Joshua Mohr is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle bestselling novel Some Things That Meant the World to Me and Termite Parade, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selection. His latest novel, Damascus, is about art, protest, war, and more. The tension between fate and responsibility. A bartender with a birthmark that looks like Hitler’s mustache who buys a Santa Costume from a homeless man. A man with terminal cancer hiding his decline from his family. Mohr’s novel whorls around a dive bar in the mission district of San Francisco that hosts a controversial art show, brushes elbows with and sometimes plows right through many of the major questions and themes in contemporary American culture.
The climatic conflict of Damascus involves an art show with a very powerful, very pungent anti-war statement. Are there any topics that art should not explore or statements art is not allowed to make or not capable of making? Can art stop war?
I think art can teach empathy. It forces the reader to occupy different mindsets, different moral codes, varied sets of perceptions. So from that perspective, hopefully art can force us to examine our own beliefs. But in terms of stopping war, I doubt it. We seem to be too stupid to learn from most of our geopolitical mistakes. If Damascus is an anti-war book, it works similarly to Casablanca: the war is the backdrop, the setting, yet the story is all about the characters—the existential struggles that we all face each day.
At one point, a character is forced to choose between destroying art and being bodily mutilated. Is art worth bodily mutilation? Is art worth dying for?
I wouldn’t die for my art. Yet for the sake of the book, I pushed the metaphor to the ultimate extreme: what about yourself are you willing to sacrifice for your artistic values? I love questions that don’t have answers. Hopefully, devices like this involve the reader more deeply, as he/she stakes out his side of the argument. The reader emotionally invests in the character’s dilemma and thus becomes a part of the story himself.
In Damascus, the sources of many of the characters’ problems are beyond the characters’ control. One character has a birthmark that looks like Hitler’s mustache, can’t grow a real one, and can’t afford surgery to get it removed. Another has terminal cancer. Literature and fiction tend to shy away from the forces characters can do nothing about. How should literature and art confront and explore the problems we can’t solve? Should we tell stories where some things don’t change? Why or why not?
I think it was Milan Kundera who very poignantly said that a novel shouldn’t concern itself with answers: it should solely focus on posing the questions. The reader gets to populate her own set of answers. And in the case of Damascus, I cover a lot of very tough, very uncomfortable questions, varying from alcoholism to war to self-esteem battles to cancer. Different readers are going to have wildly different interpretations of the book.
Speaking of the cancer thread, the cancer patient in the novel, No Eyebrows, is based loosely on my father. He died about ten years ago from stage-four lung cancer. Writing about this topic was catharsis for me, deeply purging. So many people have lost loved ones to cancer that I hope the storyline appeals to a lot of them. Plenty of things happen in our lives that don’t make sense: what are we supposed to do with those pummeling confusions?
One of the primary motivators for the characters in the book is shame. Literature doesn’t usually look at shame in this way, but can shame be a positive or productive emotion?
I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic so shame is something I know a lot about. I did many things I’m not proud of. It’s a big part of my writing because shame is honest. Shame is the examination of action. It’s mostly expressed within our thought processes, how we talk to ourselves when nobody else can hear. In a novel, however, the reader can hear these thoughts, as they just so happen to be the voyeur peeking inside the character’s skull. Going back to what I said earlier about empathy, that’s my ultimate goal as an artist: to make a reader care about somebody they might typically disregard or discard. Letting the reader be privy to rationalizations or the shame that tumbles around our psyches goes a long way to building camaraderie between reader and main character.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is how you play with the symbols of “Hitler” and “Santa Claus.” Given how much they’re used, especially Hitler, are they still meaningful symbols? Is there a role for rote symbols of good and evil in culture? Are such symbols good, bad, neither? How should artists relate to these big monolithic symbols?
What a fantastic question! Yes, there’s absolutely a place for stock symbols, especially when we find ways to contort them to have new meanings. It’s a subversion, of sorts, a reappropriation: the Hitler birthmark in my book is idiosyncratic to the character. Its meaning springs forth from his consciousness. It’s personal. It’s alive.
Same with Santa Claus: the ol’ Saint Nick in Damascus won’t be shimmying down anyone’s chimneys come December. His presence in the book is closely tethered to one of the main characters. It’s vibrantly alive with the very unique perceptions of that player.
At times, the narration turns briefly to events in the wider world, hinting at everything going on that is left out. How important to a story is what is not told? When you’re reading, do you think about the world outside what is told in the book? How valuable is the act of excluding events, in writing a book?
Exclusion is a great option every writer has at her disposal: what makes the book versus what exists as implications in the narrative versus overt omissions. Each novel will approach these things in its own way. With Damascus, it was important for me to remind the reader that even while we spend so many pages incarcerated in a dive bar in San Francisco, the spinning world outside is a reminder of what brought each character to sit on a barstool and hold on for dear life. They all have their own reasons for ending up at Damascus. Most drunkards are trying to get away from something, so periodically reminding the reader of all the action happening around the globe helped to buoy the dive bar into the greater context of life.
What are you reading?
I teach in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and am reading nothing but student work right now. It’s a congested semester, but I’m having a blast. I feel so thankful to have so many insightful and thoughtful students. I bet in a couple years, you’ll be asking them these questions!
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