Wave Pools, Escapism, and The Creation of “Fight Song”: An Interview With Joshua Mohr

Sometimes it seems like there’s a breed of writer that the current literary world just doesn’t engender anymore.  The kind of writer I’m referring to is the type that many of us clung to when we began channeling aspirations that we ourselves could one day be writers. For those of us that didn’t grow up loving books from the start — those of us who, in school, only sunk our teeth into the Orwells or the Huxleys or the writers that seemed a little bit angry, a little bit smarmy, and (though highly intelligent) still seemed charged by a certain youthful energy — these writers are crucial. Somehow inherent in the notion of the intellectual is a sense of defeat, a jaded sense of inexcitability.  There’s a lot of it floating around in the literary atmosphere. When we come a across a writer who tells a great story with emotional intention and sagacity, yet is charged with youthful energy and will without being devoid of earnestness, we must stop and give them our attention. There may be a lot of writers in this day and age, but there are not a lot of writers like Joshua Mohr.

Fight Song is clearly a major departure for you. How was the way you approached the writing of this book different from your other books?

The first huge alteration I made was I wrote this book sober.  I wrote the other ones severely altered with opiates and whiskey. The bar trilogy, the three books before this one (with the exception of Damascus) — I feel like I didn’t even write those books sometimes. I wrote most of those books in a blackout.  I’d start drinking or drugging at midnight then I’d come to the next day having no idea what I had done.  Then I’d re-read those pages and say, “OK, This is shit,” or “I can salvage this,” and I’d move on from there.  So, once I went to rehab I had to change my drafting process.  I revised Damascus sober, but all the ideas, that first wave of imagination and pressure of the first draft, I was not. Damascus was such a personal story, such an emotional story that it didn’t lend itself to really enjoying the writing process. I was picking some really personal wounds over and over again.

I started to think of artists like Charlie Kaufman.  I wanted to write something fun, something funny.  There’s no reason in my career why I can’t swing from one genre to the next. I really like artists whom, I don’t know what’s going to happen from one project to the next.

There’s an interview with Ira Glass where he says that people tend to be the most articulate about the things they’re still figuring out or working through in their minds.  I wonder if perhaps that’s why Damascus emotionally taxing, and so good. You were working through some stuff.

Absolutely.  To take it a step further, when you’re writing in a sort of fugue state, whether it’s narcotic or otherwise, I think the gap between your conscious and subconscious mind is smaller. So maybe you’re able to excavate things you wouldn’t be able to admit or be in touch with otherwise. You’re able to access those things with a certain amount of liberty that isn’t there on a day-to-day basis.

I wanted to ask your about some of the more magical elements of Fight Song.  It’s interesting you brought up Charlie Kaufman because elements of Fight Song reminded me of elements of Synecdoche, New York. Like that film, Fight Song takes place in this semi-magical world.

Sometimes writers are really reluctant to talk about influence, but I’m not one of those writers. I’m not one of those people who pretends to work in any kind of vacuum.  Very intentionally with this book I was thinking about Charlie Kaufman. I was also thinking a lot about Donald Barthelme, and I was thinking a lot about White Noise.  DeLillo was writing a social satire/allegory in the 80s, but we now rely on a completely almost independent source of technology that didn’t really exist when DeLillo wrote that book.  I thought it would be interesting to update that suburban milieu, taking advantage of all these technological advances that weren’t there when he was writing White Noise.

Let’s have an episode of “Books of Our Lives.” Tell me the first book that you connected with as a child.  What was the first book that you loved as a student in say middle school or high school? Finally, what was the first book that made you feel like you could try and write?

Reading wasn’t an active component of my childhood.  I don’t remember really being read to, and I don’t remember reading myself.  In elementary school I had a really antagonistic relationship with books.  I was like, “This is a fucking drag, I hate reading and no one can make me do it.” I think that continued on through high school where people were flopping Jane Austen in my lap as I was like, “I will never read this book. Get your Red Badge of Courage away from me.”

Then when I was a senior in high school I faked a book report and I got caught.  My teacher said, “I’m going to give you another book, I need you to read it over the weekend and write the report,” and he handed me a copy of Slaughterhouse Five.  I was 17 at the time and that was a complete life-changer.  Suddenly I wasn’t in Jane Austen town, I was reading this book with a porn star in a zoo. I didn’t really know that literature could do that. It sounds kind of stupid to say now but I didn’t realize that you could do anything your imagination could cook up. So I went back and asked that teacher for a reading list and he turned me on to George Orwell and John Barth, Ken Kesey, all the sixties heavy hitters, and I’ve been an avid reader ever since.  That teacher really kind of changed my life.

What do you think you would have done if you didn’t become a writer?

I don’t know!  Once I found reading I quickly came to writing, but I never really wrote a story until I was 21 to 22-years old. I have a really compulsive personality so once I did that, once I derived some pleasure from that, I started to do it every day.  I actually think that work ethic is much more important than talent when it comes to writing.  You just have to work on that muscle memory and it takes a long time. It’s so easy to get frustrated and quite before you publish your first book, because everyone’s telling you not good at it: your friends or literary magazines or agents. There’s not a lot of thataboy’s coming at you. It’s hard to start a career.

What kind of writer do you think you wanted to be when you first started, and does it different from the writer you are today?

The writers I’ve really idealized are the people who write a lot.  I don’t want to be the kind of writer who puts out a book every 8 or 9 years. I like to write every day, that makes me feel better about the world. My life makes more sense to me on the days in which I get to write.  I think of writers like Denis Johnson who have been very prolific over time, or E.L. Doctorow, guys who are putting out a really wide swath of stuff, I really admire those people who are always looking forward.  The danger with that is that you’re probably going to put out a couple stinkers along the way. I know that. I know I’ll probably write a bad book or two, that happens.

Can you tell me about your journey to publication the first time around?  How long was it from the writing to the release?

I strated the book in 2004 and it came out in 2009.  A very early version of it was my grad school thesis. I worked on it for 3 years after grad school until we were able to sell it, but that book had a very troubled existence in the marketplace. No one knew what to do with it.  It’s really violent and surreal and all the major houses were like, “You can turn a sentence but we’re just not going to put this on our list.”

So that lead us to the path of independent publishers and eventually I hooked up with Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio and that lead us to a very successful collaboration where we did 3 books together over 4 years.

I imagine that has ultimately been a pretty fortuitous path for you, because Two Dollar Radio seems to have really blossomed and become a big name in the years during which you were involved with them.

The nice thing about Eric and his wife Eliza is they only put out 5 books a year so they can be very choosey about what they stamp with their approval.  They get probably 3-4,000 submissions a year, so that they sift through to find what really speaks to them. I think they have a lot of credibility because their titles have been consistently good. I think when someone picks up a Two Dollar Radio Book they know what they’re going to get, what the sensibility of that world is going to be.  They gravitate toward the transgressive, toward the unreal, toward things that are going to push the boundaries of plausibility. I think it’s when you can go to certain places and know what you’re going to get.  They’ve really formed their identity.

Lets discuss the plot of Fight Song. It begins with your protagonist Bob Coffen riding his bike home from a job that he’s become disillusioned with, and being run off the rode by one of his co-workers. This incites him to embark on a journey. Tell me about Bob Coffen and how he differs from the other main characters you’ve written.

With my first few books we were dealing with active and direct forms of abuse, physical abuse, substance abuse, sexual absuse.  Things an outsider can look at and say, “That’s bad, I don’t want any part of that.” With Bob Coffeen we see these more simmering abuses of his world but they’re more passive abuses. He’s soldered into this routine that he derives no pleasure from, but he doesn’t have the balls to do anything about it.  In that sense, I read him as a cautionary tale.  I’m getting toward 40 and this is something I’m very aware of. I want to keep learning forever. I want to be an apprentice forever.  I want to embrace the idea of pushing myself to keep learning about the world and about humanity.  When we stop doing that, when we’re satisfied to just watch Dancing With the Stars and eat Doritos, I think that’s a very dangerous place for us to be in because we stop receiving the messages that are swirling around out in the world, a world that we’re aren’t really even participating in.

One thing that makes Bob Coffen unique is that he’s not just this downtrodden loser. He once had great success at his job as a video game programmer. He has a pretty wife, and two kids, but somewhere along the way he got to this low point. 

I think Bob was a pretty dynamic personality in his past. At one point he thought the video games he was making were art, and at some point he lost that along the way. He can’t point to that one moment in his life where he lost it, it was just this slow dissipation of trying. Suddenly, ten years has gone by and his boss is handing him a plock (a combination plaque/clock) and he’s like “What have I done with the last ten years?” It’s a sad story but I think it’s a ubiquitous one that happens in American, that happens to humans all the time.

Bob works in the office of a video game company that has this wave pool called Lap Land, can you describe that a bit, and where it came from?

These mega startups lure workers in with these “cool” accoutrements but you realize the reason why they’re doing these things is so that you never have to leave.  They may have a cool sashimi spread every week so you’re like, “Awesome, why would I ever leave?”  The reason, it turns out, is because with these things they get an extra 90 minutes of work from you a day which adds up over the year.  I’ve been told that Google has something like Lap Land, where you swim in this endless pool where the current just keeps you in the same place.  I think it’s a good metaphor for what most of the book is investigating anyway, this sort of treading business where nothing is going by, but everything is going by.

What are some subjects that endlessly fascinate you, that you’ll always try to re-examine?

I think I’m always writing about escapism, whether it’s oxycontin or video games.  I’m interested in how people feel they need to get away from what’s going on in their status quo.  With Bob Coffen, he knows he needs to get himself fired from his job, but he’s too much of a coward to do it.  So the way he’s going to give himself permission is he’s going to write this video game that’s going to get him fired.  He spends most of the book writing a bestiality video game with his boss as the main character.  Of course, it doesn’t work.  The boss totally loves the bestiality game which ends up being the last thing Bob can take.

I also write a lot about people who say they love you but don’t really show it with their actions.  With Some Things That Meant the World to Me I was talking about a parental love, and the abuse that can exist between a parent and a child.  With Termite Parade is was more of an amorous love, with two people in a relationship who do despicable things to each other.  Damascus sort of encompasses all of those things.   With Fight Song it’s these more passive abuses.  It’s a terrible thing when a father walks up and punches his kid in the face, but why is it more socially acceptable for a parent to go one month without taking their kid seriously, without ever saying with any sincerity, “How was your day, what are you doing, I’m invested, I’m interested.” This may be something I’m thinking about more as I get near middle-age and thinking about having kids.  You sort of write these cautionary tales to yourself like: “This is a reminder not to turn into Bob Coffen. Try harder. You can be a better person that that.”

There’s this really interesting aspect of Fight Song where you have this little girl, the daughter of the protagonist, who’s constantly going “meet” her friends in these exotic places on her iPad. She’d rather hang out in a virtual mock up of her friends in a virtual mock up of the Great Barrier Reef than actually go to the real place with a real person.  It reminded me TV special that Douglas Rushkoff did where they talk about a study technology study they did with kids. They put kids through virtual simulations where they swam with dolphins and when these kids were interviewed about the experience, they believed that they’d actually swam with dolphins. They’d forgotten that the experience was a simulation.  What inspired this idea in the book?

I have a sister who’s 15 years younger than I am. I think what’s really interesting about that 18-22 year old experience is that it seems to be a completely sovereign set of experience from what I went through coming of age in the late 70’s early 80’s.  She’s always buried in some kind of device or another.   I thought “What if I take this to some kind of extreme?” What if this character went to the polar ice caps on her iPad and felt like she was actually there.  The thing is, I thought I was taking it to this absurdist place but what I’ve learned since is that it’s not so absurd.

What I find interesting too is, if you come from an age group that came up with a more analog experience, you can’t understand that all.  There are these tactile triggers on one side of the argument. On the other side you just feel transported, suspended in this dream that this kind of technology can give you. One of the things I like about books is that I don’t have to come up with any kinds of answers to these questions.  My job as Milan Kundera used to point out, is to pose the questions.  I think the audience with their active participation in the book with find their own allegiances and make their own conclusions as they push deeper in the narrative.

New technology brings up a lot of questions for the writing world.  For instance, the job of the writer used to be as a sort of virtual travel guide. Before travel was readily available writers went to far off lands and wrote about them so that people could educate themselves about those places, transport themselves to some degree.  But in an age where technology can transport a person absolutely anywhere, what’s a writer’s job? What will the writers who grew up digital write about? What will their job be?

At the end of the day I think writers who were working in 200 BC and writers who are working today are all trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to elicit an emotional response in somebody that we’ll never meet in person.  When I put a book out, hopefully there’s a woman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana who will read this weird two-dimensional artifact and if I’ve done my job right on the page, she’s going to feel something.  It doesn’t exactly matter if she’s feeling ebullience, or pathos. The important thing is that artwork moves her, it makes her feel something that she wasn’t feeling before.  I think that’s always been the chief task of the artist to yank this emotional response from our readers.  On the same wavelength, all artists since the beginning of the written word have been trying to achieve the same goal, which is to telll a compelling story. As readers we’re all going to have different definitions of whether a certain artist was successful at doing that. But the cool thing about reading is we get to make those decisions for ourselves.  I get to read William Burroughs and see a kindred spirit. I get to go to Joan Didion and Amy Hempel and Linda Barry and say, “I think you guys write the most beautiful prose in the world.” Then I get to go to other writers that other people really like and say, “That’s not for me. I don’t really dig the compelling story that this person is trying to tell.” And it’s for the readers to make those decisions.

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