12th Street: You have two collections of poetry out, one novel, a collection of short stories, and you just finished your second novel Richard Yates. How do you manage your time? Does raw veganism turn one into a writing machine? Is Tao Lin a robot?
Tao Lin: I think I spend 80-95% of my time thinking about books, writing, and writing-career related things. I don’t know if 80-95% is accurate at all. It might be 100% or 30%. I also think about food, and without relating it to art, I think, though sometimes I justify eating something “bad” by thinking things like “I’ll be able to work on writing after I eat this, my goal is to produce writing, my body is a vessel.” The main reasons I am productive, relatively, are probably that I don’t watch TV or play video games and that I have social problems.
12th Street: I love your e-book with Ellen Kennedy, Hikikomori. In fact, I think I found your work through Ellen’s, but anyway. Can you tell us about it? The phenomenon, as well as the collaboration?
TL: Hikikomori are people in Japan and other places who stay in their room for many years. They only come out to use the bathroom or at 3 a.m. to buy fermented soybeans from 24-hour convenience stores. I think the term “hikikomori” refers mostly to children and teenagers, because probably a lot of adults also only stay in their rooms, especially in Japan, I feel, but it probably seems normal and acceptable for adults to do that, due to loneliness and the effects of contemporary urban life. I think most parents of hikikomori are passive and just let their children stay in their rooms, and bring them food. There are people in Japan I think called “rental sisters” whose jobs are to try to get hikikomori to come out of their rooms. They get paid money and at first talk to the hikikomori through closed doors or on the phone or something, then maybe through a hole in the door, then eventually they go inside the hikikomori’s room and try gradually to touch their hands and eventually hug them or something, until the hikikomori can rejoin society. I believe there are “rental sister” agencies, probably there is a “rental sister” industry in Japan. The number of hikikomori is increasing, I think. I don’t think I will become a hikikomori because I like to walk around in sunlight and listen to music in a natural environment, or at least in sunlight with wind hitting my face. I feel like it is too sad if I “give up completely” like that, or maybe, more accurately, too “risky,” it would be really sad, the sadness would crush me, certain possibilities would be crushed, in my life. This is just how I feel today, right now, though. I just thought about becoming a hikikomori and had different thoughts than I just typed, I thought some things like “the benefits of being a hikikomori” and “freedom from alienation” and “the sadness will feel beautiful and good.” I could just exercise in my room and have my parents bring me fermented-soy-beans. Leaving one’s room at only 3 a.m. seems fun. Kobo Abe has a novel called “The Box Man” where people put refrigerator boxes over their heads and bodies, leave their homes, and live inside the refrigerator boxes, walking around, it was published in 1973, and that is like a kind of hikikomori maybe. For those who feel very uncomfortable in society the alternatives to becoming a hikikomori probably include doing drugs and drinking alcohol a lot to change reality, somehow training oneself to not care about other people’s feelings, taking anti-depressant or anti-whatever medication, or doing therapy a lot and joining a church or some other kind of group where acceptance and “love” are mandatory and I think unconditional. I like hikikomori because they choose not to do any of those things. They “choose” to do maybe the most “natural” thing, to just be alone, physically, which if enough people do will probably become “acceptable” in the way that it is “acceptable” for someone who is allergic to peanuts to not eat peanuts instead of building up a peanut tolerance, eating peanut-flavored things that aren’t really peanuts, or eating things that look like peanuts but are made out of sugar or something. I have thought in the past about what hikikomori do every day. I think someone said they play guitar. I imagine they probably use the internet a lot, and post on messageboards, and have the same kind of social obligations and troubles and drama other people have. I hope to move to Japan for at least one year in the future, to live in a land where I do not speak the language, to feel alone and write a book or something. My knowledge of hikikomori comes from an article in the New York Times Magazine, one or two short documentaries, things I read on Wikipedia and other parts of the internet, and things some people have told me.
12th Street: I’ve never read anything by Richard Yates. Why do you admire him so much, and what book should I start with? Why did you title your second novel with his name?
TL: You should start with The Easter Parade or Revolutionary Road maybe. I don’t think I “admire” people. If I admire anything I admire “things” like certain short stories or songs or something, for being “beautiful.” I can say that I like thinking about Richard Yates because he seems funny, depressed, sarcastic yet kind, and like he had self-hatred and doubt and a strong work ethic.
12th Street: What’s next?
TL: I started a press, Muumuu House, the first two books are “Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs” by Ellen Kennedy (March 2009) and “During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present” by Brandon Scott Gorrell (June 2009). They are full-length, debut poetry books and will be published in attractive, perfect bound editions. When they are published they will be two of my favorite poetry books out of maybe like four or five poetry books that I currently consider my “favorite” poetry books. Then in Fall 2009 Richard Yates will come out. Sometime between now and Fall 2009 I want to work on either a novella for Melville House‘s “Contemporary Art of The Novella” series or 20-page short stories, I think.
Tao Lin’s second novel, RICHARD YATES, will be published by Melville House Publishing in Fall 2009. His other books include the poetry collection YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM. He is the editor of the literary press MUUMUU HOUSE.