Thea Lim is a name you may have heard before, and if you haven’t, well, you will start to notice it cropping up all over the place. She isn’t a newcomer to the writing scene, having contributed to publications The Guardian and Salon, but with the June 2018 release of her debut novel, you can find her on must-read lists right between Canadian heavy-hitters, like Michael Ondaatje and Miriam Toews.
Thea Lim’s (former, at time of publication) apartment is nestled right in the heart of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood – overlooking the most beloved No Frills in the city. Like the neighbourhood she lives in, Lim’s apartment itself has been the subject of change, with a nursery replacing the office in which she wrote An Ocean of Minutes, and congratulatory greeting cards warmly on display. It’s a space that’s bright, fun, and as welcoming as the author herself. And of course, it’s teeming with books, from picture books to anthologies of comparative literature and advance copies of upcoming releases from her publisher ;)
1. You’re moving shortly, but you wanted us to come feature your current apartment. Why was it important to you that we see your current home?
This is where I wrote my novel, so showing you this home is more true to the life of the book. So much world-changing art is created in modest, informal, outside spaces, by people who haven’t made it yet, but keep going, often with little support or encouragement. As I was working on the novel, when I was having a hard day, I often liked to imagine that one of my neighbours, two floors up or across the parking lot, also labouring over some private creation – a song, a screenplay, a painting – and that we were struggling together. I guess you could say this is my Jenny From the Block moment.
2. An Ocean of Minutes is your first novel. How long did it take you to write?
Emotionally, 500 years. In actuality six years. I’ve made this joke elsewhere, but I’m gonna keep making it!
3. What surprised you about writing your first novel?
Writing a novel is like trying to ride a swing into outer space. The first time your feet lift off the ground, you get as high as the garbage can. Then as high as a tall bush. After ten (or twenty?) more tries you get as high as a small tree. It seems impossible (it probably is) but more than anything it’s about trying and failing over and over again, it’s about solving one problem in a seemingly endless chain of problems, until suddenly, one day, you’re done. I had an inkling of how much writing was just about pure, brute-force grunt work before I wrote novel, but the experience confirmed for me that there’s no secret or magic to it, it’s just about moving that swing a half-inch higher, a few billion times.
4. The novel jumps around throughout time. How did you stay organized in that? And how did you go about setting the scene for each of the time periods?
Oh boy. How didn’t I stay organized? I used the writing program Scrivener, which allows you to make a clickable menu of your chapters (with sub sections and sub sub sections), so at any given moment you have a table of contents to the left of your screen, which helped me keep track of where I was, and how it connected to everything else. And then I had timeline lists, I had timeline maps, I had an ocean of post-its stuck to my desk. Researching the time periods was tricky, especially for hyper-specific queries, like what kind of hazmat suits did they wear in 1980? How did people feel about Richard Dreyfuss VS Mel Gibson? Or what internal norms existed around race; what would have felt like a faux pas to the speaker? Some were impossible to figure out.
5. Some have referred to the novel as ‘genre-bending’ – how would you define it?
I keep calling it allegorical fiction, because it’s meant to offer another window into our own world. It’s not dystopia because I’m not trying to show us the-world-that-could-be, but the-world-that-is; just placed in new housing, so we can see it once more. But the problem with the term “allegorical fiction” is that’s redundant – isn’t all fiction allegory?
6. How did you stay motivated throughout the writing process? Did you have a routine or schedule that you adhered to?
I had a special clock with an alarm that could not be switched off, without scanning a QR code. And then I kept the QR code in the bathroom. By the time I got halfway across my apartment and scanned the code, it was just as easy to keep going as it was to go back to bed. (Of course, now I have a 2 year-old to make sure I get out of bed.) But little tricks like these are vital, when you are preparing a work that no one is waiting for (because they don’t know it exists). Sometimes I think that 75% of a writer’s job is to be their own hype squad; if you can’t keep yourself going, no one is going to do it for you. For me, it was about leaving the bridges uncrossed until I got to them. I told myself, I just have to get to the next chapter, then the next draft, then the next. I had to break the enterprise down into digestible parts.
7. What do you absolutely have to have around you when you’re writing? Besides of course, your well-mannered cat!
A glass of water and silence. Internet blockers are also helpful.
8. Who, or what, do you consider to be your biggest writing influences?
I’m always reluctant to answer this question because I’m worried that readers will look to my books to be like the books of my heroes, which feels like a standard I could never reach! But to come clean, I’m always inspired by writers who are experimental in an elegant or almost invisible way. Kazuo Ishiguro is maybe my favourite writer of all time, and I’m so envious of his ability to create such depths of compressed emotion within his characters, that the books almost feel 3D. Almost every Alice Munro story is a time travel story: the way she loops through time is so innovative and so seamless that she doesn’t get credit for it. And a book that I reread as often as I can is Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Smilla’s Sense of Snow) by Peter Høeg. I think it’s official genre is “philosophical thriller” which is definitely something to aspire to, even if it seems impossible.
9. Tell us about your book collection. When did you start collecting books, and do you have your stacks organized in a certain manner?
I’m a big fan of libraries, so the truth is I don’t really collect books. (Blasphemy!) There are plenty of beloved books I don’t have copies of, like Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. (Though the truth is I did once have copies of those lovelies, but they walked away, as books tend to do.) I’m pretty obsessive about keeping the books I have in alphabetical order, by genre. (insert nerd emoji) At 15 I got a job in a bookstore, and I guess I never really shook the habit.
10. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading That Time I Loved You by Carianne Leung. It’s so deeply felt and precise. And Carianne is interviewing me at my Toronto launch on June 26, so I’m getting to know her back catalog!
11. What book are you most looking forward to reading?
I have a backlog that stretches into the cosmos, but here are a few: Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun, Suicide Club by Rachel Heng, and Junk by Tommy Pico.
12. What’s the first thing you’re doing to do the day your book is on-sale?
That 80s-style lamaze breathing they do in the movies. Something like that.