Sometimes Oprah Thinks About Thinking About Nothing
A Conversation with Tao Lin
New York–based Tao Lin is a straightforward guy, and so is his fiction. His latest, Shoplifting at American Apparel, is, not surprisingly, about a writer living in New York. It moves between moments of misery and humor, and Sam, the main character, often finds that instead of doing things, "it's better to just think about it." Lin's critics have called him annoying and brilliant.
Reading through your work, you write about Sam in the same way you write about yourself. Do you see yourself in the same position as him?
I think, by now, I just find it hard to make up stories without feeling like I'm not writing what I really want to write. When I say making up stories, I mean anything that didn't happen. Shoplifting is like memory as the first draft and then I edited it into the novella.
How come you write novels, then, instead of memoirs and autobiographies? Why do you choose to write as a novelist?
I still do move stuff around, and I guess with a memoir I wouldn't be free to do that. I edit it down a lot, and I model how I edit on novels I like, not on memoirs. And also, with all the novelists I like, it's assumed that the main character is the author.
Do you think there's something lost if you don't write about something you know?
I don't think it's less honest at all. It's just a personal preference.
Generation-wise, we're pretty similar, and there's a lot that comes up in your book that I connected with: the technology, the cultural references, and the sense that things have lost their meaning. Do you think that's normal youthful ennui, or do you think we're in a particular situation with our generation?
I don't feel like we're in a particular situation. And I don't feel that the characters are suffering from ennui. I feel like the characters are pretty active, writing books and being in bands and—when they're feeling bad, they're talking about when they can feel better. So I don't think they're at all suffering from anything except from just things that every person suffers from.
Why do you think the things you chose to highlight in your book are significant? Characters talk about important things lightly, and casual dialogue is drawn out more.
I think based on everything I've read, by now I prefer to read about casual dialogue or things that don't have any drama involved with them.
Is Shoplifting the type of book you want to read? That you want to see more of out there?
I think there's already the amount out there that is satisfying to me.
In your book, Gmail chat and texting are treated as normal dialogue. Do you think they are equivalent?
I think they are equivalent in that any differences are just different, not better or worse. I didn't retain typos or [abbreviations like] BRB. I edited it in the same manner as I would edit dialogue. I think if I just presented it as it would look on a computer screen, people would expect that to be unedited. So I edited it—I put it into dialogue form. Also, I wanted it to be presented the same as dialogue, because to me it doesn't matter that it's on Gmail chat or on the phone or through telepathy or something. It's just the words that matter.
You often don't use question marks when people are talking. I don't use those marks when I type in Gmail. Is this reflective of that sort of style?
I think that's a reflection of how I view question marks, because if I put a question mark after the word "what," to me that's the tone of saying it as a question. But I'm just saying it as "what." The tone justifies it.
[Shoplifting had] instances where people meet online, and when they [eventually] meet in person there's a difference between these two relationships. Were you trying to highlight that difference?
Even if they are different, which they probably are, I wasn't trying to show anything like that. I don't want to focus on sociological or technological matters. I don't have anything I want to say on that. I'm sure it's different. But when people read Kafka or something and he has a thing where someone's talking on the phone, people don't really focus on how the phone is different than talking in person. They just focus on the other stuff. And that's what I want to focus on.
You've done a lot with blogging and different types of publishing. Do you see writing shifting online more and do you see that changing things, even if it doesn't change relationships?
I don't see writing going online. I don't know how someone could make money from writing online. Even [online] magazines like Nerve.com, which is just sex stories, I don't think they really make more [than print magazines]. I just don't think people can make money online. I can't tell the future, but I doubt it.
Do you write differently for when you publish stuff online versus when it's going to print? Less editing?
Ideally, I think I work on it the same amount, but because I know that a blog post isn't going to be reviewed by the L.A. Times and I can just delete it whenever I want, I probably don't work as hard on it. Not because it's on the internet, but because of other reasons.
You said you edit conversations down a lot, and I guess I saw a lot of terseness to your conversations, which to me gave the book a sense of ennui, but you disagreed with that. Do you then feel these are the most essential part of the conversations you're bringing up? Were they sitting in silence a lot? Or was there more going on because of editing?
That's interesting. To me, I feel like the conversations I included were ones were the characters are connecting. So I guess it's a reflection of how much the main character talks, which is not that much.
Just a different character rather than a statement?
There are a lot of lines in the book that give a sense of pointing out insignificance. Why are those moments important to you?
I think that's just a momentary feeling that passes. Even Oprah probably has moments where she's thinking, "I'm not thinking anything."
Is this style how you're approaching your next book, Richard Yates? Writing about the situation you're in?
I've already finished Richard Yates. It has the same prose style as Shoplifting, but it's more plot orientated. I would call it a page-turner, where Shoplifting has like no plot. I really think it's a page-turner.
Lots of espionage?
No, but more like, I don't know. Yeah, an espionage thing without the espionage. Just people.
Your publisher said you were the American Murakami. Do you think he feels like the Japanese Tao Lin?
I prefer to be called the Asian Haruki Murakami. I never referred to myself that way.
As you tour around and talk about your book, is there anything that comes up in your mind about it?
People seem to want to see the detachment that they see in the characters as representative of people in their 20s or people alive right now. Which kind of confuses me for two reasons. One, the characters are constantly doing things with their lives. When they feel sad, they aren't doing things that are destructive or doing things that will lead to less productivity like drugs or drinking alcohol a lot. And two, because when people see monks or something like that being detached, they just view that as being good. But when they view the characters in my book being detached, they view it as apathy. The L.A. Times said they were sociopaths.
People seem to like your books because of that sense of apathy. Do you think that detachment needs respect as opposed to the other choice, which is drinking and drugs?
First, I don't think I even view the characters as detached. They're always talking about I feel sad, or I feel good, or I feel weird, or something. And I don't view them either as unproductive, apathetic, or dead in any way. I view them as productive members of society who are trying to make their lives better without harming other people. Secondly, I think some people are maybe thinking that just because of the prose style, or because of me as an author deciding not to include thoughts or feelings, that these characters don't have thoughts or feelings, which is like thinking that just because a book doesn't have any moms or dads that moms or dads don't exist in the book. Just a choice I made.
Why'd you make this choice?
There's a few reasons. In my previous books, especially my first story collection, Bed, I had long passages on people's thoughts and feelings, which expressed a certain kind of philosophy that could be characterized as trying to accept one's situation and all situations as equally important and trying to detach oneself from one's negative emotions. So when characters felt sad, they would try to view their sadness with irony or detachment so they wouldn't feel as bad. So in my new book, I felt that the natural progression would be to try to sort of like practice that philosophy in the book instead of just repeating the passages talking about wanting to be that. I can choose to feel good or bad. Sorry I'm not being really clear. There's just some things that are better conveyed through surface, concrete details. Some feelings I experience are from certain concrete things that are happening. Say if the sun was shining on my face and I think about some other concrete thing that happened a year ago. Those two things combined make me feel a certain way. That's what I wanted to convey when I use only concrete details. I wanted to re-create what I felt in the reader with the accumulation of concrete details. Instead of describing [the feeling] to them.
When you say your characters don't do things that are destructive—what about shoplifting?
When Sam's shoplifting, he views it as something positive and moral. So that also is not negative. Sam, when he shoplifts, he doesn't think he's being destructive, he thinks he's doing something that is morally good.
Do you think there's a line for that type of thinking? Like assaulting someone?
I don't think there's a line. There's just different perspectives. I think assaulting could be justified. But I think my point is that Sam is doing something that he can justify morally. Whereas, the way some people view the book, they view it as something that Sam is doing [that] he knows is bad.
You mention brands a lot.
When I went to write "MacBook," I thought that I could write the word "laptop." And that's as far as I thought about it. I want in another interview to talk about Beowulf, to talk about how they mention broadswords, so the author of Beowulf I guess also chose to go with specificity. If you made up a chat engine, you would have to justify it to me; whereas if you didn't, you wouldn't have to justify it to me.
I read your Stranger article on defeating people at an Elliott Bay reading. Do you think you adequately defeated me?
Not at all. I think I'm tired from the flight.