Chris Rush was a closeted Catholic 12-year-old when he took his first tab of LSD.
"My older sister introduced me to [drugs] at a very young age," the author of The Light Years said via phone from his Tucson home. "That said, if my sister hadn't given it to me, I could have gotten it easy as pie from the kids at school. The whole country was under a wave of psychedelics in 1968."
What followed was a rollicking cross-country adventure involving Christian drug smugglers, runaway flower children and even the president of the Amalgamated Flying Saucers Club of America. After decades of substance abuse, going clean, coming out and eventually establishing a career as an award-winning painter, Rush decided to write down the memories of his adolescencewhich became his first book.
"About 10 years ago I was seized with a great curiosity about … what had happened," he said. "I thought it was going to be kind of a romp [but] the more I wrote, the more peculiar it became. I realized I might have lived a very strange childhood."
Although Rush didn't officially come out until age 20"I showed up at a queer bar and danced with another guy"he never doubted who he really was.
As the middle child in a suburban New Jersey family, Rush said he "very much grew up around all the slanderous terms. 'Sissy' certainly followed me my whole life! I can't say I was offended because it seemed somewhat accurate, [but] I really didn't know what I was supposed to do.
"When the events of the book transpired, I was aware that I was a total love child," Rush continued. "And one of the things that I was in love with, besides the mountains and LSD and my favorite sister, was boys."
Acting on said love was a bit messier. "I was madly in love with many of my peers, beautiful young men," Rush said. "I didn't suffer with that knowledge, but sometimes when I attempted to act out, there were problems. And that got complicated. ... At a certain point, I was paralyzed."
As Rush explained, "Gay liberation was very much an urban phenomenon, and I wasn't in New York or San Francisco. Stonewall is a great story, but no one knew about it." Looking back, this lack of information was an opportunity to define queerness for himself. "In trying to understand who I was and what I was supposed to look like, I had to invent it on my own."
While writing The Light Years, Rush called on his career. "The one thing I knew as an artist … was studio life. I knew how to sit still alone in a room for long periods of time," he said. Rush read memoirs set in the same era and decided to avoid clichés of drug-fueled anecdotes. "I slowed down and tried to remember in a way that was particular to me."
Rush also put himself back in his younger shoes. He said, "I decided to write as much as I could in the mind of the child and teenager and young adult [I was], because otherwise I was going to spend the entire book explaining why the hell I did all that crazy stuff! I tried to enter in the memory of what I once thought, so I could stay close to the events and write in a way that was really experiential and fresh."
Lastly, he spoke to members of his large family. ( Rush is one of seven children. ) "They're a chatty bunch and they just talked," he said. "I don't think they got the idea [I was writing a book] until the third or fourth interview."
Now that The Light Years is out, "there had to be a little intervention here and there. There were some tears," he said. "But they've really come out in supporting the whole enterprise. They realize there is something wonderful about capturing this crazy time."
When it came to Rush's now-92-year-old mother, "I think she was a little troubled by the book, but when she read the review in Time Magazine, she was just fine. She said, 'when I read a review of your book, I think of my life in a new way.'"
One family member Rush couldn't interview was his father, who died two decades ago and "really disliked that he had a gay son."
"He really confided in no one," Rush said, "and there's not much evidence of his inner life to be found anywhere. I had to do a great deal of contemplation and a little sleuthing to understand how he ended up the man I knew." In doing that, "I fell in love with him all over again. He's a perfectly flawed human."
For Rush, the most challenging part of writing The Light Years was "to find what the book was trying to reveal." For this he had the help of his partner, the novelist Victor Lodato, and his editor Colin Dickerman, who is also gay. "We talked about what was essential, what we needed to do to make the piece work," Rush said. "I had the book by the fourth edit, I just had a little too much book!"
The Light Years has garnered positive reviews comparing Rush to David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. "I am the same age as Sedaris, and there are some similarities," Rush said. Writing-wise, "I took a lot of inspiration from Denis Johnson," he said. "There's this certain kind of high lonesome Western desert lore, that I feel very strongly about. It's contemplative [and] very American."
Rush continued with a laugh, "But I'm also a queen from New Jersey. I'm loud. I'm ridiculous. I'm campy! I got caught up in these very strange circumstances and found an adventurous way to proceed."
The Light Years is available wherever books are sold.