Castro and Lin working on their novels in 2019.
Jordan Castro’s forthcoming novel The Novelist takes place over the course of one morning in which the protagonist tries to write his first novel. During this time, he sometimes G-chats and emails his friend, Li. Tao Lin’s Leave Society is about someone named Li who is writing a novel documenting his recovery from dominator culture. Castro and Lin have been friends since 2010. This conversation was composed from October 31, 2021 to June 8, 2022 on Google Docs and sometimes on Gmail and G-Chat. That material has been shortened and then reorganized freely to suggest thematic continuities, but also discontinuities, in the time, mood, and medium of the interview.
It’s December 19, 2021. Yesterday, I opened the galley of The Novelist and looked for something to quote in my tweet of a photo of it. I flipped around a little and saw and chose this: “I opened Gmail. Li had emailed me again. ‘Fuck off,’ the email said, simply.” I wonder what readers of that tweet—who know my novel’s main character is named Li—thought about that quote. In the context of your novel, the “Fuck off” is playful, causing the first-person narrator of your novel to grin. What’s your narrator’s name?
I didn’t give him a name. But the name of the protagonist of the third-person, autofictional novel he is initially trying to work on is named Calvin, which is the name you gave to the character based on me in your 2013 novel Taipei.
Yes, I remember choosing the name Calvin. It sounds like Jordan. What time period does the novel that the narrator of The Novelist is writing span?
His book takes place during three days in 2015, but has a flashback from 2014, and another flashback from “years prior” to 2015, and another undated flashback, during which “Calvin is Gmail-chatting with Paul—a character based on Li—and rationalizing their drug use: children were prescribed Adderall and Xanax, and in some cases opiates, to take daily; others ate junk food which, in many ways, was less healthy than drugs; Calvin listened to music every day, and while alone, which didn’t mean he ‘had a problem’ with listening to music; drugs helped him to be productive, to cope with stress and anxiety and depression; they were fun.”
It seems original to me that your dark novel about heroin addiction is embedded as a small thing within the more positive and hopeful The Novelist. It would be like if my novel Taipei existed only as a fragment in Leave Society.
Thanks. The Novelist literally contains Taipei inside of Leave Society, since Calvin—a side character in Taipei—is in the narrator’s novel-in-progress, and Li—the protagonist of Leave Society—is in the novel itself.
A G-chat on February 22, 2022
TAO: worked on interview some. maybe we could try the gchat idea. i feel like my question was not good
JORDAN: laughing a little re how this is going. the commentary, in gchats etc, vs the actual content so far
TAO: just laughed at how it’s going too. it would be good to use one of these for one of the sections, or could be a meta section
JORDAN: grinning, that sounds good. i had this in a document, re our most recent interaction in the google doc: “I vaguely remember, a long time ago, reading an interview in which you talked about how bands like Rilo Kiley had bleak albums initially, then something changed and they weren’t as bleak/relatable anymore… Do you remember this interview? Have we become ‘Kileyed’?” im not gonna start with that. just showing u the “b sides”
TAO: laughing again. imagining our interview just being mostly this, mostly trying to do it
JORDAN: our novels, our worldviews. we have to snap out of it. it’s go time
TAO: laughing still
JORDAN: im laughing too. the structure of the interview could be “experimental.” we could “throw it together” … from many different sources.. google docs, email interview… a dynamic mix of this kind of thing.. and longer, more serious things….
TAO: finally stopping laughing and smiling. yes, that would be good
TAO: it seemed like we had a lot of time, and now it’s been 2 months
JORDAN: 2 months, laughing. we still have a lot of time until the book comes out
TAO: laughing again. we should have a section about the first section, criticizing it like we did, that seems original
JORDAN: that sounds good. i feel like we didn’t even really criticize it though. just sort of softly abandoned it. laughingly abandoned it
TAO: we started suggesting other ways we could do the interview. back-up plans
Jordan… It’s March 10, and we’ve completed one section. We’ve discussed this conversation—commenting on the slow rate of production, suggesting back-up plans—more than we’ve had the conversation itself. We’ve done 222 words in ~2.5 months. Now it’s your turn to say something. I’ve said more than you in this conversation so far.
I have a question that might lead to more of me talking eventually. There can be a dynamic flow of lengths. Early on in Leave Society, you write that Li was inspired to “try to understand his own reality” and so started paying less attention to “fiction, newspapers, and magazines” and began reading more nonfiction books. As a result, “The world seemed more complex, terrible, hopeful, meaningful, and magical than he’d previously thought or heard.” What do you think the nonfiction books offered that fiction, newspapers, and magazines didn’t, that produced the effect you described?
The nonfiction books offered perspectives outside of what Li had encountered before 2014. The fiction he’d read was about characters who were depressed and lonely; this offered a larger perspective than the newspapers and nonliterary magazines, which were mainly from mainstream liberal and conservative perspectives. When he started to consume media from outside of those perspectives, he noticed problems with them: they believed governments and corporations too much, promoted pharmaceuticals over natural health, trusted technology over nature, and often viewed the other political party as the main or only problem. They seemed limited or inaccurate in many ways.
Relatedly, you’ve become interested in Christianity over the years. I’ve known you since you were sixteen, and now you’re twenty-eight. What is your history with Christianity?
I wasn’t raised in a religious context, and by the time I was ∼12 years old, due to the influence of punk music and books, I hated Christianity. I related to some of Li’s experiences: seeing “God” on money, for example, and feeling totally alienated from the God concept. Religion, and Christianity specifically, seemed obviously fake, something used by powerful people to keep less powerful people in their place.
When I was younger, I thought I was really smart. But now I feel like I was scared and prideful and hid behind a flippant dismissal of any worldview that would require me to focus on changing myself before I tried to change others. I’d come up against myself, and I’d try to exert my will, but it seemed like the harder I tried, the worse things became. Someone suggested I try prayer and meditation, and I started doing that, and I started changing, and my life got better. I still didn’t “believe in God” or even know what that could mean, but the fact that I felt different after I prayed, even though I viewed it as something like a trick of the mind, was undeniable. When Nicolette and I started dating, she had recently become a Christian, and she didn’t fit into any of my previous ideas about what a Christian was like or believed. I started to read more, and met more Christians who were smart and nice, and slowly my defenses eroded, and I realized that everything I thought I knew about Christianity was wrong. At the same time, everything in the world—politics, culture, academia, the lit world—was seeming increasingly insane. My experiences repeatedly came up against my conception of reality, and my conception of reality couldn’t account for my experiences without becoming incoherent. Far from being irrational, Christianity made these disparate aspects of myself and the world more comprehensible and harmonious. I was baptized during the pandemic.
Riane Eisler, whom you frequently cite, promotes Jesus’s “partnership” qualities: that he associated with women, preached nonviolence and spiritual equality, and more. Leave Society criticizes Yahweh—God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament—but seems to praise Jesus. What are your thoughts regarding Christianity?
I hate it. No, just kidding. I constantly heard negative things about it, growing up listening to punk music, and felt alienated from it and/or far from it for most of my life—I wasn’t raised in a religious context either—but I like what I’ve increasingly experienced of it, over the past five or so years, through you and Nicolette, and through books by Riane Eisler and others with a positive view of Jesus.
During your Zoom conversation for Bookpeople with Deb Olin Unferth, she asked you about the partnership societies that Li learns about in Leave Society, and whether or not it matters to you whether or not they actually existed. As you know, I’ve been interested in Rene Girard’s work for the past couple of years. He has a different view of humanity’s past—that we emerge from societies of ritualistic, violent scapegoating—but, interestingly, comes to a similar conclusion, that we need to personally eschew violence, domination, rivalry, and so on. Like Eisler, he also has a theory about human history/evolution, and cites evidence from Çatalhöyük—a city that existed from around 9,000 to 7,500 years ago in modern-day Turkey.
Interesting. I’ve heard you talk about Girard for years, but I haven’t heard you connect him with Eisler’s work in that way. Where does he write about that conclusion?
I can’t remember if he ever phrases it in such prescriptive ways, but it’s there in most of his books, I think, especially I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Battling to the End. He was a Catholic, and one of his main ideas was that most of our problems stem from what he called mimetic desire: the idea that we want what other people want because they want them, and so we imitate them, and this can lead to rivalry, envy, etcetera. For Girard, Christ entered into a world rife with imitation, and tells us to imitate him instead, and a lot of what he did involved eschewing violence, vengeance, etcetera, in favor of forgiveness, love, and so on. Relatedly, I’ve thought that the partnership society idea reminds me of the Garden of Eden idea, that, in the past, humanity was in a harmonious situation, but then, due to “the fall”—or as Girard would say, “mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism,” or, as Eisler might say, “dominator values”—humanity has been caught in an escalating web of violence for some time. Do you conceive of us as needing to “return” to a former way of being, or as needing to “progress” toward something new?
I think both returning and progressing, and also that history might be cyclical too. I’ve been reading about The Great Year. It’s ~25,800 years. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Ancient Indians, and other cultures knew that every ~25,800 years the stars “precess”—moving across the sky in one cycle. The dominant modern theory is that it’s due to the Earth having a wobble, but a more convincing theory to me is that the sun moves in a spiral, maybe due to orbiting a shared center with a binary star. According to Laurie Pratt, Vedic texts say that we’re currently in an ascending period, after reaching a low from 498–1698 A.D.
I started my reread of The Novelist. I’ve read eighty-six pages. I enjoyed grinning and laughing and thinking while reading. I liked the variety of sentence lengths and forms, and the range of the gaps between sentences: “I felt disturbingly similar to a fish. What a shitty way to start the morning.” This sentence seemed innovative and effective: “I ran my hand through my hair—I hated Facebook.” This surprised and pleased me: “To my delight, I had finished pooping.” This made me snicker: “My body felt at once empty and full; my neck felt weak, like it might crumple under the weight of my head, leaving me with no neck.” Your prose is clear and particular despite its task of describing complex processes that seem hard to notice. I’m interested in your use of poop instead of shit or something else. What was your process with that word choice?
Thank you for noticing the sentences. In general, I chose poop because shit sounded too vulgar, and defecate sounded unnaturally literary. There are some uses of shit later in the book—when the narrator is “projectile shitting” on the walls due to withdrawal—because Kendall, my editor, thought poop was “too silly” for that particular moment. I just realized that the narrator goes from shitting in the past to pooping in the present… A sign of progress…
I like poop also because it seems to treat solid human waste as the normal, not-bad thing that it is, instead of some vulgar and obscene thing, shit. I’m glad your book uses both. Your book also has around five pages on peeing. I enjoyed this sentence: “In the past, due to opioids, I would often have to stand in front of the bowl for inappropriately long stretches, waiting for the liquid to flow forth, oozing slowly like squeezed sludge through the tube to my tip, like something thick.” Do you know of other poop and/or pee scenes in literature?
I didn’t when I wrote mine, but when I was editing I Googled it, and learned that Beckett and Joyce had famous poop scenes. I went back in, after learning a little about each poop scene, and tried to add some subtle things that obliquely referenced them, so reviewers who knew of them would be more willing to take my book seriously, but I edited them out later. In the Kirkus review, however, the reviewer mentions Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which I think might have poop in it. When I search “poop” in Leave Society, it references Dudu’s poop, rodent poop, and a note from a super that says “Please do not poop in the stairway, people can slip.”
Your sentences in Leave Society are the most varied of any of your novels, I think, ranging from long and complex to two words. I thought the style of the book was great; a progression from, and a mix of, your other styles. One thing I noticed was that the prose seemed to become elevated in proportion to Li’s imaginative lucidity, and during bleaker sections—like when describing the effects of society on health—the style was much starker. The book as a whole, as opposed to what I’d call “flat and bleak” (Shoplifting from American Apparel) or “neurotic and hyperaware” (Taipei) is instead more dynamic, more human. Why is the style of Leave Society the way it is?
I wanted a varied style that offered unusual language and techniques, but remained clear and readable, especially for the parts that reference nonfiction books. I wanted many places where the reader could pause, like paragraph, chapter, and other breaks. I viewed nature as a model, which encouraged me to be fractal and diverse. Also, I had a neurotic aversion to words being on their own line; this encouraged me, across drafts and font sizes, whenever there was a hanging word or words, to try to find words to delete so that the hanging word, or sometimes words, could fit on the previous line. That affected my style too. Why is the style of The Novelist the way it is?
I wanted to make The Novelist fun to read, and for the sentences to propel the reader forward. One thing I got from you originally, I think, was using concrete language to describe things. I remember, with the first draft of The Novelist, you underlined a couple of things—the phrases “let my guard down” and “had come to a head”—and wrote “cliché.”
I haven’t seen anyone use semicolons like you do. Your consistent and semi-frequent semicolon usage expanded the basic form of your sentences. Your style seemed to teach me its semicolon philosophy through examples, and then to do innovative and funny things through that philosophy.
People are biased against semicolons, and I’m not sure why. When I was a pre-teen, some of the first “literary” books I read were by Kurt Vonnegut, and I still remember a line he has where he disparagingly calls them “hermaphrodites,” or something. I just found the quote—it’s even worse than I remembered: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
I wrote The Novelist without a bachelor’s degree, and edited it a little more after getting one, but I’ve never taken a creative writing class. I recently watched a Vonnegut documentary and found him to be basically repulsive. Full of cynical, empty “wit” like this… Did you ever read Vonnegut?
I did. I read eight to ten of his books from ages ~17–25. My favorite was The Sirens of Titan, a science fiction novel. What else do you remember of his writing?
I can’t remember much, besides that he drew a butthole that looked like an asterisk, and had some pun related to “beaver” in Breakfast of Champions, which I liked a lot as a teenager. I also remember that he promoted Eugene Debbs, an American socialist, in at least one of his books, then seeing a bust of Eugene Debbs’s head in a museum at some point later in my life, and having a vague good feeling that I knew who this bust was, since often I don’t know who the busts of heads at museums are.
I strongly remember that Vonnegut smoked a lot of Pall Mall cigarettes. It seems like a lot of writers used to smoke cigarettes and have author photos with cigarettes.
We haven’t had any short sections in this interview. We’d planned to have a variety. What’s an exercise you’ve enjoyed doing recently?
Bench press. It used to be one of my least favorites, but I’ve been focusing more on it lately, and enjoying it. Hbu?
Clearing land with a machete and a handsaw, and other gardening-related activities, like digging and shoveling.
Nice. What are you gardening?
Pineapple, mango, lychee, longan, watermelon, jackfruit, jalapeño, luffa, aloe, okra, rosemary, arugula, eggplant, thyme, basil, bay leaf, bamboo, catnip, inch plant, snake plant. tobacco, yarrow, mugwort, mullein, and probably 30+ other plants.
Here’s a photo of my partner and I’s cat Leo. He’s around a year old. He was lost for 3.5 months.
Can you send me, as part of this conversation, a photo by you of one or more clouds? (I like imagining this post having calm nature photos.)
You write about “the mystery,” which at one point Li thinks is “revealed through connections.” Can you give an example of this?
Connecting hydrogen and oxygen atoms produces water.
A pot with hibiscus, oregano, papaya, and avocado.
Five Emails from October 31 to November 3, 2021
JORDAN (October 31, 2021 / 5:32 P.M.): i think there is this way in which people can kind of “worship death” – they say “death makes life absurd” or “death gives life meaning” or “we’re all going to die, so live in the moment” – always framing things in the context of death, and giving death primacy. but more and more i’ve been thinking that life gives life meaning; death doesn’t make life absurd – not embracing life, or not ‘stepping forward”into your own life makes life feel absurd. so many of the “death is horrible and makes everything meaningless” ppl seem already dead, their thoughts and lives. it’s almost like they say ‘i’m afraid of death” but they really mean “i’m afraid of life”…
i have a line in the new novel I’m working on, “muscle man” about how literary people and academics will say things like ‘life itself is absurd,” but it’s really just because their lives are absurd lol
i view your stuff about the possibility of a life after this life, that is unimaginably “more real” than this life, etc, and some of the other ideas in leave society, as a move away from death worship
TAO (October 31, 2021 / 5:59 P.M.): i like your idea of death worship. giving death primacy, people do seem to do that
daoism is good at talking about death, viewing it as just a change
JORDAN (October 31, 2021 / 7:19 P.M.): this could be good for our novels convo
TAO (November 2, 2021 / 3:01 P.M.): yes. we could paste this into that file to remember to talk about it. we could, like, build the conversation, transplanting stuff from emails
did you ever find a word for things surrounding on inside and outside? i’ve been needing to find a word like that, currently i’m using ‘surround and permeate”
JORDAN (November 3, 2021 / 9:21 A.M.): I asked on Twitter and i didn’t find a word for it. someone made up the word “immermeate” (immerse + permeate), which i liked. my friend hunter replied with “blessed,” which got the most likes of my replies, and though it isn’t actually what i was asking, it was nice in a poetic way, since its implications involve both inside/outside.
What’s something positive you’ve thought about our conversation?
I’ve laughed every time I’ve read the first meta section, and thought that the interview seems “pleasant.” I also like that we talk about UFC and Liver King [now deleted]. How about you?
I typed, “It’s starting to have more variety in section-lengths.” Then scrolled up and down and saw it was still almost all long sections, then came back here and typed this answer. I’ve been feeling negative in part due to being inflamed from some rashes I got a week and a half ago. It’s May 9. We’ve worked on our conversation for almost five months.
Leave Society deals with larger expanses of time than any of your previous novels, and engages with different ideas about cosmology, prehistory, religion, and more. The Novelist takes place over the course of only three hours, and is, on the surface, very ‘tethered’ to the material world. But both of the novels share an orientation, or an attempt at an orientation, away from oneself and toward something larger and more meaningful. I was reminded of the Infinite Universe Theory… and came up with Infinite Novel Theory. If you zoom in very closely or expand out to millennia, you can get to the same place…
Nice. And for readers who don’t know what Infinite Universe Theory is, it’s a theory, by Glenn Borchardt, that says the universe is infinite in both directions—going down toward atoms or up toward stars, with smaller and larger things appearing forever.
There’s a character in your novel named “Jordan Castro” who, mysteriously, seems only vaguely based on you. For example, while you’re the author of one novel, Jordan Castro the character is the author of two novels—one on weightlifting, one on drug addiction. Your novel’s narrator, who has published zero novels, says, “I looked at Jordan Castro’s Twitter frequently, but didn’t follow him, because I didn’t want to have to explain to anybody why I followed him.” Have readers of your book asked about Jordan Castro?
In a now-deleted line from our (forthcoming) BOMB interview, Juliet Escoria said she “took [the Jordan Castro character] to be some Jordan Peterson, Bret Easton Ellis, Slavoj Žižek hybrid—a public pseudo-intellectual person that is definitely not you.” Dean Kissick, in an email, said, regarding the Jordan Castro character, “I couldn’t decide how important this gesture is to the book; whether it’s the experimental, avant-garde heart of the story (a Kafkaesque nightmare of the self, a Girardian performance of mimesis), or just a running joke, or both.” In a potentially-to-be-deleted line from our (forthcoming) Los Angeles Review of Books interview, Crow Jonah Norlander asks whether there is “something inherently fraught about creative inspiration,” because of how the narrator catches himself parroting Jordan Castro and then feeling embarrassed by it.
I had some articulated thoughts about the character while I was working on it, and I thought I wrote some notes about it too, but I can’t find the notes, and I seem to have forgotten again… Did you have more thoughts about the character?
When I read the final draft recently, I was surprised that it now seems to be based on a combination of people, and I felt excited imagining readers, not knowing what I knew, having a strange and new reading experience, wondering who “Jordan Castro” was, giving your novel a sci-fi or fantasy element.
I remember you mentioning that you might want to write a sci-fi type novel. Have you thought more about that?
I have. I’ve worked a little on a novel written in first-person by an extraterrestrial—an advanced humanoid from another star system.
Are you “done with autofiction”?
I don’t know. I think it could be interesting to write, however elliptically, about my whole life in fiction across like 6 or 8 novels. I’m excited to read your second novel. In an email from February 12, 2022, you told me, “Working on Muscle Man somewhat feverishly […]” The Novelist references this second novel. Will Muscle Man reference or foreshadow a third novel?
It doesn’t currently foreshadow a third novel, but I’ve only written some notes for my third one, so I’m not exactly sure what it will be.
A G-chat on May 11, 2022
TAO: i feel like the conversation is long enough actually
i just worked on it
i added a place where we can have some photos earlier on, pet photos
you adding a dated section in end seems good
can i see one of your questions?
or more. it could produce some short sections, helping with variety of section lengths
added a question requesting a photo, after the vonnegut addition
JORDAN: yeah i’m in the park waiting for la times phone call but when i’m home i’ll send them
my photo question might be bad
JORDAN: no i like it, i can take one now
your answer… feeling negative “in part” due to rash….
are you feeling negative about our convo
for non rash reasons
i was gonna ask in document but didn’t want to make it another long section
TAO: no, i like it a lot. it just has felt hard to work on it, and also it seems like we have enough or nearly enough
TAO: i’m telling the truth
i just feel bogged down from the rash to work more on it
TAO: fortunately, we have enough already
so all is good
JORDAN: idk if i can trust that you’re laughing
were you laughing before, truly, on the first meta section…
you’ve hated it this whole time just say it
im taking pics of clouds
i’m at a park near my house where i come to do phone interviews and podcasts but it’s infiltrated by groups of ppl
TAO: these are good. we could end with what we just said maybe
bring back the gchat theme
TAO: it would make sense to have another gchat section
It’s May 12, 7:16 P.M. EST. I just had the thought that it could be good to end with the line “it would make sense to have another gchat section,” but I am adding this additional tidbit, because we agreed to close it out with a dated section, thus “rounding out” the meta component, and bringing our many-parted interview to a close.
Jordan Castro is the author of two poetry books and the former editor of New York Tyrant Magazine. He is from Cleveland, Ohio. The Novelist is his first novel.
Tao Lin is the author of ten books of prose and poetry. His fourth novel, Leave Society, was published by Vintage in 2021. He edits Muumuu House.
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