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.
and whippet-thin, "Sirens" swings from tales
of bawdy addiction to charged moments of a father
struggling to stay clean. Mohrís prose is lean and
scrappy ó a featherweight boxer that packs a punch ó
and when we talk over the phone, he speaks with as much
fluency about literary structure as he does tattoos and
punk rock. "Iím 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 wouldnít remember
him if he didnít make it out alive.
discussed the pros of writing (almost literally) under
the gun, why he doesnít consider "Sirens" a
recovery memoir, and what itís like to be a living
metaphor. This interview has been edited for length and
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
wasnít 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 whoís
constantly chirping in our ear, telling us weíre a
hack or weíll never be good enough or whatever the
complaint de jour happens to be, but I was able to turn
that voice off ó all the niggling concerns that might
have occupied my mind pre-diagnosis. Those two months
were probably the purest Iíve 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 Iím interested in pure
truth, it canít 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 Iím the most proud of. I
wanted to find a way to tell the addiction story that weíve
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.
a failed musician, and I often think in terms of music.
Most rudimentary guitar chords have three notes. The
addiction stories ó those are one note. The second
note is Jan. 1, 2014, through March 11, 2014 ó my
surgery day ó the person fearing for his life. The
third note is this meta-narrator ó thereís 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 thatís informing that moment. In the verse
itís 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 singerís
screaming out his lungs. I really wanted this book to
sound like a punk song. I intentionally didnít edit
this book as much as I would have edited a novel. A
friend of mine whoís 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 donít have
that. I worked hard not to overwrite this book.
Toward the beginning of the book, you say that if you
donít tell this story "thereís the chance Iíll
forget to fear my sirens." Would you call this a
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, Iím
a miniaturist." People call this an addiction
memoir; thatís 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 Iím clean and sober and everythingís
fine." And thatís just so false. Iím a dad who
drives a Subaru Outback ó I mean how embarrassing is
that? ó 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 whatís good about
being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but I would make
the argument that if youíre able to get sober and youíre
able to use that tunnel vision not for self-destruction,
but to express yourself Ö I mean Iíve written six
books since 2009, not because Iím 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 í70s 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
I think any time youíre using the word Nazi on the
page, especially as a jumping off point to have an
existential conversation about yourself ó the answer
is yes. I was scared to death of that. But Iím also a
firm believer that if youíre not writing stuff that
scares you, youíre 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 weíre all
participating in this conversation thatís been
happening since people scribbled on cave walls. I donít
know how I would see myself without books. I donít
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?
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." Itís like a Johnny Cash record.