An Eastlit Interview by Graham Lawrence
Well Khanh Ha, you have just had your first book published. Could you tell us a little about the book, process and how it feels?
From the Flesh’s jacket flap, it reads like this: Set in Tonkin (now northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century, Flesh tells the story of a boy who witnesses the execution, by beheading, of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his father’s head, and then find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. A coming-of-age story of brutal self-awakening and also a tender love story, Flesh takes the reader into places, both dark and wonderful, in the human condition where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy can bring you the most solace.
The publisher of my debut novel is Black Heron Press in Seattle, Washington. I pitched Flesh to a number of literary small presses after I’d gone with one agent and then another—New York based and California based—and in that first round going solo, Black Heron Press acquired the manuscript.
To have your novel published through the traditional channel of publishing is a Cinderella story for any author who, as a person of merit, now finds himself emerging from his obscure existence to be bathed in the spotlight. Yet you’ll quickly find out how finicky the publishing industry is, despite your absolute conviction in your work.What you’ll discover much to your horror is the herd mentality ingrained in mainstream publishers and literary agents. Their code of conduct has a rule: Thou shall not publish anything that hasn’t been published before. Another rule is: Is it safe? Then you’ll quickly learn about the bandwagon behavior among critics: If a book has been praised by The New York Times, thou shall not buck the trend. Very soon you’ll find yourself reading accolades from the press, which sound like they have been copied and pasted from one to another. Then you’ll come to appreciate what Hemingway once said: ‘Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist.’
That is the major frustration for a published writer. But that frustration is negated by a sense of self-fulfillment when you hold a copy of your book in your hands. Your book is the link that connects you with the world.
What do you do outside of writing?
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.
How do you find time to do your writing?
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. I don’t miss any day, and it’s a real bad deal if I’m faced with a big gap in my writing schedule. For example, book promotion, vacation. That sort. I write on the weekends, perhaps just a short paragraph so the circuit in my 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 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 your daily life. Though dedication to writing is a must, you can take it to the limit but not over it. There’s devotion to others, especially your loved ones. You can write seven days a week, sometimes late into the night; but when you go to bed and find out the side you sleep on is cold and the body lying next to you is warm, then somebody is really mad! By negligence of these responsibilities in favor of your writing ambition, you will cause unhappiness to others, especially if you love them enough. Do you love them enough to put your writing priority ahead of everything else?
When did you first start writing?
I began writing stories around the age of nine or ten. That was when I had enough vocabulary and my thoughts had become more refined. When I was foureen, I wrote my first short story and had it published in a premier teen magazine in Vietnam. I won a magazine’s short-story contest with another piece and was the youngest among the guests to accept the prize.
Could you briefly summarize your literary activities and achievements?
I was done with one novel 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. I’m the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (November 2014, Underground Voices). I’m also a three-time Pushcart nominee and the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction.
Please tell us a little about your writing.
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 characters are like that. In Flesh and in The Demon Who Peddled Longing, the protagonists are impetuous, single-minded and yet tender-hearted and loyal. One reviewer puts it succinctly, ‘the perpetual clash of good and evil and what comes out of it, the human ignorance and redemption.’
What is literature?
If a written work has an artistic value, it is literature. Then we corrupt it with labels. Take literary fiction—it’s more a label than a creativity by an author—so it might appear to readers that genres exist before the writers. The most ideal book for sale should look like the red-cover “The Catcher in the Rye”: no advance praises, no author’s bio, no nonsensical decors like award seals shouting out on the front cover. Read the book for what it is. That’s literature.
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m an early riser and I work best in the morning. I start early and stop for lunch at noon and am back to work until four in the afternoon. In between I read. Read. Read. Read. To keep my mind off my writing completely. I need to keep it fresh during my writing marathon, though by noon it starts to get stale. Then I need to recharge myself by getting enough breaks in between, to replenish my well so I can write again. I don’t miss any day.
Which five books are most influential to you?
There are books that I would pick up to read again in my leisure. These are books that for many years have been imprinted in my mind—of very real characters, of human nature, of human twists of fate. I’m always drawn to books that speak to me in their beautiful prose. Prose that sings. The five books that I’d keep with me any time are: “A Lesson Before Dying” (Ernest Gaines), “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), “The Sound and the Fury” (William Faulkner), “All the Pretty Horses” (Cormac McCarthy), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (Walter Tevis). I’d like to add to this list “Flowers for Algernon” (Daniel Keyes who was my creative writing professor at Ohio University). All these have influenced me.
Would you like to leave us with a favorite quote or two, or a passage from your own or others work? And why does it means something to you?
“When you are free of fear then Heaven is with you.”—J. Krishnamurti
(This is my beacon light. Fear is rooted in desire, in ignorance. You try to live without either, then you will be a happy human being.)
Thanks to Khanh Ha for taking the time to give us an interview. All of us at Eastlit wish him the best in the future.
The following work by Khanh Ha has featured in Eastlit:
- A Bridge Behind featured in Eastlit July 2014.