I generally have a bad memory, so I’m not sure when or how I met Josh, exactly. What I do know is it happened at some conference or MFA residency. He was chatty and I’m fairly taciturn and so we complemented each other in that way.
I used to think I wrote out-there stories, until I met Josh and read some of his stuff. His books free-dive into the murky depths of human consciousness and experience and don’t come back up until they’ve discovered something strange, violent, and above all true about what it is to be a person. You’ll find a lot of bizarre, inexplicable, and deeply uncomfortable stuff in a Joshua Mohr novel, but what you won’t find even a trace of is bullshit. The guy’s only interested in faithful reports from the molten core of the human condition, and his latest, Farsickness (House of Vlad, 2023), is no exception.
Ron Currie: There’s Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, and then there’s your new book FARSICKNESS. The two things everyone’s talking about!
Joshua Mohr: There’s no doubt about that. There is a huge crush of kids camping out in my front yard. I made everyone big hearty breakfasts of blueberry pancakes. Miss Swift, if you’re reading this, I’ll make you a pancake, too.
RC: The book, Josh. You know I love the book.
JM: It grew out of two things: the Hollywood writers’ strike and a late-night screening of Pan’s Labyrinth. Obviously, the strike brought to screeching pauses all the projects I’ve been pecking at the last few years. And so, reading the Strike Tea Leaves in April of this year, I decided to write something prose-y—and I wrote this novella in literally three weeks. I had a draft done before the strike officially started at the top of May.
The second important influence: I was watching that Del Toro film and thinking about escapism—how we normally see what someone is escaping—and also where they are escaping to. So in the story, I wanted to obfuscate the triggers, the why of the quest,and use that mystery to propel the reader deeper on the mind-fuck adventure. In a weird way, it shares some alchemy with Reservoir Dogs: a heist movie that doesn’t show the heist. But in the case of my narrative, the “heist” is somebody losing their mind. That’s the precious jewel that’s been stolen.
There is one more ingredient that the project grew out of: I wanted to make art with my nine-year-old daughter, Ava. She illustrated the project. Her watercolors really bring a whimsical energy that this dark project needs. It isn’t a children’s story at all, but her art helps the work have a childlike wonder.
RC: Okay, so let’s talk about withholding a second. You and I, of course, regularly nerd out on things like this.
JM: Nerd power! And yes, we’ve spent hours talking arcane Nerd philosophy.
RC: I’m continually fascinated/baffled by why withholding and providing information is so enticing to readers when it’s done well. The simplest version of this is like in a horror movie when the character is facing the viewer, as it were, and so can’t see the killer emerge in the doorway behind her. But WE can see the killer. Why is that dichotomy of information so compelling?
JM: It’s so fun! it engages our inner voyeur, not only peeking inside someone’s life (maybe even the surreptitious drama of the human heart), but it’s how to accrue and release tension. My job as a storyteller is to incite an appetite in the audience to NEED to know more. Then I’ll make them work to find those answers, so it isn’t just: Is that killer gonna murder that person in the horror story? It’s also when the Truth might come out, and how those collisions of emotion and motive can glue the reader in her seat. In Farsickness, you don’t know why Hal is doing what he’s doing. Hopefully, that makes you want to seek the answers in the book’s back half.
RC: Right. You suspect he’s out of his mind, and he is, in a way, but there’s also a solid, earthbound, explicable reason he’s out of his mind. You want to know something weird?
JM: I always want to know something weird.
RC: For the last three days around this time, three A-10 Warthog attack aircraft have been taking off from the municipal airport near me, basically buzzing my house, and heading out to sea. Couple hours later, they come back. This is not a military base. It’s the Portland Maine jetport.
JM: Sounds to me like you’re providing information to entice the reader. You are legit proving the point of all this nerd pop psychology. LOL.
RC: Right? What are they doing?
JM: I WANT TO KNOW MORE! My gut says that soon, they’ll let liquid LSD rain all over your fair city and soon, the entire population will seem surreal like Farsickness.
RC: If my wifi goes down, you’ll know why. I’ve been killed by a squadron of A-10s. So, since Farsickness is such a strange, fractured, inscrutable narrative, it raises for me the old question of whether authorial intent matters in reading a book… In other words, if whatever you intend the story to “mean” matters, or whether it’s important for the reader to perceive and understand that meaning. What’s your take, just generally and with regard to this book specifically?
JM: I don’t believe authorial intention should matter to anyone but the artist—and barely to us! My books are in suspended animation until a reader is generous enough to bring it to life with her heart and head. At that point, the story is hers. I try to abide by Lars Von Trier’s notion that auteurs should leave the Avenues of Interpretation open for the audience. We want to empower them.
Farsickness, specifically, is an esoteric puzzle, an arty mind-fuck, but for me, coming out of the pandemic, this story is realism. I entered lockdown a pretty fucked up person. Bipolar junkie. Four-time stroke survivor. After lockdown and to this day, I’m not sure that I’m all right. I went crazy and might still be in the middle of it. Which is a long way to say that this story is realism to me, a very hallucinatory realism. There is a big part of me that feels like I lost my mind during the pandemic. I have a feeling a lot of us did, which makes the present day so confusing. We don’t even talk about it. Not really. I’m walking around right now like a picked scab.
RC: As the great modern philosopher Christina Aguilera said, You are beautiful in every single way. Words can’t bring you down. I know you love that song.
JM: I’m listening to it right now. It’s a part of my morning ritual as I organize my vision board.
RC: Tell me what’s on your vision board this very moment.
JM: Assuming I had one, it would just be one of those eyesight tests from the DMV but filled with Rorschach inkblots. You just blurt out the first thing you see. It is a very subjective DMV.
Honestly, my vision is terrible. I was in the car with my daughter, and I stopped to let an old person cross the street. Spoiler alert: it was a fire hydrant.
RC: That’s not true.
JM: Ask my kid. That was the worst part. She noticed it was a fire hydrant before I did. You should’ve seen the scathing way she gazed at me in the rearview. I almost just let her drive home.
RC: Here’s a question about the book that’s actually about the larger ongoing conversation you and I have about being a man in 2023: is the narrator of Farsickness a man or a woman?
JM: Hal is mostly an avatar, though he has male genitalia. This story is ultimately about how PTSD is a skeleton key that opens a lot of doors that we most likely want to leave closed. I love how Pan’s Labyrinth calibrates that balancing act between what the character needs to escape from, and the magical world she’s constructed to tolerate all this trauma.
That’s key for any story about escaping, whether the Spanish Civil War in the case of the flick, or Hal’s own consciousness in the book. That ‘equal’ access creates dynamic and dramatic hemispheres for the story to play with, play in. If I’ve written this right, the reader is wonderfully on her heels the whole time.
RC: The theme of guilt seems to be very much at work in this story, and how the intersection of guilt and memory can knock us off our bearings. Can you speak to
JM: Guilt and Shame! Those are arguably my two favorite things to write about. From a characterization standpoint, I love them as both a reader and an author. When a character trusts me with her shame—when she tells me the thing she doesn’t want to admit to her best friend or shrink, that’s where I find a tremendous amount of empathy for that character.
When they start telling their secrets, that’s when real deal camaraderie begins to be nurtured. With enough oxygen and sunlight, that affinity will grow immensely in stature, simply due to the level of verisimilitude about those guilts and shames.
I heard Paul Harding give a lecture one time where he offered this advice: write what you know, but never write what you understand. Guilt can be such a bully in our skulls, and it’s a great Self Antagonist. Hal’s guilt is his portal.
RC: Ooh, I like that.
JM: I know what guilt and shame are, of course, by definition, but fuck all if I really understand them. They are malicious monoliths. They are alcoholic parents fighting in the living room while you use your pillow to protect your ears from the poison spewing from their mouths.
RC: How could you understand them? They’re meant to baffle and confound us.
JM: That’s why they have so much heat on the page! I never seek to write toward easy answers. I write toward the Moral Mud. Nothing makes me lose interest in a story quicker than clarity. I hate authors and narrators who sound like they’re playing Parcheesi with the gods up on Mt. Olympus, and they’re graciously slumming it with us mere mortals. No way. Fuck that. I like writers who are honest about their confusions. That’s where intimacy lives, and that’s why I love to read books: Intimacy. I want an author to break my heart.
My favorite books—be it Baldwin’s Another Country or Nabokov’s Pale Fire—are all about the kinds of fragile junk that make this whole being alive enterprise so bemusing, so perplexing.
RC: So is it fair to say that one thing that makes a story interesting is not an explanation of a thing, but rather a failed effort to explain the thing?
JM: I super dig Flannery O’Connor’s philosophy that reading should be Experienced Meaning. Explanations are for Wikipedia. Art is for existential questions. Everyone alive is very confused, whether we want to admit that or not.
In my work, I seek to confront that confusion by front-loading moral dilemmas for my characters, intentionally manufacturing scenes in which there really isn’t a right or wrong thing to do. You can articulate a cogent defense of either option in the scenario. This involves the reader in a dynamic and visceral way, forcing her to confront how she would handle the same obstacle. It will involve her and help conjure the necessary kinetic energy to keep the reader flipping pages.
RC: So Hal’s guilt is a portal. Say more about that, and try to be as explicit about what that means for Hal’s story as possible, i.e. talk about it in concrete terms of the story rather than in terms of storytelling philosophy, which you know feels like bullshit to me 70% of the time.
JM: He doesn’t know how to forgive himself, and in a sense, has fetishized that Guilt so splendidly that it isn’t a concept or an abstraction, it is a place. The concept of Farsickness is from the word Fernweh, meaning to be homesick for a place you’ve never been. For Hal, he begins hearing a voice calling him to a castle in Scotland. I wanted to juxtapose that with this ol’ Junkie Saw: wherever you go, there you are. The novella is a picaresque quest set in Hal’s subconscious. That’s where we fight the real battles anyway.
RC: Hal might disagree with you on that point.
JM: Exactly! Yes! That is one of the leitmotifs that the narrative tussles with, a huge ingredient in the book’s alchemy in its back half: The wars we fight literally end, and yet the ones we wage in our brains can be Greek Mythology-style punishments. Hal needs to journey into that maze of unanswerable questions. He needs to go to a different kind of war.
RC: I have a thought sometimes, when I’ve been staring at my own belly button for too long, that if I ever experienced real danger, I would never again spend so much time and effort contemplating what’s in my head. That the concrete reality of, say, combat would cure me of it. But you’re saying the exact opposite, in a way, which would seem to be supported by the mental struggles of so many combat veterans.
JM: I don’t think so. They aren’t opposites, so much as complimentary opposites. Light and dark. One of my soldier pals is home and safe, has been for years—and he’ll start crying if he hears a car backfire. His war is never going to end, and he is the only person who can see and hear and smell and touch and taste the detritus of his combat.
RC: My father would hit the deck if someone took his picture with a flash camera.
JM: And to bring it all around, full circle, to something I said at the top of all this pretentious yammering: Because of lockdown, now the whole world has ‘Pandemic PTSD’ (Trademark pending. LOL). We are all crying at car backfires or hitting the floor when the camera pops. Collectively, we’re all so damaged right now and nobody wants to discuss their suffocating anguish. We want to pretend that life’s all selfies and boba tea, but we’ve endured a collective trauma and we now pretend that we didn’t. We’re fine. This is normal. Buy a Tesla and act like all this is totally copacetic!
RC: Or if we do talk about it, it’s within the framework of pop psychology or identity politics or some other mechanism that seems designed, in a way, to move us further from what we’re actually feeling, rather than closer.
JM: The battle is ‘over.’ But that’s only what’s visible. The battles are beautiful malfunctions in our heads that will burn forever if we don’t learn how to heal.
RC: You sound like a super-butch Tony Robbins right now. It’s pretty hot.
JM: You flirt. Your pop psychology point is a huge one; It’s one of the reasons most books suck right now. They don’t have blood in their veins. Cleanly and competently told, sure, very MFA-ish. But no blood.
RC: Everything couched in safe language, everything neatly pathologized and explicable.
JM: So boring! So beige against the machine!
RC: But so, so comforting. So how do we reconcile that, then? We don’t begrudge people comfort, right?
JM: Cesar Cruz said that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I believe that theory in my bones, and yes, I do begrudge people’s comfort in their art. Have a comfy chair. Buy comfy shoes. Eat some pot roast. Let your art fucking disturb you.
RC: Like Howie Long, I recommend Skechers. Okay, so an impassioned demand to make art that disturbs you.
JM: Artists are in a disturbing contraption. These days, it is like the trash compactor scene from the original Star Wars, one wall squeezing us is censorship on the right politically, and the other wall is censorship from the left. My politics are far left of most, so the censorship on the right doesn’t bother me. It is the censorship on OUR side. If you don’t like what a certain artist has to say, then don’t read it. But don’t pretend that your ‘fantastic’ taste should be curated for other people. There is so much hubris in that.
RC: That reminds me of a recent piece I read in the Atlantic about how the author, once a big proponent of trigger warnings, now believes they’re harmful. Thoughts?
JM: Art isn’t a pack of cigarettes and doesn’t need some self-deputized surgeon general. Books are supposed to make us feel, to move us emotionally. That’s not always a lullaby, nor should it be. If you are triggered, the artist did her job. She made you feel. Instead of getting upset about that, maybe you should take the writer out to a kickass meal.More than anything, post-covid, I hope every artist decides to turn their back on the marketplace. Not in terms of trying to connect with readers or finding an audience. We all want those things. But I think agents and editors probably have too much authority right now in terms of what’s “good.” Artists–we are the ones who set the trends! Never forget that without your very unique and vibrant imagination, those aforementioned agents and editors wouldn’t have jobs. YOU are what’s important here. You! And you! And you and you and you…
Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s 10 Terrific reads of 2009, and All This Life, winner of the Northern California Book Award. Termite Parade was an editor’s choice on the New York Times Best Seller List. His memoir, Model Citizen was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. In his Hollywood life, he’s sold projects to AMC, ITV, and Amblin Entertainment.