:: Article

Not bored, neutral: An interview with Tao Lin

By Lee Rourke.


In the final week that this interview was conducted over email (taking about three weeks’ time in total), just after Tao Lin had sent me his final answer, a very strange thing happened: Tao Lin was interviewed on the Chris Evans show. Tao Lin, a master of self-publicity, had posted a simple (or so it seemed) plea on his blog. Within one day three British broadsheets had covered the story. I could only sit back and admire Tao Lin’s temerity, insouciance and media savvy.

Tao Lin is quite a special writer and like all special writers he is either loved or loathed – there is no in-between. His writing is pared down, ironic, minimalist and often extremely amusing. He essentially writes about himself – a subject in which he constantly teases us with throughout his burgeoning collection of work.

It took me quite a while to warm to Tao Lin’s writing. I was meant to review his debut novel a long time ago and after three false starts I eventually got around to reading his book and was finally overwhelmed by the ontology at play beneath its deliberately monotonous surface. Just as I was about to sit down to write my review I read this by the critic Stephen Mitchelmore – it was a review that said everything I wanted to say, only it was said far better than I ever could.

So I never got around to reviewing Tao Lin’s work, which turned out to be a good thing, because now I can just read his work without ever worrying what I should say about it, I just delight in the words he writes, reading Tao Lin is a pleasure, a relief, a great thing. I’m not the first person to say this, but I’m going to say it here anyway, more people should read Tao Lin.


3:AM: Having read Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy – and in reading your poetry in general, as well as your fiction – I have noticed that you manage to create a unique loneliness, or otherness, within your work. A dislocation within it that can either mesmerise a reader or repel them. Not many writers – in my opinion – can achieve this and I wondered if this is a conscious element within your writing as a whole?

Tao Lin: When I am editing something I reread it a lot and try to “observe” myself rereading it, to see what effects my things are having on me, to know if I want to change them or not, so I think whatever happened was “conscious.”

3:AM: Your editing process reminds me of something Tom McCarthy posits in Remainder: the work of art – to paraphrase – is already there within in the block of marble; all the sculptor has to do is remove the surplus matter to reveal it. Is writing poetry more suited to this methodology than writing prose? I mean, you’re certainly capable of switching between the two but which, if any, do you prefer?

TL: I feel really alone or “helpless” or something thinking about this, like I’m about to type a sentence that includes the phrase “the arbitrary nature of the universe” to answer your question but I don’t want to do that for some reason. I think the main thing is that my poetry has line breaks and my prose doesn’t. For many of my poems if you took away the line breaks it could be interpreted as prose maybe. In conclusion I think poetry and prose are probably equally suitable to the methodology you described, “I’m not sure really.”


3:AM: Stylistically your poetry (and prose) is simple in form and free of syrupy attempts at being ‘Literary’. Your poetry, orthographically at least, reminds me of ee cummings‘ work, as it seems to possess the same insouciance and overt avoidance of metaphor, grammar and versification: a modern example of free verse that still, like cummings’, manages to be rather traditional. Is it important for you as a writer to openly avoid being ‘Literary’ yet knowingly be ‘Literary’ in doing so? And if so why?

TL: I really feel alienated from “serious literature” or something. Last night I tried to read books and I didn’t really want to read any books. I read the same 15-25 books repeatedly and feel satisfied. I think I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing. Currently I want to write things that I feel comfortable reading out loud. This includes not making the audience feel bored or think I’m smarter than them or something.

I almost never feel stupid when I read something someone else wrote. If I read something really abstract or something about quantum physics or string theory I think things like, “This person has done certain things in his head to create certain connections or something, connections I don’t have currently.” I also never feel “profound” or “deep” or really smart or something. Over time I have thought less about intelligence and more about differences. I don’t know who is more “intelligent” than who, just that two people are different. When I was ten or something I would look at other kids and think about who was smarter, if someone was really smart I would know they were really smart, some of my friends I thought were not that smart, it wouldn’t really affect how much I liked a person, but I feel like I even would think about a person and think things like, “His IQ is probably around 120.”


I don’t think things like that anymore. Now I think about people in terms of personality more, like whether someone is autistic and to what degree, or if they are “unalienable” or really nervous or something. I don’t look at things like David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon or some physics person and think they are really smart. I think about them alone, doing things, different things, not better or worse things, and doing things with people, like interacting with people, I actually do think like this or force myself to which is why I think I feel unable to write book reviews or rhetorical essays. I think of people who look at something “simple” and say that it is “deceptively simple” and I think, “That person has associated ‘complex’ with ‘good’ and ‘simple’ with ‘bad and stupid’ or something,” and if I think other things I resist it.

In terms of my own writing I have thought about it and I have changed a lot over 2-4 years. At first I was writing things that I do not like today as much, and which are not published, but which I really liked while writing them (and I do not think those feelings were “not legitimate” or “stupid” or something; if I kept writing the way I did I would probably still have books out today, they would just be different books), then I wrote Bed which I still like but has many parts I would not write today, then I wrote Eeeee Eee Eeee which I think has certain things that today I would not write, then I wrote you are a little bit happier than i am which I feel surprised that I wrote (I feel surprised how different the style is compared to Bed and that I don’t remember ever having some kind of realization of changing my style or whatever), then I wrote Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy which I also feel surprised that I wrote, because I would not write that today. And my next novel is something I want to not feel embarrassed to read aloud to any audience including hipsters or farmers or my parents or something. This is over 2-4 years, which is surprising to me a little, I will explain.

I think since Melville House is probably willing to publish almost anything I write I can actually “evolve” over time, whereas I feel that most writers that, throughout history, got enough “media attention” to still exist to people today just had their works that did not “fit” into their “oeuvre” not be published, due to “intervention” by editors and literary agents and friends and critics and whoever. This is just a “theory” or something.

But with me I have little “fear” that Melville House will not like my next novel, and I don’t have anyone else I am showing it to, I have no literary agent. I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to “ruin” my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to “ruin” a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been “ruined” in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also “ruined” Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more “important” (I don’t want to do things like that anymore, currently). I’m not sure how much exactly I thought about those things but I know cancer is in the book. I am surprised I actually put cancer in the book. I feel like it has been a “joke” to me for at least five to seven years to “make a person have cancer in a book so the book will be more important” yet there is cancer in that book, I inserted cancer into that book, I’m not sure what the level of sarcasm of the cancer in that book is though, maybe I was “being sarcastic.”


3:AM: Your writing in its approach explores a territory of human consciousness I would call ‘surface movement’; I suppose you would call it ‘concrete reality’. I think this has to do with something we both share as writers: the weight of boredom within ‘Being’. Can you elucidate a little about your thoughts on boredom and how it infiltrates your writing?

TL: I’m not sure if I know what I mean exactly anymore when I say “bored.” It doesn’t really create any images in my head or cause me to feel emotions. In high school I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and thought about meaninglessness a lot, and during that time, and in college some also, when I thought “meaninglessness” I think I actually had some kind of image or feeling associated with it, that I would feel or see or something, but now I really don’t have anything associated with “meaningless” (if someone says “life is meaningless” I don’t feel like I have any connection with that person), which is how it is with “boredom” now, I think. I only use those terms sarcastically now I think. Gradually more abstract words are having less effect my brain. Sometimes I read sentences and it is almost the same for me as looking at a wall or something.

3:AM: Whenever I read your work I always think of Fernando Pessoa‘s The Book of Disquiet. Not so much his heteronyms but his underlying everyday ennui. Are you influenced by his writing in any way?

TL: I like The Book of Disquiet, I’ve read it more than once, but I don’t think I’m much influenced by it, partly because when I read it I had already written all my books except Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy I think. I like his tone, I think it is “emo” and sarcastic and ultimately playful, like I feel like he enjoys making jokes about how sad and bored he feels because he “likes” his sadness and boredom to some extent, or at least thinks it is funny. Yes, I like Fernando Pessoa. He is probably the earliest writer who had that tone I just talked about that I have read. I forget when The Book of Disquiet was published. Jean Rhys also sort of had a similar tone in 1939 with Good Morning, Midnight.


3:AM: So, is it the right ‘tone’ you are looking for in your writing? In fiction and poetry in general? You recently published a ‘K-mart Realism’ list of favourite books/authors. Each of the books you chose – the ones that I have read – share that same ‘tone’ I think. It’s a pretty fine list, Jean Rhys tops it (I must say that I think the juxtaposition of ‘Jean Rhys’ and ‘K-mart’ is a work of poetry in itself); can you explain a little about ‘K-mart Realism’ and the ‘tone’ such writing shares?

TL: The tone I currently am writing in (second novel) is “neutral” I think. I am writing it like a journalism thing maybe, like an AP story. AP stories are really funny to me, they have funny quotes and describe things concretely, “severely detached.” The tone I currently like to write in most in poetry is like Matthew Rohrer‘s A Green Light maybe, or the poems by Zachary German I read in his magazine The Name of This Band is The Talking Heads. I don’t know, I just thought about what tone I like to write in and a lot of things went into my head, out of the twenty or thirty books that exist that I like I feel like there are twenty or thirty different tones. I would try to describe the tone but I don’t think that “works,” I mean when I describe something it doesn’t work at all, people will say that they like the similar kind of writing as me but then later I will learn that they like books that I do not like and like things that I do not like. “It just doesn’t work.”

My favorite “K-Mart Realism” books are Chilly Scenes of Winter and Distortions by Ann Beattie and Escapes and Honored Guest by Joy Williams. A one sentence description of “K-Mart Realism” could be, “They mostly only use ‘said’ for dialogue tags and their characters are capable of feeling depressed ‘for no concrete reason’ and don’t have cancer usually and there are not political things mostly.”

3:AM: I read somewhere that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is being used on Psychology courses, is this true?

TL: Yes, a professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania is using it in her “clinical psychology” and “personality psychology” classes. She has read the book, she even wrote a review / academic essay thing on the book and submitted it to a Harvard psychology journal. I would like to be in her class. I took a “personality” class in college and the textbook was $120 or something.


3:AM: You have already mentioned ‘K-mart realism’ and a specific ‘tone’ that you desire, do you see a school of writers and new writing emerging in New York, especially in Brooklyn? A kind of K-mart realism revival?

TL: I think there is a tiny “K-Mart Realism” revival on my blog maybe. I have probably caused 10-15 people to read Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie, 10-15 people to read something by Joy Williams, 3-4 people to read Two Against One by Frederick Barthelme, and 3-4 people to read Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason. Some of these people have blogged about those books after reading them, causing 5-10 more people to read those books. Overall I may have caused indirectly 75-125 people to read a “K-Mart Realism” book over 2-3 years.

I think in Brooklyn I know of one other person writing things that I would consider similar in some way to “K-Mart Realism” that I like, “Zachary German.” There are 2-3 other people also but I don’t talk to them regularly. “Deb Olin Unferth” has some things I would consider similar in some way to “K-Mart Realism” and so does “Rebecca Curtis.” So far no media coverage has occurred saying anything about a new school of writers emerging in New York that has something to do with “K-Mart Realism.” I think if someone did it it would be true, 2-3 people are enough to be a “revival” I think, so I guess there is a “revival.”

3:AM: Which forces me to ask you who are your favourite contemporary writers?

TL: I think Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, and anyone published by Bearparade.com.

3:AM: So, what’s Bore Parade all about? And who is behind all this? Do you know them?

TL: I think bore parade is started by a person I met in Amherst, he had an afro, he is white. Later he and his friends came to my launch party in Brooklyn for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

werner herzog floating in outer space angry thinking
i have too much experience in the business for this

by Ellen Kennedy

3:AM: Is there anything that interests you in the UK or the rest of Europe right now? I’m thinking Literature, music, stuff like that?

TL: I like Chris Killen. His first novel The Bird Room is coming out in 2009 from Canongate. Other than Chris Killen I don’t have a “clear” thought about writers in the UK. I feel like there are 5-8 Toby’s. Toby Litt. I can only think of one specific Toby but I feel there are 5-8. I know Martin Amis exists. I also just thought “Julian Barnes.” When I look at “Barnes” right now I think “Barnes and Noble.” I just thought “Rick Moody” for some reason, I know he’s American. The Collected Short Stories by Lorrie Moore came out in the UK I think but not in the U.S.

I like Werner Herzog. I think he has “forsaken” Germany, I’m probably wrong, I think I read that somewhere. “As for music” I like “The Refused” and some other bands like that from I think either Sweden or Switzerland. I don’t know what else to type. I have heard of a book called Naive. Super from the Netherlands or somewhere that I want to read sort of.

3:AM: Finally Tao Lin, you are very, very adept at eschewing anything personal about yourself whatsoever. Could you please leave us with at least one personal secret?

TL: A lot of things in my books are “true.” “People should just read my books” to learn about me I think. I’m not just trying to promote my books right now, I really think people can learn most about me by reading my books.


Lee Rourke is the author of Everyday and the forthcoming The Canal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008.