Part 1

Process and Backstory

 

Sheila Heti:

When did you start writing this book, and what was happening just before in your life?

 

Tao Lin:

The earliest form of Trip was a column I wrote for Vice on Terence McKenna and psychedelics in summer 2014.

After Taipei was published in June 2013, I didn’t know what to write about, and in spring 2014 I published an essay in Granta about not knowing what to write about. Then my friend Gian suggested I write about Terence McKenna, since I’d been talking about him and his ideas obsessively, and so that summer, 2014, I wrote a column for Vice on McKenna and psychedelics called ‘Tao of Terence’, which was the earliest form of Trip. At first, I wanted to just expand the column into a book, but that evolved into writing a whole new book, which I began in February 2016 when I got a contract for it. I finished the fifth and last main draft of Trip in July 2017. You emailed me that month, recommending a Walter Benjamin essay, and you mentioned, ‘Just finished my book, Motherhood, which won’t be out till next Spring, and am just reading a lot and taking it easy.’ I responded that I’d also just finished my book. Then we went through more edits and, in August, read each other’s books.

 

Sheila:

Did Granta commission a piece on that subject or did you write it and then send it to them or what?

 

Tao:

An editor there, Yuka Igarashi, emailed me soliciting me, in fall 2013, for their Japan issue. She was open to me writing about not knowing what to write about, while also writing about Japan. I’d been considering retiring from writing since Taipei was published, and I was glad I was able, after multiple drafts, to examine and share that in my essay. I was partially inspired by a Stephen Elliott essay in the Believer in which he didn’t know what to write about anymore.

 

Sheila:

Anyways, I love that essay of yours in Granta. Reading it, I thought, ‘I wish I could write an essay as good as that.’ I wonder, did it feel different to write under contract? Motherhood and Women in Clothes were the first times I wrote a book under contract, rather than selling a finished book, and I found it felt different.

 

Tao:

Taipei and Trip were my first books written under contract, that I didn’t finish before showing a publisher. Without a contract for those books, I didn’t have the motivation or money to structure my life around writing a book. I like writing under a contract, with deadlines that keep me focused and interested. It was more collaborative, with me showing editor/agent plans, outlines, and drafts throughout. How did you find it different?

 

Sheila:

For a while I felt self-conscious, too aware that I was supposed to be making something that the publisher would like. It felt a bit like a homework assignment, and became un-fun. I usually have the feeling that I’m doing something ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ when I’m writing, which makes me excited, but to be writing to fulfill a commission made me lose that feeling. But then when I realized the book was not (as I had proposed) non-fiction or an oral history, but rather more of a novel, that feeling of doing something bad or wrong came back into me, and I enjoyed working on it again and forgot about the publisher.

I do have a memory of, years ago, you emailing me and saying that you were thinking of publishing your Vice column as a book. In changing from that idea to all new material, wasn’t there the temptation to use the material you had already written in Trip? A temptation that might come out of either laziness or exasperation with having to write some of the same things again?

 

Tao:

I began to want to slightly expand the column into a book while writing the column. I had material that didn’t fit in the column, and I was turning in longer-than-requested pieces every week. But my publisher felt the column needed more of me to be publishable as a book. I resisted this for ~1.5 years, then got over my laziness/exasperation, and realized I would enjoy it more, and learn more, if I started over, using only some of the column in the book. After that realization, I began to view my prior self, who only wanted to expand the column, as unwise and impatient and habitually self-disempowering. I became excited about writing a whole new book on psychedelics. What was the earliest form of Motherhood, and what happened in your life from then until July 2017?

 

Sheila:

Like you, there was a certain point where I didn’t know what to write. In 2010, right after How Should a Person Be? was published in Canada, I began writing all the parts in Motherhood which use coins. I never imagined I would publish it. It was just me amusing myself. I wrote about 40,000 words of this stuff over the course of a few years. Then, in early 2013, I pitched a non-fiction book of interviews with people about motherhood to my publisher. They accepted it, but instead of working on that, I got diverted and edited Women in Clothes in 2013–14 (a project I did with my friends Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits). When, in 2015, I returned to this motherhood book with concentration, it took many stretchings of my head and a conversation in LA with my friend Kathryn Borel to realise that the book was or should be a novel.

 

Tao:

I remember reading a draft of the non-fiction book of interviews on motherhood.

 

Sheila:

Yes, that was actually the proposal you read – the one I gave to my publisher. I feel embarrassed now when I think of it. It seems very sentimental to me.

The first draft of Motherhood was quite a bit longer than the final draft. The main work on it was done from early 2015 to the summer of 2016, and involved a lot of organizing of and thinking about all the writing I had done since 2010. I gave that draft to a few people, got feedback, then worked on it for another year, till around when I wrote you that email. I kept refining it even after the galleys were printed, and even last week, while recording the audio book, I discovered a few changes I needed to make, which will be in the paperback edition.

 

Tao:

What was one of the refinements?

 

Sheila:

The longest change was to a passage that reads, in the hardcover, ‘We finished fucking, he pulled out and came, then he lay back on the pillow, completely still, his arms open and welcoming me. Sweaty and warm, I fit myself in there. How rich my life feels, now that we are at peace again – how much more solid, a home.’

A friend told me this passage was ‘too hot’ and I thought he was right and I changed it, but I shouldn’t have listened to him – whether or not it’s ‘too hot,’ I missed the way I had written it originally. In the paperback it will read, ‘He said, I’m about to burst, and he jerked himself off while I lay there and pulled up my nightie and fondled my tits. His eyes were closed at first, but when he opened them and saw what I was doing, he gave a great groan and he closed his eyes and came.’

 

Tao:

I find your incessant editing inspiring. Some writers seem to find it hard to look at their work repeatedly, and to continually view it as changeable and improvable, but the longer one can do that, the more distinct and different the writing becomes. You seem able to view your work as unfinished for a long time, instead of viewing it as done and perfect. How do you do that?

 

Sheila:

I also find it hard to look at my work repeatedly. I find it tiresome and nauseating, and can barely bring myself to go over it again, but I do it because I think you’re right – it makes the book better. I always feel like each sentence has its perfect form, and each paragraph has its perfect form, and so does each chapter, and so does the whole book, and the only way I can see to it is with these constant tweaks. I feel like the perfect form exists right behind the sloppy thing in front of me. I never actually achieve the perfection I’m aiming for, because it becomes time to publish it, or because I realise I’ve accidentally started making it worse. By this point, I basically have the book memorized, and I hate it so much – it feel so empty to me.

You said you made edits on your galley, too. Then you must also edit on and on?

 

Tao:

With Taipei, I line-edited the galley, but I wasn’t supposed to – it inconvenienced my publisher, and I had to pay extra money for the edits to get through, extra money that my publisher was generous enough to absorb when I got the contract for Trip. So, with Trip, I didn’t make edits on the galleys, but I did edit every draft until then, six or seven drafts, up to first or second pass. So I do edit endlessly, like you. I also find it hard to keep looking at my work, which challenges me to make the writing ever-more novel, concise, and personalized to help myself stay interested. With non-fiction, it has been easier and more rewarding to repeatedly edit. Once I had a first draft of Trip, my favorite thing to do was to print it and hand-edit it beginning to end, implementing the edits periodically – every chapter or so – on the computer. I did that maybe eight times after having a full draft. Because it’s non-fiction, with facts and reconceptualizations, I felt like I was further teaching myself the material each time, deepening my understanding and realizing new connections. By the end, I also had my book mostly memorized.

I just searched my Gmail for your email and ‘motherhood,’ and the earliest email is from July 2012. You mentioned you’d read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a book on early motherhood. Then in June 2013 you said you were working on ‘a book about motherhood and an adaptation of the I Ching.’ How did you envision your next eight years after HSAPB? was published?

 

Sheila:

I don’t remember how I envisioned it – if I even did envision the future. I wrote a novella very quickly after HSAPB? which I am still thinking about. It’s called Bonjour Philippine and I just can’t decide if it’s good or not, or how to make it better, or if it even needs to be better. Then I started working on an adaptation of the I Ching with a visual artist friend, Ted Mineo, and sort of for pleasure I was doing this project which involved putting ten years of my diaries in alphabetical order. Then I was doing the coin-tossing writing, and I was editing interviews for the Believer and conducting interviews, and reviewing books for the LRB, and still doing lots of press for How Should a Person Be?

I guess when I envisioned the future, I figured that one day I’d be done with all those books – or perhaps these books would all be one book and I would be done with it. My hope was just to make enough money that I could write what I wanted and not have to take on jobs I didn’t want, which did finally end up happening. I have lots of little diagrams where I’m trying to figure out whether Bonjour Philippine and the Coins is the same book or two different books, or if the I Ching project is the same book as Bonjour Philippine, and I just always have this problem or question of not knowing whether I should bring together these disparate writings or not.

 

Tao:

I have the same problem. Before I got a two-book contract for Trip and Leave Society, my editor and I went through three pitches, trying each for weeks-to-months. Pitch one was for two separate books, pitch two was for both books combined into one, four-part, art-included novel titled Leave Society, and pitch three returned to two separate books – Trip and Leave Society.

Since Taipei, I’ve wanted to edit an anthology on cannabis, publish a collection of non-fiction, write and publish a third poetry collection, and other possibilities that didn’t pan out for whatever reason. Over time, waiting and trying, my interest was allowed to go toward where it most wanted to go, it now seems.

I thought: many books are in us all the time, as we live, and finally we decide – by ourselves, drafting and testing and sensing what interests us the most and can sustain our long-term attention, and also through circumstances and other factors, like friends and publishers – which book to nurture, which book to enlarge so that we can enter it, and be it, for a number of years, consciously becoming the person that the book demands. Or at least we seem to have done that with our current books.

 

Sheila:

All that is exactly the same for me. I am interested in how we both started with not knowing what to write about. And then we both wrote about the thing that was on our minds anyway: in your case Terence McKenna and our brains and drugs and enchantment, and in my case the question of a baby and how chance and destiny work in time. But at the same time, Gian told you to write about drugs, and my boyfriend said I should write about motherhood. I believe in listening to other people – that they can often see things we cannot. When Gian suggested you write about McKenna, did you immediately feel he was right? Was there any resistance or fear?

 

Tao:

I did immediately feel it was right. I’d been talking obsessively about McKenna since September 2012 to friends. I hadn’t written a column before, and it felt like a privilege and opportunity to write about somewhat controversial ideas that excited me and gave me hope and meaning. I went into hermit mode and only worked on the column – reading and writing – that summer, not hanging out with anyone for three months. I felt some resistance, because of culture’s view of psychedelics (did I want to associate myself permanently with psychedelic drugs?), but it went away gradually over weeks and months.

 

Sheila:

Is there a part of your brain that you feel is underdeveloped, or perhaps intentionally not developed, in service of being able to write as you want to write? I feel like artists don’t talk enough about the parts of their minds that they deliberately don’t develop in order to do the work as they want to do it.

 

Tao:

With Taipei and before, the part of my mind that was intentionally undeveloped was the part that now confidently learns facts and theories about the world. Before, I stayed away from facts and theories on the world, partly because I didn’t think it was possible, with so much conflicting information, coming from magazines and newspapers, to learn accurate information about the world, and partly because I wanted to see the world with as little preconception and generalization as possible, so that I could write about my unique experiences and perspective. I rarely read non-fiction books or tried to learn.

 

Sheila:

This is something I loved about Trip – it felt like you were using a new part of your mind: exactly that – the part that absorbs non-fictional information about the world, and adds that to your inner landscape, and changes your inner landscape. It seemed like a real leap. Lots of writers don’t change. I enjoyed you writing about the literal world that came from your own learning. Were you afraid, while you were working in this new way, of not being able to either hold all this information in your head, or put it down effectively? How do your older books look to you now, from the vantage point of having written something that was such a departure?

 

Tao:

I wasn’t afraid, writing Trip, and as I worked on it, I began to view my earlier books – Taipei and earlier – as a phase I’d completed. I didn’t want to forget that phase, but to examine it and see how, from there, I could go elsewhere. I wanted to get away from pharmaceutical drugs, the conversation I’d provoked around myself, and the conversation sustained in the media, labeling me a certain kind of writer, with certain interests. Those things threatened to keep me in Taipei mode forever. I could envision myself writing autobiographical existential novels forever, on a kind of auto-pilot, but I wanted to change, and I wanted my writing to help me change.

Psychedelics haven’t been written about much in a literary manner, partly because modern people only started using them more since the 1950s, so maybe that’s why I felt no fear, but instead viewed Trip as a fun experiment and open-ended, personal challenge. But motherhood seems to have been written about extensively, though I’ve never read a book like yours – intensely and synergistically both playful and serious – on it. How did you feel about adding your voice to the motherhood conversation?

 

Sheila:

I felt embarrassed about it. At the same time, I feel strong and good about it. Although your perception is that the subject has been written about extensively, that was not my feeling. Certainly wrestling with the decision hadn’t been written about very much. People write about what it’s like to be a mother, yes, but even that feels new, just exploding in the last few decades. Like you say about psychedelics, it’s a fairly contemporary topic. Both our subjects aren’t necessarily considered ‘serious,’ motherhood because it’s about women, and drugs because it’s about drugs.

 

Tao:

I haven’t read another book that is as focused on the decision of motherhood as yours (even though that question, I noticed, doesn’t occur in your book until page twenty, after the narrator has first addressed time and sadness). Women and drugs seem to me like two of the most serious, relevant, helpful topics one can write about now. Psychedelia has so far been dominated by men, it seems, and in Trip I tried to balance this a little by writing about the ancient Goddess religion, Taoism, and ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison, who created two children, Finn and Klea, and a non-profit organization – Botanical Dimensions – with McKenna. I think of my book as about drugs and also women. Your book has drugs also.

It seems that you’ve done what I did with Trip with every book, to some degree. All your fiction books have been significantly different than the prior, to me. The Middle Stories, Ticknor, How Should A Person Be?, and Motherhood. How do your older books look to you now?

 

Sheila:

I like them. When I read The Middle Stories, I miss the person I was when I was writing that book. That person, and even that time in culture (around the year 2000), seems so impossibly far away now.

How Should a Person Be? feels much closer to Motherhood, than The Middle Stories felt to Ticknor, or Ticknor felt to How Should a Person Be? I think with each those first three books I was trying to teach myself something new about writing each time, but with Motherhood, I wasn’t trying to teach myself something new, I was just writing a book. Maybe the things I figured out while writing the first three – especially How Should a Person Be? – it was like I could just take all that learning for granted and simply write. This felt strange to me, like I was missing a part of the process that had always been central for me. In retrospect, it seems natural that one isn’t always learning new things formally with the same intensity for every book. Although I would like to learn with the same intensity again when I begin whatever book comes next.

 

Tao:

I remember that at your Murmrr event with Chris Kraus, you talked about how, while writing Motherhood, you took on the persona of the narrator of Motherhood. You became that person for a number of years. I feel similarly with Trip. The person I had to be while writing Trip was curious, obsessed with learning, unsatisfied with confusion, reverentially focused on change, open to the idea that the imagination was a place that was bigger than the universe, and hopeful. I was still able to be someone else, though, because of my notes and my in-progress novel, Leave Society, which I’ve been working on since 2014. Since 2013, I’ve been one person – or character, rather – in my notes, one in Trip, one in Leave Society (less consistently optimistic than in Trip, with more attention toward daily despair, boredom, and mood swings), and one person containing all those characters. What was it like being the person writing Motherhood? What parts of your mind were undeveloped during it, if any?

 

Sheila:

The person who was writing Motherhood was very close to myself, but instead of what would have been something going on in the background of my other thoughts, I brought that stuff to the foreground and pushed everything else to the background. The wallpaper became the thing. If I hadn’t written this book – thoughts about whether or not to have a child, about my relationship to my mother, to my own femaleness – these things would have been just the walls of the room, and not the objects in the room.

There is a way of thinking about motherhood that I really didn’t indulge – that I left underdeveloped – and it’s hard to put into words what it was, but I think if someone whose main engagement in the world is through the lens of, say, a Marxist critique, or a feminist critique, etc. – well, I stayed far away from all that. I have noticed that a few friends of mine who are very political, like my friends who were big into the Occupy Movement, some of them find my book frustrating. But I wanted to write my book from the point of view of an ordinary woman feeling and thinking about her life from the inside out: philosophizing from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. ‘From the outside in’ is like analysis from a ready-made or a combination of ready-made intellectual frameworks, but from the inside out is reasoning from feelings, including feelings of depression and longing and isolation and anger and hope. There are ways of intellectualizing that I wanted nothing to do with, but this meant there was the risk of seeming, or being, extremely self-enclosed with the question. But to me this is correct, because I think when a woman contends with questions of maternity and femaleness and time, it’s done in a very private and self-enclosed space, and is usually not sustainingly led by ‘correct’ or a progressive or even a feminist analysis. Even if people analyze other people’s choices using ready-made intellectual frameworks, that’s not how individuals come to choose what they ultimately choose, and that was the process I wanted to capture. Does that make sense?

 

Tao:

It does. It seems that you wanted your character to be complex and exploratory and dynamic, like a non-ideological person, instead of a tool used to promote an ideology. As a reader, this excited me and got my attention. Instead of being lectured, I felt like I was carefully and considerately welcomed into a four-year discussion involving many ideas, feelings, tones, and moods.

With Trip, I also wanted to share ‘how individuals come to choose what they ultimately choose,’ to share my process of change. Focusing on ‘reasoning from feelings’ came naturally, in part because a big part of McKenna’s worldview was that he was anti-ideology – he stressed ‘the felt presence of immediate experience’ as our main source of knowledge – and in part because my prior writing had also avoided ideology. With Trip, I wanted especially to share my exploring-and-learning process, and to examine the moments when I’ve felt the most convoluted and subtle and powerful emotions, and to show to myself and others that I’m not a finished person with all the answers or even a personality, but a constantly evolving consciousness moving through time, toward the unknown. I think this was a more effective way of sharing information and inspiring change – for me at least, with my background in autobiographical writing – than writing a rhetorical, less emotional, more ideological non-fiction book.

 

Sheila:

Does it at all feel like going backwards to publish (or think of publishing) Leave Society, if it has the color and tone of your work before Trip?

 

Tao:

It would feel backwards, except that Leave Society is also about recovery, so it still feels like a change from Taipei and prior. I view it as paired with Trip. It will include the years (2016, 2017) I wrote Trip, so will revisit Trip’s themes from a different perspective. Trip was focused on how psychedelics, Terence McKenna, and Kathleen Harrison helped me start to recover from the effects of society, as I’ve experienced it, growing up in Florida and then living in NYC, immersed in corporations and advertisements and for-profit media, since I was eighteen. Leave Society focuses on how nutrition, detoxification, and other, non-drug techniques have helped, and are helping, me (and also my parents and their toy poodle Dudu, who appear in Trip only briefly).

 

Sheila:

Is there any part of you that loathes going back into that darker space?

 

Tao:

I enjoyed returning to the potentially more complex, for-me darker space of a novel. I’ve taken on optimism and hope, but without forgetting despair and hopelessness. I have all those feelings in me now. For around two years, I stopped reading fiction, because I felt aversion to the bleak tone of much of the fiction I’ve enjoyed since college, but now I’ve learned to enjoy both fiction and non-fiction, and think they work synergistically, in terms of keeping me interested in life.

How do you feel about Motherhood in terms of darkness? To me, it has many dark thoughts and feelings, but they don’t seem to serve a dark tone, rather they seem like natural thoughts/feelings that would happen to a person who is considering motherhood and art and life, and so I didn’t get the message of some dark books that is basically, ‘We’re fucked,’ but instead felt comprehensively refreshed, like I’d read both an informative, non-Wikipedia-like non-fiction book on motherhood, and an autobiographical novel with a character whose feelings, thoughts, language, humor, and pathos moved and excited and calmed and inspired me.

 

Sheila:

I don’t think it’s an especially dark book, no. I don’t feel like ‘we’re fucked’ when I think about life. I have hope and I think there is beauty in the world, and I take pleasure in being alive. Are you still that person you were when writing Trip (curious, obsessed with learning, unsatisfied with confusion, etc . . .)?

 

Tao:

I think I’m even more that person after writing Trip. Over two years, Trip deepened my addiction to learning-based self-empowerment – to seeking out and absorbing non-fiction books and scientific papers, knowing the information will change my behavior, and make existence both more complex and less confusing.

We both let out a moon of a book to orbit the planets of us, pulling us and changing us and sort of leading us, and eventually helping us, a permanent moon now. We both wrote about the main problems in our lives at that time. I was depressed and felt meaningless in a world that seemed grim and bleak. You seemed to be struggling with similar problems, as a person, but also as a woman and a woman artist, leading for you to the problem of motherhood. We both used books as evolving, self-created tools to help us live, but we also worked on the tools as art, refining and rearranging its parts, which in turn helped us live our lives. McKenna has a line I quote, that the main thing to realize is that we are ‘imprisoned in some kind of work of art.’ He meant it in an empowering way, in that if one can view one’s life as art that one is writing, as a book one is writing and living, with themes and motifs and self-references and structure, one can better see and make the way forward, whether one wants to change the world, change oneself, live a quiet weird life, become the president, or whatever.

 

Part 2

Rereading Each Other’s Books

 

Sheila:

I am waiting for the finished copy of Trip to arrive and you told me that you have the UK version of Motherhood with you. I would like you to read that one instead of the American one (which is also coming your way) because the pages in the UK version are cropped narrower, which somehow feels more claustrophobic and appropriate to the book. I will add in questions as I read through Trip but just to begin: I admire the ‘in the middle’ way you start your book – its immediacy. At the same time you are clearly putting a stake down in a moment of time that is the ‘beginning’ of this new quest. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the construction of time in a book like yours in relation to how you experience time in your life, and in relation to how you want the reader to experience time in reading your book?

 

Tao:

I wanted the book to start at a specific date, but encompass my entire life, from birth until each of the dates I focus on – September 14, 2012 (when I learned of Terence McKenna), August 5, 2013 (when I discarded my MacBook after a psilocybin trip), February 2016 (when I began writing Trip), July 2, 2017 (when I took a plant-drawing class with Kathleen Harrison). I’ve so far in life mostly experienced time in minutes and hours and days, so now I’m trying to focus more on weeks, months, years, decades. I still feel stuck in minutes and hours and days often, lost and bewildered. When I read other non-fiction books, or books that I sense to be autobiographical to a certain degree, I like to remember where I was mentally and physically when the author, elsewhere in the world, was experiencing the moments that I’m now reading about, especially if the author is a friend. It braids our narratives a little in the book of life.

Your book also starts in the middle, of many things. I’d planned to read twenty to fifty pages, on my first rereading session, but then found myself reading slowly and thinking and writing in the book, and finally spent fifteen minutes on the first two-pages, underlining every line, circling ‘I often’ ‘only’ ‘world view’ ‘young’ ‘old’ ‘my only hope’ (with ‘hope’ also circled) ‘a powerful monster’ ’weak one’ ‘had a world view’, and writing ‘going in potentially wrong directions’ ‘confusion’ ‘funny’ (twice) ‘scene.’ Then I noticed that your book is in seventeen parts, with twelve of them titled, and that part one – the two pages I read – was a contemplative, rapidly evolving monologue by a woman who seems to be forty and that introduces a twelve-year-old girl and a scene before ending back in monologue, in the narrator’s mind.

 

Sheila:

I just reread your table of contents, which I love for its use of questions marks and the word ‘I’ and ‘my’. That felt rare and refreshing. Then I read your acknowledgements, which feel very dignified to me. Then I read to point twenty-two of your appendix, when I became tired and was no longer able to follow it. But I really like how you explain about proteins and molecules and amino acids in this numbered way. What made you decide to describe it in a numbered list? Was it a way of explaining it to yourself?

 

Tao:

I see Motherhood doesn’t have an acknowledgements page, that seems good. How Should a Person Be? doesn’t either – the end of the novel is the last page of the book. I like this. It seems to mean that the acknowledgements can be gleaned from the book.

 

Sheila:

And also, I think that books should prioritize the relationship between the anonymous reader and the text, not prioritize the relationship between the author and their friends. (I’m speaking about novels here, not non-fiction.) To me it’s a breaking of the fourth wall that I don’t enjoy and it seems the wrong space for it. I feel like I’m reading someone’s signed yearbook – it’s too intimate, too much of an in-club. I don’t want to hear about how the author loves their husband. Also, I guess I grew up reading nineteenth-century Russian novels and other classics, and there were never acknowledgements in those. Then, when I started reading contemporary books, and finding them there, it was a negative aesthetic reaction I had: it felt at once hubristic and humble, but performatively so. I do understand that some people really need to and want to thank others, but as a reader, I prefer when books don’t have that page. But tell me about the numbered list?

 

Tao:

I did decide to write about DNA as a numbered list to better explain it to myself. It’s a 64-item list, because I wanted to underscore that DNA expresses 64 codons and that the I Ching views time as made of 64, six-hexagram parts. I like thinking of the list as a place that I and others can go to try to think of new ideas. The list is a timeline, relating how an undifferentiated plasma automatically cooled to form atoms, which formed amino acids and other compounds, which life used to build microbes, which became humans, who created language and then books, which are seemingly the first thing in terrestrial history that can, lower-dimensionally, model all of reality as felt and understood by a modern human.

I’m interested in how a person is like a higher-dimensional character, and how people create lower-dimensional worlds in the form of books, in which they exist as characters, which have a lower order of magnitude of complexity and freedom than people, and the list gives me a place to ponder those topics.

 

Sheila:

So is this something you actually believe now, or is it just something you like to think about? For instance, do you believe that the characters in our books are actually ‘lower-order’ humans, and we are ‘lower-order’ humans to some grander humans who are more dimensional than us, in a similar proportion to how we are in relation to characters in books? Or is it just interesting to conceive of life this way?

 

Tao:

I think characters in books can be thought of as lower-order humans, and humans can be thought of as higher order characters. It seems plausible – and can be wonder-and-awe-inducing for me to mull over and try-out believing, as a theory – that things exist that are to humans as humans are to characters, and that the imagination is to the universe as the universe is to a book, and that dying releases one into the imagination, making one a higher-order human. As a higher-order human, maybe you’d be outside time, in a dimension that is to time as time is to space (an idea my girlfriend told me today), and could ‘read’ lives, as humans read books. It seems possible and also exciting and challenging to consider, and it offers me the largest context I’ve yet encountered on books, life, death and the imagination. It gives me a clearer view on my writing and my life, separating them to some degree so that they can work together better instead of seeming like one vague thing, as it has in the past. I think I’m predisposed to think this way, from playing video and computer games, looking down into lower-order worlds.

One of my favorite things about your novel is how complex your narrator is, and how complex you allow her to be. I’ve been noticing this more while rereading – I’m on page 119, and at this point I feel the narrator is on a focused yet exploratory quest. Seemingly everyone she talks to, on a book tour in Europe, becomes involved in her quest; they start talking about babies, sharing anecdotes, advising and predicting. The metaphor the narrator tells on the first page, of how everyone else is on a boat, going somewhere, while she’s still on shore, without even a boat, has stayed with me as I read. It’s exciting, because I want to be on the shore also, contemplating and observing and analyzing what others are doing as they go places, possibly wrong places. Almost halfway through the book, I’m not sure if she will have a baby or not, or if her relationship with Miles will last, and neither is she, it seems – ‘Sometimes I feel it would be so easy to have Miles’ baby,’ she tells me on page 101 – and this makes the book suspenseful and forward-leading, even while the image of a woman on shore going nowhere stays in my mind.

 

Sheila:

I was very committed to sublimating any impulse to change my life, while writing this book – I wanted to stay in one place, literally, and write from there, and create a genuine quest narrative in which one doesn’t move. In rereading your introduction, this paragraph really jumped out at me:

Before encountering McKenna, I’d felt only alienated, mostly, by the admittedly little I’d read, seen, and heard about psychedelics. People seemed to me superstitious, irrational, hyperbolic, dishonest, and/or incurious when discussing them, even and sometimes especially if they were advocating them. Not unexpectedly, people seemed satisfied to express and embody the same stereotypes . . . about psychedelics that had kept me away from them most of my life.

It struck me that the way you think people talk about psychedelics (which leads to your being put off psychedelics) is almost identical to the way I feel when listening to people talk about motherhood, which in part has led me to being put off the idea of being a mother. When people talk about motherhood, they seem to me similarly superstitious, irrational, hyperbolic, dishonest and/or incurious . . . even and sometimes especially if they are advocating it. They seem satisfied to express and embody the same stereotypes. And these stereotypes align with the stereotypes you see: that once you have taken psychedelics/become a mother, your sense of yourself is radically changed, and your sense of reality is altered forever . . . But whereas you take this aversion to psychedelics and decide to see for yourself what another truth might be – and your book is a document of going into this thing you previously felt put off from – my book is a document of my struggle not to give in to entering the realm of motherhood. You dive in, while I hold back.

 

Tao:

I dove in because of Terence McKenna, then later Kathleen Harrison, whose ideas on psychedelics did excite and interest me; they approached psychedelics from a different perspective than I’d heard, focusing on how our ancestors, allied with plants and the natural world, used them for probably tens to hundreds of millennia. But you dove in also, I think. You dove into literature, I think, instead of motherhood. Instead of ignoring motherhood and your aversion to how people talk about it, you dove into literature and then with literature you went into the world of motherhood and, through your character, explored what was happening there, and shared how what was happening there affected your character, making her sometimes view motherhood as desirable, sometimes not.

 

Sheila:

I think that’s right. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. I do feel like since writing this book there has been a kind of relief that I can dive even deeper into literature. It is a place, and there is already not enough time in life to read as many books as I would like, or to reread books I have loved, or to read as slowly and deliberately as I would like, or to write as slowly and deliberately as I would like. Often when I start reading, I have the urge to start writing, and so I stop reading, and this means I don’t read as much as I want to.

The other day you said you printed out our conversation and went outside into the sun to read it, along with my novel, and I felt a kind of awe or envy that you could carve out that kind of deliberate time to slowly ponder and order your thoughts. Is this something you have always been able to do – or have you had to work to impose your own pace on things? I feel I am often so shallowly moving between activities, tasks, work I have to do, things I want to read. I keep thinking of you with those printouts, reading slowly and deliberately in the sun.

 

Tao:

I started reading with more attention, I think, when I began reading non-fiction books with the goal of finding helpful and startling and surprising information. This has carried over to fiction, and I read almost everything with a pen now, making notes and underlining. I’ve started telling people more about what I think about their books, in emails, after reading their books, also, which I’ve enjoyed. I do still often feel I’m shallowly or glumly or otherwise unsatisfyingly moving between activities. You could think of me doing that also. When do you feel that you are slowly and deliberately focused on something?

 

Sheila:

I feel that way when I’m editing – that I can inhabit time in a slow and deliberate way. When I write, I write very quickly, almost faster than I can think, but it’s focused and deliberate. Why do you think people talk about both these experiences (psychedelics and motherhood) with such broad and unbelievable clichés most of the time?

 

Tao:

For psychedelics, I think it’s partly because it’s so hard to talk about. Psychedelic experiences seem drastically different than normal reality, so it demands new language or new arrangements of language. It seems to ask that one save words like ‘mindblowing’ and ‘astonishing’ and ‘awesome’ to describe aspects of them, but most people have already used those words to describe mundane things. I hadn’t, and I was glad, then, to finally find earnest uses for those words. And maybe also because the information people have gotten – from governments, the news, and other mainstream culture – on psychedelics has been so wrong that, when people find that out, they want to only say positive things about it, to balance the negative, maybe. Why do you think people talk about motherhood in clichés?

 

Sheila:

Perhaps for similar reasons: I think it’s probably ‘mindblowing’ and ‘astonishing’ and ‘awesome’ to give life to a human, and it’s hard to put it into language in an unsentimental or new way. I also think there are taboos that prevent us from speaking about motherhood in all its complexity – the world wants women to speak about it mainly in positive terms. That is changing now, since the rise of the ‘mommy bloggers’ who felt free, because they were part of a community, to talk about the darkness and difficulty of motherhood, but there can be a cliché and predictable quality to the complaining, also – a kind of bravado, not unlike the bravado that accompanies talking about the love and joy. Perhaps, also similar to the experience of taking psychedelics, there is an ontological shift, and that’s a very hard thing to express in language. To the outsider, it sounds like a gross exaggeration.

I have noticed you typing sentences into this shared google document, and now when I read your book, I have a better sense of how you wrote it – from seeing how you write sentences, in the moment. Your way of editing is to try to find the right adjective, often, or the right combination of adjectives: to make what you are saying more and more precise. For me, editing is about trying to make the sentence more musical according to some inner sense of how sentences should sound. Is there also that in editing, for you? An attempt towards a kind of musicality or poetry? Or is it mainly about precision?

 

Tao:

Thanks for noticing that. I do spend time trying to find less obvious adjectives. If I don’t do that, I can easily fall into using just like five or ten adjectives to describe everything – exciting, moving, stimulating, bleak, etc. I do also spend time on making the sentences sound and flow a certain way; mostly I want to make it both easily readable and not boring. I try to vary the sentences and make it interesting to read even regardless of the content. I think your writing does this.

 

Sheila:

Thank you. To me the idea of ‘precision’ has to do with how close it comes to a kind of beauty in the form. Can you talk more specifically about what you mean by ‘varying’ the sentences, and also why you want your sentences to be ‘easily readable’? Some writers aren’t concerned with everyone understanding them, or with wanting their work to be easy to enter and pleasurable to take in.

 

Tao:

By varying the sentences, I think I mean that I like to offer the reader sentences and logic and ideas that will keep their mind in a certain kind of uninterrupted but winding and entrancing motion, in which they can stop to think if they want and not get lost – something like when you write, ‘The buildings do not sway in the wind, so it’s harder for our ideas to sway.’ I think ‘easily readable’ is too vague. I think Motherhood is easily readable and also has beautiful sentences and paragraphs, amicably offering me the opportunity to read slowly and in fragments, or normally, without stopping. Maybe I mean I want to be clear when my goal is to be clear, and to not unintentionally confuse the reader.

You have long complex sentences, and idea-and-feeling dense paragraphs, that I underline and reread, but I don’t feel stopped due to confusion or unclear writing. I stop to go deeper into a sentence or passage.

Just as a man might try to rid himself of all entitlement, violence, and need to dominate, could I eliminate from myself my desire to gossip, my petty interest in other lives – especially the darkest parts of the lives of all my female friends – and instead take responsibility for my actions and words, having decided that I won’t ever meet a future with children, and all the joys and gratifications of that?

 

Sheila:

I understand that some people have said that your mind seems to have an autistic or borderline autistic quality, for how it neatly weighs and objectifies and delineates and calculates things; for the seeming remove from emotion. What do you make of this observation? There is a lack of sentimentality in your work which feels very rare to me. Perhaps it comes from your disenchantment with life. For you, moving into experimenting with psychedelics brought you closer to enchantment. For me, I feared the endless chores and toil of motherhood would lessen my enchantment, which comes most strongly in moments of quiet contemplation, silence, aloneness and wonder, in the context of a day in which nothing happens and I go nowhere and do nothing.

 

Tao:

I think almost everyone in the twenty-first century is to some degree autistic. For hundreds of millennia, humans didn’t have aluminum, mercury, pesticides, and other toxins injected into them while they were babies, via vaccines, or flowing into them when they were still fetuses. A 2005 study found 287 synthetic chemicals in umbilical blood; these weren’t there before the twentieth century. So I like thinking of myself as autistic to some degree. And I think degrees of autism, among other physical problems, like inflammation, decrease one’s capacity to feel awe, wonder, or enchantment. I can feel myself becoming less autistic, over years, as I give myself nutrients and gradually move all the new poisons outside of myself. My face makes a concentrating expression more often now. Before, it was almost always blank – which I’ve realized wasn’t my personality, but the result of what had, and had not, entered my and my parents and their parents’ bodies. Psychedelics have helped with enchantment because they directly give me awesome experiences. I’m usually alone when I’m experiencing wonder or enchantment. A few times, I’ve felt brief awe and lingering wonder while being with my girlfriend and feeling love. The chores and toil of motherhood do seem like they could reduce enchantment. But they also provide meaning. When life is meaningless, I feel disenchanted. But you get meaning from writing, and that is also done alone.

 

Sheila:

Do you also get meaning from writing? And would you say the meaning you get from writing makes you feel like your life is meaningful?

 

Tao:

I have always gotten meaning by writing, yes. With Taipei and before, writing gave me meaning, but a bleak, precarious meaning – I got meaning out of describing bleakness, and the meaning seemed surrounded by meaninglessness. The meaning I got from writing Trip was a more positive and usable meaning, one able to dissolve and replace, instead of just distract from, meaninglessness.

Part seven of your book is called PMS, and there is an inter-part section right before it where your character seems very aware of her cycle. She knows that in the luteal phase, she has two weeks of unhappiness, then a few days bleeding, then ‘a week of mild newness’ in the follicular phase, when ideas come easily to her. She feels ‘sparkling joy’ during ovulation – ‘when my body most wants to fuck, and nothing in my life feels off.’ Acknowledging the female cycle, and its effect on mood and consciousness, reduces sentimentality and allows me to more intimately relate to the narrator’s fluctuating emotions, similar as to how, in Trip, I tell of how I used to attribute feeling bad to ‘no concrete reason’ but then discovered all these other reasons – toxins, etc. – that I’d previously ignored.

I paid less attention to the female cycle on my first reading than my second. Months after first reading your book, I read The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer, which tells how to chart one’s cycle, based on temperature and other factors, to know when one is fertile, etc., and realized that it seems tragic and one of the results of pervasive, millennia-long sexism that most women are expected to fit their cycle into men’s lives and into society and jobs, instead of men learning and honoring and fitting their lives into the female cycle, as seems to have been more common millennia ago, when there were more societies with lunar calendars. Instead of going by the man’s daily desire for sex, people could go by the female cycle – similar to how we acknowledge the four seasons, and adjust our behavior as temperature and weather and plant-growth changes – and, if they don’t want a baby, have sex when the woman is not fertile. Singer wrote: ‘On the Pill, a woman’s reproductive system essentially shuts down, and she becomes available for sex all the time without the consequence of pregnancy. This is male fertility rhythm.’ Are you also, like your character, in tune with your cycle and how it affects your personality?

 

Sheila:

I’m very aware of it, but this wasn’t always the case. I became very aware of it during the seven years I was writing this book. I never paid any attention to it before my thirties, because I didn’t know that it was a force that was operating in my body. I’m not sure what changed: either my body started reacting more intensely to my hormonal shifts, because of aging, or perhaps it’s just that I began living with my boyfriend during those years, and he would notice the changes in my moods, and point them out to me. At a certain point it was impossible to deny that I would have periods of heightened anxiety, depression and anger in the week (or sometimes two weeks) before my period. Then I started charting it and paying attention to what the other weeks felt like, too. I began reading about how other women experienced their monthly mood swings, and I felt angry for a long time that women are not educated about this in junior high, for my whole life would have been different if I’d known. In retrospect, I see that I made a lot of choices during the luteal phase of my cycle – PMS – like to break up with boyfriends or whatever, finding them unbearable, without any awareness that my perception was shifting during that phase of my cycle. If I had known, I would have ridden out that week or two and then re-evaluated when those hormones abated.

I think there is probably a certain strain of feminism that doesn’t want to admit that some women experience severe mood shifts, because of fears that it makes women seem unreliable or incompetent or crazy, to men – how can we trust a woman to be president if she loses her mind every month? But like you implied, that is a very reductive and sexist way of looking at it, and besides, if it’s the reality of some women’s bodies, it is much better that we be informed of this so we can work with it.

 

Tao:

It seems good that you learned your mood changes with your cycle. I knew little about the female cycle before reading The Garden of Fertility. When I began to learn, it also seemed to me a major, sexist flaw of our society that the female cycle is not taught in, say, middle school. I feel like men maybe also have some kind of natural cycle affecting their mood that has also been ignored. My interest in sex and my sense of humor seem to change cyclically, leaving and returning.

 

Sheila:

That’s interesting. You could do a service to humanity and figure out what that cycle is for men, in general. At a certain point, I became almost dizzily aware of how different life could look from one week to the next, and for a while I thought I wanted to die because it felt completely unbearable to not know which perception to live from, or to trust. I didn’t feel I could take these monthly shifts for all the years remaining till menopause. Then I did research online and found other women who were experiencing the same thing I was (medically, this more intense reactions to one’s hormones is called PMDD) and SSRIs was a treatment that worked for many of these women. That is when I began taking 10mg of Prozac a day, plus Maca powder, which evened out the fluctuations. I still feel the shifts, but not as intensely as I did before. But I’m glad I had a conscious experience of awareness of the effects of my hormones before taking Prozac, even if it was hard. Among other things, it gave me the idea to make the narrative structure of my book follow the menstrual cycle, because that was the narrative I was living. It was an answer to a question I had posed to myself earlier, which was: if rising tension and climax is a story-telling narrative modelled on the male orgasm (as some people claim) what would be a narrative structure modelled on something from the female body?

 

Tao:

Compared to a female-cycle-based narrative, a male-orgasm-based narrative – exposition, climax, denouement – seems simple and crude, which feels like the opposite of your book. The female cycle has the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase, each with multiple, overlapping processes, occurring over hours, days, weeks and months. How many months did you chart your cycle? Do you still have your charts? Do you still chart?

 

Sheila:

I did it for years, using an app. I still do it and I always will. It’s very useful information. Every woman should have this knowledge about her body. I was on the pill a few times in my life and I didn’t like the sense of disconnection I felt from my body on it. I felt like an ‘old woman’ even though at the time I was twenty, but it made me physically and sexually numb. Did your detoxing from chemicals take any forms apart from changing the food you ate and the drugs you took?

 

Tao:

Yes. I’ve been eating bentonite clay and zeolite powder. Aboriginals and wild animals regularly eat clay for detoxification and mineralization purposes. I want to get more sunlight. I live in New York City, the worst-seeming place for mental and physical health. Like me with my book, your narrator trusts and is inspired by nature. Reading these sentences from Motherhood, I wanted to put them in Trip:

I thought about how city life was only one form of life, and how the structures we make are static and not all that complex. They do not shimmer like the dry grasses on the hills or the leaves on the trees. There are not as many examples in the city of the impossibly far and impossibly close.

And:

In the city, everything is of equal significance, from everything being so equally close up. True perspective is pretty much impossible. The buildings do not sway in the wind, so it’s harder for our ideas to sway. You cannot look at a building for several hours, while in nature you can look at anything for several hours, because nature is alive and ever-changing.

I like how that leads into part nine, ‘Follicular’. I laughed a lot while rereading pages 119 to 157. ‘Getting my eggs frozen would have been like freezing my indecision’ made me laugh, and I laughed at the narrator’s consideration that she doesn’t give any thoughts to her eggs, which are hopeful then saddened when she doesn’t get pregnant, and which leave her body, like confused children, until ‘one day, the school finds out: She’s dead. What? That girl we all ignored? Yes.’ A line I liked where I didn’t laugh: ‘In order to know my mind about children, I’ll have to use feeling more.’

 

Sheila:

Thank you. I’m glad you like those passages. I think the ones about nature do intersect with your book, and your book’s concern about what it means to be a modern, city-dwelling human, and how it saps us of so much. I hope that when I’m an old woman I am living in nature and not in a city. Though Toronto feels like a satisfying balance between both.

I know you studied journalism. Trip is kind of journalistic, but it doesn’t take any of the forms that I imagine are taught in journalism school. And yet in your book, you are researching something in the world and telling us about it – like in your first chapter about Terence McKenna. I’m curious if any of your journalism training came back to you while writing Trip, and if there were things from journalism school that you learned, that you used in your writing of this book?

 

Tao:

I’ve tried, ever since getting it in 2005, to avoid using what I learned from my journalism degree. By the time I wrote Trip, my journalism degree was no longer part of my thoughts, none of it, that I can remember, came back to me. From what I remember of my degree, which is not much, I was taught to focus on what mainstream culture viewed as newsworthy and sensational, and to put the most important sentence first and the least important last, but I’d rather make every sentence important and to focus on what I feel is newsworthy.

Journalism school does tell people to be accurate, but still allows for inaccuracies and vagueness via, for example, paraphrasing and quantifiers like ‘a few’ or ‘several’ or ‘countless’. I wanted to be more accurate than that, so I quoted people verbatim and in full sentences – except for one quote – and used exact times and numbers. Since middle school, I’ve regularly criticized journalists, and the media generally, for being careless and inaccurate, so it was a challenge and also satisfying for me to try to be more accurate than the average non-fiction book.

On page 132, in the part ‘PMS’, in a passage on how being without a child ‘allows a slide into sludginess’, your narrator tells the reader: ‘When I was younger, writing felt like more than enough, but now I feel like a drug addict, like I’m missing out on life.’ Have you ever thought of yourself as addicted – positively or negatively – to writing? It seems like some writers get really into writing, going deeper into it over decades, and end up publishing like forty books, which to others can seem like a lot but for the obsessed writer just feels normal. I feel like we could be on that path, to publishing that many books.

 

Sheila:

I don’t at all look at writing like an addiction. An addiction seems to imply that you are doing something bad, that you don’t want to be doing, and that is harmful to you and the world. Writing is the opposite: it is something good, that I want to be doing, and that I think can be helpful to the world. It is not a compulsion, like an addition. It is easy not to write.

 

Tao:

I realized, reading ‘not a compulsion,’ that I view compulsions as occurring over minutes and days, but maybe compulsion can be applied to years and decades also. Writing Trip, and thinking about how I wanted to conceptualize my recovery and drug-use, has changed the way I use the word ‘addiction.’ I view it neutrally now – I can have undesirable or desirable addictions, that can be harmful or helpful. I also view writing as something I want to do, that is helpful to myself and others, and that is not easy.

 

Sheila:

Oh, I think you misread me: I said that I think it’s easy not to write. But I agree with you, too, that it’s not easy to write. Both things are true. Or rather, I think it’s easy to write, but hard to bring all that writing together into something that feels finished and complete. When I was younger I sort of resented that just writing wasn’t enough – that it also had to be completed to be an object of use for the world. But now I think that it doesn’t even serve any internal function for myself if I don’t bring the writing to a point of finish. Only when it’s finished does the writing become a reliable friend you can count on. Until then, the writing is just like a friend who wastes your time in uninteresting texting.

It has been fun for me noticing all our similarities, in process and in our books. I feel like we are two scientists, working on a similar project, in a specific moment in time. It’s like you say near the top, writing is an order of reality, and so it makes sense that between us we would find so much in common, since although your book happened in your house, and my book was created in mine, they both belong and spring from the same strange order of reality, that is its own real world. And you and I enjoy talking, because we both like to spend our lives there.

The Divine Pregnancy in a Twelve-Year-Old Woman
Cormac James | Notes on Craft