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Summer reading: Joshua Mohr on E.L. Doctorow

July 23, 2010 |  1:15 pm

San Francisco-based writer Joshua Mohr has just published his second novel, "Termite Parade," with the independent upstart press Two Dollar Radio. The book is told in short bursts from the perspectives of three different, unreliable characters, one of whom asks an "obscene question: What's the difference between lying to yourself and being redeemed?"

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

Joshua Mohr: The easy answer is E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel.” Easy because it’s my favorite novel and I’ve read it at least 10 times, in every season. In fact, I’d hide in Doctorow’s bushes and ask him enthusiastic questions about the tome every time he walked by if I knew where he lived. Is that creepy? 

I have an addictive personality anyway, but even by my standards, my relationship with “The Book of Daniel” is unhealthy. I’m very protective of it, too. I recently heard someone say, “I don’t get that book,” and I launched into a probably-not-socially-acceptable defense of it. It was a “No one puts Baby in the corner” kind of thing.

JC: When did you start?

JM: I came to reading and writing fairly late in life. I hear stories of writers who “penned” their first opus at age 8, plopped on granny’s lap and scribbling relentlessly, already cutting their literary teeth. But I was “anti-precocious”: didn’t read my first novel until I was 17. That book was Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Before then, I’d only skimmed Jane Austen and Mark Twain and the like, and those authors are certainly good at what they do, but it wasn’t for me. Vonnegut showed me that writers could be crazy on the page, reckless, their imaginations zigzagging anywhere. After that, I was hooked. I crossed paths with “The Book of Daniel” my first summer in grad school. I was 25. I’d never read anything like it. Still haven’t.

JC: Where were you?

JM: In my apartment, in San Francisco. The city has been my home for almost 20 years. I live in the Mission District. All my books are set there. I remember being so excited by Doctorow’s book that I brewed a pot of coffee at midnight, so I could stay up and inhale the narrative in one sitting. It’s a pretty big book. But my insomnia + all that caffeine = a jittery, palpitating success! It was also the first book that I finished, then immediately flipped back to page one and started again. I wanted to understand how he’d mesmerized me in such a strident way.

JC: What is it about this book in particular that grabbed you?

JM: It’s brutal and honest and naked and subversive and transgressive and lovely and delicate and angry and indicting and demanding of the reader. That last one is very important to me. I don’t like books where the writers do all the work on their readers’ behalves, dotting every i, making sure “we get what they’re doing.” I like writers that give me enough credit to compile my own interpretation of the facts, let me play detective as the story unfurls.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

JM: I don’t live in that apartment anymore, where I first experienced it. Though for awhile I did move across the street from that place. I tried not to take it as a metaphor for not making much progress in my life. But I wasn’t making much progress in my life. So there’s that…

JC: What are you reading this summer?

JM: I’m really looking forward to Gina Frangello’s new story collection “Slut Lullabies.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading one of Gina’s books, she’s published some brilliant stuff. Like me, she doesn’t work with one of the conglomerate publishers: no, we’re out on the fringe, where the fun, nutty, wanton stuff happens. Gina is incredibly gifted at what she does. It’s well worth the 15 bucks.

For more summer reading, check out the L.A. Times list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joshua Mohr. Credit: Kevin Irby

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