An Interview with Lucas Mann
Lucas Mann's recent memoir, Lord Fear, tells the story of Josh, Mann's older brother who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was only thirteen. With the help of materials from interviews with people who knew Josh, as well as Josh's own journals, the book investigates the unknowable: the inner life of a deceased brother, son, and friend, whose tragic loss defined the family he left behind. TGD editor-in-chief Kristi DiLallo spoke with Mann about Lord Fear, which will be available in paperback next month.
Kristi DiLallo: A common mechanism for dealing with grief on and off the page is mythologizing the person we’ve lost. Josh is described as being “larger than life” several times in Lord Fear. You write, “Josh became a myth… A myth is so much better than a person, but as we repeat the myth again and again, different versions, closely scrutinized, the form doesn’t hold. It’s too inhuman.” It seems Josh had been mythologized all his life—by you and your family and his various girlfriends and friends. Later in the narrative, when one of his old girlfriends, Sima, calls him a “dreamer,” you suggest a distinction between being a dreamer and being an addict. Could you speak about your experience rendering his larger-than-life-ness without romanticizing how complicated he was as a brother, a “rockstar,” and an addict?
Lucas Mann: For me, a lot of Lord Fear was about writing into and against mythology. Those phrases like "larger than life" served, in my mind anyways, as intentional red herrings in the narrative—they were meant to be noticeable, they were meant to stand out as jarringly incomplete. Often when remembering someone who dies in such a horrible way, it's easy to lose the details and ambiguity that create anything approximating a real, decent-yet-fucked-up human being. Which shouldn’t be any great revelation, but I think humanity has proven illusive in what we’ve come to expect from addiction narratives. I was tired of neat stories of addiction, taking all of this messiness and pain and shoving that into a progression that somehow makes sense and has a clear end point; I was tired of addiction stories centering around the idea of this perfect angel who was then corrupted by this outside devil, as though there were two unrelated lives lived. And, as a nonfiction writer, I was tired of my chosen genre often being thought of as one that needed to achieve authority over a subject, or at least catharsis at the end. In a lot of ways, the book was written and revised out of a reactionary impulse. That may reveal more about the flaws in my nature than it does about the writing.
I think what allowed this particular perspective to take shape in Lord Fear was the fact that I was thirteen when Josh died, so I began the narrative as a pretty literal embodiment of incompleteness, having been fed only mythology about Josh. It had to be an investigative book and it had to be full of perspectives outside my own because I didn’t really understand shit. I had to work against every instinct to reconcile things neatly, both as a writer and as a guy who in many ways was tempted to hold onto this vague image of a rock star that I’d shaped my memory around. And it’s not that rock star doesn’t have value or truth, it’s that it’s not the full story. And nothing’s the full story, but maybe there’s something worthwhile and moving in the different ways that people try to tell the story. So in the Sima example you brought up, my goal wasn’t to cut down her use of dreamer, it was to revel in how generous, how wonderful that interpretation of him was, even if myself and others had a hard time remembering Josh with the same generosity. Sima can see a dreamer, my father can see a broken kid, someone else can see a bully, someone else can see an artist — each of these perspectives is a biased, incomplete, hard-earned truth. He was all of those things.
KD: The form of your work is really interesting in that the narrative is “an act of collaborative memory,” comprised of stories told to you by multiple people who knew Josh. You write, “What can this story be but fragments? Lies? Little packages of what we want to remember, what we want to tell…” The form mirrors, of course, the fragmented nature of memory, but it made me think, too, about how fragmented the act of grieving can be. I’m wondering if the form just happened as a result of the incredible amount of reporting that went into the work—trying to tell all of these stories about every version of this one seemingly unknowable person—or if it was a deliberate choice you made when you sat down to write the book.
LM: The form definitely grew pretty organically out of the fact that the book was reported, but it changed enormously through revisions. At first, the narrative was essentially about the experience of reporting the story. It was something akin to a really long and not-great magazine profile of Josh, following me as I was like, “then I found this person to talk to and they said this thing and I thought, wow, how different from what this other person told me.” That ultimately felt incomplete. Then I tried to make it more memoir-y in the very limited idea that I had about memoirs, so I padded the reporting with a lot of my personal story — for example, there was like fifteen pages of me and my family buying egg sandwiches on the way to the cemetery, with a ton of zippy dialogue and personality.
The end form came about from me getting furious with myself, saying, “God damnit, I can’t get this to work,” and cutting away everything that pissed me off because it felt too flabby and indulgent. When only fragments were left, then it became a process of trusting that the reader would feel the emotion through the spaces in the narrative, without me holding their hand, saying, “This is me doing journalism!” or “This is me feeling!” Finally, after many, many drafts in which I avoided it, I began to insert Josh’s own writing into these spaces where I’d deleted a lot of connective tissue. Having his voice in there, unfiltered and unfinished, ended up adding so much more context and emotion than my own extra narration ever could. Basically, I needed to learn to shut up. I needed to understand that a fragment of Josh’s writing, or sometimes even no writing at all, just a stark transition, could often be more powerful than my exposition.
KD: Lord Fear is largely about memory—the power of it and the failure of it and ultimately how it brought the people who loved Josh together to tell his story. The idea of a sort of conflation of memory comes up a number of times, as you are interviewing people and starting to almost assume their memories as your own. One of my favorite lines is from the moment when Sima is sharing an anecdote about Josh and you say, “The scene begins in Sima’s memory, a moment with him that she described to me that I have stolen and blown up in my imagination.” Could you speak about your decision to write some of those memories—other people’s memories of Josh—in-scene and in the present tense? I’m particularly interested in the work of writing scenes in present tense about a person who is no longer alive, a person who only really exists in the past tense.
LM: I love this question! The present tense in nonfiction is a really interesting thing to talk about. Sorry for the name drop that’s about to happen, but I remember Alexander Chee once saying that The New York Times doesn’t allow any articles written in the present tense because that’s automatically fictional. Which I think is such an amazingly specific and wonderfully stupid rule. Like, come on, guys, give the reader a little bit of credit. For me, the present tense actually serves as a useful nod to the necessary unrealness of the story that’s being told. It adds a dreamlike, or maybe more fugue-like quality to each person’s memory, and my narrative interpretations of those memories. I think Wayne Koestenbaum, in one of is books, called each of the sections fugues and that was really effective for me, this notion that we weren’t supposed to take any of them as anything other than these storms in his mind.
For Lord Fear, I felt that the book was about incomplete truths and conflicting narratives and the illusiveness of creating any official biographical account of Josh, so it was important to put the narrative in a space that felt nothing like historical record. So, there are no chapters; there are my own memories mixing with third person novelistic scenes shaped from interviews I conducted, sometimes pulling back into the actual scenes of those interviews, and then there are Josh’s journal entries from decades ago. All of it is in close proximity, given the same weight, and all of it is in present tense. I hope that the effect is jarring and also democratizing. It flattens the narrative into one that’s impossible in a strict nonfictional sense, but one that feels much more honest to the experience of collective memory (which is really all memory): a bunch of voices saying a bunch of different things at the same moment in time, over and over. A cacophony.
KD: You mention a number of writers throughout the book—Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, James Baldwin, William S. Borroughs, Ernest Hemingway, and others—and it’s obvious that reading their works informed your writing of and thinking about Josh’s story. For many of us, literature—both the reading and writing of it—can be a healing tool. Are there any narratives about grief in particular that have spoken to you as you processed your own loss?
LM: As you mention, Lord Fear wears its influences pretty openly. In particular, that Kincaid book, My Brother, was crucial to my thinking/grieving/writing process from the very first draft. It’s so beautiful and smart and unflinching, chronicling in this slim, unsentimental way her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s not one of her famous books, but people should run out and buy it. And, of course, Year of Magical Thinking was a touchstone for me, in the way I imagine it is for everyone. Also, Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude.
To be honest (and in retrospect I don’t think this was necessarily right or healthy), I tried not to associate my grief, or certainly the writing of my grief, with many grief narratives. That felt too…I don’t know, easy. That’s the wrong word. I always struggled with feeling like my own grief was unearned, that compared to people who had known Josh longer or better, or people in the world who were writing their way through really monumental grief, I should probably just shut up. That’s mostly dumb, macho bullshit, though I imagine its pretty common for people writing about grief or writing about their own experiences in any way — this internalized tragedy contest. For me to let myself write Josh and take the project seriously, I thought I had to push away from things that felt emotive and reach out to things that felt more intellectual (which, again, is really stupid dichotomizing, as though the two don’t co-exist). So a book like My Father and Myself, by JR Ackerly, was hugely important to me. Ackerly, in the most dry, British voice possible, dutifully investigates the mystery of his dead father. It’s a really wonderful book, but it’s so not openly grieving, and seeing that control on the page was inspiring and really helpful.
Toward the end of the writing and editing process, and now that the book has been published, I’ve begun to realize how silly I was to create this split in my mind between smart and sad. Of course there’s so much value to works that convey and linger in grief, and so many have snuck along and surprised me by the way they made me relive and re-understand my own grief. One that comes to mind could not have anything less to do with my own story: “Tristes Tropiques,” the first essay in Hilton Als’ White Girls. There’s so much care in it, so much sensuous, clear-eyed nostalgia. Also, when I was working on the final draft of Lord Fear, I burned through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, and the character of Jack, this troubled, prodigal son, resonated so deeply with me. The other characters grieved him while he was still alive, and I recognized that emotion so clearly. I ached reading those books, and that’s a really valuable experience.
Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. He is the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir (Pantheon, 2015), and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon, 2013), which earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and was named one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle. His essays have appeared in Slate, Gawker, Barrelhouse, TriQuarterly, Complex and The Kenyon Review, among others. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife.