Tom Lin on the Importance of Conducting Literary Field Work
Jane Ciabattari Speaks with the Author of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu
Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a Western, a revenge story (with, yes, blood and gore), a mystery, a narrative based in magical realism, and a love story. It’s so visual it’s no surprise his influences include visual artists from the Land Art movement, and so authentic in its details you’ll learn how to make a bullet. It’s also a work of reclamation, reframing the shaping of California and the West in the nineteenth century, and exploring one Chinese American’s quest for identity Lin is among the many first time authors launching a book in the wake of one of the most tumultuous years in history.
“This past year certainly was tough,” he notes. ”It was my twenty-fourth birthday in February 2020, which also meant it was my 本命年 běnmìng nián ‘zodiac year’—the Chinese zodiac runs in cycles of twelve, and this past year was the year of the rat. My year. I always assumed that this would be a good thing, but, as my mother was quick to tell me, your 本命年 běnmìng nián “zodiac year” is actually considered quite unlucky. The traditional way to ward off bad luck is to wear red—pants, if possible, though a shirt or bracelet could also work—and I promised my mother I’d do so. As it turns out, I simply don’t have very many red articles of clothing, and so I feared I’d have to endure an already difficult year without even so much as a shred of lucky red protection.
“There were many challenges this past year: the sudden shift to remote everything, the unexpected conversion of my kitchen table to Zoom soundstage, the anxieties of having family (nurse mother, octogenarian grandparents) in New York City during the pandemic, finding the mental and physical space I needed to work on my novel. But I must have worn red at least a few times, because now, one year later, I couldn’t be happier with how the novel turned out—thanks in large part to the thoughtful and tireless efforts of my fantastic team at Little, Brown. And to top it all off, my mother and her parents (my aforementioned octogenarian grandparents) are now fully vaccinated and doing well, which is an incredible relief!”
Jane Ciabattari: You were born in Beijing, raised in New York, and are in graduate school in California. How have these places (and others?) shaped your work? Where do you feel at home?
Tom Lin: Something interesting I’ve had to train myself to do recently is to start referring to my mom’s house as my mom’s house and not just “my house.” And sometimes, when I tell Siri to get me directions home, she’ll blithely lay out the forty-hour drive from Davis, California to Flushing, New York. I’m sure Siri’s pulling from some obsolesced contact card deep in my phone’s innards, but it doesn’t bother me enough to fix it, and I actually kind of like when it happens. But yes—I grew up in New York, in Flushing, which is one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia. I think part of the magic of being a part of the Chinese diaspora is seeing the capacity of a community to regenerate conditions of cultural familiarity in new contexts—to adapt the strange and the unfamiliar rhythms of elsewhere into recognizable riffs on “home.”
And California I fell in love with instantly after I came out here for college. After graduating—at which time I had begun to think about the book, though I was still at the very beginning stages—I went “home” to New York, where I spent a year doing research and outlining the novel while applying to graduate schools. And to give you a sense of just how much I love California, I’ll note that I only applied to graduate programs that were in California. It’s interesting, this talk of home.
Recently I noticed that I tend to use the verb 回 huí “return” and not the word 去 qù “go” when I speak to my mother about New York City—as in, “I’m returning to New York to see you soon,” and not “I’m going to New York to see you soon.” That same word 回 huí “return” also comes up when I make plans to visit my extended family in China—in that formation, it’s 回国 huí guó “return to country,” and whenever I’ve said it, there’s never been any confusion about which country we’re referring to—it’s always China. And even during my year in New York City, between college and graduate school, I’d speak to my parents about my hopes of 回加州 huí Jiāzhōu “return to California.” So I think my sense of home, of where I’m returning to, is always retrospectively formed, always most strongly tied to the place I last left, because I think that your intuition of where home is becomes most potent when you’ve finally left it and there’s no possibility of returning, at least for a little while. All this to say, I suppose, that home is where I left my cat. These days, it’s Davis, California.
I think part of the magic of being a part of the Chinese diaspora is seeing the capacity of a community to regenerate conditions of cultural familiarity in new contexts.
JC: When did you decide to become a writer? What was your motivation? What was your path forward?
TL: I’ve always wanted to become a writer, as far back as I can remember. As a child I must have spent thousands of hours at the local library, which was the Flushing branch of the Queens Library, this beautiful glass-facade triangular building at the corner of Kissena and Main. It was free childcare, more or less. There was a whole room in the back dedicated to children’s literature, furnished with appropriately child-sized tables and chairs, and I’d sit at my favorite chair and just blast through book after book until my mother came to pick me up when she got off work. In my mind I’ve read every single book that was in that section, but of course that can’t be true. And something else I’m certain of but couldn’t ever confirm is that I wore tracks into the carpet beneath my favorite chair because I had a habit of swinging my feet back and forth as I read.
I think if you’d asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have told you astronaut, but that would’ve been me trying to impress you—really what I wanted to do was to tell stories. And as I grew older my dream of being a writer began to seem more and more improbable, so I resolved to be close to books and literature by studying them. In college I majored in English and discovered that I loved thinking about texts as much as I did writing them, and so I decided to continue studying English in graduate school. And all the while I kept on writing stories, just for me, because I couldn’t help it. I don’t know if I could describe a path from the kid’s section of the library to holding my debut novel in my hands, and even if I could, I’m not sure it would make too much sense. I want to resist the tendency to narrativize this path of mine because I know that at every moment—even this one—so much of what I’ve been able to do is only possible because of some combination of sheer luck and the generosity of strangers. I’m unbelievably fortunate to be where I am today, and if we ever figure out time travel, I’ve got some really unbelievable news for that kid in the kid’s room of Flushing library.
JC: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu combines a Western, a revenge story, a mystery, a love story, and magical realism. As you worked within these genres, which authors inspired you?
TL: John Steinbeck, whose prose has this remarkable capacity to situate you in particular times and places, especially California. I’m inspired by the velocity and deep knowledge that Herman Melville demonstrates in Moby Dick, as well as the haunting atmosphere that permeates “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I love the desperate, ambling cadences of Laszlo Krasnahorkai, the beautiful and devastating lyricism of Jose Saramago, and the mind-bending logics of the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. But I also drew inspiration from James Turrell’s explorations of light, color, and landscape, as well as the Land Art movement of the 60s and 70s: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, all of which, I think, grapple with questions of scale, human time, and permanence.
I want to resist the tendency to narrativize this path of mine because I know that at every moment—even this one—so much of what I’ve been able to do is only possible because of some combination of sheer luck and the generosity of strangers.
JC: When we meet Ming, he’s just killed a man but, you write, “For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill.” Ming is an orphan, raised by Silas Root, a white “caretaker” who trains him to be an assassin. He’s American, but his ancestry is Chinese and he’s mistreated by those who do not see past his appearance. He loses Ada, the wife he loves, because her father can use anti-miscegenation laws to kidnap him and put him on a work crew building the railroad. How did you go about building this character sentence by sentence, underlining his individuality?
TL: I think some of the major questions that I was thinking about as I was writing this book were those of personal identity—what is it like? where does it come from? And I think something that struck me was this feeling that these questions had different answers depending on who was asking. In much of the Western canon—and these are broad generalizations I’m making here—we see whiteness positioned as a kind of zero or default state that affords characters the ability to develop identities into which their whiteness does not intrude. And the corollary effect of positioning whiteness as the default, of course, is that readymade identities become assigned to people of color, who become marked as always already something—that is to say, non-white, always the Other, already different from the default. So there seem to be two modes of identity-making: a positive mode, in which you proclaim your identity to the world, and a negative mode, in which you reject the tokenizing identity imposed upon you. As a Chinese American moving through a hostile West, Ming is someone who has to exercise both of these modes of identity making, simultaneously staking and reclaiming his own identity. He must determine, for himself, what it means to be Chinese American—an intensely personal and fraught process of identity-making that I can certainly relate to as a Chinese American myself.
JC: Your descriptions of the landscape Ming traverses are detailed and vivid: “In perhaps a day’s time he would come round the northern horn of Salt Lake and the monstrous shimmer of the railroad on the horizon would draw near and become visible as iron and wood,” you write in the opening paragraph.
TL: My research definitely involved a lot of field work. I drove from coast to coast along the 80, which follows quite closely the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad, stopping frequently to get out of the car and explore. At Promontory Point, north of Salt Lake City, where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific joined at last to complete the railroad, I squinted into the hundred-degree sun and watched the replica locomotives roll to a stop at the point where the rails had been joined a hundred and fifty years earlier. I stood as close to the boilers as I could bear, feeling the heat coming off the steel, sweat beading on my brow. I did not, however, continue my research along the 90-mile Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway, because I was not sure my car would have survived. Near the Nevada border, I pulled off the road, walked a half mile over the Bonneville Salt Flats, tasted the earth—yep, it’s salt!—and wished I had brought darker sunglasses. I tried to go to all the places that Ming went to, and where I couldn’t go in person, I made my own substitute experiences using Google Earth, hiking blogs, topographic maps, and climate charts. I wanted to get things right.
My research definitely involved a lot of field work. I drove from coast to coast along the 80, which follows quite closely the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad, stopping frequently to get out of the car and explore.
JC: Ming keeps his target list in his notebook, six men whose actions took him away from Ada, his love. Early on in the novel, we learn that five remain–the last two are the Porter brothers (Gideon, to whom Ada was first promised, and his brother Abel). They stand between him and reunion with his wife. How did you coordinate ways of keeping the plot moving—ticking off these targets, Ming’s journey on the map, and so forth?
TL: Post-Its, mostly, covered in nonsense scribbles of plot or character details, stuck to the wall. I’m a mostly visual thinker, so seeing things all laid out really helped me keep track of what had already happened and what still needed to happen. And I loved planning and outlining the novel with Post-Its because revisions were simple and easy to track. Moving a scene to a different spot, deleting something that isn’t working, changing what Ming has in his bag—you just need to have enough Post-Its and, at times, a high tolerance for frustration. There were other tools as well. For instance, there’s a beautiful map of Ming’s travels at the front of the book that I wish I had while I was writing it—but while I was working on the book, I’d often just print out a railroad surveyor’s map at two or three hundred percent scale, tape the papers together on my floor, and pore over it with a ruler and a highlighter, marking dates and distances.
I also had an Excel spreadsheet that had notable events in history (on June 25, 1867, for example, two thousand Chinese railroad workers went on strike) that I used to coordinate the events of the book with the historical timeline. Interestingly, I had to input all my dates as 19xx years, rather than 18xx years—because Excel, as I learned, cannot handle dates before 1900. And of course a large part of coordinating the plot took place during revisions; Ben George, my editor, was invaluable in ensuring that the momentum of the book was consistent throughout and that everything was where it ought to be.
JC: How did you go about researching this period in the West? For instance, Ming makes his own bullets (he melts lead and ladles it into molds for bullets). And the traveling circus he joins up with has a ringmaster and three key magic acts—a fireproof woman, a tattooed shapeshifting Proteus, and young deaf boy who is a ventriloquist. Were these based on real circus acts?
TL: History books on the Transcontinental Railroad provided the historical background I needed to feel comfortable writing in this time period, but a good portion of my research involved lining up timelines across various microhistories.
For instance: during the 1860s, we see the introduction and popularization of cartridge ammunition in American firearm design. But Ming’s gun is a Remington 1858, bought off a Union deserter some number of years ago, which still requires cap and ball ammunition—lead balls, individually seated into the revolver’s chambers, propelled by a powder charge and set off by a small percussion cap. Cartridge ammunition weapons are beginning to take off, but still fairly confined to the Eastern states, where all the arms manufacturers have their factories. So when Ming finds a cartridge weapon, it’s a curiosity for him, because he’s heard about all these advances in weapons technology but has yet to really encounter them in the flesh—or in the metal, rather.
Figuring out which firearms would be both period-correct and plausible was exactly the kind of research project I love doing—research that brings to life the material experience of a different time, a different place. The circus is another such example. As railroads and overland trails began to crisscross the nation, various entertainers came to realize that more money could be made on the road, traveling from city to city—including the legendary P.T. Barnum, who came out of “retirement” (it had only been three years) to launch his Museum, Menagerie, and Circus, a traveling show that laid the groundwork for the American sideshow tradition. But isn’t any particular historical circus act that the ringmaster’s troupe is based on—that group was inspired more by the quiet and real magic of Borges and Saramago. In general, though, a lot of the particulars in the novel come from that kind of deep, almost obsessive research; the more I learned, I figured, the more material I had to be inspired by.
History books on the Transcontinental Railroad provided the historical background I needed to feel comfortable writing in this time period.
JC: I’m intrigued by the blind character The Prophet, who can foresee death. Where did he originate in your creative process?
TL:The prophet is there from the earliest drafts and outlines. I think of his character as offering perhaps an alternative understanding of identity, since he has no memories of his past but has perfect knowledge of the future. I think a corollary to the question of self-determined identity is the question of free will—what proportion, if any, of our own lives do we have control over? I also found it interesting to write for a character who seems to experience time radically differently, who seems to find solace in the oblivion of eternities past and future. My perennial existential panics are usually concerned with my traces and residues, anxieties about what (if anything) I might leave behind, and I think the prophet suggests the possibility of building a durable comfort with future nonexistence by placing absolute faith in nonhuman, geological modes of memory.
JC: What are you working on now?
TL: I’m splitting my time between a few research projects I’m working on—the big one currently examines the development of the yaw damper in the Boeing B-47 jet bomber—as well as beginning the slow process of planning my next novel. I think it’ll be quite different from this one, but, at such an early stage, who’s to say?
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin is available now via Little Brown and Company.