Shoplifting from Ann Beattie: An Interview with Tao Lin by Emily Nonko

Taolin Emilynonko Body

Tao Lin

Tao Lin conducts most of his interviews online, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect meeting him in person for an interview. He is sort of a mythical figure on the web, one of the first writers to use his blog as self-promotion to its fullest extent. I was expecting Tao, in person, to be over-the-top. Actually, he’s quite shy, monotone, thoughtful, and kind. He takes long pauses in the middle of his sentences, and despite his mild fame, he holds himself like a tortured writer who suspects he’ll never get published. But he’s been published: two e-books, two poetry collections, a novel and short story collection, and two forthcoming works; a novel (Richard Yates) and a novella (“Shoplifting from American Apparel”). He’s experimental, for sure. I just read a poem where Tao compares himself to a lonely hamster, and his book Eeeee Eee Eeee features teleporting bears and suicidal dolphins. Since this interview, I’ve thought a lot about how such a shy kid with such an eccentric imagination has become such a presence online. Dennis Johnson, Tao’s publisher at Melville House, seemed to nail it: “The blog is a shy person’s media,” he told me. “And Tao is fearless on his blog.”

Young writers now work in a space where the line is completely blurred between the written word and the blogged, tweeted, and networked word. I don’t think Tao would be a writer without his blog. And while we bemoan the death of print, I think he’s on to something. He got the attention of the online crowd and has gained enough of a readership to be a full-time struggling writer. When I mentioned that a young writer like myself couldn’t imagine a better profession; Tao replied, “Most people are probably happier than me.”

Emily NonkoWhat’s interesting about being a blogger is that now, more than ever, you can directly interact with your readers, and their criticism can be aimed directly at you, and bloggers can be pretty harsh when they’re just posting something online. Does this personal sort of interaction—or these attacks—bother you?

Tao Lin It doesn’t bother me at all. I feel like I’m reading stuff, like I’m reading fiction. If it’s amusing I’ll feel excited, even if it’s talking shit about me.

EN How do you feel about the criticism that your work is gimmicky?

TL If I’m writing something that feels like a gimmick, I try to avoid that. I don’t think the term gimmick … I don’t know.

EN Let’s move on to some praise, then. You have Miranda July blurbed on the back of many of your books, and she calls you something close to a “revolutionary writer.” It’s a loaded term. Do you consider yourself a revolutionary writer?

TL Not at all. I copy writers exactly.

EN Really? Who do you copy?

TL There’s Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie and the short stories of Lorrie Moore. For my first story collection I kind of copied her exactly … I just tried to recreate what she did. For my first novel I just copied Ann Beattie’s novel.

EN What about your next two books? Are you doing the same?

TL The next two books are really detached. It has no adjective. They’re just told as simply as possible.

EN Do you feel personally detached … ?

TL No, the prose style is detached. There’s no judgment or rhetoric at all. It will just say if it’s a house, it’s a house. It’s also lacking em-dashes, semi-colons, similes, and metaphors.

EN Alright. I wanted to ask about your incredible imagination. Do you find that because your imagination is so … out there? … That it’s alienating to the people reading you?

TL Um, I’m not sure. I guess the majority of people think it’s alienating. People think I’m being an asshole.

EN Why?

TL Because I read stuff on the internet, and that’s what they say. Maybe 80 percent. Or 50 … maybe. Or they just think I’m trying to be weird.

EN Are you trying to be weird?

TL I guess I am, but in a way that I like.

EN Do you feel like you portray a different sense of yourself online? How is your blog persona different from how you are in person?

TL Well, on my blog, it’s really how I am. I feel like that’s what I’m thinking, just not what I’m saying. Because it’s too hard to talk like that. People would just stare at me.

EN Is it strange using your blog to post personal stuff? How much do you want people to know about you?

TL I don’t feel like I put personal stuff on my blog. If I do, it’s just a lie. Because I treat it as a work of—not fiction—but a work of art. I delete anything I feel uninterested in. I go back and edit. I want someone who goes to it read the entire thing and feel like they’ve read a novel or something, instead of someone just talking without editing.

EN Is that what blogs are going to become? Do you feel like the line between art, or literature and blogging will be blurred?

TL No. I feel like some people will edit everything they do. Some people will just not really edit. If you look at blogs, some will be edited a lot and some aren’t.

EN Could you be a writer without your blog? Without the internet, what would you be doing?

TL Yeah. Without the internet, I feel that I would have a job right now … I’d be even more poor, I’d have even less money than I do. I’d probably be working in a restaurant. It’d be alright; it’d be the same, I guess.

EN Well, in the NYU Local article [about the possibility of Tao writing the Hipster Runoff blog] the writer wrote that you were “living the dream of every NYU undergrad” right now. Do you feel like you’re living that?

TL No. Most people are probably happier than me. I feel like probably people wouldn’t want my life because I don’t have any money. With writing, I’m surviving in the way anyone could survive. This is just what I chose to do. I’m not really like living off of writing. I’m not willing to get a real job. Most people in my position would feel a lot of pressure to get a job but I just … don’t like jobs.

EN So would you do anything differently? Is there any other career you wish you chose?

TL No. I think most people probably have higher expectations than me. Especially NYU students. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I’m living the dream. I’m doing … I wouldn’t be in another position I think. But I have really low expectations.

EN For yourself?

TL For life.

EN Oh, how so?

TL If I were to die tomorrow, I would be alright. I would be like, completely separate.

EN Do you maybe feel like because, at such a young age, you’ve accomplished a lot, there’s a sense of “what am I going to do next” in my life that is hard?

TL I think so. I think it’s even deeper than that.

EN What do you mean?

TL Like, I just have low expectations of life.

EN Well, let’s maybe talk about this preoccupation with death. Because in Eeeee Eee Eeee, there’s a lot of the book devoted to death, murder, suicide. What is the appeal of death to you, why do you want to write about it?

TL I just think it’s more exciting. My life is more exciting if I think about death a lot. Because death is really weird. We all know what it is … but it’s just something to do, I guess.

EN What do you think death is?

TL I don’t know. But I don’t really want to think about it.

EN You also have this sort of … bored teenager, apathetic humor in your novel. Do you aim to write humorous books? How important is humor?

TL I don’t think I think in terms of humor for my books. I don’t feel like I’m approaching it in that way. So it must be different.

EN Well, I felt like the humor was really natural, like I might have joked around with my friend in high school. It didn’t feel contrived really. But you couple that with this incredibly surreal dream sequences. Why add those to Eeeee Eee Eeee?Why juxtapose the life of some disillusioned teenager with these crazy dream sequences?

TL For Eeeee Eee Eeee, I just wanted it to be more exciting than real life. Adding in the stuff—well at first it was all realistic. Then I was looking at it every day, feeling really bored with it. Then I just added that. I thought it would be fun if there was a secret world, and people were really depressed in it.

EN Do you write to make sense of your life? Or, do you want people to read your work to make sense of theirs?

TL No, not at all. I don’t ever try to make sense of my real life. If anything it’s just to have it in an edited form so I can reread it later on. Not to make sense of it, just to feel like I have it. The things I’ve read, to recreate—it makes me feel better.

EN Do you reread a lot?

TL Yeah, I read my own stuff a lot.

EN Would you rewrite any of it, if you could?

TL If I wrote all my other books right now they would be different. But I just feel like that’s a natural change. I feel like I’m always gonna keep changing. Not for the better or the worse. So I wouldn’t change it.

EN So let’s talk about your new book, because I’m a fan of Richard Yates, and I’m interested to see how he plays into your work. Aren’t … the main characters are child stars, right?

TL It’s about … Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment. They’re in a relationship together. And that’s just all it’s about.

EN So what’s happening with Richard Yates?

TL Richard Yates at one point … his novel is being used as a mouse pad, by Haley Joel Osment. At another point they talk about his book a little bit, and that’s it.

EN (laughter) You write about these celebrities, do you know if they ever read your work?

TL I’ve never heard of anyone reading my books.

EN So what’s the appeal of adding a celebrity to your writing?

TL I just use their names.

EN Do you apply them to characters in your own life?

TL Yeah. I only use their names. Just because it’s funny. I think. Like with Haley Joel Osment … It’s funnier to see him doing stuff than anyone else. Also, I get a clearer picture of what he looks like when I use his name. Which also makes it funny, and easier to read.

EN So most of your characters are based off real people?

TL Yeah, almost all my characters are real people. So I just pick a real person. The ones I make up, I don’t really have a picture.

EN I read somewhere that you say you write for depressed hipsters. Why do you want to appeal to the hipster crowd?

TL I try to think of a hipster; I can’t think of a specific person. When I think of hipsters in general, they are just people who care about what’s happening now. What they look like … and also … most of that is so they can find more friends. I like all those things. I also feel like they’re like the only people who read books a lot, except for people trying to be writers.

EN So do you have that audience in mind when you’re writing?

TL Not when I’m writing … but … yeah, when I’m writing. ’Cause those are like … either those people or people who are interested in those people … those are the people I’m interested in, in terms of like, talking to and being friends with. In that sense, I target them. In the way I talk about it in interviews and stuff, I’m half joking … those are people who I think read books are, so I’m gonna target them.

EN Do you consider yourself a hipster?

TL No.

EN Do you read a lot?

TL For me reading only serves a purpose of having something to do to like … I don’t think I read a lot. I reread stuff. By now, I just reread the same 20, 30 books. I don’t feel I’ll read something new that will inspire me like that.

EN But your next two books are different?

TL Yeah, my next two books didn’t have models like that. I didn’t want to write the same books over and over.

EN So what kind of model are you going for?

TL The model for the next two books is maybe my first poetry book. For that book I didn’t have a model, I think. I don’t know how I came about that style.

EN When did you start creative writing, because I know you were a journalism major. Didn’t you start at NYU?

TL I wrote all my first story collections as a junior and senior. I just wrote for writing workshops … once every three weeks I turned in a story.

EN And how were you eventually published?

TL My publisher read on my blog I had a story collection. He emailed me. I also had a literary agent, he sent it to about 20, 30 publishers … they all rejected it … my story collection.

EN Oh, man. Was that pretty hard?

TL I guess I didn’t care. Well, no. I felt like it would eventually get published, because they said they would publish a novel like that. So it was just a matter of time I guess.

EN Alright, so now that you’re a writer, what does your day to day schedule look like? How much do you write?

TL When I’m working on a book, I write everyday for like … for my entire day. I wake up at 2:00, work until 3:00, work in [the NYU] library until 8:00, eat, and then work on it until 12:00 or 1:00. I go home and sit around for awhile, go to sleep.

EN Do you want to talk a little about Ellen Kennedy? And publishing her? It seems like she has a very similar style to you. Is that the style you’re looking to publish?

TL Well, if someone doesn’t have a similar style to me, that’s like that person having a different personality. I’ll just stop talking to them naturally. People with like similar tastes … I’ll just be better friends with, naturally. And that’s who I’ll publish.

EN What about people who seek you out as a publisher, but you don’t know them?

TL If there’s interest in me, I’ll ignore it. You can’t submit … you just have to become friends with me somehow, naturally. By commenting on my blog, like … over a year. I already have three or four people who’s books I will publish, just from knowing them over the last five years. And I feel like … those people will always be there. So I’ll never just accept submissions.

EN What if you’re submitted something by a really talented writer you don’t know?

TL If I get something I really like by a stranger, I would just get to know them, over time. I like their writing first and then I get to know them.

EN For your next books, are you … are you publishing yourself? Or you’re still with Melville?

TL I’m with Melville. In the future I want to publish myself, so I want to start it sometime. I have like now … until the next six months … nothing to do really. I’ve finish my next two books, and then I feel like I’m done forever.

EN Oh, no! Why do you feel like that?

TL This is just how I feel. I know it’s just a feeling. I don’t know. The next book is the novella, and then the next novel. So within my career I have a nice little block of things. Another thing will just ruin it. I’ll become a person … you’ll look at their career arc, and you don’t see any design, it will just be a bunch of books. (laughter). That’s what I feel like if I publish another thing. Unless I do really well.

EN So what’s the future look like then?

TL I just have to plan really well. Like there’s a few options after the next novel. I can write a book of poetry that becomes a like … iconic … right after the next novel and I feel like that will be good. If not, I have to wait four years and publish a story collection, and it becomes iconic. Like four years after the novel, when I’m like 29. I feel like that would be good. Or I could publish like three books of drawings in a row, something like that. And after that, I can enter a new phase of writing, and that would be good also.

EN A new phase? Like what?

TL Not in terms of style or anything, just like people can look at this part and think, that’s alright. Like a period of books of drawings.

EN So will you still write in the meantime?

TL If I wanted to publish a story collection, that would take me a really long time. If not, I’ll still be working on writing. I’ll edit over a long period of time.

EN Do you outline your books? Do you know how they’re going to end?

TL The next two books are completely autobiographical. I just think about the most interesting parts of last two years. And then for the ending, I just ask: does it work?

EN What about for fiction?

TL The earlier stuff, I guess I didn’t have the entire thing in my head. I’d start by writing to get the tone of the story down. Then I’d put together different scenes, then have the general outline. During that time I’d think really hard about what to make the ending. For two more weeks I’d work on it, knowing the structure of it.

EN Do you have reoccurring characters in your work? People you find yourself inclined to write about again?

TL I feel like once I’ve finished a character, I don’t write about it anymore. Then I remember them the same way I’ll listen to the song, if I’ve listened to it in the past. When I write, I anticipate in the future being able to read it and remember certain things.

EN Does living in New York change what you write about? Or affect your writing?

TL I don’t feel like New York changes anything of that.

EN Have you traveled a lot?

TL Yeah. I’ve been to Taiwan, China, Japan, Canada, Madrid, Alaska, some other places.

EN Would you live somewhere else other than New York?

TL I’d buy a house in Florida and live alone in a house. Or maybe Japan or something. It seems like I’ll never go back [to Florida]. I’m too set with everything in NY. I don’t really go places. I don’t go to Central Park or whatever. So wherever I go is where I’ll probably stay. Because I do most of my stuff on my computer.

EN So for you, is the computer more exciting than going to a new place?

TL Definitely. I’ve never felt 1/10 as excited looking at a mountain as I do checking my email.