An Interview with Tao Lin
Tao Lin is the 23-year-old author of a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a
story-collection, Bed, that will be published simultaneously this month by
Melville House in the first two-book debut of a novel and a story-collection
since Ann Beattie in 1976. Miranda July has said that "Tao Lin writes from
moods that less radical writers would let pass -- from laziness, from
vacancy, from boredom. And it turns out that his report from these places is
moving and necessary, not to mention frequently hilarious." Tao is also the
author of a poetry collection entitled You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I
Am, and has been published in Noon, Nerve, the Mississippi Review, the
Cincinnati Review, Other Voices, Fourteen Hills, Punk Planet, and other
magazines. Tao's blog is at http://reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com.
The following interview was conducted by gmail chat on March 20th, at 5 p.m. Ned was in his apartment in Brooklyn and Tao was in his room above a restaurant in a small town in Pennsylvania. Tao moved 11 days after the interview and now also lives in Brooklyn. -- Tao Lin
What do you want to discuss first: books or gossip?
Okay, what I like about the gossip is you have three talked-out little items on the web, which makes it a powerful number.
Do you mean my blog, Bear Parade, and Ass Hi Books?
No, that's new to me. I know:
1) You vs. Marco Roth
2) You vs. Whitney Pastorek
3) You vs. Kevin Sampsell
Marco Roth and I are friends now. He called me on the phone and I pitched him an essay on statutory rape to promote my next novel. (Editor note: Tao Lin acknowledges neither the phone conversation nor the pitch ever happened.) My next novel is called Statutory Rape. The main characters are Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. Whitney Pastorek and I are friends now also. Kevin Sampsell and I are Myspace friends. One of the writers he published, Elizabeth Ellen, wrote on my Myspace wall.
Are you glad that you are friends with all your old enemies?
I never viewed them as enemies. I have no enemies. People hate me but I don't hate people. I view Kevin Sampsell and the other people with wry detachment. That isn't condescending. I view myself with wry detachment.
Marco Roth is an editor at n+1. Do you enjoy n+1?
I like parts of n+1. They published Rebecca Curtis in the last issue and I like Rebecca Curtis very much. I like NOON magazine, for literary magazines. They publish Deb Olin Unferth, Rebecca Curtis, Clancy Martin, and Lydia Davis in almost every issue and I like all those people very much. I don't like when n+1 attacks things, especially when they attack McSweeney's. N+1 claims to be political but they don't care, as far as I can tell, about where their money goes. Cash money. They go through all mainstream media outlets, or something. They associate with corporations. McSweeney's doesn't talk about politics but by generating millions of dollars in cash and spending the cash independently, and supporting independent bookstores, and donating large piles of cash to charities and to funding their own non-profit organizations, they are very political, I think. They are political in action while n+1 is political in writing small essays at the front of their magazine. Okay. We can talk about books now.
Okay, how fun is it correcting people's spelling on a book called Eeeee Eee Eeee?
Really fun. My friend Kobo Abe misspelled it Eeee Eeeee Eee and I corrected his spelling. It was very fun. Eeeee Eee Eeee was a fun book to write but also excruciating. I wrote it in a time of excruciating loneliness and despair, but decent living conditions. I lived with Nick Antosca on Wall Street then. Sometimes I saw him in the kitchen. He gave me his stories to read sometimes. I liked his stories. Nick is still alive. I like his stories.
How old are you?
Good. How many books do you have out?
Three. The same number as our age difference.
What has the critical response to Eeeee Eee Eeee been?
I think the critical response has been extremely positive. I want to send Elijah Wood a copy to see what he thinks. If he likes how I portrayed him. I'm nervous. I portrayed him as a loving and generous hamster friend prone to irrational rages against his literary agent but overall a good, obedient hamster.
What review/quote are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of... let me think. I think I'm most proud of my publishers saying they really liked it. That's a paraphrase. My publisher is Melville House. They are Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians. I think Valerie Merians said, "Good Job," or something. I felt good that she said that. Dennis Loy Johnson said something like, "It's really good." I like those two people. Melville House is very nice to me. I also like the books they publish. I feel surges of good-feelings and gratitude toward Melville House sometimes.
Okay, do you have any ethics that govern your writing?
Yes. My life is controlled by ethics and morals. Ethics and morals have me on lockdown. I'm being serious right now. Without morals life is meaningless in the long-term. Most people do not have morals. I try to have morals. I think my goal in life is to reduce pain and suffering. I'm being serious right now. Having a goal in life can cure depression and also help other human beings and animals. I don't eat meat and dairy unless I find salmon sushi or something in a trash can and eating it will reduce pain and suffering in the world somehow. Not eating meat or dairy isn't just for the animals. Let me explain about veganism.
Have you read the new book on vegetarianism?
Let me explain first.
Being vegan is moral, can make you live longer, can make your brain work harder and longer and more efficiently and therefore create more art. Eating meat supports factory farms. Factory farms cause severe pain to billions of animals, severe discomfort to hundreds of thousands of people who live nearby and breathe the toxic fumes, and long-term damage to areas around them and to areas around rivers that are near the factory farms.
It takes something like 100 calories of non-meat substance to create 1 calorie of meat. Those numbers are wrong, but they are something like that. Also, factory farmed animals are fed corn and corn is grown, now, in a way that uses up energy inside the Earth and energy from petroleum, which is converted to fertilizer, as opposed to just naturally using the energy from the sun and being neutral in relation to the Earth's energy.
Therefore meat is not sustainable. In the future oil will run out, there will be no fertilizers to grow unnatural amounts of corn, and not enough corn to feed cows and other animals. By that time the toxic shit from factory farms will have destroyed the Gulf of Mexico and other places. Land where corn was grown will have no "energy" left in the soil to grow other crops with. Eating meat is a circuitous way of punching a small child in the face repeatedly, injecting someone with diabetes, taking a shit on an endangered animal, torturing animals in your backyard in a torture chamber, throwing toxic shit into a river, or creating a machine that converts soil into toxic shit and putting batteries in it and turning it on. Eating is very moral. In terms of “art” though the person who is healthy will have more time and brain power to create more art. People who drink and smoke and do drugs who also say that they are devoted to art would stop doing those things if they thought factually about their situation, if they are honest about being devoted to art. Eating meat isn't just about saving animals. Vegans save human lives and prevent human suffering also. It is irrelevant whether or not animals feel pain. If a meat-eater him or herself feels pain then they should stop eating meat, because eating meat kills humans circuitously, by ways I've described above. It isn't just about “being healthy” or “being compassionate to animals.”
From a comprehensive view there are no morals that are not arbitrary, though. But a human being does not live comprehensively, but with goals and meaning. A human being is alive and continues to live each day. Which means they have morals, even if those morals are only implicit in their actions. Therefore there's no way that I know of that a human being who is alive and conscious can unsarcastically defend him or herself from eating meat.
But people can live contradictorily. A person can process the facts about eating meat and say, "I'm just an asshole," and eat a turkey, and then go home and blog about the outrage they feel that a small boy has been murdered or tortured and then vote in an election with sincerity. For some reason people can do that and still continue existing. Probably because they do not truly live a paradoxical life, but only change worldviews and philosophies many times per day.
Are you talking about A Bloodless Revolution?
Written by the former "freegan" from the UK?
Yes, I read parts of that book.
Did you know what a freegan was prior to reading those parts? That introduced me to the freegans.
Yes, I did. For being a “better” person I recommend Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and also Peter Singer's newer book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.
Have you ever practiced freeganism?
Freegans are good. Better than vegans. Yes. I ate bagels. It's better not to have any labels. Then you can decide based on each specific situation.
That's what I would go for. Bagels.
Bagels are bad. Unnatural carbohydrates like grains and cakes and muffins and refined sugar are bad. They raise insulin levels unnaturally, which causes people to feel more hungry. Eventually people lose the ability to feel "full." Obesity is bad.
It certainly seems like your strong ethical sense governs your vegetarianism. How about your ethical stance toward the distribution/publication of writers on the web? Those are pretty controversial.
I think a lot of editors care a lot about getting the "best" writers "first" and securing "first serial rights" and things like that. The New Yorker or whoever wants those things because they exist to make money, which makes sense. But most literary magazines are nonprofit. That is all I will type about that. If people want a more detailed discussion they can go to Gawker and search "Whitney Pastorek" or "Tao Lin" and then click their mouse on the link, like a little bitch. Just kidding.
Excellent. FYI, that is a fascinating discussion, between you and Whitney. Tao, I believe at one point you were asked about your "little bunny-rabbit world"?
I think someone said I lived in a bunny world. Yes. Someone who views the world as a horrible place, or something. I'm going to talk shit about people who like drama for a moment. They will log on to their blogging program and then find links on the Internet of people being sexist, people being racist, or people changing their worldviews. Then they attack those people with names, sarcasm, or by calling them sexist, racist, or hypocrites. That is all. That is the end of what some people do. Some other people write longer posts on their blogs proving that the person they have targeted is a horrible person. Usually they succeed. That is their goal. To prove that someone else is horrible. The person is proven to be a horrible person, and that is all. This repeats for years. Many years. I'm not sure what the function is of what I just typed. I'm not sure who I was talking about exactly. Maybe I just made that up.
James Chapman said nice, intelligent things on the topic of “first serial rights.” He is the publisher of Fugue State Press. People who want to read his comments can go to my blog and search "James Chapman.”
What about the ethics of this conversation? You and I have done readings together. Do you think that interviews should be conducted by non-friends, people who just know the facts? Non-acquaintances, I suppose.
No. I don't think that matters, in terms of ethics. People who start presses should publish themselves and their friends. Since there is no "good" or "bad" in art people should publish the people whose writings they like. Usually people are friends with people whose writings they like or else they like the writing and then find the person and become their friend. I like that McSweeney's publishes their own people and blurb each other and help each other. 3 a.m. magazine does that also. I'm 3 a.m magazine's poetry editor and I published my mom and almost everyone I know. I like that. Art is like friendship. If you like someone you want to be their friend, and you want to introduce them to your other friends. That is how art is like to me. If I like someone's art I want to show it to people and I want to be their friend. Friends. If I started a press I would publish people whose writings I like very much. I would publish Ellen Kennedy and Noah Cicero and Deb Olin Unferth and other people. I like those people's writings and I know them. I know them because I liked their writing and started talking to them. I would only publish people I am friends with and actually talk to if I had a press.
What do you like to write more, your fiction or your poetry?
I like to write fiction more because it's longer and bigger. The fiction books are bigger. My story-collection, Bed, is about 8 inches tall and 2 inches thick. That's bigger than my poetry book. I like things that are big and colorful but still small. Small, big, colorful things are nice. I like them. But in some ways I like poetry more. Poetry is like a blue whale seen from a distance, in an airship. Fiction is like a blue whale seen from close-up, in a helicopter. Fiction is bigger. It looks bigger.
What are you most proud of, your fiction or your poetry?
I'm most proud of my novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, because it's under 30,000 words. I like small novels. I like Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. I like The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. Those are small novels. My novel is smaller than either of those. I like The Human War by Noah Cicero. That is a small novel. Large novels are out of control. I like The Quick and The Dead by Joy Williams. That is not a small novel. It is a medium novel. Some medium novels I like. I'm proud of my story, "Sasquatch," that is in Bed. I think I showed the crippling loneliness of the main character in a clear, easy to understand, yet not too melodramatic and not too life-affirming but still with the effects of something that is refreshingly life-affirming, but in a way that is long-term rather than short term, in that story. I like my poetry also. I'm very proud of my poetry, my novel, and my story-collection. Pride. Freedom.
I'd like to shift it a little to something I'm not sure you've been asked about before. What was it like to grow up Asian-American in this country? A new book called American-Born Chinese makes it out to be very hard.
I'm glad you asked that question. It wasn't very hard at all. I think one person called me a "chink" in about 20 years. It was the person everyone called a “redneck.” There were like 10-15 Asians in my school of about 2000. It wasn't hard. I grew up in Florida.
I want to say something else.
In Eeeee Eee Eeee the main character's parents were born in Germany. His name is Andrew. In earlier drafts Andrew's parents were from Taiwan. I did Microsoft find-and-replace and changed Andrew to Klaus one day, because I thought Andrew was too long. I wanted a one-syllable name. I think that was the reason. Then I changed Taiwan to Germany and Shanghai to Berlin, since people named Klaus are usually from Germany. Then I didn't like the name Klaus and I changed it back to Andrew. I want ideally in my fiction to edit race and name in the same way I might move or delete a comma -- in order to better communicate how existential facts manifest in conscious human beings, so that the reader can look at the sentences and read them and then feel emotions.
In terms of existential issues there is no difference between a Haitian or a Canadian or whatever. I think a person who has an identity-crisis about being both Asian and American, or a person who starts a magazine for Asian-Americans, or anything like that -- if they aren't doing it in order to make money -- is prejudiced, if prejudiced means treating people differently based on abstractions and not concrete, factual, and specific evidence from reality. If a person has “Asian pride” they are racist, I think, in most people's definition of racism, because it's the same as saying, “Asians are better than Germans, Canadians, and Africans.”
Gene Yuen Lang, who grew up in San Francisco, makes it look very terrifying. He represents all of the Asian stereotypes with a grotesque named "Chin-Kee" who eats cats. The book won the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature in 2006. However, he grew up in the late 1970s.
Maybe the racism is worse there. I'm not sure. I went to NYU. There were a lot of Asian clubs. Whenever some place portrayed Asians as eating rice, holding chopsticks, having slanty eyes, or anything like that the Asian club would have boycotts against whoever had done that. But the Asian club called itself the Asian club. An Asian who is "proud" of his or her heritage is racist. Stereotypes are strange. An Asian in a group of Asians at an Asian club can joke about being Asians being computer experts, or something, but if a white person does it the Asian club becomes very angry. I feel interminable thinking about this. I feel interminable thinking about existential issues also, like limited-time, death, the arbitrary nature of the universe, the demands of genetics vs. the demands of society, philosophy, and consciousness, etc. I don't know. I try not to use the word "Asian" ever unless sarcastically. If I say, "Look at that German," I say it kind-heartedly and sarcastically. I know that 98% of all human beings think in preconceptions, cliches, and not factually. I don't think French people are “smarter” than Americans or whatever. I try to view each person specifically, and only their concrete attributes. Someone saying, “I'm French,” is meaningless to me. Ideally it's meaningless to me.
I was in France recently. Mostly they are much quieter than Americans, and they look at people for much longer -- not sexually. I thought it was much better than in America. They trade audio for video.
I've never been to France. I've been to Taiwan and Japan and China and the Bahamas.
Do you like anywhere better than America?
I used to think I like other places better. Now I know that it doesn't really matter where I go. If I go to Japan I'll still be in a room staring at the computer screen. Maybe some other places would be better since I know I will leave the room sometimes. But I think it is inside a person's head mostly. There may be some feelings at first of a place being better but eventually it will depend on a person's worldview.
I'd like to wrap up with getting your view of the ethics of the "sell-out." Do sell-outs exist anymore or have we had a paradigm shift? The best thing you can do in a band these days is to land an iPod ad.
People change. Some people who eat meat change and don't eat meat. Some people want a swimming pool. They didn't want a swimming pool before but now they want one. If someone wants more money and change that is as "natural" as someone who has a lot of money changing and not wanting any money anymore. If a person wants to improve the world in some instances that person might do it more effectively by first getting a lot of money. I don't think there has been a paradigm shift. I want to talk shit about people for a moment. Some people say things like "punk is dead" or something. Let me list “punk” record labels that are independent: No Idea Records, Fat Wreck Chords, Asian Man Records, Sub City, Hopeless Records, G-7 Welcoming Committee. There are hundreds of "punk" bands. Substitute “punk is dead” with anything that proclaims that any kind of “thing” is “dead.” I want to talk shit about people a little more. I think it's dramatic to say things like "____ exist anymore" or anything else to indicate that "times have changed." Things haven't changed. In the 1420's there was probably someone sitting on a horse talking shit about a jouster who had "sold-out." I don't understand the term "sell-out." To some people it just means becoming famous. To some people it means compromising ideals to get more money. If Knopf offered me $10,000,000 for my next novel I would do it. I would use that money to create giant things to promote a better world. Then later I would say that that was the only reason I did it, and talk shit about Knopf, which is part of a giant corporation. It would be very productive. What person who has morals has actually compromised their morals to get more money? I can't really think of any. If a band like The Shins become gigantic I don't understand how they would have sold out. “Sold out” what? Someone, a writer, who talks a lot about DIY ethics was recently published by a giant corporation. To them DIY ethics is like a fashion statement or something. It is "cool," which is an abstraction. Their DIY ethics have nothing to do with concrete reality. It is like that for many people I think. Or rather for all people, even myself, just in different degrees. When I lecture like this I'm also lecturing myself.Sounds like Rage Against the Machine in 1992--raging against capitalism on Epic Records. Thanks for your time, Tao, and Eeeee Eee Eeee (which I never forget how to spell) & Bed are out now with Melville House.