Interview with Khanh Ha, author of Flesh

Publisher: Black Heron Publishing

Publish Date: June 15, 2012

Order Links:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: 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.

Read an excerpt HERE. View the Book Trailer HERE.

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).

For more information, please visit Khanh Ha's WEBSITE and BLOG.

Interview:  Q. Please tell us about your current release.

A coming-of-age story of a young man psychologically scarred by violence and driven by familial loyalty and societally imposed moral obligations. Khanh Ha’s Flesh is set in Tonkin (now northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. It tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who witnesses the execution by beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his father’s head, and then finds the man who betrayed his father to the authorities.

A 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.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for 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. 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.

Q. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to write your book?

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.

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about the 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.

Q. 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.

Q. Do you have a musical playlist you listen to when writing? If so, what kind of music?

I need a quiet environment, be it a quirk or no quirk. A clean, neat, organized environment. My environment is 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. I usually listen to classical and relaxation music while writing. It helps soothe my mind unless I do need an absolute moment of quiet to capture my thoughts. In that case, I write in the quiet.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

None of that. Not a specific pen or paper or a rabbit’s foot. But I must have the first sentence down right. Dead right. Every word, every cadence in that first sentence must be right. I torture myself to death before I start a novel, a new chapter, on how to get that sentence written the most truthfully, i.e, no falsity in the voice, in the cadence.

Q. Do you plan any subsequent books?

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.

Q. Please tell us your latest news.

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.

Q. 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.

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