Khanh Ha started writing short stories as a teenager in Vietman. He won several awards from Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He attended Ohio University where he graduated with a degree in Journalism. Flesh is his debut novel.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
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.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Hemingway. For his prose.
But there are others—those who are very good not only with their prose but with characterization as well. Ken Haruf, Robert Morgan, Alan Heathcock are those from whom you can learn every bit about the writing craft.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Yes. It began with reading when I was between seven or eight. It must have started with The Count of Monte Cristo. Fifty some volumes of it in Vietnamese translation, pocket-sized, were sent to us in serial each week from my mother who was then living in Saigon. I would devour each volume and grow hungry for more. Outlandish worlds. They would ebb and flow in my mind, leaving the fecund silt on its bottom, and one day in my adulthood I wanted to become a writer.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I’m about done with my next novel. I’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel. Yay! But I rarely talk about what I’m working on. It may sound like a hard-line stance. But well, I can give you a harmless description.
When I was still a struggling young writer, I came across a very old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hu?. He was already dead the year the story was published, circa 1966. Two years before I was born. A sketchy story whose facts were gleaned from the eunuch’s adopted daughter, that ended with a small halftone photograph of her portrait. I put the article away. But I couldn’t put the story away, even months after. It dawned on me then that it wasn’t the story. It was the face in the photograph. I traveled to Hu?, Vietnam in the summer of 1991. I was 23. I went with her image in the photograph and when I finally met her, the eunuch’s daughter, that image hadn’t changed. She was someone like a forbidden love to a young man half her age. The first time she gave me a glimpse of her past from her spotted memory, it was in a sugarcane field where two decades earlier, her lover—a young American—had died in her arms.
Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
Every day when I sit down to write, I try to stay true to myself—the only one I’m accountable for—in every word I pen. Yet there are times when I’d look at words and see only empty spaces. I know it is not a writer’s block. I don’t believe there’s such a thing. Rather it is the ebb and flow during an act of creativity. I don’t need to “squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made.” [Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast] But I know that a novel is a long story made up of interconnected scenes. Whenever you start struggling with a scene, it’s a good indicator of a potential problem. If you can write each scene to its fullest, it’d breed the next scene. You can’t force a story to happen. When you do, you’ll face ‘writer’s block’.
How did you develop your plot and characters?
It all starts with a seed of passion for something. It could be an image. A flame burning low for many years . . . never dying. You would glimpse people moving around like specters; these would later become characters in your novel. You would see the locales, colorful flashes of them, you could smell them. . . . Then the plot begins to form, at times you would interfere, at times you would back off. The moment you could finish that mental long walk from the beginning to the end of your story, you’re ready to write it. Characters and characters’ names must be harmonious with his personality, or I’d risk misrepresenting them. It’s a must that you know your characters well—if literary fiction is what you write. Your savvy of life and people is the essence of conceiving a well developed character. Likely if I conceive a character well, his name will come automatically. The story stalls if a character is badly conceived. That make-believe world represented by my characters must be real to me, and I must believe in it to be its creator.
What are your goals as a writer?
Goal number one is to become a published author. That leads to goal number two: to gain a readership of faithful followers. The validation of goal number two will allow me to teach aspiring writers what I have learned from the writing craft.
What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
For now—with the publication of Flesh—goal number one has been achieved. Time will tell if I can accomplish goals number two and three.
If you could leave readers with one bit of wisdom, what would you want it to be?
Find your own writerly voice! When you do, write as the only writer that exists, none before you, none after you.