I was at Urban Outfitters shopping for overpriced t-shirts when I first encountered Tao, existentially speaking. Staring up at me with its minimalist cover design was a little novella called, Shoplifting From American Apparel. The title grabbed me, so I did what I do with any book: read the synopsis, the author bio, a random page in the middle. Later that night, I’ve got the novella sitting next to my Mac as I’m looking this guy up on Wikipedia.
Tao Lin: 26 years old, lives in New York. Has published five books.
After my initial Keanu Reeves “whoa” moment, I dig deeper.
Tao Lin: sells six shares of his to-be-released novel, Richard Yates, for $2,000 a piece. Also: arrested twice for shoplifting. Writes book based on it.
And as I keep poking around, it becomes obvious that Tao is doing something differently. Whether it’s getting banned from a publication for excessive zeal or posting emails from an unhappy editor on his website, Tao may not be the “bad boy of literature,” but he’s making a name for himself as a guy to keep an eye on. When an author can treat their novel like the stock market, it’s a sign of things to come.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tao over the course of a couple weeks about his take on writing, as well as a few other topics ranging from Lindsay Lohan to the menu at Wendy’s.
Tao Lin: Hi Brandon.
Brandon Tietz: Hey Tao, how's it going?
TL: Good, how're you?
BT: Good man, I'm just wrapping up "Up In the Air" right now. Good movie.
TL: Nice, I've seen that...liked it.
BT: So, right off the bat, I gotta thank you for hooking me up with your books. That was very cool of you and Melville House to do.
TL: No problem, glad you got them.
BT: I want to start off with your process of writing. We have a lot of writers here on the site (in our Writer’s Workshop) who are just starting out or have come to that point in their life where they’re beginning to take writing seriously. What advice do you have to share for those who are in that position?
TL: I only feel comfortable expressing advice, at this point in my life, I think, if I'm in a situation where I'm “acting” as a computer that might have access to different or more information, or be able to process information differently, than the person willingly inputting their information into me in order to receive "advice" as an output based on their input.
When I express advice in other situations I feel like a horse telling a mosquito how to live, or something, to some degree, in a way that I also feel like I'm indirectly conveying something like "you should be a horse not a mosquito."
What I've typed above is maybe "a kind of advice," though, in that whatever it has caused people to think/feel could be viewed as my "advice." I hope this answer is okay.
BT: A lot of modern writers “need” certain things in order to produce work. Examples being: music with no lyrics, Colombian coffee, the ability to instantly fact-check with Google, etc. What’s your process like? Are you highly regimented?
TL: I like to feel like I'm “operating” optimally, as I produce things, in my life. I like to be focused on whatever project for the entire day, every day, structuring other things around it. I like to be healthy, and while working not be digesting food, so that it seems my brain has more power. My ideal “regiment” seems to be something like eating only raw fruits and vegetables, exercising to some degree, sleeping without an alarm, listening to music through earphones (while working), drinking coffee and/or tea every day (before working), and taking some kind of stimulant, or alcohol (at times I’m not working) maybe 1-5 times a week—with less/more some days/weeks, to create some kind of “disturbance” in tolerance levels and also to create a situation of “constant” variety, which seems desirable to me, in this “regiment.”
I'm not sure if I actually produce more work when “using” this “regiment.” Maybe I just feel happier, so it seems like I'm producing more work. It isn’t really a “regiment” maybe because it sort of is focused on variety and “disturbance.”
I don't want to feel I "need" anything though. If I feel myself becoming "neurotic" in some way, like feeling that I “can't” write unless sunlight is on 41% of my face or I've had 7.4 ounces of coffee, I usually will force myself, or tell myself that I should force myself, to not "encourage" that, in part because I would like to "work towards," in my life, if anything, having the ability to feel/think what I want regardless of environment/situation.
BT: One of my English teachers gave me the "write anything" lecture under the premise that I would write and write and write until I found my groove, but I always found most of it unusable. So when you're forcing yourself to work, or telling yourself you need to force yourself, are you still satisfied with the work you get done?
TL: I don't think I ever unsarcastically "force myself" to do something, in that I try not to think in terms of "have to." For example I try not to say or think, "I have to go to work" or "I have to write this essay." I try to view tasks as "wanting to." In part because literally I don’t “have to” do anything. I could quit whatever job I have or cancel whatever thing I’m writing. I would like to view what I’m doing as what I want to be doing. I would avoid doing something if I felt so strongly that I was "only doing it because of ____" that I could only view it as something I was being forced to do. Therefore, when I'm writing I feel that I always have the same mindset, that I'm writing because I want to, so there’s just “one mode,” for me, it seems (ideally).
BT: The thing I’ve seen you take a lot of flak for is your disposition to writing. This is people online that I’m referring to. The general consensus of that is, “Tao doesn’t care if he gets a bad review. He doesn’t care if he gets a good review. He doesn’t care if we like or hate his work. So why the hell should we care about him or anything he does?” What do you have to say to those people?
TL: Without being prompted I wouldn't say anything, I think. I wouldn't, at this point in my life, directly try to convince someone to like me or care about me. If asked directly about what I might say to someone who says "why the hell should I care about you?" I might, if it’s in an interview, say something like “it’s okay if you don’t care about me.”
If a meteor comes from another galaxy and kills me, it seems like, before it kills me, it would be impossible for me to feel angry, or to try to "argue" that the meteor should not hit me, or something. I might try to move away from the meteor but I wouldn't view the meteor as an enemy, or something. In that manner it “seems fine” that a number of people don’t care about me or my writing. People literally can’t “care” (in a concrete manner, for example by “spending time experiencing a thing”) about every thing that they encounter in the universe, in the same manner, sort of, that a meteor literally can’t travel through the universe “forever” without “hitting” something, I feel.
BT: Let’s talk about Shoplifting From American Apparel a little bit.
BT: Tell me about the origin of this book. What was the first thing you ever stole from them? Take me through the paces.
TL: The story originated from me stealing a shirt from there. They had an undercover person who stopped me on the sidewalk outside. That was the first jail scene in the book. I initially typed it to my friend, in an email, just to relate what happened. At some point Vice Magazine solicited me for their fiction issue. I sent them something and they rejected it. I sent them the jail scene, in an edited form, from the email I sent my friend, and they accepted it. The first jail scene is ~10% of the novella.
BT: Were those characters real? The ones from the jail scene? I thought that was one of the funnier ones.
TL: Yes, the dialogue is from memory, edited down from my memory. I didn't write parts that weren't interesting to me, for example.
BT: Now, in the book, I think you only actually shoplift from American Apparel once. In reality, it was more, right?
TL: Maybe two or three other times. Not that much. When I was shoplifting a lot I was mostly shoplifting batteries and Moleskine journals to sell on eBay.
BT: And you made about ten grand on that over the years? I read that somewhere.
TL: I'm not sure exactly. Probably between $7k and $13k, yeah. The things would sell consistently for ~60% of their retail value.
BT: Geez, you must've been working in high volume. What was your biggest lift in one outing?
TL: Probably 95% of the time I would steal by just putting at most probably 5 packages of batteries in each front or back pocket, usually just two pocketfuls, so maybe 10 packages, so ~ $120. After that I would sometimes move them to a backpack or something, then do it again to a nearby store, or sometimes the same store.
BT: And you had a job, too, while you were doing this, right? I think you said your last job was at a restaurant.
TL: I didn't have a job during the time I was "routinely" shoplifting and selling the goods on eBay. That was my job. I had jobs after and before it, in libraries and at an organic vegan restaurant and as a personal assistant.
BT: That's incredible, man. I take it you don't have any legal worries.
TL: You mean, currently?
BT: Yeah, Shoplifting from American Apparel is quite the attention-grabbing title. Did they ever give you shit about that?
TL: No, it never seemed to be a concern to me or my publisher. I think it's just allowed to have anything be a title. The book doesn't encourage shoplifting, I feel. It seems like even if it did tell people explicitly to shoplift from a certain store it's legal to...have that. For example a book called Shoplift from American Apparel. Seems legal.
BT: So, this book is non-fiction, but you’re portrayed as the character, Sam. Would you say it's 100% non-fiction or are there some minor embellishments here and there?
TL: I view it as fiction. The initial drafts were based exclusively on my memory of what happened. But after a certain point I wouldn’t edit based on what really happened, I would do whatever was most satisfying, in the same manner I would edit something that was set in a fantasy land of dragons or something. I would move some things around and edit down things or whatever. If it were non-fiction I would say "something like" if I wasn't sure of something. Like, I would write "I said something like [whatever]" or "I think [whatever] happened." I probably wouldn't have any scenes containing a lot of dialogue. It would mostly be paraphrased if I wrote it as non-fiction. I wouldn't feel comfortable assuming my memory was 100% accurate or that I could recall dialogue perfectly.
BT: Yeah, I can imagine how it would be difficult to recall every single thing over the course of two years and somehow label it as non-fiction. Editing also makes that difficult. It's as if by leaving out portions of time, people view that as selectively telling the truth. I like what you did with it, though...very good stuff.
BT: To me, it just felt like we were a fly on the wall in Sam's world and not so much being prodded along through a series of events.
TL: That sounds good. I would read it like that, I think.
BT: Shoplifting From American Apparel reads differently than your other works, such as Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee, which are more traditional literary. The voice and the syntax are also altered. What was the difference between them writing-wise for you?
TL: With Shoplifting from American Apparel I deliberately didn't use metaphors or similes, em-dashes, semi-colons, or sentences that seemed long to the point of being “less readable.” I tried to use mostly only concrete/literal language. Most of the time spent on the sentences was on making them “easier to read,” trying to convey what I wanted in the least number of words possible, and on “giving them” a consistently “abnormal” level of non-sequitur from the previous sentence, to the next sentence, paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene. With the other two books I was also focused on having a consistently “abnormal” level of non-sequitur but using a different prose style, one with all those things I refrained from above. I like writing in both styles. I probably worked on the sentences in each of those books a similar amount, maybe more in Shoplifting from American Apparel just because I had higher standards by then, in terms of being consistent throughout re tone/style.
BT: What I really dug about Shoplifting From American Apparel is how incredibly direct it was. I was talking about it with a friend and called it a "no bullshit, no crust" style.
TL: I like directness.
BT: This, I can tell. Will we be seeing more of that from you in the future, you think?
TL: My next book, Richard Yates, my second novel, is more concrete/literal than Shoplifting from American Apparel, so probably more direct. Since finishing Richard Yates I've been writing more in the style of Bed, which is maybe less direct. I think they’re both direct, but in different ways, or something.
BT: Yeah, I can recall at least a couple times where you'd have a paragraph-long sentence on occasion. I really love how you tied that book together, though. How did you decide on the theme of beds to hold that collection together?
TL: I don't think I decided on that. Almost every story just seemed to have beds in it. I was spending almost all my time alone then, and I didn't have a desk or chair in my room, so I was in bed a lot. Depressed people spend a lot of time in bed maybe. People might look at a book called Bed and think it's about sex, or something, but my Bed is more about sleeping and lying in bed alone, feeling things like loneliness and despair, which I like and think seems funny to some degree. I named it Bed after probably 8/9 of the stories were finished. I don't remember really when I first thought of Bed as the title. After I thought of it I didn't question much, it seemed “immediately satisfying,” I think.
BT: I like it. Very minimalist. And fitting.
TL: I like it also. Glad you like it.
BT: Okay, so Eeee Eee Eeeee was probably the one I had the most fun reading. You've got dolphins hunting down Elijah Wood and bears offering money and laptops. There was some great stuff in there that just had me rolling. Just so we're clear, you like Elijah Wood, right?
TL: Yeah. Or, I don't know him, but I feel interested in him. I like watching him in movies. I like his facial expressions.
BT: Better Elijah role: Frodo or Kevin (Sin City)?
TL: I haven't seen him in Sin City, didn't know he was in that. I guess Frodo.
BT: Oh, he plays a cannibal that lives out on a farm. It's very...um...different for him.
TL: That sounds really funny.
BT: And he doesn't have one single word of dialogue and fights Mickey Rourke.
BT: It's worth checking out.
TL: I'll look at it on YouTube soon.
BT: Okay, so to get back on topic...Eeeee Eee Eeee is getting adapted to film, right?
TL: Yes, a librarian in Queens is making a movie of it. I've never met him. He made a short film about hugs that's on the internet that I like. I think he's using his co-workers to act in it.
BT: Maybe you could call Elijah for a cameo.
TL: I would like that. Seems like he'd be receptive.
BT: Use imdb pro. They give you a free trial for 14 days, and then you get his agent/management info and pitch him. Easy.
TL: I will tell the librarian to do that. Wong Kar-Wai is also in the book.
BT: Yeah, but Elijah has some major star power.
TL: Wong Kar-Wai has "indie cred" + international...something.
BT: He's a filmmaker. He'd want to take over the project.
TL: The librarian will have to “navigate” that. I would be okay with that.
BT: So is this film going to be taken to the film festivals or do you know?
TL: I don't know. Depends on what the librarian wants. Probably he'll want that, I don't know. I already feel “fulfilled” with it, as a project, based on his “hugs” movie, his Tumblr, and that he’s a librarian in Queens.
BT: I'm sure you'll keep us posted on your website, right? Or is he just going to call and let you know when it's done?
TL: I think he's just going to email me when it's finished. I'll take the L to Union Square and then the R to Queens, to watch it, I assume.
BT: Well, I hope he does it justice. Talking bears and dolphins might pose some difficulty.
TL: Seems kind of difficult. Seems like if it's done "very shittily" it would be good. People wearing "shitty ass" suits made from shirts staple-gunned onto cardboard or something.
BT: I'm not expecting Where the Wild Things Are-caliber effects. My mind went to foam dolphin suits and rental bear costumes.
TL: Or even just someone wearing "bear ears" or something. Maybe just edit a bear from the Discovery Channel over the person, if that's possible, not sure how special effects work.
BT: You’ve got Richard Yates coming out in September in which you sold six shares of it for $2,000 a piece. The shares entitle the shareholder to 10% of your domestic royalties. I’ve never heard of this being done before with a book. How did you come up with this? Any regrets?
TL: I'm not sure who thought of it first. It seemed to be an idea “that was around.” I remember someone telling me that I should do it, and me saying that I already had planned to do it.
I feel “very satisfied” about it. After I got the $12,000 I quit my job (at a restaurant) and focused “pretty hard” for 4-6 months on Richard Yates, which was at the time maybe ~45% finished (an entire draft was finished at that point but I worked on it for an amount of time, over the next two years or so, that made it so what I had was ~45% of the final draft, in terms of time spent). I'm not sure what would have happened if I didn't get the $12,000. The novel would be different now probably. Less people would know my name/books. The “shares selling” was “covered” by the New York Times' economics blog, Gawker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, the New Yorker's book blog, Poets & Writers, an Indian newspaper, and ~15 smaller blogs/sites. One of my investors, Matthathias Schwartz, bought me coffee and dinner. The main blog post for it is here.
(AT THIS POINT, PLEASE READ TAO’S POST FOR A FULL EXPLANATION OF HOW HIS ROYALTIES SYSTEM WORKED. VERY INTERESTING STUFF.)
BT: This is great, man. I'm sure if someone did have this idea, they either didn't have the means to do it and/or were afraid of suffering an embarrassment by way of the shares not selling. The fact that yours did is indicative (to me, anyway) that you've got a loyal following and are on the cusp of that mainstream breakthrough. Would you say that Richard Yates is your attempt to capture a wider demographic? If so, how is the writing on this book different from your others?
TL: I don't think I attempt to have a wider demographic until after I've completed something. Unless one considers “me trying to organize and express ‘an amorphous contingency of thoughts/feelings’ into readable sentences within some kind of narrative that I feel I—or a few specific people—would enjoy reading” as “increasing my demographic.” A side-effect of that, though, is that it increases my demographic, probably. The side-effect seems not separable from the action. So maybe I do try to increase my demographic while writing, at the least from “my subconscious” to “my non-subconscious and the non-subconscious of some people I like.”
Richard Yates has a more concrete/literal prose style than Shoplifting from American Apparel. "Mike got out of the car" in SFAA would be "Mike left the car" in RY due to "got out" not being literal and being more words. "Mike took a photo of Jon" in SFAA would be "Mike photographed Jon" in RY. The content of RY seems “more important,” in the mainstream use of “important,” because it contains illicit sex (vaguely), psychological issues with specific terms, men in their late 20s meeting a 15/16 year-old-girl first on the internet then in real life, a dysfunctional family that is affected to some degree by financial issues, and eating disorders.
BT: So, Tao…are you ready for the 10 Questions segment?
TL: Yes, go.
10 MODERATELY HARD QUESTIONS WITH TAO LIN
1) You seem to be a marketing whiz. What advice do you have for Lindsay Lohan as far as fixing her career?
TL: Lindsay Lohan is probably 1,000,000x richer than me, and can probably do whatever she wants for the rest of her life, without worrying about money or probably most other things not mental-health related, so my advice to her would be maybe to "do whatever you want, if you want, since you probably have the means to do whatever you want." In terms of her movie career, in my view, she seems to be "doing fine."
BT: Ooh, those quotes can say so much with so little.
2) You’re big on vegan and organic food. Have you ever had a Wendy’s Baconator?
TL: No. I think that came out after I stopped eating there. I ate there in middle school a lot. I've probably eaten 50-100 spicy chicken sandwiches and 300-1200 chicken nuggets from there. While typing that sentence I felt a “really strong” urge to eat a lot of their chicken nuggets with their various “dipping sauces.” I remember liking all of their “dipping sauces.” I haven't eaten food from there in ~7 years except maybe one baked potato ~3 years ago.
BT: Yeah, the spicy chicken sandwich got a few plugs in your work. Wendy's should be giving you a few of those for free...it's only fair.
TL: "Sadly," I've never received anything free like that. Not even Kombucha. My address is on one of my blogs if some company is reading this right now wanting to “get in on” me in terms of that, in terms of giving me free things.
3) If hell exists, what’s the one book that they make you read over and over for all of eternity?
TL: Hm...maybe Finnegans Wake.
BT: Never read it...and probably won't now.
4) Your website is: www.heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com. What do you do if you’re out at a bar and someone asks for the address?
TL: That's happened before pretty often. I usually say something like "the URL isn't something I’ve memorized, it’s kind of long, Google my name, it's the first result."
5) Follow up question: how cool does it feel to say "Google me" and know stuff will come up?
TL: For people alive today, under 25 or something, probably "just normal," since Facebook results come up.
6) In your novel, Shoplifting From American Apparel, you wrote, “Masturbation is the escape from literature.” So what would sex be?
TL: Escape from masturbation, maybe, into another situation that one would potentially want to escape from, at some point, to some degree, while also wanting to escape toward it sometimes.
7) You're 26 years old with five books out. Does Tao Lin have groupies?
TL: I'm not sure. Maybe I do. But not "young girls." Mostly, actually, probably, or disproportionately, rather, gay men older than ~40. Gay men seem to like me. I like gay men.
BT: We'll try to send some ladies your way too if you want. This interview will be seen by a few people. Ladies included.
TL: I'm open to having anyone sent my way. Via Facebook.
BT: We'll start an application up.
TL: Sounds good. They should comment on my blog for a while, then add me on Facebook, then maybe write on my wall, then we could email maybe.
8) Have you read Twilight?
TL: I think I read the first page once. I think I felt afraid...like...I felt that the prose style was "pretty tight." I was working on Richard Yates then and felt that my prose “wasn't as tight" as Stephanie Meyers’.
BT: If I recall correctly, the first page is a quote from something else.
TL: Interesting...maybe that was what I read.
BT: I'm pretty sure it was.
9) If Palin wins the presidency, will you move out of the country or tough it out?
TL: My life probably won't be affected. Depending on if I’m already moving or not I’d either move or not move. I honestly “don’t understand” the logic of moving out of a country due to who is president of that country.
10) Is Cujo a good name for a cat?
TL: I wouldn't go with that. Seems like everyone would make a joke about Stephen King or about it being a dog's name. I can see how that might be desirable, though, if you're bad at starting conversations or something.
BT: That's funny you said that....that's exactly what it's used for. You totally got it.
BT: Tao, it's been a real pleasure. I’ll let you go so you can get back to doing what you do.
TL: I’m going to leave the library now, go to the store before it closes, thank you for taking so much time to interview me and read my books. I appreciate it. Have a nice night.
BT: You too, man. Have a good one.