Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices). He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a twice finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, the recipient of Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, and Greensboro Review’s ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Describe yourself in five words:
Meticulous. Stubborn. Determined. Moody. Faithful.
How do you work through self-doubts and fear?
Sometimes there’s fear but never self-doubts as a writer. It takes time, patience and a whole lot of self-depreciation, but never self-doubt. There’s fear for physical disasters, but never irrational fear. I can’t help remembering the words from Jiddu Krishnamurti: “If you are totally free of fear, then Heaven is with you.”
What makes you happiest?
The harmony that comes from my family. You long to go home where you have love. Having both, you’re blessed. And love is the oil that erases friction. I believe that was said by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Why do you write?
There was this dinky book-for-rent store in Hue, Vietnam, that my older brother and I used to haunt. I was nine. We would pool our money we got from Grandma and rent all the books we could read, most of them Chinese classics. My favorites then were The Tale of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. One day we ran out of books to rent.
Bookish addiction! I started making up stories in a chapbook. Did I want to become a writer someday? No. But something was sowed in my fertile mind during that time. 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 teenage years I wanted to become a writer.
What writing are you most proud of?
All of the books I have published: “Flesh,” “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream.”
Location and life experiences can really influence writing. Tell us where you grew up and where you now live?
I grew up in Hue, Vietnam, where my childhood was imbued with the cultural intellect of a city known for its moss-stained citadel, the imperial tombs nestled in the pine forest, temples and pagodas tucked away at the foot of gentle hills by a quiet stream. Its damp, foggy climate had left moisture damage on the ancient buildings, on old houses with moss-covered yin-yang roof tiles. As a child, I lived in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these old trees I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Like many other children, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind later became inspirations for my writing. Then I moved to the United States for my college education, and this has become my second homeland ever since. I learn to blend my eastern culture with the western culture. My journalism background taught me to write lean prose; but I’m a novelist, not a journalist. A journalist targets an audience; a novelist builds a make-believe world. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea; but if it’s believable, readers will come.
What is hardest – getting published, writing or marketing?
Hardest is getting your work published. And I dread having to whore myself for that. Writing isn’t a lucrative business, unless writing ransom notes—someone said that. 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’s the major frustration for a published writer. But that frustration is negated by the 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.
Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support?
My deepest gratitude goes to my co-pubishersMartin and Judith Shepard and my wife whose love and devotion has sustained me over the years.
Tell us about your new book? Why did you write it?
My next novel is set in Dien Bien Phu where the French army surrendered in 1954. It’s a love story. Think of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, because the novel spans three decades from 1954, beginning in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, that small valley in the fog and rain of the northwestern forest, a place and time that captivates me all my life, where love blossoms and dies and blossoms again after the lovers have lost each other, aged with the years. There were things left out from “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream,” which later morphed into this new novel. “Father once said in his diary that a man’s karma could be passed on to his children,” said a 16-year-old mute girl whose inheritance from her estranged father is his lifetime artwork. Thus begins the historical tale by the young girl. Amid the horrific stories on the rice road, the cannon road, and in the trenches is a love story between her father—an artist-reporter at frontline—and a singer-performer who traveled with an entertainment ensemble to the frontline. Their poignant story ended when they became separated after the victory of Dien Bien Phu and her father was then sent to South Vietnam to fight the American Vietnam war. From his diary, his sketchbook, his lifetime artwork, and the work he contributed to the Must Win newspaper at frontline, Hai Yen recreates a love story so innocent and vulnerable within an epic Stalingrad of the East through her own sensitive narrative.
When you are not writing, how do you like to relax?
I read a lot between the long breaks from writing novels. We’d vacation, as a family, sometimes to the seaside, sometimes out of the country.
What do you hope people will take away from your writing? How will your words make them feel?
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 me food for thought. I like novels that offer a redemptive value. I hope Mrs. Rossi’s Dream does. A good book will haunt you. I read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner and found myself envying him. 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―if you always trust your childhood memory―will become the undertone of what you want to read as an adult.
What’s the most memorable thing asked/said by a reader about your work?
It came from a critic who reviewed Flesh, my debut novel. She said: “The book opens with two epigraphs, one from Charles Farrère: ‘Yes, I am no longer a man, no longer a man at all. But I have not yet become anything else.’ The second from Mr. Arthur Rimbaud, which in light of the outcome of Mr. Khanh’s exquisite book is the perfect introduction, and one to which you will return when you have finished the last page of the book: ‘When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our four eyes’ astonishment—a beach for two faithful children, a musical house for one pure sympathy—I shall find you.’
“It is my honor to have been able to review this book by Mr. Khanh Ha, the first book of his that I hope is one of many to come. I cannot encourage you enough to read it, and savor all the morsels, and gather every scent that rise up from every page.”
What is your work schedule like when you are writing?
A routine helps settle my mind before I write. My routine of a typical day is to eat a light breakfast and be at my desk between 7:30 – 8 a.m. I drink black coffee throughout the morning while I’m at work―no snacks. I listen to classical or relaxation music while I write. 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. I read during my writing breaks. Have lunch, read a newspaper, then be back at work until 4 p.m. 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.
What challenges do you come across when writing/creating your story?
Family crisis. You feel wrecked—as a husband, a father. The writer in you is annihilated because of that. But what annoys you the most while you’re writing a novel comes from interruption and sickness. In that order.
Do you have anything specific you’d like to tell the readers?
If you’re an aspired writer, consider how your day-to-day life influences your writing. In fact, it’s reciprocal. Live right and you write better. Write well and you live better.
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