This novel, 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 find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. A coming-of-age story of 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.
Flesh is called ‘historical fiction,’ but it’s more literary than historial despite the fact that it allows a reader to enter another time and place of northern Vietnam in the late 19th century. So those who read novels that revolve around characterization with an atmospheric setting might take comfort in this novel.
Finding the voice―If you ask what is the most challenging part about writing Flesh, I must say that the hardest thing in writing any novel, is 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’ve found your own voice, then nothing can take it away from you. When you have your own voice, you’re now a mature writer.
Doing the research―Setting is an extremely important aspect in grabbing your readers attention. What made me choose to set my book in the late 19th century in Hanoi of Annam? Well, the seed of inspiration for Flesh was sown circa the end of the 19th century. I couldn’t change that. Though the setting is an important aspect in any novel, the mood that fosters the setting is even more important. It must be atmospheric. I tried to bring such an atmostphere in Flesh that made readers feel belonged.
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 by capital punishment. 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. I took time to research for the setting that took place at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed I spend much, much time in researching before I write. I’m a perfectionist and the 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.
Passion for writing—What is the easiest part in writing Flesh? Let me ask you instead: How deep is your passion for writing? How strong? That’ll tell whether or not you’ll succeed in writing, at least to be able to start and finish a novel.
Next, you’ll also need the god-awful dedication to exclude all the unnecessary distractions that revolve around you in your daily life.
Each time you sit down (or stand up like Hemingway) to write, you must fight all sorts of demons that try to lure you away from your writing. They come out during your solitary moments and break your concentration with temptations. You find yourself daydream, and hours pass before you suddenly wake up to a still empty sheet of paper. Demons of booze and cigarettes, of late night drinking bouts and bad hangovers the morning after. But good writers guard themselves against such temptations. It’s called discipline—the guardian angel of writing passion. Without it, the passion atrophies.
To write you must keep yourself focused. Gabriel García Márquez smoked 40 cigarettes a day while writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Those cigarettes kept him focused, didn’t they?
But to remain a writer, you must have persistence, discipline—both to keep alive in you the passion for writing—because there is no easy part in writing a novel.