Last night I discussed the fear of poetry with a group of other prose writers. Poems seem to evoke a more common anxiety than other mediums. Rebecca van Laer is a poet-turned-prose writer, and in her novella How to Adjust to the Dark the reader gets to glimpse inside the mind of a poet. We read through the main character Charlotte’s pursuits and failures in love, alongside the character’s own poems, interwoven with literary self-analysis. How to Adjust to the Dark is compelling in its voice and poetic prose, its painfully-relatable romantic interactions, as well as how it makes transparent a writer’s relationship to her writing. I felt seen by Charlotte’s experiences, in which writing is both a life raft and a burden. I spoke with Rebecca van Laer about her history with writing, form, disappointment, and the process that went into her beautiful debut.



As a prose writer for whom poetry holds a lot of mystery, I felt like How To Adjust to the Dark was a really rich and unique reading experience in that you get to hear the narrator’s analysis and interrogation of her own poetry. I found that really fascinating, like I got these glimpses into the mind of a poet alongside her narrative. 


Can you tell me about how you came from a poetry background into becoming a prose writer and how your new novella reflects that journey?


When I took my first creative writing class, I had grand notions of being a writer even though I’d never done more than write in my LiveJournal. As we started to get assignments, I found that writing fiction required a leap of empathy that was quite challenging. Poetry was easier, because I had implicit permission to write from a point of view close to my own. As I began to take more poetry workshops, writing within formal constraints helped me to develop my skills without the complete, billowing freedom of prose. (Within academia, I didn’t have early exposure to either non-lyric poetry or to autofiction, so I didn’t know the full range of possibility in either genre—or in the overlap between them.)


Because of that, it took a while to develop the confidence to try and create my own structure within prose. The novella is in some ways about that—Charlotte looks back on the simultaneous safety and constriction of writing within a received set of assignments and forms, and the book itself shows her (and me) stretching beyond that.


You’ve shifted form, but also the environment in which you write. During the pandemic you moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York. Has your new home affected your writing life? 


On the subject of imaginative leaps, I think I’ve wanted to be an environmental writer since around the time I wrapped up the first draft of HTATTD. Some people accomplish that both living in and writing about cities, but in my early attempts, my urbanite characters were tormented by the specter of climate change in an abstract, theoretical way. Moving upstate has changed my daily life pretty significantly; I have chickens and bees and a garden, and I can spend much more time outside. While the existential experience of living with climate change is a rich well to draw on for fiction, my new set of interactions with creatures, plants, and fungi has given me more concrete conduits for writing about the natural world and its demise.


In putting together a syllabus for a creative writing class, my wife was recently poring over lists of classic short stories and came across Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Whether Henry James’s definition of a short story was closer to everyone else’s definition of a novella, or this was merely a glitch of the algorithm, the surprising appearance of Screw’s 40,000 words on a list of short stories does bring up the problem of classification — a problem that narratives of a certain length inevitably present. The form of the short story, its scope often defined by the attention span of a single sitting, has been exhaustively theorized, as has the boundlessness of the novel. But the short novel, as a form, remains discussed largely in terms of what it isn’t. It isn’t the single room of a short story, nor is it the sprawling estate of the novel. 


Later this year, my fourth novel will be published, and it will be my third to sit comfortably between one hundred and two hundred pages. That’s a length that now seems to reflect the shape that narratives naturally take in my brain. In trying to think more about the tidy allure of the short novel, about its possibilities rather than just its parameters, I discussed some highlights of the form with Ravi Mangla, whose recent book, The Observant, is both his second novel and his second short novel. It’s the story of a documentarian who is held captive by the dictator of an unnamed country. This follows Understudies, which follows a high school teacher whose sense of meaning becomes troubled when a Hollywood actress comes to town. 



Kevin Allardice: When you think of the shapes your two novels have taken, what’s a short novel that has served as a reference point for you?


Ravi Mangla: Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was the first short novel I read with a segmented structure. Her sharp, pithy writing appealed to my comic sensibilities and opened my eyes to different structural possibilities. 


I imagine Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (a wonderful book in its own right) introduced many readers to the segmented novel, but Mary Robison has been writing short, segmented, achingly funny books for a good two decades. It’s a style and structure that comes most naturally to me as a writer (both The Observant and my first novel, Understudies, are written in short, frantic bursts), and I love reading works that play with that format in interesting ways.


How about your touchstone?


Side 1: He was always a freak / He never tried to fit in / He head butted his rival / He wrote a story about a serial killer / I saw him shoot a squirrel with a bb gun in second grade / He ate lunch in the bathroom / He drew a swastika on the lunch room wall / His father was in Jail / His mother waited tables at the strip joint / He threatened to beat the shit out of some kid who called him fat / He listened to death metal / He was on the spectrum, or something / He had an eating disorder, or something / He was a certified schizophrenic / It was like one day a switch just flipped / They should have seen it coming / He liked the dark side of the Web  / He never had a girlfriend / He failed all his classes / So many red flags / He worked at the shooting range / He wore all black and had neck tattoos / He said wanted to be dead when he grows up / He carried around a weird black notebook / He mapped it all out on his Twitter feed / He never spoke in class / He slept in class / He laughed for no reason / He liked to cut class / He got sent to the principal’s office for threatening to filet the teacher, then they sent him back him right back to class. 


The day before I left for camp, my therapist asked me—point-blank—if, given the chance, I would have sex before marriage. Just like that. I wanted to be offended at the given the chance part, but truth was she was the only person who knew—or to whom I would ever admit—that I hadn’t even kissed a girl. And here she was asking about sex. 

I slouched into the overstuffed chair, thought about it. Thought about God—what it would mean if he existed and I did it, or if he existed and I didn’t, or if he didn’t exist at all. I thought about his judgment and I thought about Erika naked. I thought about the way she bent over, not with her ass but her knees, daintily, the way she seemed to float when she went down to pick up a pencil or a rock or a soccer ball. I thought about the way she moved—with grace—and I wondered if God had any left for me.

I don’t know, I answered. Maybe.

Erika was from Santa Rosa. We went to camp together. Week five every year. Before that, it was week three. She with her church. Me with mine. It really was remarkable the way we found each other year after year, especially considering there were six weeks of camp, six opportunities to get the dates wrong and miss out. Maybe our connection had something to do with God, if you believe in that sort of thing.

You’d think someone like me who went to camp each year would be a bit more devout, but I wasn’t too sure about any of it. There was always this moment, usually the last day of camp, when everyone gathered underneath the redwood canopy or by the creek with the Coho salmon or up at the hill by the old wooden cross, this moment where I absolutely did believe in God, but then something would happen a week later to undercut all that, and I’d be left questioning all over again.

The only certainty was Erika. Over the years, she went from being that tall girl with the pink barrettes to the girl who draws with me during free time to my camp-best-friend. Then around freshman year, her body suddenly changed in a way I didn’t understand but made me uncomfortable, and we stopped talking, until, finally, last year, we were friends again. A relationship blossoming one week at a time. One year at a time. 

We shared secrets. Big ones. I told her about my panic attacks and how I was wrongly placed on a 72-hour suicide watch even though I never thought of killing myself, and she said you better fucking not all angry, and I felt loved. That same summer, she told me when she was at the mall, she saw her mom kissing someone other than her dad. Then last year when we started talking again, she said her parents were separating.


I first read Robert Lopez’s work a few years ago online. His was just the kind of writing you hope to find on the internet: visceral, immediate, somewhat shocking but with a deceptive attention to detail that was unmistakable to me. I was so pleased that when I read more and more of his work, these traits were consistent, almost dizzying. In A Better Class of People, Lopez’s unhinged narrator is so chillingly realized that you can’t help but feel the momentum of the subway rollicking through you as you read it.


Lopez sculpts words into sentences, then weaves together sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages. The work here is granular but not tedious. You get the sense that for Lopez each sentence is its own story. And then it’s on to the next one. 


That is why his ability to will (or wield, depending on how you see it) these pieces into a novel is a real achievement. To marry the love of language with a fully-actualized plot, complete with three-dimensional characters and narrative tension is something I wanted to discuss with Robert.

I was so pleased that he took the time to talk with me about the book, point of view, and stringing together the small moments.


Get your copy of A Better Class of People today.


Each chapter or story, depending on how you see it, opens with a diamond-sharp sentence. Your sentences in the book overall are expertly crisp, which is no surprise. I’m curious about the work that goes in to getting these sentences perfect. As someone who already works in a sentence-driven tradition, do these expert opening lines just come to you or do you rearrange sentences as you go? How do you juggle the precision and language of The Sentence and not lose sight of the bigger narrative?


I almost don’t know how to answer this first question. There’s something about putting language together that feels outside of one’s own consciousness. When the sentences come, they come fast and more often than not they come correct. Maybe that’s partially true. Otherwise, I go over them a lot during the initial composition and I don’t move on to the next sentence until the previous one feels finished. Even then there’s work to be done when getting the book ready for publication. Words are cut out here and there, maybe whole sentences and paragraphs. The bigger narrative comes from reading the thing over and over every day and finding threads and echoes and adding all kinds of connective tissue.   

Everything always starts with the first line. I never have any ideas. I wouldn’t know how to write a fiction from an idea. There’s very rarely any rearrangement when it comes to beginnings.


You really play with the unreliable narrator in this project (as you do in much of your writing). Can you talk about the ways first-person point of view seemed to be the “right” call for a project about this kind of person?


All humans are unreliable. I can’t imagine a narrative stance that is something other than unreliable. I respond to urgency on the page and am drawn to it above all. More often than not the urgency presents itself in the first person. There’s something about the third person that can feel like a bedtime story – Once upon a time – kind of thing. Not always, certainly. I’ve worked in the third person before and perhaps will again. But it’s rare and was never an option for the narrator of this book.


translated from the Norwegian by May-Brit Akerholt


Dear editor, 


I know you’re waiting for my last short story but, unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. It’s taken me more than five years to write this collection, but now that it’s soon finished, I’m wondering if I should throw this shit in the bin and start something new. A novel.

I feel I haven’t been honest enough in my short stories. Not courageous enough either. I’ve tried to write about people coming apart in all sorts of different ways, a kind or encyclopaedia of misery, if you like. But I’ve just touched the surface, without ever really meeting my own gaze, or the gaze of the reader, for that matter. I’ve seen myself crying in the mirror. I thought it was genuine. That it was literature.

“The truth is just a seed from which fiction can grow,” I’ve told journalists. Or, “Only through lies can you reach the truth.” It’s just a conceit, all of it. I’ve hidden behind the language, behind lovely formulations. Now I’m longing for an ugly, unpretentious form of writing. Sentences you don’t know how to adhere to. 

When I wrote Anatomy. Monotony., I wanted Ragnhild to be a sympathetic character, I wanted the reader to like her, because she represented me. Of course I gave her a few flaws, but I didn’t go far enough by a long shot. I was vain, chickened out. Now I want to write until I blush. Because I believe that’s where the most interesting writing, the most challenging formulations, are hiding; in the total degradation.  

I don’t want to write about Ragnhild anymore. She doesn’t represent me any longer, perhaps she never has. Not to mention all the other characters in this collection of short stories. I want to call people by their proper names. I believe my writing needs it, this honesty, this resistance, this courage. I am Vår. Lou is Lou. Not Cyril, as he’s called in “Rain Divide.”

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at my old desk in my homestead in Bø. The drawers are full of archived feelings. One of them is called Lou and Oscar, Kyoto 2007. A few days ago, I opened the drawer and reread all the emails they sent me when I was in Japan. And that’s when it dawned on me how much more ruthless I am than Ragnhild. You can’t trust reality, they say. But I’m willing to take that risk.


My brother Eddie called me the next morning to report his head hurt and his wallet was nowhere to be found. He already pinged the hotel but they didn’t have the wallet, or at least claimed they didn’t. Eddie said the woman at the front desk sounded like she was thumbing through his cash and cards even as they spoke, deciding what to toss and what to keep–he could wave goodbye to the emergency Quaalude he kept tucked in there–but how could he ever prove the dark duplicity at work, his small cry in the wilderness versus the obfuscations of a big bad multinational hotel chain? Despite all that he sounded relieved, like he had survived something monumental. “Turns out lots of the people from my class are bald, broke or dead,” he said. “And I’m only half of all those things.”

“You’re a glass half full kind of guy,” I said.

“That’s me,” he said. “Always looking on the bright side.”



Honk if God exists but we dont.


He eyed the wooden blocks, once painted red, now wood-colored again, returned to their natural state by several childhoods’ worth of wear. 


They are going for a ride.


His father tapes the blocks to the back pedals of the impossibly long bike, first masking tape, then black electrical. So he can reach them with his little legs. 


As his dad talks, apprehension turns into horror. The mask of disappointment lifts to reveal a crucible of shame hitherto unimaginable. The back handlebars don’t turn. They are merely for holding on.


He’d been told he was getting a bike.


He couldn’t have imagined it would have two seats. 


Riding to school in the very early mornings that year is hard for a variety of reasons. His feet keep slipping from the blocks while his dad keeps up a steady patter of theology and fear of oncoming traffic. They pass row-houses and raised ranches. The most embarrassing part is unpredictable, timing-wise. 


Guilt is for what you’ve done, shame is for what you are. 


The ride to school is a steep five miles. They pass Muddy Lake on the right and slowly wind their way up the biggest hill. When they reach the top, his father lets out a bellow that reverberates down the valley.


His mom is right, his dad has no shame.


Below is an excerpt from Adam Soldofsky’s forthcoming novella, Telepaphone, which includes illustrations by Axel Wilhite. Preorder your copy here.



Before we were friends I used to watch him, half-lovesick, from a distance in art school. The low formation of academic buildings came together in a pavilion with large grassy flights descending onto a shady lawn. Axel would sit near the top only somewhat out of the sun, legs crossed in conversation with a classmate, listening with his chin raised and lips slightly pursed or pulling earnestly from the little vape pen he was never without. He was handsome, dressed cool, was smart and unpretentious and his work was excellent. The faculty knew he was going to be great and we all did too and there was no reason to begrudge him for it though that didn’t stop some. He’d already had a few paintings in a serious group show and it was known that a well-regarded gallerist was awaiting his final portfolio. I loved his work from the first time I encountered it. It was ravishing and self-evident. You knew it was the real thing, and by implication you knew your own work was not, which stung but what could you do? You could still have a career, maybe just not a memorable one.

We didn’t have a class together until our final semester. The professor was a rather important Conceptualist. She would only allow for “description” during crits and under that principle said a lot of cruel and unflattering things without seeming to realize just how cruel and unflattering, which could be funny if you weren’t too far up your own ass, which most of us were, so we suffered when we could have had a laugh. At the end of it we installed our supposed best work in the graduation show hoping for some interest beyond family and friends. I hadn’t said much to Axel all semester except to praise what he brought to crits. I tried not to but sometimes I would look at him across the circle of students where he sat and wonder about him. Every once in a while he would catch me and smile in a friendly way that made me ashamed to have been born. Something was definitely wrong with me. It’s not that I wasn’t liked by my peers. I’ve always had friends and gotten along. I usually gelled with my teammates. I had loved and been loved in return, at least as far as I could tell. It was mainly that, for as long as I could remember, I’d harbored a suspicion that I was basically, at my core, full of shit, and nothing that had transpired in my life thus far had convinced me otherwise. 

 The day when we were supposed to be clearing out our campus studios, I heard a knock at my door and there was Axel Wilhite, leaning in the threshold.


It’s hard to say when I read Garielle Lutz’s work for the first time. I know that a professor suggested Stories in the Worst Way. But I think I already had purchased Divorcer by that time, though I cannot recall if I had read it. Her work knocked me out.

Lutz’s work is wholly and completely singular, a feat that feels as difficult as ever, though a phrase that feels ubiquitous in our times. But I dare you to find another living writer doing what Garielle is doing. Something that strikes anyone when first reading Lutz is the surgical precision, the kaleidoscopic vocabulary. Much of her work is a masterclass in defamiliarization.

There is not much that can be said that hasn’t already about her genius, and if you are reading this interview, you know it already. She has, for writers like us, completely changed the game and though I know many who cite her as an influence or claim her as one, I can think of very few for whom I can see her fingerprints. Her latest book, Worsted, feels both a continuation of Lutz’s previous work, and something exciting and new from the writer who has been thornily typing out life’s most ordinary adventures for over twenty years.

Garielle and I talked about teaching, retirement, and influence, her latest work, and what’s next.




I know that you taught creative writing as a Visiting Writer at various colleges and universities, but I believe you have mostly taught composition during your time as an academic. Can you talk about teaching composition versus teaching creative writing—if they are completely opposite to you, if you find yourself a more productive creative writer while you teach one or the other, etc.


I’ve always been drawn toward menial but personally meaningful jobs, and at most colleges, the most menial sort of faculty employment seems to be teaching freshman composition. When, during my second or third year of teaching it, I told the chairperson that I had no desire to teach anything else, another prof in the department took me aside and said, “Bad career move.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think of teaching as a career. I needed a job to support myself, true, but I’d always thought of “support” in its most literal sense–as a way of simply holding up. I found teaching composition to be an unsullying use of my time, a way to keep myself grounded. I’ve long felt that somebody somewhere ought to be telling students the truth about commas, about clauses, about the dark enchantments of specificity. Teaching comp is, of course, dirty work, because among the many papers coming at you every week you can always expect that more than a few of the pages will be provocatively grease-spotted and crudded with smudges and splotches and crusts–byproducts of all-nighter practitionings with snack foods, cosmetics, bodily discharge. On one page it might look as if smidgens of clay have been pressed deep into the paper stock; on another, you might come upon the dark bloods of whatever insects were still alive and crushable that month. As an instructor, I always felt it my duty to return the papers promptly and scrubbed reasonably clean. I tried my best with thicksome, stone-colored ink erasers that worked pretty well on certain strains of smutch, and there were chemical treatments that didn’t call for all that much ventilation. Some days I resorted to little more than dollar-store wipes. (The pages would often be warped, though, by the time I was done with them.) Other days the filth would be obstinate, irremediable, permanent. You had to accept that there was only so much you could do. By the end of my workday (I did all my grading in my office at school), I’d need to get far away from words on paper, from any further verbal circumstance. So, no, I never did any writing of my own during the press of the semesters. When I returned to my apartment after work, I always reached for my electric guitar. It was a cheap, solid-body thing I never plugged into an amp, because I wanted the chords I fingered to come out as alluringly trebly and inaudible as I could manage. More often than not, these were nonsense chords, not the simple, stalwart C, F, and G of the recognizable blues. The music I produced lacked any universality whatsoever. I wrote my stories during the summers. I never taught creative writing often enough to draw any conclusions, other than that the students were always smarter than I was.


Do you feel like your process or approach to writing has changed over the years, or do you find yourself still writing in the same manner? If it has changed, how?


I was never a fast writer, was always a dawdler, a layabout, but the pace has slowed even further in the past few years. I long ago read somewhere that a writer, or any other sort of artist, is usually granted only fifteen years in which to come up with something decent, and after that, the work sinks into mannerism and the bitter brittleness of self-parody, or else completely dries up. That sounds just about right to me. I might have had a good month or two here and there. I feel I can live with two or three little things I’ve put into words.


I was doing the thing where my mom was on the phone with me so I was walking laps around the neighborhood. I get pretty sick of being in my apartment. And I need the exercise.

I hadn’t been home in months and months and months and Mom was telling me about how my dad fell in the pond and couldn’t crawl out because he’s got bad knees. It’d be funny and kind of sad if it weren’t for the fact there was a six-foot alligator in there. Dad tries to scramble out of the pond and he keeps sliding in mud and meanwhile, the alligator floats, all scales and prehistoric eyes, just watching. 

I laughed, passing construction site after construction site, old buildings going down and new condos going up, expensive condos no one was actually going to live in. Hundreds of empty condos all over the neighborhood.

“But the real problem is you can’t call animal control on an alligator,” Mom was saying. “Trust me, I tried it. They told me the state budget was cut and they no longer have the equipment or the manpower to wrangle alligators. Can you believe that?” 

Mom sneezed. She works in an old government building and she always has a sinus infection. 

“There’s practically a dinosaur living in the pond, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There’s no one to call. And you certainly can’t kill it. You know your daddy hates shooting things.”

I cut down a side street I don’t often walk down. It’s an ugly chunk of sidewalk covered in busted bottles but it always has the best graffiti, usually Polish because that’s who most of the people in the neighborhood are. There’s this one Polish guy named Brutus who always talks about how he’s a mutant because he grew up thirty miles from Chernobyl. Brutus wears urban camo and has a ponytail down to his ass. He’s six foot ten and he probably is a mutant but I like him. He’s a good guy. 


I usually think people hate me which is why when Mario hadn’t texted me since I’d rejected his poem, I thought he hated me. 


But it turned out he didn’t hate me, he’d just killed himself.


Not to say it was a relief. 


Thank God, he hadn’t killed himself because I’d rejected his poem. I found out from a mutual friend when exactly he’d killed himself. It was a few days after submitting the poem to me but before I’d emailed him the rejection.


That part was a relief. So to speak.


But then I was in a predicament. Everyone was posting positive things about him and his good poems. I was very depressed and playing video games all the time and didn’t know what to do. I thought to myself “Fuck, should I just publish this? Maybe as a celebration of his life?”


The problem was the poem was bad. Not his best work. Not his worst work either, he’d published that back when he was in college. I wondered whether his decline as an artist was what made him kill himself. There wasn’t a note. Not that I know of, at least. Not that I would know whether or not there was a note.


We weren’t very good friends. Mostly friendly, with the wary respect that you feel for someone who is a version of you from an alternate universe. Someone mistook us for brothers one time at a reading.


We both said “Haha, no, not brothers.”


Then he introduced himself to me. 


He seemed slick and he really wanted to be liked. I really wanted to be liked too but went more for the blank canvas approach: don’t flatter people, just kind of be there and eventually people will decide they like you. Other people’s attention was like an oncoming train—just stand to the side and be ready to sneakily jump on but whatever you do, don’t meet it head on or invite it.


[Below is an excerpt from Brooks Sterritt’s new novel The History of America in My Lifetime. Get your copy here!]



The first powder they provided for our enjoyment sharpened something inside me, and dulled something else. My body ceased functioning in the way I was accustomed. Reagan switched on speakers in the room’s corner, filling the air with what may have been a brown note. The two of them flanked a lamp, and sort of shimmied there, watching me. I was reminded of Giotto’s Death and Ascension of St. Francis, for the angels of course but also for what was hidden inside the cloud. In foreground: corpse, mourners, roughly ten haloed angels (some with illegible faces), and the ascendant St. Francis. The cloud, though, contained the face of what could only be a devil, demon, imp, daemon, fiend, or fallen angel. What else watches from a cloud?


The better question: what did “demon” really mean? Even if you reject the label, some things shined with enough intensity to make direct viewing of the source impossible. Some had an ability to control brightness, to blur certain aspects of themselves, even to cloud a mind or two. 


The second powder they gave me caused my body to sink into what felt like a jelly-filled bag. A series of sounds: paper being shredded in slow-motion, a chainsaw backwards, the sound of a single finger snap echoing, extended until it sounded like a hiss of flame. I breathed heavy electricity. A layer of clear glass emerged between my eyes and surroundings, which then shattered, reemerged, and shattered, until the ceiling extended into an infinite corridor. Woodland paths and streams became visible in the tile, a maze buzzed into the hair on someone’s gargantuan head. The pair of attendants were sitting on the edge of the bed, talking.


“They always say they can go forever,” Reagan said.

“Like, I’m going to fuck you for hours,” the other said.

“Then, a few minutes later…”


I have never read Andre Dubus III, but I did once sit next to him on a bench on Remsen Street in Brooklyn. Understand that I have nothing against Andre Dubus III, nor am I uninterested in Andre Dubus III’s books. I am even relatively sure that, were I to read a book by Andre Dubus III, I would enjoy it. I bet there’s good stuff in there. But there is a lot to read that isn’t Andre Dubus III; I am sure even Andre Dubus III would understand that and, by the way, I did not know the man I was sitting next to was Andre Dubus III at the time. I did know he was someone. Some people—people, for instance, like Andre Dubus III—have this kind of distinguished look. I was on that bench waiting for my partner to bring me a cup of coffee that neither of us would have had to pay for, which was in a room that I did not have access to but that my partner did, because she was important and I was not. The man sitting next to me, who again I did not know was Andre Dubus III, was drinking this very coffee, but I didn’t know that either. When my partner arrived with the coffee, however, I saw it was the same brown and white paper cup that held Andre Dubus III’s coffee, and I also noticed that my partner smiled professionally at Andre Dubus III and that Andre Dubus III smiled professionally back in recognition, and so I realized definitively, though not exactly, that the man seated next to me on this bench was important, and that we were drinking the same important coffee. Andre Dubus III made room for my partner on the bench, but she did have to get back to the important room to do important things with important people: important people who had, like Andre Dubus III, received or been nominated for major literary accolades, held prominent staff positions at important writing programs, and even had their work adapted for the big screen, as with Andre Dubus III’s 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog, which was adapted into a film of the same name in 2003. My partner and I talked somewhat blandly about how our days were going, and I sipped my coffee in a way I hoped sounded appreciative of her time—though the coffee was actually too hot, and, actually, it burned my tongue—while at the same time, now that I was sitting closer to him, I was trying to see what Andre Dubus III was reading, which I remember as being one of his own books, perhaps even 1999’s House of Sand and Fog, which is his second novel, but I think that this is just my memory, because I want to remember that this man was Andre Dubus III through the entire scene of this memory despite this actually being an imposition on the memory because at the time, in the present tense of this memory, I did not know that this man was Andre Dubus III, and it is not as though there was something particularly Andre Dubus III about him in an adjectival sense, though of course he looks like the photo on his books, and I suppose it is possible that the distinctive quality I previously attributed to him was a partial recognition of this fact that I had surely seen Andre Dubus III’s books before in bookstores around Brooklyn, which is where we were. I was so intently focused on staring at the running head of the book that he was reading that I did not realize Andre Dubus III was staring back at me, and then I did not realize he was not staring at me but at my coffee, which was also his coffee, and then, but actually, staring at a bee just then hovering over my coffee, a bee which I did not realize was there until I tried raising my coffee to my lips, which I did mostly for the movement, for something to do with my radically misplaced body, and not because I wanted to burn my tongue again, and anyway I did not complete the movement because of the bee, who had captured Andre Dubus III’s attention. The bee hovered only another moment over the surface of the coffee then dove into it directly and drowned. All three of us—Andre Dubus III, my partner, and I—stared, surprised, at its body floating in my coffee. Andre Dubus III spoke first. He said, “That was weird.” My partner and I agreed, and Andre Dubus III continued: “Absolutely no instinct for self-preservation. I think he wanted to go.” My partner apologized then, because she had to return to the room for important people where someone important needed her, and apologized again because she could not get me another cup of coffee. She left me with Andre Dubus III, whom she waved goodbye to slightly, but who did not look up, busy as he was staring at the bee, in my coffee. “Incredible,” he said. “Absolutely Incredible.” I think part of the reason this event was so incredible to Andre Dubus III was because he was surely someone concerned about the bees, who were at the time dying en masse to the great anxiety of many scientists and bee-lovers. We were all concerned about the bees, and we—Andre Dubus III and I—were concerned together, but I had no more reason to sit on that bench on Remsen Street in Brooklyn, so I got up. I still held the coffee, and Andre Dubus III still stared at it, and I felt like I had to say something so I said instead that I hoped no bees would fly into his own coffee, that no more bees would die so uselessly when we really did need to save the bees. It was only when I checked my phone, blocks away but for some reason still carrying this coffee—still very much concerned about the bee floating dead inside that coffee—did I see that my partner had asked me if I knew who that had been on that bench. That is when I learned what you have known all this time—when, in effect, I catch up to you: holding the coffee with the dead bee in one hand, my phone in the other, reading a text message, actually holding this coffee and this text message out to you. 


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.

Get your copy of Body High right here.



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.