Tao Lin’s latest novel, Richard Yates, was recently published. It’s about the dissolution of a relationship between two characters named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment, who bear no relationship to the celebrities of the same names. In fact, it’s widely believed that the book is based on Tao Lin and his ex-girlfriend. I’ve interviewed Tao Lin before, for The Rumpus, and in the comments section at the foot of the article he answered anything people wanted to ask, including many questions about sex and Hipster Runoff. But these are things that interest me about Tao Lin: his demeanor and stilted way of speaking and writing, which I have heard some people suggest is an act or a symptom of Asperger Syndrome; his penchant for stealing—especially since he eats expensive raw food and doesn’t otherwise seem to seek out confrontation; his father Dr. Jui-Teng Lin, who had a civil fraud action brought against him by the Securities and Exchange Commission for “defrauding innocent investors of millions of dollars through an unlawful pump and dump scheme.” Dr. Lin allegedly reaped these “ill-gotten” gains by artificially inflating the market price of the company Surgilight Inc.’s stock tenfold. Over the course of several encounters with Tao Lin last summer, at times both of us under the influence of a controlled substance, I brought up Richard Yates insofar as it furthered my exploration of these topics.
SPIN Party for Smashing Pumpkins. Hudson Bar. July 26, 2010.
Tao Lin puts a book on the table face up. It’s about the literary agent Bill Clegg and his experiences with crack. “It’s interesting,” he says. We are sitting on a white couch. Tao’s friend Jake from SPIN comes over with a woman named Beth.
A man in a gray suit walks by, alone. “Beth says he crashes parties but no one knows who he is,” I say. “He always manages to have a stolen physical invitation, and they’ve gotten used to him. But still, no one knows who he is.” “Let’s follow him,” says Tao. We walk across the floor, a series of glowing squares like in Saturday Night Fever, and sit on a piece of furniture that looks like a log near the man in the gray suit, who has sat down at a table of people twenty years younger than him. He is not talking to anyone, but no one seems bothered. We watch the man. “He looks insane,” Tao says.
I ask Tao if I can profile him for BlackBook. “You’ve already interviewed me so much. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything more that people would want to know about me.” Tao says. “You keep writing novels. And they’re all autobiographical. How do you still have enough material to keep writing your novels?” I ask. “I don’t know.” “I read that your father did something illegal, or was accused of doing something illegal. And you’ve done illegal things and have spent time in jail. I want to ask about both of those things.”
Tao suggests we do many different drugs over the course of a day and record ourselves talking, and that whatever we say could be the article. For the most part he seems sincere. Tao tells me how to write my article. This feels disingenuous. Like he’s telling me so I might include it in my essay. Like an act, a demonstration of self-promotional acumen.
“That would be unpublishable,” I say. “The worst that can happen is that people will think I’m flirting with you. And that might be good for the article.” “The article would never get published,” I respond. Tao nods his head. “It would be a shit storm.”
Tao and I have traded controlled substances before. At The Wooly, he gave me Klonopin in exchange for Valium. Tao says he will be taking Adderall because it makes him talk more. I ask him to bring extra.
Union Square. 6:00pm. August 1, 2010.
I meet Tao near Coffee Shop on Union Square because it’s the neighborhood he used to live in. He says it feels weird because it feels like we have to talk for this article, whereas the other night at the SPIN party we had no trouble talking because it wasn’t for an article. Tao is in jeans he bought for $25 on eBay and a white t-shirt he also bought on eBay. His earphones are hanging out of his jeans pocket. As we’re walking, I wonder if Tao has taken Adderall already and if I should ask him for some. I don’t ask. We walk to Pure Juice and Takeaway. On the way, he points to TGI Fridays. “That used to be Zen Palate,” he says. “Virgin Megastore is something else now—Forever 21, I think. And Circuit City is Best Buy. That’s better because Best Buy is 24-hour.”
Pure Juice and Takeaway. 6:30pm
“Are you tight on money?” Tao asks as we approach the counter. “Because if you are, I’ll pay. I just got a $12,800 writing grant. Someone who likes my work gave it to me.” “Is it someone you know?” “I don’t want to say. The only stipulation of the grant was that I not reveal anything about the person.”
He tells me I should order a Strawberry Blonde. “It has banana and strawberries in it,” he says. “I’m not that hungry,” I say. “It’s just fruit,” he says. I order it. He orders grapefruit juice. “You’re not ordering one of these?” I say. “No. I want something light.”
As we sit down on a bench outside, a tall woman with dark hair and a long flower-patterned dress enters the shop. “That’s Shalom Harlow,” I say. “She was a model in the nineties.” “That name sounds familiar,” Tao says. “She’s like six-foot-three. If you stand here long enough, you’ll see a lot of models.” We look at Shalom Harlow. Shoko, a photographer, arrives.
“Do you hate America?” Shoko says to Tao. “No,” says Tao. “I just thought it would be funny to have a tattoo that said ‘Fuck America.’”
“Nice to meet you,” we hear Shalom Harlow say to a couple sitting inside. “I hope you work it off.”
Bus Headed Down Second Avenue. 7:50pm
We get on a bus. I ask Tao if he would feel badly if he wrote about doing Adderall and then a fan of his went out and did Adderall to be like him and had a heart attack and died. He said he would not feel guilty. If they do something, it’s their responsibility.
“Why do you steal?” I ask. Tao has recently been arrested for entering Think Coffee, which is attached to an NYU bookstore, another branch of which he once stole earphones from. It had been a while, and he had forgotten he wasn’t allowed back.
“Tao has stolen stuff,” I say. Shoko looks like she feels like she should say something. “He was also recently arrested for trespassing. He wrote about it for Gawker.”
“You stole earphones,” I say. “People need food. But nobody needs earphones.” “I wanted them,” he says. “And I didn’t have enough money. I don’t feel badly about stealing from a big corporation. I would never steal from an independent seller.”
Why does Tao steal if he doesn’t need to? He eats raw food. If he needed to steal to survive, he would not choose an expensive diet, I think.
“Where do your parents live?” I say. “Taiwan.” “I thought you were from Florida.” “I am. They moved because their house was confiscated by the government.”
I ask him why it was confiscated.
“At the time, my dad was the CEO of a company that made—I’m not completely sure—but a company that made the machine that eye doctors use to fix near-sightedness. At some point, he released a press release that said something about this laser technology being established in South America. But the government felt that the lasers weren’t established in South America, so they prosecuted my dad and my dad got a lawyer but the lawyer was really bad. After the trial the judge said if the lawyer wasn’t so bad, my dad wouldn’t have been sentenced to jail time. He was sentenced to like 90 months or something like that. He ended up serving four years, my freshman year of college until I graduated.
My dad is pretty much comfortable in any situation. Growing up, he was poor and pretty much didn’t have anything, I think, so in jail he was relaxed and working on papers and stuff. He made a lot of friends. When we visited him—this is in one of my books, I think it’s in Richard Yates—he would lean back in his chair and smile and say ‘life in jail is good.’ Or something like that. And he came out healthier because he would exercise in there. The misleading press release was one thing. I don’t know what the other charges were, but there was something involving moving money around to avoid taxes. I’m not really sure. I feel that he probably knew that some things he was doing weren’t completely legal, but that they were the kind of illegal things that probably everyone does. The government probably found that stuff out after the press release thing. This was when every company’s stock was increasing in value for no reason, in 2000, I think. The government seemed to randomly choose some companies to prosecute.”
“Do your parents understand what you do?” I ask. “I don’t know about my dad,” Tao says. “I think my mother understands. But when she reads on my blog about drugs or stealing stuff she gets worried.”
“You’ve both spent time in jail, you and your dad,” I say, “for taking something that our laws say shouldn’t have been taken. Were your parents concerned the first time you stole something, or the first time you were caught?”
“I never lied to them, but I wouldn’t just come out and say whatever happened. And my mom would say, ‘Don’t do anything illegal,’ and like, ‘It’s not right to steal what isn’t yours.’ And I’d just respond how I would to anyone: in certain instances it’s not wrong.”
“What about your dad?” I say. “Did he ever try to advise you about not stealing or anything like that?
“No,” Tao says. “He’s very aloof. He’s like a mad scientist-type person, I feel. The only time he said something about anything I do was when he read something in Bed where I quoted the band Leftover Crack saying ‘fuck America,’ and he told me ‘you can’t be anti-American.’”
The bus bounces and sails around turns.
Tao says that the house his family lived in before they moved to Taiwan was “a pretty big house in a gated neighborhood.” I ask Tao if his mom offered to give him money when she found out he had stolen.
“I think so at some point,” Tao says. “What did you say?” “I don’t remember,” Tao says. “I might have taken it. I now just take money from anyone that offers it to me, in part because I know I’ll spend it on more socially responsible things than they will. Mostly independent organic vegan restaurants and grocery stores and co-ops.”
Tao says he was in jail three times. “Don’t you get tired of getting arrested?” I ask. “If you consider your time and comfort to be non-monetary valuables, it seems more cost-effective to not get arrested.”
“No, I don’t feel that way,” Tao says. “I think I got caught only like six months after I stopped stealing a lot for income at American Apparel, when I was stealing every day or like multiple times a day. During that time I had a job, so my success rate was 99%.”
“When I say for income,” Tao clarifies, “I mean stealing regimentally. Selling batteries on eBay as a job. Selling a thousand dollars’ worth of batteries on eBay every month.”
“So you didn’t have a ‘job’ job,” I say. “Was there ever a time you thought of getting a job?”
For three or four months, Tao was a personal assistant for a Middle Eastern film actor who owned a jet company. Tao says the actor was contacted by the FBI because he started a jet company and is Middle Eastern. “He didn’t have an office,” he says. “Just a room. I sat on a futon mostly creating his website, writing descriptions of 200 jets in a detached tone. Or, not in a detached tone, but a lyrical tone. It would just say like, ‘The A.I. 500 can go 2000 miles without a refill,’ or something like that. At one point he wanted to make me a partner of the company. But by that time, I was more focused on writing. I just didn’t want to.”
Shoko’s Apartment on Rivington Street. 8:23pm.
It smells like freshly baked cookies in Shoko’s apartment. She makes us gin with blood orange juice. We go to the roof, where the sky is deep blue but not very dark. “We should take a picture like the picture of Brett Easton Ellis on the book jacket of his new book,” I say. Tao is excited by the idea of looking like Brett Easton Ellis. There are no guardrails on the roof. Tao leans back against the ledge of the roof so his head hangs over. Shoko takes pictures of him like this. “I do cartwheels,” Tao says. He does a cartwheel and Shoko photographs him.
“What does your brother do?” I ask. We are back in Shoko’s apartment sitting on a sectional beige sofa. With his fingertips, Tao is spinning a pair of sunglasses from one of its plastic arms. The frames are fluorescent green and heart-shaped. I can’t see his eyes because they’re covered by his elbow, which is raised so I can see the Fuck America tattoo. “He’s a graphic designer,” Tao says. He says he only sees his brother once every five months even though his brother lives in Park Slope. Tao lives in Williamsburg. He emails with him once every three weeks. “He’s around thirty or thirty-three. He’s married.” “Why don’t you see him more?” “I don’t know.” “Is his graphic design similar to your artwork?” “Yeah,” he says. He’s lying low on the couch. “He used to be a skateboarder.” “He sounds like someone you’d like,” I say. “I do like him.”
Raku Doraku. 10:00pm.
We are the only patrons at the restaurant. Tao orders vegetable dumplings, a pork bun, and green tea. I have vegetable dumplings and green tea. Tao doesn’t eat a lot of carbohydrates, he says, because carbohydrates make him feel “bad.” He will eat meat before he eats carbohydrates.
Shoko goes to the bathroom. Tao says he played snare drum for his high school band. He played for all four years of high school and went to band camp during the summers.
I ask if he’s taken Adderall. He says he took some at 3:00pm and then a little more at 5:00pm. “What’s the life of the pill?” I ask. “How long will the effect last?” He says it lasts about five hours. I ask if it is too late to take one. He says it isn’t.
BEast for Ryan McGinley’s Main Man Party. 11:30pm.
Tall skinny men in small sneakers stand at the bar at BEast. On the dance floor, which is spangled with disco-ball light, a tall blonde woman in a black dress is dancing. We walk upstairs and see my friend Angelo, who runs Gelo Factory, sitting with a woman. This is Jiminie, he says. “She owns W/—– Project Space, pronounced ‘with,’ across the street.” I ask if Tao can have his book launch party there. Angelo says it only fits ten people, but it’s nice and people can stand on the street. I say that sounds perfect. “A large group of men just entered the room. Then they suddenly left together,” Tao says. “Did you see that?”
Tao goes to the bar and orders us gin and tonics. I go to the bar and we split half of a 10mg orange tab of Adderall. I feel indebted. “I’ll give you Valium later,” I say. “When did you start doing Adderall?”
“Some time after college,” Tao says. “I don’t remember. I just take 5 or 10 milligrams at a time. I like it in the same manner that I like coffee, in that I just do more work when I’m on it. I might take it like five days a month, the same way I might go to a certain restaurant. My ex-girlfriend had a friend who broke a hip and got a lot of methadone. I probably took that like ten times and I liked it a lot. Surprisingly, it lasted like 24 hours. I would go to sleep and wake up and still feel it. And then for a while I liked things like Klonopin, Xanax, and Valium. I’ve taken acid a few times. I don’t get any hallucinations. Actually, it just feels like Adderall. But it’s stronger and lasts longer. And then I’ve done cocaine a few times. It seems to last only 40-60 minutes. It seems to last so short a time that I’m aware of when it’s going to end, so it’s not really desirable. I feel like the worst thing a person can do to their body is eat muffins or other certain foods every day.”
We go downstairs and sit under the “live wall,” which is a wall covered entirely with real plants. Berries from plants on the live wall fall on our heads. I ask Tao if he’s feeling the Adderall. He smiles and says he feels more energetic. He asks me if I feel more energetic. I say I don’t feel any different. He gives me another piece.
Ryan McGinley comes upstairs in a red hat. “Is that red hat his signature hat?” Tao asks.
‘SUP Magazine Party at Le Bain at the Standard Hotel. 1:10am
“Who are all these people?” Tao says looking up from his iPhone. “’SUP Magazine only has 2,100 followers on Twitter.” We’re sitting on low-seated lawn chairs on AstroTurf® looking through a glass railing across the East River at the New Jersey skyline. Blondes has already performed by the time Tao, Angelo, and I get to the Standard Hotel.
Across from us, sitting on another lawn chair, is Sean Bones, who’s wearing topsiders and horn-rimmed eyeglasses. “Were you in the movie Wah Do Dem?” Tao says to Sean Bones. He leaves and Tao tells us Wah Do Dem is about a man who gets dumped by his girlfriend and goes alone on a cruise.
Tao says he went on family vacations as a child. “We went on like ten cruises to the Bahamas.” Tao has a very calm demeanor. He never raises his voice and his answers are carefully delivered and articulate. I imagine him screaming. I wonder if he has ever screamed.
“When most people fight, they scream and slam doors,” I say. “The characters in your novels, at least in Richard Yates, seem like they have extreme control over their emotions. They’re articulate and communicate with each other clearly. You seem very calm, controlled, and articulate. Was there ever a time when you screamed and slammed doors?”
“Probably the last time I fought, like slamming doors, was with my girlfriend in college. That was probably the last time I did anything like that. I fought a lot with my mom growing up. Slamming doors and screaming. When I was little I cried and screamed a lot. I would just be crying like almost all the time. Like age three to seven or eight. Whenever I didn’t get something I wanted I would cry and scream.” “Were you spoiled?” I ask. “I think so.”
Tao says he didn’t really read anything outside of school until his senior year of high school, when he saw Fight Club and then read the book as well as other books recommended by Chuck Palahniuk’s website. “I read six or seven Kurt Vonnegut books,” he says. “That’s when I started reading.” “That seems odd,” I say, “since your style is so minimal and Vonnegut is considered a maximalist.” “I think I changed,” he says. “I feel like a change happened after my girlfriend in college and I broke up. I was like a sophomore in college. The next two years I pretty much didn’t have friends and spent a lot of time alone. I feel like that actually changed me. Like I used to write differently before that. I used clichés and idiomatic expressions without feeling self-conscious. I think I view that person that I was as how most people are.”
We go down to the hot tub, which is glowing at the end of the room, surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows. People are dancing in the hot tub. There is a woman without her bathing suit top on. Her breasts are white. Tao and I sit on a ledge by the window. I notice that I’m gnashing my teeth and my jaw hurts. I feel mildly energized.
I ask Tao if he had a lot of friends in high school. “Not that many,” he says. “What about the band?” “I was extremely shy and nervous in high school. Like around some people, I would stop talking. And it just became accepted that I wouldn’t talk ever.” “Even in band camp? Weren’t you comfortable with members of the drumline?” “I think I was comfortable,” he says. “But I wouldn’t talk.” “When you were writing Richard Yates, did your girlfriend at the time know you were writing about her?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “She felt fine about it, I think. And interested in it. I think that person, the relationship in the book, it is the most impactful relationship in Haley Joel Osment’s life.”
Photography by Shoko Takayasu.