To get a sense of Joshua Mohr’s wonderful debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and its protagonist, a 30-year-old man named Rhonda, consider a snippet of the Publishers Weekly starred review:
To withstand the frequent absences of his alcoholic mother and her boyfriend’s abuse, Rhonda imagines his childhood home in Arizona as a living thing, where rooms stretch and move, and desert wildlife wanders the halls. The disturbing narrative engine — Rhonda’s renaming and reimagining of the world around him to fit into his damaged logic — keeps the story creepily moving as it touches on homebrew prison wine and Rhonda’s friendship with his childhood self, little-Rhonda. Mohr uses punchy, tightly wound prose to pull readers into a nightmarish landscape, but he never loses the heart of his story …
In an article titled “A Faithful Grope in the Dark,” Mohr wrote expansively and persuasively back in May about his decision to cast his lot with a small, highly regarded literary press (Two Dollar Radio). More about that piece and Two Dollar Radio in the Q&A below.
Q: Where did the idea for Some Things That Meant the World to Me come from? Have you known people like Rhonda, your main character? How did you get into his world?
The novel started with an image of a broken home, a home that’s literally broken: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. Broken homes aren’t just well tread territory; they’re trampled! So my task became finding a new way to talk about them. How can you surprise your reader while immersing her/him into a familiar setting? The idea of shattering the structure seemed like a fun way to worm my way in.
Then I was standing out front of a bar one night, and I looked down the block and saw a man standing over a woman and choking her. It was disgusting and scary; I yelled and ran toward them and pushed him off of her. I felt drawn to write about this moment of emergency and constructed what I thought would be a short story. But as the weeks went on, I thought more about combining these two tentacles: maybe the man who interrupted the violent episode toward the woman could have had violence in his own past, and maybe the broken home could be a vehicle to explore this collision of past and present.
This is really a coming-of-age story. We don’t often think of coming-of-age tales being about adults, but the book’s main character, Rhonda, is thirty and this is definitely a time of redefinition, of understanding the world in a new way. It’s fascinating how humans reanimate the ghosts of our lives by dwelling on them, that intersection of past and present; we allow them to haunt us; we empower memory by fixating on scenarios long since gone in space-time but very much alive in our brains. And if those wounds are ever cauterized, what then? That question is a big part of the novel.
Q: In “A Faithful Grope in the Dark,” you detailed your reasons for ultimately publishing with a small press, Two Dollar Radio. What sort of response have you received?
People love “sexy” stories. People love to hear about the first-time novelist who gets a six figure advance and now wears nothing but fur coats and slurps champagne from supermodels’ bellybuttons in Saint-Tropez. And I wouldn’t have turned down that path had anyone actually offered it to me.
More often than not, though, people’s experiences with publishing their first books are much less sexy. My agent tried to sell my novel for over a year, and all the major houses turned it down; some expressed interest in picking up my book if I agreed to tone down certain macabre themes, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I castrated my own story. It’s very Faustian, in that sense: we have to weigh those tempting, nefarious offers, but hopefully in the end, our loyalty is to our own aesthetics instead of chasing publishing contracts. Because there are no guarantees of what will succeed versus flounder in the marketplace whether you publish with a large or small house. And if that’s the case, why would you compromise your artistic vision?
So I didn’t take some kind of “moral” high ground, shunning the larger publishing houses and seeking out an indie house. My agent and I searched for a shop that had a vision similar to ours, that loved Some Things that Meant the World to Me and didn’t want to water down the meat of the story. That was 2DR.
The essay about “deciding” to publish with 2DR has put me in touch with all kinds of people. I’ve loved hearing other writers’ feelings on the topic, their own circumstances trying to crack into this weird business. This might be a total rationalization—I’m not self-aware enough to know for sure—but I think the whole big house vs. small house debate is actually pretty moot. Writers shouldn’t concern themselves with that stuff: just write a kick ass book. After that, all we can do is heave it at the wall and see if it sticks. We have limited impact over how it fares once it’s on the shelves.
Q: A lot of authors who have gone the independent route — and a lot of those still plugging away at trying to find an agent and break through with the big publishers — can relate to your publishing story. Having made it through and casting your lot with Two Dollar Radio, what advice do you have for them?
The thing I find myself saying the most often to students is simply this: do the work. There are constellations of reasons why we can’t write—I’m tired, I’m sick, I’m overworked, etc. And these are cogent excuses; I’m not diminishing their clout at all. But at the end of the day, either you do the work or you don’t. If you want to write a book, write one. Is it easy to spend sunny days locked indoors with our rough drafts? Of course not. And how do you find the energy to come home and stare at a computer after sitting in front of one all day in your cubicle? Do you really want to skip that cocktail party and rewrite chapter eleven? There’s a certain level of sacrifice (masochism) that comes with this writing thing.
Once the book is written and we search for agents or wait to hear feedback from editors at publishing houses, it’s vital that we have distractions. Writers can’t just sit around and wait to hear reports. I’ll try and only speak for myself here, though I know plenty of writers that fall in a similar category: I’m a fragile manic narcissist. When I get a good review, I’m on cloud nine. And when I was getting shot down by editors, I wanted to pull the covers over my head and not leave the house all day. I wish someone had helped me escape some of that self-importance, helped me keep the experience in a better perspective. In the end, I’m not curing cancer or doing AIDS research, I’m writing a book. Yes, we should take our craft seriously, but it can’t be the end all be all.
So find ways to distract yourself—work on the next novel or story collection, learn to blow glass, take up pole dancing. Anything to get you out of your own head.
One last tine of advice comes courtesy of Pablo Picasso, who said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” That’s so fucking wise I tattooed it on my arm.
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
Ideal environments are more a question of when than where for me: I’m an insomniac so my best work gets done between midnight and 5 a.m., in the hours liberated from cell phones and emails and “real world” responsibilities. Sometimes, I think I’m better suited for my imaginary worlds anyway. Real life confuses me.
Another way to think about a writing environment is the way in which writers approach their own terrains on the page. For example, I’m always working on two novels at once—one further along that needs cleaning up, tinkering, late-drafting issues, etc; then there’s always another mired in the painstaking early draft process. Each flexes different muscles in my literary-brain, so when one isn’t clicking, I can focus on the other. I find having these options alleviates some pressure, makes it easier for me to find the gusto to enter one of the projects and that flexibility keeps me generating pages/making progress.
Q: What books lit your fuse when you were deciding to become a writer?
I came to reading later in life, faking my way through book reports throughout junior high and high school. Then during my senior year, we were supposed to read something I’d deemed boring and stilted—Jane Austen, I think—and I turned in another bogus report. My teacher called me on it, told me he’d flunk my ass if I didn’t make this right. Then he handed me a copy of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and told me I had a week to write a report on it. I read the book in one sitting. It blew my fucking mind. I had no idea writing could be so vibrant and wild and reckless. I thought literature was stodgy, bourgeois, and Vonnegut’s book blew away any misconceptions I had about the wanton opportunities that are there, waiting like closed doors to get kicked in.
Q: How much marketing and promotion do you take on? How much help has Two Dollar Radio given you?
I try to make myself as available as I can, taking advantage of the 21st century’s forums, primarily Facebook and Goodreads. Earlier you asked about my essay on the Rumpus about publishing with 2DR, and I must have been contacted by fifty or so people through Facebook, thanking me for telling a story that’s more relatable than the six-figure advance fairy tale. People need to hear that there’s a community of writers out there, and we’re all struggling to tell stories that aren’t “palatable” enough for the pigeonholes in the big houses. But there are still places for us to tell those stories, and those stories can still find large audiences.
2DR has been very helpful with marketing and promotion, as helpful as I think they can be. In the end, the thing I love about their outfit is also our biggest hurdle in terms of getting the book out there: they don’t have a marketing department. So on one hand, that’s fantastic in terms of us writing and editing an acerbic subversive book; however, it means that there isn’t a team of people whose entire jobs revolve around pimping the novel. It puts more of an onus on all of us, makes it more of a grassroots, do-it-yourself deal.
Q: You teach writing classes. From the trenches, what do you see? Are you seeing some truly talented folks?
I teach fiction writing through UC Berkeley’s public arts program and also through a boutique shop in San Francisco called The Writing Salon. I love teaching. It’s a blast, and the fact that someone pays me to sit around discussing the minutia of narrative construction is laughable: I’d do it for free. Teaching is an amazing gift, and each new class forces me to articulate complex details about storytelling… and through these articulations, I’m learning more about prose.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?
I’ve been rereading Salinger this summer: Catcher in the Rye and Franny & Zooey. If any aspiring writers are bemused about the concept of voice, which is really just another way of categorizing a novel’s personality, Salinger is one of the best. He thrusts you right into his characters’ psyches and it feels like they’re whispering their stories into your ears. I love books like that: when I get the sensation that the narrator is sitting on the barstool next to mine, spilling his/her sordid sad exciting secrets.
Q: Your next book, From a Fragile Galaxy, is coming out next year. What is it about?
I’ve recently changed the title of the second novel to Termite Parade and it will be released in June 2010. These first two books are installments in The Heresies Cycle. It will be three novels total—I’m finishing the third now—and while each is sovereign, they have a shared geography, concentric imagery, and overlapping characters. They’re investigations on the different ways that people who are supposed to love one another often belie those affinities.
Some Things deals ostensibly with familial definitions of love; Termite Parade is more about sexual/monogamous love; and the third book will be more sociopolitical, though hopefully it’s more interesting than the word “sociopolitical” implies. They’re all set in San Francisco’s Mission district, in late 2007.
I’m hoping to put the three novels out in three consecutive years because I imagine they work best like circles in a Venn diagram, and too much time off between the introductions of each circle might undermine my tension, my subtext. That’s the plan, anyway. After that, insomnia or no insomnia, I’m going to take a very long nap.
Joshua Mohr’s Web site: http://www.twodollarradio.com/sttmtwtm.htm
Some Things That Meant the World to Me, on Amazon.com