Tao Lin is the author of ten books of prose and poetry, including the novels Leave Society (2021) and Taipei (2013) and the memoir Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change (2018). He lives in Hawaii. Anna Dorn is a novelist, and the author of the memoir, Bad Lawyer (2021), a humorous critique of the legal profession based on her time working as a criminal defence attorney. She lives in Los Angeles.
They wrote back and forth in the summer of 2021, discussing how nature influences the psyche, the intensity of confessional writing, and Naomi Campbell’s Wikipedia page.
It feels appropriate to be writing emails in anticipation of your novel, Leave Society, in which your protagonist, Li, and his mom exchange many sweet emails. (Some made me cry.) Both characters are more vulnerable over email than in person. It makes sense. I’m constantly apologizing over text and via email. It’s hard to be emotionally expressive face-to-face. Like Li, I have trouble with eye contact. Talking by typing feels more natural. Maybe that’s common for writers. You and I have been in contact for several years but we’ve only spoken once, over the phone when I interviewed you for your nonfiction book, Trip, in 2018. I was impressed with your ability to tolerate long stretches of silence. I also like that pauses aren’t felt over email.
But digital communication is a double-edged sword. It’s easier to be nice and it’s easier to be mean. I try not to touch my phone when I’m in a bad mood because it’s so easy to be rude. Trip inspired me to be on my phone less. In it, you quote Kathleen Harrison’s recommendation to ‘spend two minutes looking at a single leaf’ when one feels ‘self-obsession of some sort’. Now when I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I try to look at trees instead of screens. Leave Society begins with a Harrison quote: ‘Nothing is as it appears to be. This is not glib.’ Why did you choose it?
I liked the quote a lot. It’s the first time I’ve used an epigraph, and it was easy to choose. I think it applies to many of my book’s themes. Li seems to continually learn, as he reads hundreds of scientific papers and nonfiction books over four years, that things are not as they seem. Conventional dentists, he reads in Cure Tooth Decay, are not helpful, but harmful. History, he learns from Graham Hancock and other sources, probably isn’t a linear progression, but a frequently interrupted thing. Male domination, he learns from Marija Gimbutas and others, is not human nature, but a relatively recent aberration – beginning only around 6,500 years ago. The universe, he reads in The Big Bang Never Happened, is not 13.8 billion years old, but probably infinite in space and time. People with eye contact and other social problems, he gleans from research on himself and autism, may have those debilities because they’re toxified and damaged to a degree that they can’t function at the normal, optimum level of their ancestors. It’s ‘dominator society’, as I call it in Leave Society, not life itself, that is terrible and painful and meaningless, he increasingly realizes.
I think the quote also applies to your memoir, Bad Lawyer. You write, ‘You may go into law school wanting to save the planet, but debt forces you to eventually defend corporations accused of poisoning children.’ You quote a lawyer friend who read a draft of your book: ‘Anna, you know lawyers don’t know shit about the law. It’s our signature.’ You write about how most of your energy goes into ‘appearing calmer’ than you really are. You write that lawyers ‘take things that should be straightforward and turn them into something that makes no sense, simply to be on the inside of knowing’, like the word ‘torts’, which means ‘personal injury law’. During a homicide trial, a judge called you over for what you thought would be a ‘legal question’ but was actually to show you her screen, on which she was bidding on a horse photo on eBay. Regarding your best friend in law school, you write, ‘I remember people always assumed we were dating, which I didn’t correct, even though he was gay and I had a boyfriend (and I was also gay).’
On a more fundamental level, nothing is as it appears to be because most of reality is invisible – we can’t see thoughts, molecules or microbes; we can only see a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum; and what we do perceive changes in our brains and minds before entering awareness.
I agree with what you said about email. It’s easier to be nice but it’s also easier to be mean. It’s also easier, I think, to be calm and accurate and to make sense while conveying complex information. I like to think of books as extremely long emails that are made public. My book is kind of like an email to my parents, or maybe just my mom, because my dad only reads parts of my books. In your book, you wrote:
While writing this book, my dad texted me that he was going to write a rebuttal to my book called Good Lawyer.
I responded, based on what?
My experience as a lawyer, he said.
Have your parents – or anyone else in your book – read your book?
I told my parents not to read my book. I told them not to read my last book too but they read it anyway. I like this line from Leave Society about autofiction, or autobiographical fiction:
For a few months, he’d considered abandoning autobiography, but he liked its self-catalyzing properties too much – how it made life both life and literature, imbuing both with extra meaning.
I also feel that writing about my life makes it less pointless and more meaningful. Whenever something bad happens, I can feel less bleak by using it in a book. But my preference for autofiction is ultimately more for the reader. Whenever I try to write something purely imaginative, not inspired by real life, it turns out very flat. When I write about my life, it seems to resonate better with readers and hopefully make them feel less alone. (Your writing does that for me.) But I worry a lot about hurting people. My friend was hurt by a character based on him in my first novel, Vagablonde. My mom was also hurt, even though the mom character isn’t based on her. I’m terrified that my dad will read Bad Lawyer. How do you deal with this aspect of writing autofiction? How do you feel about your family and girlfriend reading Leave Society? (I laughed out loud at: ‘Li’s dad entered Li’s room, opened Li’s third novel, and correctly pronounced “Xanax”.’)
I like the idea of books as ‘extremely long emails’. I sometimes think of writing books as text messaging. When people hear books are typically a minimum of 60,000 words, they’re like ‘omg I could never do that’. But if we count up the words we send in emails, text messages, and DMs, we each probably write a book every few weeks. I tell my students to avoid feeling confined by what they think books should be and just pretend they’re texting a friend. I love the line from Leave Society where Li reflects that ‘writing, not speech, is his means to communicate at a “deeper level”.’ Do you ever prefer speaking to written communication?
I do, sometimes. I try to have a balance. It seems healthy to speak aloud and converse in person. It’s more challenging and activates different parts of our brains. Sometimes my grammar breaks down when I speak, which can be amusing and interesting. I enjoy hearing people – especially in media interviews – be awkward and incoherent.
I don’t think I’ve heard of autofiction being framed as being done in service of the reader. I like that. I think that’s true of me too – or, rather, it’s more that I want to be of service to myself when I write autofiction, but as a side effect it’s also in service of the reader. In part because when I write about my life I feel much more motivated to work on the writing than when I write something that is totally made up.
I feel okay about my family reading Leave Society. I don’t remember exactly when my parents started to know that I was writing about them, but I think it was 2014 or 2015 (between 0 to 25 percent of the way through the book). I remember telling them that I was writing about them. And by 2016 I was regularly recording voice memos of us, and telling them I was doing this, to the point that my mom said something like, ‘We have to be careful what we say,’ in a half-joking tone, which I also included in the book. They seemed to like that I was writing about them. It was fun. I wouldn’t have written about them if it didn’t bring us closer together. My dad probably will only read random selections of it. My mom will read it all. Some parts might be hard for her to read, but overall I think it will be a moving and interesting and intense experience for her.
My aunt doesn’t read English. My uncle does, but I’m not sure if he’ll read my novel. I sent my brother all the parts in the novel that include him or his son – who is 3.5 years old at the beginning of the novel – and he said he was okay with it. He’s been supportive of my writing career throughout my life. I think my girlfriend knew that I was writing about us soon after we met. She’s read drafts of my book throughout the process, over years, and I’ve received and implemented her feedback. She’s probably read it three or four times by now. Two characters based on my friends are in my novel – Precious Okoyomon and Jordan Castro – and I sent them their parts for their approval, which they gave.
So, with this book, I don’t anticipate anyone being upset at me. This wasn’t hard, because my goal with it wasn’t to condemn or expose anyone. I wanted, like in all my books, to be the hardest on the character based on myself. I am hard, in this book, on the author of Sapiens, but in a defensive way. I refute something he wrote: ‘Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature.’
I remember you telling me that you had to make certain changes to, or leave certain things out of, Bad Lawyer. Despite those changes, Bad Lawyer felt very intimate and revealing and uninhibited to me. I’m rereading it now, as we do this conversation over weeks, and it’s so vivid and funny and readable, which are qualities I tried for in my book too. By ‘readable’ I mean interesting and clear, not simple or depthless. Can you give an account of the characters in Bad Lawyer, like I did above with my book?
I imagine your mom will be moved by Leave Society. Your girlfriend, too. I like that your dad only reads ‘random selections’ of your books.
I only showed portions of Bad Lawyer to a few people who are in it before publication, you being one of them. The Hachette lawyer said I should show my mom the part about her getting arrested. My mom said my account was grossly inaccurate, which is probably true, but I thought my version was more fun to read. I showed my friend ‘Lara’ (most people have fake names) the portion about her rape case. I think that’s it. I’ve received some post-publication feedback. My friends ‘Emily’ and ‘Henry’ got a kick out of their portions and posted them on Instagram. My friend ‘Beth’ was honored that I called her my ‘funniest friend’.
Like you, my goal isn’t to condemn anyone and I’m also always hardest on the character based on myself. But I’m still afraid of hurting people inadvertently. Last night I dreamt about my former co-worker who I called ‘an idiot’ in the book. I wish I hadn’t written that and I hope she doesn’t read it.
It’s funny because Bad Lawyer has ‘memoir’ in the title but I don’t think it ever mentions that I have two siblings. Actually, I think my sister is mentioned once because her DUI case ended up in my courtroom. My editor wasn’t interested in any aspect of my life that didn’t have to do with the law and I’ve never felt very connected to the law, so the book reflects a tiny sliver of my life. Memoir sounds silly to me. I think of Kris Jenner saying she’s writing a ‘MEMWAH’. I like the term autofiction the best. I like to use my life as the blueprint and then dramatize. I prefer to make shit up. I’m waiting for Oprah to come for me like she did for James Frey.
I suppose Trip is part memoir, although I think of it more as literary nonfiction. How was that experience for you versus writing fiction? Also, I want to talk about Hawaii! I love the descriptions of nature in Leave Society. This is my favorite:
In bed, they listened to wavily droning insects, intermittent barks from distant dogs, and the white noise of plants. Different species, played by the changing wind, made subtly different sounds. Together, the grasses, herbs, bushes, and trees sounded a little like an enormous, faraway waterfall.
I’m glad you enjoyed the nature descriptions. I wrote them last year, while in Hawaii. I’ve been here since January 2020. One of my favorite aspects of your book was how you describe people. It’s entertaining in a way that doesn’t flatten them into one-dimensional characters. You seem at once amused by and sympathetic and critical and understanding of the people you write about.
I like Bad Lawyer’s focus on law. It seems hard to stay that focused for over 200 pages. Also, this lets you save other topics, like your siblings, for other books.
The first writing I read by you was from your column ‘All Rise’, about ‘how misogyny steeps into our criminal justice system’. I was impressed by how much research you put into your pieces. You seemed to read and quote many nonfiction books – by Sarah Schulman, Catharine MacKinnon. Your book has six pages of endnotes. You reference Equal Justice and the Death Penalty (1990), The Queer Art of Failure (2011), a study on how one in five lawyers have problematic drug and alcohol use, and a study on how Pennsylvania spent $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which only three people were executed.
I relate to this type of research. Before Trip, I never cited studies or books, but in Trip and Leave Society I reference many. Trip and Leave Society are similar to me, even though one is nonfiction and one is fiction, because they’re both autobiographical and both contain a lot of research.
By the way, I liked how – as you wrote in Bad Lawyer – you argued for an acquittal every time you represented someone in misdemeanor court, in which, for example, one trial was held for a homeless man who stole a bowl of soup. It reminds me of the time when, as I wrote in Trip, I served on a jury that only got drug cases, and I voted to dismiss in every case.
Okay, now I will ask a question. In the last few chapters of Bad Lawyer, you write about moving on from law to focus on writing:
I’d started to feel that the system was broken beyond repair, and that continued to depress me. The law seemed to be primarily concerned with thoughtlessly reinforcing existing power structures, administered by lawyers who were thoughtlessly chasing gold stars. I felt like I could make a bigger difference by writing entertaining things that could make people laugh or think differently or distract them through their mundane days.
Since then, you seem to have been very productive. You published your first novel, Vagablonde, last year; Bad Lawyer this year; and your second novel, Exalted, is coming out next year. And you have another novel, Blue Vapor, which I highly enjoyed reading a draft of last year, that isn’t published yet. Do you think this one-book-a-year pace will continue? What are you working on now?
Also, even though you like autofiction the best, you seem really good at nonfiction, and you seem to enjoy doing research and sharing ideas. Do you think you’ll ever write another nonfiction book containing research?
I would love to write a book a year if people keep wanting to publish me. I type like a madwoman. I’m trying to slow down. Leave Society inspired me to start writing a new novel but I’m not quite ready to talk about it.
If I write nonfiction again I’d like to write something less about me, and more researched. I’ve been reading a lot of Olivia Laing and I love how she writes. My favorite of her books is Lonely City, in which she uses eight famous artists to work through her own sense of isolation. Right now I’m reading her book A Trip to Echo Spring, which is about writers and alcoholism. Sometimes I think my dream job would be to write Wikipedia articles about books, psychology, critical theory and celebrities. Naomi Campbell’s Wikipedia page is one of my favorite pieces of writing.
I loved the part of Trip you mention, where you served on a grand jury and voted to dismiss in the drug cases. It was fun to read a novelist’s reaction to the criminal justice system. I like your matter-of-fact critique, asking the prosecutor how the police ‘learned of the defendant’, then thinking to yourself: ‘Poor minorities seemed more likely to be targeted than, say, college students living in dorms.’
Trip and Leave Society feel similar to me, too, at least thematically. They both document, as I wrote in my review of Trip, a radical lifestyle change following the pharmaceutical bender fictionalized in your novel, Taipei. And as you said, both books cite a lot of sources. Can you tell me about your research process? How do you find the works you cite?
I’m also curious about what you asked me. Are you working on anything new? I read an interview where you talked about copying other books. That made me feel good because I do the same thing. I was trying to copy Taipei for years. Then I tried to copy Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Most recently, I tried to copy Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star. If I write nonfiction again I will try to copy Olivia Laing. Did you try to copy anything for Leave Society?
Also, back to Hawaii: I’m curious about how living closer to nature has influenced your psyche. I’m constantly worrying about the polluted air in Los Angeles, thinking I’d be happier if I lived around more trees and fewer cars. I went to Hawaii when I was twelve and I remember it as the best trip of my life.
Finally, since this will be my last email, I wanted to thank you for being so supportive of my writing and setting up this email conversation. Your writing is a major inspiration for me and has given me comfort during tough times. I’m so grateful for you, Tao!
I’m grateful for you too. You’ve been so supportive of my work, and you’ve given me a lot of moving and stimulating and informative writing to read in the past few years. Thank you.
I enjoyed copying other authors and books in my first few books, like Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams, and Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie, copying their tones and techniques, but I didn’t try to copy any one book or author for Leave Society. I’ve copied other authors gradually less with each of my books.
I think living closer to nature, in Hawaii, has benefitted my mental and physical health. The air quality here, on the Big Island, seems good, and there aren’t that many cars and barely any buildings. 5G isn’t here yet, so the electromagnetic radiation levels aren’t as high as in many other places.
My research process is intuitive. I find authors that I like, and I read the authors that they like. Terence McKenna, whom I encountered in late 2012, was the main person who inspired and empowered me to try to learn about the world by doing my own research. He promoted reading and thinking and learning. I heard about Riane Eisler from him, and so I read Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, and from that book I learned of Marija Gimbutas and Merlin Stone, I think, and from Stone I learned of Ellen Marie Chen, who wrote books and papers on Daoism.
I find books in other ways too. I found Surviving Evil by Karen Wetmore by searching ‘MKULTRA’ on Amazon and examining every result. I found Facing Hawai’i’s Future: Essential Information about GMOs, a book published by the nonprofit organization Hawai’i’ SEED, in a thrift store.
I try to read books and authors that other people aren’t reading. I like to think of everyone as having the opportunity to tunnel in their own unique direction into the unknown by reading their specific set of however many books they can read in their lifetime. My friend Giancarlo DiTrapano pointed out that style can refer both to the style of one’s prose and to the style of one’s content. The style of one’s content depends on what one has experienced but also what one has read.