Wild Swings: A Conversation with Jon Lindsey
Jon Lindsey is a dork. Jon Lindsey is Lou Reed cool. Jon Lindsey has written short stories about crotch rot and itchy assholes, and they read like elegant etchings cut into crystal champagne glasses. Master of the profane and profound, his debut novel, Body High, from House of Vlad press is no different in its contradictions.
In it, we follow Leland, a drug-addict who makes a living selling his body to science, on a Freudian journey through the complex grief in the wake of his mother’s death, in which his infected spinal tap weeps, a wrestling tycoon dwarf rejects his script (aptly titled Wrestling with Blood), and his cousin/maybe sister/definitely love interest falls in love with his best friend, FF, wields a mini wine bottle as a weapon in his defense on oiled-up fading wrestling Lothario, and returns to the old horrors of the life she fled, among many other absurd moments.
Sounds like a lot for anyone to handle in a 170-page novel? Somehow, it isn’t. The book is bare-bones concision, yet doesn’t skimp on emotionality, and in the end, it all lands spinning on the head of a needle. After reading this book several times, it’s no circus trick. And I have the suspicion the reason for this miracle lies in Jon’s ability to express himself nakedly, with an honesty as unique and unalterable as a fingerprint.
Harris Lahti: In this excerpt, “Crown Vic,” Leland, high on drugs, abducts his biological daughter to harvest her kidney for his cousin, Jolene. Yet, he somehow remains sympathetic, even without the subsequent chapters (in my opinion), because of how these sins are framed as an expression of deep trauma and longing. How deliberate was this calibration?
Jon Lindsey: My models for Leland were the top cowards of literature: Falstaff, Raskalnikov, and Scooby Doo. Arturo Bandini too.
To me, fear and hunger are the most compelling human motives. Basic writerly tricks can cause a character to be sympathetic: make them nice to children, animals, and prostitutes (what Celine did); make them good at something; give them a goal. But I asked myself, can I make a sympathetic character who does the absolute worst. I decided the worst was child abuse and incest. The last universal taboos. Unfortunately, I have an intimate understanding of both. They’re my family history.
So that “deep trauma and longing” you mentioned feeds Leland’s fear and hunger. Trauma is f’d up because it causes not only a lasting fear of the traumatic event, but sometimes a longing to reenact it. In these cases, victims hunger for what they fear most. In Leland’s case, he’s both desirous and afraid of reintegrating with his mother. He doesn’t want to perpetuate his family’s traumatic cycle of incest, but can’t not.
HL: I’m reminded of hearing how Denis Johnson used to lobby to have his books placed in the “Christian fiction” sections of bookstores. There is something unassailably Freudian (the Oedipal Complex, the Death Drive, the Id, Ego, and Superego parallels with our three central characters) about Body High. Can you talk about your relationship with psychology and your non-literary influences that went into the writing of this book?
JL: I’m more of a Jung dude. But Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” bangs. I tapped into the essay’s ideas of the heimlich (secret)/unheimlich (unsecret) for Leland’s death dream. Jung, though, he’s my guy. He’s the more humane. As for other non-literary influences, I’d say 99 Cent Only Stores.
HL: I keep coming back to revolve around the calibration. Surely any frankensteined composit of Falstaff, Raskalnikov, Scooby Doo, and Arturo Bandini should reject its counterpart like a bad skin graft!? But on second thought, really, instead of “calibrations,” I should be asking about voice.
JL: High’s and low’s excite me. I guess “wild swings” have become my voice. I want each beat, scene, chapter, and book to have an emotional momentum. Start on a low note and end on a high, or vice versa, then you’ve created a sense of movement that will propel the reader forward. Start in a penthouse and move toward the outhouse. Start in Gehenna and move toward the throne.
HL: Nothing frames this better than the end of chapter two. Within a few short paragraphs, we get the lines: “Death is nothing to the hills. / Like the hills I hold my mother’s death inside me. / Bring me death, I will carry it…” then a pallbearer trips, and, instead of Leland’s mother, the corpse of Jack Nicolson rolls out of the casket. I can only compare this effect to the way psychedelics can roll in and out.
JL: This feels related to something brilliant Garielle Lutz said in a recent interview: “I’ve always felt that if you’re writing something even a little offbeat or unconventional, it might be a good idea to obey the rules (unless you have strong reasons for not doing so).” It’s all about balance. And edits.
HL: The book is highly readable. The sentences are short. The chapters short. And you seem to trust the reader, doling out plot points (I’m thinking about the way the seemingly tossed-off line about donating sperm becomes a major plot point much later). Can you talk a little about the way you went about trimming the fat without disturbing the love handles in revision?
JL: I was lucky to have great editors on the book. I’m sort of a perfectionist with my writing, so even after Brian Alan Ellis at House of Vlad accepted Body High, I still felt the book was overwritten. I didn’t want readers to be able to put the book down. I needed them to read to the end. Sam Pink’s edits really helped me achieve the momentum I wanted. He has a laser eye and showed me where I was repeating myself, or overexplaining. I think he cut 6,500 words from the book, all told, which is significant for a short book like mine. He also punched up a couple of my jokes, which I appreciated. He’s one of the only writers who makes me laugh out loud.
About four years ago, after I finished the first draft of the book, I got Blake Butler to read it. I was thinking it was ready to send to Penguin. He was like, No bro, you gotta go way deeper. So I spent years going deeper. Blake is another great editor. Then I swapped manuscripts with Bud Smith, who made the book better. Hopefully I did the same for his book, which is wild and gorgeous. Lastly, during quarantine, I workshopped chapters with you (Harris), Sean Thor Conroe, and Eric Conroe. You guys gave me a couple of tweaks in between getting faded on White Claw and blunts.
I’ve been fortunate to work with great editors. None more so than my wife, Allie Rowbottom. What a lucky idiot I am to have married such a brilliant writer. She could probably quote the book backwards to you, because I’ve forced her to read it until her eyes bled. And with every read she made the book better. I would never have understood myself and the book emotionally without Allie.
HL: Body High is a Los Angeles novel. What about the landscape of California do you draw inspiration from and what helped inform your process?
JL: It’s where I was born and raised so I could spend my whole life answering this question. But off the top of my head, I’m inspired by the contradictions. Natural beauty and tacky architecture. Realness and fakeness. There’s a reason Southern California is quintessential noir: shadow and light. That creates depth. That’s chiaroscuro. That’s the Mona Lisa, bro. Think about it. Whoa.
HL: In my opinion, all good writing is local. It comes out of the air of a place, and L.A. really seems to add a lunatic fringe to its literature: I’m thinking Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locusts, Ottessa Moshfegh’s short stories, John Fante and Thomas Pynchon, et cetera, and it strikes me as no coincidence that Leland wants to be a writer; Jolene, an actress; FF, a professional wrestler.
Can you talk a little more about the psychology of the landscape and its people and how it informed your characters?
JL: I feel like my Los Angeles has two sides that exist at opposite ends on the spectrum of dreaming. There’s the Hollywood hustle of hucksters, hype-beasts, and flimflam. Then there’s the eternal malaise of Southern California mañana.
FF is on that energetic side that’s like now, now, now. While Leland lives in the stasis. Jolene sort of straddles both poles because she’s a dynamic character, she’s fleeing to NYU to be and actress, but she’s trapped, with Leland, in their family’s legacy of incest—an infinity loop of trauma.
Fight, flight, or freeze: those are the textbook responses to trauma. I guess each character represents that in their own way.
HL: Keeping with the plot, there’s an organic progression to this that I really admire. The way one small detail returns but in a different form, changing everything. Did you start writing this knowing where it was going? How could you!? What was the seed of BH?
JL: Organic, yeah. No GMO. The seed of the story was literally seed. I was making money by donating sperm to a fertility clinic and had to sign a waiver saying the children had the right to contact me when they turned eighteen. I started to question my connection to these children. I imagined kidnapping one. I wondered, what would make me that desperate? From that question, the story grew.
HL: Many of us connected at Tyrant’s The Collected Gary Lutz reading at Murmrr. Then the pandemic hit, and we spent the year living together online. I didn’t have any internet friends before the world stopped, and many of these friends are my good friends. Do you think the pandemic, in a way, was a good year for indie lit? How do you think this effected the release Body High?
JL: I remember coming away from that night feeling like we were all on the verge of something massive. Gian holding court. Bud handing out boomers. I almost rolled around in broken glass to get my name in the history books. At the afterparty is where I met you and Sean Thor Conroe. Then the pandemic hit and everything stopped. And it became up to each of us to keep the momentum going.
Early on in quarantine, I reached out to you and Sean about zooming a writing workshop. I think it made us all better.
Another thing I did was weekly Misery Tourism zoom readings. In lockdown, nothing else was going on Friday nights. And reading to an audience each week helped me edit because I could hear the flat spots in my writing. Those readings also exposed me to great outré writers like Derek Maine, Jake Blackwood, Gabriel Hart, Elizabeth Aldrich, etc.
I hope the pandemic was a good year for writing. I see ways in which it was. But we lost Gian on the way out. Now things are opening up again and the challenge is less about writing in total isolation, and more about keeping Gian’s legacy alive and honoring him with our work.
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