Interview with Tao Lin

Tao Lin is the author of four books (in various stages of release and discussed below). His poems and short stories have appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Cincinnati Review, Other Voices, Fourteen Hills, Pindeldyboz, Punk Planet, many more.

This is the first work of Tao Lin’s that I read.

Christmas by Tao Lin

His blog / site – reader of depressing books has 50,000 hits and rises around 200 every day.

SK: I would like to start this interview by discussing Jean Rhys and dead infants and from there branch out into subjects less sexually exciting. Jean Rhys said that she didn't want to use any stunts in her writing. I think I just used a stunt to open this interview. What are some of the dangers of showing off, as a writer, and by that I mean, I suppose, all flash without substance, a sort of common and easy trap for a writer to fall into and is there any simple method of avoiding this, any advice you can think of, on how not to become false - an echo of everyone's sold out books and ideologies? I ask because I haven't read many writers who sidestep this shortcoming as well as you do both in your work and the way you review and talk about writing. Also, can any clichés or idioms ever be used skillfully enough to be forgivable? One more, could you name a few writers dead or alive (I want to first put myself on this list of guilty, though not worth mentioning) guilty of tired, haughty, and half-assed prose or poesy and why?

Tao Lin: I don't know what people mean when they talk about 'stunts' in writing. I think it's a cliché to talk about 'stunts'; also to say things like that one writer is good because their stories are character-driven, or something, which is something people always say when they try to explain why they like a certain writer.

I don't know what it means to 'show-off.' All of writing intended to have more readers than oneself is 'showing-off.' (It's the same with the word 'cynical.' Calling someone cynical, to me, is like calling a rock a rock. The definition of cynical is that people do things for themselves. It just depends on how many illusions you want to have; with no illusions it is obvious and factual that people do things for themselves.) It just depends on what your definition of 'showing-off' is.

Almost all panel discussions, interviews, and book reviews, from what I've read, is just a matter of semantics. I went to a PEN / Believer event and it had five famous writers talking about politics. It was interminable to me. Everyone loved it, I think. It was a half hour discussion about semantics, though the word semantics was never used. It was interminable. Like one of those discussions in middle school, high school, and college where everyone finally agrees that 'it's both nature and nurture' and where the next day the same argument begins and everyone finally agrees, again, that 'it's both nature and nurture.'

If they had not used the word 'politics' but used concrete specifics like, 'let's talk about what difference it makes on the reader's actions in the real world immediately after he or she reads a story where the characters are labeled 'chinese' in contrast to a story where the character's place of birth is not specified' then it would have been a different discussion than the one that started in middle school and ends, from what I've seen and read, with death, and begins again with other people.

I also don't know what 'tired,' 'haughty,' or 'half-assed' means when applied to prose. If you use clichés and idioms then you can be 'forgiven,' I guess, but I'm not sure by who. I don't think you can go to jail for using clichés and idioms. If you use abstractions then I think the only way I can answer you is if you have created a context and a goal in order to define your abstraction. Like a computer would need to know what X is if you wanted it to solve for X in XYZ = XXX or something.

How not to become an echo of everyone's sold out books and ideologies? I'm not sure what 'sold out' means there. Or 'echo.' I seem like an asshole right now for not answering your questions directly, but really I am being honest when I say I don't know what these words, 'sold out,' 'tired,' 'haughty,' 'stunts,' 'dangers,' means unless you give me a context and a temporary goal in life.

SK: How many hours a day do you spend writing?

Tao Lin: When I wrote the stories in BED I wrote them pretty much one after another. I was in college. Each story took about a month. (After each was finished I kept editing sometimes like eight months after, every month or so, after each rejection or after each acceptance.) I only went to classes and wrote the stories. I just broke up with a girlfriend and we had mutual friends and I alienated all of them so that was very good for my writing. I wrote or thought about the stories for seven or eight hours a day usually. I would lay in my room at night thinking about the story I was currently working on, and writing things on it. When I wrote the poetry collection it was easier. I stared at each poem. I spent a lot of time getting it in order. I stared at it a lot. When I had a job I wrote maybe three or four hours a day. I always write. Life is stupid. I schedule other things around writing mostly. I always go to work very tired and without sleep and functioning at the shittiest functioning level possible, and then drink coffee before writing. When I say 'write,' I mean edit I think. 95% of the time is editing. No one knows what the word 'editing' means though. When I stare at the screen and change a word I don't know if that's called editing or writing. 'Editing' is like the word 'Politics.' Someone should get another PEN / The Believer panel together. Five famous writers can discuss the semantics of the word 'Editing.'

I just read what I typed and a lot of it isn't true really. I don't want to correct things. I'll just add that probably 80% of the time I say I'm writing or editing I'm really reading or writing email, chatting on gmail or AIM, or drawing things with microsoft paint; or listening to music or reading the internet.

SK: What lit are you currently reading?

Tao Lin: I am reading Gould by Stephen Dixon, American Purgatorio by John Haskell, and I just read Twelve by Nick McDonnell.

I don't know why I am reading those books. I think I'm reading Stephen Dixon because he is easy to read and funny. The John Haskell so far is like Lydia Davis but with Pop Psychology and I think I'm reading it to know what not to do while editing my novel. Twelve was easy to read and funny. I like Nick McDonnell. He is detached, he does not judge, his prose is easy to understand and mostly without abstractions. This shows to me that he and I would get along in real life. I think I read it because I stole it from the library and it had been in my room for about three months.

SK: How do you write in a public library with people near you?

Tao Lin: I listen to music. Sometimes I see this kid here I used to hang out with and he sits next to me and reads my novel to me off the computer screen. It makes me feel like an asshole, which is true. It makes writing seem as stupid as everything else, like collecting baseball cards. Someone should sit next to Salman Rushdie reading his novel off his screen to him. I should do that. I tell the kid to go away usually if he keeps reading my novel off the screen to me in a mocking voice. He says, "I hate you." I say, "Oh." And he goes away. Sometimes he'll show me a book and say, "You might like this." I always say, "I doubt it." He always says after that, "You won't like it." I try to sit in the corners. When I see someone I know I put my hand to the side of my forehead to hide my face.

SK: Your site’s first birthday is coming up. What should I get it?

Tao Lin: You know how old my site is. How do you know this? Get it a vegan coffee soy ice cream cake with blueberries and strawberries in it. Thank you.

SK: I've stalked through your whole blog. When you talk about your novel, do you mean the one that begins: People got impatient that year. They wanted things now. They wanted to learn Japanese without having to do any work— or do you mean Ezra Kire? When you say your novel is fucked, what do you mean?

Tao Lin: Yes, that novel. It doesn't begin there anymore. I was being cute. That beginning is very cute. Or maybe not. I don't know. I cut like 20,000 words of things that I had edited for a long time.

I did Ezra Kire for this thing that paid me $200 to do it. It's not really a novel. It's for $200. People think I'm retarded. Sometimes I refer to myself as 'The retarded one' when identifying myself among the other writers that one of my publishers publishes. Nabokov would call me retarded, I believe. Or maybe 'cute.' I don't know. I feel like a retarded asshole. I always talk shit about Nabokov for some reason. I just typed then deleted about 200 words and put this sentence here instead.

When I say 'fucked' I mean 'fucked.' The definition of 'fucked' is 'fucked.'

SK: You have twenty-two alternating chapters of a great novel called Hamster written with Noah Cicero. It's been awhile since an update. I hope this project hasn't finished? Or is it complete?

Hamster is finished. No one cares.

It was fun to write it. It was fun between Noah and I. I know I had fun and Noah had fun. I had fun reading his chapters and he had fun reading my chapters. No one else cares. This is fine. It was fun to write it. I may read it again some day and that will be fun and nice.

SK: Some people think Ellen Kennedy is a pseudonym that you've created. We both know Ellen and we know that she's a living person who eats blueberries and is, I would say, an amazingly natural and gifted poet. What is Hikikomori ? Has anyone put up the necessary large amount of money for The Very Retarded Giant Moth?

Tao Lin: Hikikomori is a novel by Hikikomori. In Japan children who feel alienated stay in their rooms for fifteen years instead of joining gangs. They are called Hikikomori. It means 'Shut-in.' Some people join gangs. In Japan they lay awake for 16 hour staring at the ceiling and at 3 a.m. walk quietly to the store to buy fermented soy beans very afraid.

No one has bought our books. No one will ever buy our books. The moth children's book has a moth orgy in it. That isn't suitable for kids.

SK: I think that's suitable for kids.

Tao Lin: So do I.

SK: Fucked is fucked is a good name for a blog.

Tao Lin: Maud Hamster is a good name for a blog.

SK: What music do you listen to when you write?

Tao Lin: I've been listening to the same music for like five years. I listen to Blacktop Cadence, The Weakerthans, The Broadways, The Lawrence Arms, Randy, Neva Dinova, Mirah, Satanic Surfers, Rilo Kiley, Rainer Maria, NOFX, No-Ca$h, Morning Glory, Propagandhi, Hot Water Music. NOFX is very good for writing for some reason. It is catchy. I think that's why. If something is catchy and the lyrics aren't melodramatic then it makes me happy which allows me to concentrate better, I think. I don't know. No-Ca$h is very good for writing, for me. The Arrogant Sons of Bitches also. Most of these bands are catchy and energetic and fast with very depressing and sarcastic lyrics either screamed or sung in a monotone.

SK: Do you refuse to buy label big company music?

Tao Lin: Yeah, I guess. Read elsewhere on my blog to find out why. Though you can also read elsewhere on my blog to find out why it doesn't matter anyway if I do or not. My blog has everything. It's smarter than I am.

SK: Are there any films that you enjoy, that you would like to name, that escape an excessive amount of clichés and melodrama?

Tao Lin: No. I can't think of any movie I really, really like.

SK: Have you read Daniil Kharms?

Tao Lin: No.

SK: Do you like Ted Berrigan?

Tao Lin: Haven't read.

SK: Is it okay to ask your opinion about Bukowski?

Tao Lin: Yes. I like him I guess. I have read Hot Water Music and some other things. Any time the writing is simple, uses short sentences, little abstractions, is not melodramatic, is fun, and has no rhetoric or clichéd language, I will like it.

SK: What are the five top novels and five top poems? We'll have a panel to decide.

Tao Lin: I don't know. Some novels I like are Good Morning, Midnight, Chilly Scenes of Winter, The End of The Story, and The Quick and The Dead. I like Burning Babies by Noah Cicero. I will read Burning Babies again in a bathtub eating grapes when it comes out, then lay in bed at 4 p.m. very awake with the covers up to my chin staring at the ceiling. There aren't many books I like very much.

SK: Have you ever used violence on an interviewer?

Tao Lin: No one has interviewed me in real life before.

SK: You have a contest winning book of poems being released in October by Action Books called you are a little bit happier than I am, which can be preordered by contacting you. How much will you participate in the promotion of your books?

Tao Lin: I don't know. I used to care a lot about that. Now I don't know. I just want the money from it. There are about three or four people who after they read the books I write I don't care anymore about the book. I would like these three or four people to read the book. After they read the book the book feels useless to me except for making money or creating situations where I can make money; or getting good reviews from 'important' people so that I can have more authority to talk shit about, say, Salman Rushdie. I think if I win the Nobel Prize, The Pulitzer Prize, and a few National Book Awards people will pay attention to me when I say that Salman Rushdie likes baseball more than writing.

These three or four people change over time, I guess.

SK: I mean, will you be sending some review copies to newspapers and magazines and authors yourself or will the Action Books do most of that?

Tao Lin: I don't know. I want to do everything myself in the future, if I have money. I don't want to have to put the publisher's catalogue in the back of the book. Or have their logo there, or have the barcode there. Or have that copyright page there. Writers should be allowed to design their own books, no matter how shitty it ends up looking, or how small the font is. The design is part of the book. If the font is large then it has a different effect on the reader. If a different word is used in a poem it has a different effect on the reader. I designed my book using Microsoft Word and the design was rejected. Now I care less about the book. I hope I did not alienate my publishers by typing that. It's a declarative sentence with only facts, so it shouldn't offend anyone.

SK: Action Books published Lara Glenum. I think your work is very different from hers, but you're both my favorites right now. Have you read her?

Tao Lin: Yes I have read Lara Glenum. The other Action Books books are very different than mine, yes. You can target my book to depressed teenagers. You can advertise in K-Mart, if you want, I don't know; just take out all the "Fuck"s and replace them with "Freak"s or whatever. You can't really advertise Lara Glenum in a suburban shopping mall next to, say, Hot Topic. You could do that with my book. If you are a depressed teenager and you see the title, You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am, you will buy the book. You will listen to Bright Eyes then go home and read my book. Maybe Action Books is using my book to make money (or to get mainstream attention) in order to fund more Lara Glenums or get more Lara Glenums more attention from depressed teenagers. I hope no one is offended by what I just typed. I don't know why anyone would be offended by that. I don't know. I don't know why Action Books likes my book if it is so different from their other books. So I just made a hypothesis. No one should be offended.

SK: I heard an audio recording of your poem I Want to Kill my Literary Agent. I said to Ellen that that's how I imagined your voice would sound. Ellen reads your poems out loud quite well, like how they're written. I don't think I could read one of your poems out loud because I am stuck on that celtic Yeats chanting boom schoolmaster way of reading that so many poets are stuck on. I'm trying to say your voice is distinct on the page, and when recorded, but I don't know how to. May I ask about voice in poetry in general?

Tao Lin: The poem is called "I Am About To Kill My Literary Agent." Todd Zuniga, who published the recording, also called it the wrong title (in a Gothamist interview).

When I read my poetry I do it in a monotone. I sound bored, tired, and depressed; and like I don't want to be there. Why shouldn't I? That is what the poetry is about. Bored, tired, depressed; don't want to be there. That is also how I sound in real life, pretty much, if you try to talk to me. When I read my poetry I try to give each word the same inflection and tone, which is to have no inflection or tone. If there is inflection or tone, that to me is like using dialogue verbs, in fiction, that are anything but "Said." I don't like it. If you use inflections or speak in anything that sounds like a human being, rather than a kind robot, you are putting demands on the listener. If you say, "I love you," you are taking away someone else's freedom. The same if you use inflections when reading poetry in the kgb bar. You are taking away someone else's freedom. You are forcing them to react because you are saying, "I am trying to make you react to my existence." If you read in a monotone and never say things like, "I love you," then you are like a rock or a tree. You are not taking away anyone else's freedom. This is why people like rocks and trees, I think.

SK: (I’m sorry, my mind was here) What is a literary agent? How did you get one? Is one needed? They cost?

Tao Lin: They try to sell what you wrote to editors. I got one by emailing him. I emailed other people too. Curtis Sittenfeld's agent was going to represent me but I went with the other one. If I went with Curtis Sittenfeld's agent I might be rich right now. I also would not have written a poetry collection probably. I don't have an agent anymore. Read my blog to find out what happened.

For my story-collection, BED, Melville House solicited me, then I sent it, then they called me, about five months later, and I went to Hoboken and met Dennis Loy Johnson, and he gave me $1000, which I spent in about a month having no job. The story-collection will come out in Spring, 2007, about 12 months from now. It will sell four hundred copies and I will receive four or five emails telling me that my characters need to change their situation instead of laying in bed depressed all the time. I already alienated Maud Newton and all those people, and most MFA students read Maud Newton to find out what books to read. And only MFA students would read a short-story collection published by Melville House by a 22-year-old. And I forgot to make all my characters asians with identity crisis'. Four hundred copies.

Agents don't cost money. They only make money if they sell what you wrote. They make 15% usually.

My agent before I told him I didn't need an agent anymore probably spent more than $300 on postage and printing on me.

SK: How do you do submissions? Ever say anything personal or is it like a form submission? Do you write "submission" in the subject line in all capitals? Do you ever blindly submit? Simultaneously? Do you make more paper submissions or more email submissions?

Tao Lin: I used to follow the rules. If a place said no simultaneous, then I did not. If a place said they only take first serial rights then I did not send out a story already accepted elsewhere. Now I open my chapbook and my file of poems, I copy and paste stories and poems, paste them in the email, write that my name is Tao Lin and that I am submitting, and email the thing. I am trying to do this more. I've just begun this new way of submitting, which is to not keep track and just keep doing it without thinking. I want to change literary magazines. I want ten places to accept the same poem or story then get very angry and not be able to sleep at night. Then I want to say, "You are doing a non-profit magazine and you are very angry and won't get any sleep tonight because a different non-profit magazine is publishing the same story that you are publishing. Please slit my throat for me. I am a horrible person."

SK: How do you know when something is ready to be sent out?

Tao Lin: I usually send things out before I am completely satisfied with it. When it's accepted I tell the editor I want to send them a new draft. Then I work on the thing very hard for a few days and then send that. I think this is because the last revisions to get it so I'm completely satisfied can only be done after I know the thing will actually be published (I need that motivation, or something). No, that is not true. I don't know.

SK: What, when, and where was your first published writing? How old were you? How old were you when you started writing?

Tao Lin: I don't remember. Maybe uber.nu. I don't think that site exists anymore. I think I was 19. I think I started writing when I was 18 or 19. I took a creative writing class the first semester in college. That was when I first wrote pretty much. Now I am 22 and enjoy talking shit about Salman Rushdie and Nabokov, have written a poem called "Hot Amoeba Ass," and am working on a novel called, "Eeeee Eee Eeee."

SK: I don't think many store owners will read this. You shoplift. Have you ever been grabbed or harassed or physically beaten or chased? In general? Mugged in New York? Is personal loss or general personal horror and suffering ever not beneficial for a writer if they're still writing? Have you ever had writer's block?

Tao Lin: No. I am careful not to get caught. I've never gotten caught. You have to be retarded I think to get caught. No one has mugged me either. You have to be retarded to be mugged also.

I don't know what is beneficial for a writer. Beneficial for what? For the writer? Or for the people who want to writer to suffer so that miserable stories and poems can be written so the reader can read those when depressed and feel a little better? Or for the writer who needs to be miserable for a while so he or she can write a miserable book that will get him or her money to be less miserable? Or for the writer whose misery has nothing to do with money and so cannot be helped anymore? This last sentence describes the writer who is 'Fucked,' I think.

Writer's block. I don't know. You have to be more specific. Refer to my answer to your first set of questions. "Writer's block" sounds like a topic at the next PEN / The Believer event.

SK: Is writing stupid?

Tao Lin: I don't know. If it is it's because everything is stupid. Either everything is stupid or nothing is stupid. Some people will say 'stupid' is an abstraction. And read this answer with a very serious expression and then be very angry for the rest of the day and write me an anonymous email using an anonymous email service thing so that I won't be able to respond to their email calling me an idiot. That really happened.

SK: Is there a use for writing-workshops other than as a kind of depressive social gathering?

Tao Lin: Yes. You see who else is sitting there thinking that everyone is stupid and that is your friend. You can also go there and be sarcastic and make jokes about Jhumpa Lahiri and talk about the themes in Jhumpa Lahiri and Flannery O' Connor and use big words sarcastically. Everyone will believe you are being very serious.

SK: Donald Barthelme? Butter?

Tao Lin: I don't know. I don't like Barthelme.

SK: You have a chapbook of prose Today The Sky is Blue and White with Bright Blue Spots and a Small Pale Moon and I Will Destroy Our Relationship Today coming out this summer from Future Tense Publishing. In one of the stories a family of robbers leaves two business cards. In another story, a husband and wife agree they have cancer and that their pet iguana has cancer. Do you prefer writing shorter absurd pieces or longer autobiographical ones? Is absurd the right word? Is there a right word?

Tao Lin: All the stories in BED which Melville House is publishing are longer ones where you can tell I'm trying to get into Best American Short Stories or the O'Henry Prize Anthology. They all have themes and you can read what the themes are because I typed them there. Not all, but most. Lorrie Moore does this thing where she repeats original images or words throughout the story. In 'Willing' she repeats the word 'Willing.' It's the author repeating the word, not the characters. She is in control. In 'Terrific Mother' it has the repeating spider images, and the mood. It has a mood, or something. I don't know. Other writers don't do this really. I did it in most of the stories in BED. Because I read Lorrie Moore a lot then and didn't like anyone else's short stories. I can read Lorrie Moore short stories more times than other people's. Lorrie Moore doesn't give her stories titles that are clichés, like 'Swept Away,' or whatever, then make that the theme. She creates new things and makes that the theme. When I say 'theme' I don't know what that means. Maybe it means 'mood' or something. 'Swept Away' is a story by Alice Munro or T.C. Boyle, I forget which.

The ones in the chapbook when I'm writing them I feel that I'm 'screwing around.' I could sit in a ten million dollar mansion eating blueberries and drinking ten thousand dollar cups of coffee and have someone I like be in love with me and be in very good health and be very happy all the time... and would be able to 'screw around,' and write things like Barthelme writes or what most of the stories in the chapbook are. I couldn't write the stories in BED under the same conditions. That's the difference I think. The stories in BED I could only write if I was very not happy, did not have friends, didn't talk to anyone, didn't have a full-time job, and lived somewhere where I didn't see people that often.

SK: You are the co-editor of bear parade. Your first e-book of poems is published there. The rejection letters are unique in that you send song lyrics or offer an informative, compared to most sites, kind and personalized response. What is bear parade looking for? I glimpsed a short paragraph about that on bear parade's blog, but I think it disappeared. If someone is not retarded and reads through your blog, I think they would at least have an idea. But I need to ask you. I've read through your blog.

Tao Lin: Gene Morgan designs it and created it. I just read submissions and talk to Gene sometimes. And try to promote it sometimes. I can't say what Gene is looking for because I'm not Gene.

I would publish things that are like what is already published on Bear Parade. I don't want variety.

I like when the writer uses words that I can actually understand. And when the meaning is on the word level, instead of the phrase level, which all idioms and 'sayings' are (on the phrase level). It doesn't matter what the subject matter is. If the tone is sarcastic, self-mocking, self-conscious, able to joke about anything, is not melodramatic about anything, then I will like it probably.

SK: Retardation is in my blood, the condition, like I don't have an ethnicity. I just fill in retard instead of a color or origin. Should I write a memoir about being a retard? How famous would I be?

Tao Lin: Yes, write a memoir about being a retard. I don't know if retards can read. The parents of retards can read I think.

SK: Is the design of bear parade and some of your work inspired by adult swim, or do you watch adult swim on television, or do you watch television at all? I ask because vacuum cleaners, bears, robots, zombies, ninjas, pirates, seem to be a theme with adult swim and some contemporary artists. Is there a name for this or is it stupid to ask?

Tao Lin: Gene Morgan designs it. I don't watch TV. I don't read either that much. I don't watch many movies. I don't like reading anymore. I only read the same books repeatedly. If I read something new it's because of outside forces that make me read it, or it's because someone I know wrote it and I want to try to learn what they think about me by reading their book. Or I want to learn more about them. I don't know. I don't know why I read, or do anything. You can tell I'm confused if you read my writing. I'm confident that I am confused. Most of the time I lay facedown or on my side on my bed listening to music. Sometimes after I shower I sit on my bed and play drums on my bed and my legs with my hands for a long time. I read my own writing a lot. Sometimes I will read something I wrote before and I will feel better, like it's someone else that wrote it, and I can relate to them. This isn't 'insane.' Because it is true that someone else wrote it. Things in different places in time are the same as things in different places in space. That seems to make sense, so I accept it. I don't know.

SK: How fucked is this interview?

Tao Lin: I don't know. Please add 'I don't know' between every sentence I typed.



Blogger c. allen rearick said...

kudos on "the lawrence arms" and "the broadways".

Blogger Robert said...


that was waaaaay TOO fucked!!!

i dont get this stuff :)

Blogger Kristen Iskandrian said...

Tao. This is a good interview. You are a nice Tao. A fucked, nice Tao. Sean, your questions are good. But you should do another interview that's the opposite of this interview where you argue about stuff, and call each other names.

Blogger virocana said...



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