I remember first encountering Tao Lin and his writing through an Amazon “you might also like” advertisement in early 2009. I bought Shoplifting From American Apparel and kept thinking “when will chapter one fucking end?” and inadvertently finished the book in a single sitting.
Even though I didn’t like his book that much, I was obsessed with Lin and how he got to be so popular in the niche alt-lit world. I was determined to meet the guy. In December 2011 I invited Tao to come to present his new art lecture followed by a Q/A at the Silver Tongue Reading Series [conducted in association with Columbia College in Chicago] I am a part of. He came and I was surprised by how aloof I found the man to be in person, one among many other things I learned about him.
The following is the substance of our conversation, told with as much inclusion of ordinary detail as possible. (Briefly, Steve Roggenbuck showed up little more than midway through the interview. While he may not have spoken as loudly as is rendered here in text, he might have. He did not speak in misspellings.)
Can of diet-coke and diet cherry coke is opened.
Ian Richard Jones: There are so many interviews with you it’s kind of (pause) I don’t know, I kinda felt like publishing one, well I wouldn’t even know where to ask.
Tao Lin: The best ones are when you like, you just, type it exactly, even with pauses, and um’s and like’s, there’s none of those with me, but I like those a lot. It’s just hilarious how, like inarticulate people really are.
That’s one thing I’ve learned. Because I interview bands, but they’re different, they’re like that.
I like being portrayed as how stupid I am. Yea.
Like a valley girl?
Yea, I would like-
My mom says we’re the “like generation” she even read Shoplifting and said, “why don’t you just get caught stealing?”
I feel like, like, I say like a lot, but I never say “you know”.
You never say you know?
I’m never like, “you know…” silence that’s at least something different.
What about “you guys”? Cuz not everyone is a guy you talk to.
You guys… Well I don’t say that in interviews, that doesn’t…
Oh you mean just interviews.
What about “can you see that” or “can you see what I’m saying?”
Repeats: Can you see… do you understand… Do you understand what I’m saying? Yeah I say that. I pretty much say. Do I make sense. Does that make sense. But I never say you know, but it seems like everyone does. I just don’t understand what it means slight pause to say that. I don’t know.
Now I don’t know, about “you know.” Or think about it, or remember.
Points at diet-coke. That’s got a lot of high fructose corn syrup in it.
No it’s zero calories.
But doesn’t that still have the corn-syrup in it?
No, no. It just has artificial stuff in it.
Artificial corn syrup?
No, flavors. I think it’s way healthier than the calorie ones. Awkward pause I rarely drink stuff like this.
I was wondering, everything I’ve read, uh, you don’t like unhealthy things.
Yeah I’m usually healthy.
I remember in the meantime I was googling all these interviews of you for fun and it said that you only smoked weed in high school.
And then my lungs collapsed.
And it said it was unrelated.
Well um, the doctor was like if you smoke weed it increases chance of that happening 42 times. It was the worst experience of my life. They shove tubes in your lungs and leave them there for like three days to suck out whatever.
What was in there? You mean to like pump it back up? Cuz if it was collapsed?
Do you have a scar?
Yea, it happened three times.
And they can’t put oyu to sleep because they need you to tell them how much it hurts. But I smoked weed like, a few months, mumbles.
What about, well it said that you didn’t do drugs but now it’s like that article on Thought Catalog “How to do a reading on Mushrooms” did you bullshit that?
Yeah, no I didn’t do drugs through high school. Then after high school I did Adderall sometimes, pause and then one summer I started doing more drugs. And then I met what became my wife and we did more drugs. So my drug use has increased.
That’s funny. laughter What about when you write do you type fast? I imagine when you type it’s like painfully slow and it’s like slower then a typewriter and you like never change a comma.
When I first type… Like if something memorable happens to me I’ll-uh-the term is I think is shitting it out type it as fast as possible. And after that draft I don’t add anything, or I add stuff, but I take away equal amounts of stuff. Probably like 95% of the time writing for me is editing. I change stuff like commas and stuff neurotically. My next book I’ve worked on the first two paragraphs probably like um 150 hours.
Yeah, it’s like. I don’t know what I’m doing.
DO you think a lot at the computer screen or do you get up and like go for a walk? Or sit at the computer screen like this (makes pose from statue “The Thinker”)
Like for two months I got into this thing. I’ll tell you a bit of backstory first. My wife and I are separated now.
I noticed on Facebook.
One time we were like lets go on an extreme adderall binge. pause Are you familiar with how big doses are? We took 160 mgs over three days and didn’t sleep. And the next day after that woke up and felt fine. So I felt okay about taking very large doses. So my routine for like two months was to take like 90mg and not sleep for like three days. And during that time I would be very fovused and not looking at the internet much. And then I’d have two days where I’d not be able to do anything except look at the internet. But outside of that special routine my nmormal working thing is to like, have the internet and twitter and everything and look at the file sometimes.
Um, this is so random, but did you know that there’s a uh,
Did you ever take Addy and get shaky?
Or make you crazy?
It made me feel great, but it made have chest pains.
Well the government gives people these pills called Provigil, or Vigil, or they change the name in all the countries, it’s what they give the helicopter pilots and plane pilots and people to stay up for days and like focus, and not get jittery and stuff like that. I feel like that’s, well, sometimes that’s what I imagine your blood cells are made of when I’m imagining stuff, I have a bad imagination it’s like a runaway train. Is that what yours is like?
Do you mean like do I get jittery?
What’s your imagination?
Is my imagination what?
Is it wild?
If I want it to be.
You can control it?
Yeah I can like go crazy. If that’s the kind of book I want. Like my first book.
Like the last 40 pages or so in that plane crash?
Eeeee? [Eeeee Eee Eeee, Lin’s first novel]
No my first poetry book. A lot of things were just like me being crazy and not editing it. So I can be that way. But for most of my writing I, uh, I know what I wanna do and it’s not just like free association, it’/s like meticulous whatever.
Like honing and crafting?
Whenever I take-go on like 90 mg Adderall binges, I just think how like, there’s like single mothers who like pause work two jobs—
Who sleep like one hour a week?
To get yelled at by two kids who don’t appreciate the food they give them?
Yeah. So my Adderall binge is healthier than that horrible.. And people who binge drink each night. I still feel like I’m healthy.
Well you’re being productive. Like if you go to a party and get drunk and write 10 pages you’re productive, but that like never happens.
Yeah. And productive.
Do you go out?
Never? How have you met the people that meant a lot in your life?
Well she had a blog and I liked her blog and we talked maybe like once every two or three months. Then she came to one of my readings and we hung out more, so the internet for that. Uhm. Another girlfriend pause she like messaged me “Do you wanna be my intern?” and that changed the relationship. Pretty much it’s just all the internet.
What did you do before the internet?
Hmm.. Well I always had the internet. The change is that now I have, uhm, just accomplishments. So there’s reason for people to want to talk to me.
Do you get like annoying emails from fans all the time?
Or like messages from people and stuff like that?
Yeah, like really long ones.
receives text message from Lisa Horan.
My girlfriend might call when she’s here, she’s driving from Wisconsin to come see you.
Jesus. How far?
Oh it’s like, right on the border. The McDonald’s of the town is in Illinois. It’s basically like a really long drive to the suburbs.
So what is your topic for this?
For this… well. I wanted to know-well like every interview I read where it’s like “what are your influences” or “how did you do this” it just like bores me to death and I feel like I don’t get anything out of it and I don’t understand the person at all, and I understand them even less.
This seems good so far. I’ve said things I haven’t said. Or I’m interested in stuff.
Well I’d be interested in talking to you. Cuz I feel like most interviews are like : like “Hey Tao” (laughter} and they don’t care like, “oh that was great answer, I’m going ot ask a question that is totally unrelated that I wrote down four days ago.”
Steve Roggenbuck walks to the table we’re seated at.
The main thing is that just everyone wants to focus on the internet. And… on… yeah, just like, how do I use the internet. And.
I feel like you don’t even give a shit (Steve Roggenbuck laughs) or like. I mean like, you do, but it’s like…
The internet is just what everyone uses. So it’s just not abnormal.
Like “do you have a marketing plan, Tao?” people ask you that shit?
I think that’s stupid. I think it’s either you got it or you don’t. Like do you think the Ramones had a marketing plan?
Well they’re much more famous than me. The big misconception is, uh, that I’m like super famous.
That’s why when I asked people who you were (referencing video) nobody knew who you were. I asked so many people. But when they did.
Wait are you that guy? With the white glasses?
Oh you were acting so well I couldn’t tell.
Steve Roggenbuck: YEAH.
I just made it up in my apartment in like five minutes. I was like, well he likes Mumble core,
So you’re Lucas?
My friend is Lucas. He filmed it.
He was standing there this huge camera, and he had to wear it, and it looked like one of those deep sea diver helmets and I would be like “hello” and he’d be all (makes snickering noises) and I had to go to work and then I got really drunk before work.
Good job getting some really attractive girl to say “I love Tao Lin” as the first thing.
Yeah, no she was like “did y’all know Tao Lin is coming?” and I was like Emily… (Steve and Tao snicker) Of course I do. Yeah, but some people, they just didn’t know, they just didn’t know.
I only have, um, 8,000 followers on Twitter. And like any random people without any books out, a lot of them have like 12,000 followers.
Or like 100,000 followers. Like Rob Delaney writes for Vice, I don’t know what he writes I never read it. I just followed it randomly.
I don’t know who he is.
I don’t know who he is either. Sometimes he tweets and he’s like “I don’t know how I got this many followers” it’s something like he didn’t even know.
I think maybe I just have like, I’m, my, I’m too depressed or pessimistic, mumbles.
I don’t think Twitter matters. I mean maybe. But didn’t somebody give you money off Twitter?
(iPhone recording interview rings, slight disturbance)
You came here by yourself? (said to Steve)
(everyone high fives)
Steve Roggenbuck: YOU’RE IAN RIGHT, THAT’S YOUR FIRST NAME?
Where’s Stephen [Tully Dierks of Pop Serial]…Um…
I DON’T KNOW. STEPHEN GOES UH… STEPHEN WAS AT GROUPON BEFORE THIS SO I DON’T KNOW.
Where is? Sorry.
He’s interviewing me.
You can be interviewed now too though.
You know each other?
Like a day ago. I’ve only had a twitter for a month, or month in half. Okay maybe like three months, of six that I’ve used it sparingly since I’ve created it.
YEAH, I REMEMBER ONE TIME YOU RESPONDED TO SOMETHING LIKE TWO WEEKS AFTER.
It’s just twitter. I don’t think anyone’s going to live or die. We were talking about the emails. I was wondering what emails his fans send him.
Or like messages or whatever. Do they like, do you ever get like scary ones? Like people that are crazy stalkers or stuff like that?
No. You mean like that are, that say they don’t like me?
No they’re like “I love you Tao I wanna blah blah blah blah blah.”
Uhm no. A long time ago I sent like crazy emails to writers I liked. Mary Robison. So I feel like I understand those people.
I did that too.
I feel like I’m normal now. And I sent crazy emails so I feel like those people will become what I am later on.
(Steve and Ian laugh)
Sometimes they’re just so long that I can’t respond as long and I just have to respond like ‘thank you’ or something.
YOU SAID SOMETHING LIKE, YOU GOT ONE WHERE PEOPLE ARE LIKE REQUESTING NAKED PICTURES OR, LIKE, OFFERING TO PAY YOU FOR SOMETHING, WASN’T THAT SOMETHING?
I knew a girl once…
mumbles, Something like that.
SOMEBODY OFFERED LIKE $5,000 OR SOMETHING?
Oh that was a gay porn company in Canada. It didn’t work out because like, their main person went to Israel, and he like got detained or something. And then another person at the company was like, I just got breast cancer.
No more porn after cancer. I knew a girl who was kinda like the internet girl sorta thing who doesn’t have a band or anything, like Bebe Zeva or is that how you even say it? Do you ever read things a lot and then not know how to say them out loud because you never talk about them with people?
THAT’S HOW I…
I don’t even know what that is. Or Nietzsche. I don’t know how to spell Nietzsche, I never read him.
I’ve just recently known it’s niezenie.
I Knew it was neinize before. I wanna make shirts that say “kon” then nzeinzen then “wah” then a picture with him wearing those headbands, not with the
Camus (said cam-iss). Do you ever hear people say it wrong then wanna correct them?
No I never. Well I don’t know. If they seem like they won’t feel upset I’ll correct them… Sid-dar-thuh. Sid-dar. I prounouced it Sid-dar-tuh once and someone corrected me and I felt embarrassed.
It was like someone corrected you and your mouth did something weird even though you know how to pronounce it?
So how did you two meet?
IN PERSON? OR?
What was the start?
You review something?
YEAH, WELL I REVIEWED COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL AND THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU LINKED TO ME. AND THEN I BECAME A LOT MORE PART OF THE COMMUNITY. AND THEN STEPHEN FOUND ME AND BRETT. I HAD EMAILED YOU A COUPLE TIMES BEFORE THAT. MISCELLANEOUS THINGS.
When I watch your videos now I start girnning before it even starts.
Yeah like the still screen of the dubstep one. I love that, the dubstep.
I don’t even, like, you had glowsticks in your mouth?
NO I JUST WROTE DUBSTEP ON MY FACE WITH MARKERS.
Are there like more people that like, in the other rooms, that like hear you scream?
OH, USUALLY I DO IT WHEN I’M HOME ALONE, WHEN STEPHEN’S NOT THERE BECAUSE STEPHEN”S LIVING WITH ME RIGHT NOW. BUT I’M SURE THERE”S PEOPLE UPSTAIRS OR DOWNSTAIRS THAT CAN HEAR IT, BECAUSE I CAN HEAR PEOPLE IN THE HALLWAY, AND I CAN HEAR MY NEIGHBORS HAVE SEX, SO I’M SURE THEY CAN LIKE, HEAR ME SCREAMING.
Do you ever get embarrassed, like, have you ever watched porn and been embarrassed of it?
Of watching it?
Have you ever listened to it in headphones?
I kinda feel like that’s cheating life. Having.
I don’t even need sound most of the time.
Well if it’s just pictures then I uh. It’s not required for me.
That’s so strange I’m the exact opposite, I could be like this and all I want is sound. Like it could even be mis-matched sound like it could be sheeps or something and if I hear a girl I’m just like yeah.
What’s the first place you’re going to?
I THINK NYC, I WAS GONNA GO TO ROCHESTER, BUT THE PERSON I WAS GONNA SEE THERE IS GONNA BE IN NYC.
I might go to Taiwan. But like, in February. But if I did I was gonna stay you could stay in my place. I have a studio apartment with no roommates.
I HAVE ONE FRIEND IN NYC WHOSE ADDRESS IS 666 PARK PLACE.
AND HE SAID I COULD STAY WITH HIM. THEY HAVE A BUNCH OF PEOPLE THOUGH. IT’D BE GOOD TO HAVE A PLACE WHERE I COULD DO MY VIDEOS BY MYSELF. BECAUSE THEN I LIKE. BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE, I WAS DOING, TRYING TO DO A COLLABORATIVE THING WITH JOHN CAMBELL YOU KNOW, AND I WAS DOING BETTER THAN I THOUGHT, I DIDN’T THINK I’D BE ABLE TO GET IN THE REALLY LIKE, ZONE WITH ANOTHER PERSON THERE AT ALL. I KINDA GOT IN THE ZONE, BUT I STILL FEEL LIKE I WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE ENERGETIC AND LOUDER IF I WAS ALONE. YOU KNOW? SO.
Have you experimented taking drugs and taking videos? I made some bad ones getting drunk until sunlight and then I would strip down naked and cover Pixies songs. And it wouldn’t work.
I would drink all day, or all night until the sun came up and then I’d cover a Pixies song. And people said like “ur covers are so bad” and I don’t even know how they thought I was trying.
I HAVEN’T REALLY DONE THAT.
I wanna poo before my thing. Do you have any more specific questions?
I can’t think of anything not dumb. (pause)
I feel like you got a lot.
Yeah, and I get really distracted, and then I didn’t remember what we were talking about.
Is there any specific thing?
I’ll check the notes. I made a note that says “Tao”.
Do you have an iPhone? Tao starts spinning his already cracked screen iPhone very awkwardly on the table.
YEAH I DO.
Tao keeps spinning his phone more aggressively.
You gotta have one. Nope. I was just gonna ask you about Stephen and Pop Serial. Don’t do that, it’s gonna break.
It looks, IT sounds cool. keeps spinning, Ian tries to spin his and fails.
Well mine’s in the case.
No… Do you ever go through your visual stuff liie when you draw or to you just draw it and it’s done forever.
Do I edit?
Well I edit a lot. Like if you look at my, if you, I have a lot of drafts.
And then what makes you want ot like.. DO you like see something in your head that you imagine you wanna draw or do you like, see a blank thing and draw it, and then imagine something afterwards? And then create…
Just all of it at at once.
Everything all at once.
Is there a bathroom?
Yeah. Thank you. Thank you though. That was good.
Um its straight this way, we might as well walk.