In the complacent, hype-filled, glossy wasteland that is the American literary marketplace, the sound of a genuinely new voice immediately stands out. Especially when that voice is funny, inventive, rigorous and wielded by an author skilled and talented out of all proportion to his years.
Tao Lin is a 24-year-old New York University graduate who was raised in Florida by Taiwanese parents. Earlier this year, he had a double-barreled debut: Melville House of New Jersey simultaneously published his first two prose books, a novel titled Eeeee eee eeee, (the title comes from the sound a dolphin makes) and a story collection titled Bed.
In both books, Lin shows he’s already attained what some writers never find. He has developed his own unmistakable and unique style. He has a contagiously honest way of writing that strips language of all its fakeries and is as exact as a knife blade without sounding flat.
Lin’s work already has earned him imitators and fans all over cyberspace. He has also acquired enemies riled up by the literary feuds and pranks perpetrated via his blog, Reader of Depressing Books.
He lives in Brooklyn where he is working on his second novel. I talked to him over Gmail chat one Saturday evening. In correspondence Lin is unfailingly polite and thoughtful. One gets the feeling he doesn’t dash off anything, not a single sentence in his novel or short stories, nor a single line in a Gmail chat. Over the course of three hours we discussed books, music, writing and literary culture. This is an abridged version of the interview; the full version is at the interviewer’s blog .
Please give us a plot capsule of your new novel Eeeee eeee eee.
Eeeee eeee eee is about a pizza deliveryman named Andrew. Andrew is sarcastic, bored, depressed. He knows being in a relationship with the girl he is obsessed with won’t solve any of his problems but he is really bored so he allows himself to believe that it will solve all of his problems. He drives around and sometimes hangs out with bears and dolphins and his friend Steve.
Bed, your new story collection, has nine short stories. Do they have a familial resemblance or are they all different?
They all came from my brain, so they are all similar in that way. Some books you can tell the author is trying, in each story, to be a completely different person, like they are “entering” into some “role” and telling the story from that point of view.
But in Bed the stories are all from my point of view— me, Tao Lin. I tried to avoid writing the same story nine times. When I started a new story I would first think, “What is something I can work on for 30 days in a row without feeling dishonest or bored or uninterested? It has to be something I already think about all the time anyway.” Then I would think, “Is this just the same story as another story I already wrote?”
What about the first book you published, which was a poetry collection.
My poetry book is called You are a Little Bit Happier than I am. It won Action Books’ prize. I got $1000 and they published it.
I think the poetry book is very emotional. I recommend it for fans of Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, I Hate Myself, Saves the Day, Alkaline Trio, The Get Up Kids, and even like Nirvana or Korn— yes, Korn. I think hipsters would like my poetry book. Anyone who is depressed, physically comfortable, or bored would like it I think.
Are you listening to music right now?
I am. I’m listening to “Bad Astronaut.” The singer and drummer were from Lagwagon.
I would like to ask you about music. What sort of role does it play in your creative process?
Listening to music makes me feel better and also more creative, which is motivational. It has the same effect as, like, getting an email from someone I like. Or drinking coffee. All these things make me happy. When I’m happy for some reason I am able to focus better, and write more.
When I’m severely depressed I’m also able to focus, but I must be completely, hopelessly depressed for that to happen. If I’m just regularly depressed I mostly just sit there clicking things on the Internet.
What is your favorite Nirvana song if any?
I don’t listen to Nirvana really. I don’t own any of their CDs. I like “In Bloom” from what I heard on the radio and on TV. It sounds calm and nice and it’s catchy.
Is this a fair analogy: tracks are to an album what short stories are to a collection?
I think that is a nice analogy. I spent a lot of time putting the stories in order. I don’t listen to albums straight through. I usually put one song on repeat. But I do think about why the band chose the order they did. A lot of the time I think that the first song on the CD is what the band thinks will appeal to the most people, while the last song on the CD is what song most appeals to themselves.
I think about song order and story order a lot. Sometimes I notice that a band always puts my favorite song as the fourth song on all their albums. For my stories I studied Lorrie Moore’s story-collection, Like Life, I wanted to model it on that. I stared at our table of contents and made notes about where each story was set— New York or Florida— and how lonely the characters were, and how long the stories were. I studied Lorrie Moore’s story order, but I don’t really do that for many other writers because I don’t get the feeling they spent much time thinking about it.
You often mention Lorrie Moore, Anne Beattie and Joy Williams as influences. These are all women writers obviously. I’ve never heard you mention a male author as an influence.
I do like male writers also. Richard Yates, Todd Hasak-Lowy, and Frederick Barthelme, and Matthew Rohrer and Ben Lerner and Michael Earl Craig for poetry. It is about 50/50 what gender it is of writers I like.
Maybe I like those women writers, though, because they are not as focused on having sex with women, on being a dominant badass, or on trying to show people how their loneliness is a result of being better than other people, having deep and extensive knowledge of existentialism, or having a really high IQ.
I read some male writers and I get the feeling their plot and dialogue is influenced mostly by questions like, “Will the reader think I’m a weak, insecure, desperate wimp if I have this character cry due to loneliness and then play online video games? Maybe I should have the character get drunk instead and then have reckless sex with women he doesn’t like after doing drugs and beating a homeless person.”
Why do you always narrate from what is essentially your personal point of view?
If I narrate from, like, the point-of-view of a Taiwanese janitor with 10 children I feel like I am just “screwing around.” It feels like a game. It feels like I’m a small child who wants to impress his parents or his teacher. Like, “Look how creative and powerful my brain is that I can convince you that I am actually a Taiwanese janitor with 10 children.”
Some people say it is “narcissistic” to focus on one self so much, and they say it like it’s a bad thing. But this is only what I publish. If I wrote something from the point of view of a Taiwanese janitor with 10 children I think it would be better if I kept it to myself. The function, if any, of writing from another’s perspective, is to humanize another person, so that you will see them as a person, so that you will be nicer to them.
But if I publish my narcissistic short stories other people can see that I am a human, and be nicer to me, and others like me. If I publish about a Taiwanese janitor with 10 children it might just cause people to treat “real” Taiwanese janitors based on preconceptions and things that are just wrong— because I would have had to make assumptions, since I am not a Taiwanese janitor.
What is more important in your view, literature or life?
To me there is no difference. Literature is inside of “life” just like a tree is inside of “life.” The book and the tree both have an effect on a human or an animal. Those words— literature and life— are both abstractions, so anyone can define them however they want, and answer this question however they want.
For example I don’t see a difference between a sentence someone types to me in Gmail chat and a sentence I read in Moby Dick or something. And I don’t see a difference, really, from a sentence I read in Moby Dick and a person standing in front of me speaking sentences to me, even if they’re saying, “Spare some change?”
Things inside the world, including myself, have an effect on my brain. Everything is “literature” to me. But if I read too many certain literary blogs or book reviews or things like that I forget all this I just typed, and I start thinking things like, “Literature is sacred,” or “Literature is the most important thing.”
Recently you changed the name of your blog from “Reader of Depressing Books”, (though that remains its blogspot domain), to “Serious Literature”. What was the reason?
I think it’s funny. I think Noah Cicero, (novelist and essayist), first used the phrase “Serious Literature” in the way I use it as the title of my blog. Noah and I write about existential concerns, but in Gmail chat we talk about like drama we have had with girls or things like that. We talk like 15-year-olds.
We know Michael Chabon and whoever, that they write “serious literature.” I don’t know. I think naming my blog “Serious Literature” is an attempt to do something to go against how “sacred” some people view literature. Like it’s more valuable than other things. Video games. Is literature more important than video games? They are both just things.
I don’t know. People talk about Noah and I’s writings and sometimes they say we are like angsty teenagers. But we write about existential concerns. We write about death, confusion, having to make choices in an arbitrary universe. “Serious Literature” is used sarcastically but I am also being sincere in a way. I am serious when I write a story. I really want to convey something I’ve felt or try to figure something out, or try to write something to calm myself, to help me accept death, limited-time, etc.
I think it has something to do with “maturity.” There’s a sense, from certain people, that some books are more “mature” than others. And what they mean, to me, by “maturity” is “having no sarcasm, masturbation, irony, or anything too extreme in terms of expressing loneliness or depression or confusion.” Somehow sarcasm is viewed as a teenage thing, I think. But I think sarcasm is very true an emotion.