Tao Lin is a Brooklyn-based NYU alum who has published numerous books of poetry and short stories, as well as one novel titled Eeeee Eee Eeee. At just 25 years old, Lin recently finished his second novel which is slated for publication in Fall 2009.
Hipsters flock to his sparse writing for its desolate tone and modern feel, so I guess he is kind of like Miranda July without boobs. Of his newest book he says, “maybe 40% of it is Gmail chats.” (Millennial!) I suspect his fans also like that he does not use capitalization.
Below is an interview with Lin, conducted via e-mail, by NYU Local’s Jessica Roy.
JESSICA: Okay, quick. Be a Millennial and pick your favorite of each pair: Red Bull or Monster?
JESSICA: AIM or Gchat?
JESSICA: Mac or PC?
TAO: “I have enjoyed features of both”
JESSICA: Calling or texting?
JESSICA: New York or LA?
TAO: “New York”
JESSICA: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was there a conscious “aha!” moment or was it more fluid?
TAO: During my sophomore year at NYU I became a little alienated from the friends I had because my then-girlfriend and I broke up and we had sort of the same friends. After that I deliberately didn’t “hang out” with anyone really (except like once a month or something) for around two years. It was during this time that I decided to focus really hard on writing. I read a lot and studied books and things and “structured my life around writing.” I lived in Jersey City for a year in one floor of a house where I rarely saw the other people, who I didn’t know. It was a time of intense loneliness but also a time of medium productivity. Sometimes I thought, “This is so bad, why am I so alone. I’m like a secret or something.” Most of the time I thought things like, “The situation I’m in is overall not making me feel good, because I think about killing myself and other bad things, but if I work really hard on writing I can get into another situation, maybe I’ll feel better in another situation.” I think I achieved my goals because I am now in a different situation.
JESSICA: How old were you when your first book was published, and how did you go about accomplishing that?
TAO: I was 23. I had completed a story-collection, BED, when I was 21 or 22, and I got a literary agent who sent it to 25-30 editors who rejected it. During this time of rejection, over 3-4 months (the summer after I graduated from NYU, I think), I was working on a poetry collection and a novel. I finished the poetry collection and sent it to contests and it won one and was published in November, then BED and my novel EEEEE EEE EEEE came out the next May.
JESSICA: You went to NYU for journalism—what made you switch gears and go into poetry?
TAO: I “decided” on journalism at I think the end of my junior year because I was required to choose a major by that point, and journalism was the only major I could achieve based on the number of courses I had taken in each subject. I took something like 12 writing workshops, 7 psychology courses, and 8 journalism classes at NYU. There is no creative writing major for undergrads so I was forced to accept the B.A. in journalism. Today I am glad I have a B.A. in journalism. I think people feel that I’m more powerful because of my B.A. in journalism, like I have chosen to not employ the myriad journalistic techniques that I know, having mastered and probably transcended them.
JESSICA: As a blogger and a published writer, what is your theory on the whole new media vs. print journalism thing?
TAO: I believe I don’t like to think about that. I remember being at NYU listening to people talk about that and thinking things like, “I don’t want to think about this at all.” I think it would be funny if LiveJournal buys the New York Times in 2012 or something.
JESSICA: Is there anything specific you try to accomplish with your poetry? Is there an audience you write for?
TAO: I try to express crippling loneliness, severe depression, the arbitrary nature of the universe, the function of morality within an existential view, confusion, existential despair, and that consciousness means we must choose in a tone that I feel will affect people (including myself) to not want to kill themselves, not want to do self-destructive things, and not want to be inconsiderate to people. My poetry is ultimately life-affirming.
My target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans.
JESSICA: You seem to be the archetype for a “Millennial,” incorporating IM transcripts and energy drinks into your poems. Do you consciously attempt to speak for a generation of kids swigging Red Bull and cybering, or is it less calculated?
TAO: I think it is completely not calculated when I incorporate the internet or energy drinks, I feel natural when I type about the internet and energy drinks, like I am in nature petting a frog or touching a tree or something, it feels natural. When I do the opposite, when I block out the internet and energy drinks, I think, is when I am consciously attempting something. I did that for a long time but The New Yorker and The Paris Review didn’t accept me. Then at some point I had feelings like “I don’t care anymore,” “I’m alone all the time anyway,” and “What difference does it make?” and started writing what was really in my brain, which at the time was mostly “the internet” and “feeling alienated.” I think one of the first things I wrote with that “mindset” was the poem “some of my happiest moments in life occur on AOL instant messenger.”
JESSICA: In your book “you are a little bit happier than i am,” a lot of the poems seem to revolve around fights you’ve had with a girl. I’m afraid I’ll piss ex-boyfriends off if I write about them. So, um, was she mad? Was it worth it?
TAO: She liked the book, according to her. Only one person had a problem, sort of, not really, I’ll explain anyway. The person was Annie Proulx’s literary agent’s assistant or something and I quoted her in the book saying how much Annie Proulx gets per month from royalties. She asked me to take the piece off the internet, but then I got it published on a different site, and she seemed okay with it, like she forgot or something. And then the piece was published in the book and she didn’t say anything, I guess because she wasn’t Annie Proulx’s literary agent’s assistant anymore. I think everything is okay with her now, she has written on my Facebook wall recently.
JESSICA: You just finished another book—can you give us some background on it?
TAO: My new book is my second novel, it is called Richard Yates. I worked on it for 2 years I think. The main characters are Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, maybe 40% of it is Gmail chats, it is around 54,000 words (my first novel was “a meager” 28,400 or so words), and will be published by Melville House Publishing in Fall 2009, probably. It is a linear, realistic novel about a romantic relationship.
JESSICA: The internet is a cruel place. How do you deal with criticism that may be lobbed your way?
TAO: I think I view abstract criticism and praise with medium to severe detachment that is at times wry, uncomprehending, or amused. I look at the computer screen with a neutral facial expression while my brain processes that the shit-talking or praising information that is there is not going to concretely affect my life in concrete reality of going to the grocery store, eating watermelon, reading books on my bed, and eating dinner in a restaurant. If someone criticizes my concrete actions in concrete reality, I do take that into account and think about what I have done. For example, if someone says I caused 10,000 people or cows to feel physical pain I will think, “I shouldn’t have caused 10,000 people or cows to feel physical pain, I think,” and then probably do something to prevent that from happening in the future. If someone criticizes my non-rhetorical writing, or if I am feeling really existential and like my life is “art,” then I don’t really think about it, I just think, “There is no good or bad in art,” in a quiet monotone and then do something else.
One time, recently, someone made like 60 comments on 10-20 different blogs about how I can’t be trusted (when I was selling shares of the royalties of my second novel) and some people believed the comments and were “turned away” from investing in me. In that case my concrete existence was affected, because money was not going to come to me due to widespread libel of my character, and I “took action,” by making a blog post showing how those 60 comments were from one person using different names, and is probably the same person who has been commenting on my blog and other blogs for 2-3 years saying I’m a bad person. I think the person’s name is “Fran.”
JESSICA: I don’t really understand the economy. You asked people to buy shares of a book you were writing; why, and how exactly did that work?
TAO: I had a part-time job at a restaurant and still had “run out of money” despite not really buying anything except food and living in a 4-person apartment off the 6th stop in Brooklyn on the L train. I had no money left. And I also did not like having a job. I did not want to have a job anymore for the rest of my life. So I sold 60% of the royalties to my next novel in 10% shares to six different people for $2,000 per share. People gave me $2,000 to receive 10% of my U.S. royalties for my next novel for the rest of their life, every six months, as I get royalty checks from my publisher. I promise to myself that I will never get another real job for the rest of my life. In part because when I have no responsibilities or obligations my feelings of meaninglessness and confusion increase in quality and become more intense and “honed” and even “beautiful” in a way that feels good to me, and which I like to write about, and also which makes me feel more “original” and amused, as a person, treating my life as a “work of art” or something. I feel “I have gone too far” with this answer.
JESSICA: Who are some of your favorite writers?
JESSICA: Did you enjoy your time at NYU? Any advice for kids at NYU looking to go into writing?
TAO: I did enjoy my time at NYU. I think about the past and I enjoyed all of it, even the “bad” parts, I think. This may be an illusion, I’m not sure, but I think about feeling really lonely eating Chinese food alone in my room in Jersey City, on the nights I felt most depressed, and I feel like I actually felt good then, that I “miss” it.
My advice for NYU students who want to go into writing is “I don’t know what advice to give you.”
Photo by Flickr user sugarfreak used under the Creative Commons