BY MICHELLE BILTON
A Sheridan professor’s debut novel is in the running for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Thea Lim, a professor in Sheridan’s Creative Writing and Publishing program, published An Ocean of Minutes in June.
The Giller Prize originated in 1995. “Jack Rabinovitch and friend Mordecai Richler conceived the idea to honour Jack’s late wife Doris Giller by creating the Giller Prize. Since then the Doris Giller Rabinovitch Foundation, and later with title sponsor Scotiabank, the prize has endowed well over $1 million to Canadian authors,” says Michelle Kadarusman, submissions and marketing manager for the Giller Prize.
The longlist was announced on Sept. 17, the shortlist was released on Oct. 1 and the winner will be announced on Nov. 19.
Lim’s novel is one of five on the shortlist. Over 100 books were submitted by publishers all over Canada.
Lim started on the pathway of becoming a writer when she was just a teenager. She moved between Canada and Singapore and wrote a lot because it was during the early days of email.
“I think that experience of getting used to narrating my life to other people somehow stuck with me,” says Lim.
However, Lim claims that there was not a clear path to becoming a writer 20 years ago. “I worked in restaurants, which is also what you do when you don’t know what to do with yourself and you have a humanities degree,” she says.
In 2007, Lim published a short novel called The Same Woman with Invisible Publishing, a Canadian press. “That made it feel a little bit more real and by then I found out that there is such a thing as creative writing training,” she says. Afterwards, she went to Houston to get her Masters in Fine Arts and Creative Writing.
Lim began teaching at the University of Toronto and Sheridan to support herself while writing. “It’s a funny job being a writer and for a very long time there isn’t a lot of external validation and rewards. So it is sort of about following the path and just taking it one step at a time,” she says.
Lim started writing An Ocean of Minutes in 2011. She spent five years writing the novel and two years working with her agent and publisher. The plot of her novel came to her in a moment of reflection
“I was thinking of something that’s not super cheerful. I was thinking about the fact by the time everyone is really sort of 30 or even younger they’ve experienced some great loss in their life, like somebody they really love has died or they’ve had a relationship that hasn’t worked out or friendships that have kind of fallen away,” says Lim. She was fascinated by the nature of being human and how people know that everything ends but still form relationships.
“In thinking about loss and grief I was thinking about a character who was really stuck in time, like couldn’t move forward and so really it was a joke with myself like what if I actually strand a character in time,” she says.
She originally put someone in the past but changed it to the future after narrative convulsions became an issue. “Then to my surprise, it turned into a novel about immigration.” Lim knew she had a good idea when she found out no one else had written about time travel as an analogy for immigration. She decided to write about time travel as realistically as possible. She researched accounts of migrant work which became a significant part of her novel.
Once Lim’s novel was published, she expected the hardest part was over, but she found it to be psychologically challenging.
“It’s actually extremely nerve-wracking. But I guess it’s a feeling of extreme vulnerability that I wasn’t really expecting because I had myself gone through creative writing programs and one of the biggest mantras of the creative writing programs is that any kind of feedback is good feedback,” she says.
Despite this, she hopes that her experience in publishing will help her in the future.
“They made it live on their Facebook page. It was Monday morning, my husband was on a conference call, he works from home and I was also at home. I started screaming and my screaming made it into his conference call because I was very shocked I was not expecting to end up on the longlist I was just really watching the announcement out of curiosity. My husband didn’t even tell his co-workers why I was screaming so they thought I was this strange woman who screams for no reason on Monday mornings,” says Lim.
Lim is now working on something new. “It hasn’t been as straightforward finding such a tidy idea to carry the sort of concept I have in mind,” she says.
In the future, Lim hopes she won’t doubt her career choice anymore.
According to Kadarusman, this year’s longlist, shortlist and winner are chosen by a jury panel with five members. This year the members are Canadian writer and journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee, playwright and vice president of advancement for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Maxine Bailey, American writer John Freeman, English novelist Philip Hensher, and Canadian author Heather O’Neill.