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Air date: June 5, 2013
[1:46] Okay everybody, here we go again, this is it, this is Otherppl, this is something you can do while you’re alone, this cannot happen without you. Thank you for being here. My name is Brad Listi. I’m sitting in Los Angeles. In the desert metropolis of Los Angeles, California. I’m here with a microphone. And a Macbook Pro. And a low-grade liquid stimulant.
[2:14] How are you today? A couple orders of business here at the outset. Just to review the basics, quickly. It feels like a good time to do that. This podcast is free. I offer it to you freely. Brothers and sisters. You can subscribe at iTunes or via Stitcher. And better yet, you can download the free official Otherppl app.
[2:41] Which is available for your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android device. It’s the official app of this program, it’s the best way to listen, in my opinion. New episodes automatically upload to the app, you can download episodes to listen to offline. You can organize your favorite episodes and you can also access the full archives and premium content as well, all via the app. So, go get that. It’s free.
[3:07] Otherwise, Tao Lin is the guest today. His new novel, Taipei, is now available from Vintage Press. Just published. Hot off the press. And this is a two-part interview. Which is a first for this program. I feel like a lot of my guests have talked about Tao. And I feel like there’s a lot of interest in him and when we recorded the interview, it just sort of kept going, and I let it go.
[3:39] So I figured I would share with you the full interview and this is part one. The next installment will be going live in just a few days. So, Tao and I have known one another for a few years, mostly we cyber-know one another. Which seems to be the way of modern life. Though we have met in person before. And within the last year, I believe, we realized, via email, that we both are fans of Terence McKenna.
[4:17] The late Terence McKenna. Who, at the very least, is one of the most captivating talkers that I’ve ever heard. He’s great to listen to. So with this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to share with you some excerpts of Terence McKenna talking.
[4:39] After which I will offer a response. An unscripted, improvisational response, of some kind. So what I’ve done, I’ve taken a Terence McKenna lecture, I’ve grabbed some short snippets, relatively randomly, and now I’m going to play a few of them. If that’s okay. So, here is the first one. Here is Terence McKenna, talking. Are you ready? Are you ready? Here we go.
[5:23] Terence McKenna [recording]: So, a naive person, or at least I thought, in thinking about telepathy before I went to the Amazon, that telepathy would be hearing somebody else think. That’s not what telepathy is. Telepathy is seeing what somebody else means.
[5:45] BL: Okay. What comes to mind, for me, immediately, is the phrase, “do you see what I’m saying?” Because I say that to people. “Do you see what I’m saying?” I’m asking them to be telepathic. And if for some reason you are listening right now and having a telepathic experience, of this podcast, you should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know what you’re seeing. Because I feel that would be interesting.
[6:24] And I also feel that I need to go to the Amazon. So.
TM: Once you sever from this matrix of meaning, what James Joyce called the Mama Matrix Most Mysterious, once you sever yourself from that, then you have nothing but rationalism, ego and male dominance to guide you. And that’s what has led us into the nightmarish labyrinth of technical civilization, over-population, classism, racism, sexism, propaganda, so forth and so on.
[7:07] BL: Okay. Yeah, I mean, the Mama Matrix, the Mama Matrix, it feels hard to say Mama Matrix, but the Mama Matrix Most Mysterious. I definitely feel like I need to connect with it. More consistently. Which assumes that I’ve connected with it before. And I can’t say that I’m sure of that. But it feels like something I would be highly interested in connecting with.
[7:43] Seems that we’ve been severed from the Mama Matrix. And we need to re-establish a connection with that. You know, Terence McKenna obviously goes more deeply into this stuff, in his full lectures. I’m just skimming the surface here. So, let’s do another one. Is this enjoyable? Are you guys enjoying this? Let’s do another one. Here he is, once again, Mr. Terence McKenna.
[8:20] TM: You cannot, we cannot evolve any faster than we evolve our language. Because you cannot go to places that you cannot describe.
[8:31] BL: Okay. I don’t think I’ve ever been someplace that I couldn’t describe, in some way. Right? I think that’s correct. I also think we need to evolve our language. I need to evolve my language, and what comes to mind as I say that is, when you evolve a language, does that mean you evolve it in the direction of complexity? I hope that’s not the case. I hope the sign of a language evolving rests in clarity and simplicity.
[9:10] In the service of complex ideas. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not suggesting that we need to dumb it down, I’m just saying that we need to smarten it up, by becoming more clear. About what we’re describing. That’s what I think.
[9:29] TM: Life is some kind of moment suspended between eternities in which you may have a real opportunity to get your shit together and figure out what’s going on. But if you run around saying, you know, “not that experience” and, “god forbid that experience,” and, “I don’t want to go there,” well then they’ll just plant you and lower your box and you’ll be another person who never quite got their act together.
[9:57] I was, I was experiencing a sinking feeling as I listened to that. And now, just now, in a flash, I envisioned myself, I envisioned my dead body being lowered into the ground in a box and people standing over the hole, looking at it [Laughs] like somehow I could see them and they were looking disappointed, essentially.
[10:30] And now I’m imagining my tombstone being engraved with the words, “He never got his act together.” I need to get my act together. I need to figure out how to get my act together.
[10:54] My guest today is Tao Lin. I already mentioned that. I’m very pleased to have him here on the program. His new novel, Taipei, is now available from Vintage Contemporaries in paperback and this is part one of our conversation. Part two, once again, will be going live in just a couple of days. So here he is folks, this is Tao Lin and his new novel once again is called Taipei.
* * *
[11:25] Tao Lin: I’m in my room. I’m sitting on my sofa. Um, in Manhattan. 29th Street. That’s it.
BL: Okay, and I thought you lived in, did you live in Brooklyn for a while? I always kind of associate you, and I feel like in media coverage of you, you’re so often associated with like Brooklyn. But you moved to Manhattan?
[11:49] TL: Yeah I lived in Brooklyn the last two years, I think. I moved here, or no I didn’t live there the last two years, I moved out of there two years ago. To here.
TL: Because my brother and, or my parents or something, own a studio apartment on 29th Street. So I can stay here and just pay the maintenance fee. Which is like, five hundred sixty dollars a month.
[12:17] BL: Oh Jesus, that’s nice.
TL: Yeah, yeah.
BL: And you work nearby, right? Like that also gives you better proximity, because you work out of a library, right?
TL: Yeah, the library is on, it’s like a fifteen minute walk away.
BL: Okay. Okay. Well, I want to start, I think, with you biographically. Like I’m interested to know about your childhood. I know a lot about you just because I’ve read a lot that’s been published online, but obviously there’s a lot I don’t know. And I think people who are fans of your work and who are fascinated by you would be interested to hear about how you grew up. So, you were raised in Florida, is that correct?
[13:03] TL: Yeah.
TL: Outside Orlando. In three different houses. What don’t you know about me?
BL: I mean, a lot. I don’t know a lot. But I’m just, you know, I know that you’re from Florida, I know that, I guess I knew it was the Orlando area but I’m curious to hear you talk about, you know, what the experience of growing up there was like for you, like what kind of kid were you?
[13:31] TL: Uh, I think I described it all in the book. You read, did you read Taipei?
BL: I’m working my way through it but I’m always like, racing, you know, to prepare for these things because I do two a week, so, why don’t you recap or can you talk a little bit about it? I don’t want you to have to like rehash everything that’s in the book, but—
[13:56] TL: Yeah, I’ll just try to…Well at first, in like, elementary school I was, I guess, quiet. And didn’t have any friends, I don’t think. Then middle school I was like kind of popular. There were, like, two groups of popular, or two like groups of people who were friends with each other. And I was friends with, like, both groups somehow.
BL: Okay, so –
TL: And then high school.
[14:35] BL: Okay so, like, elementary school, you said you were kind of quiet and didn’t have any friends? Why? Like were you just really shy, or were people mean to you?
TL: Really shy, probably. I had like one friend per year. But I don’t remember what they were like or anything. I barely remember anything from elementary school.
[15:01] BL: Yeah. I have a terrible memory of my youth.
TL: Were you quiet in elementary school?
BL: No, you know, I wasn’t, I don’t think I was. I mean, Jesus, listen to me, you know, I’m not exactly quiet. But I could be shy, I guess, in some ways. But I was fairly social. But I just don’t remember well, like my life. [Laughs]
[15:28] TL: Yeah.
BL: I tend to block it out. [Laughs]
TL: Me too. I only remember what I have written down.
BL: Well, I think the act of writing is a kind of a good way, because the thing is, is that I say that I don’t remember but it’s in there somewhere. And I think sometimes the act of writing, especially if you’re working in an autobiographical vein, is a way of kind of dredging that stuff up, you know? In some form. I mean it’s always a little bit unreliable because memory is unreliable. But it’s a way of kind of ordering your past, you know, and figuring out what the hell happened.
[16:01] TL: Yeah. It’s good to have a Gmail because I can just check like what I was emailing that day and I can remember like, what was happening. Before Gmail –
BL: Do you do that?
TL: Yeah, yeah.
BL: See, I need to get on Gmail. I feel like I’ve, like my email is, I don’t know what my email’s through, it’s through like some, it’s like through GoDaddy or something. It’s terrible. But I feel like Gmail offers you –
[16:33] BL: Yeah. [Laughs]
TL: No that’s, GoDaddy is like the internet, it’s like the website thing.
BL: Yeah, I mean it’s like, I got like email addresses issued when I started my websites and I think I bought the domains through there, so. But I feel like Gmail is a superior, like, archival situation.
TL: Yeah. Yeah. It just saves everything, you can search everything. It’s really interesting.
[17:01] BL: So do you ever, okay, so like when you’re using Gmail to like, reference your past, and I’m not done with your childhood, I’ve got to remind myself not to forget, but just to continue on this train of thought for a second. Do you ever find yourself surprised by what you find on Gmail, or do you ever find yourself humbled in some way? Because you realized that like, you know, your particular memory of a situation or a time is totally at odds with the way things were?
[17:36] TL: Yeah all the time, I think. For example, sometimes I’ll think like, “Why hasn’t this person responded to my email?” or something, and then I’ll search their name and I’ll see that I haven’t responded to their last six emails or something, but I forgot.
[18:59] BL: So wait, so, you did not respond to them and then you were wondering why they did not respond to you?
TL: Yeah, yeah. Or I did something like, I flaked on something but I forgot so I’m like, “Why are they doing this to me?” That happens kind of often.
BL: You flake on –
TL: Yeah, I’ll say like, “I’ll do this,” but then at the last minute I’m like, “No, I’m not doing it.”
[18:32] TL: And then I’ll find things like, like I found this long thing I wrote to prepare to talk to my publisher Melville House, like a long like argument thing. And I completely forgot about it. But I found it one day.
BL: So wait, what was it?
[19:05] TL: Oh, it’s too much to go into, just the message is that I just forgot like, a complete episode of my life.
BL: [Laughs] Okay and so, you mentioned earlier like when you were talking about your childhood that elementary school was fairly solitary but that in middle school you became popular and had a bigger social group.
[19:28] BL: So I’m curious to know about that. You know, like, you were…the reason I ask is that I’m interested in, I guess, imagining or getting a better picture of how you interacted with your friends as a kid. [Laughs] And I feel like people would be curious or interested to know that as well. Like, when you were popular were you popular because you were funny? Or were you somehow popular because of your shyness? Because I remember there were kids, I mean one of my best friends was sort of that way, like he became, you know, well-liked and had this really great social life sort of because he was shy. If that makes any sense. Was that the case for you or was it different?
[20:15] TL: Probably, probably, it was that, because I wouldn’t like…people would feel safe around me probably because I wouldn’t like, say something to make them feel bad or anything. But I don’t know how popular I was, it’s hard to tell. I just felt comfortable I guess, in middle school.
[20:41] BL: Yeah, I feel like I say this and people never believe me, but I always say that eighth-grade was the best year of my life, like to date. Not that I haven’t had nice moments and, you know, but it’s sort of a joke but it’s sort of serious. Like I feel like I really had a good year in eighth-grade. [Laughs]
TL: But how? Like what’s –
[21:02] BL: I don’t know, it was fun, I felt like I just had a lot of fun and I felt comfortable and it was also nice because at my school there was, my school went to, my junior high went to ninth-grade so there was a grade above us which somehow made things more interesting because there were like, older girls and older people to like interact with but yet we weren’t, we were old enough to not be the youngest. I don’t know, you know…
[21:29] BL: Or maybe it was just an accident of timing, but I liked being thirteen like, you know, I feel like maybe I peaked.
TL: You should write a memoir called “My Happiest Year.”
BL: I might, you know. I’d have to figure out, like, how to arc it, you know. And it was just like juvenile stuff, like we just, I remember my friends and I got really good at throwing pencils and sticking them into the ceiling because –
TL: Oh yeah, I did that.
[22:01] BL: Yeah, my school had those tiled ceilings and we created like this kind of what was it, a craze, like everyone started doing it and it started to become an actual serious issue at the school because there were like hundreds of pencils [laughs] stuck in the ceiling. And then we started using like, gum drops, and we would put like multiple tooth picks through it to create some sort of like, you know, and then you could stick those in the ceiling. And we wound up getting in trouble for it but that was the kind of stuff we did and it was, for some reason, extremely fun for me.
[22:37] TL: Did you do scissors?
BL: Did we do what?
TL: In the ceiling. Scissors.
BL: Uh, no.
TL: Oh, we did scissors. [Laughs]
BL: Did you, yeah. [Laughs] I got really, really good at throwing pencils in the ceiling, almost to the point where like, I would never miss, you know.
[23:00] TL: What video games did you play? What year was this?
BL: This was like 1987, ‘88. So it was like old school Nintendo, like Super Mario Bros. and Tecmo Bowl and, I forget, you know, yeah.
TL: Did you play many video games, or no?
BL: Yeah, I mean yeah, we played a ton. It was like, Nintendo and we would play, god this is me right here I can’t remember which games I played. But I just remember my friends and I sitting in either my basement or in somebody’s basement playing video games for hours.
[23:40] TL: Did you play Magic cards?
BL: Magic cards?
TL: Do you know what those are?
TL: Magic: The Gathering. It’s like a fantasy-based card game. Like, fantasy like orcs and trolls and stuff.
BL: Oh kind of like Dungeons & Dragons type thing?
TL: Yeah sort of.
[24:07] BL: Were you into that?
TL: Yeah. We would, yeah we were all…probably like half the students were like really into it. To the point that, like, between classes, you know like the five to ten minutes you get to go from one class to the next class, we would like all play it really fast.
BL: See this is something I have no frame of reference for, so what do you do, like you get a card and then you’re a wizard or something? [Laughs] How does it work?
[24:38] TL: You have like a, you buy the pack of cards and then, well you buy the pack of cards, well you buy nine cards and then out of those cards you make a deck. Like, of sixty cards. And you choose what goes into the deck. And you use those to try to like, beat the other person. It’s probably not worth talking about, let’s go to the next thing. [Laughs]
[25:07] BL: [Laughs] What kind of student were you, were you a good student?
TL: I didn’t try. Well I tried the minimum. I got A’s and B’s. It seemed like, to get a C, that was what I didn’t want to get. So I tried the minimum and it worked.
[25:34] BL: And did you have girlfriends and stuff in high school?
TL: No, no. In middle school I remember some girls like, “This other girl likes you, do you want to go out with her?” or something. I feel like I just didn’t understand what was happening. [laughs] And so, that didn’t happen. And then in high school I was too quiet to like even get close to anything like that.
[26:10] BL: Yeah, I was extremely shy. I wish I would have had more presence of mind when I was growing up, I had no idea what I was doing. I guess that’s normal, you know. Or somewhat normal.
TL: I was probably more shy than you were. I was like, I could tell that, in the entire school, I detected two other people who were as shy, or more than me. Out of like fifteen-hundred.
[26:39] BL: You said there were only like two out of fifteen-hundred who were as shy as you?
TL: Yeah. Based on like me, just looking. Or, observing. Were you in that percentage, do you think?
BL: No, I was like, see this is the thing about me is that like, I feel like I was really social and could generally talk and, you know, socialize and make friends and stuff like that.
[27:15] But I was internally very insecure and afraid and shy in a weird way. And especially when it came to asking girls out, which I never did. Or if I did, it was always like a disaster of lengthy awkwardness. [Laughs] You know, but I don’t know it’s like weird. I think maybe people who went to school with me would say that I seemed social and well-adjusted, but that wasn’t necessarily my internal experience.
[27:49] TL: Well I would say you’re probably well-adjusted. Because, do you think there’s people who seem that way and also don’t have insecurities?
BL: Yeah, I guess everybody has them. You know, no one’s ever perfectly adjusted. So I guess I was decently well-adjusted but like maybe not as well-adjusted as some people thought I might have been, if that makes any sense?
[28:19] TL: Maybe.
BL: It still sort of seems that way, you know.
TL: No, I feel like you’re well-adjusted.
BL: You do? Okay.
TL: I feel like you’re probably in the top five percent of being well-adjusted, at least out of who I know.
BL: I appreciate that, I’m trying, you know like it’s, I want to be well adjusted, you know, I want to adjust well. [Laughs]
[28:47] TL: But the term well-adjusted is like, seems different…like everyone wants to be well-adjusted, I think.
BL: Yeah I want to, I joke about this sometimes, I say like, in kind of an exasperated manner, “Who’s good at this?” Meaning, “Who’s good at being alive?” I want to be okay at this. [Laughs] I don’t want to be afraid or uncomfortable or angry or struggling. Do you know what I’m saying? I would love to be good at being alive before I die and to be useful or something, you know? That’s an okay aspiration, I hope.
[29:33] TL: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: I mean, do you feel that way?
TL: I don’t know. But I feel like a lot of, most people would think that I’m like not well-adjusted. But then I use the term well-adjusted if someone like emails me and then they email me again before I’ve responded, I’ll think like, “This person isn’t well adjusted.” [Laughs]
[30:10] TL: But like, everyone would probably think I’m not well adjusted. I mean, just look at my tweets or whatever. But I think I’m well-adjusted. So it’s just like, everyone thinks they’re well adjusted. Or wants to be. But everyone has different definitions for it.
[30:31] BL: Right. Well and I think, too, like I think sometimes there is…’Cause like…you’re the kind of person and writer or artist or whatever that people talk about and try to parse the meaning of. Are you conscious of that? Like the fascination that you create in people, via the internet in particular?
[30:57] TL: Yeah, but I think that kind of…people I’m friends with don’t have that kind of thing you’re talking about, I don’t think.
BL: You don’t think they’re fascinated by you?
TL: No. I think they just see like, that this person has a lot of views or something. People are not, I don’t feel like I can be friends with, that have that kind of thing that you’re talking about.
[31:41] BL: Well I mean, I don’t know, it’s like, to me I think that when someone’s just getting to know your work or someone’s just becoming familiar with like the way that you present yourself online…I don’t quite understand why it stirs so many people, because it really does, especially in the literary circles. Like I’ve talked to people through the years, a lot of people are big fans, I’ve talked to people who are like, you know, “What is he doing, this is bullshit,” they get angry. It strikes me, like, the anger strikes me in particular as being strange. [Laughs]
[32:19] BL: Because I’ve always found you really funny. Not exclusively funny but I always got your jokes, I felt like, or could understand that you were not being serious a lot of the time. But I also –
TL: I feel like I can understand the anger part. Because I feel like I’ve gotten like angry at other people a lot of times.
BL: You’ve gotten angry?
BL: Like at who?
[32:51] TL: I mean, it doesn’t last and I know it’s, I know like, I know I’m like not feeling what I want to feel but it happens a lot. Let me think. [Pause] I’m going to think about it while we talk about other stuff.
BL: Do you mean like you’ll read some Facebook update or you’ll read a tweet or you’ll read some interview with some author and you’ll experience like a brief flash of rage?
[33:32] TL: I guess anger isn’t the right word, I’ll just be like, “I don’t like this,” or like, I, you know?
BL: It’s like an aversion, a feeling of aversion.
TL: Yeah, yeah. And that’s what people feel towards me. And then when I, even when I read my own interviews or whatever I can, I think sometimes like, “This person…I hate this person.” [Laughs}
TL: To myself.
[34:04] TL: Pretty much in everything I do, so. I can understand that.
BL: Do you, has there ever been anything that you’ve written that you really, really like? Or are you one of those writers who, you know, you do the thing, you write it, you publish it and you sort of have, you know, feelings of antipathy toward it, afterwards?
[34:34] TL: I think it’s gone through periods, like for years I didn’t like a certain style and then I would like it again and then not like it. But yeah, there’s a lot of stuff I’ve written that I like, yeah.
BL: There’s stuff that you’ve written that you’ve been happy with?
[34:58] TL: Yeah, yeah. Or, I don’t really know what that means, like if I like it. Or yeah, I guess I do, but not the happy part. What do you mean by that?
BL: I guess like you felt like you said what you wanted to say in the way that you wanted to say it. You “got it right.” I put that in quotes because I know you can’t ever really get things perfect, but you came close to what you meant to say, you know?
[35:29] TL: Yeah, yeah. Probably a lot of stuff in my story collection, Bed, I feel like I’ve said it and I don’t need to say it again. And stuff in my first novel, also. Yeah and I think there’s a lot of passages where I’m like I said it right here, I don’t need to say it again. But I’ve said it again like in interviews, like ten more times, in less articulate terms, ways.
[36:05] BL: Yeah do you get sick of, I mean you’ve done a lot of press. I feel like you’ve been really industrious in promoting yourself, which is, like, something that I want to ask you about because I’ve always felt like you were unusually shrewd when it came to getting the word out about your work.
[36:24] And I remember the first time I ever was in contact with you was early in the days of The Nervous Breakdown. I remember you sent me, I believe it was a copy of Bed, I want to say, and it was this note, and I just remember too, like it’s so strange how we get to know people in this day and age but I remember your old avatar on like MySpace or something and it was this Asian guy with this like really angry face. It looked like he was maybe, I don’t know what he was doing, do you remember that avatar photo?
[36:55] TL: Oh yeah. I don’t know if I ever used that as an avatar but I know the photo, it’s like a picture of an Asian guy playing tennis.
TL: A close up of his face.
BL: Yeah, well that was definitely, I mean, ‘cause I wouldn’t remember it, the only place I could have possibly seen it associated with you would have been as an avatar.
TL: It was on MySpace somewhere.
BL: Yeah. And so I thought, okay so I was like, okay so who’s Tao? And I started reading stories and I was into it and then I looked you up and I was like is that him? [Laughs] It became this strange mystery, you know?
[37:29] TL: Yeah but the thing is, I’m not successful. I mean, compare me to like any, say like, what’s someone…like, Junot Diaz. But someone like a half or like a tenth of his success. They’ve probably sold a hundred times more books than me.
[37:55] BL: Yeah. I mean but, yeah, it’s so tough. And do you have any sense of why a guy like Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever it is, why people are able to sell books? Like, have you, do you have any like, concrete on thoughts on how it works? Or is it as big of a mystery to you as it is to most of us?
[38:17] TL: Um, I…think part of it is…you can go the route of like, trying to get grants and stuff like that and trying to get a literary agent to begin with. I don’t know. I don’t know, really.
[38:52] BL: Well okay, so let me put it to you this way, because it seemed to me like, just kind of knowing you and watching what you do online and so on, that you’ve put like, I don’t know, it seems like you have a good strategic mind and that you’re pretty disciplined or hardworking when it comes to how you’ve approached, you know, getting the word out. I guess the question is, how much organized thought goes into that and how much of it is just you dicking around online and working intuitively and doing what you think seems interesting in the moment, do you know? How much of it is preconceived and planned?
[39:37] TL: Can you give me an example of a thing, like one thing that—
BL: I could name, I mean god, I guess like when you sold shares of your book, you know, that whole plot. You know, to kind of raise money for your book where you sold equity in the book itself in the event that it ever earned out or whatever, like that seemed to be a pretty ingenious way of, I don’t know, financing it and then also getting some attention because it did catch on and so I guess like, that would be one example.
[40:13] BL: And then a question that springs to mind in the context of that is, you know, like once you figured out that you wanted to do that, then when it came to the execution of it, how much work went into it? And then when it came to getting media attention for it, was that you? Like sending out word to reporters?
[40:33] And then there was the whole thing with Gawker where you were like, putting “Britney Spears” stickers on their door, like, relentlessly. Like, talk about those kinds of things you know, how much time do you spend thinking through this kind of stuff and then how much time do you spend executing?
[40:55] TL: For the shares thing, I didn’t spend any time, like I didn’t sit there thinking, “What do I want to do about this thing?” it was just like an idea that was there. Probably someone else, I remember someone else told me, “You should do that.” And I was like, “Yeah, I think I already thought about it and was going to do it at some point.” So I just wrote the blog post and some person I had a writing class with in college, posted about it on The New York Times Freakonomics blog and that’s where everyone like, linked to.
[41:43] BL: Right.
TL: So, I didn’t expect that to get a lot of attention at all.
BL: Did you push your friend to post about it on the Freakonomics blog or did he do that of his own volition?
TL: He was doing it, I didn’t even, I don’t know him that well.
BL: Oh wow, okay.
TL: But I don’t think that was good for me in the long term, in terms of promotion. Because like every article, well the Gawker article, was like, “Tao made $12,000 on a book he hasn’t even written yet,” which seems, like, shitty of me.
[42:22] TL: But actually in the blog post it said I’d written like eighty percent of it or something. So, that gives the impression to most people that like, just, “Don’t read this guy’s books there’s nothing in there that will…he’ll just be trying to trick you,” or something. So that’s probably turned off like a lot of readers.
[42:56] BL: Do you regret it? Do you ever feel like, I don’t know, I mean I know you said you think it was bad for you but do you ever sit there and go, “Goddamn it, I made a terrible mistake,” or are you able to sort of let it go? That’s the kind of thing, I mean, I was just gonna say, I’m the kind of person who would hyper-analyze, I do hyper-analyze, way too many things about myself. [Laughs]
[43:22] TL: But I think, yeah that’s terrible, in my view, in terms of getting people to buy my books, but it’s like exactly what I want to do in my life. Like it’s, I know it’s probably terrible in that way but in another way it’s exciting to me. And that’s the thing that I focus on first. Like, I’m never thinking, I won’t do something that I think is like, boring, if it’s going to sell more books, I don’t think. To a large degree.
[44:08] BL: And has anything changed in your approach since you’ve been picked up by a bigger house and you’ve gotten a bigger advance and things seem, because it feels like Taipei could potentially be a bigger event, you could sell more books than you’ve sold in the past. Like, do you have that sense and has it changed the way you think of how you present yourself online, or?
[44:30] TL: No. No, no I don’t think so. But another example, I’ll tell you another example, like the sabotaging of myself. Like, the title of Richard Yates being Richard Yates and the characters being named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.
[44:56] TL: That’s like a major detriment to me in terms of getting reviews from professional places like The New York Times, or getting them to view it as “serious.” Or a lot of other people. But I felt like if I didn’t do that, I just had no justification for not doing that except for, “The New York Times will take it more seriously.”
[45:30] BL: That seems like bullshit.
TL: [Laughs] What does?
BL: Just, The New York Times. It’s like, get a sense of humor. I don’t know. If that’s really the way that they’re going to evaluate something like, “Oh he named a character after Haley Joel Osment, we’re not going to take this seriously,” like that seems crazy.
TL: Well I don’t think The New York Times, probably a lot of people there, I don’t know, I’m just talking about generally, the kind of person.
[45:56] BL: Yeah, I get it. I get it, you know, people think like, “Oh this guy’s putting me on, he’s not serious,” or something. I don’t know.
TL: I wouldn’t, if I read, if Lorrie Moore had one of her books, the characters were named Brad Pitt and Jessica Alba or whatever, I would have different views towards it maybe.
TL: So I’m not sure.
[46:28] BL: But it’s also like, I mean I think different writers have different sensibilities and you sort of get to know them. Because a writer like Bret Easton Ellis, who I know that you’re a fan of and who’s had some nice things to say about your work, you know, he drops a lot of pop culture references and you know, I think his work, it’s safe to say, gets taken seriously or it gets reviewed, at least, by places like The New York Times.
[46:51] BL: So I think a lot of it, maybe it’s a process of familiarization, and I feel like it’s happening for you. I feel like the bigger publications are…okay. Here’s what I would say. I feel like the literary community and the reviewing, you know, the world of book reviews or whatever, might not, or might have underestimated how serious you are as an artist.
[47:21] And I hate even using that phrase, but what I mean by that is just how hard you’ve worked. I feel like you’ve, and I’ve argued this on your behalf without you knowing it before in conversations with friends, but if people read your blog or read interviews with you or read your books, like it’s clear that you’ve done the reading. You’ve read a huge amount of books, more than I have, frankly, and I feel like you’re really disciplined in terms of how you work and that you try really hard to make good books that are very interesting and have a very strong sense of identity. Meaning that it’s very much “you.” Like, no one else could have written this stuff.
[48:04] BL: And I feel like maybe you’re at the point where people are starting to realize that. Do you agree?
TL: Um, I don’t know.
TL: The thing is. I don’t know. Let’s go to the next topic. [Laughs]
[48:37] BL: Have you ever, let me ask you this, have you ever felt angered because you felt like people weren’t taking you seriously enough? Or didn’t give you, I don’t know, do you ever feel frustrated like, you know, “I’m really doing what needs to be done, I’m doing the work and people are, you know, making kind of like broad judgements of my work based on these little details,” you know?
[49:04] TL: Probably at the beginning sometimes, but now it just makes sense. Everything makes sense to me, I think.
BL: Okay so, college years, just to trace it a little bit more. Like I remember reading something with you, and I forget exactly what it was, but you were talking about a particularly, like, depressive period that you went through in the beginning of your college existence, is that correct?
[49:34] TL: Yeah. Well, pretty much all of, I would view myself as depressed through all high school and college, probably.
BL: Like clinically depressed?
TL: Clinically? Well I never, I went to a psychologist or something like that in high school I think, but I just went one time. But no, I wasn’t diagnosed as, by anyone, no.
[50:04] BL: Okay. Yeah, I went to a shrink once too, just once. I was twenty-two or whatever, and I was like, “God I hate my life.” And I went in once but it didn’t make me feel any better, I just felt weird. It wasn’t the right therapist, I guess.
TL: Yeah, I just felt like, “this is weird.” [Laughs]
BL: [Laughs] I think like –
TL: I think I just laid there and listened to a tape, or something.
[50:30] BL: [Laughs] That’s sort of a funny visual. But, do you, were you like, depressed to the point of not being able to get out of bed? I don’t know. What did depression look like in you, during this time?
TL: Just if you saw me outside, you’d probably think, “That person seems really depressed.” [Laughs} But I was still functioning. It’s hard to judge depression. Because supposedly there’s people who like really can’t leave their beds. But I was always able to leave my bed.
[51:11] TL: But then when I’m outside I would feel like everyone else is much happier than me.
BL: Were you ever suicidal?
TL: Um, it’s hard to say. I have never tried to kill myself.
[51:33] BL: So you weren’t, like, making plans or, you know, doing anything that extreme?
TL: I don’t think so. I mean, I would, I think I would think about it but I don’t know how seriously. Probably not very seriously.
[51:53] BL: Well, I’ve always argued, or not always, but in my adult life I’ve argued that it’s sort of strange to not think about suicide, with some degree of serious thought. You know, because it feels like such a natural question to ask yourself, in light of the fact that life is so difficult. You know, I happen to have come to a place where I sort of, or I don’t even sort of, I believe that it’s a selfish act and very destructive, you know.
[52:23] BL: I don’t think that there, I think that there are certain instances where it’s defensible, you know, somebody’s like really suffering from sort of health ailment or, you know, you’re in some, you know, foreign prison or something being like abused horribly. [Laughs] You know what I’m saying, like –
BL: There’s defensible circumstances, but I’ve sort of come to believe that it’s a really negative, selfish thing to do.
[52:52] BL: But I also think that, it would seem very strange to me, to meet an adult who hadn’t given it some thought, right?
TL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, well there’s many ways to think about it. Right? [Pause] Hello?
BL: Yeah, no, what are the ways?
TL: What are the ways?
[53:20] BL: Yeah I mean, I don’t know, I guess I kind of just alluded to a little bit of it, but I guess like. I was just gonna say, I forget who it was, and I don’t want to sound too precious, but I think it might have been like Sartre, or one of these philosophers, who said it was the central question, you know.
TL: Yeah, yeah.
BL: It’s a deep part of the human experience of like, why put up with this? You know? If it’s essentially painless on the other side, you know?
[53:57] TL: Yeah. Yeah. Suicide. Yeah.
BL: [Laughs] So was this period, like this depressive period, where you decided to become a writer or decided to try writing fiction? Or did you have an inkling of wanting to do this earlier in your life?
[54:19] TL: No, it was during this, probably the first or second year of college when I started trying really hard and felt committed to doing it.
BL: Do you remember what instigated it?
TL: Not exactly, no. The first piece of writing that really excited me was Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” or something like that. The story in her collection Birds of America about the child with cancer. When I read that I was really excited. Maybe that.
[55:09] BL: And was it, I mean I know at least partially the excitement was, well I don’t know, did you feel right away that like, “This is something I could do,” or was it more just like, “This is something I wish I could do,” you know, like how much confidence did you have from an authorial standpoint early on? Did you go into it like feeling insecure about whether or not you could do it? Or did you have a decent amount of confidence from the start?
[55:39] TL: I’m not sure, but at some point I was definitely like, “I can do this.” Because I was just spending like all my time reading and writing. And in the writing workshops, I would feel like I knew enough about what was being talked about to like, to like defend people and I would do that a lot.
[56:12] BL: You would defend people?
BL: What like, so you went to NYU for undergrad, right?
BL: And were the workshops, were they mean? Like were people pretty brutal about their critiques, or was it?
TL: Sometimes they were mean. Yeah, there would usually be three or four students who would be mean, I think.
[56:41] BL: And you would, would you only defend people when you actually liked their work or would you defend people just because you didn’t want to see them get savaged?
TL: No, I would always defend people. I mean I don’t think there’s any piece of art that I wouldn’t defend, if someone is shittalking it.
[57:09] BL: Yeah okay, let’s talk about this, because I know you’ve written about, and have talked about, how you don’t believe in, quote, “good and bad art” and people making those kinds of assessments of creative work, is that right?
[57:28] TL: I wouldn’t say I “don’t believe” that, I would just say that it doesn’t make sense for me to call something good or bad without defining a context and a goal and a perspective for it. That’s just like an observation that I feel like most people would agree on.
[58:03] BL: Well, I mean, is that a reaction, or do you find yourself frustrated with a lot of literary criticism for that reason? Because they’re not creating that context or giving like parameters to how they assess a book?
TL: Not, no, I don’t, I mean, it’s just happening, it’s just always…I don’t feel frustrated by it, no.
BL: You don’t? Okay.
TL: I understand it. Yeah.
[58:37] BL: Do you get frustrated when friends of yours or people online start talking about like, what’s good and what’s bad, I get sort of, I don’t know, I get exhausted by all that. I have a hard time getting really worked up about whether or not I think something’s good or bad, you know? If I like something, I get excited about it and I tend to want to like, talk about it and share the book with people. But if I don’t like something, I don’t tend to want to sit there and bitch about it. I just sort of like, put it down, you know?
[59:13] TL: Yeah. Actually I do get upset, I feel really bad if someone close to me starts saying something was bad and it seems like they really mean it. And I can’t convince them that it’s not bad just because they don’t like it. I get really upset.
BL: What does that look like, when you get really upset?
* * *
[59:45] All right folks there you go, that is Tao Lin. Go get his new novel, it’s called Taipei, it is available now in trade paperback and ebook formats from Vintage Contemporaries. You can find Tao online at taolin.info, that’s taolin.info. He’s on the Facebook and you can follow him on Twitter where his handle is @tao_lin. Don’t forget, the second half of this interview is going to go live this Sunday, June the 9th, 2013.
Please subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t done that already. You can do that free of charge at iTunes or via Stitcher, or better yet just go download the free official Otherppl app. Thanks to Kill Rock Stars, as always, for all the good music. Be sure to check out killrockstars.com and if you have thoughts on this podcast and you want to email me, or if you just have thoughts in general and you want to tell me a story, my address once again is email@example.com.
Otherwise, listen to some Terence McKenna. That guy’s fascinating. And there’s a podcast out there called Machine Elves Are GO! Machine elves, as in little munchkin-like people. Machine Elves Are GO! Sounds a little strange. It’s a nice collection though, of Mp3’s, and you can listen for free and it’ll help you get your act together before they put you in a box and plant you.
Please remember that Henri Matisse played the violin, and that Schopenhauer was found dead sitting at the breakfast table. That is it for now, thank you for being here, thanks to Tao Lin. Go get Taipei. I am gonna try to get my act together. I’m gonna try to do some telepathy. I want to have a telepathic experience. You see what I’m saying? Do you see…what I’m saying?