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"I think McDonald’s is funny in a certain way that Arby’s is not.": The Tao of Tao Lin

Tao Lin just might be the prototype for a new breed of writer.  The 27-year-old Brooklyn based novelist/poet/publisher/blogger/artist/musician/brand belongs as much to the Internet, as the generation of writers tethered to the paperback that preceded him.  He is surprisingly accessible I found out, after reaching out to him via his blog.  His meme obsessed parlance and quantifiable world view can confound and dazzle readers.  Below is my unedited interview with Lin from two years ago.  His current novel "Richard Yates" is out now!

So, I guess my first question would be have you always been conscious of the value of social networking and the power of blogs as a way to distribute your work?

I feel like someone who drives a car to deliver pizzas in a suburban area, like if someone asked them, “Have you always been conscious of using a car to deliver pizzas?” It seems like the default method, so I do not feel it has any added “power” or “advantage.” Rather if you took away the pizza delivery person’s car they would feel incapacitated or something.

Was this something that was stressed when you were studying writing/journalism at NYU?

I don’t remember being taught about distribution or promotion.

How has having your blog brought attention to your work?

When my first book came out I maybe had 200-300 unique visitors a day, from having the blog for maybe 2 years already, and an amount of those people probably bought my book. My blog also brings attention to my work because the top of my blog has my name and my oeuvre and links to my Wikipedia page.

You seem to be really involved in various social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), how do you view these sites and what purpose do you see them fulfilling with regards to bringing people to your work, if at all?

I view Twitter as a place where I can post things I would normally put in poems or maybe text message specific people. I plan to use things I have twittered in future poems. I work hard on my twitter updates. If I post an update on twitter and it seems out of character in a not-exciting way I will feel bad and delete it. I also view Twitter as a place where I can easily read what people are doing in order to relieve certain feelings and to feel more motivated to do things by reading funny things. I view Facebook as a place to start groups, feel clean and professional to some degree, post links to certain of my blog posts in my “status” area, look at people’s pictures, and write on certain people’s walls to arrange social things. I view MySpace as a place to look at people’s pictures and listen to music. I prefer not going to MySpace, it feels “dirty” to me. In terms of bringing people to my work I sometimes feel that all those sites are valuable. I try to control my internet persona to some degree. Overall I currently feel that I am not successful at controlling my internet persona, but that maybe in not being able to control it, and releasing conflicting information and tones about my existence, I will be viewed as more of a “round” character, a real human being, with multiple emotions, which will maybe cause certain people to buy my books. I almost never feel that I confidently know the long-term effects of what I am doing. But I am almost always thinking about the long-term effects.

I noticed your blog post from 2/04 "Do I Need To Blog", where you were expressing some anxiety over whether you could keep the blog going.  I think that is a shared anxiety among a lot of folks operating in the "blogosphere".  I would love if you could elaborate on that a bit more?

Sometimes I feel like my blog is repeating itself in a way that makes me feel bad, like I am building a new Arby’s location, like I am spending time building something that already exists and already doesn’t excite me. It is the same feeling I get if I am working on a book and I see that many of the sentences are really boring, even in context. However sometimes I feel like my blog is repeating itself in a way that makes me feel okay (if I do it with an amount of control over the tone and level of self-awareness), like I am expanding on a single thing that already exists, for example building a really giant McDonald’s. In conclusion sometimes I feel like I’m building a really giant McDonald’s whereas sometimes I feel like I am building a lot of different Arby’s locations. I prefer the first feeling most of the time in terms of my blog. I think McDonald’s is funny in a certain way that Arby’s is not.

With all these different avenues for publishing thoughts, musings, and writing, do you feel overwhelmed to have to be constantly updating, responding, defending, etc.?

I don’t feel overwhelmed. I have many emails but no real job. If I worked as hard as an Olympic ballet dancer or someone with two jobs in construction or something, like 360 days a year, I could do like three or four times as much as I do now probably. I feel no pressure to defend myself or anything like that. I feel like I honestly don’t believe I am more viable as a person than anyone else, even murderers and things like that, and so do not defend myself. “My worldview is existential, after all.” I don’t really feel pressure to update my blog. I do feel pressure but it’s like a sarcastic pressure. I can process that my brain is thinking, “Update your blog, hits are decreasing,” but it just seems funny instead of urgent or even “real.”

What is the idea and rationale behind the "promotional posts" for you novel "Shoplifting from American Apparel"? 

The idea is that if I make a lot of promotional posts, like 100 promotional posts, I’ll maybe feel like I’ve done something funny and also effective. People who read each promotional post can click a link to the previous promotional post, causing them to read many promotional posts by “idly” clicking links post-to-post because they don’t know what else to do. The more time that people spend reading about the book the more they will feel inclined to buy it when they are inside a bookstore and do not know what to buy. Maybe 95% of the time when I am in a bookstore I have “completely no idea” what to buy. During times like that just knowing what exists, what I already have a context for, is probably influential in what I buy.

Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration for this book? 

I was caught shoplifting from American Apparel in 2006 or 2007. I wrote around 800 words about it and emailed it to a friend for purposes of relating what happened. Then Vice Magazine solicited me for their fiction issue and I emailed them an excerpt from my second novel, Richard Yates (Melville House, 2010), which they rejected. Then I emailed them a longer version of what I emailed my friend, about being caught shoplifting from American Apparel, and they accepted it and published in their fiction issue. Then my publisher suggested making it into a novella. I denied the idea for 4-10 months because I felt I could not do it successfully in terms of artistic concerns. Then at some point I felt I could do it successfully in terms of artistic concerns and that I really wanted to do it. Then I did that. The novella is around 18,000 words and features 2x shoplifting arrest, 5x vague relationship.

You had a recent post on your blog where you were recruiting interns; I loved reading that how did that play out?  Did you get many "applicants"?

I got 3-15 applicants. I don’t remember what happened. One person sent a long email then never responded to my reply email I think. Previous to the blog post you referenced I have had maybe 10-40 interns of various levels of commitment ranging from “extremely vague” to “they do things when I tell them to do things but I feel bad doing that and so never tell them to do things unless I also offer them some kind of compensation.”

It seems that you have an almost "Warholian" approach to your writing, art, image, was he an inspiration?

I had little or no knowledge of Andy Warhol before various people mentioned him in a context involving me. Today I have read maybe half of his book, from A to B; been to an exhibit of his life and art in Taiwan’s beautiful [some museum place]; read portions of his Wikipedia page maybe 3-10 times; and viewed him on YouTube in commercials for Japanese things I think.

Do you see-as many articles forecast- the death of "traditional" publisher/writer relationships?  I guess what I'm asking is, do writers still need big publishing houses in the same way as twenty years ago?

I feel that things are not changing in that there always seems to be steady change, like I am inside a large boat which is moving, but because I am inside the boat most of the time I just think that I am on land, or something. I feel that feature articles probably are one of the least accurate things in terms of what is factually happening due to college students being taught repeatedly to write about “newsworthy” things, most newspapers and magazines existences being based on increasing circulation, and people wanting to relieve boredom or feel excited, which can be done by dramatizing their “era” or “their week.” But I feel that statistically there must exist moments in history where things actually are changing more than other moments in history, with “history” being a certain context. But I feel no interest in those things currently, I think. In terms of writers and publishing houses I feel that from a certain perspective, from which I currently view things, no one “needs” other certain things like publishing houses. I have no perspective on twenty years ago vs. now. If I did I feel that I would not think about it, because thinking about it would be like listening to someone talk that I did not want to talk to, or like being in a relationship that I do not want to be in.

Has this economy affected you as a writer in any measurable way? Beyond the graphs and charts displayed on your blog of course.  Has it evened the playing field to any extent in New York with regard to who the real literary/publishing power brokers are?  Or is the status quo still the lay of the land?

I feel not affected, or maybe 5% affected, by the economy. I bought American Apparel stock but after the economy “crashed” or whatever it did. I think I lost 40% on that, even after buying it after it went down a lot, but I feel that that loss affected my life very little. I can say that the economy has not affected the “businesses I frequent” in NYC, in my view. In terms of publishing I don’t know what is happening on a larger scale. I feel focused on what I am doing. I think I subconsciously operate on some kind of idea that I will create something and focus on what I have created instead of looking at other things and seeing how I can “fit in” to that, at least in terms of the publishing company, Muumuu House, that I started. Currently I feel that “profitability” seems easily attainable with Muumuu House.

Do you consider yourself a brand and if so how would you describe that brand to someone?

Yes, I am a brand, I think. I am a person so I am some kind of thing, which is what I view a brand as a being, any thing that exists, that can be thought about. I would describe my brand variously as “existentially-minded, strives for health, and ultimately is life-affirming,” “moral within an existential framework,” “neutral dialogue tags, clean, and allergic to cats,” and maybe “maybe is passive, or detached, or something, yet seems able to promote heavily, often mentioning ‘steady cash flow.’” According to Facebook I am “gay-friendly, clean, and allergic cats.” Any of those seem accurate.

About the shares of your next novel you were selling, how did that pan out?  Would you then have to answer to "shareholders" when it came to the content of those books?

I sold shares to six people for $2000 each. Each of those people will receive 10% of the U.S. royalties to my second novel. The shareholders have no input on the content of my books or anything I do in my life. One shareholder is Mattathias Schwartz, who has published feature articles in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and others, and whose writing I like, and who said I could say he is an investor. One shareholder lives in the UK and one in I think Singapore. I plan to email them mass emails (six people) with subject: “Investor Relations Update [a number].”

What is the inspiration behind your publishing venture Muumuu House? What types of projects are you currently working on?

I don’t know of a specific unit of inspiration. It was “just” something I wanted to do. The first books published will be two full-length poetry books. Sometimes "My Heart Pushes My Ribs" by Ellen Kennedy in March and "During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present" by Brandon Scott Gorrell in June. I am also publishing things by various people on the website continuously.

I seem to recall that you are publishing Gmail chats?   As a publisher what are you looking for in these chats, what makes for compelling "chat"?

Yes, I am publishing Gmail chats at I look for Gmail chats that I think are funny and that do not contain shit-talking against anyone specific.

Do you see yourself as part of any particular literary movement or scene?

Yes, I view myself as part of the literary movement/scene generated by Muumuu House, Bear Parade, and, in part, Melville House.

Who are some inspirations, as far as careers you admire?

I admire currently the proprietor of Hipster Runoff. I looked at his 12-month site meter chart and felt impressed. I like his writing. I think I admire anyone who seems productive. I admire people who are “nice” or “passive” also. But I don’t really use the word “admire,” even in my head, I think, so I am not sure exactly what I mean.

Do you feel any pressure to live up to the "Lit It Boy" title you recently received from New York Magazine?  If you could title yourself, what title would you prefer?

I do not feel pressure from that. If I could title myself I would title myself “” (my blog url) or something else “pragmatic” like that.

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