INTERVIEW WITH LORI WINDSOR MOHR, AUTHOR OF THE DEBUT NOVEL, ‘THE ROAD AT MY DOOR’
*** Note: Please also read my new piece about coping with literary rejection at MASH (click here)
“The Road at my Door” synopsis (according to Amazon): The Road at my Door follows protagonist Reese Cavanaugh on a dark journey to save her family without destroying herself. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the sexual revolution, Mohr examines cultural forces shaping family life in a decade of upheaval. Road is a perfect storm of conflicting beliefs about love of self, love of another, fast-changing attitudes about sex, and the toxicity of family secrets. Through Reese Cavanaugh, Lori Mohr explores the deep tension between appearance and reality, portraying a family in turmoil.
What David Corbett, New York Times Notable Author of “The Mercy of the Night” (2015) and “The Art of Character” (2013) says about “Road”: “Lori Windsor Mohr has created in Reese Cavanaugh a heroine with much more than a unique voice. Yes, she’s instantly likable. Yes, she has pluck and wit. But through a series of harrowing ordeals and misplaced allegiances that would break most young women her age – all in pursuit of just one person she can trust – Reese also demonstrates such an irresistible combination of spine and heart, insight and sheer humanity, that I dare you to pick up this book and not fall in love. Road at my Door is one of the most engaging novels you could ever hope to encounter.”
MM: Michael Mohr (interviewer)
LM: Lori Mohr (author)
MM: You worked on this novel for over a decade. What compelled you to keep at it, through an agent that couldn’t sell it, waning fears that you couldn’t write it, and draft after draft after draft?
LM: I knew it was a good story. I just didn't know how to tell it. Memoir? Narrative nonfiction? The agent who eventually represented my memoir couldn't sell the book because it wasn't the right book. I had yet to figure out the best form that would offer readers an emotionally satisfying experience.
What kept me going was belief in the story, and the realization that if I wanted to tell it I had more to learn about writing.
MM: The novel feels very autobiographical for the most part. Can you comment on that? How much of this is fact, how much fiction? It is in fact a “novel,” so we assume much is made up, but we know from reading the author bio that you dealt with serious depression as a teen, like the protagonist, Reese Cavanaugh. Like Hemingway said, we often, “Write what we know.”
LM: Writing what we know is one thing, writing what we want to convey is another. I didn't want to write about me. I wanted to write about the experience of depression, the destructive power of secrets. Memoir seemed an obvious choice. However, that form had limitations. It's true memoirists use a novelist’s tools to bring readers into the moment: dialogue, scene, descriptive detail, all of it, like Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. But as a literary form, it didn't allow the creative freedom I needed for writing the most compelling, fluid, readable story possible. In Road I manipulated time by compressing it, I reconfigured the family, combined two characters into one, left out a marriage, all techniques for building tension, keeping the emotional focus where it needed be. The form I chose wasn't about truth versus fiction. It was about what I hoped readers would experience.
The character of Reese Cavanaugh allowed me to create the best version of me that would move the story forward, draw readers in. Reese is prettier, smarter, funnier than I ever was! And she became her own person as the story evolved. I hated saying goodbye. In fact I kept tweaking the manuscript because I didn't want the story to end. Reese Cavanaugh brought magic to the writing, taking me to that sublime gray space between truth and illusion where reality is perception, and memory a creation.
If I've written well enough, readers will be too enthralled and moved to care much whether the story comes from real life or not. They'll go where Reese Cavanaugh leads them, connect on a feeling level with their own experience. That's the emotionally satisfying experience I wanted to offer. I couldn't get there with memoir.
MM: In terms of theme, what do you feel is the biggest, most singular and important theme in “The Road at my Door?” If there were one overarching point you wanted to get across in this novel, what would that point be?
LM: Connection, belongingness. Depression and secrecy are byproducts of the loneliness we grapple with every day. Look at your Facebook posts. We share ordinary moments, a beautiful sunset, a yummy meal, political views, pride over our kids, humor in cartoons, utter dismay at mass shootings, excitement over an upcoming event. All of those things take on added meaning when we share them with someone else.
Your question about theme ties into genre, another area where I was flummoxed. I never wrote the book as YA. The whole issue of genre assignment was difficult in querying agents. In the end, the universal themes in Road led me to consider it cross-genre in the same literary vein as other books with a young protagonist: Sons and Lovers, the internal struggles of a young artist coping with family relationships, early sexual experiences; The Brothers Karamazov, exploring struggles around morality, free will, faith; suicide in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The list goes on, but these are classic forms, stories about feeling lost, alone and unloveable, themes both adults and teenagers understand. A targeted audience makes for easier branding, so the wider scope of cross-genre for both adults and teens is harder to market.
MM: Can you talk about the title, its origin and meaning for you within the story? I believe it stems from a Yeats poem?
LM: Yes, it does. Actually, the poem is about war, not at all a metaphysical reference like Frost's The Road Less Traveled. My book is not about an external choice, but a crucial internal one. It's about core character strength, the fact that every single day we face decisions that have consequences, mostly seemingly inconsequential. But those decisions, large and small, continue to shape us. Reese Cavanaugh lives in a world with no boundaries, has no grounding for making what turns out to be a life and death decision. The idea of a road seemed a fitting metaphor in examining the deep tension between love of self versus love of another, appearance versus reality, the transformative power of empathy.
MM: How did you deal with the intersection of plot and voice and character? In other words, how did you create a compelling, relatively fast-paced book but with characters we care about, a strong voice, and a “literary” versus plot-obsessed, commercial sensibility? Donald Maass, NYC literary agent and writing manual author extraordinaire, in his book, “Writing Twenty-first Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling,” says that the strongest stories interweave the commerciality of plot, structure and character, with the literary sense of voice and deep meaning. You seem to have accomplished this.
LM: This question, in my opinion, is about the heart of the writing process. I had misunderstood voice. Here I was looking to genre, form. I got that I needed a good story, the right structure for telling it, and a complex character. But even with all the structural elements in place, I didn't get it. I didn't understand that these aren't separate entities, but that voice comes from content.
I went back to the choice of fiction over memoir. I didn't want readers to shake their heads at a sad story. I wanted them to feel something. The only way to do that was to get them to care about Reese Cavanaugh. That's the answer I had been resisting. If I wanted readers to care, I had to get down and dirty. I had to inhabit Reese Cavanaugh's head, had to become her. Once I made that leap, I could offer readers that emotionally satisfying experience I keep talking about, tell the story I wanted to tell.
Ten years later, The Road at my Door is that story.
(“The Road at my Door” has been officially endorsed by Nancie Clare, former editor-in-chief of “LA,” The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and David Corbett, New York Times Notable Author of “Done for a Dime,” “The Mercy of the Night (2015) and the well-known and respected writing manual, “The Art of Character.”)
Lori Windsor Mohr’s bio, author of the debut novel, “The Road at my Door”: As a native Californian, my novels and short stories are set in Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Malibu. As you’ll discover in my writing, it’s not the beauty of Southern California that draws me back to life as a middleclass kid whose family was supposedly living the American Dream, but the power of the place in shaping me into the woman I am today. Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” It took 20 years for me to understand that I can go back, must go back, this time looking from the outside in, untethered from its history.
Michael Windsor Mohr is Lori’s son, a former literary agent’s assistant, freelance book editor and published writer. His work can be found in MASH; Alfie Dog Press; The McGuffin; Gothic City Press; Fiction Magazines; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Milvia Street; Mountain Tales Press; and more. His nonfiction has been published as guest blogger pieces for The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; Writers’ Digest; and the San Francisco Writers’ Conference Newsletter. He has written five novels (and is halfway through a sixth) and is currently submitting a punk rock YA novel and an adult suspense novel to agents. If you are interested in paying Michael to edit your manuscript, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.