Sunday, December 14, 2008

Interview - Tao Lin

After reviewing Eeeee Eee Eeee for this blog, I asked the author if I could interview him and he graciously fulfilled my request. I sent him 20 Questions on various and sometimes hopelessly personal topics. The responses are fantastic. For once, we will have a clear view of "how to get published when you are young" and "how a writer works and lives" without any confused conjectures about the path towards success. Many an ambitious and unpublished writer will offer their advice about becoming recognized as a literary voice, but at the end of the day, to quote the same professor quoted in the previous post, "experience knows it is not so."

JK: How long have you been writing for? Can you remember the first project you ever undertook?

TL: I have been writing with thoughts like “I am working hard” for 4 or 5 years. The first 20+ day writing project I had was a novel, I think. I finished it when I was 20 or 21 and edited it a few times. It was around 100,000 words.

JK: Do you have a regular working routine? Do you write every day?

TL: Since 4 or 5 years ago I've probably worked on writing 70-90% of days. Maybe during 50-70% of those days I’ve “scheduled my life around writing.” My routine has changed during those 4-5 years maybe 3-6 times. For the last 4-8 months, my routine, working on the middle and end drafts of my next two books, has been to work 3-6 hours then eat something then work 3-6 more hours then eat something and go to my room and sit and eat for a while checking email and other things and go to sleep.

JK: Which was your first work picked up for publication? Did you go through an agent? Did you have to deal with a lot of rejection before you got accepted? What was that process like?

TL: My first story published was maybe on or (no longer exists, I think). My first book published was YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM. I sent it to Action Books’ poetry-book contest for publication and it won. My first non-poetry book published was my story-collection, BED. I had a literary agent who was unable to sell it (was rejected by something like 20 publishers). After that 1-3 month period of rejection by Knopf, FSG, Riverhead, etc., I “separated” from the literary agent; the next day Melville House, my current publisher, called me and said they wanted to publish BED. (They had solicited BED independent of the literary agent about 4 months earlier, after reading about it on my blog).

JK: Why did you include so many scenes with animals in Eeeee Eee Eeee? Are they meant to be symbolic or allegorical in some way?

TL: I included the animals because I felt it was funny and also during that time in my life, in regards to the novel, I had many thoughts like “what difference does it make,” thoughts which contributed to me including animals. It is not symbolic or allegorical to me. It is, to me, more like me saying something like, “What if [something I think is funny happened]?” which is more “a joke” than allegorical, I feel. Another way of interpreting the animals, in my view, would be to view it the same as seeing animals in nature. If I see a dolphin in nature I feel amused, to some degree, and there is no additional meaning or effect, I do not interpret a dolphin in nature as allegorical, it does not reference something else to me. I believe and do not refute or encourage or discourage (or think negatively of or condescendingly towards) that some people see dolphins in nature, or in books, and interpret it as symbolic for the failure of their marriage or something else.

JK: Is the girl in the t-shirt that says "Mineral" a reference to the band Mineral?

TL: Yes.

JK: If you had to list your top 5 favorite authors, who would they be?

TL: Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie. I am having problems picking the other two. There are 5 or 10 more that I like.

JK: Do you feel famous at all? I'm guessing people don't recognize you on the street yet, but do you have a different perception of yourself as a person who maintains an audience and is recognized by the literary industry?

TL: I don't know if I feel famous. I feel famous and excited when Gawker links. But it gets less exciting each time. I feel the only way, maybe, to constantly feel famous and excited is to increase one's fame exponentially.

My perception of myself includes thoughts like “I am primarily a person who is ignored by Bookforum, certain literary blogs, and Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors.”

JK: Is it hard to get an agent interested in your work? Would you be able to provide any advice in regards to querying them? Is it easier for you to publish more now that you've already got several books under your belt?

TL: I queried agents after I had completed BED (story-collection) and published I think 7 or 8 of the 9 stories in literary magazines, won an NYU creative writing award, and won One Story's annual short story contest. I put those things on my cover letter. I emailed queries and most agents responded. Some agents did not feel confident they could sell a story-collection, but wanted to see a novel when I wrote one. Two agents wanted to represent the story-collection and I talked to both for about a week and chose one.

My publisher has committed, I think (it is not “official”), to publishing anything I write that is like a “real” book, currently, so, yes, it is easier for me now.

JK: Do you like Bret Easton Ellis? Is there a reference to Less Than Zero in Eeeee Eee Eeee (something about young adults abusing drugs and leading a privileged lifestyle)? Do you aspire to that level of success? Or is artistic cred more important to you than commercial success?

TL: Yes, I like Bret Easton Ellis. I feel that he is funny and has the ability to write sentences containing a concrete to abstract ratio that I like, in a tone that makes me feel calm. I feel that his work, to some degree, is a conscious parody of what he is writing about, but also serious, and not a parody. I feel that Lorrie Moore does that also, but with sadness and maybe desperation, whereas Bret Easton Ellis does it with other things, depending on the book. “Conscious parody” is a tone I enjoy, I think. I don't think Eeeee Eee Eeee specifically references Less Than Zero because I had not yet read Less Than Zero when I wrote Eeeee Eee Eeee.

JK: Are you able to support yourself fully as a writer, or do you have to do odd-jobs as a way of making ends meet? Have you been considered for any teaching positions?

TL: I am not yet able to support myself only from writing. I think maybe by 2011 I will be able to support myself only from non-assigned writing. Since college I have worked at two libraries, as a personal assistant, at a restaurant, selling batteries on eBay, and some other things I think. I have not been considered for teaching positions.

JK: Can you tell us anything about Richard Yates? How experimental is it compared to Eeeee Eee Eeee?

TL: Richard Yates is linear and ideally has the same pacing, perspective, language, and tone throughout; it contains many scenes, is “dialogue heavy,” and is focused on one relationship. I don't feel it is experimental. But I just thought about it and I feel it's experimental in that I “controlled myself almost completely” from doing anything to it. Eeeee Eee Eeee goes backwards in time with each chapter until the last chapter (which starts chronologically before the first chapter) and ends at the chronologically latest point, and also switches perspectives, has inconsistent language and sentences and maybe tone, and has “fantastical” and “absurd” elements (which are all things I “did” “to it,” I feel). I think most people will not view Richard Yates as “experimental” but that I will sometimes view it as experimental.

JK: Did you ever meet E.L. Doctorow? Or Harold Bloom? Were there any writing teachers or classes in college that pushed you more than others to seek publication?

TL: I didn't meet those people. Writing teachers didn't really talk about publication to me, I think. The focus was on writing things and editing them, at that point, both in my view and their view, I feel. I liked Brian Morton, Thomas McGonigle, and Sophie Powell.

JK: I remember a short sarcastic passage about terrorists in Eeeee Eee Eeee. What was your experience like on 9/11 and what influence, if any, has it had on your life and your work?

TL: I woke around 11 a.m. in a dorm by Washington Square Park and heard things on my roommate's radio. Then I went outside and walked toward lower Manhattan to look at it a little. I feel that 9/11 has had no effect on my life and probably most of my work, relative to other things that have happened in the world, in that 9/11 did not add to, take away from, or change the “existential concerns” (rather than sociological, political, or topical concerns) that I feel I focus on in most and, ideally, all, of my writing.

JK: Did you ever work at Bobst Library? If so, were you there when the suicides occurred? I could see that being a traumatic experience on the level of 9/11 in a much more personal sense.

TL: Yes, I worked there. I was not there when people killed themselves but I was there like later in the day each day. My co-workers were there, in the basement, they said it was really loud (people killed themselves by jumping off the 10th, I think, floor in the inside atrium, onto the main lobby).

JK: Did you ever know a girl named Sarah in Jersey City? She dropped out after freshman year and last I heard she was living there. I have to say I feel very similar to the way Andrew feels about Sara in Eeeee Eee Eeee and I just wanted to make sure this was not the same person, or to find out if it was because she pretty much dropped off the face of the planet and I miss her greatly.

TL: I did not know Sarah in Jersey City. I think the only people I knew in Jersey City were the two other people living in the house I lived in, on different floors, and I saw them maybe once a week in passing.

JK: What are a few of your favorite bands at the moment?

TL: I have been listening to “Line and a Dot” (, “Hop Along, Queen Ansleis” (, and “The Mystery Books” ( recently.

JK: Do you think you'll be a lifelong New Yorker or could you see yourself living someplace else? What other places appeal to you?

TL: I would move anywhere maybe. I don't feel attached to New York City except that it would take effort to move somewhere else (and maybe also that there is more access here to organic vegan food). Places that are sunny and don't get really cold appeal to me. Florida, California, and Japan appeal to me.

JK: Do you ever get worried about running out of ideas for good books? Do you outline a lot before you start a novel or just generally start typing?

TL: I do not feel worried about not having ideas for books. With my next two books I outlined each multiple times at different stages of their completion. Completing a draft (including having all the scenes that I feel will be in the final draft, in the general order that I feel will be in the final draft, including a beginning and an end, and in an edited form), of each book probably constituted 5-25% of the time spent on each book. The other 75-95% is spent repeatedly reading it beginning to end while changing little things and deleting little things and moving sentences around inside paragraphs and things like that.

JK: I mostly found out about you from Is there a concerted marketing effort through your publisher Melville House for all of this coverage or has bookslut sought you out on their own?

TL: My publisher's blog, Mobylives, was one of the first book blogs, along with Bookslut, so they know each other from that. Bookslut acknowledges, reviews, or does something with most, or some, Melville House books, I think.

JK: What is your opinion on the publishing industry at large? Do you find it to be full of sycophants and posers or do you think the majority of people in the "biz" have good taste and good intentions?

TL: I do not think in terms of good taste or good intentions or sycophants. If someone likes a certain kind of book then their “taste,” to me, is "I like a certain kind of book," it is not good or bad to me. If someone is lying that they like someone’s book to get that person to like them I feel that is funny, to some degree, and is “just another way of ‘doing things.’” It “works” for some people, some people do it openly, some people do it sarcastically, some people like sycophants, it is sustainable for some people, it cannot be sustained for some people, some people have problems “faking interest,” etc., and I feel that each method of doing something is “okay.”


Thomas McGonigle said...

A google alert sent me to the kind memory of Mr Lin. He was one of the few students at NYU that actually had a real voice...I hope he will endure

Anonymous said...

the arbitrary nature of the universe