Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Author Interview w/ Joshua Mohr

TNBBC was thrilled to host a live, week-long interactive interview with Joshua Mohr, author of Termite Parade and Some Things That Meant the World to Me .

A writer, teacher, and insomniac who finds inspiration between the hours of midnight and five a.m., Joshua gave us free reign to his brain!

TNBBC asked: Where did you get the inspiration for Termite Parade?

I like this question about the book's inspiration, but it's really hard to answer. I knew I wanted to write about lying. And I knew that I wanted it to be immediate, compressed, almost like reading a stage play. I wanted it to be short enough that a reader could ingest the whole experience in a few hours.

I carried those "parameters" around for awhile, and then a friend of mine knocked her two front teeth out. As she was enduring the dental procedures to fix things up and relaying the severe pain to me, I built the story backward from there... knowing I wanted my female protagonist to be missing her chompers.

Tracy said: I was wondering how did you choose the title Termite Parade? How does the title relate to the characters and plot of the book? I am also interested in the cover art and it's significance to the book.

I actually have a hard time with titles. "Termite Parade" was probably my 8th attempt. I kept sending them to my agent and editor and they kept saying "Uh-huh, nice try, kid. Maybe go get an MBA instead..."

I finally settled on TP because one of the narrators has termites infesting his body, chomping on his organs (or so he imagines)... it's really his guilt gutting him as he's done something pretty terrible to his girlfriend.

Also, the phrase seemed to modify the whole flawed cast of characters: the dictionary defines termites as "insects that live in colonies and are highly destructive." I don't know about you, but that certainly sums up a few people I know!

The cover was designed by a San Francisco collage artist named Aubrey Rhodes. She's amazing.

TNBBC said: I love how you mixed in your own ideas with things that were happening around you at the time. It brings a whole new life to the novel that way!

When I was reading Termite Parade, I found myself relating to both characters so strongly. In too many ways to express, I'm very much like Mired (the female lead) - refusing or unable at times to see my part in the downfall of a relationship, or believing that I am in the wrong. Yet I'm also much like Derek (the male lead) - in that I allow guilt to eat me up inside before confessing to something.

Do you find that your fans relate more strongly to one character over another, or are they more like me, and see themselves reflected too clearly in both?

I don't actually think writers can separate what's going on in their own lives from their art. Sometimes, we tackle them head on (memoir), and others, we construct a series of metaphors (fiction) to examine what's going on in the weird, charming, scary, exhilirating world around us.

Mired is my absolute favorite character. She's definitely the heart and soul of the book. In Mired, I found a way to excavate all the self-destruction that characterized my twenties and early thirties--I needed to try and find meaning in all that chaos, the "slow learning"... the seeming impossibility of evolving into a better person.

Tracy said: The Termite Parade is a very intriguing book. Is it available in other e-book formats besides the Kindle edition? So far that's the only e-book format I see online.

For now, the only e-format is Kindle. But if you let me know what you're looking for, I can start bugging my publisher... maybe refuse to turn in my next manuscript until they get their e-shit together :)

Sarah said: I read Termite Parade a few weeks back and loved it and I just read Some Things That Meant the World to Me last night all in one sitting. Both were incredibly powerful and I was just wondering if there was a way to write to you and tell you that, when, bam, a message from Goodreads!

I was wondering if you find a broken male character harder or easier to write than a broken female character (Rhonda vs. Mired). Also, I know this must sound crazy, but is it as painful/beautiful to write their stories as it is to read them?

First off, thanks so much for reading both books! It means a lot to me (seriously, I know how many books are out there, and I'm incredibly thankful when anybody takes the time for my sordid little stories.).

I really like the question you're asking here about penning a broken male character versus a damaged female lead. I'd like to answer it two ways:

First--I do my best to deconstruct the idea of gender when it comes to pathos, vulnerability, and shame. We all do things that we're embarrassed by; we all possess that gruesome trove of humiliating memories. So I try to just think about is as a consciousness, independent of gender: maybe that's the writer's real job (or at least one of them)--to fully inhabit the mind, heart, and soul of the character, and not let genitalia trump earnestness.

Second--and only to complicate matters, of course gender is a real thing that needs to be pondered. Mired as a woman sees her life differently than Rhonda, a guy. And it's their very nuances and idiosyncracies that either make the story work or fail.

It comes down to a question of characterization--do you as a writer know your players inside and out? Do you know their secrets, motives, passions, biases? Often, this takes several drafts to figure out the protagonists' secrets, but once you do, that's when they stand on stage and sing.

TNBBC said: Speaking of secrets and passions, can you share a bit of each with us? What is one secret that you kept from someone else, before eventually spilling the beans, and what are the things you are most passionate about?

You're already after my secrets, Lori? We're just getting to know each other! :)

Let's see: a secret: on one vacation, every time people asked what I did for a living I pretended that I'd invented the Caps Lock key and was independently wealthy.

You asked about things I'm passionate about. First one that comes to mind is teaching. I have a fiction workshop here in San Francisco. I also do thesis advising in the MFA program at USF, which is a blast, reading and helping people with their first books.

Abbey said: Some Things That Meant the World to Me is such a visual and visceral novel for me. The physical pulling apart of the house, the snakes, everything to me creates such a brilliant picture I was hoping you could tell us when the book will hit the big screen?

In both (of your novels) your characters are so perfectly fucked up in the most compelling way. I particularly want to share more of Rhonda's world-weary experiences. Have you written more for him or would you consider continuing his story?

Your characters have the most amazing neuroses is it diffcult to stop writing for them or do you enjoy creating new characters around the theme you are writing for?

Thanks for checking out the books. I appreciate it.

I'd like to see Rhonda (the narrator of my first novel) make his big splash in Hollywood, too. I'm getting tired of living in squalor. All this mac and cheese is twacking my skin.

People ask me a lot if there are plans for Rhonda to return. And the answer is I don't know... I'm definitely opposed to a "sequel" for a sequel's sake. But if the right plotline shows itself to me, I enjoy spending time in Rhonda's head and his damaged psyche allows my imagination an incredible liberty.

But the good news is this: the book I'm just finishing up now (and slotted for release next fall) is set in the bar that Rhonda frequents, Damascus. It's an ensemble piece, sort of like an old R. Altman movie, following 7 misfits. I promise to keep it twisted for you, Abbey!

TNBBC asked: What drew you toward teaching? What's the best piece of advice you have given to a student/aspiring author?

The best piece of advice I give students is from Pablo Picasso. In fact, they're such wise words I tattooed them on my arm: "The chief enemy of creativity is good taste."

Artists can't worry about what's popular now, shouldn't pander to an audience. It's our job to set trends, not follow them.

TNBBC asked: What do love most about teaching?

Teaching makes me articulate things about story construction that I may know intuitively (or think I know), but having to explicate it to others, I'm constantly learning new things, shifting prerogatives, evolving my thoughts on how to build narrative.

I also love the community aspect of the classroom, as writers spend so much time alone. Being surrounded by other people who love language helps me balance out all the time sequestered in front of the computer. We need community.

Plus, I'd yammer on like a pretentious douche for free, and the fact that I get paid for it, I feel lucky.

TNBBC asked: What is the writing process like for you? When do you find you write most productively?

I'm an insomniac, so I get most of my words down between midnight and 5 a.m. For me, it's an ideal time because there's no cell, texting, email, etc. The world is so quiet.

I also have this theory (based on absolutely zero science) that for some reason the gap between my conscious and subconscious mind is somehow smaller in the wee hours, and I'm able to access parts of my imagination that don't normally show themselves.

Tracy said: That's funny (last night either right after going to bed or this morning after waking up) I was thinking about the process of book writing and wondering Joshua, do you use any of you actual dreams in the writing of your books or you interpretations of them? If you think of something inspirational in the middle of the night, do you quickly jot it down for future reference and development?

I have a terrifying recurrent dream that my hands are made of carrots and i'm being chased by starving children. I try not to analyze what the hell it might mean...

I do think that dreams can be useful, though it's dangerous to write dreams for your characters (they can seem stilted, boring, spoon-feeding). But when you're able to incorporate your own in vital ways, they can add an exciting layer because they're not bound by "believability" or convention or all the voices in our heads that tell us to play it safe (our inner-critics, who are usually incredibly mean to us).

In "Some Things that Meant the World to Me," the main character comes from a broken home--a literal broken home... its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. That's staight from a dream I had in grad school.

I always tell my students to write rough drafts like they're improvising musicians, go anywhere on the page that their imaginations want to. Don't be self-conscious (that's for revision), but be wanton and strong and liberated.

TNBBC asked: What are you reading right now? And what books or authors are your favorite?

I'm rereading "Infinite Jest" right now. It's been over 10 years since I spent time in that narrative. And it might be a high maintenance read, but man, are the pay offs amazing!

Tracy asked: Does your typical day usually include writing for a book you would like to get published?

I do write every day, or at least five or six late night/early mornings a week. With fiction, you don't normally sell a book until it's done--unlike nonfiction where people sell proposals. Unless, of course, you're a famous novelist, and I'm more likely to work at a fast food restaurant than get famous writing my tawdry stories...). So I've been working for about three years on what will be my next novel, which it sounds like will come out next October.

TNBBC said: Since you bring up your fears of working in a fast food restaurant (jokingly, of course) what were some of the strangest or most embarrassing jobs you have ever held?

My second year of college, I was a chimney sweep. I'd go from house to house, five days a week, almost 10 stops in a day. It was during the OJ Simpson trial, and it was interesting how everyone was watching it when I went in their houses, regardless of demography. Some of them offered me beer, some water, some nothing. Others just glared and told me to be careful on their white carpets. I began judging "good" customers by whether or not I left their houses with a buzz.

Lahni said: First I want to say thank you for spending time with us. I want to know what you were like in school and as a kid growing up. What kinds of classes did you like/hate? How did you do in them? Were you quiet? Popular? Nerdy? That kind of thing. Did you always want to be a writer?

I didn't come to reading and writing until pretty late in life. In fact, I faked my way through every book report until my senior year in high school. The books they were assigning just didn't grab me. There's nothing wrong with Jane Austen and Mark Twain, but I don't want to read stories like that.

It wasn't until a teacher called me on faking a report, threatened to flunk me, and told me I had a weekend to read and critique Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" or I'd be on the five-year plan. And that's when my life changed; Vonnegut's novel warped everything, in a fantastic way. Suddenly, I saw the powers of reckless imagination I'd been craving. I asked that teacher for a reading list and he turned me onto some heavy hitters--Kesey, Orwell, Paley, Murakami, Lori Moore, etc. I've been a book-junkie ever since.

As for whether or not I was nerdy or whatnot, it would depend who you asked. I played in rock and roll bands, dressed like a postmodern rodeo clown, was an "average" student, and dropped a lot of acid in high school, which gave me cred in some circles, but in others (namely those who were going to good colleges), I was probably something of a laughing stock.

To which the narrator of "Slaughterhouse Five" would say: "So it goes..."

Sarah said: I know we're supposed to be talking about Termite Parade in this thread, and while I did like that a lot, I have one more question about Some Things That Meant The World To Me. Did you give Rhonda his own name in your head? You don't have to tell me what it is, but I'd feel better knowing his name exists somewhere, even if you/he don't use it.

I'm just as happy to talk about STTMTWTM, as opposed to TP. I did name Rhonda, and I had several endings for the book that dealt more explicitly with Rhonda's real name. In fact, if you'd like to check one of them out, here's a URL:


And yes, I know what his real name is. I'll tell you in person, but not online. Next time you're in San Francisco, let's get a beer.

Also, at that same web address, there are extra chapters written in the first person (the "I" voice) from old lady Rhonda's and Vern's perspective. Neither gets to speak on their own behalf in the actual book, so please let me know what you think of their voices.


Many thanks to Joshua Mohr for allowing us to take up some of his time this week, and for being such a great sport! And thanks also goes out to the TNBBCers who participated in this week's author interview!

For information on the Joshua Mohr, visit his website, view the Termite Parade book trailer, and follow him on Twitter, and Facebook

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