A Conversation with Joshua Mohr About His New Novel, 'All This Life'
Hashtags are like emotions that people can see.
All This Life, Joshua Mohr's fifth novel, is both a love letter to San Francisco, and a dark and hysterical dissection of social media culture. The book opens with a marching band leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and follows an ensemble cast of characters who were directly or indirectly involved with the event—and their slow march toward each other.
It's a really fantastic book. A lot of writers think it's romantic to skewer our collective obsession with social media. Mohr is the first writer I've seen tilt at the windmill who I didn't feel embarrassed for. He digs deep, and finds illumination on both ends of it—the way it drives us apart, and the way it brings us together.
This thing is smart and funny and I could sit here and throw superlatives at it all day. Instead I'll just say: Read it. After our little chat, of course. Which, given the subject matter, was conducted on gchat (also because I will take any opportunity I can to not transcribe an interview).
The book opens with this incredible and startling image—a marching band making their way onto the Golden Gate Bridge and leaping off. I'm curious to know what the nexus point was. Did you start with the image, or did it come to you as you were sorting out the story?
I am a huge fan of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, which starts off with the tightrope walker between the Twin Towers, back in the 1970s. It's such a startling and mesmerizing image, it's so iconic New York, and I wanted to try and do something similar for San Francisco, my home for 20 years. I wanted the book to be both a love letter and an indictment of my town. So kicking the book off with a mass suicide seemed like the perfect way to do that, both honoring and creating a sense of anxious mystery.
That's one of the things that stuck out for me—I'm a native New Yorker, and there's a lot of the same thing happening here—the city's being stripped of character, and you get this feeling pretty soon you're going to have to prove you make six figures just to be allowed inside. Like a club you're not cool enough for anymore. Why do we love the places that do this to us?
I guess the answer has to be more complex than we're just fucking stupid, right? There is this Urban Masochism, where you dig your heels in, even if you don't dig the direction of the place. For example, I've lived in the Mission since the 90s, running around like a coked-up caveman, tons of literary events, tons of trouble, etc. The neighborhood teemed with artists. It's not like that anymore, which bums me out. All This Life is a pretty angry book, and I guess it's a way for me to grieve that: This great city that I loved/love is no longer alive. Now it's all tech-turds.
Huh. I would not call it angry. Sharp and biting, yes. But I left feeling uplifted. Which brings me to the next point: It's clearly an indictment of technology and social media culture. Is that because of the tech-turds taking over your town? Or does that come from someplace else?
If I've done my job right on the page, the narrative doesn't just demonize technology, it also shows some of its value. For example, there is a missing teenager in the book, who only communicates to his dad and his followers via Twitter. But it is that online communique that leads to him being located. I wanted to try and show both sides. Certainly there is a lot to bemoan about our swelling virtual lives, but there is goodness there, too. Granted, we mostly just use it for porn and cat memes, but eventually maybe probably possibly we'll figure it out. I know LitReactor's readers are mostly all aspiring writers themselves and it's something to ponder: How it's best to show both sides of the argument and leave space for the reader to make her own determinations. That way, things don't feel didactic.
Then you nailed that. Because one of the things I really loved is that while, yes, you're pointing out the ways it separates us—all those characters are brought together by it, too. Hence the uplifting part. It's easy to look at cell phone culture and say, "Well shit, why is everyone looking down at their phones all the time?" Well, yes, they're looking at their phones—they're reading and communicating and absorbing culture—and maybe they're just playing some goofy jewel game—but they're interacting, just not with the person next to them.
For sure, culture is a moving target. My iPhone was actually a huge part of writing All This Life. I had a brand new baby while working on the book and the only time I got to be alone was when I was in the laundromat underneath our apartment. So I always volunteered to go and I wrote the book by dictating passages to Siri. I would have never believed that I'd put narrative together that way, but it was either that or not work on the book. Technology allowed me to do that. Plus, muttering to yourself in a laundromat produces all kinds of good times.
Knowing this book was dictated to and then conveyed by Siri adds a whole new dimension to the narrative. I kind of wish there'd been a disclaimer. Speaking of narrative—you're juggling a large cast of characters. How do you keep them separate? And is it hard, to move from one voice to another?
It's always gross discovering how the sausage is made, or in this case how the sausage is dictated. I love ensemble storytelling. Those old Robert Altman films, man, with a huge cast that as a viewer, you're not sure how the hell all these various pieces will form a unified whole. But by the time the climax rolls around, these seemingly disparate pieces all come together in exciting way. I love that challenge. This book took a long time. The voices always come later in the drafting process for me. The first few drafts are mostly about plot, getting that spine of the story down, so that way I have something to build on. Voice gets clearer as i make more character-discoveries in the remix process.
So many aspiring writers expect books to be good in the first or second draft and it just doesn't work that way, at least not for me. My novels are fucking disasters at first, and it's up to me to keep my morale up until things get less clunky. So many writers get frustrated and abandon books. I say, embrace the slop! Swig coffee, listen to punk rock, and roll around in the book's filth.
For sure—I feel like for the first draft you just need to lean in to the bad. Once it's on the page you can shape it into whatever you want. Did you outline this, or just start at the beginning and plow forward? What's the prep for a book like this look like?
Zero prep. I always know a book's opening image, in this case the mass suicide. And I never want to know anything else. I dig the reckless discovery process. I'm not good with rules, Rob, even if i have made them. Outlines are not my friend. Of course, that leads to tons of wrong turns along the way, and I'm fine with that too. Most of the good scenes are always weird veers I never see coming anyway.
That's kind of incredible to me. This book feels so purposeful. These disparate parts drawing up into a whole at the end. I wrote my first book without an outline and I'm afraid to ever do that again. I went into the second with an outline and felt so much better. Was there anything you really struggled with on this? Any point where you hit a wall and wanted to throw your hands up? And if so, how did you work through it?
I had a huge tone problem for many drafts. The book was sorta ha-ha jokey. I was probably reading too much George Saunders. He makes me believe that I'm funny on the page (I'm not). Now, there is no easy way to fix a tonal problem, other than to rewrite the fucker. So that's what I did. I kept the same plot, same characters and imagery and structure, and I opened another doc and started over. It was a dark time, Rob.
I did that for my first book. Ground up rewrite. It was the most terrifying thing in the world. To have all these words on the page and have to accept, "Nope, it's not working, need to start fresh." This is your fifth novel—is it easier to roll with a punch like that?
At the end of the day, our loyalty has to be to the story, not our ego. I wasn't happy about doing the tone draft—it took almost a year, but it's what the book needed in order to authentically communicate the lives of the characters. To be honest, I probably WOULD NOT have done something like this with my first book. That's cool that you did. I would have wrapped myself in some bullshit pretentious bulletproof vest, filibustering about how nobody understands what I'm trying to do on the page, probably wearing a monocle, too.
I did not do it willingly. But a buddy of mine—and he's a NYT best seller, so I'm inclined to listen to him—advised me that I should. At that point there's really no arguing. Even though you really, really want to. Thank you, by the way, for liking my post on Facebook while I was writing this question. I'm glad we're both goofing around on Facebook in the background. Feels apropos.
So you mentioned having to sneak away to the laundry room now that you've got a kid. I'm not there yet—my daughter can't move under her own power yet, so I just wait until she naps and open my laptop and furiously type until she wakes up. But in terms of headspace—has becoming a parent changed how you approached writing?
Enjoy those sedentary days! Once they can move, it's just fucking over. It's like living with Leatherface, peril every single direction. I'm digging being a parent. It's hard. People don't talk enough about how hard it is. There were some days right after she was born that I wondered how mad my wife would be if I left her at the fire station. That happens less and less, which must be a good sign. In all seriousness, having a daughter is a beautiful mind-fuck. I've never been so tired, so impossibly behind, so just barely holding things together, but I wouldn't have it any other way. She has affected my preoccupations on the page, for sure. She makes me want to believe that there's hope for us, despite all evidence to the contrary. She makes me hold out that as a species we might get our shit together yet.
That sort of feels like an ending to me... what do you think?
I do, but I have one more question—given your hopes and expectations for this book—is there anything you wish I had been clever enough to ask about?
Ha. I get a tattoo for every new novel and you didn't ask me what the All This Life one will be. Now I'll never tell.
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