The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Tao Lin

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The Rumpus Book Club talks with Tao Lin about Richard Yates, writing what you want to read, and when it’s okay to steal a book:

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.

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Tao Lin: Hello

Stephen Elliott: Let’s talk about the characters’ names. There was a lot of talk about that in our email discussion group.

Tao Lin: I’ll explain the names, Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. At first, maybe for a year, from 2006-2007, the characters were named something like “Dan” and “Michelle” or even, some parts, “Tao” and “[person Dakota Fanning is based on's name].” One day I was talking to someone, I said something like “I should just name them Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning,” because I knew I would need to “deal with” what I viewed as the “problem” of naming the characters, in that I didn’t want to make up names, or to use my own name (like some people do in autobiographical works, Phillip Roth for example), and it seemed funny and exciting, so I did Microsoft find-and-replace, and after that there seemed to be no reason not to keep those as the names.

Jen Burt: Were DF and HJO just total random names or did you pick those names for a reason?

Tao Lin: It was intuitive, I think those two names were the first names that I thought of.

It avoids having “obviously made up” names like Dan and Michelle and also avoids using my own name, “Tao Lin,” as the main character. And it seems funny to me. The only reasons I could think of not to use those names was because some people wouldn’t like the book just because of the names, and probably the NY Times would be less inclined to review it, thinking it was less “serious.” But those reasons seem like things that I want to avoid, in my life, as things that determine what I do.

Bill: I always hate having to make up character names too. Did you ever worry that it would draw focus away from the book as a whole?

Tao Lin: Yes, I worried it would make some people dislike the book, and distract some people. I’d be distracted if I read a book like that, maybe. But I’d want to force myself not to be distracted, since it would be like not eating a watermelon because it was a yellow one and not a red one, or something like that.

Cruise: There was a lot of discussion online about your writing style. Is it a conscious effort to try to imitate the way people speak online, or do you consider yourself to be a part of a larger minimalist tradition?

Tao Lin: I didn’t feel I was imitating how people speak online. I consider myself to be wanting to write what I want to read. A lot of the books I like to read are “minimalist.”

John F: I’m reading Freedom now, and read an interview where Franzen said, “We don’t need novelists telling us about the surfaces of being a human being. We’re bombarded with surfaces 24 hours a day now.”

Tao Lin: I think RY is probably 80% interior, the characters expressing what they are thinking and how they feel.

But in direct response to that quote…I don’t think we “need” or “not need” anything, unless you define a context and a goal. I think people are constantly “bombarded” with surfaces, via the natural world and the [six?] senses, but also constantly “bombarded” with interior things, their own thoughts. I think it’s been that way since the onset of consciousness, probably.

IngridLola: What books inspired you, specifically when writing Richard Yates?

Tao Lin: The End of The Story by Lydia Davis, maybe The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. Maybe Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

Corey: Who is your favorite writer, Tao?

Tao Lin: I don’t know. I like Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Matthew Rohrer, Rebecca Curtis…

Stephen Elliott: I think you’re the only author really making use of social media in your literary writing. I mean, I know other authors are doing it, I just haven’t heard of them yet. And that’s one of the things I find most interesting, because it’s a huge part of our lives.

Neal: In Richard Yates, there is no real distinction between conversations that take place in gchat, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face. The style and content seem to be basically the same. Was that a conscious choice, and do you actually see all forms of communication as equal?

Tao Lin: I was focused on content, on what people were saying, rather than whether they were using their vocal chords or a phone or typing it. It was all in language, and it all came from people’s brains. I don’t see all forms as equal, some allow for greater elaboration and for editing.

Cruise: Do you think writers avoid writing about social media because it’s constantly changing? Are writers afraid that by mentioning Gmail or Facebook their work might be dated?

Tao Lin: I’m not sure. Maybe some are. I know a lot of writers that mention Gmail and Facebook though.

IngridLola: What would you say is the most important element of your writing? Or, if you could have people take only one thing from reading Richard Yates, what would it be?

Tao Lin: I don’t know. I think I would encourage people to just think what they naturally think about it and take what they naturally will take from it, and maybe be aware that every person will literally feel differently about it, even if it is to small degrees.

Patty: Tao, why was the shoplifting an ever present theme/activity throughout the book?

Tao Lin: There wasn’t a reason. Maybe because it’s autobiographical and I was shoplifting a lot then. If I was living in Alaska then there would be Moose and, like, snow references.

IngridLola: Why did you add an index?

Tao Lin: I sometimes want indexes in books so I can find certain things easily. Also some things in RY are mentioned again, but in a manner that you might not notice. For example the broken violin, the heart monitor, the “museum in manhattan.” And I wanted readers to be able to find each mention if they felt a vague suspicion that something occurred elsewhere also.

IngridLola: Can we talk about the title? Tell us about the title, why you chose it, etc.

Tao Lin: I titled it like I might title an email that had a lot of topics in it. I titled it in a manner that wouldn’t give the book a strong tone, focus on something specific in the book, or…other things. I view it as a low-level non-sequitur. At one point Haley Joel Osment stares at RY’s face and thinks “party girl” even though RY doesn’t really fit the prototype of a “party girl.” But he thought it, like a non-sequitur. That’s how I view the book.

A.M. Thomas: It seems in Richard Yates, as in some of your other writing, that your characters have a dubious interest in ‘health.’ Dubious because although your characters eat organic, vegan food and go to health food stores and exercise a lot, they lead ultimately self-destructive lifestyles (e.g. fucked up sleeping schedules, abusive relationships, suicidal thinking). How does this ‘paradox’ relate to the ending of Richard Yates? Do you feel that HJO has committed himself to a relationship with DF that is erroneously fulfilling and ultimately self-destructive? Did you consciously make this a theme in Richard Yates?

Stephen Elliott: That’s not an uncommon thing in literature. Think of Jerry Stahl’s health nut junky.

Tao Lin: I don’t view the relationship as abusive. Each character was expecting the other to live closer to how they say they wanted to live. Dakota Fanning was bulimic but was gradually stopping that. The same with lying. Haley Joel Osment was apologizing each time he got upset, and stating he didn’t want to be upset, but encouraging.

I don’t view suicidal thoughts as destructive. I view the suicidal thoughts in RY as a way for the characters to say “I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, stop feeling depressed” in a manner that it could also be a joke and both entertain themselvse and the other person. In that manner it is something to make them feel better and better be able to be productive.

Re sleeping schedules. I view “health” as a means to something else, not as an end. Life itself is unsustainable. Health enhances such things as “staying up all night to be with someone you like” by allowing you to stay up longer, and feel less tired the next day.

I definitely don’t think the relationship in RY is self-destructive. The characters have set expectations for themselves and each other that are much higher than what they were used to. Similar to someone who watches TV everyday deciding suddenly to run a marathon. In the beginning they will cheat, get hurt, feel bad, lash out. If they keep trying, as I feel the characters in RY were in the time period of the book, eventually they will be able to run the marathon.

Joanie: Do you find it flattering that creative writing students are trying to imitate your style now? Or is it counterintuitive because you are writing in the ‘style’ that you live?

Tao Lin: I don’t know how many people are imitating my writing. I like it though. I’ve openly stated a lot of times exactly what books I imitated for each of my books.

Patty: Tao, you mention your own sadness….while reading this book I felt we knew the characters where they were at this particular point but no insight as to what they had been through to make them feel this way, there wasn’t a lot of “bearing of soul” to one another, …not a deep relationship perhaps but just a superficial carry me through until someone more meaningful came along?

Tao Lin: The characters seemed very close to me…definitely not a place-holder for either character, in my view.

A.M. Thomas: Would you say you write for a particular demographic? I mean, I guess I’m asking, how much do you write for your audience?

Tao Lin: I write what I want to read. And I like to read things based, maybe, on sense of humor, what they’re focused on…if they’re focused on “existential issues” like death, arbitrary nature of the universe, limited-time…or something, which is age/gender/culture nonspecific. So my demographic, if I’m actually writing what I want to read, might be, like, people who feel and think a certain way, regardless of time period or culture or where they live or how old they are.

I focus on writing what I want to read.

Marley: Is it the story you would want to read or the style of writing? Why write what you want to read–why not just keep reading til you find it?

Tao Lin: I think every book is really different. It would be very hard to find “exactly” what I wanted to read, I think. And I also like writing, and it can also make it so I can meet more people, and make friends, and get me money.

Not a Cop: What is the last thing you shoplifted?

Tao Lin: I think…sunglasses. I don’t shoplift that much now.

Sarah: What if we shoplifted your books?

Stephen Elliott: Good question! What if your books were shoplifted?

Tao Lin: I’m okay with that.

I think giving away free books and having more readers will benefit the publisher, because 1 free book will cause like 10 people discussing it, which over time will change into like 50 or something. Some of those will buy it. Eventually the 1 free book’s like $1.50 cost will be offset, gradually more and more, by the effects of that 1 free book on people buying it.

IngridLola: Tao what is your favorite book of all time?

Tao Lin: I don’t know. Changes throughout the day and season and mood probably. I think almost every book I like a lot is listed in my Goodreads account. If I listed it there I like it enough to read it repeatedly.

Sarah: Do you think people will be reading your work 100 years from now? Do you care if they do?

Tao Lin: I don’t know. And…I don’t think I do.

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This interview was edited by Book Club member Susan Clements.


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