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Long Ass Interview with Tao Lin part 2 of 2

[Hi, this is Stephen Tully Dierks. I interviewed Tao Lin re his second novel, Richard Yates. This is part two of the interview. You can read the first part here.]

Are there any other artists with whom you’d like to collaborate, either directly or indirectly?

I would like to draw the album art for any band that I like. I would like to be the cover artist for an issue of McSweeney’s or Best American Non-Required Reading.

I think I feel like not collaborating on writing things at this point, unless it is a letters-type thing, like hikikomori with Ellen Kennedy.

Haley Joel Osment states in the book that Nobel Prize winners used to be depressed existentialists and now they are sociologists. Could you expound on this idea?

I think he was being sarcastic to a large degree. He maybe had some vague idea that people like Camus, Hermann Hesse, Sartre used to win the Nobel Prize and that there has been some kind of change, and that different kinds of writers now win the Nobel Prize, ones focused more on how people are like within a culture or a society, rather than within the universe, maybe, in that the “write-ups” about them seem, to Haley Joel Osment, to always mostly focus on their political or gender-issue or cultural themes (Haley Joel Osment assumes, though, that that’s just the journalists “doing their thing” and not an accurate portrayal of the writers; for example many articles connect Kafka to Prague rather than to “existential issues” or something).

Who do you think Haley Joel Osment would say is his favorite Nobel Prize winner for literature?

Maybe Knut Hamsun.

By what writer do you feel most interested in reading a review of Richard Yates for what venue?

Maybe a 5000-word review by Dennis Cooper that is somehow in New York Times Magazine (don’t think they publish reviews).

In his Bookforum review of Richard Yates, Joshua Cohen makes a number of subjective assertions re the novel and your work/life, including that all of your books to date have been “beside the point”; that your graphic art is “hideous”; that “Richard Yates is called what it’s called because it is about an unhappy couple living in suburbia”; that the character names are “two empty names of two empty child celebrities”; that Richard Yates is “documentary fiction” and as such its story should be compared with that of previous documentary fiction covering the Holocaust and the Battle of Stalingrad; that the “depleted language of [your] depressed books is the same depleted language of [your] depression, evident online”; that your “prose is interchangeable with anything written online by the under thirty commentariat”; that it is only your “essential conservatism that has [you] writing books at all, as opposed to full-time bloggery”; and that “one hopes [you will] either gain scruples and write a book not about [yourself] or entirely lose scruples by transitioning into performance art.” What is your response to any of this?

I think that’s what he thinks, or what he thinks within the context of a book review of a certain word count for a certain venue and within the context of his other book reviews, or what he chose to reveal as his thoughts, in this instance. In that sense I feel that the review is factual and that I don’t have a response to it, in the same manner that I don’t have a response to a tree or a rock; if I like the tree or rock I will look at it or try to engage it in some manner, if not I will go look at or engage with something else, I think.

In the Village Voice review of Richard Yates, your prose works and the characters’ dialogue therein, conflated as one, are called “passive-aggressive, noncommittal” and “listless.” Your characters are said to “make no effort to learn” the elements of “successful human connection” that “elude them,” namely “friendship, love, [and] small talk.” In the closing paragraph, it is suggested that fiction is largely written by and for solitary, lonely people, and that “most writers see an abyss to be bridged” between people, in order to make one feel “unlonely,” per David Foster Wallace. Do you have any thoughts re the nature of your characters or re the “abyss to be bridged” in fiction?

I think maybe one of the most common ways that people try to “connect” with other people is by telling stories in a factual, concise manner that doesn’t “explain” or “over-explain” things or attempt to convey ideas about the meaning of the story. For example when two people who like each other a lot first meet they seem to like to tell each other stories about their childhood or previous relationships, and if they like each other a lot there usually isn’t a need to explain things, for example they wouldn’t say things like “the story I just said is interesting to me because the part about ____ was funny and emotional” and then explain why it was funny or emotional. I feel less lonely when someone I like tells me stories in a concrete manner. I feel less lonely when I tell someone I like stories in a concrete manner.

I think Hemingway said something like that if he wanted to cause a reader to feel something his technique would be to focus on an emotion he had felt before and discern the concrete elements that caused him to feel the specific emotion, and then write those concrete elements, so that the reader would hopefully feel a similar emotion. I remember that technique and think that it works and would sometimes remind myself to do it. In Richard Yates and Shoplifting from American Apparel I would sometimes focus very hard on what concrete elements were experienced, and exactly what thoughts (what words exactly) occurred in the character’s brain, in what order, and to what degree, that caused the character to feel a specific emotion, hen attempt to convey those concrete elements and thoughts in what I felt to be the correct order. In Bed I would sometimes describe the emotion directly, without concrete specifics, and I think that works also. Any time a book makes me feel an emotion that seems familiar—and maybe every emotion seems familiar—I feel less lonely, to some degree, for an amount of time, I think.

If you could choose the title of your autobiography or biography in the future, what would you choose? [Examples: Damned to Fame (Beckett biography); Smile Please (unfinished Jean Rhys autobiography); The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol (Warhol oral biography)]

Maybe “[factual #, for example 1st or 2nd or 47th] Biography of Tao Lin]” so people can more easily organize the biographies in their head, view the evolution of the biographies, read them in order, rate them in top-10 lists for The Huffington Post or The Millions, and other things of that nature.

What fictional scenario is most appealing to you and why: ability to stop time and do whatever one wants to the frozen people/things for any length of time (The Fermata); procedure whereby one revisits memories of a relationship in reverse as they are erased (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); opportunity to experience an alternate world in which one had never been born (It’s A Wonderful Life); expedition up a Himalayan mountain in search of one’s long-lost brother, trapped in the spiritual realm between this life and the next (“Bardo”) alongside other monks and climbers by an evil goddess via a powerful curse, along the way fighting off the angry souls of those trapped via “freeing their souls” (Cursed Mountain video game)?

The scenario in The Fermata seems lonely and scary to me, I think. I see myself walking around with a confused facial expression, feeling lonely and scared. I think I’ve read 3-10 pages of The Fermata.

I like revisiting memories but I don’t like erasing them. I don’t think I would revisit memories if they would be erased, in the manner of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I like that movie.

Re It’s A Wonderful Life I think I would like to experience an alternate world where I wasn’t born, if I could return to this world after I did that. I’m not sure though. Also seems lonely and scary, to some degree.

“Bardo” seems scary and stressful and physically uncomfortable. I don’t think I would like to be in that scenario.

Cursed Mountain seems fun maybe. Depending on if I would die if I died in the game, and what would happen after the game, and if I could socialize with other monks and if there would be girls, and what I would eat in the game, I might want to be in that scenario.

Why did you want an index at the end of the book?

Some things that occur or are mentioned early in the book are referenced, many times in a narrative manner, later in the book, but in a manner that I feel a reader won’t notice or will only vaguely notice. I wanted them to be able to find the earliest mention of certain things. In the beginning a violin is mentioned and the same violin is mentioned later. In the beginning a field trip to a museum in Manhattan is mentioned and it is mentioned later. At one point a “heart monitor” is mentioned and it is mentioned two other times. A steel bridge is repeatedly referenced. A pole is mentioned then referenced. The author Richard Yates is mentioned six times in the book, in a manner that one could analyze, if they could easily read them in sequence. That is one reason. I also wanted the reader to read the final page of the book then turn the page and see an index, which, in some manner, puts the book in the perspective of “real life,” causes the reader, maybe, to view the book as something a person created and that exists in concrete reality, rather than a “world-in-itself.” When I say I “want” the reader to experience these things I completely only mean that if I read a book like this I would, myself, want to experience these things. And I’ve tried to write what I want to read.

Do you view the index as suggesting the autobiographical or, to some degree, non-fictional nature of the novel?

No. If it were a fantasy novel I would also want it to have an index if it had dragons or wizards that reoccurred in an uncommon or rare manner. In terms of what it “suggests” I think maybe, if anything, an index affects the tone of the novel, and of the author’s “relationship” to the novel, slightly and in a manner that I like. It “suggests,” to me, that the author has a detached or “deadpan” or “acclimated” view of the novel. Maybe not unlike how a person who has been around dead bodies a long time, or something, would, performing an autopsy, want to calmly index each organ and [whatever], whereas someone who has never seen a dead body would be less focused on indexing and more focused on [something else, maybe on “finishing quickly,” with a vague idea, maybe, of indexing the organs later on, when more detached/acclimated to the body].

Were you influenced by Zachary German’s use of an index at the end of Eat When You Feel Sad?

Yes, in that we talked about indexes. I think we were finishing our books around the same time. I’m not sure what we talked about. I think at one point one or both of us thought it would be “cool” if we both had indexes. I’m not sure who thought of having an index first. I think Zachary first thought about publishing indexes of other people’s books, like an index for Chilly Scenes of Winter, as a small booklet or something.

Do you view the last word in the index as a Sixth Sense joke, amongst other things?

I don’t think so. Isn’t the last word, “zombie,” the last word “simply” because the index is alphabetical? I’m kind of confused. Can you elaborate a little?

It occurred to me that zombies are dead people, sort of, well, “technically” they are “the living dead,” and then I thought of “I see dead people” from The Sixth Sense. Seems “zombie” is incidental as the last word, from what you’ve answered. Nevermind, I think, re this question, unless you have thoughts on zombies.

I like zombies. They seem funny.

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[Stephen Tully Dierks is a writer living in Chicago. He edits a limited-edition art/literature print magazine called Pop Serial and maintains a blog.]

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