In conversation with Leah Dieterich, the writer speaks on trusting nature, believing no one, and drinking dirt for breakfast
I’ve appreciated Tao Lin’s worth ethic and output for years from afar, but I could never quite get into his novels. I found the tone depressing with its bleak outlook and flat affect. But many things have changed since Lin published his last novel Taipei in 2013, so I was more open to giving his new work a chance. And full disclosure, my editor is his partner, which certainly made me want to try to get to know him better, at least through his work. His new novel, Leave Society, follows a novelist named Li over the course of four years as spends an increasing amount of time with parents in Taipei, and falls in love with a woman in New York. While traveling back and forth, he incites and tempers arguments, uncovers secrets about nature and history, and tries to understand how to live a meaningful life as an artist, son, and partner.
Leave Society is not just a title, it’s his personal goal. It’s an idea I myself have considered many times in recent years, as have a lot of people if social media’s obsession with #vanlife and Cabin Porn are any indication. Lin’s narrator’s relentless self-improvement feels at once familiar and alienating. I see my own similar tendencies and wonder whether they are paths to transcendence or just ways to focus an unrelenting anxiety. While I cannot answer these questions, I do know that I appreciate that this novel and its author are oriented toward finding a better way of living.
Leah Dieterich: So much of this book involves the main character, Li, healing himself through diet, breathing, psychedelic drugs, cannabis, yoga, an inversion table, the list goes on. I’m curious about your own wellness routine. What did you do today and what have you eaten?
Tao Lin: I woke at 6:30 a.m., meditated for 15 minutes, drank a tiny amount of a soil-based supplement, made a blended drink containing hot water, a tablespoon of cold-brewed coffee, four raw eggs, honey, a teaspoon of cacao powder, 0.3 grams of kratom powder, two capsules of cow organ powder, and two capsules of cow bone and marrow powder. While the water was heating, I stood outside and flapped my arms while looking at and around the sun. I brought the drink to my room and drank it while checking email and social media. After doing stuff online for a while, I drank some more coffee with 0.3 grams more kratom powder and printed an interview to edit by hand, and then I answered emails and am now working on this interview. I’ve also eaten half a papaya and interacted with my partner and our cats so far today. It’s 9:30 a.m.
Leah: That’s pretty much what I was hoping for: incredible specificity. I’ve never heard of a ‘soil-based supplement.’ I’m assuming it’s…dirt?
Tao: It’s humic and fulvic acid, which are in dirt. It has helped my digestion.
Leah: As a former calorie restrictor and current health food enthusiast, I could go on and on about the particulars, but in the interest of getting to feelings rather than facts, I’ll resist the urge to turn this into a health and wellness interview. I just read the end of your book again and it made me cry a little even on second reading, which to me, means it really worked. It also made me want to write, which the best books often do. There is so much hope in this book. I hadn’t anticipated that going into it.
Tao: I’m glad you discerned hope in it.
Leah: To be honest, this is the first book I have read of yours. I always picked your prior novels up at the bookstore and looked through them, but the drug use and disaffection depressed me, so I avoided reading them even though I appreciated what you were trying to do. When I read the synopsis of Leave Society, and saw that it was about the narrator visiting his parents for months at a time, and healing through diet, I felt like, Finally, a Tao Lin book for me!
Tao: Nice. It is different from my prior novels. It’s about change and optimism instead of stagnancy and disaffection. I imagine the autobiographical aspect attracted you too. I admired and enjoyed your memoir Vanishing Twins—how you used your own life and relationships, threading in research and giving it a form, to create a work of art. I remember reading it in one or two nights.
Leah: Thank you! I appreciate you saying that. I remember wanting a hopeful ending to my book. Not a happy ending but something hopeful. Despite the fact that I have historically considered myself an optimist, I’ve found it to be a real struggle to maintain a hopeful outlook about the world in the last four to six years. What about you?
Tao: There’ve been many times in the past seven years—I wrote and edited Leave Society from 2014 to 2021—that I’ve felt hopeless and pessimistic about my future and the future of the planet, but overall, and especially in my calmer and more rational moments, I do generally feel hopeful about my own future and the future of humans. I’ve gotten gradually convinced, over years, by various authors and books, that it’s not life that is terrible and meaningless, but dominator society.
Leah: I lit up when your book mentioned Riane Eisler and her work about partnership and domination societies. How did you come to her work and what has it meant for you?
Tao: I learned of her in 2012 or 2013 from Terence McKenna, who often used her terms ‘partnership’ and ‘dominator,’ which she coined in The Chalice and the Blade, a book which changed what I think about human history. Eisler argued that, for 99 percent of our species’ existence, we exemplified the partnership model, in which diversity is valued instead of ranked. We were egalitarian and peaceful, worshipping nature as a female deity. The fall into our current dominator society occurred around 6,500 years ago, in her view, and we’ve been inconsistently recovering since. I remember you said you learned of Eisler from Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast. What attracted you to her ideas?
Leah: There is so much antagonism in the culture right now, and Eisler’s theories seem so much more hopeful and inclusive and collaborative. We need to partner with each other rather than just blame and dominate each other if we are to make any progress toward saving the planet and making it livable for future generations. The pandemic has made the need for partnership even more clear in my own household, especially in the realm of balancing earning money and parenting. I wonder, what are ways you’ve tried to consciously adopt a partnership mentality in your own life?
Tao: I’m working on being more patient and compassionate and selfless, on having more control over my thoughts and emotions, on being a better listener and collaborator, on being careful and mindful instead of rushed and impulsive, on trusting nature instead of technology. My strategies for helping me do all that include taking notes on my life, meditating, gardening, nourishing and detoxifying my body, getting enough sleep, writing Leave Society, and reading books on love, nature, history, and partnership.
Leah: Have you read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg? A couple of friends have recommended it recently and I’ve been enjoying it. I noticed on a blurb on the front of the book it mentions that it’s endorsed by Eisler.
Tao: I haven’t read it, no, but I’m looking at it now, and it seems good. I think I would benefit from reading it.
Leah: It’s very similar in a lot of ways to a parenting book I read called How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. I got Nonviolent Communication from the library and it’s due in like three days so I’m trying to figure out if I can finish it before then. It’s definitely quite a good method I could benefit from. One of the things that is kind of staggering is the lack of words we have at our fingertips for our emotions. He had a whole spread where he suggests words to describe emotions. He also talks about how modern English uses the phrase ‘I feel like,’ which tricks the speaker and the listener into thinking they are describing an emotion but in reality what comes after the ‘like’ is invariably an opinion or a judgement. I am really going to try refrain from that use of the word ‘feel.’
Tao: That’s interesting about ‘I feel like.’ That seems accurate. I agree that we don’t have many words for emotions, especially for positive emotions. I want to read more books about positive emotions and about how to live a better, more caring, less destructive life. I’m rereading bell hooks’ All About Love, and I just finished Riane Eisler’s new book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future.
Leah: How does the internet or social media play into the dominator model and how could our use of it perhaps benefit from more of a partnership model? What might that look like?
Tao: We can use the internet and social media to find and share ideas that will help shift the global dominator culture into a more partnership mode. We can find helpful, non-profit-driven sources of information on the internet and social media: like the Weston A. Price Foundation, which covers health and diet, basing their views on aboriginal societies; and the Environmental Working Group, which shares research on how to avoid and protect ourselves from toxins in food and other products.
Leah: Where do you get most of your daily news?
Tao: I see mainstream news on Twitter, not by following newspapers or news sites but just seeing it trickle through in other people’s tweets and in the news sidebar, and I get other news—the real news, in my view—mostly through newsletters and by following individuals and organizations that I trust on social media: like Stephanie Seneff, who writes on glyphosate, nutrition, vaccines; the Thunderbolts Project, which covers cosmology and astrophysics; Joseph P. Farrell, who researches ‘alternatives in physics, history, and science with an emphasis on anomaly’; and Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who discusses health.
Leah: In Leave Society, your main character advocates reading nonfiction that is outside the mainstream. Some of the books you mention, like Breathe to Heal and The Big Bang Never Happened, have less than 200 reviews on Amazon, which makes me ask: How did you come across them? And how did you come across Cure Tooth Decay, which is an ebook, I believe, that features largely in Leave Society?
Tao: Thanks for asking about this. I found Cure Tooth Decay, which is subtitled ‘Heal and Prevent Cavities with Nutrition,’ by searching something like ‘natural cure for tooth decay’ on Amazon. I bought it as an ebook, but then also got the print version so my parents could read it. I remember seeing, when I had access to Bookscan, that it had sold something like 30,000 copies, which seems like a lot—and it has 1333 reviews on Amazon currently—but mainstream U.S. culture seems to have a strong bias against natural health, and so Cure Tooth Decay wasn’t covered by mainstream media. Breathe to Heal was also ignored by newspapers and most magazines. I found it on a natural health podcast.
Leah: Like your narrator, you’ve also espoused non-mainstream ideas about events like 9/11 or even the Big Bang. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Tao: Yes, I found The Big Bang Never Happened by researching a theory called the Electric Universe, which argues that, on a cosmic scale, things are organized more by electromagnetic forces than gravitational forces. I’m curious what you thought about the passages in my book on that book.
Leah: They were challenging, but also inviting. Your narrator has a way of not insisting that he is right or that he has the only answer that allows me to go along on the journey. It’s all about curiosity and I think that tone makes it easier to evaluate new ideas. I do wonder, though, about how the internet and social media have affected the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ as they were called a few years ago. I’m curious what you think about how much harder the internet has made it to get at objective truth—if you happen to think there is such a thing as objective truth—or, rather, how easy the internet has made it for people to latch on to ideas that might be harmful to a greater collective good or lead to violence, as exemplified by, for instance, QAnon.
Tao: It has increasingly seemed to me that almost everyone, including me, has been immersed since birth in ideas that are harmful to the greater collective good, and that the internet has made it easier for people to find other ideas—partnership ideas, natural health ideas, ideas critical of the way things are, [ideas] critical of dominator society. To me, the harmful ideas are, with some exceptions, in textbooks, public education, college, corporations and their ads and products, for-profit media—including TV news, newspapers, radio, and magazines that are funded by corporations and have been partially controlled by the CIA, via Project Mockingbird, for decades—and so getting any information outside of that system seems helpful to me.
I don’t know much about QAnon. One thing I do know is that one of its arguments is that there’s a deep state—entities operating in secret from the general public and the normal government, influencing policy and politics—and that this isn’t good, and I agree on both points. I feel like most people would agree. Edward Snowden talks about the deep state—how the CIA and NSA operate largely in secret, doing things with trillions of dollars that no one knows about. What have you heard about the deep state? What do you think about the term?
Leah: I realized that I didn’t really know what the definition of the term ‘deep state’ was until you asked. From a linguistic standpoint, I love it. There is something poetic about that particular combination of words. I found that documentary on Edward Snowden fascinating when it came out years ago, and it does seem that those in power go to great lengths to keep what they are doing from the public. What troubles me is that I find it extremely difficult to know just how much I distrust or should distrust the ideas I absorb from the media or from those around me who have absorbed information from any number of sources, be they mainstream or not. I find this extremely frustrating.
I was bemoaning this dilemma to my husband the other day, and I said, ‘Is it a function of the fact that I’m too open minded, or is it something unique about the time and place and media culture in which we live that I often can’t figure out what I believe about something?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what it is: Brandolini’s law. The bullshit asymmetry principle.’ Brandolini is an Italian programmer who coined this term to describe the difficulty, in the internet age, of debunking false, facetious, or otherwise misleading information. He says, ‘The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.’ This was a huge relief to me in that I had worried it was some kind of personal failure of intellect that I couldn’t parse my opinions about certain things, but also terrified me because if this is happening to me it’s happening to everyone. Are you familiar with this term?
Tao: I’m not, no. One strategy that has helped me discern what to believe is to not believe anyone—and to instead learn about whatever topic myself, and figure it out myself. Another strategy is to be aware that corporations are motivated by profit, and that corporations control governments, and that corporations both control and are most of the media. I think there’s a money asymmetry. The truth isn’t backed by trillions of dollars, while bullshit is. For example, when Monsanto said DDT and glyphosate were safe, and convinced governments that they were safe, that was the effect of trillions of dollars of momentum spread over decades. Now DDT is banned, and glyphosate is on its way to being banned. But anyone who spent time learning about those compounds themselves, reading and thinking, could have understood that they’re destructive.
Leah: I read an interview with you about your last book, Trip, and you said that because it’s non-fiction, with facts and re-conceptualizations, you felt like you were deepening your understanding of the material each time you worked on it, and realizing new connections, and that by the end, you mostly had the book memorized. How does that compare with the writing of Leave Society? How is your experience of writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
Tao: Trip and Leave Society were similar, in that they both include research that I did by reading books and papers. I think the main difference was that Leave Society had one long unbroken linear narrative featuring multiple main characters, whereas Trip’s main story was simpler. What about you? Your first book was nonfiction, and now, you told me on the phone, you’re working on a novel that follows the same characters that were in your memoir.
Leah: Yes, I have been calling the book I’m working on a ‘fictional follow up to my memoir,’ because I still want to write about my life and experiences I have had, ideas I’m working through, and people I have relationships with, but I wanted more freedom to dream and fantasize. I wanted to build that muscle. Especially during the pandemic, when the interior world was almost all we had, I felt particularly drawn to that mode as an escape. So far I find it really freeing. In the past, writing purely functioned as a way to make sense of things I’d experienced while also finding the beauty in them, but now, with this book, I am seeing what I’m capable of imagining for myself, which is a kind of hope.
What would you say the function of writing is in your life? What about writing with the intent to publish? Why do you do it, and has that answer changed over the years?
Tao: It has so many functions—psychotherapy, to earn money, to help myself learn and remember complex ideas, to entertain myself and others, to understand reality and my own life better, to share stories and ideas with friends and family, to do something creative instead of passive, to spread partnership ideas. I keep finding more and more reasons to write and to publish.
Leah: Did you finish Leave Society before the pandemic? If not, did you make a conscious choice not to include it in the book and why? Have you been writing about the pandemic in future projects?
Tao: I finished a draft in early 2020, before the pandemic. After that, my editor and I edited it for around a year. The novel only covers 2014-2018, so I didn’t consider including the pandemic. I have written about the pandemic in my notes, but I don’t have plans to publish anything about it.
Leah: Where did the title come from, by the way?
Tao: I had it really early, before even starting to write the novel. I had a psilocybin trip in 2013 that seemed to tell me to ‘leave society.’ And, even earlier, in high school, I listened to a punk band called The Broadways that had lyrics about wanting to leave city life to live in the mountains.
Leah: Leave Society talks a lot about recovery from pharmaceutical drugs and a transition to psychedelics and cannabis, and late in the book, it seems that the narrator is using fewer of those drugs too. Do you see yourself stopping drugs at some point? Do you see the ability to live a comfortable life without drugs as a higher plane?
Tao: I enjoy drugs and don’t feel a need to stop using them. I like to alter my consciousness, but I don’t want to damage my body, which is partly why I stopped using pharmaceutical drugs and only use natural drugs now, like LSD and psilocybin and cannabis, which change my experience of the world in unique ways that I prize.
Leah: I like that perspective. I get stuck in a weird place of judgement sometimes and chastise myself for needing anything external to alter my mood. I sometimes wish I could modulate my state of mind and body purely through breathing, meditation, visualization, or talking with loved ones or a therapist. But on my better days, I am grateful that precise amounts of caffeine or CBD/THC can help me produce a certain mood or energy.
Tao: I don’t see the harm in using caffeine or cannabis to produce a certain mental state. The tricky part, for me, is learning how to integrate the counter effects—if I’m stoned for half the day, the other half of the day I’m going to be negative-stoned. Drugs seem to relocate one’s energy and mood around the day, which can be done strategically and consciously, in a fun and useful way.
Leah: I watched a TED talk with a writer named Johann Hari in which he makes the provocative statement, ‘The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.’ Do you think Leave Society has a point of view on that assertion?
Tao: It seems like he’s saying that humans who lack connections with other humans will seek connections with other things—gambling, drugs—in an addictive manner. That makes sense to me. I agree. It’s like that rat study—Rat Park—where rats are given unlimited heroin or cocaine in two different environments. In the environment lacking stimulation, they got addicted to the drugs, but in the one with stimulation, they didn’t. In a sufficiently partnership-oriented society, where love and connection is the norm, and where meaningful and fulfilling activities are available and widespread, I feel like most-to-all humans would not be addicted to whatever destructive behavior.