In her debut novel, The Burden of Joy (Rejection Letters, 2023), Lexi Kent-Monning explores love, loss, death, grief, caretaking, and mothering in some of its less conventional forms. In searing and relatable prose, she tells the story of one relationship unraveling while another begins. She paints an honest picture of a woman in transition, putting her finger on the specific discontent of being a modern person longing for a more natural, wild existence. The subject matter is often dark, and her tone is extremely relatable, propulsive, and absorbing. She moves the reader through a series of snapshots of the protagonist’s life, taking us on an unforgettable ride that spans both coasts and even broader emotional territory.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Lexi via Zoom about Esalen, photographing roadkill, and becoming addicted to people.
Emma Burger: Where did the idea for the The Burden of Joy come from?
Lexi Kent-Monning: It’s autofiction, so a lot of it springs from real life. I was kind of trying to process and make sense of what was happening in the moment and how I was feeling about it. There was stuff happening in my life that seemed so unusual to me that I just had to take note of it. I was writing a lot without intending for it to be a book. Then much further down the line, I used the fragments as an application for this workshop in Italy with the writers Chelsea Hodson and the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, called Mors Tua Vita Mea. The feedback at that workshop was like, you could turn this into a book. And I was like oh! Sure. But I didn’t go into it intending for it to be a book at all.
EB: What was the experience like at that workshop?
LKM: Oh my god, it was incredible. I mean, it was so life changing. I was 33 I think, and was really starting to take writing seriously and calling myself a writer for the first time, so applying to that workshop was a big leap of faith for me. It was late one night and I saw that Chelsea Hodson had tweeted about applying and I was like, why not? And the next morning, I woke up and was like oh my god, I can’t believe I applied. I had major imposter syndrome about it, but it was incredible.
I didn’t go to college. I don’t have an MFA. I have no formal training in writing whatsoever. I felt like a lot of the workshops and residencies and things were for “real writers,” you know? This one seemed a little more alternative though in a way where I was like, oh, maybe this could be my entrée into being a writer. Being with other misfits —the workshop being this indie, weird, alternative space— it was the first place I made any writer friends or was a part of any writing community. It was a huge launching point for me in actually taking myself and my writing seriously, and feeling like I had something to say. It was life-altering. It truly was such a positive experience.
EB: Dead animals are a central motif in the book, as well as in your photography. How did that theme come into your work, and how does it connect your writing with your photography practice?
LKM: I was living in the woods and walking my dog every day. I thought, I’m seeing a lot of dead animals – this is kind of weird. I just couldn’t ignore the fact that it was happening at a time where this major life shift was taking place for me. I was getting divorced and my life was changing a lot, and the timing just seemed so strange when I started seeing dead stuff all the time. I started taking pictures because I felt like I would tell people this and they’d just think I was totally nuts. So it was like, well at least I’ll have photo evidence. And then it just started to be a weird hobby. I’ve never been a photographer, I was just drawn to photography because I kept seeing the same thing over and over again. Then down the road, I realized how many I had, and just posted them on my website because all of a sudden I had this weird cohesive project. Again though, I never intended for it to be a project; it kind of just turned out that way.
In terms of writing about it, I was trying to make sense of it. I wondered, why am I seeing this so often? And why am I so drawn to it? When most people see a dead animal, they’re kind of like, ew gross, and walk away, which I get. I actually had a few funny experiences where I’d be walking with someone and we’d see dead stuff and they’d be like, “I never saw dead animals until I started hanging out with you.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry! I think I’m just making you notice it more.”
EB: The book explores the theme of death more broadly as well. Your protagonist expresses her disillusionment with the fact that so many people seem deeply uncomfortable confronting death. Do you feel like you’re more interested in engaging with death than others?
LKM: Yeah, I absolutely do. It’s funny because I don’t really find that stuff morbid. I just kind of find it interesting and factual. I’m fascinated by how differently people can react to death. Part of that may just be because I’ve experienced a lot of death in my life. At one point, I had a boyfriend who was like, “your family knows people who die all the time.” And I’m like, “yeah, I guess you’re right.” He had never even been to a funeral, and I’ve been to a million. I’m just really interested in death. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sad or bad thing. Death can be a relief. It can be a blessing. It can be so many different things. It doesn’t have to just be sad.
My dad was a state senator in California. He termed out during Covid, but he was a co-author of a bill called the Death with Dignity Act, which aimed to legalize medical aid in dying for people with terminal illnesses. That conversation around death has always been present in my family, and it’s not something we’re uncomfortable with. Why wouldn’t I talk about it? It just seems natural to me, to write about dead animals and take their photos.
EB: Was your dad in politics while you were growing up too?
LKM: Kind of. He was a labor lawyer. My parents met working with the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez in the legal department. And then my mom became a doctor, and my dad became a lawyer. He was mostly a labor lawyer, then taught conflict resolution negotiation. He ran for office when I was nine or ten and lost. And then when I was in my twenties and out of the house, he ran again and was successful, so he became an assembly person and then a senator after that.
EB: Your narrator expresses a strong desire to become a mother. I’m curious what drove your decision to have that dream of hers go unfulfilled?
LKM: I’m really attracted to the grey area of wanting to be a mother. I’m 39, so this is still happening among my friend group, but so many of my conversations with my women friends are about the potential for motherhood and everything that goes along with that. It’s been such a huge part of our lives over the last five or six years. It’s something I constantly have on my mind, but am still so confused about. I wanted to write through this confusion and not really come to a resolution because I still haven’t in my personal life, although time is kind of making that decision for me.
After I wrote the first couple of drafts, I read Motherhood by Sheila Heti. It’s such a complex issue where it’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing. In a weird way, my safe place was living in the grey area and never making the decision, so I wanted to keep the character dissatisfied. I want it to be frustrating that she hasn’t made this decision because I’m frustrated too. Sometimes I’m like, man, I just wish I had a strong drive either way. I’m still so in the middle.
EB: I wanted to ask you about substance use in the book. Your protagonist confesses that she once tried to drink herself to death. She also tends to get into these obsessive, codependent relationships with emotionally unavailable men. How do you see the relationship between her chemical addictions and her addiction to people?
LKM: It almost seems like the most unhealthy substance in this book is the addiction to other people. To men, and to that romantic high. It’s funny because I don’t read a ton of books about women where substances are prevalent, but aren’t the main point of it. I’ve certainly read a lot of addiction memoirs, but haven’t read so many that explore the in-between. This issue also comes up with a lot of my friends. Do I have a problem, or is this just how it is? With substance use, there’s lots of grey area until there isn’t.
When I was going through my divorce, I definitely found myself turning to substances. I was like, “well, I have an out because I’m going through something, so it’s totally fine.” And then it’s like, at what point is that not fine? At what point do you think you’re okay because you’re drinking less or not doing drugs, but you’re completely addicted to this other person who’s maybe treating you even worse than the drugs or alcohol were? Maybe you feel virtuous because you’re not drinking anymore, but there’s this dude who treats you like shit and you keep going back to him.
Here too, I was writing to understand. A lot of the time when I write, it’s because I want to figure out how I feel about something. Sometimes it’s not until I’m weeks or pages into something where I’m like, “oh, maybe there’s something here.” So I wanted to bring in the idea of addiction to other people because the unhealthiest substance for me has always been another person.
EB: The protagonist’s husband gets increasingly involved in a local New Age commune, which is a major driver of their divorce. What was the inspiration behind that?
LKM: The commune in the book is an amalgamation of a few of those kinds of places I’ve been to. The one I went to a lot as a kid in Big Sur is called Esalen. It’s morphed a lot since then. Now, there are a lot of tech people from San Francisco who end up there. They’ve refurbished a lot of the lodgings, so it’s super expensive. As a kid, I would go and run around on the grass with my friends, eat in the cafeteria, go to craft fairs. Now it’s kind of bougie and expensive since it’s been infiltrated by big tech, and they’ve never really reconciled the fact that they’re on Esselen Tribe land.
When I was in my twenties, I had a few friends go there for retreats. They have amazing programming, so they’d take photography courses where you go and stay for a week. I’ve had friends take grief workshops there. You can do yoga teacher training. There’s all different kinds of programs, which is really incredible. But as I get older, I see more of those kinds of places and how much the tech industry has changed them.
EB: Both you and the narrator were formerly celebrity personal assistants. Given the maternal role the narrator tends to adopt in her relationships, I’m curious how your experience taking care of famous women differs from taking care of men?
LKM: When I first wrote the book, it didn’t include anything about being an assistant. A couple drafts in, I started to realize what a nurturing role that was too. I was interested in showing her as a nurturer outside her romantic relationships. In this case, she’s nurturing these professional women at the top of their game. They have their lives together. The reason they need assistance is because there’s no time to go grocery shopping, or whatever it is. It’s not because they’re incapable. It’s that they’re so capable in something else that they don’t have time to do other things.
With the men, it may be weaponized incompetence, or it may just be that they’re used to having women take care of them. It’s more of a necessity —like this person might not survive if I don’t take care of them. With the professional women, I’m helping them thrive, but with the men, I’m helping them just survive. It’s that idea that a man’s life is gonna fall apart if I don’t do this, which isn’t necessarily the truth. It’s what the narrator and I perceive, but it’s a dynamic we help create. For me anyway, once I’m in a nurturing role, it’s the only thing I can see when I look at anything. Like, who needs to be taken care of? How can I help?
EB: You put that sentiment so beautifully in the book when you write “there’s selfishness in my selflessness.” Where did that sentiment come from?
LKM: I liked the idea of bringing hedonism into nurturing because those two ideas feel so opposite on their surface. In the narrator’s case though, taking care of people and being needed gave her this high. Nurturing seems so selfless, but is it actually selfless if the nurturer is getting so much more out of it than the recipient? I was very into the idea of an imperfect narrator. Of her being very bare and forthcoming with her faults.
EB: What’s next for you?
LKM: I wrote a first draft of a sex memoir that I haven’t touched since January. I decided to leave it in a drawer for a couple months and then this book got picked up, so I haven’t had time to go back to it, but I plan to. The working title is Every Other Thought, and it came about because I had triple the sex scenes in Burden of Joy than what ended up making it in. Chelsea Hodson was one of my first readers, and she was like, “you need to cut out some of the sex.”
I really liked a lot of it though, and figured maybe I should do something about consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences and how they inform each other. I’ve read erotica and I’ve read sexual assault memoirs, but I haven’t read anything that’s both those things. All my friends and I have such mixed experiences that we’re trying to make sense of. Again, it’s writing through something to try to understand it.
EB: Your book is coming out with Rejection Letters. How has the experience of publishing with a small press been for you?
LKM: It’s honestly been heaven. It’s so fun. Many of my friends have had different experiences with big publishers where things take so long and they need to make so many compromises. It can be a slog. This has been so fun and I feel like I’m getting away with something. D.T. Robbins is the publisher, and he had a short story called “I Turned Off the Christmas Lights” in Pithead Chapel, which I read over Christmas. It’s about his first holiday season post-divorce and how he was handling it with his kids. I think it’s non-fiction, or autofiction at least. I just loved that story so much. It was heartbreaking and resonant, and I was so impacted by it.
He had published something of mine in Rejection Letters magazine before, so I was aware of him, but I read that piece and was like man, I wish this guy would start publishing books because I feel like he’d be the perfect person to publish mine. And then a couple months later, he tweeted about starting a press, so I turned on notifications for his tweets and one day he was like okay, we’re open to book submissions. I immediately submitted and he wrote me a message a few hours later or maybe the next day and was like, “I’ve gotten a few submissions, but your letter stands out. You have my attention, and I’m really excited to read your book.” And I was like, this is amazing! Then a week later we met and it was immediately clear that it was a match.
This is the first book he’s putting out as a publisher, so it’s been fun to be partners in crime since we’re both new to this. We signed the deal in April and he wanted to publish it on November 1st and I was like, “do you think that’s realistic?” And he was like, “I think so.” It’s just been incredible and he’s amazing. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Indie forever until I die.
Lexi Kent-Monning is an alumna of the Tyrant Books workshop Mors Tua Vita Mea in Sezze Romano, Italy, taught by Giancarlo DiTrapano and Chelsea Hodson. She didn’t go to college or get an MFA. Lexi’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, Joyland, Tilted House Review, Neutral Spaces, Little Engines, and elsewhere. She previously worked as an indie music publicist (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, José González), a personal assistant to Hollywood actors (Zooey Deschanel, Alicia Silverstone), and has worked in tech for the last decade. A native Californian, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.