Tao Lin is the author of a novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE (Melville House, 2007), a story-collection, BED (Melville House, 2007), and a poetry-collection, YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM (Action Books, 2006). His blog is called READER OF DEPRESSING BOOKS.
Tony O’Neill: Animals are a common motif in your fiction and poetry. Whales, hamsters, birds, bears, dolphins… where do you think this stems from?
Tao Lin: Probably from being disappointed by humans or always feeling alienated from other humans. It’s a trick to see a dog and feel like the dog loves me, or something, but it is easier that way, or something. Animals are funny. If you see a really ugly animal you laugh or you think it’s actually more endearing that it’s ugly, it doesn’t feel “off-putting” or disgusting at all. But if you see an ugly human being, I don’t know. It’s different. I prefer animals that look really ugly to ones that supposedly look “beautiful” like horses or something, I think. Or sometimes I do. (I don’t mean “dirty” when I say ugly. I like toy poodles more than those dogs with giant heads because they don’t slobber as much and seem cleaner, and smaller, so they shit less, and are cleaner, not because they look better.) But I am genetically engineered to be more attracted sexually to human beings that are beautiful. That evolutionary thing is very powerful, to the point that it effects more than just sexual attraction. I sound like a scientist.
TO: Have you seen websites which feature women (and men) having sex with stuffed animals or people in animal costumes and do you like them?
TL: I have not. In my room I have a bearsuit but I haven’t done anything sexual with it. I like looking at a pretty face when doing something sexual. I don’t know if I would feel aroused if I looked at a fish head or like a donkey’s mouth while doing something sexual. I do understand and believe that people are able to “get off” on those things though. I don’t doubt their arousal or pleasure.
TO: Have you ever masturbated to a non human image (a building, a car, a stuffed animal, a rare first edition for example)?
TL: I have not. I used to think people were just “faking” or acting like an ass if they masturbated to like “international terrorism” or something but now I think it’s probably real. Humans are very different, things happen to them and they become a certain way. Sometimes I’m walking around and I look at each human and each human has something really strange about them. Like one keeps making strange facial expressions, another is wearing something really strange, another is talking to themself, another is singing loudly, I don’t know, I guess those things aren’t really strange.
TO: OK here is an honest statement. I had been aware of your writing for a while, but I had never read it. I was reading Noah Cicero, and he kept mentioning you, but I would look at your stuff, the bear parade stuff etc and I would see a lot of the animal references, talking bears, etc and a part of my brain would say “this stuff is gonna be cutesy, you’re gonna hate it” and I wouldn’t read it. But I started to become fascinated with your persona, and particularly the way that you seem to be a lightening rod for people’s anger. That’s what brought me back to your writing and allowed me to read it with an open mind. I thought: “if all of these people think he’s an asshole, he must be doing something right.” When I actually sat down and read one piece by you, I realized what you were doing and I was hooked.
Do you worry that the more playful aspects of your writing will turn off some people before they even read you? Or do you see it as kind of test, a challenge for people (like me) to leave their snobbery at the door and just experience the writing itself?
TL: I don’t worry about that. Sometimes I exaggerate being cute, like I post drawings of hamsters or things on my blog, so certain people will be even more “turned away.” If someone likes what I’m doing, if they like the hamster drawings, there’s more of a chance they’ll like my writing and me, as a person, if they know me well. If I created some facade of being a serious badass that doesn’t have any stuffed animals in his or her room and never does anything silly, and is confident with women and able to beat the shit out of anyone, certain people would read my writing maybe, and maybe email me, or something, then later on if I did something cute they might be alienated. I try to alienate those people immediately instead of leading them on and then alienating them later. If someone feels embarrassed, non-self consciously, to speak about hamsters because it’s silly we probably would not become friends or close friends.
I do understand what you are saying. I do the same thing. For example given a choice I will choose to read a book by a white person instead of an Asian or Asian-American. For example someone like Ha Jin. I wouldn’t choose to read his books. Because there is a larger chance that he will be writing about non-existential (or weakly or not directly existential) issues like identity crisis having to do with being both Asian and America, assimilation in a new culture, or things like tradition, immigration, sociology, or politics. There is a larger chance that the Asian or Asian-American writer will be writing about those things than the white person. And I don’t want to read about non-existential issues really, in fiction. I want to read about someone with no real problems suffering from existential despair, loneliness, and severe depression, and it is a larger chance, in my view, that a white person who lives in America and grew up in America will write about that than an immigrant.
TO: I know from our correspondence that you do not really do drugs. Have you ever taken drugs, even as a one off experiment? If so, what drugs, and what happened?
TL: I only did marijuana in high school. A few months after I did my lung collapsed. It was probably unrelated. But the doctor told me that smoking increases the chances of a lung collapsing by 42 times. Also I had a lot of painkillers left over from after lung collapse surgeries. I had Percocet. I took the left over ones in college before going to work. I worked in the school’s library. I liked coffee more. I don’t like escaping reality I think. If I am feeling very lonely or depressed I don’t really like drinking alcohol or going to sleep in order to stop feeling lonely or depressed. I either enjoy feeling those emotions or I feel fucked if I block them out, like I’m “giving up on life.” If I’m feeling very depressed I will usually do things to intensify the bad feelings like write about it or listening to emotional music. I prefer feeling terrible to feeling nothing, I think.
TO: Have you ever been diagnosed as depressed or given anti depressants or anti psychotic meds? I know I have, Noah wrote on his blog about his experiences with wellbutrin and a bunch of other shit, and I was wondering if this was a trend among young writers.
TL: I have not. I think I was too afraid or would feel embarrassed if I did, in high school. I would feel embarrassed and nervous going to a doctor and talking about feeling depressed. I did go to a therapist or something to try to help my “social anxiety disorder,” but it didn’t do anything, it just embarrassed me and made me feel like an ass. I’ve always talked shit about people who go on anti-depressants, especially in college, because the people I knew who were on it were dramatic about it and I got the feeling they felt they were more profound than other people because they were “officially” depressed or something. Also my parents didn’t pressure me into taking medication, neither did anyone at school. I avoided counseling and therapy and things like that because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. With different parents I probably would have taken anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, growing up.
TO: Was there a point when you thought ‘I want to be a writer’ or did you fall into it?
TL: I was in Washington Square Park. It was October, a beautiful Sunday morning, the birds were chirping, I turned around and saw a squirrel eating a Sour Patch Kid. It was happy. The wind blew against my eyelashes and it felt very nice. But I still felt severely depressed. Dark clouds were overhead. It was sunny but about to rain. I sat on a bench and someone next to me was reading an Updike novel. Something happened in my brain then, I think it was chemicals, I thought, “I need to document the struggles of depressed hamsters and lonely humans who feel fucked existentially, and sometimes megamouth sharks.”
TO: If you lost your ability to write tomorrow, what would you do instead?
TL: I would focus on having friends maybe. I would get some friends. Then get all the friends to play some online role-playing game. Then play that all the time. I would get a job at a bookstore or something. Maybe I would try to start a band. I would probably kill myself after a few weeks. No, that’s stupid. I would just like play video games and drums and listen to music.
TO: Does it hurt your feelings when people talk shit about you, like Gawker did recently? Or do you feel a sense of victory that despite the fact that they have said they don’t like you, you still orchestrated an appearance on their website anyway?
TL: It doesn’t hurt me when people talk shit about me. But it does make me feel bad when people feel hurt after I talk shit about them. I try to keep my shit-talking kind and factual. If I say a fact and it hurts someone I don’t feel as bad, I try to block out the bad feeling, since if something’s a fact it already exists. If I get shit-talked on Gawker I feel a sense of victory and I feel productive, like I just stole something. They talk about Brad Pitt’s penis or Lindsay Lohan’s ass all the time. If they talk about my book that is probably better for the world than learning about Lindsay Lohan doing drugs. And I know they are like required to talk shit about me, since that is what will get them more visitors, which is what will make them more money. I think Gawker mostly talks kind-hearted shit anyway. I like Gawker. But I think they might have changed, I don’t read it enough to know, but when Jessica Coen edited it I read it more and the shit-talking was kind-hearted and from like an existential point of view, like everyone was fucked and no one knew what was right or wrong, and the shit-talking was directed at everything, even Gawker itself. Maybe it’s changed from that. I like Gawker. What other media outlet with millions of readers would blog about Tao Lin? All writers should try to use Gawker as a publicity thing. It is there, it is talking about Lindsay Lohan’s rehabilitation, and there is a chance you can get them to post a photo of your book, and it is free, so you should be emailing them.
TO: Do you think scenes are important (as in literary scenes)? Do you get anything from meeting other writers, or do you feel as writing is a solitary pursuit its best to be removed from the social aspect of it altogether?
TL: I don’t think I’ve gotten anything from meeting other writers, except alienating them. I don’t want to meet the writers I really like. I wouldn’t want to meet Joy Williams or Lorrie Moore, unless it was like a 2 minute meeting, but then that would be pointless, we would just say things like, “The weather is nice,” “Yes,” “Good.” We wouldn’t feel good after. They wouldn’t want to meet me either, I don’t think. If I was more outgoing and comfortable around people I would probably not have gotten so obsessed with writing. I would be like a lawyer or a waiter or something. A lot of the time I just don’t understand being with people—like why would I want to sit somewhere and talk to someone? It’s just a feeling, though, not understanding it, like when you’re depressed you feel like you don’t understand why you’re alive, it’s just a feeling. I do like being around people sometimes though. I can have fun being around people.
TO: Do you like reading in public?
TL: Most of the time I do. I get to lecture a group of people who can’t argue with me. I like that. I usually write things especially to read, in the form of a lecture sometimes. When I’m talking with someone I’m almost always worried that they are bored, or that they just want me to stop talking, so they can go away from me or say something they want to say themselves. That is why in conversation most of the time I only say like between one and four words at once. But at a reading the audience is there to hear me, they chose to do this. I don’t worry that they might want to say something or that I am boring them. People come to readings expecting to feel bored. I think many people go to a reading because they want to have twenty or thirty minutes to sit there, and be forced to sit there, quiet, and have time to think about things, like when to do laundry or where to move to or something.
TO: In your poem “I’m going to tell you how to steal from Barnes and Noble” you give detailed instructions on how to do just that. If someone got busted doing that, and got fined, and then they wrote to you and said “I only did that because your poems told me to” would you have any sympathy for them? Or would you just laugh at their gullibility?
TL: I would feel sympathy for them I think. I mean I would be like, “It’s okay, just focus on something productive in jail,” or something. I wouldn’t laugh in their face. If someone is stealing from Barnes and Noble and they get caught I would probably think they were careless for getting caught. So maybe I would think that they were careless. I would be like, “You should have been more careful, why are you so stupid?” but not with any real anger or anything. If I got caught I would want someone to call me retarded. I’ve told people, “You have to be retarded to get caught stealing.” I’ve gotten caught at Whole Foods. They just had me sign a paper and said I was banned from the store.
About the author: Tony O’Neill is the author of a poetry-collection, SONGS FROM THE SHOOTING GALLERY (Burning Shore, 2007), a novel, DIGGING THE VEIN (Contemporary Press, 2006), and a collection of stories and poems, SEIZURE WET DREAMS (Social Disease, 2006). Go to his web site to learn more about him.