Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Flesh: An Interview with Author Khanh Ha

The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tai, witnesses the beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his head and then to find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. On this quest, Tai's entire world will shift. FLESH takes the reader into dark and delightful places in the human condition, places where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy may bring you the most comfort. In that emotionally harrowing world, Tai must learn to deal with new responsibilities in his life while at the same time acknowledging his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew-his father. Through this story of revenge is woven another story, one of love, but love purchased with the blood of murders Tai commits. A coming-of-age story, but also a love story, the sensuality of the author's writing style belies the sometimes brutal world he depicts.
Buy Flesh in Print at:

An Interview with the author . . .
Did you plan to be a writer or did it just happen?
There was no plan and there was no ‘why’. You write because the urge to write has always been within you since you were a young boy. You were born with a desire to work with words. Then when you had enough vocabulary and your thoughts have become more refined, you were then driven to put them down in words. I wrote my first short story when I was a young teen. I won a magazine’s short story contest and was the youngest among the guests to accept the prize. Between seventh and tenth grades, I wrote a lot of short stories, each of them paying good money. I also translated stories in English into Vietnamese and sold them to newspapers and periodicals.

What is your favorite non-writing pastime?
Away from writing? I’m a neurotic when I’m not making pages. I read more, much more, when I’m done with a project. That’s for myself. For my family, we go together, here and there, on the weekends—our bonding time. And we vacation once or twice a year, depending on our sons’ school schedules. We always spend our vacations at seaside, sometimes out of the country, say, the Caribbean or Mexico.

What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? Have you been able to overcome it?
Finding the voice—the author’s true voice. Writers have influences on one another. Faulkner, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy have influences on me. But when you have found your own voice, then nothing can take it away from you. When you have your own voice, you are indestructible. You are now a mature writer. Somewhere in the early going with Flesh, I found my own voice—the author’s voice. I never looked back after that.

Is writing a full-time career for you? If not, how else do you spend your work day?
I have a day job like most other writers. But to me writing is like breathing the air around you. It’s a lifelong job, regardless of whether or not you hold a full-time job. And it will only end when you stop breathing. I write seven days a week. You don’t miss any day, and it’s a real bad deal if you’re faced with a big gap in your writing schedule. For example, book promotion, vacation. That sort. You even write on the weekends, perhaps just a short paragraph so the circuit in your brain is continuous. That’s the capsule of a day in a life of a writer. And it starts over again the next day. If a novel takes a year or longer to write, the routine of each day is duplicated over and over again like clockwork.

However, to succeed in writing, at least to be able to start and finish a novel, you’ll need that god-awful dedication to exclude all the unnecessary distractions that revolve around you in your daily life. But, boy, do you consider yourself first a writer, then a husband or a father? If you do, reconsider your life priority. Once you are married and have a family, you have family responsibilities as a husband and as a father. By negligence of these responsibilities in favor of your writing ambition, you will cause unhappiness to others, especially if you love them enough.

What inspired the idea behind your book?
There was an image formed in my mind after I read a book called War and Peace in Hanoi and Tonkin, which was written by a French military doctor. In one chapter he depicted an execution by capital punishment. The scene took place on a wasteland outside Hanoi. This bandit was beheaded for his crime while the onlookers, some being his relatives with children, watched in muted fascination and horror. While reading it, I imagined a boy—his son—was witnessing the decapitation of his father by the hand of the executioner. I pictured him and his mother as they collected the body without the head which the government would display at the entrance of the village his father had looted. I thought what if the boy later set out to steal the head so he could give his father an honorable burial. What if he got his hand on the executioner’s sabre and used it to kill the man who betrayed his father for a large bounty.

Tell us about your favorite character in this book!
Tài is my favorite character. I wanted to create a boy who was impetuous, single-minded and yet tender-hearted and loyal. He is flawed in this coming-of-age story. But he redeems himself with his charismatic and magnanimous personality in action. I hope that’s how he is seen by readers.

What message do you hope readers take away from the book?
I never intend to send readers any message in any novel I write. I don’t believe in it. But I like novels that give you fruit for thought. I like novels that offer a redemptive value. I hope Flesh does.

What is your favorite scene in Flesh?
The final chapter entitled Xiaoli. She’s one of my favorite characters. The farewell scene at the dock before the ship departs is a poignant scene, considering the love that Tài and Xiaoli have for each other.

Which character in Flesh will be the most difficult to part with?
Xiaoli. Flesh is a multicultural love story between the two young souls brought together from the two countries with different cultures. The female presence and influence in Flesh is very strong. Yet the femininity for those females in Flesh is there, and Xiaoli epitomizes it. That explains why she deserves the final chapter named after her.

While writing Flesh, did you connect with one character more than the others? Who and how?
Absolutely. The protagonist has to be the one you as the creator are closely connected with. But at the same time you are connected with all other characters that you bring onstage. That’s the dynamics of self-discovery during the writing process. Being the Maker. Being everything and then back to being yourself.

What kind of research was involved for Flesh?
I spend much, much time in researching before I write. I’m a perfectionist and a harshest critic of myself. I have to know everything about what I’m going to write—well, sort of—before I ever pen the first word. For Flesh, I took time to research for the setting that took place at the turn of the 20th century. I bought reference books which were available only in printed books and complemented them with additional research materials obtained on the web. Indeed much research was done before I felt dead sure about writing it.

Do you have to be alone or have quiet to write?
A quiet room with a view over the back hill – though I’m not a bird watcher. A room with a bookcase, a desktop computer, a desktop phone, a cell phone, both of which I wish to never ring during my writing. On the wall facing me a painting of a stream in autumn. And a thermos of black coffee.

What do you have in store next for your readers?
I’m about done with my next novel. I’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel. I rarely talk about what I’m working on. But well, I can give you a harmless description. When I was still a struggling young writer, I came across a very old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hue. He was already dead the year the story was published, circa 1966. Two years before I was born. A sketchy story whose facts were gleaned from the eunuch’s adopted daughter, that ended with a small halftone photograph of her portrait. I put the article away. But I couldn’t put the story away, even months after. It dawned on me then that it wasn’t the story.

It was the face in the photograph. I traveled to Hue, Vietnam in the summer of 1991. I was 23. I went with her image in the photograph and when I finally met her, the eunuch’s daughter, that image hadn’t changed. She was someone like a forbidden love to a young man half her age. The first time she gave me a glimpse of her past from her spotted memory, it was in a sugarcane field where two decades earlier, her lover—a young American—had died in her arms.

What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?
With literary fiction, you deal with characters more than with plots. You deal with spontaneity and dynamics of characterization which shapes the story line. You don’t shoehorn your characters into a predetermined plot. Depth of characterization is the heart of a literary novel in addition to the mood, the atmosphere, the ambience, the prose.

Which authors and books have most influenced your writing style?
Faulkner, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy: their writing craft varies from one to another. Faulkner with his lilt in the prose which brings its beauty home in The Sound and The Fury. Hemingway with his precision masked by simplicity in the words, sentences put together – hardest art to achieve. McCarthy with his unparalleled use of the regional dialog and how he paints the landscape that sets the mood. As a teen I read The Izu Dancer by Yasunari Kawabata, Rain by Somerset Maugham, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway. They haunt like a good long book. I read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner and found myself envying him. All these have influenced me.

Do you believe in writer’s block? Has it ever happened to you?
Every day when I sit down to write, I try to stay true to myself—the only one I'm accountable for—in every word I pen. Yet there are times when I'd look at words and see only empty spaces. I know it is not a writer's block. I don’t believe there’s such a thing. Rather it is the ebb and flow during an act of creativity. I don't need to "squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made." [Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast] But I know that a novel is a long story made up of interconnected scenes. Whenever you start struggling with a scene, it’s a good indicator of a potential problem. If you can write each scene to its fullest, it’d breed the next scene. You can’t force a story to happen. When you do, you’ll face ‘writer’s block.’

What was the last truly great book you read?
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. This classic reminds me of Flowers for Algernon whose author taught me creative writing at Ohio University.

Meet the Author
Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor's degree in Journalism. He is at work on a new novel.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for taking part in the tour and hosting Khanh!