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Writers on Writers: Joshua Mohr and Sam Sattin Search for Meaning in Bowling

Joshua Mohr | June 17, 2013 | Story Profiles

“Publishing a novel is like putting on a pair of bowling shoes,” I say to Sam Sattin. “You don’t know if they’ll lead you to a perfect score or give you athlete’s foot.”

Sattin’s first novel, League of Somebodies, came out this April, and I’ve brought him to the deliciously squalid Presidio Bowl to celebrate its release over a few beers and to share some writerly wisdom. Or, at least, that’s what I told Sattin. The truth is, I read an advance copy of his novel after he asked me to blurb it, and I was so impressed with the quality of his work, its fevered pacing and hilarious personality, that I wanted to meet the guy. The book is an epic family tragicomedy, a mashup of The Godfather and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and a work of elegant insight, especially for a first-time novelist. This, I thought after reading it, is a man I could bowl with.

We lace up our shoes, select our balls, buy some beers. There are only 12 lanes, all empty except for one family of impassioned bowlers, a couple and their two very young children, who look to be under five—both throwing like champions. Sattin starts off his first frame by knocking down four pins, then heaving a gutter ball. His face droops a bit, which is all the invitation I need for a “spontaneous” pep talk. I had cooked up a bunch of bowling analogies ahead of time, and he has unwittingly given me the perfect portal. “What better metaphor is there than a gutter ball?” I ask. “If artists take chances, we’re going to toss a bunch of them. The trick is to bowl the next frame. Never give up.”

The family continues its all-out assault on the pins. Those kids probably can’t read or write yet, but boy, can they bowl. I look around the alley. No one else has come in, and something new dawns on me: “This room is like a literary novelist’s career,” I say to Sattin, who is preparing to try and pick up a spare (he doesn’t come close).

“What is?”

“An almost empty bowling alley. We write for a niche audience. It’s not huge, but there is an enthusiastic crowd out there.”

Sattin doesn’t frown, exactly, but he’s certainly not smiling. We bowl for a bit, neither of us talking about anything book-related. We finish the first game: I score 155; Sattin gets 76. Those genetically enhanced kids are kicking both our asses.

I feel a sign from the universe when INXS’s “Devil Inside” blares from the speakers. This is my moment. I shuffle down the lane with purpose and let the ball glide from my hand. For a moment, a strike seems inevitable, but, of course, it’s not—not for me. I knock down only a handful of pins.

One of those kids comes up and tosses her ball. That’s when I notice that their lane has bumpers covering the gutters. I feel better. Those kids aren’t destined for bowling glory—those kids are cheating.

“Bumpers are for babies,” I say to Sattin. “With our books, we have to risk tossing gutter balls. Otherwise, we’re not pushing ourselves as artists. We have to be willing to fail.”

Sattin smiles. We let our bottles collide.

“To always taking chances,” I say.

We both drink.

Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels: Fight Song, Damascus, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and Termite Parade. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at USF.

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Joshua Mohr and Sam Sattin Search For Meaning in Bowling

Orginally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco

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