May 11th, 2016
Alt-lit icon Tao Lin is working on a new book, his first nonfiction, which he estimates will come out in 2017. It’s called Beyond Existentialism, and it’s about Terence McKenna (1946—2000), a philosopher and advocate of psychedelics dubbed the “Timothy Leary of the 90s.”
McKenna reportedly smoked cannabis every day of his adult life (except for a few months when he quit because his psychotherapist wouldn’t stop bothering him about it, and when he couldn’t get it due to travel). McKenna was also was a proponent of DMT, an illegal psychedelic which has been referred to as the “death drug,” because, in addition to being found in plants, it has been speculated to be released in large quantities by the pineal gland at the moment of death. People who take it recreationally have claimed to have experienced what dying is like.
Lin writes fiction, poetry and essays, draws pictures and runs the publishing house/website Muumuu House, and the film company MDMA Films. In addition to Beyond Existentialism, Lin has a new novel in development. The New York Times has proclaimed that “If you’re bookish and you don’t know the name Tao Lin, you’re probably over 30” and that his writing has “distant echoes of early Hemingway, as filtered through Twitter and Klonopin.” He’s also been the subject of legal controversy. In 2009 he published an autobiographical novella called Shoplifting from American Apparel and said: “Shoplifting can be justified morally. I was shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants.” In 2014, he faced allegations of statutory rape from his ex, poet E.R. Kennedy, who subsequently tweeted that they did not want the matter further discussed in public.
And he’s known for writing about drugs, particularly in his last novel, Taipei, and his most recent book, Selected Tweets (a selection of tweets by him and Mira Gonzalez). In Taipei, characters use drugs including “Ambien, Seroquel, LSD, Adderall, Oxycodone, cocaine, Flexeril, Percocet, psilocybin mushrooms, and codeine.” He tweets about drug use, often. For example:
Writing about DMT causing masturbation
— Tao Lin (@tao_lin) April 26, 2016
— Tao Lin (@tao_lin) March 20, 2016
He recently gave a “7-10 minute presentation” titled “Specific Effects of Psychedelic Drugs On Me” in Brooklyn, in which he described some of his experiences with psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, salvia and ingested cannabis.
His characters frequently talk about drugs and being high; simultaneously, reading his writing can be a drug-like experience in itself. Lin breaks down actions we take for granted—like our heart beating—into concrete gestures that can seem bizarre in isolation; thinking about life as a series of these actions, getting lost in the strangeness of every little gesture or phrase, uncomfortably mimics, for me, the hyper-self-consciousness of being high.
“…he’d think of how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and inside skin, held by muscles and arteries in its place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator, having grown the chest to hide in and to muffle and absorb—and, later, after innovating the brain and face and limbs, to convert into productive behavior—its uncontrollable, indefensible, unexplainable, embarrassing squeezing of itself.”
Lin also has the tendency to place commonplace words or phrases in quotes. This device evokes that feeling when you’re high of words “losing their meaning,” or of “normal” words seeming strange or funny. For example, from Taipei:
“the most intimate Paul had been with another girl was a ten-minute conversation, at an ‘away’ high school football game, with another percussionist.”
Lin’s writing at times resembles the writing of McKenna himself, who used the term “small mouth noises” to refer to human speech.
Lin is now delving even further into the world of drugs, both in his personal experiences with psychedelics and in his writing about Terence McKenna. The book partly evolved out of a series of essays he wrote for Vice, in which he interviewed McKenna’s son and daughter, created a chronological list of McKenna-related books, ideas and people, and generally immersed himself in McKenna’s world.
He tells The Influence about this McKenna mania, the CIA keeping tabs on him, and the idea that we are “made of drugs.”
What led you to write nonfiction?
I’ve always written nonfiction, but not an entire book yet until now. Some reasons I’m writing nonfiction: I’ve been reading more nonfiction, I’ve been reading less fiction, I want to directly convey information about the world that I’ve learned so I and other people can have discussions in the future about this information within a context of nonfiction interconnected with other nonfiction.
Since February 2014, you have been making very detailed and often beautiful, some might call them psychedelic, mandalas.
Thank you for noticing my mandalas.
Mandalas have been used by various traditions as a tool for spiritual guidance or meditation, and they’re also sometimes used as “art-therapy” tools. Do you find them therapeutic, healing, spiritual?
Of the words you used, I’ve thought about drawing in terms of meditation and therapy. I like to draw in the same piece with varying amounts of consciousness, for example I like to study carefully and then decide where to draw something next, but I also like to deliberately refrain from considering what I’m doing and draw quickly, ahead of my awareness, so that it’s like I’m observing the art appear from nowhere, my hand moving without being told how to move.
The “deliberately refrain from considering what I’m doing” end of this spectrum is like meditation to me, I think of it as a kind of meditation. And, having this spectrum, and moving around on it, is a kind of therapy in my view—I’m healing and testing and practicing my ability to make art, when I want to, uninhibitedly.
You first learned of Terence McKenna through a recording on Youtube where he talked about DMT, a psychedelic drug that is illegal even though it’s found naturally in the human body.
Since then, to an outsider, you seem to have gotten somewhat addicted to Terence McKenna. What do you make of your fascination with him?
This is all in my next book, and I’m still working on the answers. Good question, thank you. You can pretend when you read the answers in my book that I’m answering your interview questions in print at a delay. I like the idea of an outsider noticing that I have gotten somewhat addicted to Terence McKenna.
Do you ever get nervous—particularly as an Asian American in a climate that targets people of color—about being targeted by law enforcement for writing openly about drug use?
I don’t remember ever being targeted by police because of my appearance. From ages 0-18 I rarely encountered police. I grew up in suburban Central Florida. From ages 18-32 I’ve lived mostly in NYC, and I’ve probably spoken to police around five times, asking them directions (besides the times I’ve been arrested for shoplifting and putting a sticker on a building—times I’ve been, in my view, treated fairly and professionally and as a human).
I haven’t felt nervous about being targeted by law enforcement, no. Mostly because I don’t think they read interviews and novels and tweets to find people to arrest. I’ve thought about the CIA probably targeting me, or having someone “keep tabs” on me, but I like that. I like imagining people I meet are CIA agents and that there could be someone assigned to keep track of everything I do or to try to infiltrate my world. I want to write more about the CIA in the future.
McKenna said that when he took certain psychedelics he entered a world of “’self-transforming machine elves’—also called ‘fractal elves,’ ‘self-dribbling jeweled basketballs,’ or ‘little self-transforming tykes’—that spoke English and a kind of visible language while jumping into and out of his body, ‘running around chirping and singing.’” I loved this and thought it was extremely “creative.” What’s the relationship between your drug use and your creativity?
I like how specific and weird and zany McKenna’s descriptions of his DMT experiences are. I only used caffeine for my first six books. For Taipei and Selected Tweets, I was under the influence of caffeine plus myriad other drugs while writing them. I’ve also written and edited (editing seems creative to me because I’m often trying to create preferable substitutions to what I’ve previously created) and drawn and done other creative things while sober. Terence McKenna attributed some of his ideas to a voice he called “the mushroom” that he dialogued with while on psilocybin. Dennis McKenna, Terence’s brother, observed that we are made of drugs which is why drugs work. I encourage people to read this kind of scattered, disconnected answer as a prose poem you might find in a poetry book, taking up one page.
A time-line of Tao’s drug history, published on his Twitter.
Besides McKenna, any books or art recommendations about anything drug-related?
The Yage Letters (1963) is a 66-page book with 2 accounts of ayahuasca by William S. Burroughs and 2 accounts by Allen Ginsberg.
Are there any things about which you disagree with McKenna?
There are not, because with McKenna, for me at least, it’s more like a collaboration or a discussion. He stressed he didn’t believe any of his models or ideas. McKenna: “I like the word models. What we’re trying to do is build models. By saying the word ‘models’, we make it very clear that this is not ‘Truth’, and that there will be a better model, and we’ll swap the old for the new.”
Can you tell me a little about your upcoming novel Leave Society? Do you know when the novel and your upcoming nonfiction book, Beyond Existentialism, will come out?
It’s my fourth novel. I’m working on it after I finish Beyond Existentialism which I’m working on now. I estimate they could come out in 2017 and 2018. Each of my novels have been longer than the previous, so maybe this one will be longer than Taipei, which was ~70,000 words. Richard Yates was ~50,000, Eeeee Eee Eeee ~30,000. Gradually longer books until I’m writing 800-page books, maybe I’ll do that. I don’t want to talk about the content yet so early but thank you for asking about it.