Q&A: Novelist Tom Lin '18 and His New Take on the Old West

Tom Lin

Tom Lin ’18 is too old to be called a child prodigy. But he’s young enough that the attention and praise he has received for his first novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, is extraordinary.

To garner the critical acclaim it has—profiles, reviews and interviews in media outlets that include The New York Times and NPR—and to be named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and be longlisted for the 2022 Carnegie Medal for Excellence is certainly not typical for a writer who is still just 25. Sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy’s work, his novel is a classic Western that features a Chinese American assassin as its protagonist.

Lin started his book as a student at Pomona, guided by professor and novelist Jonathan Lethem and advised by the late Professor Arden Reed. He says he keeps “expecting to wake up” from what seems like a dream. Now a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, Lin is working on a science fiction project while continuing his graduate work. He recently visited the College to give a reading from his book and we sat down to chat about everything from inspiration to invisibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

I grew up in New York, and I came out here for college. I got my first car here as well. And so I was driving around a lot—this was totally unsupervised—and I saw the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree. I went to all these places, and I had never seen anything like that in my entire life.

I’ve been saying that I hadn’t been to the West Coast until college, and my parents recently sent me a text in the family group chat and wrote, “You forgot that we took you on a one-week trip through the West when you were 4.” College was the first time that I came out to the West sentient.

I just really loved the landscape and I was thinking I was going to write a Western, just to pay tribute to that landscape. And I wanted to have a Chinese American main character because it was important to me to write about someone who was like me. And then the more research that I did, I just felt the more urgent the story became. I think it is in the California curriculum about Chinese laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad. I don’t think we got much of that in the East Coast curriculum. So I was learning this new history, getting more involved in it, and it more and more would seem like a story that I had to tell. I had to do it right as well.

Did you read a lot of Westerns growing up? Watch Western movies?

I actually did not. I have very little familiarity with Westerns in the traditional sense. What I did read were several books that satirized or subverted the Western genre, like Cormac McCarthy. I think I got to know Westerns through this kind of meta-Western universe, which is interesting—to read around a thing but never actually encounter the thing. But I drew a lot of this version from movies. I really like action films.

The Western as a genre, has a set of affordances and is so deeply ingrained in American culture. It’s hard to get away from the skeletons of the Western even in stuff that wouldn’t appear to be Westerns, because we just love them so much as a country. And so paradoxically I felt quite well prepared to write a Western. I never felt that anything was lacking because I hadn’t read Westerns, because I felt as though I had been reading Westerns all my life in these other forms.

So how did your Pomona experience shape this work?

There was a submission for a creative writing workshop with [Professor] Jonathan Lethem. My peers were very kind to me, because I turned in something that was way beyond the length cutoff for what you would give for a workshop. But it had a main character named Ming Tsu and it was a Western, but it was set in the present day. My thinking was that this was just a chapter, and I would go and work on it more. But at the end of it, Ming Tsu, he gets in his car and he says, “I’m going to drive across the country,” because I was about to do that at the end of that year, just to go home. And I remember someone in the class during feedback they said, “Oh, it won’t take that long to drive across the country. I’ve done it in two days.” And I almost out of spite put him on a horse to see how long it takes for him to get anywhere.

I worked on it intermittently on and off all through Pomona and I had the really good fortune to have some spectacular mentors, especially in the English Department. Being exposed to all that I read here, the theory that I encountered here, being able to wander into the office of someone who is vastly more well-read and intelligent than yourself and being able to encounter them on what feels almost like equal ground and asking questions and bouncing ideas off each other, I think that was invaluable to putting this whole thing together. And I think the only reason I didn’t finish it in college was because I was having too much fun. And of course, as soon as I graduated, that ceased to be a problem almost instantly.

I finished it in the year that I took between college and now grad school, which I'm still doing now. And when I was finished with it, I revised it a bunch of times and I sent it to Jonathan Lethem. I had only taken the beginning workshop with him, and I never actually had a chance to take the advanced fiction workshop, which are two fiction workshops he teaches. Because he had said, if it doesn’t fit in your schedule, no problem, we can just do it on our own. If you have something, I can give you feedback. So I had this manuscript and I had finished revising it, and I sent it off to Jonathan hoping to get some feedback. And he came back with an incredibly generous blurb.

I was bowled over. That was something that I could then take when we were showing the manuscript to editors. That helped immeasurably. I don’t think any of this would have been possible without his generosity. And a lot of the things that I learned from my time here, I still think about, they still guide my thinking. I had a fantastic time here, and then the book I don’t think could exist currently were it not for the people and the experiences that I encountered here.

What is your writing process like?

I’ve been saying that I hate writing, which I think is not quite true. But I do. ... It is one of the most difficult things that I do, I think. But what I do instead of writing, because writing is so hard, I do research, and that is much more satisfying and also there’s less hair-pulling and heartache involved. My writing process is very research-heavy. I tend to think and imagine and ultimately write in short scenes, just bursts of description or action, and I produce what I consider to be fragments. And then when I want to start stitching the whole thing together, it becomes a process of bricks and mortar, rather than weaving out of whole cloth. But my writing process I think in a word is “slow.” There are some days where I’m lucky to get 250 words. I remember I would look up “famous writer, process,” just to figure out if there was something I was doing wrong. And there are these writers who wake up at 5 a.m. and they go for a run and they take the kids to school, and then they write for eight hours and ... I don’t know how you do that day after day. My process is very research-forward, and I think a lot of that is because of my training in being an English major. I didn’t do a creative writing emphasis.

It comes from my training in looking for sources, looking for research first, and then building an analysis. I think when it comes to writing fiction, it’s almost the exact same process except that at the end what I built isn’t an interpretation, but actually something that seems to attend to all of those issues that came up during research.

You said you’re slow. But the irony is, you finished this three years out of college, right? Can you talk a little bit about that?

I’d always been writing things. There’s the “When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut” dream. And then as you grow up you realize you’re probably not going to become an astronaut.

But you always hold out hope that maybe you’ll just get a call, and they’ll make you an astronaut. And that’s kind of what it feels like. I always wanted to write books, but I had begun to realize that it was not something that I could pursue full time and eat. So I resolved to be as close to literature as I could be, which was to go to grad school, study English, try to be close to literature through analysis and criticism. But I had this project. I had been talking about it for so long and I had been telling all my friends—and that was another thing, because I had generated an immense amount of social anxiety around not finishing the book. When I finally sat down, I think I started writing out of panic, and that’s kind of what it took. But what I would say is it is something that you just have to do, and the hardest thing about writing is finishing something that you’re working on. And that took me a long time, but I think writing is nice because it is something that you can do while you do other things. And it is something that you can do even if it’s never published or even if you never do anything with it. Writing is cool simply because it is a way of thinking about the world that is slower and more satisfying. But I think the other thing is I came out of Pomona with such smart friends. They’re all brilliant. And it was having that sense of community as well ... hold your friends close and finish what you’re working on is the advice that I would give.

Chinese immigrants essentially built the Central Pacific Railroad line but faced racism and prohibitions against immigration with the Exclusion Act. You mentioned that in one of your interviews, that Ming is invisible because no one really chooses to see him.

It is a brilliant idea. It’s not my own, it’s Ralph Ellison’s.

Right, Invisible Man.

What Ellison says is brilliant because it means that racism is something that is exterior to the self, that it’s something that gets applied by society onto a person. And not only can it change a person, but it can actually totally hide them. I was re-reading Invisible Man during that year that I was [between Pomona College and UC Davis], but one thing that I kept on encountering in the newspapers as I did research was this name John. The train is coming around the tracks, and John takes off his hat and whoops with joy or John driving ties, and I realized that is short for John Chinaman. That is how everyone who even looked Asian in that time was referred to. And so that to me seemed like a double kind of elision. Not only were these human beings being compressed into a single identity, but then even that was moved into just John. The racial epithet is implied. It’s hard to do the historical research and see even the individuals because they’re always described as masses in terms of labor force. It was interesting to do research and then try to write an individual back into that kind of historical milieu. I would be writing a character who people might choose not to see, who might subvert these racist power structures that were in almost everybody, harming him, and how he could actually capitalize on the underside of those power structures. And then of course it’s complicated by the fact that he’s only doing it because he’s been raised by this white man to do his own bidding. But I thought that it was so interesting, and it felt like I was doing something important.

What do you think a voice like yours as an Asian American man does at this time of increasingly strident racism against Asians and Asian Americans? Why is Asian American representation so important in literature?

Anti-Asian American racism is as old as Asian Americans, which is a staggering thought to hold in your head, because it means that we’ve always been the “other” in a way that has never been resolved but only sometimes pushed under the surface. Once you see the long tale of anti-Asian racism, it means that these problems appear less in the moment, and they become more indicative of a larger ill somewhere deeper along the root. Asian American representation is important because the term “Asian American” describes a fictitious diaspora.

My parents emigrated to the United States from Beijing. And the Chinese Americans who emigrated here in the 1800s emigrated from the south of China. I often had thought if I were to go back in time and meet Ming or his parents, we would have nothing in common between the two of us. …We would be both Chinese but we wouldn’t speak the same language; we would be mutually unintelligible. And yet we would both be reduced to being Chinese American because we were Chinese in America. That we’re trying to show solidarity and agitate as this kind of fictitious group I think is something that we should never forget. And so when we do Asian American representation, one of our tasks is to show the full gamut of Asian American experience, not simply the immigrant strife stories, which I think to a certain extent are for white consumption. When you have a white character, they can be anything. You know, whiteness is the default. If you have a movie about a white firefighter, it’s a movie about a firefighter. But if you have a movie about a Chinese American firefighter, suddenly it’s about being a firefighter and also being Chinese American. I think representation is important because it dilutes the potency of any single narrative. My first year at Pomona we had Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who had just written Americanah, and she came to give a talk. She was telling us about the danger of the single story. And I think that’s extremely apt to describe what representation can do because it can add more stories, and it expands the field of possibility for what people of color can be in the white American imagination. At the same time, it was just so cool and so satisfying to be working on this story and know that it was a kind of story that I never got a chance to read as a kid. I would have loved this as a kid.