Lin’s soulful, surprisingly comic thriller Ghost Month parts the curtain on the island enigma that is Taiwan.
How much of a hot-button topic was the issue of Taiwanese independence for your family, given that your father has roots there and your mother’s family comes from northern China?
Not at all until martial law ended in 1987 because you just could not talk about it, you didn’t know who the informers were, there could be repercussions. I remember when we first talked about it in my family, I think we were in a Chinese restaurant, your generic bad-food, Jersey place, and my mother was trying to get my father to stop and he said, “It’s OK now. They can’t do anything.”
What do you remember about your first trips to Taipei?
When we went in ’85, one of the things that really stood out to me was that, at five o’clock, everything shut down, even traffic stopped, as they lowered the national flag. Once that flag was down, once everyone had reassured themselves that they would recover the mainland someday, then things resumed. I also remember that everything was locked down at night. The next time I came back it was ’95, unfortunately for my grandfather’s funeral, but it was a world of difference. People seemed happy, there were cafes, everybody had money now and the freedom to pursue whatever avenues they wanted.
Your protagonist, Jing-nan, names his food stall Unknown Pleasures after the Joy Division album. How big a fan are you?
I still remember hearing Unknown Pleasures for the first time. The drums didn’t sound like drums, the bass didn’t sound like bass, the guitar didn’t sound like guitar, and the singer sounded like he was already dead—but it was still incredible. I was around 14, coming out of this real hardcore punk phase—you’re young, you’re angry, you want to hate the world—and Unknown Pleasures had this innate anger that was actually more threatening than my own.
Superstition and a strong belief in luck seem to be rooted in the Taiwanese character as it’s depicted in your novel. Why?
The whole concept of luck is that it’s about to turn when it looks the worst. I honestly think that all the years of warfare and genocide and horrible things happening in China put a certain desperation in your blood, and you want to believe that you can gather up some luck. The ironic thing is that, even if you are lucky, this desperation still sort of clings to you.
Any particular writing quirks?
One thing I do when I get near the end of a story is I just start at the ending I had in mind and write backwards. Somehow that makes sense to me.