Giller Prize 2018 Special Series: The Chat with Thea Lim

The 2018 Giller Prize will be announced November 19, and we're pleased to continue our conversations with the finalists and our contest (to the left) where you can enter for a chance to win the shortlist! Today we’re in conversation with Thea Lim, author of An Ocean of Minutes.

The 2018 Giller jury says of the novel,

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"America is in the midst of a deadly flu pandemic. In order to afford medical treatment for her husband, a young woman agrees to travel through time. They agree to meet in the future. What is five minutes for her is twelve years for him. And, in the briefest of moments, they have become irreconcilable strangers. In An Ocean of Minutes, debut novelist Thea Lim asks the reader to confront contemporary issues—social class, immigration, citizenship, corporate power, poverty, and the all too familiar, love and loss. The novel is beautifully written and guides us through a plot that moves backwards and forward—yet, never lets us go.”

Thea Lim’s writing has been published by the Southampton Review, The Guardian, Salon, the Millions, Bitch magazine, Utne Reader, and others, and she has received multiple awards and fellowships for her work. 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.
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THE CHAT WITH THEA LIM

Trevor Corkum: How does it feel to be a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for the first time?

Thea Lim: Bonkers!

TC: An Ocean of Minutes is a moving, time-travelling tale set during a deadly flu pandemic. What was the most pleasurable part of writing the book?

TL: Even though the novel is set in an alternate past, trying to evoke real places—like the 70s, Galveston, Buffalo—was great fun. (Maybe in part because I was regularly annoyed with myself for inventing an alternate world, when there’s a perfectly good world right here?)

I was constantly trying to answer entirely unGoogleable questions—what sort of hazmat suits did people wear in 1980? What would have been considered a faux pas when it came to race? Did people rack up as much credit card debt in 1981?

I loved the excuse to visit Buffalo and Galveston, fascinating and ghostly cities that get very little spotlight, despite their cinematic nature. Though I finished writing the story several years ago, I still think about the porches in Galveston, blue-painted to ward off the haint; the endless gulf; the Ferris wheel they’ve suspended over the sea; Buffalo’s City Hall, looking like it came straight out of Gotham; the empty department store windows still draped in peach curtains; the hollowed factories now becoming something else.

TC: What particular fears—if any—did you harbour as you wrote?

TL: I filled this book with high-concept horrors: a viral flu, stolen time, indentured labour. But in writing it I was trying to work out much more banal things: how do we love each other, knowing that one day everything will end? How do we hold on to the things we’ve loved, to our pasts, without losing our present? How do we solve that most boring and tragic of human problems, the fact that, as Andrew Solomon says, “time passes, and what has been will never be again”?

But in writing it I was trying to work out much more banal things: how do we love each other, knowing that one day everything will end? How do we hold on to the things we’ve loved, to our pasts, without losing our present?

I would love to say I wrote this book because I have the answer to these questions, but most writers will tell you that we write about what we’re haunted by, what we’ll never figure out, as a way of outsourcing these problems to other people. Sorry.

TC: In an alternate life, what career would you choose if you weren’t writing?

TL: A private detective.

TC: The Giller Prize recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Can you talk about a previous winning title (or finalist) that you’ve enjoyed, or that has inspired you in some way?
 
TL: I've been reading Alice Munro since I was a teenager, but it was only after I became a writer that I fully grasped her glory. Any Canadian writer who writes about time has to be, on some level, influenced by her.

I've been reading Alice Munro since I was a teenager, but it was only after I became a writer that I fully grasped her glory. Any Canadian writer who writes about time has to be, on some level, influenced by her.

No one time travels like Alice: into the awful fixity of the past, and into the imagined, hoped-for future—that then vanishes in a such an exquisitely painful way, when she tells us, with her brutal yet comforting honesty, about what really happened.

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Excerpt from An Ocean of Minutes

People wishing to time travel go to Houston Intercontinental Airport. At the orientation, the staff tell them that time travel is just like air travel, you even go to the same facility. People used to be apprehensive about airline travel too. But when you arrive at the airport, it is not the same at all. Before you can get within a mile of the terminals, you reach a bus stop moored at the edge of a vast concrete flat, where you must leave your vehicle and ascend a snaking trolley, like the ones they have at the zoo.

A quarantine taxi makes its way to that lone bus stop, the airport appearing through a million chain-link diamonds. The driver is encased in an oval of hermetically sealed Plexiglas. In the back seat, Frank is wearing a yellow hazmat suit. The colour marks him as infected.

Now is the time for last words, but Polly’s got nothing. Frank keeps nodding off and then snapping awake, stiff-spined with terror, until he can locate her beside him. “We can still go back!” He has been saying this for days. Even in his sleep he carries on this argument, and when he opens his eyes, he moves seamlessly from a dream fight to a waking one. Already his voice is far off, sealed away inside his suit.

She pulls his forehead to her cheek, but his mask stops her short. They can only get within three inches of each other. The suit rubs against the vinyl car seat and makes a funny, crude noise, but they don’t laugh. Polly would like to breathe in the smell of Frank’s skin one last time, a smell like salt cut with something sweet, like when it rains in the city. But all she gets is the dry smell of plastic.

The news outlets went down weeks ago, but that didn’t stop the blitz of ads for the Rebuild America Time Travel Initiative: billboards painted on buildings, posters wheat-pasted over empty storefronts, unused mailboxes stuffed with mailers. there is no flu in 2002 and travel to the future and rebuild America and no skills necessary! training provided!

At first the ads were like a joke, gallows humour for people who were stranded once the credit companies went down and the state borders were closed to stop the flu’s spread, people like Polly and Frank, who got trapped in Texas by accident. Later, the ads made Frank angry. He would tear the pamphlets from the mailboxes and throw them on the ground, muttering about opportunism. “You know they don’t market this to the rich,” he’s say, and then an hour later, he’d say it again.

They stayed indoors except for the one day a week when they travelled to the grocery store, which had been commandeered by five army reservists who doled out freeze-dried goods to ragged shoppers. The reservists had taken it upon themselves to impose equal access to the food supply, partly out of good-ness and partly out of the universal desperation for something to do. One day, the glass doors were locked. A handwritten sign said to go around the back. The soldiers were having a party. With their rifles still strapped on, they were handing out canned cocktail wieners, one per person, on candy-striped paper dessert plates that looked forlorn in their huge hands. Ted, the youngest, a boy from Kansas who had already lost his hair, was leaving for a job in the future. He was going to be an independent energy contractor. There was another sign, bigger and in the same writing, on the back wall: 2000 here we come! It was a rare, happy thing, the soldiers and the shoppers in misfit clothes, standing around and smiling at each other and nibbling on withered cocktail sausages. But just that morning, the phone had worked for five minutes and they got a call through to Frank’s brothers, only to be told it had been weeks since the landlord changed the locks to Frank’s apartment, back in Buffalo. The landlord was sympathetic to Frank’s predicament, but he could no longer endure the absence of rent. “But what about my stereo?” Frank had said. “What about my records? What about Grandpa’s butcher knife?” His voice was small, then smaller, as he listed off everything that was now gone.

Excerpted from An Ocean of Minutes. Copyright © 2018 by Thea Lim. Excerpted by permission of Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2018
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