The Nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What sort of challenges arise from writing about events that happened so long ago?
Anthony J. Mohr:Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge in describing events from half a century ago involves accuracy. Fortunately, I recall the incidents I wrote about in Three Broken Hearts as if they occurred not just yesterday, but ten minutes ago. As I worked, the images lit up inside me and the dialogue crackled back to life, definite indications that what I put on the page is what happened. That’s my test. If I find myself guessing about a distant event, I won’t write about it, because I’m probably not recalling it well enough.
My memory of the Beverly Hilton’s restaurant was fuzzy. I didn’t recall its name. When I asked the hotel for photographs and information, they either couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Eventually I found a local archivist who was kind enough to send me a photograph of the place, with its name on the label. One look snapped the image back into my mind.
RR: What kind of literature do you gravitate toward reading, and why?
AJM: I’ve always enjoyed novels, ranging from the classics (I recently read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham) to more recent works like The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. More recently, I’ve been reading essays and memoirs in the hope that I can learn from these authors. Among the best have been Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff’s books about their father, This Boy’s Life and The Duke of Deception. Also, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Joan Didion’s The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem are superb. Right now I’m fighting my way through Speak, Memory, a work about which Mary Karr was right when she said to anyone who’s thinking about emulating Vladimir Nabokov’s writing style, “Don’t try this at home.”
RR: When you decided to write about characters who were real, complex people close to your heart, were you worried about how they might be perceived by readers? How did writing about these people affect your own perception of them?
AJM: When I was fifteen, my father’s connection with Miriam confused me, and my grandmother’s behavior felt inexplicable. I didn’t understand what was going on. Decades later, when I began to write this story, pondered what was at stake, and tried to burrow into their thoughts, I started viewing Miriam, my father, and my grandmother with sympathy. I felt sorry for all of them and the situation that had caused everything that happened. Yes, I worried about how readers would react. I still do.
RR: You work as a reader for Hippocampus and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Has being a reader for these journals impacted how you critically view your own work? If so, how?
AJM: I’m privileged to be exposed to a large number of people whose essays and stories I’d have missed were I not working for Hippocampus and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Seeing how many fine writers are out there is a humbling experience. Each time I criticize a submission, I feel the urge to review my work more closely to see if I am making the same mistakes. Each time I vote “yes” on Submittable, I want to edit my work further in the hope of making it as good as what I’ve just read.
RR: In “Three Broken Hearts”, you mentioned being part of a speech team, and you now work as a judge. How has your experience in oral communication and argumentation affected your creative writing?
AJM: Debating taught me to think and speak logically, qualities essential for the bench. But expository prose that’s full of subject-predicate sentences becomes dull in fiction and memoir. Thanks to my training, my first—make that my second, third and fourth– drafts still emerge flat, too academic. It takes effort to create scenes and make the diction appealing.
“Three Broken Hearts” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.2