Richard Owain Roberts interviews Tao Lin, author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His most recent novel, Leave Society, was published last August.
I messaged Tao Lin, author of Leave Society (Vintage), to ask if he would like to be interviewed. Tao said he would and the topics we covered via email include parents, autofiction, aliens, health, childhood and island life. Thank you Wales Arts Review for letting us say it.
Richard Owain Roberts: Leave Society is a novel that made me laugh a lot. Specifically the cycle of bickering, side-taking, apologizing and then on some occasions new bickering between Li and his parents. Were you finding it amusing as you typed it, and do you find it amusing to think about or read now?
Tao Lin: I’m glad my book made you laugh a lot. Thanks for reading it and laughing. I did feel amused—on some level, to some degree, at times—while typing and editing its bickering-apologizing-bickering scenes, initially in my notes and then in drafts of the book over six years. I also sometimes felt troubled, discouraged, and/or unamused. When I read my novel now, I mostly find it amusing. My mom has also said that she finds the bickering, when she reads about it in my novel, amusing.
ROR: What, either in books, on screen, or life in general, do you typically find amusing?
TL: I’ve recently found Kuhnian crises amusing. A Kuhnian crisis—described by Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science—is when a series of small, incremental, seemingly reasonable steps lead theorists deeper into a dead end, like in geocentricism—the theory that everything revolves around Earth in perfect circles. People kept adding “ad hocs” to try to make the inaccurate theory work—”epicycles” said the other planets moved in subcircles in addition to their normal circles, “ex-center” said the circles were off-center; and so on.
ROR: That does sound amusing. I grew up on Ynys Môn, a small island, and my novel, Hello Friend We Missed You, is, as some people have seen it, an ‘island novel’. Like Li, you now live in Hawaii. Does island life suit you, do you feel?
TL: Your novel sounds good. I would like to read it. I’m not sure if island life suits me. I like the island I’m on, though—it’s called the Big Island. I didn’t like Oahu—the most populated Hawaiian island, where I lived for around a year—as much, due in part to there being a lot of military aircraft there, and due in part to it being kind of crowded. In a global catastrophe, I wouldn’t want to be on Oahu. The Big Island seems better for global catastrophes—there are no cities, there is a lot of space, and flora and fauna seem abundant.
ROR: Is there anything you like less about living on Big Island?
TL: Maybe that it’s harder for me to visit friends and family who aren’t on the island, and vice versa.
ROR: Has moving to Hawaii changed your writing routine, if you have a routine?
TL: Moving to Hawaii has not changed my writing routine, no. That seems more influenced by what I’m writing and what stage I’m at with the writing. I do have a routine, but it changes. Lately I’ve been working on writing for 4-6 hours in the daytime, then researching and hand-editing on paper for 1-2 more hours at night.
ROR: I felt you captured Li’s cycle of frustration with his parents’ approach to health, at times aggressive-seeming desire to help, and gradual chilling out very well. Thank you for writing about this.
TL: You’re welcome. I’m glad you felt that I captured his frustration cycle well.
ROR: In my experience, I feel like it can be a relentless uphill battle to convince a parent of less damaging, nature-based remedies and dietary changes. Is this struggle still ongoing with your parents, and do you still sometimes get frustrated with them?
TL: I haven’t seen my parents in two years due to the pandemic. But we’ve been getting along really well in video calls, talking once a week for like 80 minutes at a time. My dad takes little of my health advice, but my mom and I both research health topics independently and discuss health issues in a friendly, productive, non-frustrating way, by this point, in 2021. We’ve gotten better at communication over years.
ROR: That’s good to hear. My communication with my parent has also improved gradually, and ultimately significantly, over the last two years. Poor health and nutrition feels deeply ingrained in Welsh culture for mostly economic and political reasons, probably in the same way as it is, I’d imagine, in the US and many other countries. What prompted you initially to consider a different approach to health?
TL: In college, I wanted to feel less depressed, tired, and anxious, so I searched online how to do that. There were antidepressants, but somehow I didn’t trust them, and also I didn’t want to talk to a doctor because I disliked social situations. People also recommended caring about diet, which I could do without talking to anyone, so I did that. I also remember wanting to have better skin, and people also recommended diet for that. It was through this research that I began to learn how toxic most food and most things in society are.
ROR: I think I heard you say, or read somewhere, that you were either writing, or considering writing, a science fiction novel. Will you still incorporate autofiction into your sci-fi novel? It’s interesting to imagine what that could be like. For some reason the scene in Inception where McConaughey is moving through the 4D space/time library of his daughter’s bedroom comes to mind.
TL: Part of why I would want to write a sci-fi novel is to get away from autofiction, so maybe I would only include small details from my life, and save my life’s main details for further autofictional or nonfictional books. I don’t know yet. I’ve been interested in writing a science-fiction novel in the voice of, and from the perspective of, an advanced extra-terrestrial.
ROR: Have you read anything interesting, or have any thoughts, on how time might work?
TL: Glenn Borchardt, author of Infinite Universe Theory, argues that time is simply motion. He says time can’t “flow” because motion can’t flow. He says time doesn’t exist; rather, it occurs. He and others think that Einstein made a mistake when he objectified time into a dimension, possibly leading physicists into a century-plus-long Kuhnian crisis. Russian physicist Nikolai Kozyrev called the aether (a “sea” of undetectably small particles that people, until the twentieth century, believed filled every area of empty space) time, which I find fascinating and want to learn more about.
ROR: Knausgaard, who has written a sci-fi novel recently, is known for writing autofiction. Stylistically and in his approach to autofiction, the My Struggle books seem to me very different to your work. Have you read them and do you have any thoughts on his work?
TL: I read and enjoyed like 40-100 pages of the first book of My Struggle. Knausgaard has said that he stopped trying after a certain number of pages—he stopped working on the writing and just published the first draft. I could tell where he stopped trying, which was around when I stopped reading. I would be more interested in reading his unedited writing if he was a friend or acquaintance or if he was an incel or was otherwise somehow severely dysfunctional and/or alienated from society.
ROR: We’re the same age, I think. I watched X-Files as a teenager and it definitely shaped my interest in aliens, abductions, and government secrets. Did you watch the X-Files?
TL: I haven’t watched the X-Files, but I’ve heard it’s about aliens and government secret agents, topics which I’ve gotten very interested in in the past few years. I just searched Steven Greer’s amazing book, Hidden Truth, Forbidden Knowledge (2006), for “X files” and found this (about a press conference he organized in 2001 in which military, government, and corporate witnesses—whistle-blowers—disclosed things they knew about secret government projects): “The general manager of the National Press Club was stunned at the number of news people present. News networks were cancelling other programming and were heard saying, ‘This is the real X Files!'”
ROR: ‘This is the real X Files!’, is an interesting and amusing quote in many ways, thank you for finding that. I’ve always wanted to witness a UFO, and I wonder how I would react at the time, and then how it would make me feel after. How do you think seeing a UFO might impact you, at the time and then afterwards?
TL: Seeing a UFO would make me feel alert and focused and engaged. I can imagine a situation where I’m so depressed or upset about some mundane thing in my normal life that I would almost ignore the UFO, or feel bad about feeling so bad that I couldn’t even focus on a UFO, but hopefully that won’t happen. I might want to try to think something telepathically to the alien(s) inside the UFO—an unknown message that will depend on my mood and other things. I would hope that the UFO was not part of a CIA project that was going to hoax an abduction on me. Afterwards, I would write about it and feel glad to have it to write about and examine. I wouldn’t be too surprised because I’m already pretty convinced that humans and/or aliens have UFOs on Earth.
ROR: Do you discuss subjects like aliens with your parents?
TL: I have before, but it’s not a regular topic of conversation. I’ve told them, or maybe just my mom, that I’ve read that secret U.S. government projects have hoaxed alien abductions for many decades—it’s called “stagecraft”—and that there may be a human plan to hoax an alien invasion. I want to ask them what they remember of what I’ve said.
ROR: The descriptions of times from Li’s childhood, the very not good hospital experiences being an example, were deeply moving to read in a way I hadn’t experienced with your writing previously. Was writing about this for Leave Society the first time you have written about your childhood? How did you feel writing it?
TL: I actually wrote about the same experiences—from when I was a teenager—in Taipei too, my previous novel. I feel good writing about being severely depressed in the past, because it makes me more grateful for my present life.
ROR: I enjoyed Taipei but forgot about the sections on your childhood. I’ll look and enjoy reading them again with the perspective of having now read Leave Society. Do you think it’s likely you will write more about childhood, either possibly a whole book or a greater portion of a book?
TL: I do. I like writing about the same things from different angles in different books. I have an essay in an anthology called NDA that came out this month in which I write about my masturbation experiences as a child, which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Other things from childhood I’d like to write about: friends I had as a child, Nintendo and computer games I played as a child.
ROR: Thinking back to childhood friends feels interesting, and something I have used in my writing a little, and will continue to do in the future. My first games console was a SNES and I remember writing small books about the game F-Zero, focusing on what was going on between races. Do any games from this period stand out for you in a similar way?
TL: I like that you wrote small books about F-Zero. I remember F-Zero being colourful and fast. I had NES and SNES. SNES games I remember liking: SimCity and Final Fantasy II and III. As for NES, I liked Destiny of an Emperor, a strategy role-playing game set in around the year 200 in China. I liked a game where you were a UFO-like thing that moved from left to right, shooting things while being shot at. I don’t remember the name.
ROR: Your parent’s dog, Dudu, was a big presence in Leave Society for me, somewhat otherworldly and arguably the novel’s ‘breakout star’. I found it funny, but also at the same time profound and thought provoking, when she had that catatonic moment in the park. What would be your guess as to what was going on for Dudu in that moment?
TL: She might have felt uncomfortable due to some bodily ache or pain. She’s a dog, so she couldn’t say, “My back hurts. I don’t want to walk anymore.” I’m happy you enjoyed Dudu’s presence in my novel.
ROR: That’s a very plausible explanation. All said, how is Du at the moment?
TL: She is doing well now. She’s turning 14 on November 22. I see her when I video call my parents.
ROR: That’s good to hear. Please wish Dudu a happy birthday from me, and thank you for answering these questions.
Leave Society by Tao Lin is published by Vintage and available to purchase here.
Richard Owain Roberts’ novel Hello Friend We Missed You is out now.
(Photo credit: Yuka Igarashi)