The interview below was conducted in the wee hours of the morning (from 1 to 4 AM) on the bed of Tao Lin, in his apartment on the east side of Manhattan, with a small party going on in the other corner of the room. Tao and I later tightened a few things up through email. This is the first, definitive interview with the author after finishing his novel, Taipei, which will be released this spring from Vintage.
PART I: ANNE SEXTON
VICE: Were you happier before, during, or after writing Taipei?
Tao Lin: I think… after.
During… I got into a routine of doing like 80 to 120 milligrams of Adderall and not sleeping for like 36 hours. Then using Xanax or Klonopin and eating, then sleeping for like 12 hours, or not sleeping another night and using more Adderall. Which mostly felt bad, like a constant state of desperation, thinking the novel was incoherent. And I would have days without Adderall, so that it would still work, but it gradually worked less—and on those days I would just eat and use Percocet or whatever I had and be zombielike, then sleep. Wait, did you say you didn't want drugs in this?
Well, I was saying maybe we won’t mention them since we've done that so much already but it doesn't matter. What were you reading while writing Taipei?
I was rereading Fernando Pessoa and Schopenhauer. I had eBooks of different editions of their stuff on my iPhone. I mostly read eBooks off my iPhone. I remember reading Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir, More, Now, Again, about her trying to write a book while using a lot of Ritalin and feeling interested because it was like what I was doing. Except she was writing a nonfiction book and rich enough to move to Florida to focus on her book. I was writing an autobiographical novel and borrowing from strangers on Twitter. When she described her worst times, like going into a shopping mall and feeling insane from Ritalin, I was like, “shit, that’s… normal, for me.”
When would you read? Before you wrote?
Mostly after. Like when I couldn’t work anymore and wanted to be asleep but my heart would be beating really fast. I remember thinking I was probably going to die of a heart attack… and [long pause] another book I read… it was a biography about… what's that poet who killed herself?
The other one.
It's a famous one? I don't know.
Well, I read her biography and it was really depressing. She was committing suicide but not dying, and people were afraid to be genuine with her because anything might cause another suicide attempt. But people were afraid that she might sense them being not genuine… so it was just, like, impossible to be her friend. Then she finally killed herself. Reading was kind of my form of social interaction for like a year. I hung out like once a month, like I’d go to an event with you, but mostly had no IRL interactions.
Can you think of any books that directly affected the writing you did for Taipei?
For a while, because I felt like horrible about everything I was writing, whenever I read anything—even things by me, from my other books—I’d be like "that seems good, I should do it like that." And desperately try to change the tone and prose style of my entire book, while viewing it as an unfixable piece of shit, compared to whatever I’d just read. I remember reading half a sentence of a Gore Vidal novel, like the first five words, and closing the book and feeling convinced that I must rewrite my novel in the tone and style of the five words I had just read… I was in a constant state of desperation about what choices to make in my book, except for like the two hours each day when I was peaking on Adderall. I used ecstasy a few times when I didn’t have Adderall, to get into a mental state where everything didn’t seem horrible.
Why write at all?
Well, I’ll talk about this book: why did I write this book. I was just barely making enough money… I don’t remember how. Oh, probably mostly off royalty checks every six months, and writing for Thought Catalog and other places, and selling art. The checks were getting smaller every time, and I think, at some point, Richard Yates and Bed became unavailable on Amazon and currently still are unavailable, except as eBooks, which I think means those books are out-of-print, so not in bookstores. So I was going to need to do something for money. I emailed Bill Clegg, who had reviewed Richard Yates positively for Amazon, and asked if he would be interested in trying to sell 20 pages and an outline of my next novel, and he was, and he did. So I got one-third of a $50,000 advance, and a timeframe, to write my third novel.
You know how certain writers are like, "I have to write. If I didn't write, I'd die." Do you feel that? That if you couldn't write you'd die?
No, I never got that. I've never gotten the thing like "it's a voice inside of me" or when writers say they start with an image, then try to figure out what it means, and like the image just “came to them,” so they really want to find out what it means… I’ve never related to that. And I think I view myself as always writing, like nonstop, because I view thinking and talking—because they use language, the same language as writing—as forms of writing.
Do you have another book contract?
How much money would it have to be for?
Not that much, I don't think.
Like not as much as you were paid for this one?
If someone were offering $50,000 for another novel, I'd do it. I would like that.
PART II: BRET EASTON ELLIS
What movie is most like your book?
Shit… what's a movie where they use drugs a lot but no one dies and there’s no violence, and it’s funny, but everyone is depressed?
I don't know.
Maybe Husbands and Wives with drugs and younger characters. I can’t think of movies where people use a large variety of drugs. It’s usually like… focused on one drug. In movies, I don’t know, it’s like—
—it's like somebody dies or there's some kind of fucking moral to it. Bret Easton Ellis tweeted one day something like, "Why can't somebody write a drug book where they just keep partying instead of going to rehab and getting clean?"
PART III: ASIAN CULTURE
What do you think people, or critics, will say about the book? Do you have any predictions about reviews?
I think… it's really just going to depend on how it's presented… because they could, um, the thing with this book is it’s called Taipei. It has my parents in it, or like there's parents in it that are based on my parents, and like a third of it is set in Taiwan, which will force certain reviewers to view it as important, in terms of like how novels about the holocaust or 9/11 are viewed as important. You know what I'm talking about?
Like that it's about "Asian" culture or whatever? [laughs]
Yeah, yeah. [laughs] So, I'm not sure. If it was the same book but titled MacBook I’m sure like 90% of the reviews would be completely different.
Will you write any other books after this? I remember you mentioning that you wanted to do smaller things instead of writing another novel.
Yeah. I want to write a book of poetry titled i don’t want to sleep but i don’t know what I’m waiting for. I still want to write novels, but maybe only short ones, like 45,000 words.
Early draft of Taipei with edits.
PART IV: ASTEROID TWEET
What's your favorite piece of art, like writing or drawing, that you've done?
There's something I did recently that I was like “oh shit, yes,” or something. I liked it a lot. What was it… it was… it’s this tweet where I'm like—
The asteroid one?
Yeah. [laughs] Like, “calling all asteroids: come to Earth at your earliest convenience and your highest speed” or something. I like that because it seems like a legitimate solution to everything, everyone’s problems—if a giant asteroid just unexpectedly destroyed Earth.
What about the least favorite? What's something you've done that you wish didn't exist?
I really don't like my main site's url: heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com. I remember changing it to that in 2009 when I was visiting my parents in Taiwan and, like, not liking it even as I was doing it, but feeling like it would be a compromise for me not to do it, or something. It used to be reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com.
PART V: “CONTINUOUS PEE-ORGASM”
OK, what's your most memorable sex experience in life?
Probably on mushrooms—I was doing 69 with Megan, and I felt like I was coming, but it felt like peeing and it just kept going, like a continuous pee-orgasm. And then I was, like, having my fingers in her asshole. But it all felt really clean and peaceful.
It was mushrooms or LSD, or maybe both, I don’t remember exactly.
Before I did mushrooms for the first time, we were told that when you pee it feels like you're coming so we were all excited. We were like 13 and I was like, "I can't wait to pee."
My most memorable sex experience? Um, probably inside of a pizza truck. I like had some guy meet me at this pizza truck that I had the keys to parked on the side of the street in Manhattan. I don't know. Wait, that's not true. Probably the priest thing. Having sex with a priest in a church. A Catholic priest. Catholic church.
Is that online somewhere? It sounds vaguely familiar.
Yeah it was a little piece on Thought Catalog. It was just a tiny piece. That’s like my best story.
I met him online. He came over to my house, was a nice guy, and we hooked up. He told me he was an actor, and I later looked him up on imdb.com and saw that he played some small roles and one of them was a priest in something.
He played a priest?
Yeah, and about a week later he calls me up, or he texts me, and asks if I want to get a drink at this bar called the Monster downtown. So I meet him, we have some drinks and want to go to one of our homes and he's like, "I have people staying at mine so we can't go there," and I had a friend staying at my place so we couldn't go to my place either. So we ordered more drinks. Then I told him I had looked him up on imdb and I was like, "I saw you played a priest once," and he was all, "I never played a priest. Why do you ask?" and I said, "Because I think it'd be hot if you still had the robe or whatever. I was raised Catholic." So he goes, "OK, let's go to my place." We got the tab, hailed a taxi, and then he tells me my fantasy is getting ready to come true. We pulled up to a church and he was the priest of the church and we went inside the rectory and had sex in the church.
Yeah. And afterward I walked outside and it was snowing and it was fucking gorgeous and as soon as I got in a cab I texted my friend Dave Hill. I was like, "I just fucked a priest in a church. Now I'm listening to Morrissey's "Dear God, Please Help Me" but I accidently sent the text back to the priest instead of Dave. And I was pressing cancel cancel cancel but it went through anyway. He didn't care though. He was cool with it. He's actually a really nice guy. I was kind of like, in love with him. But he was a priest.
Think you'll see him around or something?
Yeah, I've seen him a few times.
You've had sex with him more times?
Yeah. But when I met my boyfriend I called him and was like, "I'm seeing someone now so can't see you again."
Is he an openly gay priest?
Not openly. I mean, he can't be. He's Catholic. But all of them are kind of like that, I get the idea. Let's see. I was going to ask you if there is something that you've never told anyone that you would tell me here in this interview.
Um, I've written this down in a few places. I just haven't found a good place to publish it. But when I was like five to ten I would only masturbate to… you know Nintendo Power? The magazine? It’s just about Nintendo games. A lot of times I'd masturbate to, like, the muscular guys in there.
You tweeted something about that.
Lizards or something… I did? Oh shit, then I already said it. [laughs] Damn. But there's something else.
You masturbated to lizards?
Like monster-lizards in video games. Stuff like that. I don’t know. [laughs] I remember trying to masturbate while thinking about my classmate Luis, specifically to discern if I was sexually attracted to guys, and results were inconclusive, because it would work like half the time, or like vaguely, or something. I wouldn’t know if I was aroused by his face, or like his skin, or like muscles, or whatever. And then, for a while, I thought that… when you're flexing your bicep… I thought that the closer you could move your fist toward the top of your shoulder the stronger you were. So I thought that I was the strongest you could be, because I could touch my fist to my shoulder.
Yeah, for some reason. And I feel like I believed that for years. Oh man. I know that there's a lot of stuff. When I was like two or three my parents would be working in the kitchen. We had a small house or something and I would masturbate by like rubbing my penis against the linoleum floor. I would be stomach-down, like coloring animals in a coloring book. I wouldn't get erect or anything but it would feel good.
Yeah, that's pretty natural.
Yeah, I remember taking like a sheet or pillow case or something and being on my back and dragging it really lightly through my crotch and having it kind of between my legs.
I would do that thing around the house, when I was older, maybe eight or nine or ten, in a bigger house. I would be rubbing my crotch on the carpet and my parents would be shouting "come on, we've got to go to the store" or whatever, and my brother would kneel and look at my face—as I lay there stomach-down—and be like "what are you doing?" with an amused and like maybe honestly confused, to some degree, expression. And I’d be like “nothing, go away,” in an annoyed voice, trying to focus on whatever form of orgasm I could do then—I don’t think I was coming, but just like internally orgasming or something—by pushing my crotch into the carpet, or actually, for a harder surface, into my palm. I think one time my mom told me like "don't do that, because your penis will get bent permanently."
PART VI: HATE
What are five things you think about when you think of love?
Like stream of consciousness?
Fish. The shape of a heart. A halo. Hate. For some reason: a fish flopping around.
What about hate? Five things.
HTMLGIANT’s comment sections. Hamilton… I get the VICE guy confused with the Gawker guy…
Yeah. Hamilton Nolan. The other Gawker guy too. What's his name? There's another shit-talker on Gawker.
They all are.
Max Reed or something?
Something like that. And… people who were really mean, like shockingly mean, toward Marie Calloway when her story “Adrien Brody” was published. People seemed to be like gleefully bonding over their hatred of the author of a short story, and it felt really depressing. Like 35-year-olds on Twitter—people who worked for Salon and Village Voice, people involved with The New Inquiry—just typing hateful stuff against a ~20-year-old stranger who had written a short story, which was, to me, very moving and sensitive and vulnerable and empathetic to all its characters. Someone said it was—these shit-talkers, I’ll name some, you can Google it: Tyler Coates, Maura Johnston, Rae Bryant—it was like a “pretentious 4chan,” which I thought was funny and accurate.
PART VII: ELAN
What are your three favorite things about yourself?
[laughs] Shit. Um.
For example, one of mine is that I can speak Italian. It's my favorite thing about myself.
Let me think about this… I don't think I ever get offended. I don’t get offended. I think I like that. And I think I like that I'm focused on trying to not think of art in terms of good or bad. I try not to shit-talk anyone’s art. And, third thing, I feel like I can stay calm regardless what happens. Like, if I cut my hand off I feel like I'd be able to use my other hand to call 911 and not be screaming.
Elan. Like being able to be cool under intense situations.
But maybe not. The other day I hit my shin against my wall and screamed for like three seconds and was grimacing so hard.
How about your three least favorite things about yourself?
That I mumble a lot is probably very annoying for other people because I think I get annoyed when people mumble and I can’t discern what they’re saying. But I mumble the most. I don’t like that about me.
Um. [long pause] There should be a lot more things, because I don't like myself—I’m always saying that I hate myself. [laughs] I don’t like when I say that I don’t like something about myself instead of focusing on fixing it; I don’t like when I complain. And I think I have a problem with maintaining relationships longer than nine months. That might be something.
PART VIII: IMMORTALITY
When and how would you like to die?
Meteor strike… that destroys the Earth.
OK, when? How old do you want to be?
Hm. I feel like maybe from 31 to 33 I'll be able to relax, instead of worrying about my financial situation all the time if I make money off of this book, so maybe after 33—after having that experience. But I won’t know when I die, so I guess just any age. Whenever.
How do you feel about immortality and people who talk about leaving a mark and becoming immortal? Like, I feel like it doesn't make any sense since you're going to die and you're not going be anywhere to look back and enjoy it from. I feel like the only way to benefit from becoming an immortal name or something is if you do it before you die and you can maybe take advantage of some perks while you're still alive. Again, like one of Lish's things is making your mark and I've never… I've always been like, Why do that? Who fucking cares?
Really? He says that?
Yeah, like death is on your trail, and you've got to make your mark. And it's all this, I don't know…
Yeah, that doesn't make sense to me. Especially with literary writers who are supposed to be thinking… and usually don’t believe in God or an afterlife. But now when I think about immortality… I think about how at some point humans will be able to upload all of themselves into the internet, or something like that. I’m not thinking about whether someone in 5000 years will read my books. I’m thinking, like, that in 5000 years there won’t be the concept of “reading” or “books” or “my books” anymore.
Yeah. What about just immortality in general? Like say an afterlife or eternal consciousness. Do you think that that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing?
I don't really know.
Does dying scare you?
It has scared me before, because like the last five times I've used mushrooms I’ve believed that I died, that I was dead, and it felt bad. It didn’t feel like rejoining something, or going to where other dead people were, but like being sealed off from everything else, so that I was permanently alone. And it felt physically uncomfortable. So if dying is that—being disconnected from everything else, in an unreachable place, feeling discomfort forever—and not just disappearing, then it seems really scary.
But you'd get used to it eventually.
Yeah. Something like that happens to a character in Taipei.
PART IX: $25,000
Do you feel like a successful writer? And when did that happen? Or if not, what will make you feel that?
I don't think I'll ever feel that, because I just don't have a definition for the word “success.” The Observer asked me something similar, when Taipei first sold for $50,000, if I felt like I had “made it” and I said:
I honestly feel, to a large degree, like me and everyone else are close to death and that the awareness of this has, to me, precluded thoughts of “making it” (this is a theme of the novel).
OK, from off the top of your head, do you have a favorite line in Taipei? Is there a sentence in there that you're really proud of?
I can't really remember anything from it right now, not off the top of my head. The sentences that I worked on most are like 200 to 400 words.
Do you always write what you want to read?
That's… [long pause] Well, I try. When I’m at a point where I'm like "what the hell am I doing,” which is often, then I try to think to myself to just write what I want to read. But I rarely, if ever, know exactly what I want to read. And what I want to read changes hourly, daily. So I guess not.
If you had an endless supply of money, would you write?
I’d probably write less. I think I would do more art, like large-scale art, or things that could be considered performance art. I would buy every McDonald’s in Manhattan and change them to, like, parks, if that’s possible. I would put LSD into some town's water system probably. Stuff like that. I would pay people I like—and that have no money—like $25,000 to fly somewhere to write a long profile on a person of their choice, or to write an article about being paid $25,000 to write an article, and probably start an online magazine to publish these pieces. I’d buy a full-page ad of your face grinning, with no text, in like The New Yorker—maybe every month, my favorite Facebook picture of you every month—things like that.
Giancarlo DiTrapano is the publisher of the New York Tyrant.