Ed Lin is the author of Ghost Month, a new mystery novel set in Taipei. He is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards. TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s editorial director Anna Wu sat down with Ed while he was on a book tour in Berkeley, California, and they talked about his book, the politics of Taiwan, and how he became a novelist.
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Anna Wu: Hi Ed. Could you tell us a bit about your novel, Ghost Month?
Ed Lin: My latest novel Ghost Month was published by Soho Crime, actually near the start of Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month in late July, a time of year the gates to the underworld open and ghosts are free to roam the earth. It is a Taipei-based mystery and basically, this guy named Jing-nan who works at the Shilin Night Market finds out that this girl that he’s loved his whole life and planned to marry was murdered, and he goes and tries to find out how she was killed and who killed her.
It’s also a bit of a meditation on the state of Taiwan, because there is a small faction that wants eventual or soon-ish “reunion,” (I say in quotes), with China. And another faction wants to declare independence immediately, but most people actually favor the status quo right now, this sort of strange kind of independence. But, you know, the status quo kind of means something different to everybody, and I just wanted to really be as inclusive as possible in terms of how people feel.
A: When did you first start working on this book? What inspired it?
E: I started working on this book maybe two and a half years ago. I had written a series on a Chinese American cop set in 1976 in New York, and just in the course of that, just doing the research into the state of Chinese America in 1976, I naturally sort of looked to my own family, and just looked at my own roots, and I’ve never really had a chance to explore fictionally the sort of Taiwanese part of my identity. My father’s family is from Taiwan, they arrived there shortly after the Ming Dynasty fell apart [in the 1600s].
My mom was from Northern China, and she was part of the waishengren [the large migration of “mainlander” Chinese to Taiwan in the 1940s and 50s]. She essentially grew up in Taiwan. So over the years, she has come to believe herself that Taiwan should be independent. [Laughs.] But it’s funny. Her siblings, most of her family, believe the opposite and believe that Taiwan is part of China. I just wonder if it’s just one of these ongoing things that will never be resolved.
The thing is about Taiwan is that it’s got about 23 million people, right? Not too huge, but definitely bigger than a lot of other countries. Yet when you take a look at a place like Ireland, Ireland has 7, 8 million people. But it has a really high profile on the world stage. Everybody knows about St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns. I just feel like Taiwan should have a higher profile. I know China is trying everything to stop that, but Taiwan has a long history, strong culture, and stories that need to be told. That was definitely one of my motivations.
A: You personally have never lived in Taiwan…
E: No, I have not. I was born in New York, and I grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I’ve traveled to Taiwan a number of times.
A: So what made you set your novel in Taiwan with a main character who is Taiwanese and not Taiwanese American for instance?
E: This is a very personal work of mine. My name is Jing-nan. I gave the main character my name. And I just tried to imagine what it would have been like. What my life would have been like if my parents had met in Taiwan and if I was born there and worked the family business and everything. To me, that would be a lot more interesting to have someone already a part of the culture and reveal that, rather than an American or Asian American going in there and hitting various tourist spots. I wanted someone who had grown up in that world.
A: That’s really interesting that Jing-nan shares your Chinese name. So how much of that character is reflective of you?
E: I feel like all of the characters are me. When you are a writer, you put your mind into these different people. And you have to essentially like them. I think in order to really like somebody, you have to understand them. You have to understand why they think and why they feel and why they think the things that they do. I feel like Jing-nan is a big part of me, but so is Peggy– a borderline alcoholic running a hedge fund. But Jing-nan more so than the others.
A: One of Jing-nan’s character quirks is that he is a huge fan of the band Joy Division and names his night market stand Unknown Pleasures after their album title. So are you a big fan of Joy Division?
E: Yeah, I’m definitely a big fan. Not as big as Jing-nan… But if you are a fan, or familiar with the music, there’s this other dimension to it. I mention specifically the song “Isolation.” It’s got this drum beat [taps a drum beat], and I said it sounded like cars driving over the metal plates from construction in Taipei [laughs]. It’s just my take on it.
I also wanted it to, well you know, Joy Division became New Order after the lead singer killed himself. I wanted something that kind of represented the Martial Law era, this gray, claustrophobic, paranoid world of Joy Division and the Martial Law era, and then this more colorful, hopeful era of now. Just as Joy Division and New Order kind of coexist in this dichotomy, they both still reverberate in Taiwan.
A: Pretty cool! Music lovers rejoice.
I also find the relationship between Taiwan and America really fascinating in the novel. Jing-nan had this dream that he and his girlfriend would go to college in America, get married, and live happily ever after. That of course falls apart completely. And there are other entanglements involving Americans throughout the novel. But could you speak to that Taiwan-US relationship? Is it a different take on the American dream?
E: It’s not so much about Taiwan and America, but Taiwan really coming into its own. Having a viable society and economy that can really accommodate all kinds of people and something more inclusive. One of the things that Jing-nan is really disgusted with is superstition in Taiwan. He finds it really repulsive because it’s not rational. He points to the US as this really rational kind of place where politics have nothing to do with religion, and of course that’s extremely naive, but he’s really not aware of that. And what happens in the US is definitely not to the same degree as it is in Taiwan where politicians hold conferences in temples, and you have the mayor of Taipei helping to bear the Mazu blanket or lying under it and have it pass over him. You wouldn’t really see that in the US, but in Taiwan that’s really common. But it’s a really immature sort of stance that he has that’s automatic repulsion at worship of goddesses and gods and by the end of the book he sort of realizes that we all find comfort in different things whether it’s really good food or really good music, and if there’s something that offers comfort to people, you know, religion is just one of those things that if you want to believe your life has deeper meaning, then by believing it, you will have deeper meaning in your life.
A: You have a day job as a “trained journalist.” What does that mean? And how did you become a novelist?
E: I’m a financial journalist. This is my twenty-first year in financial journalism. I edit financial news at Barons.com which is the online component of Barons Magazine. I studied journalism in school. My undergrad degree is in engineering. My grad degree is in journalism. I graduated in journalism school in 1993 and the economy was just totally in the toilet. The only place that gave me an interview was Dow Jones News Service, the news ticker. So I went, and it was actually a really amazing time, because from 1993-2000 the stock market just blew up, and I had a front row center seat to seeing that happen. It really benefitted me, because I didn’t really know about personal finance. I was good with numbers, because of the engineering studies, and so I learned about getting a 401k set up, you should definitely set up a 401k and a Roth IRA if you haven’t already. Roth IRAs are really important. Tax-free gains. Definitely look into that.
How did I become a novelist? I always wanted to write novels. It took me a long time. But I tried writing a first novel for like five, six years before I finally finished a draft of something I thought was good. And it’s something that I really became accustomed to, working during the day and writing either at night or on the weekends or in the mornings. There was one point where I was at a dot-com that collapsed, and I was like, this is great. I’ll just sit at home, and I’ll just write all day it’ll be great. But it was really hard! Without a job to push against, there was no boulder to roll uphill any more. I ended up not really being able to write, and I’m buying all this crap on eBay. But once I started working again, it started up again.
A: So then how did you get your first novel published?
E: This is funny. Traditionally the process is, you write short stories, you get them published in journals, and once you have a couple of them, you show them to a literary agent, you tell them you’re working on a longer piece like a novel, and they take you on and then they try to sell your work to a publisher. That’s the traditional route. I kind of didn’t do that. I don’t have an MFA [a Masters of Fine Arts]. A lot of people have an MFA. So the Asian American Writers Workshop was kind of like my grad program. Right now it’s a medium-sized institution, but back then, it really was a workshop, with people meeting in restaurants and cafes and sharing their work. And in 1999, the workshop had this panel called “How to get your book published,” and Sunyoung Lee of Kaya Press was one of the panelists. After the panel, I said to her, “I wrote this really crazy manuscript. Do you want to take a look at it?” And she said sure. I sent it to her, and about a month later, she sent it back. It’s all marked up, it’s all red. And I was like wow, I can’t look at this. I threw it in a drawer. I saw her not too long after, and she said, “what about your book?” I said, “you hated my book. You marked it all up.” And she said, “no, I liked your book. I want to publish it.” [Laughs] I was like “wow, that’s great!” So that was my first book: Waylaid. It’s a crazy, semi autobiographical thing about me working at my parents’ hotel. It’s crazy sexualized and it kind of describes the same geography years before Jersey Shore, the MTV shore.
A: And it’s been 5 books now?
E: Yes, this is my 5th book.
A: What are your hopes for this book?
Well I hope it does well, of course. I see it as a first of a series, assuming the narrator isn’t killed by the end of this one. But like a series of infinite length that could go on for quite a while. There are people who feel that mystery books and serial mysteries are kind fo like this rinky dink kind of thing, but I really enjoy series. I love characters who can go on and keep being interesting. So in the larger sense, I would want this series to be continually interesting, relevant, and fun to write, fun to read.
Watch a recent video interview with Ed: