A Conversation with Joshua Mohr about UFOs, Heart Surgeries, and His New Memoir 'Sirens'
I first learned about Joshua Mohr's new memoir, Sirens, standing outside a bar in Brooklyn. He was in town to read from his new novel and he told me an excerpt was going to run at Buzzfeed soon. It would be about his recent heart surgery, and I felt a kinship with him on this because my daughter had just undergone her second (and hopefully final) surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.
It's a powerful piece that revealed a lot more about Mohr that I'd previously known. Not that I thought he was square—he wears plaid pants sometimes—but he also had a long, intense relationship with drugs and alcohol. So the heart surgery wasn't just stressful because it's heart surgery, it's because he had to do it through the lens of an addict fighting against the urge to relapse.
It's a hell of a memoir. Brutally honest in a way I don't think a lot of people are capable of (the hotel room is when you know Mohr isn't holding anything back). But the brutality is refreshing—in a world where people are so careful about the face they present to the world, it's nice to hear someone say: This is me and this is what I did.
It's a fantastic read. Funny and personal and thoughtful and not afraid to go where it needs to go, just like the rest of Mohr's writing. To mark the release, we dished back and forth about it for your reading pleasure.
The first thing I want to talk about is honesty: There's a lot of it here. What's that like—first, cataloging everything, and then seeing it all there, in totality? Was there anything you were afraid to put in? To leave out?
And, I love the way you describe it as a love letter to your daughter—a real love letter, because you were honest. What do you hope she gets out of it when she reads it? Are you afraid of how she's going to look at you after?
Honesty. Yeah, I mean, that's what it's all about for me as a storyteller. I'm straining to find a metaphor here, and for whatever reason, that's leading me to think about menstruation. Bear with me as I wrap my head around what I'm trying to say: A group of women, if they spend enough time together, can sync their menstrual cycles, and literature has the potential to perform a similar function. The written word can sync up the hearts of both the memoirist and the reader, so our organs thump together, so we're totally in tune emotionally. And the only way that can happen is from honesty, the reader sensing that nothing is being held back, that they've been granted unfettered access into a consciousness, a history, a heart.
This book required that unabashed ugly no-airbrushed honesty right from the jump, simply based on its stakes: I kept having strokes (I had three of them), and I needed to have heart surgery to fix the problem. So there was about a two-month window from diagnosis to the operating table, and that's when I put the first draft together. Writing from a place of terror, a place of panic. The stakes couldn't have been any higher for me during that time and for whatever reason, I was willing to put it all out there, confess a bunch of dubious, shameful things. I really thought I might die and that sent me on an existential exploration that I might not have been capable of without the clock ticking toward the operating table.
And yes, there were scenes that made me self conscious, things I wondered why I was disclosing to total strangers. But at the end of the day, my loyalty needed to be to the book, rather than my persona or any social constructions. Otherwise, why write it? If pure unvarnished honesty isn't the point, why are you writing a memoir in the first place?
I don't think I would've written this memoir without my daughter in my life. At the time of the heart surgery, she was only eighteen months old, and if I had died, she'd never consciously know me. And that was such a mind-fuck!
As humans, we are constantly reacting to the traumas and regrets of our own pasts, and my biggest regret is that my dad died without me really knowing him. He was comfortable existing in facades and blind spots, and I never cracked his code. In fact, I only learned some key dollops of information about him AFTER he died, from my mothers, biological and step.
I just hated that, finding out these things and yet not having the opportunity to ask him about them directly. It felt like such a betrayal. And I wasn't going to do that to my daughter; she was going to know me. So I was going to write the most honest love letter in the world. It was a warts-and-all love letter. It was a know-me-entirely love letter. It was a you'll-never-wonder-who-I was love letter.
I don't have any expectations/preconceptions for what she gets out of it, so long as she reads it and understands that without all these calamities in my past I wouldn't be the father I am today. I wear all those mistakes like my favorite tattoos.
On writing from a place of terror and panic: I once asked Amy Hempel for writing advice, and what she told me was not to be afraid to write from the white hot center of something. It seems like without the situation with your heart, this book wouldn't exist. Do you think you would have eventually come around to writing a memoir, health scare aside? Or was it something you never really thought about beforehand?
And speaking of: How are you feeling these days? The book leaves off with the surgery as a success—how have you been doing between the time you wrote that and now?
I dig that bit of advice from Hempel. And when she's at her best that's exactly what she does. The white hot center of her work is that short story "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," which has the only ending that ever made me openly weep. If you don't know that ditty or anybody reading this hasn't had the pleasure, check that piece out. It literally changed my writing life. Thanks for bringing her up.
I wouldn't have written a memoir without the heart surgery. I write novels that are largely based on my own experiences, my own phobias, etc, but this one was so existentially scary that I needed to tell it straight, just the facts. Granted, there's talking dogs, and a dead German doctor, and I carry on conversations with a duffel bag, but that's just how my sick reality rolls.
I'm feeling great now, not just physically but psychically, spiritually. Having a health scare like that really helped me tune into what's important to me. All those niggling concerns just desiccate, and you're left with a handful of things that truly matter and nothing more. Suddenly, my Google alerts or all the other self-enterprising bullshit had no clout. I want to be a good dad. I'd like to not get divorced again. I hope to scribble some more books. But even my work, which I've always thought was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is now just, well, books, artifacts. I still take them seriously. I worked incredibly hard on Sirens. But at the end of the day, it's just a book. Showing up and being a good dad matters more.
You know, there's this moment from season two of Fargo that hit me like a ton of bricks and I think about a lot. The main character is a cop. And he's talking to a woman whose husband did this crazy thing to protect her. And he tells this story about the final days of 'Nam and a helicopter pilot who pulled this insane maneuver to save his family. And he says: "It's the rock we all push, men. We call it our burden but really it's our privilege."
And it is, isn't it?
Which is funny to say because you said in print the thing I think all parents think in private when they're at their most overwhelmed: "What if I just dropped the baby off at a firehouse?"
I really dug the second season of Fargo, right up until that moment of UFO ex machina, which seemed so lazy for such an ambitious show.
As for dramatizing the "whole" shebang of parenting in the memoir, rather than those Instagram pics or Facebook posts when we, very disingenuously, praise the gift of being a parent as a 24-7 miracle, as you know the truth is dirtier than that.
Being a parent sucks a lot of the time. And men very rarely talk about being a parent of a toddler on the page, carting around a diaper bag, etc, and I wanted to include that. I needed to show people how domesticity is a real-deal threat to my sobriety, day in day out. No one really talks about that because nobody wants to think of someone relapsing with a young kid.
It's funny because I can tell stories in the book about fist fights or affairs or robbing people or an almost-suicide but maybe the riskiest writing in Sirens has to do with what we're talking about, those secret explosions of domestic status quo. I'd never read the nuts and bolts of having a young kid talked about in this way, which dictated that I had to go there. Baby Bjorns are the new special K.
I loved the UFO! It was so weird in such a wonderful way. But, different strokes.
Maybe it's the people I hang out with, but the baby thing struck me as the most taboo. Because you're right. Parenting is wonderful and that's the final word.
I was a little surprised at the levels of debauchery you reached. We've only met a few times, we've talked online a bunch, and I like to think I can get a good read on people. Never would have thought. But I guess I didn't meet you until Ava was born?
Do you think people will be surprised to learn some of this stuff about you?
Wait. Hold on. Let's get back to what really matters, Fargo. I liked ALL of the UFO stuff, until we got to that one moment in the season's climax, in which our hero was about to be bludgeoned... but his attacker stopped right as he was about to wield the kill-shot, suddenly looking up at the UFOs. You really liked that? It didn't strike you as convenient?
Yes, it was convenient. But there were a couple of things I liked about it. First: The callback to The Man Who Wasn't There, which I dig because I'm a nerd like that. Second: Because you can't tease UFOs all season and then NOT show a UFO. That would be ridiculous. Three: I loved Peggy's dismissive reaction to her husband. "Oh, it's a UFO, Ed." Which was like the writers winking at the audience, which helped sell it for me.
But there's the bigger picture. One of the themes of the show was justice, biblical and otherwise, so you could say that divine intervention—especially intervention that dooms the bad guy and saves the good guy—is appropriate. A UFO is suited to the paranoia, the political climate of the time period, and the geography—because people only ever tend to see UFOs in the middle of nowhere. And the selling point of the show was that it's the middle of nowhere.
In the end, though, I always appreciate ballsy. And going that weird is ballsy.
Then why can't you get on board the UFO with me?
I just had a visceral reaction to it. I was there, in that parking lot, in that chaos. It felt like realism because it was. And I'm fine with realism that includes UFOs, but i don't know, call me old-fashioned, but saving the hero's life like that—maybe it was just the way they shot it?—just felt lazier than the rest of the season's writing. Or I'm an old crank.
Well, like I said: Different strokes. We can still be friends.
Back to the actual book we're supposed to be talking about. The device of talking to the doctor who pioneered the heart surgery you underwent—and him being a Nazi doctor—was fascinating. Because I did the same thing you did: When my daughter got her diagnosis, I did a ton of research, including into the doctor who figured out how to fix it.
Vivien Thomas was an African American surgeon in the 1940s who apprenticed for a white surgeon who was kind of a dick. Thomas didn't really get proper credit for a very long time. There's a cheesy HBO movie about him called Something the Lord Made with Mos Def and Alan Rickman.
It's incredible—these stories behind the procedures. When you found out Forssmann was a Nazi doctor, did things sort of snap into place? Because, I'm not comparing you to a Nazi doctor, but you found a powerful comparison, about the way a person's life can be a collection of good things and a collection of bad things.
The Nazi doctor (it's taking all my willpower to skip over the Mos Def/Alan Rickman combo but we've had our allotted digression) was what really helped me structure the book. The timeline of this memoir is pretty crazy, two "parallel" stories, one told in past tense, the other in present, and they sync up for the climax, that wouldn't have ever dawned on me without Forssmann, the man who invented cardiac catheterization.
Essentially, the good and the bad of me meet in the climax: the sober dad has to relapse on opiates for the heart surgery. The reader knows I'm an addict, knows about my daughter. So the good/bad dilute into one confusing identity, just like Forssmann who was a Nazi, yes, and yet his research has saved countless lives. I like to write into those sorts of complexities. Without Forssmann's muddy moral presence, I'm not sure there's a book here.
(Mos Def, in fairness, is a pretty good actor, but yes, it was an odd combination.)
Obviously, from reading the book, we see the change Ava has made within you. Going forward from here, beyond the memoir, how does that affect your outlook as a writer? I write mainly crime fiction, and before my daughter was born I was happy to wallow in the gutter and indulge nihilistic tendencies. And now I don't want do to that so much. I want to find and focus on the more hopeful notes in a story. I want to believe that even in someone's darkest moment there's an opportunity for salvation. You?
I'm finding myself drawn more to female leads. I'm deep in a new novel about the first female poker dealer in gold rush San Francisco, loosely based on a real person. She was such a badass it's crazy and that's something that feels necessary to me as a writer right now: showing Ava as much badass Femaleness as I can.
Obviously, she doesn't need me for that. There are so many narratives about badass Femaleness but it feels important to me to contribute to the discussion in some small way.
Plus, gold rush San Francisco was a fascinating/terrifying place. Eight to ten murders a night. The hypodermic needle was a brand new invention. So, you know, a lot of good decisions were being made.
I remember you telling me about that when I was up in Seattle. I am really looking forward to that. And I understand that inclination. I'm kicking around an idea that might be a novel or a comic book with a female protagonist who has the same heart defect as my daughter. Spin it as a strength.
Final question: Do you ever think that, for as cool as it is to be a published author, Ava is just going to roll her eyes because you're her dad and whatever you do is inherently lame?
You should definitely write that book about your daughter's heart defect as some sort of super power! That's super rad.
And yes, we have no choice but to be lame in our children's eyes, I guess. But to me, I'll happily take lame. Lame means that I haven't relapsed, haven't been kicked out of our house, haven't disappeared in a syringe full of special K. Lame is a badge of honor. I don't want to ruin my life again, and if I'm lame, that means I'm here. And if I'm here, that means I have a family.
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