Interview with Joshua Mohr
We're thrilled to announce that we'll be publishing our fourth work by Joshua Mohr, and the very first book-length work of non-fiction by this acclaimed novelist. We have a storied (get it?) history with Mr. Mohr, going back to his debut—Some Things That Meant the World to Me—which was our first best-seller, appearing on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list.
You may have spotted snippets from Josh's new book, Sirens—which will drop January 2017—around town, as excerpts have appeared in BuzzFeed and The Rumpus.
Sirens is a raw and big-hearted chronicle of substance abuse, relapse, and family compassion. Employing the characterization and chimerical prose for which he has been lauded, the book traces his childhood swilling fuzzy navels as a latch-key kid, his first failed marriage, the birth of his daughter, the three strokes he suffers in his thirties to his subsequent heart-surgery, and the ongoing everyday struggle against relapse.
Jerry Stahl says of the book: "New Dad nearly becomes Newly Dead Dad in Joshua Mohr’s astonishing, heart-in-the-mouth, darkly funny and wildly inspiring memoir, Sirens. What Mohr endured—three strokes in his 30s and heart surgery, and that’s just the fun part—is more than most of us will suffer in a lifetime. Happily, the worse his prognosis, the stronger his writing. Until, by the end of his hospital party, what emerges is a cri de coeur of power, intensity, and—I’m just going to say it—love. 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. Sirens is a truly powerful work of art, by an artist we’re all lucky to have alive and working.”
The corrective heart-surgery Josh needed involved a procedure pioneered by Dr. Warner Forssman, who, unable to find a hospital or university willing to let him test his experimental surgery, performed it on himself. This required putting himself under local anesthesia and inserting a tube into his arm and snaking it all the way to his heart. The procedure eventually won Forssman the Nobel Prize, but he was a polarizing figure since he was a member of the Nazi party for 13 years.
It’s this dueling nature that provides the lens for the book, asking: can we be two things at once? Can someone like Forssman be both a brave surgeon who wins the Nobel, and also party to one of the most horrific events in human history? Can someone like Josh—who has profoundly hurt many people close to him while abusing drugs and alcohol, who ruined his first marriage, mugged people and assaulted others—can he also be a good husband and father; is he also capable of good?
We're very excited to be collaborating with Josh again. Following is a short interview with Josh about his first book of non-fiction.
Q: You've written five novels now, with this being your first book-length work of non-fiction. What inspired you to delve so deeply into your history, and why now?
JM: Well, I had a stroke. Actually, I had three strokes, all in my thirties. When the docs hunted for the culprit, the cause, they discovered a congenital heart defect called an ASD that would require surgery.
To complicate matters, I had an 18-month old daughter at the time, and on the off chance I died on the table, she’d have no conscious recollection of me.
To complicate matters further, I’m in recovery and for the surgery, I needed opiate sedation. In the junkie community, it’s called a freelapse. You relapse, but it’s okay. Sort of…
All those attributes seemed fertile territory to examine the complications of modern family life.
Q: Many writers have published accomplished accounts of their drug/alcohol history. Generally speaking of course, they seem to focus on the past, whereas your book not only recounts these past transgressions in brutal detail, but also goes into the everyday struggle against relapse. Do you see relapse as being the flip side of the coin to addiction and recovery, or did you intentionally set out to depict a different aspect from other addiction literature?
JM: Really, I wanted to write about being a dad, in all its ubiquitous humiliations. I don’t feel like people are that honest about how hard it is to be a parent, and I wanted to tell that story, warts and all. I don’t think about this project as an addiction memoir. I think about it being about the existential struggle to do right by yourself and the people you love.
I don’t dig memoirs that make it sound like Voila!, at the end the author knows so much now, is a survivor of whatever ordeal, and just lives an easy-peasy life. That rings false to me. So I wanted this book to have two storylines being rendered at the same time: the drama of the past, but also the prosaic drama of making sense of parenthood—using the heart surgery as a framing device. The stakes are high on both planes.
Q: I imagine readers familiar with your first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, which we published in 2009, will see similarities between the protagonist in that book, Rhonda, and yourself. Have you ever found a trapdoor in the bottom of a dumpster behind a taqueria or slept with prison wine?
JM: Ha, I’ll never tell!
But I will say this about good, ol’ Rhonda: The reason he resonated so much with readers is because of our similarities. I let myself examine and excavate the “worst” parts of him/me. And I believe that if a character is that style of unvarnished honest with the audience, the reader has no choice but to bring empathy to the experience.
I used the same frame of reference in Sirens. I am telling all the dirty laundry, not just war stories from the bad old days, going to the drunk tank or ruining my first marriage, etc. but the dirty laundry from last week, yesterday, five minutes ago. I might be sober now but that struggle to stay clean is real and raw, especially after the freelapse, which revived my inner-junkie. He was hungry for drugs! Yet I was hungry to stay sober! That dissonance is one of the narrative’s main propulsions. How do we honor our children? How do we honor ourselves? These questions beat in the book just like my defective heart.
Q: You've undergone such major life changes over the past couple years, from the birth of your daughter to major heart surgery, and now you've just moved with your family from San Francisco—where you've lived most of your life—to Seattle. What was that transition like for you?
JM: I don’t know yet. We’ve only been here a couple weeks. But I can say this: it was snowing the first day we got here, and I thought, now what the hell is that falling from the sky?