JANUARY 9, 2017
PAUL AUSTER ONCE SAID that every great story is a ghost story, that if your protagonist isn’t haunted then you have neither a protagonist nor a book. Joshua Mohr’s memoir, Sirens, is one of the most beautifully haunted narratives you’ll ever read. He offers up his ghosts without flinching: his years of substance abuse and hard living; the rough and perilous road to getting clean; relapses and the specter of relapses hanging over his sometimes fragile sobriety; becoming a loving husband and father, only to have everything threatened by three strokes and major heart surgery in his late 30s — the momentum of this story will sweep you up. Sirens is one of those books you open thinking to check out a few pages, only to find yourself putting everything else on hold so you don’t have to put it down. It’s that good.
Joshua Mohr is the author of five books of fiction, singled out for praise by readers and critics alike. The New York Times Book Review has called his work “Beat-poet cool.” O Magazine chose his first book, Some Things That Meant The World To Me, as one of its top 10 reads of the year. Of All This Life (2015), the Los Angeles Times noted: “Expertly paced and full of action building to a meaningful end.” And Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) had this to say about Sirens, just published by Two Dollar Radio: “this is the kind of book that makes you want to grab strangers at bus stops and scream at them to read. Think Kathy Acker, think Denis Johnson, think Amy Hempel.”
Full disclosure: Josh Mohr is not just one of my favorite writers working today — he’s one of my favorite people, too. He and I recently emailed back and forth about the challenges of living and writing and taking on a new genre. If this interview is your introduction to Josh, may it be just the beginning of what I promise will be a rewarding relationship.
ROB ROBERGE: Your last novel — All This Life — was perhaps your most ambitious. It covers so many points of view, so many lives, that it seems to be less autobiographical than some of your earlier books. Having worked on such an enormous canvas, how did you decide to turn inward? Why a memoir, and why now?
JOSHUA MOHR: Well, the short answer is: I had a stroke!
It was really that simple. I would’ve been quite happy to never write a memoir, but I had a stroke, and because I was so young (38) to be dealing with that shit, the docs really dug in to crack the code. They found an eight-millimeter hole in the middle of my heart, a congenital condition. I was going to die, they said, unless they went into my heart and built a wall.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, my baby daughter was only 18 months old at the time. So had I died during the surgery, she’d have no conscious memory of me. The book started as some sort of contorted love letter to her, my daughter Ava. Is it an unconventional love letter, considering all my warped and shameful confessions? Absolutely. But it’s important that she knows her pops, warts and all.
This was a question I was asked a lot when my memoir came out, and I’m not sure if I ever really had a satisfactory answer for it, so I’m asking you: What, if anything, was different, from a writing standpoint, about doing a memoir after having written several books of fiction? (For myself, I didn’t expect the process to be as different as it turned out to be.)
I just Googled some of your answers to this question, and I don’t think they’re unsatisfactory at all. But I didn’t have the same preconceptions as you. I went into this feeling like it was going to be something wholly its own, from an aesthetic and tonal perspective. And the looming heart surgery added a visceral, almost panicky energy to the project.
I never feel self-conscious when I’m writing a novel, but there were days I detested writing a memoir. I kept asking myself: why, what’s the point, why air all this dirty laundry? But it felt important to construct this artifact, this document for Ava. And even post-surgery, having gotten the initial draft out quickly, I felt the tug to remix and revise.
Although this book didn’t take as long as the fiction. It usually takes me about three years to write a novel, from soup to nuts — an expression I’ve never understood.
No. Who does?
But the memoir only took about a year and a half. This time discrepancy is mostly due to characterization: with a novel, it takes me a long time to cultivate the requisite level of intimacy to bring my protagonists to 3D life. With the memoir, I could sort of hit the ground running, in that I know myself (with the normal caveats for blind spots and emotional obfuscations).
Another question about genre — this one from more of an emotional angle: What were your biggest fears and concerns about writing a memoir? Or, perhaps more directly, what were the hardest parts to write? Was there any point when you thought, I just can’t go there?
Well, the most surprising difference to me is that I sort of want this memoir to fail, and I’ve never felt that way about the fiction. With a new novel, I want as many readers as I can attract. With Sirens, on my good days, I’m proud of the work and happy to share, but on the darker days, I wouldn’t complain if no one ever read it. And that’s a weird thing to say about a book. I mean, why publish it then? Why not just make Ava a copy at Kinko’s and call it a day? That’s the question that I don’t have a good answer for yet.
That makes total sense to me. The closer my memoir got to being released, the less I wanted people to read it. It began to get horrifying the closer it came to being out in the world. Which is probably a good sign on some levels.
All I can come up with is this: the nonfiction writers I admire — Lidia Yuknavitch, Joan Didion, James Baldwin — these are heads who leave no shameful stone unturned in their pages. I so admire their audacity, their unabashed self-immolation. I guess I wanted to see if I had the literary guts.
I don’t think you have to worry about that. The book goes places most writers would never go. And it never blinks.
I saw an earlier draft that didn’t include one of the narrative threads in the final version, and when you and I spoke about it, you said that adding that piece — about the strokes and heart surgeries — changed the book radically. The metaphor you used was musical; adding the third story had created a chord where there had been just two notes. Could you explain and perhaps elaborate? I found it a very interesting way of thinking about prose and looking at structure.
Well, before the strokes and heart surgeries, I don’t actually think I was writing anything substantive. I was writing these little essays, which started at the request of LA-based writer Antonia Crane a couple years back, when she was curating her Kink column for The Weeklings. She asked if I had any sick stories to share. And of course, I did.
But they didn’t add up to anything, and I’d sort of resigned myself that these little essays would never form a cohesive whole. They were how I was killing time until my next novel idea dawned on me.
Then the stroke, the surgery, et cetera. That became a frame to structure the book around. My stroke happened New Year’s Day 2014, and my surgery wasn’t until March 11, so I had basically three months to stay alive and not throw another blood clot.
Ironically, I didn’t end up keeping any of the essays I wrote with Antonia, but those germs did help me establish the tone and voice that I wanted to carry the project.
As for your question about the music — or the “chord of me” in the book — yes, I tried to find the right three notes to pluck. One note was from before I got sober, me on drugs and booze and running around the Mission District like a caveman. The second note was the person trying not to die and waiting on the heart surgery. But the most interesting note came from the meta-narrator: the Me who was actually writing the book. This guy, who I came to think of as the book’s confused curator, invites the reader right into the writing process. I do my best to break that fourth wall. I want the reader to smell my armpits and hear every beat thumping from my defective heart.
As a sort of corollary to the previous question — you, like many prose writers (Lydia Davis, Rick Moody, James Joyce, Frank Conroy, and lots of others), are also a musician. Do you find that your background with music has any influence on your work? Does being a musician shape your writing in any way that you can see?
Oh, for sure. For one, I think about books in terms of time signatures, trying to find the right cadence for a project and then locking in, making sure I’m not skipping beats, letting the rhythm remain constant and driving. Sirens is a skinny little bullet of a book, and if I’ve done my job right, it reads like a punk song.
Another way my musical background seeps into the work is the way I remix. I almost exclusively revised this book out loud, reading it easily a hundred times to myself, from beginning to end. Mistakes get past my filter if I’m simply in my head, stuck scrutinizing the same digital page. But if I’m reading aloud, I’m pacing all over the place. I’m swigging coffee and raising my voice, then breaking it down to a whisper when the mood dictates that. Contrast. It’s such a huge tool in our literary arsenal but we don’t talk about it much. To go back to the punk song analogy, some of the best punk songs are only one chord progression, but the musicians let it be quiet and placid, then build to something mewling and scary. I wanted Sirens to have those mood swings and reading out loud was the only way for me to dial them in just right.
You write about relapse in a way I don’t think I’ve ever really seen it touched on in another book. Both about relapses that you’ve gone through, and — even more frighteningly — about the fear of a possible future relapse. This was remarkable in a couple of ways. First, your book doesn’t give the reader the relief of redemption. You don’t allow us to get comfortable in a narrative of reassurance. Instead, in addition to the conflict any book needs to live, you’ve added another layer of unease and menace to the story. Can you talk about your strategy? Did you consciously set out to write about relapse and the fear of relapse in a different way than you had read in other narratives?
One of the working titles of the book was Relapse Machine. So relapse was constantly on my mind. It’s such bullshit when addiction stories are presented as binaries. I used to do drugs and be bad, and now I’m clean and I’m good. Not only is that bullshit, but worse, it’s boring. And with my meta-narrator inviting the reader up close to the book’s biorhythm, it allowed me to speak more honestly about the day in, day out struggle to stay clean. Any idiot can get sober, but staying clean is no fucking joke.
I also didn’t want to sound like some know-it-all, like now that I’m clean I’ve got any answers. I’m still a disaster, but instead of freebasing bad ideas, now I drive my daughter to daycare in a fucking Subaru Outback. At one point in the memoir, the meta-narrator says to the reader, “I can relapse before you finish this page.” That was a very important line for me to write. I needed to explicitly state that to the audience, so they knew I wasn’t fronting. I recognize how fragile sobriety is.
There’s a point in the book, after your surgery, where you have a prescription for Vicodin, and you are sitting at your sister’s kitchen table drinking coffee at 6:00 a.m., thinking about going to fill the script when the pharmacy opens at 8:00. It’s a scene of quiet, understated horror: the script is legit. No one would say you were wrong to fill it. The way you put us at that table with you reminds me that the job of writing isn’t to convince the reader that something happened, but to make them feel as if it’s happening to them — they’re the ones counting the minutes in a sustained inner debate over filling the prescription or not. “Everyone will understand,” you write. “No one will judge you. It’s not your fault; it’s the surgery’s. Take advantage of this…” Throughout the book, you give a number of (obvious and valid) reasons to stay clean: your responsibility to your family, your friends, your wife and daughter — those you love and who love you. But this lonely scene really hammers home that, no matter what reason an addict gives him or herself for not relapsing, we are always, on some level, alone in that moment of reckoning. That ultimately, it isn’t about being accountable to others. At some point, it comes down to being accountable, ceaselessly, to yourself. True?
Not only was I offered a Vicodin script, but I also had to relapse for the surgery. I had to do opiates for the procedure, and they were pumping the good stuff, a fentanyl drip right into an artery. I tell you what, man, that relapse — or what in the junkie community is called a “freelapse” — was the most confusing thing that ever happened to me.
I awoke from the surgery, and instead of feeling reborn, with a renewed chance to watch my daughter grow up, all I wanted to do was cop, to go on a run and burn down my whole family. I wanted to jam a needle full of special K into my muscle and never come back.
Makes total sense.
But at the same time, I didn’t want my wife to divorce me. I’d already lost one marriage to substances. And I didn’t want to be estranged from my daughter. So I had these competing wants tussling in my heart, fist-fighting in my soul. For a few weeks after the surgery, I had no idea which side would win. Luckily, I didn’t do anything dumb. It was certainly a surreal epoch, and I really tried to capture that anxiety on the page.
You write about the man who invented the heart procedure you needed to have performed on you — Dr. Werner Forssmann. First of all, there’s the way he proved the surgery could be done was to do it on himself in the 1920s, which is fascinating and unforgettable. But even more memorable is your meditation on the doctor himself — clearly a brilliant man who is directly responsible for saving numerous lives, but he was also, as you write, a member of the Nazi Party. This leads to a beautiful and troubling analysis of not only the conflicting aspects of Forssmann’s character, but, ultimately, a repeated questioning of your own complexity (and, by extension, the reader’s — we all carry our own ghosts into a successful memoir) of what it means to be a human being. Clearly, we’re not all as extreme an example as Forssmann, but we all live many lives and none of us can be reduced to a binary, all good or all bad. I’m not even sure what the question here is — just that I was struck by your tireless awareness and shifting judgments about the complexity of your subject: You. One of the book’s governing obsessions seems to be how we judge ourselves on the balance of the evidence we carry both for and against ourselves in our own heads. As you write: “Good life, bad life?” This seems to be one of those questions with no fixed answer that we ask about ourselves at three in the morning when we’re unable to sleep. And, as Fitzgerald said, on some level, it’s always three in the morning. Could you talk about that?
Yes, and again, this meditation on Forssmann’s complex identity is only possible in the book because of the meta-narrator, the third note in the chord. He’s the one with the bandwidth to have any philosophical musings. The other two notes are so involved in the book’s dangers and stakes that they can’t editorialize on anything, at least not credibly. He (that third note) became much more than a retrospective narrator: he became the conduit, routing the book’s emotional current straight at the reader’s heart.
That’s where empathy lives. That’s where a reader experiences a character in a book so emotionally naked that they become complicit in the book’s action. I want my readers as actively involved in Sirens as they can possibly be.
Did you have any models when you were thinking about writing the book? Any memoirs that served as examples for you? Or was that not something you thought of at all?
Embarrassingly, I’ve only read like five memoirs in my whole life. I’m probably not supposed to admit that. But shit, we’re all friends here, right?
That being said, I read a ton of James Baldwin while I wrote this thing, both his fiction and his nonfiction. He’s my favorite writer, and he constantly challenges me to write with more honesty, more anger, more frailty, more teeth, more tenderness. He was willing to risk it all on the page, and I wanted Sirens to strive to his level. I’ll never write as well as Baldwin, and that’s totally fine, that he remains that unattainable treasure, so long as he brings out the best in me. I’ll keep writing books to honor his legacy. We need as much truth as we can get right now.