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.