Interviews

Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr is a fiction writer, San Francisco lover, creative writing professor, and soon-to-be cool dad. His newest novel, Fight Song, is a modern day rendering of The Wizard of Oz. Set in suburbia, the main character is a beaten down family man and video game creator named Bob Coffen, who’s accompanied on his comic road to redemption by a cast of misfits with big, sometimes questionable, hearts. Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, was named one of Oprah’s ten best reads of 2009, and his sophomore effort, Termite Parade, was listed as an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review in 2010.

I took a creative writing class three years ago with Mohr during his time teaching at the Writing Salon in San Francisco, and I credit my decision to go to graduate school for writing in large part to him. A mentor to me as well as a fellow writer, Mohr and I talked shop about writing practices, balls, and Vanilla Ice.

BEL POBLADOR: You’ve published three books before this one: Some Things That Meant the World to Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus. Why was Fight Song the next book that you wrote?

JOSHUA MOHR: I’ve been really excited about Fight Song. I knew what my first three books were going to be. Then when I finished Damascus, there was this time of contemplation where I said to myself as an artist, “Ok, I’ve written three books about drunkards and artists in the Mission District, and I had a great time writing those books. But I don’t want to remix. I don’t want to rehash the same material anymore. I’m ready for some new adventures.”

The book grew out of this challenge to myself, which was simply: get as far outside of your comfort zone as you possibly can. I think often as artists, that’s when we do our best work. When we feel so artistically vulnerable, the chances of us fucking up or failing are daunting. That brings out the best in our work ethic. I wanted to write a book about the suburbs, that had kids in it, which I know nothing about. I wanted to write a book about a socio-economic bracket that I’ve never really been privy to. Thrusting myself into an ecosystem that I didn’t know anything about.

And then to complicate that, the idea was also to write a comedy. I think there’re some funny moments in my first few novels, but Fight Song is just a comedy. The whole thing is this satire of a certain segment of the population. It’s not mocking the characters, but it’s really trying to inhabit their specific set of circumstances.

I also wanted to write a book that had a big heart, and at the same time I wanted to ask some really difficult questions along the way. Hopefully a reader is willing to go there with me.

BP: The book starts off with the epigraph: “If you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow, if there’s no happy ending, make one out of cookie dough.” Where does it come from and what is its significance?

JM: The significance is two-fold. The first was I wanted to tip my hat to a writer named Cooper Edens, who writes children’s stories and has a book called Remember the Night Rainbow. I was babysitting for a writer friend of mine maybe two years ago, and I read that book to this little boy, and this image of a rainbow in the middle of the night really stuck with me in this profound and poignant way. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. And being a greedy author, I thought, “I’m going to steal that someday.” It was an awesome way to end a book. It totally worked in the children’s story, and I wanted to see if I could do it justice in a novel written for adults.

The other reason I put that there was just selfish—I wanted people to know that I knew that I stole that image. I wanted to be up front and say, “I totally stole this image, but I think you’ll dig it anyways.” You don’t want to be like Vanilla Ice where you’re like, “I’ve never heard that Queen song. What are you talking about? ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ is mine!”

BP: Fight Song shows Bob, the main character, trying to navigate the suburban jungle—the terrors and dangers of suburbia and adult living—as opposed to the urban city jungle that your characters in previous books navigated. How do you think this makes Bob’s struggle different or maybe even more dangerous than other characters that you’ve written before?

JM: Sometimes we don’t really know what we’re writing about until we get into draft eight or draft ten. I think I was really worried that I wasn’t going to be able to write a book sober. I’ve been off booze and drugs for four years now, but I got the idea for Damascus when I was still drinking and doing drugs. I revised it sober, but I didn’t conceive of the whole book sober. So Fight Song was a really scary book for me to write. I think any recovering addict has the moment where he or she is like “Well, fuck. What if I need drugs to do my art? What am I supposed to do?” It’s a really intimidating proposition.

As I was writing Fight Song, I wanted to find a metaphor that had Bob dealing with the same thing. He was a video game designer, and he had been an architect of these different ecosystems—he really loved what he did. But suddenly, the new rounds of technology had made what he did obsolete. People who didn’t have as much talent as he did were able to create and concoct the same worlds through technological trickery that Bob was able to do from scratch.

He was dealing with this feeling of obsolescence, the same way that I was really worried that there was this looming obsolescence in my own world. And that was totally subconscious. I didn’t do that at all intentionally. And it wasn’t until I got deeper into the revision process that I started to understand Bob. Suddenly, I really started to see his humanity, and I began to empathize with his plight. He came alive in ways that I would have never anticipated.

BP: That’s one of the things I really love about Fight Song and about your previous books. Your characters are usually these underdogs, misfits, outcasts. Yet the reader still has empathy for your characters and ultimately ends up rooting for them. What draws you to write about misfits or outcasts like Bob?

JM: It’s funny—I was on tour for Damascus, and this woman came up to me afterwards, and she said, “How did you make me care about these terrible people?” It was funny because I had never really thought about it like that before. They’re not terrible, from my standpoint. These are people that are dealing with the same basic questions that all of us are dealing with: “How do I find the strength to be nicer to myself? How do I find the strength to allow myself to be happy?”

When I start to build a character, I always start to build from what they’re ashamed of. I start to build via their points of humiliation—the system of embarrassments that have followed them throughout their adult lives. Once I have a sense of what they’re ashamed of, it’s very easy for me to build the happy times. But I really need to understand their private world, the memories that they don’t share with everybody else. Once I have a firm handle on that, I can really bring them to life in a way that I feel it doesn’t even matter if you’ve been through a similar situation, you’ll at least be able to understand why that person’s doing what they’re doing, even if what they’re doing is stupid.

BP: The secondary characters seem to have a large impact on Bob’s narrative. What role do the supporting characters have in Fight Song—how exactly do they play into the world of Bob?

JM: Well in this particular book, the book wouldn’t even work if the supporting characters weren’t every bit as vibrant as Bob. The whole book started with this idea of retelling The Wizard of Oz in a twenty-first century American suburb. “What the hell would that be like?” was one of the conceits that I was asking myself when I was first starting to envision this project.

BP: In regards to the supporting characters in Fight Song and in your previous novels, there seems to be this saving grace in the collective or alternative family/group banding together.

JM: San Francisco is like a city of surrogate families. A lot of people come here because they’ve either been rejected or they don’t feel like they have a place that’s really accepting them. They come to this weird peninsula of freaks—we give them a huge hug, because we love our misfits, and we love our transplants here. I think you see that motif running through all my books. With Some Things That Meant the World to Me there was this building of a very strange and nuclear family because the main character never had that, and it was the one thing that he was really, really aching for.

I love the idea of odd and not anticipated communities, of people that you would have never imagined yourself banning together with, you somehow find strength in numbers and help each other do right by your own existence.

BP: When I was first reading Fight Song, I was thinking that it was really different from what you’ve written before. As I continued, I realized it was still along the same vein but just in a different location. I feel like place and location play a really strong role in your work. Your writing seemed to travel from focusing on the city of San Francisco to a Silicon Valley-esque, tech-centered suburb. What roles do place and location play in your work, and what was the importance of making that shift? 

JM: I feel like, if we really do our job right as authors, setting can be just as vividly rendered as characterization. We can bring a city or a suburb to life, in a way that if it has the nuances and idiosyncrasies, it becomes this vibrant, breathing being. Ironically though, in my own work, setting almost always comes last.

With Fight Song specifically though, I went on these weird afternoon road trips. I went out to Pleasanton, and I teach at Stanford sometimes, so I went down to Palo Alto, and there’s also a city right there called Burlingame. Just to kind of be around that strip mall culture. I’ve lived in the Mission District so long, I don’t really have a great frame of reference for what that world is like. I went to high school in a suburb, but it’s been so long, my memories are pretty faulty in terms of what that kind of identity is really like. I would go from one corporate place to another. I went to the Chevy’s in Pleasanton. I went to Starbucks in Pleasanton. You’re driving to all these different places that, from a San Franciscan’s perspective where I hadn’t been in a car in ten days, is just insane.

BP: Who or what did you intend to be the antagonist(s) of Fight Song?

JM: I think you could make the argument that the most antagonistic force in the book is Bob. The reason that we zero in on his world on page one where we do is this is the moment where he has to make a decision. He’s either going to start to do right by himself and do right by his people, or he’s going to live the same recurrent dream for the next twenty-five years and die an unhappy man. I like the idea that in each of us, there’s this tussle between the protagonist forces and the antagonistic forces.

BP: I actually thought that Bob was the most self-destructive of all of your characters. Even in comparison to the people in Damascus and Termite Parade. I kept saying, “Bob, you gotta get it together, man. You’re falling apart here.”

JM: Wow, I think the characters in Termite Parade would be really happy to hear you say that.

BP: Probably! I’m really curious to know how you came about with the ending? I was really thinking, “Bob, what are you going to do ‘cause you’ve dug yourself such an awful fucking hole.”

JM: That was probably the last big discovery I made in constructing this book. I actually sold this book with a different climax—a really pretty terrible climax. I knew something wasn’t right with it, but I didn’t know what it was. So I called my editor at Soft Skull and said, “I need to do something crazy. Can you give me a month to rewrite the climax of the book? And oh, by the way, if I rewrite the climax I’m probably going to have to rewrite the beginning, too. But I think I’ve got a better idea. Will you give me some latitude with this?” And to his credit, he said, “I’m not going to commit to your new idea, but I’m happy to read it. And I’ll go with whichever one works better.”

BP: The end was when I really saw Bob’s balls. And his heart, too. It was beautiful.

JM: It would have been a terrible title, but I think you’re hinting at something that was important, where there was this kind of rediscovering of his testicles—that they had been dormant for a really long time. And now he’s being forced to not just react, but he’s also being forced to act. I think those are very different things. You have to find the right pressures to put on your characters. Once we find what those things might be, they’ll tell us their story. We just have to make them uncomfortable enough that they’re going to be honest with us.

BP: Doubling seems to be a theme that comes up in the book often. Can you speak to that?

JM: There are these ideas of parallel realities—that this might have been a cogent identity for Bob if he had taken some different steps along the way. I’m always playing with that stuff, too, because I think that we’re all basically one bad decision away from completely sideswiping our own lives. I was telling someone the other day, “I feel pretty comfortable in my sobriety but if someone told me that one of my sisters got run over by a car, I’m going to relapse tomorrow.”

It’s all so fragile, it’s all so brittle. Which is the reason why in Fight Song, there’s this idea of celebrating what you have.

BP: You’re also a professor for USF’s MFA program. Does being a teacher inform your writing at all?

JM: There’s such a symbiotic relationship between being a teacher and being a writer. I teach typically on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and those nights, without fail, I come home and write all night. I feel such a gust of enthusiasm by being around other people that love words the same way that I love words—those are always the nights that I do the best writing.

The other really cool thing about being a teacher is you are forced to talk with some sort of certainty about really esoteric things. I’m always having to reevaluate my answers. Because usually people are throwing questions at you in an MFA program that you’re not prepared for. But I think really good teachers are never convinced that they’re right about those things. Because you want to stay a student forever, if that makes sense. I’m not trying to master anything. I want to write a bunch of books that are going to force me to rethink what I think I know about what makes a successful story.

There are some graduate workshops where very erudite individuals are going to say things like, “You know, the beginning of a book is a contract between reader and writer, and you have to prepare your audience for everything that’s going to come,” and blah blah blah. It’s fucking boring. I love novels that when I come to the next chapter, I don’t have any idea what the hell the writer’s gonna do next.

BP: That was a really good impression of a grad workshop, Josh. That was a spot on impression.

JM: That’s what I do for a living—I’m in an MFA classroom all the time! My writing is probably shaped a lot by what I’m hearing from my students. And whenever people speak in absolutes, it makes me pause. I’ve definitely heard people say, “You can’t have 200 pages of realism and then switch to magical realism.” And I’m wired in such a transgressive and subversive way that when someone tells me what I can’t do, I’m going to be like “Watch this, motherfucker.”

I really believe that as artists, it’s important for us to give all of our ideas a chance to succeed or fail. I know a lot of apprentice writers who do a lot of their troubleshooting in their heads. They make the best decision based on their hypotheses. But I’m a big advocate of active evidence. I think we should get out of our craniums and let the page tell us what’s going to cook and what’s going to fall flat. So I give every inane and madcap idea I ever have ten pages, twenty pages, thirty pages—just to see if it’s going to earn its space. ‘Cause I feel like if we try to just let it do all of that in our skull, we’re doing our ideas a disservice.

BP: What advice would you give or do you give to your students or up-and-coming writers—about writing, life, being a writer?

JM: The biggest piece of advice is that I’ll take work ethic over talent any day of the week. I think at the end of the day, writers write. So much of what we do as writers is just muscle memory. Putting our pretty asses in the chair. Whether it’s twenty minutes a day, forty-five minutes a day—that doesn’t matter.

It can’t just be about this end goal of publishing. It has to be about: my life is better on Thursday because I wrote. My life is better on Sunday because I wrote. And if we’re able to celebrate these little things along the way, the end goal doesn’t seem so insurmountable.

And you’ll never go wrong following the fun. That’s something that I always do in my own work. If I’m bored, I fucking cut it. I don’t care if it needs to be there to explain something. If I’m bored in my own work, that always hits the cutting room floor. And I want my books to be fun; I want my books to be readable. I certainly want them to be smart, too, but I don’t think smart and fun are mutually exclusive. I think they can be both of those things at the same time. The fun will never lead you astray.

Bel Poblador is a writer and Los Angeles native. She lived in San Francisco for four years until 2011, when she returned to LA, where she received her MFA in writing from CalArts in 2013. She still dreams in fog and wind.