The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu
(Little, Brown, 2021)
I met Tom Lin at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference this summer, where we spoke about our debut books. His debut novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, about a Chinese orphan raised by a white man to become an assassin in the post-Civil War Western United States, won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction. Having thoroughly enjoyed our panel and the book itself, I asked him if we might talk—about the book, about the genre of the Western, and also about the fiction writing process in general. A PhD candidate at the University of California-Davis, he’s currently at work on a second novel.
Blake Sanz (Rail): I’ll start with something that feels like a point of connection between us. My dad is from Mexico, and I grew up very aware of that country. My sense of it comes from my family, from stories I was told, and less from any larger, American conception of it. You moved to the US at age four from China. What was your perception of your homeland as you grew up? What was it like to get a different take on it, apart from the American take?
Tom Lin: I ended up having to learn about Chinese culture mostly as an adult, because I’d spent so much of my childhood avoiding it. As a kid you want to get along with other kids—I certainly did—but that impulse can end up leading you astray, because while you have the capacity to diagnose what’s keeping you from fitting in, you lack the judgment to determine whether it’s something you ought to change. I figured I wasn’t fitting in because I spoke Chinese at home, and I didn’t do things like play baseball. And I lacked the good judgment to know that these were things I didn’t need to be ashamed of. So I spent a lot of my childhood actively shirking my family and Chinese culture. My mom would make me dumplings for lunch, and I’d ask for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead, because I so dreaded having to eat them in front of my friends at lunchtime. And my mother obliged and made me sandwiches instead, because she’s a wonderful lady, but I was a fool, of course, because those sandwiches were much worse than dumplings. But I did that sort of thing for a long time.
I think every kid who grows up in America with cultural ties to other places ends up having to determine their own idiosyncratic mixture of cultures, having to figure out the proportions in the mix. And it’s a dynamic thing, too. For me, as I get older, I find myself trying to explore my Chinese heritage more, to talk more to my mom and my grandparents. And I feel like I’m playing catch-up now, because I just wasn’t interested in it when I was a kid.
As for the homeland—when we first came to the US, we stayed for ten years straight without leaving, because we were unsure what our visa allowed and terrified of making some error that would prevent us from coming back. Finally, when we got our green cards, my mother and I visited China for the first time. It had been some ten years since she’d last seen the country, and she was just blown away at how much China had modernized since she’d left. As for me, I remember thinking, “Man, I can’t wait to go back home, where I can speak the language and read the street signs.” I felt out of place there, like I was too American for China and too Chinese for America. I think that’s a classic and perennial source of tension for people like us, people who bridge two cultures. We’re all trying to answer this ontological question: what exactly are you? And instead of an answer we find only other questions. As you push through the world, what trace are you leaving? What roots are you following? Do you belong where you’re most comfortable? And what measure of control do you have over feelings like belonging, anyway?
Rail: I’m interested in Ming this way. He doesn’t belong anywhere. He’s an orphan, raised in this crime family. The closest he has to a sense of belonging is his memory of his marriage. And yet, that’s not what he remembers it to be. This lack of belonging defines his character. Maybe that’s a bridge between your way of describing your own upbringing, and the character you created. Could you speak to how you tapped into what was true about Ming emotionally?
Lin: Personally, I’ve always identified with the prophet, this ancient and frail old man with a terrible memory. But to invent Ming, I started with that question: what is his vector of belonging? Where does it begin, where is it heading? Does it begin within him, pushing out against the pressure of the world and declaring his belonging? Or is it something that comes from that outside world, from without, that is attributed to him? It’s a debate that is shot through with questions of racial identity—race being this quite modern, socially constructed imaginary. And yet, despite originating from pure fiction, it has sedimented into social structures that bring real, non-imaginary harm to real, non-imaginary people. To ask these questions of race and identity means having to negotiate its double nature as an unreal real thing, a slippery thing that fluctuates and resists clarity. This is what confuses and troubles Ming as he tries to locate where he ought to be, where he belongs. Ultimately his arc ends with his winning the right to self-determine his answer to those questions: at the start, he’s caught up in this network of obligations. His life is structured by what he owes to others. And he develops, he iteratively refines his sense of where he is supposed to be, and what he is supposed to do. And what he wants to do. And that iterative process closely matches my process—[laughs] obviously, with much less murder—but the core operation is the same, that of identifying what you ought to do and what you want to do, squaring those two things up against each other, and then finding a way through, and ultimately out of, the contradictions.
Rail: He embraces this role of going on this vengeance tour, but at certain points, he seems to be doing it out of rote habit, as if he’s tired of it.
Rail: Which led me to wonder as I read: what will it be like for him, once this vengeance tour is over? Was that an arc you were aware of writing toward as you composed the book?
Lin: I was reading your stories—I think short stories have always been harder for me than longer work because the short form has such a small margin of error. Everything in a short story needs to tie together; the whole needs to operate as a single, precise mechanism. And as I was reading your work, I noticed that we place our narrative climaxes slightly differently. In a novel, you can hit an emotional peak and have enough room afterwards for things to cool down. But with a short story, that peak has to come within two or three paragraphs of the end. It’s smooth—the story sets up a whole constellation of ideas, one at a time, the ending cashes in on all those setups, and then it’s over.
Rail: That’s right.
Lin: My novel has a clear conceit, plot-wise: it’s on a rail. Ming has a list and he has a journey. Once he’s done, he’s done. I’ve been asked if there is a sequel coming, and my thought about that is that it seems terribly unfair to put Ming through the wringer, as I’ve done, and sending him off, only to go back and grab him for a second trip through hell. The novel ends in a moment of possibility for Ming and his future—this is where I think the differences between a short and a novel, structurally, are most apparent—because in this longer form, after all the action terminates, you have room for this exhalation, this slack tide.
Rail: I’ve been interested lately, as I revise a novel, in how much I need to know about my characters to write toward an ending. I’m in this habit of looking at what smart writers have to say about this question. Here’s a quote from Lucy Sante from Writing with the Back Brain that’s been stuck in my head lately. I’m curious whether this rings true for you:
Going into the writing I like to cultivate a particular juncture between not knowing—having all the facts but remaining uncertain how they fit together. It’s a delicate balance, because if you know too little what you write will be halting and opaque, and if you know too much it will be dead on the page, a mere transcription after the fact. In any case, whatever ideas and speculations may occupy the writer’s head, writing does not begin with an idea; it begins with a sentence. What occurs in your mind is a great swirling mass of half-formed notions, which are interwoven with worries, memories, songs, and emotions; the signal to noise ratio is overwhelming. Putting the thought in writing crystallizes it and gives it life.
It certainly sounds true.
Rail: There’s part of me that resists this and says, “Actually, some of the conceptual work I did to frame out the story mattered.” Which maybe Sante would agree with. Anyway, I’m curious your reaction to the quote, and how it might apply or not to the writing of Thousand Crimes.
Lin: I tend to be suspicious of quotes like this, that sound like a true description of what we as writers do but which feel too perfect. We bang our heads against the wall for months and years, and finally, somehow, we come up with writing. And then only later, when we’re asked, do we reconstruct how we did it. And because we’re writers, we have an eloquent retrospective process.
So yes, it sounds like an accurate description of what we’re doing, but it never feels that perfect. It feels like you’re always on one side or the other of knowing and not-knowing. For me, I had way more information than I thought I could fit into a book—about the geology, the history, all these laws. I knew exactly what kinds of guns my characters had, what would and wouldn’t be period-correct. But however much research or pre-planning you do, versus however much discovering you do, I think it comes down to what you want to accomplish with your writing that you’re afraid your readers will miss if you don’t do it well. For me, I wanted my book to feel like a classic Western, and I didn’t know much about Westerns when I started, so I patched that insecurity with knowledge: “I’ll do all the research that I possibly can.”
I assumed that would be my process for writing anything. But I discovered it isn’t. I’m working on my next project and it’s demanding a completely different process. I find myself unable to visualize and pre-plan scenes and outline for this project the same way that I did for Thousand Crimes. For this current project, I’ve got a cast of characters and I’m finding that I’m only able to write it sequentially, because these characters are much more ostentatious personalities.
I had a conversation with Priyanka Champaneri, who wrote The City of Good Death over ten years. One of the things I asked her was what it was like to write one thing for ten years. How does that even work? Especially in the most granular way—as in, what do you sit down and do when you write something for that long? She said she just wrote it organically, by the seat of her pants, figuring it out as she went along. I was astonished. But now, with this new project, I get it. So, I guess it depends. I think about my projects in terms of their focus. This project is about X: this is the one about characters, this is the one about description. The thing you want to get right is what informs your process. But writers are always selecting from infinite possibilities: the most horrible kind of decision. If literally anything can happen next, what’s the right thing?
Rail: Thousand Crimes is, as you say, written on a rail. It would occur to many readers to think they could imagine how it was written: one sentence after the next. And yet, I imagine that was not true. Can you tell me about some of the roadblocks that emerged, even when having such a seemingly straight plot line?
Lin: I found this kind of plot to be deceptively difficult. The high-level idea is simple, but the devil is in the details. I started writing it and almost immediately I thought, “I have to find a way to slow this guy down, because he’s going to be done in thirty pages.” I ended up thinking of the plot as a set of complications: how can I slow him down?
For me, the process involved solving overlapping arcs of problems. I wrote the first draft of this story for a workshop. It was totally different—set in modern times, Ming had a car, he was heading east. And I remember this one kid in workshop said, “I’ve driven across the country a bunch of times; it doesn’t take two weeks. He could make it in three days.” And I was like, “Well, shit!” It proved to be a fatal critique. I scrapped that whole thing.
That’s the problem with plots-on-a-rail: you can see the ending already. And because writers tend to love efficiency—of language and of thought—it’s hard to not just make a beeline for that ending.
Rail: What were the complications you invented to slow him down? The central premise of the story is that he’s going on this vengeance tour with the help of this traveling group of performers and the ringleader. But it strikes me now, thinking of that image of Ming in a freaking car—clearly, the traveling magicians came later in the process.
Lin: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Rail: What was it like to discover that? To write toward it? It strikes me as so central to the novel’s construction that it’s hard to imagine any version of it where they don’t appear, and where they’re not integral to the way things unfold.
Lin: I’d always had insecurities about my ‘legitimacy’ as a writer—this learned belief that a legitimate topic for literary fiction is usually boring. It’s usually aspiring to be, say, the end-all story of a slow-motion divorce, and it’ll be set in a small town, but it will really be about the human condition. And so, I had about 15,000 words of Ming and the prophet walking, occasionally riding horses, going east to west. My girlfriend read it and said, “It’s very pretty, but it’s boring.” She was right! And writing any more of it was getting to be excruciating, because by that point there was nothing more I could introduce to keep it going. I had to give myself permission to explore and indulge weirdness. That was a big sea change for me. As soon as I got started with the weird, writing became easier. And thank goodness. I don’t think I could have kept going otherwise.
It ends up being a kind of play—you introduce something new into the story and see how it fits. And it’s so viscerally satisfying when it does fit. To return to that Sante quote—I think that is what she’s referring to, that crystallization. When you finally get it right, you know it. The whole thing precipitates out of solution. The story hums. Those are good days. And, conversely, on my hardest days I barely get that feeling of getting things right, and the story feels like dead weight. Maybe that’s why we end up thinking about writing in such magical terms, because we don’t really know what’s going on, we just know what feels right. I’ve had to learn to trust that feeling.
Rail: It takes such courage and resolve to make fundamental changes like that. Were there any moments of hesitation or doubt that approximated the severity of your decision to permit yourself to introduce magic into the novel?
Lin: When my editor came back with notes. I’d spent so long polishing it before it went off to anybody, and all that time had convinced me that it really was the best it could be. And then those notes came back, and they were all right, and so I couldn’t even ignore them! But I wouldn’t say it was doubt—it was mostly a feeling of thinking you’ve crossed the finish line and then learning you have another lap to go. And I couldn’t quit, because I’d now seen the possibility of a better incarnation of the story, and I needed to do the work to actualize it.
The end of the editing process is similarly coercive. Every person on the chain of production and printing and scheduling and logistics gets together and tells you in no uncertain terms that you’re finished. You’ve got to hand it over. I think we’re writing toward the Platonic ideal of what our stories could be—the eternal horizon of perfection, and because we’d sooner die than put our names to something that doesn’t represent our very best, we have to count on others to take it away from us and save us from ourselves.
Rail: Your work’s been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s—which, on the one hand, I’d imagine feels like a great honor, but on the other hand, you’re doing fundamentally different things. What do you make of that comparison? To what extent was McCarthy an influence?
Lin: McCarthy is definitely the go-to comparison anytime you see a violent, literary Western. I love his work. I read a lot of his books one after the other on a little McCarthy kick, and looking back, that era is filled with some of the blackest days of my life. The bleakness really bled over. I’d wander around and think, “What the hell are we all doing here? There’s only darkness underneath the veil of civility.”
One thing I wanted to do with the Western was to make a space for hope. A primary conjecture of the Western is this question of the possibility of redemption through violence: can you be scoured clean in the baptismal fire of absolute effort? And McCarthy’s answer in many cases is this pessimist-realist one in which any redemption derived from violence is always a fallen kind of redemption. That violence effects these changes such that the person who needed to be redeemed in the first place is, by the end of it all, no longer around to be saved. All this to say I love his work, but I think we have slightly divergent views on the goodness of people.
My major influence for the book was actually Herman Melville. I so admire how Melville’s stories all take on the scope and reach of epics. They fill you with wonder: at the environment, at the capacity of man.
Rail: I’ve heard you say that you’re interested in subverting the expectation of the Western. Were there any tenets of the American Western that you were excited to subvert with the characters and situations you created? Is there any new mythology you’re hoping to create?
Lin: The thing about the conventional Western that I was most excited to change was its valorization of white male dominance. The genre appeals to me because it’s a machine for making myths. It’s also a homegrown American genre—romances, mysteries, tragedies, those have continental origins. But we have the Western, this most American story of the extension of human labor and suffering over new territory that allows the reciprocal apprehension of territory and laborers.
In West of Everything, the critic Jane Tompkins characterizes the heart of the Western as the “totally saturated moment” in which there’s no past or future, only a purity of action that, through its absolute intensity, organizes the whole world. This is what interests me: suffering as a means to an end, labor as something transformative of the world and yourself. I’m also interested in the genre’s normative force, its originary purpose of educating American boys and girls about ‘how the West was won’ while communicating other tacit beliefs—that the West ought to have been won, that we ought to have been a bicoastal country, that the indigenous peoples of this continent’s interior ought to have been extirpated and scattered far from their ancestral homelands.
The Western is an enormous gun that has always been aimed at a single target: the reproduction of the American origin myth. But the gun isn’t fixed in place—it can be aimed elsewhere. I wanted to see if it could be completely reversed. Could this narrative machine of imperialism be directed toward anti-colonialist ends? Could the Western generate the terms of its own deconstruction? And was there even anything about the genre worth saving?
I certainly think so. The Western poses questions not just of empire, but also of suffering and labor and human effort. I was excited to change a few things—modify a few parameters—and then let the story play out, seeing how the genre responded.
Rail: Ming feels very much of a piece with the Western in the sense that he’s hyper-masculine, short with words, violent. Aside from not being white, he’s got 90% of the characteristics we associate with the typical Western hero. I’m fascinated by how the prophet calls him “a man out of bounds.” This fully aligns with the Western ethic of an outlaw on the run. We’ve been taught to idolize that kind of character, and the prophet sees him through this lens, too, and yet there’s some interesting cultural overlap between the Western and traditional tropes of Chinese culture, the prophet being a purveyor of ancient wisdom and foretelling. Could you talk about how you saw that overlap playing out?
Lin: From a technical standpoint, the prophet was a convenient character—anything I wanted to connect to the deep past or the long future, I could just channel through the prophet. He was also useful because he troubles Ming’s invulnerability. Ultimately, whether he dies becomes immaterial to him in this world where everyone else’s deaths are known quantities, and so he develops a sense of absolute protection from harm. Giving him this frail, ancient, blind companion who is somehow able to defend him from the ravages of the world, but who needs defending himself—it was a beautiful foil for Ming.
In terms of bringing in Eastern philosophy, I drew from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—particularly its concept of the intermediary state that follows death and precedes reincarnation. Ming is always in that in-between, always already lingering in that intermediary space. My read of it—and I always like to note Northrop Frye’s line about the author’s interpretation having peculiar interest but not peculiar authority—my read is that Ming’s great challenge is to find actualization within this intermediary state. He must stabilize his own identity within this null space, where no one is sure what or who he is. And his task is all the more difficult because of the way he was raised: he’s divorced from these normal modes of experience, and so he’s starting from a radical zero. We’re watching him declare his own existence.
Rail: I want to bring it back to the level of the sentence. Part of what’s admirable about the book is that it’s a big story, juggling many things, but at the level of the sentence, it’s deceptively simple. You’ve adopted this style that has minimal commas; short sentences; curt dialogue exchanges. The novel moves with such pace that it’s easy to forget from paragraph to paragraph that larger complications and subversions are in the works. To what extent were you intentionally creating this contrast of a simple style versus a complexity of content? Or was that just the mode that occurred to you for a story of this type?
Lin: More so the latter. Even with my next project, I tend toward a filmic imagination of scenes. I love close third; I have a hard time head-hopping. In description, in action, I’m always thinking of the sentences as affecting movements of a camera, or a beam of light. I think it’s a limitation of mine—I’ve got a single-camera imagination. It lends itself to a style where things come quickly and sequentially. The camera is always in motion, but it can only reveal a synchronic picture.
That’s one of the major bottlenecks with writing, for me—the translation of a diachronic, flash-grenade kind of image into the sequential, synchronic text. There’s a tyranny you impose with sequence; you’re laying out a hierarchy of sensation by how you choose to order the world. I found that I could mitigate some of this hierarchy of sensation by speeding everything up, compressing the whole stack of sensual description by routing everything through the body, which we intuitively understand as the origin of simultaneous experience. But I don’t want to take credit for the quick pace and the grandeur—those come with the Western as a genre.
Literature has a way of inventing things that are not there, and chief among these is a ‘God perspective’—how does the sun look to God? how does the wind feel to God?—and what I’m always trying to do is remember that the sun looks a certain way, sure, but it looks a certain way to somebody. There’s always this subjectivity attached to the world; we ought to remember that.
I believe that good books make a pact with their readers: “if you’ll believe, I’ll tell you a good story.” I don’t think literature, as such, ought to be difficult—I think it should deal with difficult things, but the magic of a good story lies in its ability to come close to voicing the ineffable. For a book to demand work from its reader simply in its reading, that to me seems a bit unfair. The pact is collaborative—if you’ll believe, this story will read itself.
Rail: That’s a good way to put it. The word that comes to mind is clean. There’s a cleanness to the prose that propels me on to the next sentence. I found myself on page eighty before I’d blinked. I know how much work it takes to do that, and it also feels that you limited yourself in this cinematic way that you’re describing. You’re essentially saying, “I will only describe things that this character can feel through the body, and I will only give myself a moment in which to describe it before I move on.” Those self-imposed limitations on the writing, maybe there were what liberated you to create the kind of story that you have?
Lin: Definitely. And when that’s your approach most of the time, when you deliver that consistently, you earn the latitude to take moments to step back from the action and point up at the stars. Then, of course, you jump right back in. These bits cost momentum, so you have to be sparing with them or the story gets bogged down. But they’re some of the most satisfying sections to write. You get to talk about the grander things that have been haunting the story. And then you come right back in. That’s how you generate a convincing sense of scale: showing, in a short span of time, both the very large and the very small.
Rail: I was watching your interview with The Center for Fiction, and there was a part where you talked about the trips you made to find out about the land you write about. I remember, for example, the story you told about trying to approximate the salinity in the Pyramid Lakes, and then drinking it so you’d know what Ming’s experience would be like. Do you have any other stories about hands-on research that was a part of this process of writing this novel?
Lin: Some things come to mind and you have no choice but to find a way to work it into the story. For instance, in the first few moments of the book, Ming’s walking along the Great Salt Lake and keeps getting brine flies in his shoes. That’s a real experience I’ve had—I visited the Salt Lake when I was in first grade or so, in the middle of the summer, and the beach was so thick with brine flies that from a distance the sand looked black. I remember running down the beach, kicking up a bow wave of disturbed flies as I went. And then later, when I took my shoes off, my white socks were stained with crushed brine flies. I don’t even know how they got in there! That’s the kind of thing you remember and think, “Man, I have to put that in here.”
I think research can get you, at most, eighty percent of the way to full verisimilitude. And that last twenty percent often is the most convincing fraction, is almost impossible to get without actual experience. One of the great mercies of memory is that we find it hard to remember the actual sensation of pain and discomfort; we remember their happening, but not their actual horror. And so it’s a hard thing to put into words—but getting that kind of discomfort right was so important for this book that I felt compelled to experience those things myself: standing under the midday Nevada sun in 115-degree heat, or trudging through hip-deep snowdrifts on Donner Summit. There are these realms of experience that are inaccessible, or ineffable, until you experience them—and that’s the point of fieldwork.
I suppose there’s another point to fieldwork: when you’re doing it, you can avoid writing. It’s a productive procrastination, and depending on the severity of your writer’s block, it can drive you to some completely unnecessary lengths—like mixing up a glass of Pyramid Lake water in your kitchen. But it’s also productive. I drove back and forth along I-80, which tracks along the Transcontinental Railroad. I went to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. I went up to the tunnels in the Sierras and felt the rock walls, the boreholes that the Chinese laborers drilled a hundred and fifty years ago. With research you make the world accessible to yourself—and then, with writing, you make it accessible, in turn, to your reader.