Q&A: Tao Lin, Shoplifting From American Apparel

Welcome back to Q&A, an ongoing series of short interviews with authors I like. For this installment I spoke with Tao Lin, a Brooklyn-based writer of poetry, short stories, and novels. He’s also a hustler of the first degree—if you’ve heard Lin’s name before, it’s no doubt a result of his relentless self-promotion around the web. (Most recently, he debuted 12 new poems in the comments section of a blog post at HTMLGIANT.) He’s also very funny, and at heart is a writer of subtle and deceptive talents.

Lin’s most recent book is a novella called Shoplifting from American Apparel, which was an honourable mention in my favourite books of 2009. We talked via email about that book, his time management skills, and why he’ll never have a character named Dionysus.

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You always seem to have several projects on the go: right now there’s your forthcoming iPhone app (“North American Hamsters”), a new novel (Richard Yates), your reading diary, your publishing company (Muumuu House), and the dozen or so websites and social media platforms you maintain. How strictly do you divide up your time? For instance, what have you been working on today?

Tao Lin: I have a “tasks” thing on Gmail containing usually ~15 tasks that I work on in a leisurely, intermittent manner. Sitting at the computer each day I usually “just do whatever ‘feels right.’” I think I have an intuitive working method re “managing ‘my internet presence.’” If I’m working hard on a book my plan each day is to be focused on the book from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. I also do other things but “in service” of the book. For example I look at Gmail and other things to feel more motivated to work on the book. Or I “relax” at night in my room, deliberately focused on Hulu, or eating waffles, or something, thinking that I’m doing it to have “more energy” to work on the book later.

Today I woke ~10:30 a.m., looked at Gmail, Statcounter, Twitter, and clicked a link on my blog to a Google search of my name re “last 24 hours.” I ate an orange and three bananas. I did other things. I went to the library. I looked at Gmail, Statcounter, Twitter, Tumblr, and other things. I looked at emails. I responded to some emails. I struggled “big time” to answer interview questions in this interview. I emailed someone about dinner. Someone texted me. I texted them. I emailed other people. I texted the person who texted me. I emailed someone asking for someone’s email address. I Gmail chatted Brandon Scott Gorrell for maybe 90 minutes while doing things. I Gmail chatted ~3 other people intermittently while doing things. I emailed my publisher about something. I scheduled five poems to be posted on my Tumblr in the next two days. Later I plan on eating dinner and reading a book.

Your most recent book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is extremely pared-down in its language and descriptions. The only time a moral judgment is made is when someone announces how he/she is feeling out loud. In the end, do you think Sam, the main character, is a good person?

TL: I try not to think of people in terms of “good” or “bad.” If I do think of people in terms of “good” or “bad” I try to do it only while simultaneously “understanding” that in order to nonsarcastically use the words “good” and “bad” I have created a context and a goal that is as arbitrary as any other context and goal (which causes the meanings of “good” or “bad” to gain a kind of “inherent sarcasm”). I feel that anyone can be accurately labeled “good” or “bad” depending on what perspective (what context, goal) they are being viewed from, and that any perspective is as arbitrary or legitimate as any other perspective. Therefore asking me if I think someone “is a good person” is maybe like asking me something like “what is 10 +” and not providing the other number.

Sam’s potential love interests in Shoplifting are almost spectral presences, who float in and out of his life without much fanfare. Sometimes we don’t learn much more than their names: Sheila, Kaitlyn, Hester, Audrey. How important are the names you settled on? What, if anything, are they meant to convey?

TL: Names in my books function 80-99% to help the reader associate each sentence with either “[the name of a character]” or “[me, Tao Lin].” So that each time they read “[the name of a character]” they will have associations with that character, allowing them to “connect” with the character in some way, or something. To maximize this function I try to make the names easily distinguishable from each other, like I wouldn’t have a character named Kelly if I had one in the same book named Kelli or even Kristy, maybe, and I try to not use names that seem to “hint” at other functions, like I wouldn’t have a character named Oedipal Rex or Dionysus or something. I’m not averse to “allowing” names in my future books to have additional functions. Bobbie Ann Mason has a short story where a lot of people are named “Joe,” I think, and the main character feels confused about that sometimes, to comic/emotional effect. I’m not averse to doing something like that in the future.

Shoplifting is very funny, but in a way that’s hard to pin down. I still can’t tell why sentences like “At American Apparel Sam bought blue organic underwear. Outside he held the underwear to his face and said ‘sustainable’” make me laugh as much as they do. Do you have any theories as to how humour operates in your books?

TL: I think it operates just by operating. I don’t think, for example, that it operates by doing [something] to [something] in order to [something] or something. It operates different for each person, I think. To me I think maybe why that underwear sentence is “funny,” to some degree, is because the character is holding underwear to his face in a public space, which seems to be atypical behaviour, and he is doing it sort of not self-consciously, and for a purpose that seems to not match with the action, in order to sort of “enjoy” or “express” his appreciation not that the underwear is “soft” or “feels good” but that the underwear is made from organic cotton and therefore sustainable to some degree.

Richard Yates, your second novel, comes out in September. What can you tell me about it? Do you think it will surprise your fans in any way, or is it right in line with your body of work so far?

TL: It’s twice as long as Eeeee Eee Eeee. In my view it is a “page-turner.” It’s linear and focused on one romantic relationship. It seems to have a structure that is amenable to “mainstream success” but that contains, within that “mainstream” structure, a kind of content that will satisfy “indie sensibilities” and people who feel cripplingly lonely or severely depressed/alienated. It was written from 2006 to 2010. I think people who dislike me already will dislike me more if they read it. People who felt neutral toward me might dislike me after reading it. People who have strong beliefs re certain “political things” might dislike me after reading it.

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Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy Shoplifting from American Apparel: Amazon (Canada); Amazon (U.S.).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

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