Dearly Departed: A Conversation with Anu Lakhan

Novel Niche is thrilled to unveil this exclusive interview with Anu Lakhan, Trinidadian poet, fiction writer, editor and debut chapbookist. First published by Argotiers Press in 2018, Letters to K is hilarious and heartbreaking, audacious and abashed, like no other letter-set to a dead writer you’ve ever read before. 

Here, I sit with Lakhan over metaphysical tea, and let her tell me all about the elusive J_L_, our protagonist writing missives to Kafka. I might know less for certain at the end of this interview than at its beginning: rarely is a fate so entrancing as when Lakhan’s pen is in the inkwell.

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Novel Niche: Letters to K lets us in on a writer’s deep love for Franz Kafka. Tell us how you feel about Kafka, yourself.

Anu Lakhan: Does she love him? I think there’s a way to go before she feels love—real love—such as one might feel for a mother or a pet. Right now she’s really just looking for someone to talk to.

I, on the other hand, definitely have something rather like love for him. It is very easy to love and admire a dead man. I already know he will not contradict me or shame me in any way. I miss him as if there’d been a time when we were together. Not only his fiction, but his letters and journals are so extensive it’s hard to understand how more people do not find themselves feeling this loss.

He was really quite a noodle. Funny. A funny, silly man in many ways. And yet the work is sharp, dangerous, immaculate. Impossible not to love him.

NN: The chapbook is a perfect vehicle for a series of (one-sided) letters. Is this your first standalone epistolary project? How did it come into being?

AL: This is the longest one so far. I’ve done one-off missives to Kafka before (in which an adolescent girl emails him to ask for help with her homework); to Dorothy Parker (in which a wife writes an agony aunt letter to Ms Parker about uncomfortable, bargain-priced beds); and most recently to the bracing poet Eric Roach as part of a Caribbean Literary Heritage project (in which I break off our engagement because of prevailing weather conditions and extinct animals).

Still want to know how we got to the letters from J_ L_?

J is a character who has long been looking for someone she feels comfortable with. She’s tried—over various stories—to be fine with her own company, with family and friends, and friends of the family (outcomes unsatisfactory). She has enjoyed and found solace in cats, dogs and horses. Occasionally it occurs to her that she should make some greater effort with other humans. So what kind of person would suit? She does not think like Kafka, but she likes how he thinks. She does not believe living as he did would work for her but she admires that he tried. That doesn’t seem like a bad place to start imagining a good companion.

NN: Fundamental loneliness, the narrator J_ L_ tells Kafka, is one of the truths she best shares with the deceased author. Do you think that the lonely turn frequently to the dead, in letters or outside of them?

AL: Not enough. Sure, lots of people talk to deceased loved ones. They may even keep journals that look like they’re addressing specific people.

Dear Mother,
I really needed your help with the garden today.

Dear X,
I miss you and would prefer to be dead at the bottom of a well rather than go another day without you.

That sort of thing. I hear it’s quite soothing. And of course, as Caribbean people, the spirit world is never far from us. But I don’t know if we’ve worked out healthy, non-desperate ways to engage with those not living. This answer holds for both the lonely and the not-so-lonely.

NN: Would the register and intimacy of these letters change if they were purely digital? Would VoiceNotes to K, or WhatsApps to K, be a different sort of endeavour?

AL: They would not be sent by J, so from the beginning the undertaking would be very other. If she seems confuffled in writing, only imagine how she’d trip over herself with VoiceNotes. How many times have you started sending one simple message and ended up saying everything wrong and had to send three or three dozen more to clarify your original thought? Or worse: she might start and after two words be reduced to whimpering. The shame. WhatsApps—equally a no-go. She’d go mad waiting to see the little blue ticks and then she’d fret about his lack of response.

These other options are not open to her because they have a force of immediacy. She’d fall prey to expectations. That wouldn’t do.

NN: Would J_ L_ Skype with Kafka, in another place, another time?

AL: Again, immediate and intimate. It’s too intimate. Kafka could barely bring himself to endure face-to-face meetings with his myriad fiancees. Whenever personal contact was threatened, he wilted. Unless they both kept the video off, Skype would have been a disaster.

The letters were the only things that made sense because they made sense for him as well as J. The same beloved women he couldn’t face, he harassed them into writing him. He demanded letters. Three a day if possible. Gods! They had jobs. They were busy. He was busy. Prague and environs must have had the best postal service ever. If in this time, present time, we had anything like such a good service, email might never have been dreamed up.

NN: Letters to K made me reach for my old, secret correspondences, patterned boxes of love-and-eventual-hate-mail. Which published or private letters do you reach for, in your own life?

AL: I don’t. They usually hurt. I write new ones.

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NN: I read this book aloud for pure pleasure: it would make an excellent audiobook. Who would your dream narrator be? Would you give them any directorial notes?

AL: If J is a young Trinidadian woman, it would be my niece Jaya with her gorgeous sandy voice. Imagine Stevie Nicks young. And Caribbean. And less nasal. That’s my niece.

If J can be from anywhere, I have in mind Saoirse Ronan (as is), Dolores O’Riordan (alive) or Sinéad Cusack (younger). Apparently any woman with a tricky Irish name will do.

I didn’t have much of a J voice in my head (really had to think about it). I heard Kafka reading the letters to himself. Sometimes quietly, sometimes riotously. Kafka would be Adrien Brody with a German accent. Obviously he’d have to spend months in front of open windows, naked, in the Prague winter, preparing for this. Because, of course, K was all about that kind of thing.

Apart from the Brody-naked-window thing, no directions. That’s because I think I’d be a maniac as a director. Better to leave those things to professional maniacs.

NN: An illustration of a piano, done by Kevin Bhall, falls as if in slow-motion throughout the chapbook. What music is on the sheets we see, fluttering to the floor?

AL: A few songs, actually. The pianist who was unfortunate enough to lose his instrument in this—tragically—the most common type of piano fatality, was playing around with:

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel

Coronita de Flores – Juan Luis Guerra

Last Dance – Donna Summer

Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington

See, it doesn’t matter what’s playing when a piano is ready to fall on your head. I’ve found the happier the music being played, the more likely it is the piano is on its way down.

NN: “I am not trying to elevate myself in the literary world,” J_ L_ explains in one of her early letters to Kafka. A writer as a hermit, scornful of and stressed by the literary social scene, is a popular trope… but do you think it makes for better writing?

AL: Oh, hell no. It’s horrible. I know some of the finest writers have lived like this but I think their work is brilliant in spite of such a disposition, not because of it. That is a bitter, bitter world. Somebody is paying in blood and insomnia for it.

By the by, J is not trying to elevate herself in the literary world not because she disdains it but because she’s not in the literary world. She’s not a writer.

NN: In the last of her letters, J_ L_ tells Franz that she’s always felt like an outsider. Are the best stories told from the fringes, and not the centre?

AL: I’m afraid this question is beyond me. I don’t think I’m always sure of the difference between fringe and centre. And as told by whom? The narrator or the writer? Do we always know we’re in the middle? Isn’t it beyond dreadful when we discover we’re on the outside when we’d been thinking we were in?

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Buy Letters to K here.
Read Paper Based Bookshop’s spotlight of Letters to K here.

Letters to K is Anu Lakhan’s first chapbook. She is a poet, writer, editor, friend to cats and Kafka. Born and living in Trinidad and Tobago, she has never knowingly sent a letter to anyone in Czechia, living or dead.

All images © Anu Lakhan.

Morgan Kelly’s Musings on Genre, Fiction-Tradition, and Reading What You Love

I was thrilled to launch November, my month of daily posts at Novel Niche, with my review of Morgan Kelly’s stunning, audacious debut novel, Midnight in Your Arms. NN is generally considered (I’ve been told) to be a “serious site” — as opposed, one supposes, to a bouncy blog. The inevitable question I found myself fielding was this: “You mean… you reviewed a romance novel? Really? That doesn’t seem like your style.” Derivative, poorly-written, cloying romance writing isn’t my style, no, but Kelly’s novel is none of those things, as anyone lucky enough to read Midnight in Your Arms will see within its opening pages.

This issue of how genre-labelling defines and guides our next bookstore or library selection is dear to Morgan Kelly’s heart, too. Without further ado, here are her thoughts on that oft-perilous system of classification, combined with reflections on her writing, and reading career. Thank you, Morgan, for choosing Novel Niche as your resting-place for the end of your official blog tour! I am honoured, and thrilled, to keep company with you here.

Morgan Kelly and her publisher, Avon Impulse/HarperCollins, are generously offering one free e-copy of Midnight in Your Arms. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post (along with your email address, or another reliable method of contact.) This giveaway is open internationally, and the winner will be contacted in one week. 

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto

When I first became a reader, I didn’t know there was any such thing as genre. When I did come to understand the concept of genre, it was only in the sense that books needed to be categorized by topic and style so that the reader could choose one for herself that best fitted her tastes or mood. This was back in the days when reading was for me so pure and unalloyed a pleasure that another person’s opinion of my reading matter didn’t even enter into it. No one really had opinions on what I read—people were just glad to see that I had in fact learned to read, that I took to it with no difficulty. My teacher had done her job. My mother had done hers. I had done mine. All was right with the world.

Fast forward a decade into the future. Suddenly, there was a spectre haunting the banquet at which I had previously feasted unencumbered by a sense of literary pretention or elitism—the spectre of public opinion. I felt a strange pressure to decide what sort of reader I was going to be, closely akin to and perhaps even indistinguishable from the decision about what sort of human being I was going to be.

Instead of saying “Sir, may I have some more!” of everything I could get my hands on, I was expected to become “discerning”. To read books that were chosen not for pleasure or curiosity alone, but for how they would make me look to the people who saw me reading them. There were suddenly public books, and private books. Books I read out in the open, judiciously approved, and those I read when no one else was in the house. Books I would brag about reading, and books I would hide beneath the mattress, like someone addicted to and ashamed of her subscription to Hustler.

These contraband books were of varying genres. I hid my magic-ridden fantasy and gruesome horror from my religious relatives. I hid my historical romances from, well—everybody! Because those sorts of books, the ones of the dripping butcher knives, midnight séances, and riven bodices were not considered literature. They would be detrimental to my developing mind and intellect. I was to be ashamed of them.

Let me tell you, literary elitism has never come easy to me. I’ve always read anything, everything, and lots of it. With more on the side. And yet, I had the distinct feeling, from teachers, literary friends, and everyone else involved in my development as a reader, that I should curtail my base bibliomaniacal tendencies and read only works of substance. So I learned to be a secretive reader. A reader ashamed. It took a long time and a few years of independence and self-possession before I got mostly over it. And there was always a great deal of defiance inside of me that railed against the oppression of public opinion about reading material, and yet, I still felt compelled to hide what I read.

When I became a writer, I naturally began writing “literary fiction”—a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but what I define for myself as anything that: A) doesn’t fit into an actual genre of popular fiction B) People are smugly proud of reading on public transit C) a book the title of which people drop all over the place like the name of a celebrity with whom they once rode in an elevator D) might have an infinitesimal chance of being published in the New Yorker.

I wrote literary fiction because it was serious, and I was and remain a serious writer. By which I mean that I am deeply serious about the craft of writing itself, a feeling that got entirely mixed up with the need to be taken seriously as a writer. Two very different things, but somehow irreparably conjoined in public consciousness. And I knew without needing to be told that to be taken seriously as a serious writer, one must not write genre fiction, just as one must not (admit to) read(ing) it in order to be taken seriously as a reader. So I didn’t write genre fiction.

            And I didn’t write it.

            And I didn’t write it.

            And then, I did.

Lisa Kleypas’ Mine Till Midnight

I had never stopped reading it, enjoying it, or hiding it. But I think when I started to think about actually writing it that something shifted inside of me—the Writer Self began speaking to the Reader Self on a much deeper level. The Reader Self reminded the Writer Self of the fact that I only write because I’m a reader. Writers who don’t read don’t make sense to me—and believe me, I have met more than a few. My Reader Self reminded me that my entire business is to tell stories that people want to read. To tell as many stories as I have in me. And that there is no story unworthy of being told well. That I should write whatever was in me as best I could, spanning genre and thumbing my nose at its strictures, too.

I reminded myself that the reason I enjoy reading modern horror is because a woman named Mary Shelley wrote the genre-defining novel that is considered by many to be the greatest horror novel ever written, a classic masterpiece of writerly genius. There would be no Stephen King without Mary Shelley. There would also be no Stephen King without Dickens, who wrote gripping, human stories about the people and for the people for a penny a word. People forget that he wrote popular pulp fiction. So did Shakespeare. It’s only historical retrospect that labels their works superior to the books being written in the same genres now.

The Brontë sisters wrote Gothic romances.  So did Sir Walter Scott and Horace Walpole (in fact, he arguably wrote the first one, the Castle of Otranto, in 1764—a book that saw a lot of action from beneath the mattresses of the Georgians). Classic literature created the molds for much of what is considered trashy pulp now, from horror to romance and back again. And yet, we are taught to scorn the people who read and write the modern descendants of the novels people clutch to their bosoms as though fondling holy relics in a cathedral.

This year, after publishing only literary fiction and poetry, I sold and published my first historical romance to HarperCollins. My dream of signing the dotted line on a contract emblazoned with the header of one of the Big Six had finally come true.

And yet, I admit I felt nervous.

I felt as if I had somehow, possibly, betrayed some aesthetic and artistic code by writing genre fiction. This is really hard to admit, but I was worried that my “literary” writer and reader friends wouldn’t accept me as a newly minted romance novelist. That I was choosing genre-fiction over literary fiction, and there was no going back. That I had gone down a highway with no chance of a U-Turn. That I didn’t know who I was as a writer anymore. Which is weird, because I have always known who I am as a reader. Even though I didn’t always advertise my reading material, I’ve never really worried that reading pulp fiction would injure my delicate readerly sensibilities. Why, then, do I worry so much about genre and writing? It doesn’t make sense. It’s hypocritical. I may not always discuss my predilection for historical romance with the same people with whom I discuss Proust and A.S Byatt, but I still continue to enjoy it. It’s like flipping a secret switch inside my brain, a switch that didn’t come with the model—it was a mod. At some point in my reading life I had been neatly bisected down the middle, my “serious” literary self on one side, and my carefree, genre-fiction loving self on the other.

But it isn’t that easy, is it? It’s not so cut-and-dried. How can anyone claim that someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, who writes “genre” fiction, isn’t a master writer and a modern-day literary genius? Because she is. And so, in my opinion, is Stephen King. And among my romance-writing colleagues, there are many a Shakespearean professor and History PhD. among them. Which sounds like I am saying that the genre is therefore redeemed because Ivy-League educated women write them. That’s not what I mean. What I am really trying to get at is that genre-elitism is divisive and pretentious.  It doesn’t matter what you read and write. Anything can be a work of beauty and meaning, or a load of rubbish, or simply an enjoyable distraction from the difficult business of being alive. Why do we ascribe status and hierarchy to every word that passes before our eyes? It’s exhausting. And most likely pointless. It certainly doesn’t save us from reading bad books. Nor does it make sure we read all the good ones. And if it does neither of those things, I don’t see what the point of literary segregation is.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars

As Oscar Wilde said, “Books are either well-written or badly-written”. He said absolutely nothing about genre. I’ve read as many badly-written serious “literary” novels as I have counterpart genre (aka page-turner, pot-boiler fluff) fiction. Why are they redeemed in public consciousness simply by virtue of their genre, and books with heaving bosoms or Halloween masks on the cover are condemned by the notion that they are not literary, no matter how riveting the plot or elegant the style in which it was written? Why is Mary Shelley okay and not Stephen King? Why is Jane Austen marvelous but not Julia Quinn? And why are some of if not many of the people I know averting their gaze from the fact that I just had my first novel published by one of the biggest publishing houses in the world as if I have made an alarming and very public and humiliating faux-pas? If I had written a different style of novel, someone would have thrown me a party by now. As it is, I feel like I am supposed to be apologizing—justifying myself as a fallen writer.

And you know what? I don’t want to! I’ve written a book I am proud of, in a genre I enjoy reading. I am excited that perfect strangers all over the planet are reading the words I wrote for them. And when they decide whether or not it is a bad book or a good book, I hope genre won’t come into it. I am not saying I am the next Emily Brontë. I’m not saying I am equal to the celebrated Julia Quinn. What I am saying is that I think we could, the three of us, sit down at a table together and have a lot to talk about. The same person could read novels written by all three of us, and Stephen King, and anyone else they damned well pleased, and not wonder what it says about them. It says enough that s/he is reading.

Dear Reader, what I am saying is this: read a lot. Read whatever you want. Don’t read anything you don’t want to read because you think you should. Let’s just read. Anything. Everything. As much as possible for as long as we can. I will work on sewing the two halves of my Reader Self together again, because really, there is so much bleed-through going on, I don’t think the vivisection ever really took.

We don’t need to be ashamed of what we read and write. We don’t need to judge other people for what they read and write. Let’s just remember that it’s all personal taste and opinion. Let’s keep it civil. Let’s remember that when the novel was first invented, it didn’t matter what genre it was, people were supposed to be ashamed of reading one. We’ve come a long way since then. Let’s keep on going. We’re not done yet.

Morgan Kelly’s Midnight in Your Arms

I’ll write stories, whatever I have in me. I’ll read everything I can get my hands on. You do the same. Then let’s sit down and discuss the latest Lisa Kleypas, contrasted and compared with the most recent A.S Byatt, before moving on to the relative merits of E.L. James. We don’t have to like what each other reads. Hell, we don’t even have to like what we read. We can think it utter crap, or literary perfection, or a pleasant post-tea and pre-nap afternoon diversion. But not because of genre. Clear out the bedsprings, my friends! Air out your literary laundry. Let the end of Genre Bigotry dawn. Who knows but the next Thomas Hardy could be lurking at the bottom of your massive, teetering pile of refuse-to-reads. Or at the bottom of mine. I’ll check now, and let you know. You can borrow it as long as you give it back or pass it on to someone who might love or hate it, too. And then pick up another book and do it all again, ad infinitum and beyond.

Morgan Kelly reads and writes in every conceivable genre. A Brontëite, a Whovian, a Xenaphile, and a Buffyonian, she loves storylines with kick-ass heroines, brooding heroes with fine style, and meaningful, witty dialogue. Her first spooky Gothic historical romance novel came out this year with Avon/HarperCollins. She likes to think Midnight In Your Arms is the bastard love child of Daphne Du Maurier and Ernest Hemingway with Emily Brontë as a Godmother. Her ideal tea party would include Sylvia Plath, Lou Reed, Her Majesty the Queen of England, and you. You can be her fan on Facebook; friend, fan, or follow her reviews on Goodreads, and read her blog posts on her official website.

On a blood-blotted book launch: Featuring Bled by Jason McIntyre

“It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?”
Macbeth, (III.iv.121-125)

I’m a girl who’s down with particularly good horrific suspense… reading it, that is. Spare me the legions of chainsaw-wielding, lip-sewing stalkers of screens both silver and small, but if your writing can thrill me past any temptation of sleep, keep me pacing, prompt my fumblings for a totem of familiarity, or rip a gasp out my throat, then you’re good. The real question I ought to ask Jason McIntyre, author of Thalo Blue and The Night Walk Men, weaver of wickedly unsettling prose, then, is this: “Just how afraid should we be about your latest literary offering, Bled?”

Tell us, Jason… how much blood are we really in for? Should I be wielding my special anti-sanguinary parasol, for good measure? Here’s his response.

Why is blood so creepy?: discussing my new book, Bled

There’s no denying that there’s blood in my new book. After all it’s front and centre: the title is Bled, after all. And there’s a big dab of it right on the cover, hot red against stark white.

So what’s with suspense and horror writers’ fascination with the stuff? It’s visceral, I suppose. It’s the stuff we are all made of. Pumping in all our veins is this common material. Without it we would die.

And if we see some of it (or lots of it, as the case may be) it probably means we’re on the very cusp of dying. Or hurting. Since suspense is often about what it is to hurt, and horror is often about what it’s like to have hurt inflicted, it makes sense that blood would be bound up in these kinds of fiction.

But how much blood is in my new book Bled, anyhow? Is there just gobs and gobs of it? If you read this story, will you have to get on your waders and dive in?

I can tell you that it’s not gory for the sake of it. There are some difficult scenes but my catalogue would never be called gratuitous. Nor would Bled.  In fact, I would venture to say I’m not a horror writer at all. Bled is much more about the human condition, much more about facing imperious odds and seeing if one can come out alive. If there’s a lasting legacy with the story, if readers can remember something other than the bloody cover, I do hope it is this: people can push back when they’ve been pushed too far.

So, what do you think of the title and cover? Does blood make you squeamish? Does it excite you? If it does, I might be tempted say you do like horror. But I bet you’ll like this book anyway.

Ah, yes. That’s the sound of my parasol billowing open to meet the wind. While I wrestle on a spatter-resistant raincoat, have a look at this spine-tingler of a teaser trailer, then tell me you’re not all the more intrigued. I was.

If that made you hungry for more than a minute’s revelations, sink your teeth into this description.

Bled: About the Novella

She only wanted to leave. But he took that option from her. Now she wants it back.

Set on the same island as the reader favorite Shed, the latest literary suspense novella from bestselling author Jason McIntyre picks up the Dovetail Cove saga with this story of one lonely woman… trapped.

Tina McLeod is on the cusp of a new life. Extraordinary change is rare in her world but this newsflash means she can finally leave her small island town for good. No more pouring coffee for townsfolk in Main Street’s greasy spoon, no more living under the weight of her born-again mother. That is, until Frank Moort comes in for his usual lunch and dessert on an ordinary Friday in May.

Bled sees things turn backwards and upside down for each of them. Their encounter is prolonged and grotesque, the sort of thing splashing the covers of big city newspapers. Both are changed. And neither will come out clean on the other side.

A story about taking what’s not yours, Bled explores pushing back when you’ve been pushed too far. It paints in red the horrors from our most commonplace of surroundings: right out in the open where nothing can hide behind closed doors and shut mouths.

About the Author

Jason contemplates labelling all Bled proceeds as blood money.

Jason McIntyre has lived and worked in varied places across the globe. His writing also meanders from the pastoral to the garish, from the fantastical to the morbid. Vibrant characters and vivid surroundings stay with him and coalesce into novels and stories. Before his time as an editor, writer and communications professional, he spent several years as a graphic designer and commercial artist.

McIntyre’s writing has been called darkly noir and sophisticated, styled after the likes of Chuck Palahniuk but with the pacing and mass appeal of Stephen King. The books tackle the family life subject matter of Jonathan Franzen but also eerie discoveries one might find in a Ray Bradbury story or those of Rod Serling.

Jason McIntyre’s books include the #1 Kindle Suspense, The Night Walk Men, Bestsellers On The Gathering Storm and Shed, plus the multi-layered coming-of-age literary suspense Thalo Blue.

I’ll be reading Bled this weekend, garbed in all my protective gear, clot-resistant umbrella at the ready. Can I withstand the carmine-coloured assault and remain untouched? More importantly, why would I ever want to? Bring on the psyche-unravelling, spinal-tremor-eliciting, literary maelstrom.

You can purchase Bled directly from Amazon, here. Peruse the Bled feature over at Books, Personally, hosted by my dear friend Jennifer, hereStop by Jason’s website, The Farthest Reaches. Follow him on Twitter, and ‘like’ his Facebook fan page. With all that virtual love, perhaps his next book will be about fairies and unicorns, and blithe forest creatures of eternal light? No, probably not.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Jason McIntyre to the reviewer.