Sunday, July 26, 2015

Joshua Mohr talks about ALL THIS LIFE (alert: it is the most haunting, moving, fierce novel), technology's enriching or destorying us, and why he needs help for his Taylor Swift addiction

 I had heard that Joshua Mohr has a cult following, which always makes me a little nervous, but after reading his brilliant first chapter, I must say I would have donned a robe a followed him anywhere. This is a bold, fierce, genius book, and I can't tell you how dazzled I am to have Joshua Mohr here. I'm going to read every word he has ever written, and I think all of you should, too. Thank you, Josh, for being so amazing and for coming on the blog.

Holy Moly mother of God, I’ve said this to you before, but this book was like lightning sparking in my whole body. It’s genius. So I always want to know, what sparked this story (sorry for the lightening metaphor). What was it that was haunting you that made you need to write this?

That word, HAUNT, is perfect because this book came from ghosts: The apparitions of San Francisco, a city I love so much.  I wanted to write about the tech boom and gentrification and displacement and the way in which our digital lives can so often dominate our analog ones.  So various ghosts are all over this book, informing each other, crying, screaming, pleading, kissing.  "All This Life" is a book about the various interpretations of connection.  And I'm interested in legacies (another ghost-approved word): The things that live on in our brains like YouTube clips, looping endlessly.

All This Life is the perfect title because so much is about life being “lived” online and off, about having followers, and fame virtually, about recording life, and about TV screens that actually look better than life itself.  As one of your characters remarks, why comment on someone’s update when you’ve walked past twenty real, living people, and never said a word to them?  Do you think there is a solution to this? And where do you see this all going?

I have a 2 year old daughter so I think about this all the time, how to teach her to use technology to enrich her real life, rather than to dominate it, anesthetize her from this beautiful sloppy world.  I wonder if since these screens and gadgets are so new to us that we don't know how to sip them, instead guzzling their nectar like frat boys.  Maybe my daughter's generation will have an easier time moderating, as all the tech will be ubiquitous their whole lives.  That's what I hope happens, but it's easy to envision some grim future, all of us sitting in dark rooms, pallid and hungry, having the time of our online lives. 

What I also loved so much were all the characters and how you slowly and expertly begin to make the connections between them, building to one of the most startling and satisfying endings  I’ve ever read. There’s Paul and his troubled son Jake. Rodney, suffering from an accident and yearning for the mother who abandoned him, Sara who might actually love him, Wes the mysterious--and so many more. Which brings me to the question of craft. So how do you write? Did you plan all this out first? do you outline a little or not at all? Do you believe in the Muse or not?

I love the muse!  I'm not a planner; you could say I'm an anti-planner.  I only want to know the opening image of a narrative and nothing more.  Then I spend three or four years diving down every single rabbit hole I can find.  Some lead to nothing useful. Others lead to magic.  But it's never boring making art that way.  You just have to be a willing explorer.  I'm leery of things I think I know about a story.  I want the story to whisper in my ear, rather than any authorial superimpositions.  The best material, at least in my process/experience, comes from organic discovery.  It’s not efficient or elegant, but that’s how I do my best work.

All This Life isn’t just about the damage living virtually can do. It also explores San Francisco and gentrification, something that is horrifyingly happening everywhere. In The West Village, stores are being shuttered because rents are being increased by the 20 thousands. Brooklyn, which was once a joke, is now inaccessible to anyone who isn’t wealthy. Hoboken, where I live, is a one 10 minute stop to the Village, and homes are going for 3 million.  One character says, we always change neighborhoods when we move in--and that’s true. You pioneer a place that is filled with gunshots and violence, and the next thing you know there is an artisan cheese shop.  It actually seems to me the same thing as virtual living--i.e. there is a price with both, and we had better figure out how to change it, or at least lower it. Can you talk about this please?

Well, the tricky thing is that the book can't read like a polemic, some didactic rant in which the author skyscrapes on a soapbox.  No one wants to listen to me sermonize, so my task in this novel was to make these issues character-specific.  That way, it isn’t me going through these debates, it’s the main characters, and ultimately, the reader.  I want my reader to be drawing her own conclusions as the romp unfolds.  Reading is a lovely collaboration between author and audience.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that books are in a state of suspended animation until a reader generously brings it to life in her mind’s eye.  Has the tech money harmed San Francisco?  Well, it’s pricing out ethnic families, artists, anyone who isn’t making six figures is barely scraping by.  SF is on the cusp of becoming homogeneous, a bunch of rich people, mostly Caucasian, patting themselves on the back, and that’s dangerous.  This town has been THE destination for those rejected in other spots.  We have an invisible Statue of Liberty and it’s clad in the diversity flag.  We love everyone.  Or we used to.  That’s one of this book’s chief driving questions: What happens to a city that only values commerce?

What’s obsessing you now and why?

It’s my daughter, Ava, always Ava.  She is the best obsession.  She just started waking me up in the morning by saying, “Let’s play, daddy,” and it’s the most touching and profound and perfect way to begin a new day.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I always like to know secrets about other writers, so in that spirit I’ll tell your readers something that I keep on the sly: Ava already loves Taylor Swift, which means I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift, which means I’m spending every hour of every day singing/humming/whistling Taylor Swift, which means I hate myself, but I can’t stop.  It’s a situation.  Please send help.

No comments: