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The Carnegie Medal Interview: Tom Lin [in Booklist]

Terry Hong, Booklist Contributing Reviewer and chair of the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence selection committee, had questions for Tom Lin, winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction for his first novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming TsuHere is their conversation:

So as a debut novelist in your mid-20s, what does winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal mean to you?
It’s an incredible honor, doubly so because the award is given out by the country’s librarians, the contingent of people most immersed and invested in the power of a good story. I’m truly humbled by the attention and feedback that the book has received. I wrote The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu because it felt important to me – and winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal feels like an acknowledgement that this was a story that was important to others, too.

You ingeniously combined significant, albeit too-often overlooked, Chinese American history, political injustices, transracial adoption, identity challenges (and more!) into a superb, rollicking adventure. When and how were you first exposed to this history? How did you decide to write fiction grounded in the 150-years-ago Wild West?
I think – I assume – that I must have learned about the Transcontinental Railroad in grade school, but I didn’t really learn much else beyond the mere fact of its existence until I went to college in southern California. There, armed with a secondhand Volkswagen and a driver’s license my driving skills didn’t quite merit, I encountered landscapes and geologies that I had never seen before, places that were so arresting in their intensity of experience that I felt it necessary to respond. I wanted to write something that felt true to what I was seeing and experiencing, wandering around this wild landscape; the natural mode for expressing geological wonder, I think, is the Western. And of course the Western, more so than other genres, is so quintessentially American, so wrapped up in our national mythmaking of who we as Americans are and ought to be, and what we as a nation believe we are owed. I knew I wanted to tell a story about the landscape that featured a protagonist to whom I could relate, a Chinese American, while canonical Westerns featured white men. From that kernel of an idea the research came quickly, and what I learned about the history of Asians in America (and, in particular, in California) helped to stabilize and animate the story that was taking shape. So I came to the genre of the Western through its landscapes, and even as my research took me further afield, I found myself returning again and again to those vistas and those stones, to make sense of these histories through the earth on which they happened.

Given the extensive range of topics and tangents, what was your research process like? How did you make this magic happen?
My research process is quite cleanly bifurcated between ‘formal’ research and fieldwork. Formal research involves reading scholarly sources, books and articles, drawing up timelines, tracing lines across historical maps. Formal research provides facts and narratives that render intelligible our world, our here and now, as the contingent product of a shared past. And by fieldwork I mean the set of activities that you do to make research real again – going to those places, trying to make those histories come back to life, seeing what you can hold in your hand and feel. What is it like to be alive at this moment, and to know that it is only the latest in an unbroken chain of moments, each of which depended on the one before it? I drove back and forth along Route 80, which (west of Omaha) runs almost alongside the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad, stopping to pull off and experience the summer heat, the desert dryness. I walked through the hand-dug tunnels of Donner Summit, feeling the remnants of boreholes dug by forgotten Chinese laborers 150 years ago. I think formal research and fieldwork are two sides of the same coin, and that the ultimate goal of my research process was to get things right, to produce a story that felt solid, and real.

Ming Tsu is quite the memorable protagonist: a native-born American, a builder of transcontinental railroads, an antiracist rebel, a killer of injustice – and even the hero who finally gets the girl. Might we possibly see more of him in the future?
I’m not one to say never, but I think Ming has earned himself an extended vacation, at the very least. As a writer you spend so much time with your characters, you convince yourself that they’re real people, and if you’re like me, you ultimately end up feeling this sense of obligation toward them. So I’m a little reluctant to drag him back into the fray after all he’s been through. I think he’s had a hard journey, and he deserves some rest – at least for a little while.

Your eager readers would love to know: When might we see your next book and what might it be?
I’m glad you asked! Not to worry, work has already begun on the next project. It’s going to be a work of science fiction – I hope you can forgive the change in genres! – but I’m still deciding when and where to set it. Work proceeds, slightly faster than glacial pace. I’m excited to work with the affordances of a new genre and mode, and I can’t wait to share it with you when it’s ready.

Author interview: “Feature,” Booklist, June 1, 2022

Readers: Adult

Published: 2022


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