Known as much for his self-promotion as his stark minimalism, Tao Lin is one of the most polarizing young writers today while also one of the funniest and most original. If you’ve been living in a hole in the ground, allow me to catch you up. In the past two or so months since the release of Richard Yates, Tao Lin has been shat on by The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum; very seriously and thoughtfully considered by The London Review of Books; applauded by The Boston Globe; given 3,000+ words by The Stranger to profile himself in a tone parodying the Time profile of “Great American Novelist” Jonathan Franzen; and participated as a panelist in a UCLA-sponsored symposium on hipsters. Tao Lin has also been interviewed or profiled or discussed in detail and/or mimicked stylistically in Nylon, The Atlantic, Salon, The New York Observer, and countless other places in print and on the internet, as well as referenced or revered or shit-talked at just about every single literary party and reading in New York I’ve been to.
It’s been, as Tao Lin might say, a “shitstorm.”
I first met Tao at a reading in Brooklyn in August 2008. After the reading, we went to eat dinner somewhere along with a lot of other people one or both of us knew. I remember thinking Tao was kind of quiet, but a good listener. He also had that rare quality of only laughing at things that were actually funny. Since then, Tao and I have communicated periodically to consistently via the internet and in real life. I think there are some pictures on Facebook somewhere of us sitting next to each other in some kind of coke den (in the picture, Tao is wearing a yellow lei). There’s also a picture of a completely sober Tao attempting to fit into this collapsible laundry basket. I don’t remember if he fit into it or not, but he took his shoes off before trying.
This conversation took place over the past year, beginning in September 2009 with nachos and salad at a Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg; continuing through various emails, Gchats, and in-person encounters; and supposedly concluding with a second meeting where we ate chicken finger salad and fried green tomatoes at an "urban rustic" restaurant in Brooklyn (though not Urban Rustic), but really concluding with an accidentally deleted audio recording of that interview and a hastily rescheduled final meeting this August to reprise what was said in the deleted interview. For the final interview, we met in the take-out area of a raw vegan restaurant in Manhattan, where we ate salads and listened to a playlist on the restaurant stereo that consisted, almost exclusively, of Feist and Björk.
Vice: Where did the idea for Richard Yates come from?
Tao Lin: I don’t think I ever had an idea for it, since it’s based on my life, and I’ve always just written anything notable that happens to me into the file. So it came out of that.
At what point did you decide to name the characters Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment?
[laughs] I think something like a year into it, sometime in mid-2007. I was getting kind of bored with the manuscript and talking on Gmail chat to someone, saying, “I should just name them Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.” The person I was talking to seemed to like that idea, so then I just did find and replace really fast. And then I liked it and I felt renewed interest in working on it, even though nothing had changed really. Since that time, I’ve pretty much liked it for most of the time. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve thought about not having it. But it seems like I never seriously considered changing it back to their normal names.
What were their normal names?
In the very beginning, Haley Joel Osment’s name was just my name. It might have even been in first person. And then, at some point after that, I think it was like Dan or something. Dan and Michelle. Because some of the pages were in earlier forms in NOON and I had names for those.
There was that one story where their names were something almost like Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.
For that one, I submitted it as Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, then they talked to their lawyer and they felt it would be better to change it to “Corey Dan Ormand” and “Chiquita Jenning.” I think [NOON’s editor] Diane Williams didn’t know they were famous people, but she liked how the names sounded. So I changed them to similar-sounding ones.
Without thinking about it too much, what is the visual image that comes to mind when you think of these two as characters?
I forgot what I said last time. [laughs]
I think you said, for Dakota Fanning, you thought of the real person it was based on. And then for Haley Joel Osment, the first picture on Google Image search, or something like that.
Yeah, for Dakota Fanning, I think about the person who it’s based on. But I just thought that I actually think of it as Dakota Fanning now. And I think of Haley Joel Osment as Haley Joel Osment.
Like, Haley Joel Osment in a particular movie?
Umm... I saw him once in the grocery store around here. And I picture him as that.
What was he like?
I think he’s like two inches shorter than me. And pretty, like, big. He doesn’t seem fat. Just big. And he was wearing a black peacoat that covered, like, all of him, almost. Almost like a trenchcoat. And he was with NYU bros, who looked like bros. [laughs] I didn’t really see his face that much. But the picture I imagine for his face is his mugshot for drunk driving or something.