Please welcome Thea Lim to The Qwillery as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. An Ocean of Minutes is published on July 10th by Touchstone.
Please join The Qwillery in wishing Thea a Happy Publication Day!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first piece you remember writing?
Thea: I once wrote a whole novel on my mother's Word Perfect program about an underground motorcycle club in 1993.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Thea: A hybrid. I make a very skeletal outline, because I need to have some sense of where I'm going, but the only thing that will really let me know whether or not my plot is going to work is test-driving it -- by writing it. So I don't spend too much time drawing up a plan, because it's never long before I have to make a new one.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Thea: The writing part. I once heard ZZ Packer say that writing is like being in marriage counselling, except with a total stranger. That sounds about right.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Thea: Cityscapes, and trying to write about my life, and process the things that have happened -- but without it looking like I'm writing about myself in the slightest.
TQ: Describe An Ocean of Minutes using only 5 words.
Thea: LDR but 1991 to 1998. (I used an acronym and cheated.)
TQ: Tell us something about An Ocean of Minutes that is not found in the book description.
Thea: The whole thing is an analogy for immigration. It's been described as a dystopic novel -- and I'll take it! -- but I actually think of it as allegorical fiction. I wanted to offer a different view of our own world, rather than a future, more dire world. This world is already dire enough.
TQ: What inspired you to write An Ocean of Minutes? What appeals to you about writing a time-travel novel?
Thea: If, for example, vampire movies are always about sex, and zombie movies are always about the economy, time travel stories are usually about fate -- trying to undo it, but failing. But my favourite time travel narratives are about time itself -- the human instinct to try to dig in our heels and make it stop, kill change, even though we know it's hopeless. (The 1998 film After Life, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- which is totally a time travel movie if you think about it -- are good examples.) It's hard these days to write something totally new, so my strategy was to try and combine two well-worn genres into something else. I wanted to write a work of migration lit (inspired by writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Maxine Hong Kingston), combined with time travel. In what way does the past feel like another country? In what way is returning to an old home like travelling through time?
TQ: What sort of research did you do for An Ocean of Minutes?
Thea: I visited Galveston and Buffalo, two cities I love, that are like spiritual twins, on either ends of the country. Both are cities trying to outrun time (Galveston dealing with natural disaster, and Buffalo dealing with economic disaster), and both have a sense of faded history that echoes through each day. I interviewed an upholsterer (She owns Maple Leaf Furnishings in Toronto if you are looking to get a chair recovered) so that I could properly write about Polly's time working at the Hotel Galvez. And I read many first-person accounts of migrant work, many of them wrenching and sad, like El Contrato, a documentary about tomato farmers in Ontario, or this comic strip about Almaz, a domestic worker from Ethiopia who sought work in Saudi Arabia, or the book Underground America, about migrant workers to the US.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for An Ocean of Minutes.
Thea: The cover was designed by Scott Richardson, who is a really well-known Canadian designer (who happens to be a novelist himself!), so I was very lucky to have him. I loved how he worked in the Texas horizon, and the subtle touches to indicate that the book tells the story of our world, but a slightly off-kilter variant -- the slant of the skyline, and the two mirrored shores, side by side but forever apart, like parallel timelines.
TQ: In An Ocean of Minutes who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Thea: Norberto was the easiest to write, even though he makes some terrible choices. I knew that I wanted him to offer a kind of inverted version of Polly's suffering, so I had a clear model to follow, and just his overall personality -- so gloomy and vulnerable and hopeful still -- spoke to my heart. Frank was the hardest to write. He was mysterious to the end. It wasn't until I wrote the sections where he retrieves Polly's lost furniture, and where his mother throws an anniversary party -- they were late-stage additions! -- that I really figured out who he was.
TQ: Which question about An Ocean of Minutes do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Q: What's your favourite part of the book?
A: The second last chapter, when (very mild spoiler) Polly sees her childhood home for the first time since 1980.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from An Ocean of Minutes.
"They will have a September wedding, so their anniversary doesn't change. Their guests will blow bubbles instead of throwing rice, rice is bad for birds. They will have something of her mother's there --her bicycle or her rocking chair. In another universe, this timeline becomes actual. In their universe, the vial breaks, the virus spreads, the borders are closed. Frank gets sick."
"But what could she do? She kept laughing in the evening light, which is what people do when monstrous epiphanies surface in their minds. You cannot put life on hold to have a moment of grief, so every second, half the people in the world are split in two. This is what they mean by life goes on, and the worst is that you go along too."
An Ocean of Minutes
Touchstone, July 10, 2018
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
In the vein of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Station Eleven, a sweeping literary love story about two people who are at once mere weeks and many years apart.
America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him, even if it means risking everything. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded laborer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.
But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.
An Ocean of Minutes is a gorgeous and heartbreaking story about the endurance and complexity of human relationships and the cost of holding onto the past—and the price of letting it go.
Thea Lim’s writing has appeared in publications including the Southampton Review, the Guardian, TheMillions, Salon, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Houston, and she has received multiple awards and fellowships for her work, including artists’ grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. She grew up in Singapore and now lives in Toronto with her family.