Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Khanh Ha - Flesh - Author Interview

Author Interview

1. How did you come up with the title?
It began with an image after I read a book called Black Opium by Claude Farrère. In one scene he depicted a man going through at least 30 pipes to transcend his own afflictions. In the end, still a soul in pain, he was no longer a man, no longer a man at all. But he had not yet become anything else. As we all know―and this is the undercurrent in Flesh―God created man with flesh imbued with weaknesses they must overcome. Perhaps when we are no longer flesh, bound by nothing material, we are free.

2. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I write dark fiction because of the dystopian world around us. But I want to come out of it alive and atoned for. My main character is like that. He is 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. One reviewer puts it succinctly, ‘the perpetual clash of good and evil and what comes out of it, the human ignorance and redemption.’ However, 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.

3. How much of the book is realistic?
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. 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? However, it really started with a story within my family. My mom told me that my grandfather was one of the last mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court, circa 1930. At that time the Vietnamese communists were coming into power. They condemned any person a traitor who worked either for the French or the Hue Court. So my grandpa was a traitor in their eyes. One day news came to him that a communist gathering was to be held in one of the remote villages from Hue. He set out to that village with some of his bodyguards to punish the communists. Unfortunately, news leaked out about his trip. He was ambushed on the road—his bodyguards were killed—and he was beheaded. The communists threw his body into a river. My grandma hired a witch doctor to look for his headless body. Eventually the witch doctor found it. They were able to identify his body based on the ivory name tablet in his tunic. My grandma hired someone to make a fake head out of a coconut shell wrapped in gilded paper and buried my grandpa on the Ngu Binh Mountain. The beheading of grandpa surfaced again while I was reading the decapitation scene in War and Peace in Hanoi and Tonkin.

4. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?
Publishers tend to publish books that have been published before in the same vein. Flesh isn’t in any such vein. It’s a special novel to me and I would not change a single thing in it.

5. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
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.

6. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
If I learned anything while writing Flesh, it must be finding my own voice—the author’s voice. Somewhere in the early going with Flesh, I found my own. I never looked back after that. On the other hand, writing a book taught me endurance, humility, and no success is guaranteed even when you have tried your hardest. But in spite of that, you will never consider yourself a failure.

7. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I write because I was born with a desire to work with words. That desire had matured in me and become an extension of myself in the form of words. 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. 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.

8. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I have three favourite authors: 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 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.

9. Tell us your latest news.
I’m done with one and working on another. The breaks between novels are for replenishing myself and then getting back to work, i.e., revising the finished manuscript, researching for the next novel. I’ve also written several short stories after that new novel. They have appeared in 2013 February Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, and Red Savina Review (RSR) in its 2013 Spring inaugural edition (This short story was also nominated for the Winter Literary Award in the Tethered by Letters Journal but was withdrawn because of conflict of interest with RSR.), and Cigale Literary Magazine in its 2013 March issue.

10. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
If you are an aspiring writer, find your own writerly voice! When you do, write as the only writer that exists, none before you, none after you. No writer or author can inspire you to write. The writing desire must exist in you even before you are aware of it. It might demand to be heard before your maturity has arrived. Call it premature birth. But I believe that writers have influence on one another. Influence, not inspiration. Maybe someday what I wrote might bear some influence on some aspiring writers. If you are a reader, what you read at the early age―and if you always trust your childhood memory―will become the undertone of what you want to read as an adult.

About the Book

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.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Prices/Formats: $25.95 hardcover
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Black Heron Publishing
Release Date: June 15, 2012
Buy Links: Amazon

About 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 the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He studied Journalism at Ohio University and learned the craft of writing under Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) and Walter Tevis (The Man Who Fell to Earth). FLESH (Black Heron Press, June 2012) is his first novel (literary fiction).

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