Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Interview With Khanh Ha Author of Flesh

Yesterday I discussed Flesh by Khanh Ha, which was a rare 5/5 star review for me. Today I am honored to welcome Khanh Ha to our blog to talk about his novel. He explores his own literary influences, how his family history provided fascinating stories to draw upon, and his own creative process.

About This 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 graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Flesh is his first novel.

1. When did you first consider yourself a writer?

After I finished my first novel. Or to put it differently, when I had completed a novel-length manuscript. But it began with all the reading when I was between seven or eight. They would ebb and flow in my mind, leaving a fecund silt on its bottom, and one day in my adulthood I wanted to become a writer.

I love the way you put that -- the ebb and flow of stories and literature flowing through your mind, leaving fecund silt.

2. What books have influenced your life most?

Spiritually speaking, it was a book titled The First and Last Freedom by J. Krishnamurti. I must say that it has helped mold my spiritual makeup over the years. Literarily speaking, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway has had a steady influence on my writing career. Not the entire book though. Just chapter one and chapter forty-one (first and last chapters). Then The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. The entire book and especially the first two chapters on Benjamin and Quentin. 

I always want to write better than any living or dead writers, and I was amused with what Hemingway had to say about his desire to excel other writers,  "I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with. I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession."

3. What book are you reading now?

Rule of the Bone (fiction) by Russell Banks and The Eaves of Heaven (non-fiction) by Andrew X. Pham. Both are worthy reading materials.

4. What new author has captured your interest?

I was impressed with Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore and Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Both are short-story collections. Both authors have completely different styles. Yet their styles have captured my interest.

5. How did you choose the setting, including the historical context, for this novel?

Setting is an extremely important aspect in grabbing your readers attention. What made me choose to set my book in the late 19th century in Hanoi of Annam?

Well, the seed of inspiration for Flesh was sown circa the end of the 19th century. I couldn’t change that. Though the setting is an important aspect in any novel, the culture, the heritage, the people’s deep-seated belief in animism that all foster the setting were even more fascinating to me. If done right by the author, the novel will be atmospheric. I tried to bring in such an atmosphere in Flesh that made readers feel they belonged.

6. What made you feel compelled to tell this story?

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.

7. What was your favorite chapter to write and why?

The final chapter titled 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. 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 existing in those females in Flesh is there, and Xiaoli epitomizes it. That explains why I liked this chapter best and named it after my favorite female character.

8. In Flesh, there is something particularly compelling about the characters in your fictional world. Do you spend a great deal of time, before beginning a novel, getting to know your characters? Do you have suggestions for writers on how to create characters for whom readers care deeply?

Thank you for your compliment.

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 ambiance, and the prose. 

Truthfully speaking, I did not know much about my characters until I wrote the first draft. Yet the writing itself causes a chemical reaction among my characters. By writing I mean the author begins exploring his fictional world inhabited by characters whom he has created in name only until he interacts with them. He might care for one character more than others. But undeniably, to all of them he is omniscient. He exists in all of them. Conversely, they all exist in him. 

A writer must stay true to himself  in every word he pens. Then his depth of perception in things, in people, allows him to create believable characters. Then his literary gift allows him to breathe life into them, making them interesting. A protagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic so readers can care deeply for him. He can draw no sympathy but he must be fascinating, and that makes a novel a great novel. Case in point: Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (eponymous protagonist), Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.

9. What authors and books do you particularly admire in terms of their ability to create characters that really get under our skin?

First, what makes a novel great? Frankly, to be great a novel has to be literary. I never know any great novels in the genre of Sci-Fi, Romance, YA, or that sort. Do you? Why literary? Because literary fiction deals with characterization more deeply, more intensely. Not to mention the power of its descriptions of moods, scenes, and human characterization. Read The Sound and The Fury, especially the first two chapters on Benjy and Quentin, where human minds verging on insanity were skillfully wrought to the point of surrealism. Read Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. I don’t know about you but I felt a tingling in my spine just following this Trout character around. If you’re taken over by such a villain in a novel, like Trout, or Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, then that novel must be literary.

10. One of the most captivating things about Flesh is your beautiful use of language along with vibrant imagery. This style of literary fiction is often compared to poetry. Do you find yourself drawn to writers who excel at poetic use of language and careful attention to descriptive detail? Which books and authors do you most admire in this respect?

Thank you for your remark.

I’m always drawn to books that speak to me in their beautiful prose. Prose that sings. It’s like looking at a woman who is both exquisite and alluring. The latter is the prose in a novel. I admire 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 togetherhardest art to achieve. McCarthy with his unparalleled use of the regional dialog and how he paints the landscape that sets the mood. I like The Lover by Marguerite Duras and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Their prose is poetic.

11. Spirituality -- and the ways people wrestle with spiritual questions using the ideas and beliefs of their respective cultures -- seems to be an important theme in your novel. Do you mind commenting on your own spiritual background and beliefs and how they've helped shape you as a writer?

I answered part of this question earlier, which had to do with a book in my teen years that has helped shape my spiritual makeup. As a writer, you write from a well deep in your soul about what you believe in, what you advocate, what you stand for. Aside from The First and  Last Freedom by J. Krishnamurti, I must say that The Diamond Sutra is another book that has sustained me spiritually in my darkest moments.

12. What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? How would you answer that question?

This is a very refreshing question. I like it.

Well, here’s one question that I always appreciate being asked and never mind answering truthfully (not that I ever want to answer untruthfully to any question asked):

How has it been trying to balance your writing with your day job and/or family life?

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 priorities. Once you are married and have a family, you have family responsibilities as a husband and as a father. By negligence of these responsibilities at the expense of your writing ambition, you will cause unhappiness to others, especially if you love them enough.

Thank you for your thoughtful, eloquent answers to these questions.


  1. What a great interview! Thanks! I read Flesh and my review will be up later this month. I enjoyed it and it was great to read about the inspiration behind it, etc.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I look forward to your review.

  2. I was especially drawn to author's response as to what compelled him to write this particular story, and admit, without having yet read your review of the book (which I plan to do next), it's enough to make me want to read his book.

    1. I found that particularly compelling too. If you read the novel, I hope you enjoy it.

  3. I haven't read the book yet but that is so awesome that you got to interview the author of a book you love. Very insightful interview, Steph, well done!

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


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