Where do I Write?


Question: Can you guess where I’m writing this?

Answer: As I write, I’m sitting in the driver’s side of my car, parked in an illegal spot in an industrial park.

The very sensation that I might get my ass towed is actually what makes me so productive.  At any moment, a police officer might tap on my window.  Better yet, an angry pin-striped executive might come out and give me a few choice words.  God, sitting in someone else’s parking space makes me feel so alive:  watchful, wary, adrenelated.


I’m an usual writer for one big reason:  I write like a bird.  I swoop down, roost—maybe even nest—and then I flutter off.  I only write in a spot if I’m feeling the vibes.


Before this blissful moment today, I spent a month writing at my friends’ house.  I showed up, hung out.  I decided then and there that I would sprawl out on their couch for a while.  I laid out my flashcards on the Persian carpet and took over the guest bedroom.  Two weeks into this, I suddenly realized that this was exactly how my hosts got their most recent cat, an abandoned stray with piercing blue eyes.  It had done the same thing.  That cat did not like me.  It could see a fellow traveler—a rival, a nemesis and a double.  It’s blue eyes flashed like Northern Lights and it always managed to sit on my flashcards.


I’d been writing at home for a while, spending most of the time on the purple couch in the living room.  That was nice.  But then my wife went away on a trip and the house felt lonely and empty.  As you know, I am writing about an alcoholic and, in all that emptiness, I began to feel the urge to drink.  So, I drank and drank and drank.  And then there was nothing in the house but empty bottles.  That’s when I decided that I should find a new place to write.


Of course, I have an office.  It’s a special, separate office…and I even pay for it.  But it feels somehow un-right.  It’s cold.  I thought it would feel good but it doesn’t.  When I do work in it, I often perch on the other side of the desk where the visitor sits.  That temporariness is what makes the writing process move.  Offices, because they are made for the purpose, just feel like mousetraps.


In Iowa, where I taught Creative writing, I had two offices both of which did not get much use—one provided by the college and one at home.  The official office was in an older Victorian building that used to be the women’s dorms.  It was picturesque and roomy and quaint.  I was on the fourth floor—the attic–with sloped ceilings and very civilized parlor furniture.  I hated it.  It reminded me that writing was actually a job that I was paid for; somehow, this managed to suck every ounce of pleasure away from the experience.


I also had a home office.  I filled it with heavy wooden Craftsman furniture and decided that it would be a man’s lair:  so messy that nobody would dare enter it.  At the time, I had just seen the movie Beautiful Mind about a schizophrenic math professor—John Nash–who eventually wins the Nobel Prize.  This heavily influenced my décor.  Remember the crazy room in which he works out all sorts of connections with a collage-work of newspaper clippings and yarn?  That was the reference point in my head when I started to “decorate.”  It did become a good replica of that room.  And I did succeed in making it into a place that nobody would intrude into…including me.



Allison Zheng: Asian American Detective



What I love about the blogosphere are the happy discoveries:  silly cats; talented ten year olds; skateboard tricks that end in bodily injury.  Yesterday, I came across this stupendous little essay by Allison Zheng–Age 8—entitled “My Goal As An Asian American Detective.”  It won honorable mention for a contest put on by the Asian Pacific Fund.  It blew me away.


In this beautifully written squib, Allison dates her passion for Detective Work to the moment when she discovered her mother was Santa Clause—an act of sleuthing that involved handwriting analysis, clues and inductive reasoning.  She then vividly describes the ins-and-outs of an alternative career path that will take her away from the timeworn trail followed by most Asian American kids:  doctoring, lawyering and accounting.  I wonder how her folks feel about this?


In choosing this path, Allison expresses the noblest intentions.  She writes:


I really want to be a detective because I like to solve mysteries and help

people. I’ve heard and would like to help many families that have been

robbed or children who have been kidnapped and make our community

a safer place to live in. There are also lots mysteries during criminal

investigation that can be challenging I would like to solve when I grow up.


What lovely prose.  I certainly couldn’t write so confidently in third grade.  And what noble, lofty intentions—helping people.  Gosh, at that age, you couldn’t get me to even think about sharing my Legos.  I was a terribly self-centered child, an unflattering trait my mother reminded me of literally every day.  “You are a terrible little boy who only thinks of yourself.”  My mom would stand at the doorway with her hands on her hips as my little sister (she was such a crybaby and attention-seeker) blubbered over some small infringement.


I was nothing like precocious, young Allison Zheng.  If I thought about kidnappings or robberies, it was only to perpetrate these acts upon my little sister’s Barbie Dolls—all of whom could be returned if a certain amount of money was laid out in a certain location at a certain time…


But despite her idealism—her sincere desire to help her community–young Allison Zheng already imagines some difficulties. Later on in the essay, Allison imagines a conflict—a drawback to her proposed, alternative career path—that makes the essay take a darker turn:


If I had two partners, one American and Asian, when they argue, I’d be

caught in the middle. One partner would think that I am too Chinese.

The other would think that I’m too American.


I’ve only got one word:  wow.  Wow, because Allison can write so well at such a tender age.  Wow, because she has so much bravery in tackling a nonconformist career path.  Wow, because she already understands something very cruel and terrible and ugly: the difficulties of being an Asian American in the work force are already part of her imaginative geography—that world of anxiety, of shadows, of doorways at thresholds.

Her imagining points to the fact that the stark realities of being an adult—and Asian–in the American workplace also has a parallel–an ugly double–among children on the playground.  Asian Americans experience a host of troubles in the work force that we hardly ever complain about:  glass ceilings; feelings of being accepted but not-quite-fitting-in; always being the foreigner; loyalty issues; disloyalty issues; tokenism; bullying; harassment.


This anxiety—the act of empathy that allows Allison Zheng to write so powerfully and heartbreakingly about the detective life–is what attracts me to writing about a Vietnamese American sleuth.  I want to be able to achieve that deepness.  I want people to understand the peculiar difficulties of an experience whose embodiment can be…taxing.  And this is why it is so important for Asian Americans—and Vietnamese Americans—to have our own fictional representations.  Thank you Allison Zheng, for showing me why I’m sitting around writing, cut off from the rest of the world:  when I write a book like this, I am thinking of our next generation; I hope that a young girl like Allison Zheng—precocious and brave and driven–will download it and read it and love it!





Stephen King: On Writing


When I’m writing, I think of myself as a castaway on a dessert island, looking for footprints, signs in the sky or the billowing smoke of a ship in the distance.  It’s a lonely existence.  Here’s the writer’s paradox:  my island, prison and liberation—they are all one and the same:  the library.  I live in a world entirely composed of books.



For six months, I lost my library card.  And so that meant I had to use other people’s.  This meant that my prison and liberation were complicated—filled with the connivances of the beggar, the grifter and the confidence man.  “Hey, can you do me a little favor…” you sidle up to that friend almost as if he were a cat who at any moment may dart.  Then, you grab them and stroke them until they know there’s no escape.



Getting people to lend you their card is a delicate procedure.  But yesterday—ahoy!—I found my card.  Oh, frabjous day!



The first thing I borrowed was Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—part memoir, part no-nonsense handbook on the nuts-and-bolts of yarn-concocting.  It was like finding footprints in the sand and knowing that I would encounter, at the end of the trail, a long lost friend.  This is the passage that resonated for me:


With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to

the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable.

Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be difficult,

lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.

There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.  If I write rapidly,

putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only

looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant

parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original

enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always

waiting to settle in.  (209 On Writing)


King gives himself 2 drafts and a polish.  He writes 2000 words a day, every day—that’s ten pages.  He usually writes until noon but doesn’t knock off until he finishes his word count. And he doesn’t take a day off, not because he’s some crazy workaholic (though he cops up to that) but because the story needs to be real and fresh and vivid.  Take just a little time off and the story gets stale.  That’s why it’s essential that he just write the story in his head without any revision, so he can keep the ball rolling.


(I love that word, “downloading.”  Nowadays, I write like that—as quickly as possible to get down what’s coming at me.  Stephen King was a raging alcoholic and a coke addict, too.  When they staged an intervention, they rounded up all the baggies of white stuff and the coke spoons—many covered with mucous and blood—from his office.  He said his heart rate was up to 130 words a minute as he wrote.)


Gold McDonald’s Coke Spoon:  For the Man Who Has Everything

King makes some allowances for the beginning writer.  You should write every day of the week, except one.  You should write 1000 words, not his pace of 2000.  But you should not go back, revise or fiddle until you’ve got the whole thing done.

OMG:  this is exactly what I’m doing.  Sometimes, you find things washed up on the beach of the mind and wonder if it was shaped by nature or if a divine hand put it there for you to find.  You hold it aloft before your savage eye and marvel at its beauty and meaning.










Is There a Formula to Writing a Mystery?






Is there a formula for writing a mystery novel? There are two ways to approach this question: the scholarly and writerly. And these two paths are diametrically opposed. They are like those two paths that the young Proust must take in Remembrance of Things Past, bringing him past radically different scenery—houses, hedges, windows, gardens—until you realize they are one and the same: they have converged.


The scholar would say that there is indeed a formula to the mystery novel; genre fiction—writing that fits squarely into received categories—is by definition formulaic. There are murders; shrewdly observant detectives; smoking guns; antagonists; damsels in distress; secrets. In grad school (where I spent too much of my life) you could take classes on the various formulae. I took a class on the formula Western with the leading scholar on Gay Cowboys. I kid you not. But just because you have the formula down pat doesn’t mean you can actually WRITE the formula. And this, I think, is the problem with critics. This is why writers would like to slap them silly with a rubber hose: there is something inherently condescending about referring to a so-called “formula.”


Oh, you are writing one of those genre fictions, sniffs distinguished Professor Krumpelschmucker, Distinguished Chair of Comparative Douchebaggery. Tallyho, then, my dear friend. There is implicit in the term “formula,” the sensibility that anybody can whip up a narrative cocktail—a literary martini–with just the right shaker and a hint of vermouth.


I often think about this when I drink and I guess this is why that cocktail metaphor is so appropriate.  One night, on the way home from a holiday party, my wife played designated driver and I switched on NPR.  They were talking about Hillary Clinton’s possible bid for the presidency.  All the guests were wondering if she was going to throw her hat in.  There was a lot of conjecture.  Hillary Clinton was coming off a super successful stint as Secretary of State.  But she had suffered a concussion.  She had been working non-stop and people wondered if she could continue the pace without respite.  Everyone agreed that the question of her candidacy was one that did not have to be addressed at least for another two years.

Toward the end of the program, there was an expert holding forth—a professor of Political Science—who made a good point:  “Though we know much about the narrative possibilities, the arc, of a presidential candidate as it pertains to men, we know nothing about that same arc as it pertains to women.  Men created, occupied and controlled the office of the Presidency and so the trajectory they must make toward the highest office in the land is fairly well mapped out.  We know nothing about this same arc for a female president.”


Maybe it was the liquor.  But suddenly, I realized that the real question–is there a formula to the mystery novel?–lies in the deeper question:  Is there a formulaic Asian American novel?  Is there a formulaic trajectory for an Asian American mystery novelist?  Is there even an audience who will support this kind of work?  Or will Asian American mystery readers and writers alike have to wait, like the many women who have waited so many years, patiently, in the wings?



Assembling my A Team

Who is on my A Team?  Nowadays, this is the metaphor that bounces through my head as I write my detective novel.  This is a good question; it means I’m at the critical point where characters will have specific roles in the narrative, befitting their expertise.  The characters, whether they know it or not, will have to work together as a team.


The A Team was a hit television show of my youth, featuring John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), Templeton “The Faceman” Peck (Dirk Benedict), B.A. Baracus  (Mr. T),  H.M. “Howling Mad Murdock” (Dwight Schultz).  They were a special ops team, now on the run from the army for a “crime they didn’t commit.”  And every episode, they solved problems and got themselves out of a jam.  “I love it when a plan comes together” is George Peppard’s stock line.  And he says it with a big, fat cigar clenched between his glistening teeth, so white that his dentifrice is silver, like his hair.  This is the phrase, nowadays, that visits my cranium.  It’s a self-reflexive phrase: Peppard is both a character, instigating a plan but he is also the stand-in for the invisible author who is truly pulling the strings.


The A Team was originally conceived as a vehicle for Mr.T but I didn’t know this growing up.  I was mesmerized by the boob tube.  My parents were strict, so I had an allowance of 3 hours a week to spend on television time and I gladly spent it on the A Team.  And this was not because Mr. T was the only draw.  I loved him, too.  But I also loved Howling Mad Murdock and Templeton Peck and Hannibal Smith.  Just as the plans come together in each episode, the characters did too.  And they make each other bigger, more memorable.  This is the gift I want to give my readers and my characters—the gift, coincidentally, I want to give myself.


My Villain Gets a Facelift

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.




It is with much regret that I inform you that my villain is getting, as they say in LA, “some work done”:  face lift, tummy tuck, chin implant.  For good measure, he’s getting stuff that doesn’t count as plastic surgery: dye job and botox and maybe even a colon cleanse.  It’s going to shave 10 years off him.


This is a long way of saying that I had an original plan for my serial killer.  He was going to be handsome, single, confident, established.  Like many men of a certain sort in Los Angeles, he would be a perpetually youngish early forties but with a virile quality.  Strong jaw.  Distinguished salt and pepper good looks.  The kind of guy who drives a 700 series BMW and dates Russian models.  I wrote him up and this is absolutely true—everybody envisioned this guy:


But now I have to make him younger…because he needs to be a bit more insecure.  He’s living off of Daddy’s money.  And even though he projects an image of stability and wealth, none of it is his.  In fact, his father thoroughly dominates him.  There is some talk that he is even getting beaten by his old man…though none of this occurs in plain view.

So I’m shopping for reputable plastic surgeons.  My serial killer is going under the knife.  I think he’s going to have to come out like the progeny of Matt Damon and Jude Law, conceived during a memorable long weekend in Palm Springs.  God:  why do we live in such a youth-obsessed culture?


Reading on the Elliptical; Reading on the Road

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.



My wife is my bullshit detector.  She’s my worst critic and greatest champion.  And we do everything together–reading and writing and dreaming.  We’re kind of codependent.  I totally trust her judgment.


We also read books together…not at the same time.  First, I’ll read a book.  Then, she’ll read it.  We pass books between us.  This is a unique part of our relationship—special and casual.  Right now, since I’m writing a mystery novel, we are on a suspense, thriller, action, mystery extravaganza.  We don’t read anything else.


I like to read on the couch, lying down; my wife, on the elliptical machine in the gym.  As it turns out, this is the perfect place to read a mystery—and to judge it.  K– has an hour each day to work herself up into a sweat.  She doesn’t like to stick things into her ear.  She hates the boob tube.  Books are THE way she gets through the experience…which otherwise is as fun as watching corn grow.


To enjoy a good read on the elliptical, you have to get your mitts on a certain kinds of book:  books with strong story-lines, compelling narratives, plots.  Things have to happen.  Gore is good.  Violence is welcome.  When your heart is beating in your ear on the elliptical, you need to feel the linear movement of traditional narrative—always unfolding, always propelling you forward, always progressing toward a satisfying, orgasmic ending.


This makes total sense.  I spent three years backpacking throughout the third world and what I realized is that artsy books are terrible for travel.  Why?  Because these kinds of books are purposely designed not to move forward; they hardly have any plot (because plot is bourgeois); they don’t have action (because they favor psychological interiority); they don’t have much gore (because gore is gratuitous).  Reading artsy stuff—stuff that I would have enjoyed at home—was terrible, painful.  Torture.

Eagle Creek Backpack

It seems logical: you want a narrative that moves forward, while you too are moving forward on the bus.  In India, I brought a backpack full of about twenty books that were thematic to the journey.  Each was hand-selected for an investigation into the country’s politics and culture.  BAD IDEA.  WORST IDEA EVER.  DON’T DO IT!  I started off the journey in Rajasthan with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses—a massive tome that should have given me hours of reading pleasure.  After all, he’s an acclaimed author!


Guess what?  It was the most painful experience ever—like having constipation and trying to pass a stool.  It was so hard to get through the book; I’m proud to say I got through the book; this is not a glowing recommendation;  it felt like a death march.  The book just doesn’t have a lot of action.  And so it can’t hold your attention on a chicken bus with the sights and sounds and smells of India.  How can an artsy fartsy book compete with a leathery, naked sadhu or a transvestite extortionist wedding singer or a cow on the road?

If nothing is happening, especially, you begin to feel disconnected to that sense of movement that is essential to the zeitgeist of a journey.  So, the popular book–hands-down–while I was traveling was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  You saw so many translations of that book floating around–bootlegs, too–and it was the most common sight on a train or a bus. The most typical image from that period:  the spectacle of a grizzled Israeli ex-soldier backpacker (Israelis are everywhere when you travel) with their crazy hippie get-up reading a Hebrew version of the Da Vinci Code.


I’m a snob.  I didn’t read it while on the road.  But I did read it when I got home.  And it sucked me in for the first 100 pages.  No wonder everybody read this—that was the thought pulsating through my head.  I felt stupid and left out.  There’s a plot twist every chapter.  My brothers and sisters used to play this trick on me as a kid:  whenever I went to bed early, they would tell me in the morning that I missed out—that they had ordered pepperoni pizzas.  I always believed them.  I always felt left out.  I always felt sad.  I grew up in an insatiably cruel, cruel family.


In my first blog—the blog announcing my intentions of writing the first Vietnamese American Detective novel with a Vietnamese American detective written by a Vietnamese American—I said that I was doing so for one reason:  to reach out to those on the road, like me, who were trying to get a good read.  So, my wife’s reading mysteries on the elliptical is my way of staying true to the experience on the road.  If she hates a book, I know it will be unreadable on a chicken bus in Peru or a boat on a border crossing in Laos.  I always think about whether or not K– will chuck my book as she works herself up into a lather on the elliptical.  My wife has great taste.  And she’s got a pretty nice ass, too.

Getting a New Notebook

I’m almost done with my little notebook—the spiral-bound best friend of anybody who takes up the task of writing.  This is an occasion of great sadness and joy, triumph and despair, loneliness and possibility.  I am filled with emotions best described by the words you might hear on a Bossa Nova record:  tristeza. 


Now, imagine that word accompanied by a guitar, an ever-so-subtle piano and the generous voice of a woman with a drooping scarlet hibiscus in her hair.  This is the feeling I get when the time is spent.

I do all my preliminary writing in notebooks and almost none of it is good.  That is because it’s very slapdash.  Bits of dialog.  Lists.  Leads to follow up.  Things To Do.  Books recommended.  Smart-sounding phrases.  Quips.  It’s important to get all this stuff down because when I get up to write in the morning, I often don’t have many ideas.


Your relationship to a notebook is an intimate one but it is also casual.  When I was first buying notebooks, I used to spend days plotting the purchase of a new journal.  It had to be cute enough so that I would want to write on it.  But it also couldn’t be too nice.  Or else I would think it was too good for me and I would never dare to mess it up.  I have friends who buy those nice moleskin notebooks.  And when I was teaching college, I could and did purchase those pricey notebooks on the English Department’s dime.  But I couldn’t write in them.  The pressure was too great.


For me, picking up a notebook is like picking up a broad in a bar in a detective fiction.  Yeah, she’s a bit cheap.  But water finds its level; you gotta feel natural around a dame.  And I feel natural around someone that’s a little world-weary, that’s okay with being knocked around, that’s expecting to be manhandled.  “I have to be able to take you out at a moment’s notice, baby…and you better not complain.”  That’s what I tell each notebook I look at before I drop a pretty penny on a purchase.  I try to treat each notebook nice at the beginning.