March 30, 2021
Back in October of 2020, Brian Alan Ellis sent me Body High, Jon Lindsey’s first novel. Brian was excited for his press (House of Vlad) to publish it, and I was excited to read it. The cover is gross, and I like gross things. But the pandemic had made a mess of my work life, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to it. I did get to it a few months later, and by the time I finished it, I was almost sad that I hadn’t read it earlier. It’s a book unlike any other. It’s got wrestling, an ass infection, incest, druggy wild-goose-chases through L.A., a dog named Flaubert, plot twists and surprises, and at the heart of it all, a dead mother and a grieving son. It’s dead serious and difficult, and it’s also funny as hell.
Over the next few months, Jon and I emailed back and forth about the book, why we write, sexual abuse and incest (some of which was edited out for privacy), suffering—you know, the easy stuff. But, like the book, Jon is funny, and not afraid to make fun of himself. “One time,” he told me, “I tried to shoot a bottle rocket out of my butt crack and got a burn scar shaped like a heart on my ass. That scar was the most beautiful thing I ever made, until Body High.” At the end of our conversation, he calls himself a “born quitter,” but I don’t buy it. When you read Body High, you won’t buy it either.
Lindsay Lerman: I want to start here: Let’s talk about mothers. Or maybe “the figure of the mother” if you’d like to keep it abstract. I found it really, really moving how the mother is kind of the heart (at least a big part of the heart) of the book. Some of the most heartbreaking and difficult scenes in the book are the ones in which Leland is confronting the ghost(s) of his mother, and his past with her. In this respect, there’s *so much* presence through absence in the book. For you, what’s going on with all this?
Jon Lindsey: I started writing Body High after my mom’s first attempt at suicide.
Looking back, I think that writing the book was an attempt to prepare for her death. Or duck it.
I was too poor for therapy. I was incredibly emotionally inarticulate but considered myself a writer and wanted to write a book. I was also terrified to write about my mother, because her attempt at suicide was in retribution for something I said. So when she survived, the situation we found ourselves in was … awkward. Her: not really wanting to live, threatening to kill herself all the time. Me: wrecked with guilt.
For years, while I did everything I could to keep my mom alive, I sputtered writing scenes that I considered fun: robbing sperm banks, drug deals, pro-wrestling. But I was writing around “the heart of the book”—the mother.
There’s a reason the book opens at the funeral of the mother. I figured if the mother was dead then I could avoid her. I could stash the mother’s character, as well as my own complicated feelings about my mom—who was constantly breaking my heart—in the margins of the story, a grave.
Predictably, the book was trash. I would give drafts to writers I respected, and afterward they would avoid me at parties.
Only when I began to write into the pain, of memory, of my mom and myself, could the book emerge from my body. Only then could readers take seriously the questions I wanted the book to ask: How is trauma transmitted? How does the sexual abuse suffered by a mother affect her son? Is incest inherited?
“When can I read your book?” My mom would ask me constantly.
“When it’s published,” I’d say, to put her off, sometimes feeling like it never would be published.
But shortly after I finished writing the final draft, my mom killed herself.
And now the book is publishing. And she’s not here to read it. But in a way, she is it.
Damaged from childhood, she was alienated from her body. Her emotions were ugly. There wasn’t ever any space for her in the world of the normal. She was someone who grossed out normal people. I hope Body High does the same.
LL: I love this. I could feel the complicated love and respect for the mother in the book—and the crushing sadness in relation to her. I can’t say anything too personal because my mother is still alive, but I think I really understand what you mean about no space in the world of the normal, alienation from body, a lifetime of carrying damage, all of it. And I, for one, am glad you didn’t shy away from the grossness, the material that makes people squirm. It’s the rare book that will take on incest, let alone in a sensitive, thoughtful way (and not as shock-jock bullshit that breezes past pain and trauma).
Do you have concerns about people trying to conflate you and the character of Leland? Was this possibility on your mind when you finally began to write into the pain and the memory, as you put it?
JL: Is that how I put it? That’s a little embarrassing. Some people are embarrassed by their own nudity, I’m embarrassed by my own emotions.
If you want to know the truth, the character, Leland, is what I fear most about myself. But what we fear isn’t necessarily true. Especially about ourselves.
I named the character after my best friend. Who I no longer talk to.
Me and Leland, the character, share similar biographies. Leland’s family tree has several generations of incest; mine too. Leland sells his body to medical experiments, sells his sperm; that’s how I survived for years in Los Angeles. We’re both redheads. But those are just details. This novel isn’t autofiction. The plot is too ornate. I’m trying to suffocate my shadow in gold spray paint.
LL: I think it’s always embarrassing to come up against ourselves in the things we’ve said or written. I am routinely humiliated by everything I’ve said and written.
I’m struck by the bravery of your response. (“I’m trying to suffocate my shadow in gold spray paint.”) I was thinking about writers who are this bold—writing a complicated character and then kind of daring you to conflate author and character or narrator—and Ottessa Moshfegh came to mind. She writes women who are so strange or gross or reprehensible that she dares the reader to go ahead and try to say she’s “just writing about herself” or whatever people say about writers. (Maybe especially about women.) But you are not her, you are you, and only you can say why you do what you do. So I’ll ask a question I think writers don’t get often—one that I struggle with a lot myself. Why is publishing this book worth it to you? Is suffocating your shadow enough? Is there something else you’re looking for?
JL: The subject of biographical fiction got me thinking about one of my reactions to your book, I’m From Nowhere, particularly: Is there a real-life source for all this grief? I think I’d be asking the same question if the book were written by a man. But I’m nosey. And I feel like autofiction is almost the default presumption right now. I’m about halfway through your book and I’ve been really struck by it’s interiority. It’s an impressive feat writing in the third person.
It’s funny that you mention bravery, because I set out to write a book about a coward. In literature they’re underrepresented.
I think you’re right, historically, conflating fiction with biography has been a cross reserved for women. Now autofiction is the thing, and reality is everyone’s religion.
Biography is titillating. But like religion it disappoints.
For me, the developments in an author’s life are less interesting than the development of their style. I think I stole that but forget from where.
Personally, I start with a handful of facts and throw them downhill to see if the story rolls. The faster it rolls, the more likely I am to escape myself.
I didn’t publish any writing until two years ago. I was scared of being judged. Secretly, I thought that if I never really tried I could never actually fail. But somehow I got up the courage to do an open mic in New York. Bud Smith saw me read a story based on my stomach parasite and asked if he could publish it on Hobart. That was my first publication.
So why do I publish? I don’t know. I publish to live forever, but soon I’ll be dead, so why do I care? Maybe so God, like Bud, can find me.
LL: The grief I wrote into I’m From Nowhere is mine but it’s also not. People who were my whole world have died suddenly throughout my life, but the person I married years ago is still alive (and is pretty unlike what I imagined John the dead husband to be).
I have definitely always felt trapped though. Not just by the patriarchal structures that the character, Claire, finds herself seeing for maybe the first time (or in a new light), but by consciousness, by grief, by my relationship to myself. I think that’s part of what I was doing with the interiority in the book—writing a character who could really see the prison bars of consciousness but was low on resources to get out of prison. And yet, she’s got a place to live, she’s got food on the table, she’s not starving in the streets—she’s got more by way of resources (psychological, material, intellectual) than most. So then maybe the more troubling issue is whether or not there’s an outside at all, or whether it’s all just different kinds of prison, all the way down.
The next book I’m finishing up is much more of a search for the outside. Maybe trying to find god, instead of hoping god finds me?
Looking back on I’m From Nowhere, I think I also wanted to write about how and why we do things that we know are bad for us—how we’re sometimes powerless to stop ourselves, how we want to go over the cliff. At the micro level, there’s Claire who knows she’s given up freedom and autonomy because it’s always easier to just follow the script, and she knows she should stop that. At the macro level, there’s humanity making life for itself increasingly impossible on the planet, knowing all the while that it should stop—the evidence getting clearer and clearer everyday, etc. I wrote about all this from the perspective of a grieving person because it’s been my experience that moments of deep, paralyzing grief are moments when we can’t keep lying to ourselves about what we’re doing and why. There’s an ugly honesty and melodrama there.
Speaking of ugliness, I’m trying to think of any other contemporary books that feature or deal with incest but are not, like, Issues Books, you know? and I really can’t think of any. I try to write honestly about sex and sexual assault, but it’s a big challenge to do it in a way that takes it seriously but is not the only thing the book is about. You struck a difficult balance. Do you feel like you’re in kind of uncharted territory?
JL: Oh I’m scared as hell. I don’t want people thinking, Jon’s just some lit bro using incest/sex abuse as a book gimmick. At the same time I’m not capable of writing a handbook for survivors.
A couple times in my early twenties I went with my mom to a therapist, who I sort of conned into seeing us pro bono. My mom had been fired from her job as an ICU nurse because she was hooked on oxys and she was spiraling deeper and deeper into depression. The therapist found out I wanted to be a writer, and said to me, “One day your going to write a book that is going to bust your grandfather and avenge your mom.”
For years, the therapist’s words paralyzed me. I didn’t write a thing. The minute you put that kind of pressure on a writer, art gets up and walks out of the room.
Of course, a part of me always wants to rub the world’s nose in my mom’s pain, and mine. But it never works. Instead of sympathizing, people are repulsed. Because most people don’t actually care about the suffering of other people. They’re too busy suffering themselves. You need to scam them into caring.
I’m about to sound pretentious: I can’t think of a better example than Bruegel’s Landscape of the Fall of Icarus. In the painting, we don’t need to see Icarus fall—only the impact. A leg flailing above the surface of the sea. It’s enough. The tragedy of his death has more presence through absence. We feel sympathy for the cracked-out kid who wanted to fly too close to the sun because, like Auden says in his famous poem about the painting, the world turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.
It’s the trick of the artist to make the audience insert themselves into the disaster. Not everyone knows what it feels like to fall from heaven, or be raped, but we can all empathize with the feeling of the world ignoring our suffering.
LL: Do you know what’s next for you? Are you committed to writing? Are you done with writing about / thinking about suffering, or is there more for you to write—more flailing legs to paint?
JL: I like what Camus said about Rimbaud quitting poetry: There’s nothing romantic about an artist committing spiritual suicide. Not that I don’t love to quit. I’m a born quitter. Right now I’m trying to quit this interview. But writing? I feel like you would need to amputate it from me. Yes, it’s miserable. Yes, it’s suffering. And joy. Shit and paradise. It’s life.
So what am I going to do next with my one, semi-precious life? Compile an anthology of essays about suicide, with Cory Bennet, and featuring most of the greatest writers alive today. A story collection. And a mostly honest book about booze cruises, extinction events, and weird sex.
Life is a death sentence I’m trying to edit for style.
Jon Lindsey lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in NY Tyrant Magazine, Hobart, and Post Road. His debut novel Body High is available through House of Vlad.
Lindsay Lerman is a writer and translator. Her first novel was published in 2019, and her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, and NY Tyrant. Her second book, What Are You, will be published in November.