Happy October, biblioholics – and welcome to a new special addition to your regularly scheduled programming: this is “Questions & Answers”, our new (you guessed it) question and answer series. From time to time, I’ll get to chatting with an author of an upcoming book and then we’ll put the resulting conversation here. General warnings: SPOILERS definitely abound and the conversation is totally unfiltered.
That said, may I present our first guest: Joshua Mohr and his new book, Damascus.
Introduction: Damascus is Josh Mohr’s third book and could very well be the one that blows this whole thing wide open. Published by the tiny indie press Two Dollar Radio, it’s actually already in stores (I saw it at The Strand just yesterday) but officially comes out October 11th. It’s set in 2004 in the Mission District of San Fran and features a strange and fascinating group of people who all orbit around the titular bar. You come for these characters and end up staying for the plot, which features a visceral art installation and addresses the Iraq War in a way I didn’t think fiction was yet capable of.
So, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Joshua Mohr to our stage.
Joshua Mohr: Hi everybody. Hi Drew, thanks for inviting me.
Raging Biblioholism: Hi Josh. Thank you, both for having faith in me reading your book all those months ago and for taking some time out of the pre-release schedule to answer some questions. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
To start: there are some pretty unique characters in this novel. All of them have a rather unique quirk – a birthmark, a ‘title’, a disease – and they’re all damaged in unique ways. To put it broadly, where did they come from?
JM: A solid novel is all about the players. They either make it a compelling world for a reader to be inside of for a few hours or they don’t. I really believe it’s that simple. If the reader connects with who’s on the page, then they can go on the wild ride to come as complicit passengers. Quentin Tarantino talks about trying to create an umbilical cord between his characters and the audience. I like that image, as it not only conveys connection but nourishment, sustenance, some kind of transaction in which the characters keep the audience alive. Because in one sense, that’s true: the story will die for whomever is watching/reading if that person feels too far removed from the action. There has to be intimacy in order for the audience to feel invested and involved in the narrative.
And so the characters in Damascus are all damaged in unique ways because we’re all damaged in our own ways. It’s one of the few truths that transcend any kind of human boundaries: no matter how we try to hide the skeletons in our closets, they readily contribute to who we are, whether we’re conscious of this or not.
RB: Damascus has the remarkable distinction of being the first book I’ve read that is ‘about’ the reaction to the Iraq War that hasn’t caused me to roll my eyes or feel like it was just saying things that have already been said. What prompted you to write about the war – and to write about it in such an oblique way (that is, the war isn’t the main story here: it’s a defining circumstance more than a major factor)?
JM: Thanks for saying that. It was a huge concern as I put the book together—I didn’t want to write about Iraq. I wanted to write about this dive bar called Damascus, its customers, their problems. And of course, we’re never completely isolated from what’s going on outside the dive bar’s walls, whether it’s a metaphorical pub or not. So for these people, the Iraq war comes to their wilting ecosystem.
Plus, I’m not a smart enough person to wax on war, geopolitics, etc. I’m a silly little artist, who wants to talk about his characters. It’s a paradox of art: only via the individual (the characters) can we talk about something larger (humankind). If we come out on page one and start spouting off theory and grandiose abstractions, the audience will—as you pointed out in the question—roll their eyes and use the book as kindling. But if you talk in specifics about this handful of characters, in this one dank bar, using the war as a detail of the backdrop, now there’s the capacity to show the war’s effect on these people’s status quos.
RB: Continuing somewhat on this track, the world has changed a lot since you wrote this book – hell, since I read this book. How do you think this post-Osama, ten-years-later world will react to the book? Is there anything you wish you might’ve written differently, knowing how the world has changed? Do you wish you had published this book in 2003? Would you have published a book like this in 2003?
JM: Maybe it’s a period-piece. Even discussing eight years ago requires us to get in our time machines to remember a place different from today. Books are time capsules. Bin Laden being dead now doesn’t affect the way people felt duped by George W. Bush in 2003 about WMDs in Iraq. Especially in the more liberal parts of the country—in San Francisco, you’re more likely to see a unicorn than a Republican—people were outraged at Bush’s outright deceptions.
I wouldn’t have been able to write this book in 2003: it was all too fresh and confusing and enraging. Especially the stuff about the cancer patient in the novel, No Eyebrows: I lost my father to stage-four lung cancer in 2002 and there’s no way I could have gone deep enough when my grief was so fresh. Characterization requires a writer to occupy the thought processes of each main character; I wouldn’t have been strong enough yet to situate myself in the psyche of the cancer patient.
RB: Why San Francisco?
JM: SF is my town! I’ve lived in the Mission District for a long time. Setting is all about the nuances—being able to render the minutia, the elements of a place’s personality that you can’t just walk into and glean, but those sorts of things only become clear to you after you’ve established a connection with the space.
From that standpoint, constructing a convincing setting is a lot like rendering a character: the writer needs to know the secrets.
RB: Speaking of characters, back to them for a minute – did you ever find it difficult to keep the characters from becoming defined by their quirks? The one scene that bothered me in the book was when the little girl calls Owen ‘Hitler’ in public – because I felt like it was so on the nose about Owen’s unfortunate condition and I felt like he had, as a character, moved far beyond that for me. He wasn’t the guy with the Hitler mustache birthmark; he was Owen. I’m just wondering how you kept them from becoming 2D/cliched.
JM: Owen’s problem isn’t his birthmark. Owen’s problem is his alcoholism. But he doesn’t want to deal with that, or he can’t yet. No, he wants to blame the birthmark, cover it up with a Santa suit, when in fact that’s merely another addition to the façade, another misdirection to distract people from seeing the true malady that lurks under the surface.
The scene with the little girl happens very early in the book—chapter two—and I needed something scandalous enough to send Owen scampering to the Santa suit (he’ll wear it for most of the story). She was the trigger to his flawed quick-fix.
RB: No Eyebrows’ situation is a heart-wrenching one. You really brought the unique suffering of a cancer patient – and that mental anguish that causes sometimes questionable behavior (see: “Breaking Bad”) – out in a tactful and even beautiful way. I was wondering if you’d like to talk about how you brought this character specifically to life.
JM: Again, the No Eyebrows character was a way for me to talk about my dad. Specifically, I wanted to examine the issue of whether or not it would have been better if we hadn’t watched him die so slowly, so violently. What if he’d left us in the name of saving us from the malicious ubiquities of such a finale? It’s probably pretty gross that I even wanted that to happen. But I did. There were days I didn’t want to watch him die anymore, didn’t want to watch him shit himself and drool as the morphine kept him hovering in a suspended consciousness that droned on. Of course, with retrospect, I’m glad I was there to say good-bye, to make his passing as painless for him as it could be. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I wondered if it might have been better if he just ran off and died alone somewhere… I feel like an asshole even saying that, but I have to cop to that side of the experience, too. That inner-turmoil was what fueled my desire to bring the dilemma to life on the page.
RB: How about giving us your thoughts on modern art? It plays a big role in the book and it’s so divisive to just about everyone, as evidenced by the patrons of Damascus’ reactions – so I’m curious to hear what you think about it in real life.
JM: I’m all in favor of modern art; I’m in favor of every kind of self-expression! In the book, the artist nails live fish to her portraits of dead American soldiers. For this one character, it’s what she has to do: it’s the only way she can express her feelings about Iraq. The longer the show hangs in Damascus, the dead fish will make the whole place stink like a coffin. She thinks that it’s an important political statement.
My job as the writer is to present her thoughts and actions earnestly. Each member of the audience gets to decide on his or her own account how he or she feels about the artist’s work.
RB: We’re starting to wrap up, so let’s move away from the book itself for a minute and chat about you. First up: tell me about Two Dollar Radio. It’s awesome to see you sticking with a smaller press even when you could’ve probably jumped ship for this book.
JM: I love 2DR. Those are my people, and they believed in me when nobody else did. I tattooed 2DR’s logo on my arm, and what better symbol can there be for the positive relationship between author and publisher? When was the last time a writer inked Random House on their person?
RB: (laughs) What a terribly boring tattoo that’d be, too. Speaking of tattoos, I think it’s groovy that you get a different tattoo for each book you write. Is that an extension of the story, in some way? Or is it an act of closure?
JM: Probably a little of both. I’m pretty tattooed and to me, human skin is our cave wall. How do you want to decorate it? What are the pictures/hieroglyphics/words that speak to what truly matters to you in this world? My books are a huge part of my identity so having visual representations of them is both an act of closure and a way to celebrate their birthing.
RB: Alright, last question and then we’ll let you go. It’s the gratuitous one, the one that might be too soon to ask, but I’m gonna ask anyway: what’s next for you?
JM: I’m just finishing up a weird post-modern fairy tale. My first three books were all really dark, really macabre, and I want to test-drive something with a bit more levity this time, exercise some different muscles. I was re-watching “The Big Lebowski” and thought to myself, man, the Coens seem like they’re having so much fun, and those sick fucks made “Blood Simple”! So I want to try out something new, challenge myself as an artist to work in a whole new aesthetic. And who knows, maybe like The Dude, I can stumble upon something that really ties the room together…
RB: Brilliant. I’m sure as hell looking forward to it. Thanks for chatting, Josh – it was an honor and a pleasure to be a part of your pre-release adventures. Good luck finding that rug!
Joshua Mohr’s Damascus is available now in New York City from rogue booksellers and will be available across the globe and online as of Tuesday, October 11th. It is a RagingBiblioholism recommended book. You can (and should) read more about Josh and Damascus at his site www.joshuamohr.net.
This has been “Questions & Answers”, hosted by Drew Broussard. Please enjoy the rest of our regular review programming and we do hope to see you next time.