Thea Lim is the author of An Ocean of Minutes, out June 2018. Her writing has been published by the Southampton Review, GRIST, the Guardian, Salon, Bitch Magazine and others. Her novella The Same Woman was released by Invisible Publishing in 2007. She holds an MFA from the University of Houston and she previously served as nonfiction editor at Gulf Coast. She grew up in Singapore and lives in Toronto, where she is a professor of creative writing.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My novella changed my life by not changing my life. I thought everything would be different after its release, and it wasn’t. So I learned that publishing is a long road with a very slight gradation, meaning you have to walk (crawl?) along it for some distance before you reach a higher level. It was a vital lesson that is useful perspective even now.
My whole approach to storytelling has changed. When I was writing The Same Woman I was still uneasy with my vocation as a writer. I thought that a book had to say something – impart some meaningful political and moral message – in order to earn its existence. And so what directed that story was its message, its feminist moral. As fond as I am of my first book, I see how my insecurities limited its scope and expression. Books don’t need a message to justify them; they are magic enough. Now, I try to let the story lead: whatever the story needs determines my direction, before anything else. And it turns out that that doesn’t preclude my ability to engage with power and politics in my work, but it does enable my stories to take turns I couldn’t have anticipated, which makes them a better approximation of real life.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Probably because I love to watch TV, ha. So the first artistic forms I ever imbibed were narrative in nature, and that never left me. Like many writers, my first cracks at writing stories were non-fiction in disguise, so it’s not totally accurate to say that I wasn’t experimenting in creative nonfiction when I started out.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It’s slow! It’s horrifying! First drafts are unrecognizable. (Some day I would love to compile a museum of first drafts of famous books, so that new writers can understand just how sliiiightly gradated the road is.) My process is to think for a long time, and then to start writing. Some writers who share this process with me then take but a few months to get a final draft. But I am the worst of all worlds: I think for a long time and then write even longer. I take notes as I write (usually ideas for things to come, that I don’t want to forget.) I write these notes on post-it notes so at any given time my desk is covered with one hundred stickies. I find I won’t know whether or not a plan works until I try to execute it, so I’m not really one for pre-writing. This is also why it took about 26 drafts for me to finish An Ocean of Minutes.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Working on a “book” from the beginning. I love short stories and I’m not great at writing them.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Instant gratification is so rare for writers.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
It depends! With An Ocean of Minutes I was trying to understand how we are able to love and sustain connection, when the nature of being human is to understand that nothing lasts. I was also interested in how that willful forgetting – which bears such fruit within the realm of human connection – enables the suffering of those whose labour keeps the global economy afloat. And I won’t say any more in case someone goes to my novel looking for all that, and feels ripped off.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is not to tell us what is the right way to be, but to show us many ways to be, and to render these ways as wholly and fully as possible, so we can decide for ourselves.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! Early in my writing career I took a workshop with a famous writer, where I lamented the fact that I always needed other writers and readers to tell me what my stories were truly about, and to point out the gaps. When, I asked, will I get to the point where I can do this by myself? Never, he said.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From a fortune cookie taped to my desk: today is a new day, work hard and be diligent.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I was writing An Ocean of Minutes, I wrote every morning, first thing when I woke up. I was religious about doing this before I checked email or messages or social media (actually I went off social media). I reserved my best energy for my most important task.
A few weeks after I signed with my literary agent, I gave birth to my daughter, and after I sold my novel, I got a much better but much more demanding day job. So lately most writing is “writing” i.e. inscrutable notes on the back of receipts or just quietly trying to think through narrative problems while grocery shopping or stacking blocks.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I love watching music videos, because they’re a type of art that I have no ability at and don’t fully understand at a critical or technical level, so it’s both enlivening and relaxing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
People watching. Is that a form? I’m going to argue yes.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m always uncomfortable answering these questions with an “all-time” favourite, because you never know. So I’ll name three books that are sitting on my desk right now, in support of a course I’m designing: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell, and Empire State by Jason Shiga.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to present at a literary festival, like IFOA, the Library of Congress Book Festival, or the Miami Book Fair.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed working as an editor.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Determination! Sheer foolishness!
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
Can’t say. I’m superstitious!