Interview: Lucas Mann on his new book about his brother’s deadly heroin addiction

Lucas Mann
A graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Lucas Mann’s second book Lord Fear was published this month. — photo courtesy of Lucas Mann

Lucas Mann reads from Lord Fear

Prairie Lights Bookstore — Monday, May 18 at 7 p.m.

Lucas Mann is the author of Lord Fear (Pantheon, 2015), a book-length essay that examines the life of his brother Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was 13, while simultaneously examining what it means to write a memoir.

A graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa — where he was also the 2012-2013 Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction (and my colleague) — Mann is also the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. His work has been featured in publications as varied as Complex, Slate, the Kenyon Review and Tri-Quarterly. Mann teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and will be reading from Lord Fear tonight at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights.

In the author’s note at the beginning of the book, you say you’ve been working on Lord Fear for “the better part of a decade.” Can you talk a bit about the various iterations this text has gone through, and how your own personal experiences and artistic evolution have shaped the evolution of the text?

Lord Fear has been developing in fits and starts. The result is a combination of a memoir about my brother and, in some ways, an ever-evolving memoir about trying to write a memoir. The interviews and scenes that the narrative is built around all happened between the end of my college career — when I was in upstate New York and returning to New York City constantly to talk to people — and the year after college when I was living in Brooklyn. But that core of material has been shaped by the following six or seven years of reading more and more of my brother’s own writing, rewriting the project, rethinking the project.

That distance is ultimately what made the book work, I think. It’s a couple of years worth of narrative, packed with many more years worth of ruminating and editing and, frankly, growing up as both a person and a writer. The original idea of the project was much more straight journalistic. The scenes were built entirely out of the interviews that I did.

What those early drafts provided was the sense of a search that still drives the book — I wanted to know more about this man that was hard to understand, and I was going to go around trying to figure him out. While that sensibility is still there, a lot of the drafting process ended up pulling the book away from the overtly journalistic structure and allowing it to become more impressionistic and lyrical.

You reference a number of different writers in the text: Nabokov, Woolf, Barthes, Augustine, Frey, among others. Were there any other writers who you looked to as exemplars while reworking the text?

In graduate school, I took a class with Honor Moore and she assigned JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, which is incredible and helped give me a sense of the kind of investigative memoir that I was aspiring to write.

Lord Fear is Mann's second book.
Lord Fear is Mann’s second book.

Stylistically, my book is nothing like Ackerley’s, but I love that he flips the memoir away from “here’s what happened,” and organizes it entirely around a line of inquiry: “Who was my father?” It’s an essay (or a sort of gumshoe story), and the narrative is propelled not by the drama of what actually happened or didn’t happen in his life, but by the power of his constant questioning. Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude was important for me, as well, for similar reasons.

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was really influential because of the way she went in so many intellectual directions, gave so many riffs on blue, but still sustained a deeply felt, deeply personal story through the narrative.

Finally, when I was working on the tail end of my edits, I started reading Marilynne Robinson — Gilead and Home. On one hand, this was a terrible idea, because reading Robinson is a great way to feel shitty about one’s own work. But the way she wrote the character of Jack, the alcoholic prodigal son, was so beautiful and helped inform the way I wanted to think about the ways an addict’s story permeates the lives of so many — we never see Jack’s perspective, but the weight of his presence is in every word of those books.

Philip Roth is perhaps the most oft referenced writer within the text, but a lot of the structure actually reminded me of Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. One of the many things you do in this text is give the reader your personal location in terms of ethnic, racial and socioeconomic identity on the very first page (“modern, white-collar American Jews”).

That description, of course, gains more nuance throughout the course of the text, but I wonder if, in looking for models of how to shape this text, you specifically turned toward writers who fit your own particular identity. How important was it to have white, Jewish, male exemplars, how often did you rely on them and why was it important to have them (if it was)?

I ask that because Lord Fear made me think a lot about masculinity: its different embodiments, its potential for toxicity, and how one — as a child, a young adult, a writer — sorts through all of that in search of, or maybe in order to cobble together, a sustainable, non-caricature-ish model that allows one to be lovingly and critically human, capable of growth and forgiveness.

I think there are a couple of different questions in here, which are both really important to the book. First, the idea of locating myself within a particular racial and socioeconomic context is something that I very consciously worked at. I believe deeply in the value, both aesthetic and moral, of owning your own shit. My story is one of enormous privilege, and so much of my brother’s story is wrapped up in privilege, as well, trying to negotiate it and live up to it. The book is also very much a New York book, and any piece of art about New York that isn’t in some way about racial, economic and cultural identity, and the way various identities bump up against each other, is pretty hollow.

The idea of locating myself within a particular racial and socioeconomic context is something that I very consciously worked at.

My father grew up a poor Jewish kid in Coney Island, and his upward mobility, crossing the river and making a Manhattan life, has indelibly shaped my life and my brothers’. I think Josh focused a lot of his identity around this notion of triumph, that he would have his cross-the-river moment, that he would climb the mountain and win. But, at least materially, he didn’t have a mountain to climb. The more I read his writing, the more his addiction and his desire to feel powerful (whether through his money, his whiteness, his brute masculinity) became inseparable.

Another huge theme in the book is masculinity, how confusing and toxic it can ultimately be. My exemplars for masculinity and male sexuality were my brothers and father — Jewish men — and also the art they consumed and passed on to me — writers like Roth, Singer, Bellow, Malamud; comedic filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, Woody Allen.

There’s a part in the book where I mention that my father gave me Portnoy’s Complaint for my thirteenth birthday instead of having any birds-and-bees conversation. That perspective in Portnoy — the constant fear of being emasculated which then leads to unforgivable chauvinism — always felt right at the surface of Josh’s story. There’s also a fatalism to the perspective of a lot of these books and movies. It’s humor and misery all mixed in together, and that’s something I’ve always gravitated toward.

I’m so fascinated by the nature of inheritance and the ways “genetic” “predispositions” manifest in siblings. I’m not quite sure how to phrase it, but I want to ask a really personal question here about Josh’s cruelty and addiction, your remaining brother Dave’s mental illness and abuse of drugs, and how you have attempted to create a sustainable existence as a human and as a writer — particularly given the substance-abuse-y culture of art-making-places like liberal arts colleges and Iowa City, places where cruel men are often allowed to get away with being cruel.

I don’t know how well I can answer this. An incredibly difficult part of this book, for me, was asking the reader to empathize with Josh, to try to love him, while also looking closely at so many of the un-lovable things that he did.

That tension, to me, is the story of addiction — how easy it is to do the wrong thing, how hard it is to be kind and to forgive. Even saying “the wrong thing” feels prescriptive and moralizing. I didn’t want to romanticize him, and I didn’t want to call him bad. He was a person who caused pain and also felt great pain, and all of that is valid. He was an artist — he wrote and made music — and I do feel a connection to him in our creative aspirations.

I believe deeply in the value, both aesthetic and moral, of owning your own shit.

And the relationship between substance abuse and creative communities, and also toxic behavior and creative people, is not lost on me. I talked about toxic masculinity earlier; toxic artistic masculinity is a whole other level. I was 13 when he died; I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, and in a very weird way, his funeral felt like the stand-in for that.

The way he lived his life, and the way he ended it, became, for me, this tension running through my own life as I tried to figure out the kind of person I was and wanted to be. The intensity and danger that always drew me to him, and then the tragedy at the end — it all informed my own relationship with making art, having sex, loving, getting high.

This is the über-cliche of essay nerds, but that old Montaignian chestnut is at the heart of this book for me: “how to be.” I don’t think he ever figured that out, and I don’t know if anyone does, but I believe that asking the question over and over again, as he did, is valuable.

How would you describe the genre into which this book falls? You’ve consciously labeled it a “memoir,” but memoirs are often considered jokes to a lot of people who consider themselves serious “essayists.” You’ve also created a memoir sans structures like chapters. How much did the kind of theoretical/political bullshit of being a “Nonfiction Writer” figure into how you structured the book?

Uh oh, THE question. Obviously, labels in nonfiction, including the word “nonfiction,” suck. I am very happy that the idea of essay collections has become ultra-cool, but that has somehow not left space for longer forms within this literary acceptance.

To me, Lord Fear is a book-length essay. That’s how I’ve always thought about it and described it. It is an attempt to understand a subject a little better, one that ultimately becomes about the failure to fully understand somebody as much as it’s about anything else. It’s a collage of scenes, drawing from interviews, source texts, literary antecedents, etc. — it’s an essay — but the silly defensiveness in my answer here gets at the core of your question, I think.

I’m running away from the word “memoir,” even though that’s what my book is called. And I shouldn’t do that. I went back and forth with my editor trying to find something to call this book, other than “memoir.” Of course, no subtitle at all would be ideal, but that’s not going to happen for a book of nonfiction right now. So I tried to do the cool thing and think of a fancy word to stand in — an elegy, a search, a searchING, an exploration, yadda yadda. They all came off pretentious, and like I was forcing it.

I picked “a memoir” to hopefully stand in for the “a novel” that we see so often on the cover of book-length fiction. I think “memoir” should be as easy to ignore as “novel” — just another vague word without any baggage attached. Nobody judges novels on the shittiest versions of the form, but that’s how we come to memoirs still. People assume (incorrectly) that they’re lucrative, and then feel okay about writing them off as schlocky or opportunistic, as opposed to literary. Some are. And some novels are by Michael Crichton. I haven’t read a positive review of a literary memoir that didn’t include within it a line saying something like, “I know you might be tired or skeptical of this shit, but this book is actually better than that.”

In actuality, this is a genre with an amazing history, and with an amazing amount of creativity and variety housed under its umbrella. And it is still being reinvented and added to. I want to someday write in a literary world where this beauty is acknowledged, and if I’m lucky people will think of Lord Fear as part of it.

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