Khanh Ha on the Writing Life

Khanh Ha on the writing life, the publishing world, and what to look for in the coming months

 

 

Interviewed by John M. Gist

 

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Khanh Ha’s short story, A Silent Lullaby, appeared in the inaugural issue of Red Savina Review in the Winter of 2013.  Our editorial staff was so impressed by the story that it unanimously voted to nominate Ha for a Pushcart Prize. Since then,  Khanh Ha has gone on to win more awards, including the 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction by the Greensboro Review, and publish numerous stories such as The Sandpiper’s Tracks, recently picked up by Little Curlew Press to publish on Kindle Direct. Ha’s second novel The Demon Who Peddled Longing will be published by Underground Voices in November, 2014.

Khanh Ha pic

Photo: Khanh Ha

INTERVIEWER

Upon first reading A Silent Lullaby, I commented that the story “struck me as a modern-day mixture of Faulkner and Hemingway.” Can you talk about your early influences, those writers who may have prompted you to become a writer? In the same vein, why is it, in your mind, that so many choose to write creatively and then seek publication? It can be a very disappointing venture, filled with rejection and isolation.

KHANH HA 

You write because the urge to write has always been within you since you were a boy. There was no plan and there was no “why”. But to hone your technique in fiction, you need to study the writers you admire. I began studying English when I was a high school junior. I read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, William Saroyan, Ernest Hemingway, and wrote with their blended styles in my early stories. After my writerly voice matured, I no longer emulated them. Yet I owe much to them for their early influences.

Writing itself is self-discovery. It is creativity. Then comes the writer’s vanity. He wants to be read, praised, idolized. Falling short of this, he becomes depressed, self-destructive. If creativity is a luminescent spirit, formless, floating happily, vanity is a nectar the spirit first tastes and enjoys. Then his ethereal body becomes coarser and coarser because of the addiction, until the writer eventually loses his luminescence.

 INTERVIEWER

What is it about language and imagination that sustains you as a writer?

KHANH HA  

The English language is cashmere to me as a writer, and, in William Faulkner’s The Bear, I found myself falling in love with the English language. His depiction of Lion, the great blue dog, is unparalleled in its sheer power of bringing an animal to life.

Imagination, though, is raw creativity without form, without substance, that ebbs and flows in your mind, leaving just sediment on its bottom until you can dredge it for fecund silt. Does language sustain imagination? Does imagination sustain language? I write from the deep well of my imagination about what I believe in, what I advocate, what I stand for, and I’m always drawn to books that speak to me in their beautiful language. It’s like looking at a woman who is both exquisite and alluring. That’s a writer’s sustenance.

 INTERVIEWER

Are too many people writing and seeking publication? Is this even possible? Should there be more reading and less writing as a general rule?

 KHANH HA  

It might seem, at first glance, that there are more and more people aspiring to literary writing, and less and less people wanting to read. But while writing is creative, reading is pleasure seeking. Our world is forever full of pleasure seekers and scanty of creators. That won’t ever change. It has always been that way. Like the colors of the white gulls and black ravens: their colors have not changed for thousands of years, and they will remain the same for thousands of years to come. Our world, however, is seeking quicker gratification―immediate and ephemeral. As such flash fiction is becoming the embodied form of this sort of quick, short-spanned gratification.

 INTERVIEWER

Were you trained as a creative writer or did you teach yourself? What are your thoughts concerning the M.F.A. in Creative Writing? Do university writing workshops, in your mind, serve to homogenize American literature or diversify it?

  KHANH HA  

I taught myself by learning from mistakes in my early years as a writer. I’m still learning every day when I read and write, because reading and writing nourish one another. But I did take up a creative writing class, as required, that lasted three months―not two years―during my senior year as a Journalism major. Journalism taught me how to be economical with words, how to write lean prose. Creative writing taught me the layers in fiction. And the voice. Lacking it is like a human without a soul. In that same vein, M.F.A. candidates learn the technique in fiction from those who have been credentialed with publishing successes. But, besides techniques and discipline, institutions work like the army. So the candidates tend to think like one another. So, out of a creative writing workshop, they tend to write like one another. They are afraid to deviate, to stray from the herd. They are programmed. You can spot this type of writing in many literary magazines, those run by the M.F.A. brain trusts.

In fact, how can a writer train himself? A serious writer trains himself by alertly watching what happens around him. He listens when people talk. He discerns the smells around him. He understands, never judging, because he is everything―being the Maker―when he writes. A creative writing workshop does not teach you this.

I agree with Hemingway when he said to George Plimpton, “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.” The only part I must add to this sentence in light of the literary homogeneity is this: “Newspaper work and M.F.A. programs . . .”

INTERVIEWER

With the above in mind, what are your thoughts concerning contemporary literature today, not only in America (although I do want to hear your views on that), but on the international scene as well?

   KHANH HA  

Good, quality writing is always there. It’s like the air we breathe. Only when the air becomes polluted do we ask why. Who taints the air? Look around us. What we see is instant gratification―smartphones, video games, worldwide web. Our attention becomes more and more short-spanned; our tolerance gets more limited. Fifty years or so ago, we sought entertainment through books. We wrote letters―and mailed them! The need to express ourselves in words was perhaps the only available means to communicate. Is it still the same today? Of course, we won’t grow alarmed about the state of contemporary literature―here and elsewhere―if our love for the written words, the printed words, has not diminished. Or has it?

 INTERVIEWER

What has been your experience with submitting to literary journals? What does the literary journal (many of which are housed in universities) scene reveal about the state of American Letters?

  KHANH HA 

As a writer, I have this absolute conviction: 1) Your work must be quality work; 2) There are readers, editors who share your literary taste and style; 3) When your work finds these people, it will get published.

The fast growing number of literary journals in the United States reflects one thing: the counter-measure to the loathsome monolith of the U. S. publishing industry. That’s good news. The bad news is a large number of these journals are the straightjackets, preventing original thinking and writing.

 INTERVIEWER

Your novel The Demon Who Peddled Longing (great title!) comes out this fall. Care to give us a preview? Where will it be available for purchase?

 KHANH HA 

“Demon” is a dark and sensuous novel. It 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 the boy’s cousin. “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 never dies.

Several short stories coming from this novel have appeared in somewhat different forms in various magazines. “A Silent Lullaby,” which was printed in the inaugural edition of Red Savina Review, and “Run River Run” in Yellow Medicine Review were later nominated for the Pushcart Prize. “Demon” will be released, in trade paperback and in Kindle, in November this year by Underground Voices.

 INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now? As a writer, where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?

KHANH HA  

I have recently finished another novel, Once in a Lullaby, and were fortunate enough to place a number of short stories out of this novel with several magazines. One of them, “The Yin-Yang Market,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Lunch Ticket; another one, “Heartbreak Grass,” won the Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction.

Regarding a long-term plan for myself as a writer, I can see myself continuing to write, which is my lifetime passion, and perhaps becoming a guest editor for certain literary magazines, because I am forever part of the creative writing stream.

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