Joshua Mohr is no stranger to second chances. In his new memoir, “Sirens” (Two Dollar Radio, $15.99 paper), he recounts not only his journey from addiction to recovery to relapse and back again, but the experience of suffering three strokes in his 30s, the last of which reveals that he has an 8-millimeter hole in his heart.
Raw-edged and whippet-thin, “Sirens” swings from tales of bawdy addiction to charged moments of a father struggling to stay clean. Mohr’s prose is lean and scrappy — a featherweight boxer that packs a punch — and when we talk over the phone, he speaks with as much fluency about literary structure as he does tattoos and punk rock. “I’m not afraid to bare all,” Mohr says, and that while writing this memoir he found himself “clinging to the capital T truth to leave some sort of artifact, some sort of record, for my daughter,” whom he was afraid wouldn’t remember him if he didn’t make it out alive.
We discussed the pros of writing (almost literally) under the gun, why he doesn’t consider “Sirens” a recovery memoir, and what it’s like to be a living metaphor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drove you to write this book?
After I had my third stroke, the doctors found a hole in my heart. I had two months from diagnosis to the operating table, and I became panicked that I was going to die and my 18-month-old daughter, Ava, would have no idea who I was. The ticking clock has a punitive connotation, but because I was legitimately worried I wasn’t going to survive the surgery it was easy to be truthful about things that are pretty disgusting and pretty despicable. It alleviated a lot of pressure. Every artist has that malicious inner editor who’s constantly chirping in our ear, telling us we’re a hack or we’ll never be good enough or whatever the complaint de jour happens to be, but I was able to turn that voice off — all the niggling concerns that might have occupied my mind pre-diagnosis. Those two months were probably the purest I’ve ever lived. My concerns truncated: I want to be a good dad, I want to be a good husband, I want to show up for my sisters. Everything else fell by the wayside, so when I was writing, usually late at night, there was nothing holding me back.
The ticking clock may have drowned out your inner editor, but there are a number of scenes in the book that I can imagine were painful to relive, let alone publish. Were there any passages that made you think, “Am I really going to write about this?”
Certainly the night that I bottomed out. That scene took a couple weeks. I would write for five or six hours and then I would need to grow my literary bullet-proof-vest back for a couple days. If I’m interested in pure truth, it can’t be airbrushed. I feel like I got my black belt in honesty with scenes like that.
The narrative weaves between past and present in interesting ways. How did you conceive of the structure?
I know it sounds super nerdy, but structure is the element of the book that I’m the most proud of. I wanted to find a way to tell the addiction story that we’ve heard so many times, but to turn it on its head and subvert those expectations. Something that seemed exciting to me was having narrative in the past tense and a narrative in the present tense that are both building toward their own sovereign apex.
I’m a failed musician, and I often think in terms of music. Most rudimentary guitar chords have three notes. The addiction stories — those are one note. The second note is Jan. 1, 2014, through March 11, 2014 — my surgery day — the person fearing for his life. The third note is this meta-narrator — there’s a presence in the book inviting the audience to get as close to the narrative as she possibly can. I wanted to play them all off of one another. At first, certain scenes might not seem to go together, but on a second read you notice some echoes, some concentricity.
Scenes of past addiction did feel particularly searing against those of present-day fatherhood. To use musical terms, were you after dissonance or harmony?
Dissonance. Total dissonance. One of the things that I love as a storyteller is contrast. I think about punk rock this way. A song can be the same chord progression, but it sounds totally different based on the mood and the energy that’s informing that moment. In the verse it’s just the kick drum and the bass and the singer sort of growling, but by the time you get to the chorus the electric guitars are going crazy and the singer’s screaming out his lungs. I really wanted this book to sound like a punk song. I intentionally didn’t edit this book as much as I would have edited a novel. A friend of mine who’s a tattoo artist says she can only work on a tattoo for so long before the skin starts to rip. As a writer working on a computer, I don’t have that. I worked hard not to overwrite this book.
Toward the beginning of the book, you say that if you don’t tell this story “there’s the chance I’ll forget to fear my sirens.” Would you call this a recovery memoir?
I remember listening to an interview with Raymond Carver once. The interviewer called him a minimalist, and in his very hair-splitting way he said, “No, no, I’m a miniaturist.” People call this an addiction memoir; that’s not what it is to me. To me, this is a relapse memoir. I wanted relapse in this story to read like an abject predator, just waiting for me to get overconfident, waiting for my hubris to flare up, waiting to strike. So often, bad addiction memoirs present some binary: “I used to do drugs and I was a bad person, now I’m clean and sober and everything’s fine.” And that’s just so false. I’m a dad who drives a Subaru Outback — I mean how embarrassing is that? — but within the ecosystem of the Outback, I can be having really traumatic and dangerous things going through my head, just in terms of trying to maintain my sobriety. People never talk about what’s good about being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but I would make the argument that if you’re able to get sober and you’re able to use that tunnel vision not for self-destruction, but to express yourself … I mean I’ve written six books since 2009, not because I’m smarter than anybody else but because my workdays are longer.
You describe the shame that accompanies relapse as “electric shame,” which is so visceral. Do you remember when you hit on that phrase?
I remember exactly. I was writing about my first relapse after 13 months. I thought about calling the book “Electric Shame,” and then I realized that sounds like a ’70s jam band.
The doctor who pioneered your heart surgery, Werner Forssmann, was also a Nazi. “Forssmann is a monster and a genius,” you write. “We all are. We are never just one thing.” Did it scare you to introduce this character, and this ambiguity, into your narrative?
I think any time you’re using the word Nazi on the page, especially as a jumping off point to have an existential conversation about yourself — the answer is yes. I was scared to death of that. But I’m also a firm believer that if you’re not writing stuff that scares you, you’re probably not doing your job right. I can tell when storytellers are holding back.
Literature, fellow writers and readers, feel like bright spots in the narrative. What part does the literary community play in your life and work?
Art is a huge part of my life, and we’re all participating in this conversation that’s been happening since people scribbled on cave walls. I don’t know how I would see myself without books. I don’t know how to process the world without interacting with the blank page. And a bunch of strangers standing in a room, all feeling emotionally moved by the written word? It’s beautiful.
After three strokes, doctors discovered that you had a literal hole in your heart. When the shock settled, what was it like to realize you were a living metaphor?
When I told my friends, they were like, “Yeah, we know. Obviously you have a hole in your heart.” But in the book, that was something I felt I had to really paint with a light brush. It easily could have turned into a lifetime movie: “the man with the hole in his heart.” It’s like a Johnny Cash record.