against peoples' preconceptions of what the word "memoir" even means. The genre is too easily written off as existing solely for the purpose of revealing and then resolving struggles, which leads to some readers flocking to memoir looking specifically for that cathartic experience and other readers turning up their noses altogether at the genre because that's all they think it provides. So I get a little defensive, and I don't think I'm the only writer that feels that way. But of course I'd be a complete schmuck to think that somebody writing beautifully through the process of coming to terms with things, maybe even working through them in some satisfying way, isn't deep or artful. I just think that catharsis shouldn't be the goal of a memoir, or determine the ultimate merit. If it ends up being part of that process, then great!

I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between essays and memoirs. To me, they're the long and short form of the same exploratory instinct. I see Lord Fear as just a really long essay, that in its movement and expansion I guess grew into a memoir. But often they seem to be seen as entirely separate -- the job of a great essay is one thing (digressing, searching, leaving things open ended), and then the memoir is all about moving away from uncertainty into clear resolution, both narratively and emotionally. So when I talk about "memoir," I feel some responsibility to push against that. OK: end rant.

Did you ever think of writing Lord Fear in novel form?

Oh, good question. I never seriously thought about it, although I'll admit that the fantasy came up around publication time when I was stressed about this material being out in the world without the "hey, it says fiction on the cover" buffer zone. It's also worth pointing out how many novelistic moves Lord Fear adopts. So much of the book is written in scenes that I imagined and reconstructed from interviews that I conducted with other people about Josh. So there's a lot of close third-person, dramatizing moments that I wasn't there for, which felt very novelistic to me.

But ultimately, I think that a huge part of what makes the book work (I hope) is limitations in knowledge. I spend the whole narrative pushing against these limitations, trying to fill in blanks, trying to cobble together and imagine something that feels as close to satisfying and true as possible, but I can't ever get there. That's the story. If this book was fiction, I wouldn't have to confront my limits in empathy and understanding, and everyone else's limits, for that matter. What I love about essays is that it they dramatize this dynamic, above all: trying, trying, trying, finally failing, but still hoping that something worthwhile came from the effort. What else could this kind of story be?

Do you feel you fell short then, after all the interviewing, in making your brother less enigmatic to you?

In some ways, yes, I guess I do. I definitely feel closer to him than when I started, but I think that just means that I'm closer to some collection of ideas about him, the ones that ended up on the page. He feels very vivid, though. Which is strange, someone being both vivid and enigmatic. What I hope the book does is make him vivid in about ten different ways, with none of them given credence as the definitive answer. There are so many different perspectives in the book -- mine, his, his other family members', friends', lovers', etc -- and often they contradict. So he is kind for ten pages, cruel for another ten; arrogant at one moment, deeply insecure the next; contrite, then completely unrepentant. If, at the end of the narrative, he was suddenly clear and easy to understand, I think I would have failed to capture his humanity. People are usually pretty enigmatic, right? That's what makes someone interesting.

What is the worst thing about death for those of us left behind?

Wow, I feel wildly underqualified to answer this. I don't know if there's any way to say something universal about what death does. All I could hope to achieve in Lord Fear was beginning to capture what this one death did to me, and some others who experienced it. And even those little pieces are always shifting -- the lingering pain of the death is entirely different now, after 7 years of writing, than it was when I started the project. Or when I was a teenager and the feelings were somehow less complex but more acute.

I guess if I were to try to take a stab at some general wisdom, I would say that the worst thing is maybe the most obvious thing: that death brings unchangeable completion to a life that always feels like it hasn't been complete. No matter when or how someone dies, there would have been a next day if they hadn't died. And something might have changed then. That day could have brought some clarity or some joy, or maybe the start of something completely new. An addict's death is so particularly painful, I think, because the life feels particularly incomplete. And no matter how much you talk about it or think about it or write about it, there will never be a chance to know what could have happened differently if someone had gotten to them before their heart stopped. And usually you've been thinking about and hoping for that alternate universe for a long time, and then the hope is over. The end can't change. No matter what new insights or moments of empathy you come to, they all hit the same wall.

I should say, too, that the perspective in my family and in this book is totally atheistic. For me, that contributes a great deal to the difficulty. There's a part in the book where I talk to a woman who was very close to Josh at the end of his life and is a deeply spiritual person. The death lingers for her in very different ways than everyone else. She finds redemption, or at least a sense of possibility, where others can't.

How has writing Lord Fear changed you? What is next on your plate?

It might be too early still for me to have any idea if or how writing Lord Fear has changed me. I still find it very hard to believe that the process of writing and publishing it is over. Josh's story has been this constant for me throughout my writing life, which is also my adult life. Everything I've ever written has been shaped, at least a little, by my wondering about him, my trying to understand his life, his death, and all the unanswerable questions they bring up about ambition, pain, failure, art, depression, love, fear. Even as I've written essays that have nothing to do with him, or my first book about Minor League Baseball, he's been kind of hovering there. What I'm drawn to as a writer, the way I see the world, has always been tied to his mystery and tragedy. For a long time, I doubted whether I had the capability to write about him in a way that felt worthy of the subject, and then for a longer time I doubted whether the project was publishable. I'm genuinely curious to see how my writing will change now that Lord Fear is out into the world.

And now for a truly strange segue: I'm working on a book about reality TV. Like most of what I write, it's a hybrid: a cultural study of the genre (and an argument that it's a valid art form), combined with interviews with scholars, show runners, performers, etc., combined with personal inquiry into my own obsession with a ton of these shows. It's a different project than Lord Fear, for sure, but maybe not that different? I think that Josh's legacy, the hard, complex humanness of it, will shape the way I go into any writing project. I hope so, anyway.