An Interview With Khanh Ha, About His Writing, Stories, and Senses

I wrote a review of Flesh a few days ago, and now have conducted an interview with the author, Mr. Khanh Ha. He is a very good person, one who has been very kind to me, and I am so excited that he agreed for me to interview him. Enjoy!

Hello Mr. Ha. Thank you for agreeing to this interview with me. How are you doing?

I’m fine, Nassem. And yourself?

N. Comments: I am very glad to have you here at Seize The Moment!

Flesh is your debut novel, but is written as if you are a very seasoned writer. When did you really start to write?

I wrote and had my first short stories in Vietnamese published when I was fourteen. But I was in love with the written words when I was much younger, perhaps between eight and nine, making up stories in chapbooks along the way.

Flesh is written from first-person, and is like a tale from ages ago. Do you have a personal connection that allowed you to write like this, or did it come naturally?

There was a personal connection in the beheading scene in Flesh. Before that I read a book written by a French military doctor, “War and Peace in Hanoi and Tonkin.” The decapitation scene in it became an inspiration for a personal reason—my maternal grandfather, one of the last mandarins of the Nguyễn Dynasty, was beheaded by the communists. But, at the onset, I wrote Flesh in the third-person point of view (POV) and it didn’t click. I had then a hundred pages when I stopped and switched to first-person POV. I needed an intimate voice, a voice I could trust, an old man’s voice recounting his life story and that voice gradually became the boy’s voice. So the diction throughout the book subtly changes accordingly.

N. Comments: That is interesting, and at the same time very sad, about your grandfather. I agree that Flesh is better in first-person.

As I stated in my review of Flesh, your writing is very much like my favorite fiction writer Khaled Hosseini. What authors have influenced your writing?

I began studying English when I was a high school junior. I read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan, Cormac McCarthy, and wrote with their blended styles in my early stories. But then my writerly voice matures, and I no longer write like them; yet I owe much to them for their early influences.

Flesh wonderfully captures the senses of Tonkin (northern Vietnam), highlighting the sight, smells, and sounds. Do you personally pick up on senses very heavily? What sense did you hope to stimulate the most in Flesh?

Ambiance is the sheer force in a novel. Without it, the novel feels barren. The mood brings a novel to life, and what flame the mood are tastes, touches, smells, sights, and sounds. All five. They build the moods in Flesh. I was honored to be reviewed by Paula Tohline Calhoun whose article The Scents of Memory on Flesh captivated me.

How much research did you conduct for Flesh? Did you travel for it?

I did much research for Flesh on and off for a year until I felt dead sure that I could write it. The research resulted in hundreds of handwritten pages of notes and photographs. The rest came from a novelist’s imagination, and this is where you must separate your journalist’s self from your novelist’s self: you research to write fiction—not non-fiction.

N. Comments: You went to Ohio U. for journalism, and I know you were trained well to research and turn facts into readable text.

From what I have read of yours, and as a friend, you come off to me as a very pure hearted person. Did you create Tai based somewhat on yourself, in personality?

Thank you, Nassem, for your kind words. It seems like a protagonist usually bears the author’s traits, but that’s not always so. I believe that we see ourselves in others as much as they see themselves in us. And you will discover this during the writing. You might care for one character more than others. But undeniably, to all of them you are omniscient. You exist in all of them. Conversely, they all exist in you. Being the Maker. Being everything and then back to being yourself.

Are you married or single? Where does your greatest support come from?

I’m a husband and a father of two sons. My wife and my sons are my truest joy. Without them—the foundation of my family—I exist in a vacuum.

What famous person that has influenced you most would you like to meet?

J. Krishnamurti. He passed away nearly 20 years ago; but it was one of his books titled “The First and Last Freedom” that helped mold my spiritual makeup over the years.

Your next book, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, is also set in Vietnam. Can you tell us a little about it? Also, I read your short story Love Is A Souvenir. Could you talk some about those too?

“Demon” is a very dark, moody and sensuous novel. Like Flesh, “Demon” thrives on moods. Set in post-war Vietnam, it tells a terrible journey of a twenty-year-old boy in search of  the two brothers who are drifters and who raped and killed his cousin also his girl. “Demon” brings together the damned, the unfit, the brave, who succumb by their own doing to the call of fate. Yet their desire to survive and to face life again never dies. Now, the short story “Love Is a Souvenir” is about the haunting ugliness of the Vietnam War, a collection of voices of love, loneliness and barbarity lived and felt by a multitude of people from all walks of life. Man’s inhumanity to man reached its climax in Vietnam when a human life is cheaper than a Zippo.

Thank you so much Mr. Ha. I greatly appreciate the kindness you have shown me, and I wish you, and your family, well. Thank you.

Thank you, Nassem, for this interview. You are kind and sensitive in the way you reviewed and asked questions about Flesh. I respect that.

Khanh Ha-

Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (November 2014,  Underground Voices). The winner of 2014 ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION, a finalist of the Tethered by Letters Journal’s 2013 FALL LITERARY AWARD, a three-time Pushcart nominee and a two-time Best of the Net Award nominee, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waccamaw Journal, storySouth, Greensboro Review, Permafrost Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review, Poydras Review, The Underground Voices,  Moon City Review, The Long Story, Red Savina Review, DUCTS, ARDOR, Lunch Ticket, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, Tethered by Letters Journal, Verdad, Drunk Monkeys, and other fine journals.

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