Interview: Tao Lin

Photographer noah kalina
June 04, 2013

On the day I was initially scheduled to meet up with the writer Tao Lin, I waited a full 30 minutes in a Japanese cafe in Williamsburg—uncorrected proofs of his engrossing, semi-autobiographical new novel, Taipei, on the table before me—trying to fight the creeping feeling that he probably wasn't going to show up. It wasn't until I was in a cab headed back to Manhattan that I heard back from Lin, who sent three apology emails in quick succession, claiming that he had been thinking that our meeting was tomorrow, and that he would gladly meet up with me at my earliest convenience—"if [I would] forgive [him]," that is. I assured him that I'd be happy to reschedule, and in what felt like a shining example of the millennial self-consciousness he is famous for manifesting in prose, he then sent a fourth apology email, apologizing for apologizing too much. It felt like the kind of awkward, thwarted connection that occurs over and over again in the pages of Taipei, which follows the druggy spirals, existential musings and professional and romantic misadventures of a Lin-like protagonist named Paul, a writer getting ready to go on tour for his new book. Two days later, when I finally sat down with Lin in a park in Manhattan, he made the very considerate gesture of bringing us some fancy, glass-bottled, raw vegan desserts from a place called Organic Avenue to lunch on. We spent the hour-and-a-half-long conversation sitting on a patch of grass, flipping through the pages of proofs like students in a college class on the first day of spring. Taipei comes out tomorrow. Stop by the Brooklyn launch party if you're in New York.

The main action in the book grows out of a period of inactivity for the main character, Paul. He’s just finished writing a book, and visited his parents in Taiwan, and he has all this time to kill leading up to a book tour about six months down the line. Why was that a compelling place to start? I don’t know. I guess there’s that period where he starts losing his memory. I figure the reader will keep reading because they know he’s viewing it as an interim period and there’s gonna be a book tour. I like writing about periods of time where nothing crazy is happening.

Are periods of time when nothing crazy is happening times when crazy things do actually start happening? Yeah. I think that period is a crazy period. His plan was just to stay in his room and organize his internet presence to prepare for the book. But instead, he started being more social than he had ever been. So after that, [with Paul] still feeling depressed—it seemed like a good way to start off the book tour. At the beginning of the book, he already has some feeling that everything is just repeating in his life, but when he’s in Taiwan for the first time he feels like there’s something new in his life. But then when he goes the next year [after the book tour] he doesn’t feel that anymore. So the second trip to Taiwan ends with him having no hope anywhere, and then that just fizzles.

The first time that he goes to Taiwan, he thinks about that city as a kind of new frontier—a place where he could break out of his routine and reinvent himself, even kind of rewire his own brain through all the new experiences he’s having. Would you say he discovers that that’s not really possible? It’s not necessarily because of something that he noticed. It’s also because of all the drugs he was taking that were making him depressed. So it’s not like the first time he had hope and the second time he realized not—the drugs had something to do with it also.

I’m interested in this notion he has that the brain is something that can be transformed. I often think about how my brain has changed over time, mostly because of the internet. Is that something you have any theories about? Twitter has changed my brain, that’s the only specific thing I can think of. I’ll think in tweets now. I’ll think like, “I thought, ‘It’s hot.’”

You’re thinking of yourself as a character in narrative, having a thought? Yeah, and I don’t think that had ever really happened before. I’ll think like, "Tao Lin starts scribbling a flow chart on his copy of Taipei] “thought.... thought... thought... thought.... thought.... I feel.... hot.” So I thought the word “thought.” That happens a lot now. I’m just like outside of myself. I don’t see a lot of this on Twitter, but a lot of my friends are doing it.

Are there certain questions that a lot of people are asking you about this book? Yeah. I feel like no one has asked me about any of the stuff I’m interested in.

What are you interested in? I’m interested in the memory stuff. I’m interested in this part about technology. I’m interested in the ending thing about life and death. I’m interested in the part about childhood. So far most of the questions have been trying to figure out how autobiographical it is and arguing about that term. Someone asked a lot of questions about gender and race.

Some of the book's material was either taken from memory or based on it. How did you go about editing and selecting? I viewed my memory as a huge first draft. Then I started with what was most moving or memorable to me. In the beginning I would try to put it in the order it was actually in, just so that it would make sense. If I based it on that, it would make sense no matter what, even if it would just barely make sense. But then at some point I was just not thinking about my memory at all—I was just doing what needed to be done.

What aspect of memory did you want to capture through the way that you structured it, with all those digressions from the present day plot action? Well I don’t have any message about memory—I was just interested in exploring it. Wikipedia is mentioned a lot, and Wikipedia has a memory that you can check. And the stuff about memory being the same as imagination, because if you tell me to remember something, I’ll be referring to my brain, and if you tell me to imagine something, I’ll be using the same amount of energy to create something in my brain. And then there’s the memory that everything we do or say is recorded by the universe. So everything is remembered.

Do you mean specifically now, by technology? No, I mean that if something happened, you can’t make it un-happen. Right now people can track what happened whenever to a certain degree, but a billion years from now they’ll be able to look at this probably. [Indicates the sunny park scene in front of us with the span of an arm.]

They’ll be able to do a Google Map view of a moment in history? Yeah, I’m sure. Wikipedia is a very simple version of that, where you can see what happened and who did what. There’s just no way to hide from the universe. Do you know anything about the singularity?

Not really. It has a lot of different definitions, but [there’s this] book [that] talks about how technology is just this abstraction that exists and is using people to make more inanimate matter into computers. Everything is being changed into computerized matter. At some point [the computers] are gonna be able to do it themselves, and humans will just become obsolete. I read this in a book called The End of Science. I read it in high school, and one of its predictions was that far in the future there will just be a massive computer expanding into the universe and taking in more planets. At that point it will just be one thing—me and you will be there.

Existing inside of it? Not inside of it—just it. It will be all interconnected. We won’t even be able to understand it—just like a metal orb thing that we’re all a part of. I’ve said something about how that could resemble, or be a way to get to, what Buddhists want when they talk about wanting to be at one.

There’s a line at the end, after Paul’s big mushroom trip, where you mention that the world is coming back into resolution, almost in digital steps. I had made a connection between the idea of all life being sucked up into the same computer and the Buddhist experience of oneness that Paul has on the drugs. That’s what I intended. Sometimes I worry that I deleted all the best parts of the book. Cause I was trying not to be too blunt about it, so I deleted a lot of stuff. I feel like you have to read it really closely to feel it. I have all these charts showing how everything connects. Another thing is cyclical versus linear progress, like seasons being cyclical and technology is not cyclical.

How does Paul experience that dynamic? He just thinks up these ideas to make him feel better. I didn’t want it to be confined to one theme, like death or something. I wanted it to be like how I would live for two years. I have a lot of different ideas. But it does seem like they can all connect, it’s just hard to.

It seems like drugs are discussed in the book as something that can make existence more bearable, but that they also serve a lot of other functions, too, like allowing someone to escape reality, or fueling creative work. What impulses do you think they satisfy for you? They can satisfy a lot for me. Barely anything makes me happy anymore except drugs. It’s really not good.

Which ones were you thinking about while writing the book? In the book there’s too much stuff happening to discern that, but for me it seems like you’re just not happy or you’re happy, and that’s it a lot of the time. It’s not like you’re happy and you need this other thing. If you’re happy then you’re fine without that other thing.

What was your personal rhythm when you were writing the book? Most of it was either not sleeping one, two or three nights and using adderall. Then the next day, I’d maybe use some other thing like Xanax and not work that hard. Then repeat.

Was there a sense that the rhythm would play into the writing or is that just how you feel like doing it? Were you like “I’m going to take these drugs to see how it comes out”? The Adderall is a motivating thing. I’m sure part of it was an excuse to use more Adderall so I could feel happier. But I was also thinking, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to write this.”

What drew you to make a write about the relationship between Paul and Erin, which is similar in many ways to your own relationship with Megan Boyle? That’s just because it was in my memory. I could have used anything else, I think, and put in the same stuff about memory. But that had a good plot that moved it along. The first relationship ends and then another one ends, and he already feels like everything is just repeating.

At a certain point in the story, the relationship between Paul and Erin reveals itself to be an instance of two people coming together and just saying “yes” to every idea that pops into their heads, imagining things they might do—like a drug, or even getting married—and just doing them. Most of that was just based on memory. It was so unlikely that it was interesting to write about. I wouldn’t be able to make that up, I don’t think. Then the part about filming also ties into everything. I think it’s really interesting that when you’re filming on a Macbook it’s like a completely new thing, because it’s not a mirror and it’s not watching a movie. It’s both. What it is is a viewable perspective. So for once you can see what someone else is seeing, except it’s a computer.

Why did you name the book after Taipei? I don’t know. I named it before I’d written most of the book, because it seemed like a good name. I didn’t want to name it something that’s just going to make everyone think it’s a hipster thing. But then I made it work by having the reader focus on the things I say about Taipei. This thing feels important to me. [Lin shuffles through the book and lands on the sentence in question. At the indicated point in the story, Paul is giving a reading in Louisana when he realizes that he has accidentally cut-and-pasted a random line of text into the text he meant to read: “The transparency and total effort, with none spent on explanation or concealment or experimentation, of what the universe desired—to hug itself as carefully, as violently and patiently, as had been exactly decided upoint, at some point, with gravity was [something].” We take a few moments to process the line, which is, by far, the most complicated in the book.] Yeah, he doesn’t know what that means and I don’t know either.

How did you come up with that? Well, I just thought about what gravity is. A planet is already moving at an exact speed toward another mass, and that’s all it does. It doesn’t explain or try to hide what it’s doing. It’s just doing what everything wants or is doing already. So that’s the message the universe has. If you like someone, you want them to like you the same amount. That’s how the universe without humans is, because it depends on size and it’s constant. Everything is moving towards something else and then that thing’s moving towards something else and it’s just hugging itself. [In the book] there’s a lot of stuff about hugging. Then there’s stuff about dots.

Like Paul walking along and imagining dots of everywhere he had been in Google Earth? No. There’s the thing where he’s imagining his life as going through a vacuum tube. You know what a vacuum tube is? Only he can fit into it, and he’s going to go out to somewhere, but he doesn’t know where. I’d have to search the word “dot." But I have a lot of times, and if you search the word “dot” you can discern something from it. There’s a lot of stuff about him thinking that he’s at the age when a lot of people like him die. Kurt Cobain is mentioned a lot. He’s trying to figure out how old he was and how old they are. The one section that talks about his childhood begins “His father is twenty-eight when he comes to America." That is just so different from how his life is.

Twenty-eight years old. Like Saturn returns—the formative moment of adulthood? Yeah. A lot of bands have really depressing first or second CDs around that age. They either die or their music will change. For writers, it’s a little bit later, I think. Like 33 or something.

Is this book about that period of change? This still seems like a depressing book. I feel like I need to change something. How I view the world.

You’re searching, right? [Still looking through the book.] Here’s this thing about a dot. He thinks if he goes to jail he won’t have to deal with all that shit anymore, but then he knows he’ll still be inside the dot of himself. You can’t break or hurt dots. It’s either a dot or not a dot. It follows itself perfectly. He talks about how that’s a prime number. People are like extremely huge prime numbers. It’s either there or not. It can’t split. And it can get as complex as you want. They haven’t found the hugest prime number.

Interview: Tao Lin