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.
Shoplifting from American Apparel was written in the third-person, while the story Vice originally printed was written in the first-person. Why did you decide to change the point of view?
I didn't realize the story was in first person. I guess any fiction that I work really hard on I put in the third person, probably out of personal preference. I don't really like first person because there's a kind of pressure to make it colloquial, like a person talking to you. I prefer writing that doesn't seem like a person has just come off the street and started talking to you, but has thought a really long time about what he's going to say, and then said it in a non-conversational way so as to accommodate compression and careful word choice.
Emotion and the feeling of emotion are discussed a lot in the book and in a great deal of your other work. Would you describe your writing as emotional?
I would not describe my writing as emotional. But I think the characters are emotional. I think if my writing itself was emotional, it would be more descriptive, less concrete. Someone who is emotional would, I guess, just feel like talking more. But in my books it seems like the person is saying as little as possible to convey the story. So when people say my writing is not emotional, which a lot of people say, like the Bookslut review that came out (they used the word "emotionless"), I think that's true. The sentences are in some way conveyed without emotion. So I guess, yeah, my writing style is "emotionless."
How uncomfortable would you feel being called something like "emo lit"?
I wouldn't feel uncomfortable. I would like that. Maybe because when I talk to people my age and I say "emo," it seems like we both have an understanding of what it is. Whereas if someone called my writing, like, uh, "Generation Zzz"—which it was recently called—and I went to someone my age and said, "Hey, I write. I'm in Generation Zzz," they wouldn't know what I was talking about. But if I said, "I write what is considered emo lit," it seems fine, like people would know what I'm talking about.
Last year NPR broadcast a poem of yours—"some of my happiest moments in life occur on AOL instant messenger." What were some of the other categories on your instant messenger buddy list?
When I had instant messenger I think I had a category for people I had never met in real life, a category for people I would feel excited by if they got online, and then a category just for everyone else. But I didn't really have a category for people who didn't like me back.
I had creative titles for people too. Some of them were negative. Like, "People I Use."
Wow. I'd be too afraid of them finding that.
Yeah. I made sure not to sign on in front of any people who would be in that category. But you don't use AIM anymore.
You use Gchat.
What's the difference between talking to someone on Gchat, as opposed to AIM?
There's a feeling that Gchat is more… professional. But I know that's just because I used instant messenger in middle school and I didn't have any professional aspects in my life then. Instant messenger just seems like middle school.
Like Myspace versus Facebook. Myspace is middle school.
Yeah. But a lot of people still use the AIM thing on their Macintoshes. And that seems fine. iChat? [ pause] I think it's just the AOL part that seems bad. Like, older people have email addresses that end with aol.com, and it's always just like, "Wow." I won't name names, but it seems like they need to get something else. Even like, mindspring.com is still not good. Or earthlink.com. I don't even understand what AOL is anymore. Like, you used to open AOL and there would be a browser or something. I don't know.
There'd be that screen and then that voice, "Welcome." And then that voice would also say, "You've got mail."
Yeah. It'd say a lot of things. I also feel like it'd be really slow.
The opening scenes in your last two books both feature extended Gchat conversations between two characters. Unlike the other dialogue in the books, ones that occur in "real life," there is essentially nothing going on save the conversation itself. Nobody looks around or makes faces or sneezes or whatever. Neither is anything in the environment described or referenced. Is there a difference for you between talking to someone online as opposed to "in real life"?
There are so many differences. Some are that I can talk to people online who I don't really want to talk to. And that seems fine for both people. Like, I can wait a long time to respond. It seems like I can talk at my comfort level, and that seems fine for both people. Another thing is that there are certain things I say online that wouldn't work in real life. Like online I might respond to everything someone says with, like, "Damn." I don't know. I guess that sort of works in real life.
So would you say there's less consequence involved in talking to someone online?
To me there's actually a little more. Like if someone says something in real life, I realize that they're in the moment, and they were forced, in the moment, to say something. So if they say something that I feel bad about, I will forgive them a little. But if they type something online, it just seems more… real. Because they had to think about it, and then had time to look at it on the screen, and then had time to edit it. And it also gets saved in a Gchat archive. So actually it seems more consequential.
But online, it seems like you can get away with more. Like what you were saying, responding with a one-word answer to somebody. If you did it in real life, people would get angry at you. But online, it's more acceptable.
Maybe with people you're close to, it has more consequences. Whereas with people you're not close to, it has less.
Online, you mean.
Yeah. With someone you're not close to, you assume they're not focused just on you while chatting. Therefore, it has less consequence. With someone you're close to, you assume they're focused on you. But in real life, with someone you're close to, I guess they're still focused on you, but they can't edit what they're saying and they might feel nervous or distracted by other things that don't necessarily mean they aren't focused on you.
When asked to name your favorite writers, you often cite writers who are female. Is there something about male writers in general that turns you off?
I don't think so, because I just thought of some qualities male writers have that might turn me off and I immediately thought of some female writers who have the same qualities. I think actually it just seems like I name more female writers because so many people--males especially--name more male writers. I feel like I like the same amount of male and female writers.
That's interesting that you mention the qualities of writers you don't like. What are some of those qualities?
It's more that there are qualities I like that don't often show up in certain male writers. Qualities like being really vulnerable, expressing a kind of resigned sadness, not having an overriding drive to just have sex with women. Anytime having sex with women is secondary, I feel some kind of attraction to the writer. It seems sort of rare for it to be secondary.
I also remember you saying something along the lines of "my favorite writers are usually white and rich or middle class."
Those people aren't as affected as much by poverty, having to fight in a war, having to earn money to survive, racism, and things like that. Things that, if solved, will leave you with these other problems: knowing you're going to die, knowing you're required to make decisions in an arbitrary universe, knowing that you can only occupy one space at one time (so you can never fully be connected with another person). Which are the things that I like to read about. If someone's in a war, or needing to work two jobs to survive, they'll probably be focused on writing about that. And I guess when you're just focused on making enough money to survive, you aren't worried about "how do I know what to do if the universe is meaningless."
The jail scene in Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the only moments in your work where the ethnicity of characters is prominently noted. Would you say your characters live in a post-racial world?
No. I think that's just a personal preference, because I don't want to write about racism. Or those other things mentioned earlier. If I put in a character's race, some readers would assume, like, "Oh his problems are because he's being discriminated against." Or, "He doesn't know his racial/cultural identity, he's confused about his racial/cultural identity, which is why he is sad or confused." To me, their problems are the same as any person's who is not in a war or working two jobs to survive.
You've stated your "target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans." What about people outside of these groups?
I would say everyone is in my target demographic. But in order to be most effective, I feel that I should focus my time and energy on demographics that I think will most likely be receptive to even trying to read my writing and who will most likely like the writing after they have read it, and might be receptive enough to then buy it.
What is it about Europeans that makes you believe they would be receptive to your writing?
I guess when I say Europeans, I'm specifying in terms of a global market. I don't really target Europe since I don't have an international following. But if you looked at every continent, and had me choose just one, I would say, "Europe." America seems less liberal. Asia, or like Africa, seem more poverty-stricken generally. Europe seems like the right demographic, the most open to my writing. If forced to choose one continent.
In addition to being a writer you are also the founder and publisher of an independent press, Muumuu House. What are you looking to do as a publisher that you might feel unable to do as a writer?
I guess just publish other people's books. [ laughs] As a writer, I can't publish other people's books.
Right, but what makes you want to publish other people's books?
A lot of it's just wanting certain people to have a nice experience in their life. I want the people I publish to feel like something nice has happened to them. And some of it's because it's just something to do. Like, I might have a period of my life where I take up bike riding if I'm bored and have nothing to do. Or swimming. So that's part of it. And there's another part, that, if I publish people that I like, whose writing is similar to mine, it will help everyone--including myself--get more attention and be able to make a career out of what we're doing. And then there's probably many other smaller reasons.
There are some people who might say the work Muumuu House publishes is all Tao Lin imitators. What's your response to those detractors?
[L ong pause] I guess my response would just be to not respond. But if forced to respond, I guess I would just link them to my essay where I talk about how I view art as something without good or bad, just likes and dislikes. So, knowing that, it's natural that anyone would write in a similar way to the writing they've read that they like. For example, I feel like I write very similarly to a lot of the writers that I like. I think I view it more as each person not copying each other, but as a group of people attempting some kind of shared ideal. And if one person has copied another person I view that as a kind of teamwork toward the ideal. I say this knowing that every person is unique and has different ideals, however small those differences are. Even if two people had the exact same ideal it would still be two different ideals, in a way, because two people literally cannot have the exact same perspective or context.
Do you ever feel like you're part of a movement?
[L ong pause] I don't think so. I do feel like if all my friends and all the people I publish on Muumuu House had more influence, it would feel sort of more like a movement. But I think a lot of people published on Muumuu House aren't motivated enough to gain an amount of attention needed for journalists to see some kind of large movement. A movement seems to require constant publication. Muumuu House and my friends who are writers--these things don't seem, really, like an everyday thing, which is what I think of when I think of movements. The movement I'm in, if any, seems more like something within my life than my life itself.
There's a funny piece in The Stranger in which you talk about the levels of greatness a writer of fiction can achieve and in which you then compare Philip Roth to an "F-16 fighter plane shooting missiles at a hut in Iraq while someone inside is shitting in a hole and trying to read a copy of Portnoy's Complaint that was airdropped by accident 10 years ago in Afghanistan." Why Philip Roth?
Without thinking about it too much, he just seems like the greatest achievement of an American writer who's still alive. Thinking about it really briefly, his name goes into my head. Who comes up for you?
For some reason the first one that comes up is Michael Chabon. But that's just because I saw that thing on HTMLGiant about his hairstyles.
And I would say there's certainly a higher level probably. I guess you're right, though. Philip Roth's the highest American. I can't imagine anyone higher. There's something funny about Philip Roth just, like, bearing witness to that scene, that seems absurd.
Anyone at that level seems funny.
What about Dave Eggers?
He actually doesn't seem that funny for some reason. Because he seems, like, aware of everything. And not being aware is part of what's funny. Dave Eggers just doesn't seem clueless in any way.
Like Philip Roth is so great, he just seems impervious.
Philip Roth would never write a novelization of Where the Wild Things Are. And that's kind of funny, that he wouldn't do that, ever.
In a recent interview, Gary Shteyngart said, "You can't get virile from a vegetable." Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
I guess I wouldn't agree or disagree. I would just ask him, like, to define "virile." And then I might be able to answer.
Let's say for Gary that virile might be defined as "feeling intensely powerful and sexual."
I guess, to me, it's the opposite. If I eat a lot of meat, I feel dirty, unhealthy, and tired. Definitely not powerful. And not like having sex. If I'm really healthy and eating a lot of vegetables, I feel clean, energetic, powerful—all things that make me more in the mood to have sex.
What would be, in your view, the most virile vegetable?
Is coconut a vegetable?
I think it's a fruit. But it can count.
Yeah, coconut. It's really healthy and clean. Another reason meat doesn't make me feel virile is because after you eat a lot of meat you have digestion problems, And you probably get gas and stuff. And that's always a distraction from sexual things. I really think it's kind of amazing for someone to eat meat and feel like they want to have sex.
Maybe it has something to do with the sort of abandon of eating meat. Like, you eat meat and think, "I don't give a shit." Like, "This is the flesh of another creature and it fuels me."
I guess when I eat meat, I feel like, "I don't care, I'll just enjoy the taste, I don't care about getting gas." But that doesn't last for the rest of the night. After I leave the restaurant, I'm not like, "I don't care. I'm just going to do whatever and enjoy myself."
What is the most literary vegetable?
Maybe kale. Kale seems like… if I were striving to create a vegetable that matched many criteria for health, storage, versatility, kale would be it. You can use it for a salad. Steamed kale is good. You can put it in a smoothie. And it seems to stay well for a long time. If you have mixed greens, it seems to go bad pretty quickly. But kale seems to keep. And I think it's higher in vitamins and minerals than other vegetables.
How do you feel that that's at all literary?
I guess when you say literary, it just means what I like. So that's just what I like.
Is there any advice you've carried with you, either writing-or non-writing-related, that you've thought about as a means of improving yourself?
[ pause] Maybe just the idea that I'm in control. Even like, how I feel, I can control that by thinking or doing different things. But I don't think that came from a quote or anything. It came from whoever studied cognitive-behavioral therapy.
How does taking drugs this fit into the idea that you're in control of your thoughts?
When I'm on Adderall, I feel like I'm much more in control of my thoughts. Like, if I'm not on it, sometimes I'll feel just no motivation. I'll also think different things. So, for that, I think it helps.
What about drinking?
I feel like I would use drinking to be able to change my situation in life by being able to talk to certain people more. I don't know how it fits into that other thing.
No matter what I'm on I feel in control of my thoughts though. I think if I do anything, I always have the same intent. Like, I don't think I would drink, to… just… forget… stuff. The drive to not do anything that's opposite of improving is too strong for me to be self-destructive in a manner that is not in service of anything but being self-destructive.
The characters in Richard Yates are concerned with various methods of self-improvement. They're always in the process of trying to eat healthier, exercise, not binge eat, be less depressed, and so on. What is it about self-improvement that interests you?
Jesus. [ laughs] I don't think it interests me. It's just that I'm always aware I have a choice whether to do one thing or another thing. And just the way the universe is, one thing is going to be viewed as better than the other thing. So I always have a choice to do what I view as the better thing, in the long-term, or the better thing for the short-term. That choice seems not interesting, but something that I'm aware I have to make at each moment.
Are there any areas of self-improvement that you're currently working on?
Mmm… I would say just all areas. I don't even know what it would be like to not be trying to improve something. I feel like, if I'm aware of it, I'm trying to improve it. Or just that there's always a choice to make.
Is there a trait or habit that you feel is the worst, which is to say, the most inconsiderate, and/or irritating?
I don't think so. [l aughs]
What about being late, or chronically late, like in the book? One of the main characters is always late—
I don't know if that's worse than other things.
All right. Maybe the better question would be, "What would be a trait you feel that is inconsiderate, disrespectful and/or irritating?"
Maybe like [ clears throat] repeatedly Gmail-chatting someone when their away message says either, like, "working" or "afk," and it's red also. Especially if they're just like saying, like, "sup" or something. I guess that. If it's something, a specific thing, it's fine. If they're just saying, like, "sup"…
[Laughs] Just to chat or something…
Yeah. Then I just say, like, "sup." And then I don't know.
How do you get rid of them?
Or get them to—
Recently I've just been replying, like, "afk." Typing "afk."
Is this a reference to like one person, or a lot of people?
It's definitely not something limited to a few people—seems like a lot of people do that to me. But then a few people are like really sensitive to that, and will almost never do that, like Brandon Scott Gorrell.
I remember your answer last time, but—and you can use the same answer again if you want—are there any quotes or sentences you've had stuck in your head lately?
Did I say something about killing myself last time?
Oh. I said I think "Jesus" a lot.
Yeah. "Jesus" and "damn."
In Christian Lorentzen's profile of me for the Observer, the last line is me saying, "Jesus." Unless they edited it. [It was, in fact, edited--the last line is "Tao Lin said, 'You should end it with a sentence like the one I'm saying now.'"--Ed.] Yeah, I think "Jesus" a lot. Yesterday I was walking through a subway station and there were a lot of people and I just thought, "I hate you all." [laughs]
And then I looked around, trying to find someone I could possibly not hate, and I couldn't find anyone.
Seems like what people would consider a very New York moment.
Yeah. I've been thinking "I hate you" sometimes. Like reading something and in response just thinking, "I hate you," and moving on. Like an automatic thought. I don't think I really feel hatred. There's a lot of internet people who will email me really enthusiastically saying how much they like my work. But then if I don't respond to them with equal enthusiasm or as lengthily, and eventually stop talking to them, I'll find a blog post they've made where they say they don't like me, my work, that much. It happened recently and I read it and I thought like, "I hate you so much." While staring at the screen.
Did you do anything else besides that?
I thought it, then I closed the screen. Then I emailed it to someone.
INTERVIEW BY JAMES YEH