5,000+ Word Unedited Interview With Tao Lin
By Zach Sokol
Tao Lin’s new book is due to his editor at Vintage on September 1st, a deal that earned the Brooklyn writer and internet curiosity a $50,000 advance. The book, officially titled Tai Pei, will be in stores by June 2013, and Lin expects the rights to be purchased by “ten to fifteen” foreign countries. “I’m just guessing,” he recently explained at a table outside near NYU’s Bobst library.
Lin agreed to speak with me under the condition that no edits be made to the interview, similar to an interview published on Thought Catalog two years ago. He met me with a grin on his face, but many of the topics we discussed were dour, including his emotional variability and capital-A Ambivalence towards many things going on in his life.
Lin contradicted himself on multiple occasions during the interview, especially in regards to his desire to be wealthy. He said his goal is to make a lot of money so he does not have to do anything he does not want to do (such as asking for money via Twitter), but also noted that money probably would not make him any happier. He kept saying “I don’t know,” too.
We also talked about his current drug use, as well as how Tai Pei compares to his previous works. The day after our interview, I noticed a tweet from the writer that said “WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ ~ ME” [sic]. This is a fitting mantra for Lin, as he is still one of the more bizarre — and maybe even sui generis — authors working at the moment.
Thought Catalog: Are those tattoos on your arm?
Tao Lin: Yeah.
TC: They look like the classic Tao Lin drawing — did you tattoo yourself?
TL: I drew them on paper, then they did it. Are we starting?
TL: 25 minutes.
TC: Sure, exactly 25 minutes.
TL: [Referring to table we sit at] This is so dirty.
TC: No worries. I’ve been reading up on you, and it’s hard because there’s so much Tao online. I found this feature on you that I really liked on Rhizome. The writer Cole Stryker wrote “If I lay all my [nervous laughs] and all my [long pauses] out there in the open for everyone to see, and preemptively undermine myself, that robs my critics of their ammunition when they try to attack the integrity of my actual work.”
TL: I said that? [laughs]
TC: No he said that in regards to you. Do you think that point applies to why you like unedited interviews?
TL: So critics can’t…
TC: You undermine yourself before they have the opportunity to undermine you.
TL: [pause] No, I don’t think of that at all. When I first did interviews, the first two or three years of interviews. I would work on them as hard as I would work on my books. I would edit it and look at it every day for like a week. Then just because I’ve already done that and because I feel like I was starting to repeat the same things in all my interviews, so I didn’t want to do that. Then when I was working on a book, it was taking away from that — because I was putting as much energy into the interviews.
TC: You just want the interviews to be as fresh as possible? That’s why the unedited format is appealing?
TL: I’m as interested in the edited ones, and I’ve done way more edited ones.
TC: Weren’t those all done through the internet, though? Like Gchat.
TL: And email. You mean like edited after speaking in person with someone?
TC: Yes. Recently it appears as if all your in-person interviews have been unedited.
TL: Yeah recently. Like all the profiles and stuff were done in person and were edited. I like unedited interviews the same reason I like documentaries or just watching people. They’re just really funny. It’s funny to see what people are like. I like reading transcripts of Larry King Live or something like that. It always seems hilarious. Everything feels like nonsequitors.
TC: You speak with the media frequently, and that’s pretty clear as you’ve done countless interviews and many book tours and whatnot. What goes through your head moments or even seconds before you meet an interviewer. Do you get nervous or what else do you think?
TL: It depends on hmmmmm [pauses]. It just depends on if I’m on a good mood or not. If I’m in a good mood then I think this will be fine. If I feel tired.
TC: What did you think moments before meeting me? [Tao greeted me with a smile and shook my hand, by the way.]
TL: Just like this will be good, it’s totally unedited, I think it will be hilarious no matter what. I was interested in what you were going to do because you were really comprehensive with David.
TC: He edited out a lot of that interview. I’m really happy with how it turned out, but he’s been working on some awesome stuff and I wish I could have published it without that info taken out. I’m really fascinated by David. I finally got my hands on a copy of “The World’s First Perfect ‘Zine” and I read your contributions. Your articles were pretty narrative-less. You just wrote about these boring parties you went to and not much happened.
TL: Yeah that was just… [trails off]
TC: Did you enjoy being part of that collection? I think it was a cultural dream team, in a sense.
TL: Yeah, a lot. The launch party was really good. There was a long line outside Other Music.
TC: I was there, yeah. I didn’t see you though. Weren’t you DJ’ing?
TL: Yeah, well I just gave them a playlist.
TC: I remember you made a song under the name Jesus Christ: The Indie Band. With Carles. Do you still ever make music or DJ. That song wasn’t bad.
TL: I only did some of the vocals. He did all of it.
TC: It was funny. It would make a really weird touring act — there would probably just be a laptop and no people on stage.
TL: When I DJ’ed once, I kneeled on the ground and did it from there. I was going to theme my, what’s it called? My thing? [His act name?] I was just going to sit there and drink Kombucha and push one button.
TC: Your new book is due this September, correct?
TC: Is that just when you give it to your editor, or is that when it’s released to the public?
TL: That’s the absolute final deadline. It’s being published June 2013.
TC: What are your current feelings towards it? Are you excited or worried about the deadline?
TL: I’m just working on it all the time.
TC: What’s your writing process like?
TL: Um [long pause] I don’t think I have one. Maybe like I’ll have a draft that is pretty close to the final after 10% of the total time I’ve worked on it. The other 90%, I’ll just print it and hand edit ten pages and do that on a computer and do more and keep going till the end. Then print it again and do that process repeatedly.
TC: Do you work at home or do you go to Bobst?
TL: [Speaking very slowly] I’ve been working at home and at Bobst.
TC: Those are your main spots?
TC: Do you do anything that makes you more comfortable before writing? I don’t know, do you drink a beer beforehand?
TL: [laughs] No, no, no.
TC: You just sit in front of a laptop and start going? You don’t crack your knuckles first or do any routine-like act?
TL: [laughs] I don’t drink beer. [pauses] Well in Bobst, I take Adderall and coffee. But I think all my moods are useful for books. If I’m in a really depressed mood and don’t have coffee or Adderall or anything, I’ll still work on it and that will result in like harsher edits or something. So I feel like I want to work on it in as many different ways as possible.
TC: Ok. Do you mind speaking up a little bit? It’s a little noisey outside. Matthew Donahoo recently wrote that piece called “What I Know About Tao Lin’s Third Novel” for Vice, and he actually really caught my interest, as he made your new book sound more auto-biographical than your previous works. Do you consider this one more personal?
TL: Uhm [drawn out syllables], I don’t know. What do you mean?
TC: He made it sound like it’s a fairly autobiographical account of your life from the time you published Richard Yates to now, I guess. Including your relationship with Megan Boyle, the documentaries you made. Your previous works sometimes felt more fictionalized. Do you think this one is more biographical or personal?
TL: I don’t know. I don’t think of those words for it. But, I think Richard Yates [pauses] tells more about my life because that covered four months or something. It covered every day or week. This next book spans three years, but it’s the same length [as Richard Yates]. There’s a lot in the last two years that are not in the book and that I completely have forgotten have happened to me [giggles].
TC: Can you give me an example?
TL: You know the Bebe Zeva documentary? We had a premiere for that.
TC: I remember — at the Soho House.
TL: That involved a lot of stuff and that’s not in the book at all. I also went to Spain with Megan at some point, and that’s not in the book. We went to Japan, and that’s not in the book.
TC: So even though you’re not including pieces of time that might have been important, are a lot of the things that occur true? Are they things that actually happened to you?
TL: Yeah [drawn out syllables]. But I think this book is more — it has a lot of passages that are just me talking about stuff. Like not referring to stuff. Like metaphors and stuff. In that sense, it doesn’t have as much real stuff.
TC: Do you have a working title right now?
TL: It’s going to be called Taipei, that’s the final title.
TC: T-A-I, P-E-I?
TC: Why is it called that?
TL: That’s just the city.
TC: [Fumbles words for a second] The title Richard Yates did have some connections to the contents of the book, but it still kind of felt like a non sequitur. Does this title relate to the plot at all?
TL: Yeah, yeah.
TC: Alright. Are you excited to be going on a book tour again? And the whole process of promoting a novel and dealing with press?
TL: No, no, no.
TC: Why not?
TL: [laughs] I think I’m going to do a lot less this time.
TC: Why so?
TL: I think I’ll be able to make money off this already. In the past, I would force myself to do anything, thinking of my future. If I didn’t do anything now, I’d probably have a job somewhere. After this book, I think I’ll have enough money to be able to turn down a lot of stuff.
TC: Do you think you’ll have enough creditability to write whatever you want and not worry about promoting yourself as much? Is that what you’re saying?
TL: Uhhh [drawn out syllables].
TC: Do you have that much confidence in the novel or do think you’ve already built up this much, I guess, cultural credit?
TL: I don’t really know if I’m right in this. I’m just thinking like if my agent can sell it — since it’s on Vintage — I’m just guessing that ten or fifteen foreign countries will buy it. And each buys it for $10,000, and that’s more than I’ve ever made in my life. I’m just guessing, I don’t know.
TC: I’ve heard you say in the past that you want money so you can do comfortable things like travel and live in some luxury. Does it also have to do with your desire to write whenever you want and not have to think about money?
TL: Yeah, definitely.
TC: Is it to make money to keep writing, or to make money to live in luxury?
TL: Uhm. To make money to avoid doing anything I don’t want to do is the main thing.
TC: What are some things you don’t want to do then?
TL: Like [long pause]. For example, borrowing money from people off Twitter.
TL: Borrow money from people on Twitter. I already pretty much don’t do anything I don’t want to do, even without that much money. I guess that, and like even if I had a lot of money I don’t think I’d live that differently. I feel like I hate traveling. I like being in the same place all the time.
TC: But you said you’d use your hypothetical wealth to travel. [laughs]
TL: I did?
TC: Yeah. I’ve read that multiple times.
TL: Oh shit.
TC: Or is it the idea that you could travel places?
TL: Well I’m thinking like, if I’m really bored I’ll just fly to Japan or something. I think that’s more of an idea. If I think about it harder, I think about waiting in the airport, and sitting on a plane. I won’t actually like that.
TC: Ok, but you are really excited about this novel, and the fact that you won’t ever have to borrow money again and things like that. Of the work you’ve published, are you most happy about this one? Let me rephrase, that was poorly worded. Are you most proud of this work?
TL: I don’t know. I’m still working on it. I don’t know. I think like [pauses] it really depends on my mood each day.
TC: How do you feel today?
TL: It depends on each moment, actually.
TC: Has there been a consistent feeling recently?
TL: No, I change every day. Like, I’ll feel, depending on a lot of factors, fine 40% of the day. 10% I’ll feel horrible. In terms of day-to-day, I can kind of predict of how much of a day I’ll feel good. I don’t think I’ll ever feel good, 24-hours continuously. It goes by days. I’ll feel bad everyday or….[trails off]
TC: OK. You used to publish a lot of material about your drug usage. Do you still take drugs as frequently as when you were making the documentaries and were married to Megan Boyle?
TL: Uhm. I think, I think, uhm, it’s hard to tell. I take less variety of drugs. If I’m not hanging out with anyone, all I take is Adderall and Xanax. I’ll only take other things if I’m hanging out with someone.
TC: Do you have a favorite substance?
TL: Probably just Adderall. Are you prescribed Adderall?
TC: [shakes head]
TC: Are you?
TC: How do you get yours?
TL: Some person who I think doesn’t use it ever, but has a prescription, sells it to me.
TC: When I have taken Adderall, it makes it really, really moody. You talk about feeling inconstant mood-wise, could you see any correlation?
TL: No ’cause this is like, whenever I feel bad, I think about in high school and college — the first half of college — I didn’t use any drugs and I felt worse than I have ever felt up to now. So.
TC: Say that one more time?
TL: I felt the worst in my life in times when I did not use any drugs at all, in high school and the first part of college.
TC: Why? Is it because you’re doing more fun things while you’re taking drugs, or that it was a bad a phase of your life that happens to coincide with a time you were not taking drugs?
TL: Well, it’s hard to compare the depression, but it seems that way [regarding the latter]. I was really, really shy and didn’t have many friends and had low self-esteem and stuff like that. Those things made me more depressed than coming down off drugs, I think.
TC: Do you feel like your self-esteem is higher these days than when you were in college?
TL: Uhm, yeah. I don’t know what self-esteem refers to exactly.
TC: Confidence? Like when you walk into a social setting — maybe one with people you don’t know — are you more likely to go up and talk to people and feel comfortable?
TL: Yeah I guess I do have more self-esteem.
TC: Cool. Or interesting? Other than writing do you have any hobbies or interests, outside of online culture and media?
TL: Uhm [pause] uhm. What are some hobbies — can you name some?
TC: David says he plays tennis. Joe says he’s interested in Young Adult Fiction. Things like that.
TL: Uhm [pause] uhm [pause] what do I do? I can’t think of any hobbies. No. I can’t think of any.
TC: No hobbies? I guess some things I’ve been doing recently include this interview series and I’ve been trying to read a lot. I was just studying abroad and sort of ruined my body for five months. I want to start exercising again and walk up stairs without heaving.
TL: I like learning about food and diet. If I’m bored I’ll watch raw food Youtube videos and read about that stuff.
TC: Awesome. This is a non sequitur but I find your stories to be unusually romantic.
TC: I found Richard Yates to be romantic in a weird way. Maybe intimate is a better word. What is the most romantic novel you’ve ever read? And do you consider yourself a romantic person — I don’t necessarily mean in the traditional ‘bringing flowers’ sort of sense.
TL: When I think romantic, I think of the word love and my characters don’t use that.
TC: I don’t think romance and love always go hand-in-hand.
TL: What do you think of when you think of ‘romantic’? Like what’s a movie that you find romantic?
TC: That’s a good question — maybe Lost in Translation or even Y Tu Mama Tambien. Things like that. I also just finished reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Lots of tragic things happen in it, but it’s still really romantic.
TL: I don’t think I have a good enough definition of romantic.
TC: What does romance mean to you?
TC: Nothing? You were married to Megan Boyle for a while, though.
TL: That’s just like relationships, I guess.
TC: You don’t think romance was connected to your relationship at all?
TL: I just don’t have a definition of it. Now I’m thinking of the movie where two dogs are eating spaghetti.
TC: [laughs] Lady and the Tramp!
TL: Yeah. That’s what I think other people would think is romantic.
TC: That’s like textbook romance, though. I think it can be way more subtle. Liking giving someone a drawing or writing someone a letter, even if it’s not sexual.
TL: I think I get what you mean. Just like personal — like one-on-one.
TC: Yeah, wholly and totally intimate.
TL: What books do I like that are like that?
TC: Yeah, I think your books have that effect on some people.
TC: Who’s that by?
TL: Ryu Murakami.
TC: Any relation to Haruki Murakami?
TL: No, but they’re both way famous in Japan. It’s like a novella and the main character’s name is his name and at the end there’s a page that’s like “To Lily, I hope you read this” or something like that.
TC: OK, interesting. So you were married to Megan Boyle. Do the two of you still stay in touch?
TC: Has your writing changed since your divorce?
TC: It had no effect on you emotionally?
TL: Uhm, it wasn’t like a sudden thing. It wasn’t like in advance — we’re not even divorced. You have to do stuff to get a divorce.
TC: You’re still technically married?
TC: Did you ever have a wedding ring?
TC: Did your parents ever meet her?
TL: Yeah, she went to Taiwan with me.
TC: Ok, but you still stay in touch with her and people like Bebe Zeva who you worked with a lot in the past couple years?
TL: I never really talk to Bebe, but Megan yeah through email. I don’t really talk that much to anyone — it’s not like I tell her what I do every day.
TC: Is it more like ‘have you read this?’?
TL: Not even that. It’s just like [pauses] “I can sell you Adderall” or “I saw your post on Facebook.”
TC: [Laughs] That’s funny in a weird way. You never think more about it like “Hey, we were married.”
TL: We already know each other so well. I think she’s in another relationship now. It’s not like we have more to talk about.
TC: OK, fair. You once said “People who make less grand pronouncements about things will like my writing.” Do you still believe this?
TL: Well, like, my writing on average than the other people.
TC: Has your audience changed at all in the last few years?
TL: I don’t think so. I don’t have a clear idea of that. It all seems like one audience to me. I don’t see different types of people.
TC: When you go on book tours, you never notice a specific demographic — say older people? Or a cultural demographic — more alternative readers?
TL: No. No. At first it was just barely anyone. I haven’t noticed a change in demographic.
TC: Would you like to expand your audience to, say — I don’t know — the average reader in the Midwest? Or something like that? Maybe people who aren’t necessarily familiar with Manhattan and Brooklyn’s literary scene.
TL: I don’t care about that.
TC: You don’t care who reads your books? I’m asking if you’d like your audience to be as large as possible, or are you currently satisfied with this niche audience that’s interested in your work?
TL: I don’t care.
TC: Either way?
TC: Would you ever want to see one of your books on The New York Times Best-Sellers list?
TL: Yeah, but only because it’d give me more financial security. Not because I know some person is reading my work.
TC: I’m trying to figure out why exactly you write. David [Shapiro] said he wrote out of compulsion, and I do that, too. Something will repeat itself in my head again and again until I go out and do it. Why do you write? What drives you?
TL: Uhm [pauses]. To entertain myself and my friends. And to communicate with friends. To organize my thoughts. To write things that will make me feel better about being alive. And to express myself accurately so that if someone asks me a question, I can refer to something I’ve written.
TC: Ok — that’s a good answer. I keep saying that, but sometimes you say ‘I don’t know’ and I like when you expand on things.
TL: If I say ‘I don’t know’ I really don’t know. I’d just be bullshitting, otherwise.
TC: OK. Do you watch the show Girls?
TL: I’ve seen some of the first episode.
TC: Did you notice your books in the background?
TL: Yeah [laughs]
TC: Did they ask permission ahead of time?
TL: No, I think they wanted to use [can’t hear] but they couldn’t afford it or something so they rented out my books or something. I had nothing to do with it.
TC: I thought was a funny insidery New York thing. Tao Lin’s books in the back of a Lena Dunham scene. You were both in David’s ‘zine, too.
TL: I like Tiny Furniture.
TC: That movie really stressed me out, but I liked it.
TL: Stressed you out?
TC: Really stressed me out.
TC: It reminded me of the movie Kicking and Screaming — not the Will Ferrell one, the Noah Baumbach one.
TL: Yeah [laughs]. What’d you think of that one?
TC: It felt less realistic but was easier to swallow. I’m graduating in a year and a half and Tiny Furniture made me nervous.
TL: Her life seemed fine, she lives in that sweet apartment.
TC: Sure, but she wasn’t happy — and you watch Girls and she can barely pay rent.
TL: But in reality, she’s rich.
TC: I’m not thinking in terms of the Lena Dunham in reality. I’m thinking about people my age who are about to graduate and don’t know what to do with themselves.
TL: I didn’t have money for years. I worked in jobs until 2008.
TC: Where were you living at that time?
TL: In different places. Mostly between Williamsburg and Bushwick. I think it’s just how you view it. I actually think I’m happier when I’m in need of money.
TC: That contradicts a lot of other things you’ve said today.
TL: I don’t think I’ll just be happy all the time if I’m rich.
TC: Do you think once you have a lot of money you won’t be?
TL: It’s hard to tell.
TC: There’s that Lil’ Wayne lyric — I think from “Put Some Keys On It” — where he says “The money makes me anxious.” It might be for different reasons, but…
TL: I think overall, I think it’s how you view things is how you’re going to feel — no matter how much money you have. I like variety and money provides that. I don’t like having the same life all the time.
TC: I wouldn’t call it inconsistency, but maybe variability.
TC: Do ups-and-downs excite you — financially, emotionally, socially? It seems like you’ve been saying that.
TL: I say that but I’ve lived in the same place since college. I’ve been in NYC for so long, I go to Bobst almost every day. So relative to other people, I probably don’t want… it’s hard to say.
TC: You’re saying two different things, but it seems like you really feel both ways.
TL: Yeah, yeah. I just don’t know. I don’t. If I knew….
TC: If you died, what would your tombstone say?
TL: I don’t care.
TC: “Tao Lin: I don’t care.”
TL: It wouldn’t say that. I don’t know. I would have time to choose now and then I’d die in a few minutes?
TL: I would feel just confused. I wouldn’t be thinking about that if I was going to die in a few minutes.
TC: No, it’s like you’re writing your will and you don’t know when you’re going to die, but you’re writing your will today and you’re deciding what your tombstone would say.
TL: That’s really confusing.
TC: I think I’d know what mine would say.
TC: There’s this quote I really like “It Loved To Happen.”
TL: [speaking slowly] It loved to happen. What does that mean? Where is that quote from?
TC: Two places, a J.D. Salinger story where a character has that quote on his wall, but the quote’s by Marcus Aurelius. I got it from this girl I really liked in high school and I heard her say it once. Maybe it was a “la di da” type of thing, and it stuck with me.
TL: It. Loved. To. Happen.
TC: Every time I write her a letter, I finish it with that.
TL: That seems complicated. It seems good. But you’d be dead. That’s the thing I’m thinking. I can’t understand why I’d want to think about that.
TC: Maybe it says something about your identity. Not necessarily your legacy, but a mantra of sorts.
TL: It’d just say nothing and it’d represent me wanting to focus on other things.
TC: OK. If you could have one super power to help you in your daily life what would it be? Some say teleportation, so they wouldn’t be late. Shit like that.
TL: I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s to not want one.
TC: Your super power is to not want a super power? [laughs]
TC: That’s the lamest super power I’ve ever heard.
TL: No because that’s not the path to becoming happy.
TC: You’re thinking of it in a totally realist way.
TL: Yeah, yeah.
TC: I’m talking about what would be fun for a week.
TL: I guess mind reading maybe.
TC: I think that’d be terrible — you’d hear so much that’s terrible.
TL: You’d be able to choose when you could read minds.
TC: I think I’d find out shit I wouldn’t want to know.
TL: Yeah, me too. That’s why I wouldn’t want one.
TC: I’d get really depressed if I started reading minds.
TL: That’s the same with everything, like if you wanted to teleport — then what are you going to do?
TC: I’d go visit some friends in Berlin.
TL: After a week you wouldn’t have it anymore.
TC: So? It’d be an awesome week. You’re way over-thinking it. I asked Edith Zimmerman what hers would be, and she said Super Shamelessness. To never be embarrassed or ashamed, as it’d help with her journalism.
TL: I’m thinking in terms of my entire life. The answer is to not want one.
TC: OK. I’m going to write that you said “I want to shoot spaghetti from my fingers.”
TL: I thought about shooting fireballs or something.
TC: [laughs] Ok — what would you shoot fireballs at?
TL: I’d go to the countryside and shoot fireballs and film it.
TC: [laughs] That could be sweet. You’d make a great stuntman. A good backup job when you’re bored — helping out Michael Bay or something. Before we end this interview, could you draw something in my journal?
TL: What do you want? You have to tell me something.
TC: A cat. And I want it to be eating Adderall and Xanax.
TL: Jesus. OK.
He’d laugh when you tell him you need to tweet and he’d just roll his eyes when you scroll through your newsfeed before bed.
Guys need to relearn who women really are.
Esquire just posted a list called “12 Authors Every Man Must Know.” With entries like Stephen King and Philip Roth, it was the most phoned-in list I’ve read recently…
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I could feel the effort, I could feel the emotion, and it made me happy.