Tao Lin: Richard Yates

16 September 2010

Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is one with distinct personality. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Tao’s work or not, you cannot help but admire his contemporary, thorough writing which never fails to reveal a glimpse into the workings of the man himself. Intrigued to find out a little more about the process of writing such an individual piece of work, we spoke to Tao in-depth about the book, and his answers are exactly as you’d imagine, honest, straight forward and undeniably his.

Hi Tao, your new novel Richard Yates has a writing style that feels incomparable to anything else I’ve ever read, can you tell us how you approach writing, and where this distinct style comes from?

The prose style of Richard Yates came from wanting the book to seem distinct. In my experience if I work on one thing for a long enough time, repeatedly, to the point that for a long time, like 95% of the time spent on it, I’m only comparing it to itself, when deciding what choices to make, it will gain a quality of distinction, to me. If I work on something repeatedly I will notice that I like a certain part more than other parts, then I will want to make every part the same, in terms of how much I like it. And something like that will happen repeatedly, and ideally I wouldn’t stop until every sentence was equally liked by me.

Doing things repeatedly causes me to notice things that I like or dislike and to gradually develop rules to know what choices to make, and to gradually apply those rules (which, ideally, by the final stages of working on something are no longer changing, but are, before the final stages, changing continuously) to every sentence equally. By the end stages it was like I had another book, in my head, about Richard Yates, like a manual of style. If you’ve worked so long on something that you could quickly write a manual of style about it, from memory, then it seems like it will be distinct by definition, in that it is not using a combination of other manuals of styles or some other manual of style.

For Richard Yates there are three prose styles, I think. The narrator, who is as concrete/literal as possible, but still aware of sentence variety and readability and on maintaining a satisfying level of non-sequitur sentence-to-sentence, scene-to-scene, that is controlled in a manner that it does not seem like natural speech or thought. The characters’ dialogue, typed or spoken, which is often not concrete/literal, and is controlled in a manner to seem not controlled, to seem natural, as if spoken with a normal amount of deliberation. And Haley Joel Osment’s interior monologue, which is sometimes conveyed, and is controlled in a manner to seem like it is thought without deliberation, because people, I think, normally do not deliberate (or maybe it is impossible to do so, since the deliberation itself is composed of thoughts) about what thoughts they are going to privately think.

The characters in the book, Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment are two lovers trying to make things work in a very modern way – why did you decide to name them after real people?

I wanted to avoid “obviously” made-up names. I wanted to avoid using my own name or an anagram of my name. Using celebrity names avoids those two things. I also feel that it’s funny, exciting, and satisfying to use celebrity names. After intuitively wanting to use celebrity names I could only think of reasons that I do not want to be reasons that affect my writing choices (like that some people might automatically view the book as less “serious” or feel automatically less inclined to want to read the book, or that the New York Times might feel less inclined to review it, or that it was “stupid” or “silly” or [other abstraction], or something) to not have these be the names.

The relationship between the two feels incredibly well observed, almost to ridiculous detail – is there any autobiography in the book?

Yes, it is autobiographical. However it was written in the same manner I’d write a fantasy novel or a vampire novel, in that I did not limit myself in what I would write to create the effect I felt I wanted, for example I did not, ideally, allow thoughts like “that didn’t happen in real life, I shouldn’t put that” or “this will make people who assume the main character is me to dislike me, I will refrain from putting that” to affect my choices.

The main difference I view between autobiographical fictional works and completely “made-up” fictional works is that, to me, autobiographical fictional works begin with a very large first-draft (one’s memory, which could be something like 10,000,000 words or something; not really sure, could even be, like, 100,000,000,000 words) that one is already intimate and knowledgeable about, whereas with a completely “made-up” fictional work the first draft would need to be written first, and it seems nearly impossible to write a 10,000,000 word first draft (Richard Yates is around 55,000 words; Infinite Jest is 484,001 words, according to Amazon) in one lifetime and also be intimate and knowledgeable about it. In my experience having a 10,000,000-word first draft has a noticeable effect on many aspects of the finished book, in that I feel that I can discern when someone’s work is autobiographical or completely “made-up.” The autobiographical work seems to have distinct qualities, and I think it is, to a large degree, in my experience, not because it is autobiographical but because it has been edited down from a much larger draft than the completely “made-up” work.

You’ve got quite a lot of published literature under your belt now, where does your work go from here? Do you see more books in the same vein as this one? Is it something you even think about?

I currently don’t foresee another book like Richard Yates. I don’t foresee wanting to write a book that is similar, to a certain degree, as a book I’ve already written. I do think about this. I think about ten books in the same manner I think about one book, I think, currently, in that I do not want to be redundant within a book, and I also do not want to be redundant within ten books, or an entire oeuvre, unless it is a self-conscious or [other adjective] redundancy that is exciting or satisfying, to me, in some manner. I don’t know what my next book will be yet.

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Alex Bec

Alex is the CEO of It’s Nice That. He oversees the commercial side of It’s Nice That, Creative Lives in Progress and If You Could Jobs.

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