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A Conversation with Joshua Mohr

Staff Interviewer Lori Hettler sits down for a conversation with JOSHUA MOHR.

Joshua is the author of five novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool”; Fight Song; Some Things That Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 Reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller; and Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice pick on The New York Times Bestseller List. His latest novel, All This Life, was recently published by Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint.

LORI HETTLER: How’s the daddy life been treating you?
JOSHUA MOHR: I dig being a dad! And I love the way it’s affecting my preoccupations on the page. I’m still writing about maniacs, to one degree or another, but now they have children, which is its own kind of mania. Mania begets mania? Something like that. My daughter expanded my real life, and her presence is in my fiction, as well. She’s making my world bigger in its curiosities.

I’ve often heard that… that fiction can’t help but be influenced by the author’s immediate world. And how cool is that? To leave a legacy of novels behind that ultimately tells the story of who you were and who you became. Do you ever worry about what your daughter will think, when she finally reads your books?
No way. I’m stoked for her to experience these wild narratives! I want her to use them as portals to burrow into me, understanding her father in ways I probably couldn’t articulate, but the books offer more information, context, and ultimately, understanding.

If you were forced to choose, which one of your novels would you say most closely defines or represents who you are (or were)?
I have two novels that are the most autobiographical, Some Things That Meant the World to Me and Damascus. I bled a lot for those books, but any fiction writer will tell you that each new project offers a way to talk about things in your life that are confusing. I’m drawn to things I don’t understand about myself. And if I’m using a fictional character to help me understand more about my world, there is always an element of memoir hidden under the freeing veneer of fiction.

I like the idea of using fiction as a way to answer questions about yourself. What things did your newest novel, All This Life, help you work through? Was it as cathartic a process as the others?
All This Life grew from the idea of a Virtual Detective Story. There is a missing teenage boy in the book, who still communicates with his dad via Twitter. So he’s missing on one hand, yet he’s “there” on another. I’d never seen a cat-and-mouse-type story play out in a digital sense, except in sci-fi conceits. This novel is realism, but it occurs on our two sacred planes, capturing our online and real lives. I think about these things more now, as a parent. My daughter is only two, so I don’t have to worry about it yet, but I am conscious of her relationship with technology. This book isn’t condemning technology at all. But it is posing this question: how can we use these two ecosystems, these two worlds to live the happiest life we can?

Does technology enhance our overall happiness, or merely distract us from it, though?
I do think that technology can augment our real-world happiness. That’s possible, although so is the other extreme: an online maw of loneliness.

I love the way you played around with social media and digital technology in the novel. And it so truly depicts the gap between those who had to adapt to online life Vs. those who were born instantly connected. Man, I remember the awesomeness of Nintendo after years of playing Atari, upgrading from WebTV to an honest-to-god computer, purchasing my very first pre-paid cell phone. Now it’s all toddlers carrying cell phones, PS4 online gaming, texting and tweeting at the dinner table, Facebooking, Pinteresting, vlogging! Are there any forms of social media you find yourself refusing to use?
Man, I don’t even know what half of those things are! Truthfully, I am pretty slow with the gadgets. I try to keep my attention on the blank page, although I use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. That’s about all that I can handle, or I wouldn’t have time to write. I wouldn’t say I refuse others; I just don’t allow myself to try them because I’d probably like them too much. It’s a junkie’s paradigm. It’s the availability that I find myself resisting. Email and texts and whatnot, it’s very hard to disappear, even for a few hours. I miss the days when you could be unreachable, and it wasn’t that you were ignoring people, per se, you just didn’t know anyone was trying to get a hold of you. You were allowed to be by yourself. To think. To fuck up. To change. Of course, those things are still possible, but with that pocket-sized distraction machine, it’s increasingly harder.

It’s interesting that you mention how much harder it can be nowadays to disappear or to fuck up, because technology brings with it this complete lack of privacy. Anything you do, anywhere you go, smartphones and video cameras could be recording you. In All This Life, we witness the impact that taking something private, something that wasn’t yours to take, and posting it online for a million strangers to experience can have on individuals. Do you think technology makes us more aware of our actions, or more careless with them?
One of the characters in the book who posts content on YouTube “pirated” from people’s lives calls himself a Disaster Shepherd. And he’s obviously not alone—people scavenging others, looking for something dangerous or humiliating or titillating to get an online audience. I’m no better. Just this afternoon, I watched a clip of some crazy Thai guy putting fire ants on his cock. And I’m not talking metaphorical fire ants. You should’ve heard him screaming. Wow. It’s that curiosity in all of us, those sick voyeurs living inside, demanding we make those clicks, post those comments, upload the latest chum and fish for other usernames. That’s really what the book is about: Connection, in every contortion of the word. The computer creating intimacy between strangers, and yet it’s often an alienating kind of intimacy. All This Life is interested in how, in one way or another, we’re all Content.

And now for the shotgun round. Here are five quickie questions for you. What’s the worst—
Thing anyone’s ever said to you? A new lover re: my awful dreadlocks in college: “Do they always smell like that?”

Place you’ve ever crashed for the night? Dolores Park.

Thing you’ve ever tasted? Shame.

Piece of clothing you own? My pants collection is truly despicable.

Interview question you’ve ever been asked? I’m a teacher, so I know there is no such thing as a stupid question...

Lori Hettler is our Chief Staff Interviewer and handles our interview series for The Inductor. Lori founded the book blog, independent press resource community, and book club The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) in 2007. An advocate for the small press and self-publishing communities, she has been featured from coast to coast, in both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Portions of her reviews have been quoted for a number of books (most notably in the press release for Graywolf Press’ I Curse the River of Time, Red Hen Press’ catalog for David Maine’s An Age of Madness, and Heather Fowler’s Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness). Formerly the Marketing Director for Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), Lori has now begun to take on freelance work under TNBBC Publicity. When she’s not curled up on the couch with a good book, you can find Lori on Twitter, TNBBC’s blog, Goodreads, and Facebook talking about it.

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