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.

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-27 at 11.57.39 AM

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.

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-27 at 11.42.42 AM

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?

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-27 at 11.57.58 AM

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.

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.

Story Sundays Feature Launch: The Night Walk Men by Jason McIntyre

I think that the short fiction form is severely underrated in contemporary reading tastes. It’s a telling (and troubling) sign that short story collections sell with less success than novels do, to the extent that many writers aspiring towards publication are discouraged from dedicating their time to the former, since the latter holds more promise of lucrative gain.

Short stories are brilliant at capturing the crystallization of a moment, an encounter, a single, sustained emotion, feeling or thought that lingers long after the reading. The best can render us speechless and lightning-struck in a handful of pages. They are ideal conversation fountains, and enrich us with minimal time dedication on our part. Perhaps most significantly, they are valuable gateways into the world of reading, for those who are bookshy.

Ellen Rhudy, of the marvellous book blog, Fat Books and Thin Women, runs a weekly feature dedicated to the enjoyment and analysis of one short story at a time. Its tagline is “Always short stories, always ones available online for free”, and I’ve admired the accessibility of this for quite some time. I’m pleased to announce that, with Ellen’s blessing, I’ll be participating in the Story Sundays feature, every week at Novel Niche, adding to the enthusiasm reserved especially for coffee, cigarette or evening-length reads. Ellen’s story this Sunday is “Fire” by Chelsea Laine Wells.

I’m happy to launch the feature with the work of another colleague of mine, the writer Jason McIntyre. Here are my musings on his novelette, The Night Walk Men, which, in the spirit of the free-to-access segment of Story Sundays, he has graciously made free to download. You can access it in the format of your choosing at Smashwords, here.

“Death has no prejudices. None that I’m aware of. Well, unless of course you count a discordant bias for the elderly. Or that heaving soft spot for the unhealthy and for the careless.”

Jason McIntyre continues to write fiction I like, in a genre I’ve always avoided. Reading his work has proven to be a reliable barometer by which to mark my preconceptions, as well as a reminder of the successes that can accompany fictive genre-melding.

The Night Walk Men, a novelette offering from the author of Thalo Blue, is no exception. It is a curious tale of justice, mediated by non-human hands, narrated to us by Sperro, a Night Walk Man, a character who waxes cryptic and revelatory with each of his admissions. He tells an eager, unidentified listener (for all you know, it might be you) of his brotherhood line, of the life-altering, reality-shaping work they carry out, and of an important young girl, affectionately dubbed ‘Gabriella the great’, over whom two prominent Night Walkers fundamentally disagree.

There is no other personage in The Night Walk Men from whom I would have preferred principal narration. Sperro’s encouragingly irreverent demeanour makes the work that much more readable. He spends much of his time on the page protesting that we don’t really want to hear the story he has to convey, though we protest that we do. His  list of metaphors for pain, which introduce us to the novelette proper, are achingly valid, all of them aptly delivered without trite flourishes:

“This is going to be coming down from on high. Or finding your spouse in bed with another. Or murder-suicide. Or heavy metal from the neighbour at three in the morning. This is going to be the doctor telling you it’s inoperable. Or a chemical burn on flesh. Or pepper spray and a wrongful conviction. This is going to be a fire eating your life’s work. This is going to be Your First Time. Or Your Last Time.”

There is something in the way that Sperro speaks to the reader which recalls all the meaningful conversations in your life, the ones that span hours, undivided, or ford the rivers of rushing years with their implacable necessity. If you haven’t had conversations like that, there is an arena of your life that’s not yet been fiercely assaulted with investigation, and more’s the pity. I imagine it would be a worthwhile experience to talk to all of the Night Walk Men whom we meet: flinty Sperro, sad, weary Obsidion, unyielding and resolute Montserrat. These three shadowy, solemn figures each merit our attention, elicit our sympathy, and prompt discussion with fellow readers.

Perhaps less engaging is the character of Braille the Rail, a blind, affable saxophonist whose own life imbricates meaningfully with Gabriella’s, at a crucial juncture. I don’t think he’s poorly done, necessarily; I’m quite certain he’d induce me to hunker down on the floor of the train station and belt out a rousing duet with him—after all, he’s written that way. Still, there is something in him that resembles residual stock quality. He almost reads as a composite of every emotionally sensitive, mentally attuned blind man with a penchant for music and wise ruminations we’ve encountered in works of fiction. The constraints of the novelette form may not afford him the same room in which to take root. Nor do we learn much of Gabriela that emotionally binds us to the promise of her slumbering greatness. Perhaps we are meant to empathize far more with the guardians who struggle, labouring beneath the yoke of their extraterrestrial vocations… and if this is McIntyre’s purpose, it is handsomely achieved.

There is something maddening about reading a fictive work that lingers perpetually on the precipice of a big reveal that is never revealed, isn’t there? Many of the questions this novelette raises do not answer themselves. Unless McIntyre is brewing a sequel, the only responses to your burning queries about Gabriella’s fate, or the continued role of the nocturnal sojourners, might well be the ones your own imaginative speculation furnishes. In some instances, this unresolved tension is indicative of nothing so much as authorial laziness or indecision, in the mode of “I didn’t know where to end it, so I just… ended it.” Thankfully, McIntyre’s writing does not give rise to this breed of suspicion. Indeed, the lack of comforting closure by the end of Sperro’s grim discourse could be interpreted as a quiet affirmation of the fact that tidy, linear endings rarely exist—a reality within which the Night Walk Men must function, or else perish.

An hour’s read as cerebrally provocative as it is solidly presented, The Night Walk Men distinguishes itself from normative crime-suspense-thriller dross with its decidedly literary cast. Shot through with shades of the metaphysical, the bleakly humorous and the wildly speculative, if it doesn’t at least make you wonder… then I’m coming straight to your door for the answers.

Jason was gracious enough to answer some questions I had on The Night Walk Men; here’s a transcript of our interview.

The writer, giving his best Sperro impersonation?

‘The Night Walk Men offers us your perspective of eternal guardians, watching over the realms of the living, acting on orders from a source on High. This isn’t necessarily a unique concern (but, of course, these days, what is, right?) What do you think sets your treatment of this archetype in literature apart from the rest?

The candy coating. Don’t laugh; I’m actually being serious when I say that. Let me explain. Most books and films that personify death do so in one of two ways: either showing it as a harbinger of black, horrific nightmares plus all the bad stuff we associate with leaving this world, or as benevolent angels doing everything they can to make our exit peaceful and meaningful in a dramatic way.

The Night Walk Men is about the blue collar working class who are charged with dealing Death. And Life. These people are doing their job. They get orders from a boss in a figurative corner office, whose motives they don’t always understand. These are assembly-line figures who do everything short of punch a clock. Our narrator is bitter, embroiled in a centuries-long tenure he feels is important but that no one fully appreciates, that no one really understands. He and his kin are the writhing, unwashed masses of his occupation. And he is desperate to leave some kind of understanding behind to those he feels might be, ironically, incapable of understanding.

Plus, he’s a sarcastic, heavy-handed fellow. I can’t help but love his brutal honesty, can’t help but love him—warts and all, as the saying goes.

As you know, I enjoyed reading Thalo Blue, one of your full length novels, which I reviewed on Novel Niche in June. If you had to single out one thematic concern that unites Blue with The Night Walk Men, what would it be?

Writing decent fiction is similar to good songwriting. There’s power in the silences, those moments between chords, those moments between melodic movements. If the writing is good, the reader will skim across character, detail, plot and everything else that’s left deliberately out then come up with a result somewhat unique to them, possibly akin to their own sheer imagination, or to drag out my analogy, akin to a melody heard inside one’s own head.

I believe this is why you can see drastic, bi-polar reviews for the same book; some hate it and some love it. If everyone had the same look at the same book, then it would likely be called “Sweet Vampiric Stereotypes Volume Thirty-Nine”.

As for thematic parallels, I must say that all my work, Night Walk Men and Thalo Blue included, deal with the idea that we are not above anything. There is something at work on our lives and in our world that is trying to harmonize with us. Is it a spiritual undertone? You might interpret it that way. Is it a supernatural or paranormal presence? That’s also a valid interpretation.

Will I be so overt as to say what I believe? Perhaps in time. For now, though, I’ll probably just explore these ideas through more stories and see if I can use this exercise as a way to establish what I do believe. And what does make sense to me.

The names you’ve chosen for this novella are spot on! I’d like to know a bit more about what goes into your naming process; has any name you’ve given a character been arbitrary?

They’re all completely arbitrary. What? You thought there was some magic there? Some divination? Nope. None.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I do give great thought to character names. Have any been without some level of forethought? Sadly no. And when writing—since I write in an entirely linear fashion, despite the sometimes non-linear stories—I will often find myself at a dead stop for fear of introducing a new character called by the wrong thing. I can’t go forward until the name is right.

The process starts in the cranium. I draw ridiculous associations with names that I’ve heard, people I have known, or those from other stories and films. Then I do research and try to combine given names and surnames with some sort of semi-obvious tone to them. I don’t want them to be outright and obvious but perhaps they can be let to stew in a reader’s mind as they read the book. Then, Eureka!, I know why he named her that!

So you’re sitting opposite a stranger on a park bench, and she’s reading “Sweet Vampiric Stereotypes Volume Fang-fourty”. Tell her something about your work, The Night Walk Men in particular, which will make her drop the smut and run to other fine e-stores your writing is sold.

Well, I imagine, knowing my own character, I would probably converse with her about anything other than my writing. I might enquire as to what she finds so titillating about the smut, as you call it. But all the while, I’d probably never ‘fess up that I have written anything. In truth, if she’s reading that, she’ll likely never care to give anything of mine a chance.

However, to play along, I’d probably say that this young author is writing something like contemporary baroque lit-fiction, often but not always, with tinges of the paranormal. His characters explore their world with innocence but the world in these books is anything but.

I like to say that my role as a writer is to break your heart, utterly and completely shatter it to pieces. Then, bit by bit, my next task is to put it back together again.

I’ve quoted a set of lines I especially like, to preface my thoughts on your novelette. If you were going to excerpt some of your favourite lines, what would they be, and why do you love them so?

Tough question. I do like the ones you’ve chosen as well.

My feeling is that the more melodic bits can only exist if there are, as I said before, empty spaces around them. If there is too much of this melody, then the whole thing falls under the weight of its noise.

I like many. Some include:

“It’s a strange thing: I suppose a body gets used to laying under a sheet at night and when it doesn’t feel the familiar weight of fabric pressing down over it, it can suddenly feel exceedingly unnatural.”

from Shed, 2010

It’s not written particularly well, but the sentiment is a strong one. Not only does it work well in the story, but it says so much about the human condition.

Another from The Night Walk Men might be this entire paragraph:

“I should tell you that I’ve seen Death. I’ve seen Death nearly every day. Just today, in fact, I witnessed Death walking down McMurchy Street. In what city, I cannot recall. And for what purpose, I cannot tell you. But at what time, that I do remember. It was just before high noon, and He was there, moving south, determined. If you had eyes and were at my side, you’d have seen Him too. He might have been searching for a sick child, might have been looking for a young fellow who didn’t look both ways before crossing.”

Why do I like it? It does a solid job of personifying Death. It is mythical in its quality and I believe every reader will understand the notion of Death seeking out sick children or some young one who didn’t heed the words of his parents while trying to fetch a stray ball.

I’m deeply grateful to Ellen for her consenting to my adoption of the Story Sunday meme; I fully intend on doing it justice and continuing to contribute in the fine style that Ellen’s established (with my own, Novel Niche-esque quirky flair, of course)! I’m also appreciative of Jason taking the time out to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly to the questions I posed. I look forward to seeing his writing career evolve. His finely articulated, synergistic style is a worthy platform from which many lofty fictive trees can be grown; so here’s to reading in that particular forest… and here’s to countless Sundays of short fiction splendour!

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email for details.