As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I’m a big fan of books published by Casperian Press. Mouth of the Lion by Lily Richards, The Tea House by Paul Elwork, and Sound and Noise by Curtis Smith are all wonderful titles that demonstrate the diversity and quality that I’ve come to associate with Casperian in particular and small presses in general. In September, Casperian will release their latest title, Kelland by Paul Bens. As with Casperian’s other titles, Kelland is a moving and complex novel populated by a diverse and intriguing cast of characters. Recently, author Paul Bens took a break from promoting his debut novel to chat with us about the project.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Kelland. What is the novel about, and what inspired you to write it?
A: Kelland is my first novel after having published a dozen or so short stories, all dealing with the darker aspects of human nature. It tells the story of four people, brothers Minh and Toan, a little boy named George and a mother named Melanie. Although none of them are aware of it, each of the characters has reached an important turning point in their lives, a nexus when things can get much better or much worse depending on which path one takes. Each of them meets a mysterious person named Kelland who, though quite cruel and frightening at times, tries to help each of them. For George, Kelland seems like an angel; for Melanie, a confidant; for Minh and Toan, a lover. Kelland becomes their guide who, along the way, reveals some very dark secrets each have buried.
The inspiration is a bit more nebulous. A few years before writing the novel I found myself at a major turning point in my own life, discovering some not so pleasant information in my own past. I’m not one who can sit down and journal out my thoughts or write about myself in any kind of coherent or memoir-ish way; so I began crafting a short story only featuring the character of George. Once I’d finished that story, certain news stories started popping up and they related directly to my own struggle and the struggle of George, the character I’d created. It was then I realized this was a universal story, one that touched many, many people. So I began reworking the story and it became, ultimately, Kelland.
Q: Kelland follows multiple story lines. As a writer, how did you juggle these?
A: Luckily, each storyline is independent of the others throughout the majority of the novel, coming together only near the end, so I had wide latitude to play with each one. Honestly, the different storylines also gave me a break when I was writing because, if I got stuck on a particular issues in one storyline, I could jump to another without losing any focus. The real challenge came in that each storyline had its own unique timeline as well. Minh and Toan’s storylines stretch individually all the way from 1975 when they escape Saigon through to 1998. George’s story is more compact, spanning the years from 1996 to 1998, as does Melanie’s story. Since they all ultimately intersect via the character of Kelland, making sure the timeline in each story remained consistent was more complex and required lots of re-reading, an Excel chart or two, plus some very good and trusted friends going “Uh, what’s up with that?”
Q: One of the plots in your novel focuses on a pair of Vietnamese brothers named Minh and Toan Ngo. How did these characters make their way into your work? What about them called out to you, as it were?
A: As I was crafting the novel, I knew I needed it to tell the story of many people, not just one particular racial make-up. The universality was very important to me and the world I was writing needed to reflect the world I’m living in, a multi-cultural world. I also knew I wanted two brothers in the novel because that older brother-younger brother dynamic in relation to the themes I was exploring has so many levels to it…loving, competitive, volatile. Years ago, I worked very closely with the Asian Pacific American entertainment community here in Los Angeles, trying to make the industry aware of the vast pool of talent in the APA community, both in front of and behind the camera. So when it came time to craft my brothers, I chose to make them Vietnamese American for a couple of reasons. First, having them escape Viet Nam allowed me to create a deep bond — brothers who had been through so much together and had become so close — so that when that bond is shattered it hopefully has a huge emotional impact. Secondly, Vietnamese American (and Asian American in general) characters are hugely underrepresented in literature, and finally, because the story I’m telling relates to so many people and Minh and Toan, though Vietnamese, I think help to represent people of color from every background.
Q: In the novel, Kelland is a mysterious figure who appears as a small boy, a lover, and a priest. He’s also been described as an enigma and a puzzle. Given the mysterious nature of the title character, do you consider your novel a “mystery” in the traditional sense?
A: It certainly has elements of mystery, as well as a touch of horror, but I don’t think it could be classified as traditional mystery or horror in any way that would be fair to the reader who might be craving such a genre piece. Kelland very much is a story about relationships–family and otherwise–and the secrets that get in the way of those relationships being what they should and could be. The mystery or horror of it is who and what Kelland is to each of them. Kelland is what each of them need at that particular point in their lives in order to move on from a past that, whether they know it or not, has a stranglehold on them. So, Kelland can be a lover or a son and angel or the devil. In the end I think the novel is best labeled literary fiction or perhaps even better is psychological drama.
Q: What writers have influenced your work? Who do you like to read?
A: Wow. That’s actually a tough one for me to answer in that I think, one way or another, I absorb and learn from every writer I read. Good or bad, each book teaches me something about construction or theme or style, and depending on what I’m writing I try to utilize the lessons I’ve learned from each writer.
Stylistically, I think that Poppy Z. Brite had a huge influence on me. Her early works — and in particular Drawing Blood — had a beautiful rhythm and flow that evokes time, place and sensation so masterfully. Her characters also really spoke to me as a gay man because they were wonderfully realistic, heroic and flawed, emotional and stoic. She doesn’t write gay men as stereotypes, but neither does she paint gay men as saints. She captures a really wonderful balance in her characters that I greatly appreciate. Armistead Maupin also has had an influence, but then in some way I think he has had an influence on many gay writers. In his Tales of the City series, he has an ease and simplicity of storytelling that I covet in every way possible. Yet, he can turn that around, and go darker and more complex while still remaining riveting. He never loses sight of the characters. Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, two of his non-Tales books, are absolutely brilliant. Noel Alumit’s novel Letters to Montgomery Clift actually inspired me to get up off my ass and write because that novel was so deeply moving. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh haunts me to this day, and Han Ong’s darkly funny Fixer Chao is a comfort read.
These days, I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history and Hawaiian historical fiction. Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i and Honolulu just blew me away, and right at this moment I’m reading Honor Killing by David Stannard, which explores not only the murder of Joseph Kahahawai, but also the political and social climate in Hawai’i in the 1930s that led to such a senseless killing. Otherwise, I enjoy most fiction, from gay romance (Ann Somerville, Kit Zheng and Lee Benoit being favorites) to sci-fi, but I think it is dark psychological fiction and/or horror that always sucks me in the most.
Q: I love the cover of Kelland. Who did the artwork and book design? Did you have a hand in the process?
A: Ah. I’m glad you mentioned the cover. The artwork was created by a wonderful artist named V.L. Ta who I’ve known for years and who also checked me on all things Vietnamese in the novel. He actually came up with the concept prior to my signing with my publisher, Casperian Books, and I was hopeful that they would want to use it because it so fits the tone of the novel. Luckily, Casperian was very open to it. V.L. did a mock-up of the cover for them, and after a few minor changes, we had a finished cover. As far as the layout of the book, that was solely in the hands of my amazing editor Lily Richards who put it together beautifully. I’m a little bit spoiled by Casperian, I think, because they gave me input into the layout (not to mention the cover) that bigger publishing houses probably wouldn’t. I’m very grateful for that.
Q: Finally, before you wrote Kelland, you worked for many years in the entertainment industry. How did your experience in this field influence your writing?
A: I think working in the industry really created a very visual style of writing. At least I hope it comes off visual to the reader. As I write, I see the scenes playing out in my head almost as if through the camera lens, and I try to set the mood and tone a director of photography would, except I’m trying to do it with words instead of lighting (though I do pay homage in the novel to noir lighting effects). It also gave me an understanding of finding a way to “hook” the readers in the first chapter, whether that be through endearing characters, a visceral reaction to the words, or a unique structure. There are so many books out there that I, as a writer, really feel it is my responsibility to grab the reader immediately so they choose to read the book I’ve written rather than the next on the shelves. Finally I think where it has influenced me is that I know so many talented actors that I’m able to picture exactly who my characters are by relating them to wonderful people I’ve known. It’s that moment of “Oh, this would be a great part for Dustin Nguyen” or “Wow, wouldn’t Bibi Besch (rest her soul) have been wonderful in this type of role.” So, even though it’s highly unlikely my book would ever make it to the film screen, in my imagination I’m building a character I think would be fun or interesting or challenging for people to play.