An Interview with Khalil Barnett, author of KOJIRO
An alumni of the University of Central Florida, Khalil is a prose writer, screenwriter, English teacher, and martial artist living and working in Orlando, Florida. He published his first novel, Guerillas, in 2001, and his second novel, The Cynosure of All Eyes, in 2020. Kojiro is his third novel.
What is your favourite dragon in literature?
My favorite dragon in literature is easily Falkor from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. And the reasons are multifaceted. For starters, in the book Falkor’s name is written as “Fuchur”, which is derivative of the Japanese word fukuryū -meaning happiness or luck, which of course is his description in the story as ‘Falkor the Luck Dragon’. His archetypical function in the piece is transcendent, even Jungian and correspondent to Joseph Campbell’s observations of universal literary symbology in his seminal work “Hero With A Thousand Faces”. We all pass through what Campbell referred to as the ‘field of bliss’ on the path to self-actualization, and the hero’s journey reflected in most stories is a dramatization of this struggle that we all face. Falkor, and I noticed this even as a little deaf kid back in the 80s, is an expression of the importance not merely of “Luck”, but, more pointedly, “Hope” and “Belief”. Humans do not persevere without hope, we do not survive as a species without some form of belief in ourselves, in purpose, in meaning. We would all, instantly, or at least inexorably, succumb to the Nothing! Falkor is all of this, precisely. I can see his smile and wink right now as I say it.
I’m not going to be reviewing your newest novel, but from your other published novels, is there one that is your own personal favourite?
I’ve formally published three novels so far. The first, ‘Guerrillas’, was an examination of the stuff that makes a tyrant and the ways they indoctrinate otherwise good but desperate people to their destructive causes. My last book, ‘The Cynosure of All Eyes’, was an experiment in philosophical erotica but also a very intimate deep dive into the challenges of living with, and overcoming, debilitating clinical depression. But my latest novel, Kojiro, is by far my most personal project to date -because of its history. The idea was dreamt up during a car ride in 2001 through the streets of LA with my best friend Kesler Casimir, who regrettably passed right before Christmas in 2008. It started as an idea for a high concept horror script but went through several permutations from there, eventually evolving into a full-blown heroic mythology better suited for long form prose. What it’s become in its now published form is an amalgamation of so many heady ideas I’ve started and stopped over the years, cataloging in a idea database that has reached the point of bursting. Kesler always believed in every version of Kojiro, so this piece is for him, as are those that will follow in the expanding world.
Everyone has a ‘first novel’, even if many of them are a rough draft relegated to the bottom and back of your desk drawer (or your external harddrive!). Have you been able to reshape yours, or have you abandoned it for good?
I think there are shades of my first fully written though unpublished piece prevalent in all the three books I’ve published so far, enduring like an influential ghost of the past ever guiding my hand in the present and beyond. It was the story of a convict who breaks free of his mental and emotional shackles long after being released from the physical ones that shaped the bondage of his personality. In retrospect, it was very much a metaphorical therapeutic exercise in working through the baggage of my own experience in the world as a deaf person. Ever since I was a kid, I felt alienated from every peer group -from even my friends and classmates, from even other young black boys growing up in the south. Any cursory examination of deaf culture, which I wasn’t exposed to during my formative years, you’ll find expressions of this kind of isolated experience. Will I return to that old piece from my budding days as a writer and resurrect it anew? Very likely. That voice wouldn’t keep coming back to me if it weren’t still a story that demands to be told, like the child alive and well that is buried under wreckage of any adult’s memory.
Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?
The one thing I would say that has improved most about my writing is focus and readability. All the many unpublished tomes, they’re all good ideas lost in wildernesses of unsolved puzzles. All very much free association in nature as I struggled to find a voice. Now, there’s confidence and vision to damn the deluge of inspiration.
Some authors are able to pump out a novel a year and still be filled with inspiration. Is this the case for you, or do you like to let an idea percolate for a couple of years in order to get a beautiful novel?
The first author, my favorite, who comes to mind when I consider this question is Walter Mosley. He is so incredibly prolific and yet never seems to run out of ideas. The second author that comes to mind is George R.R. Martin, who famously takes many years between books. If I had to classify myself, I’d say that I am somewhere in between in regard to the developmental process of bringing a story from idea to fruition. The incubation stage for me is like a chaotic, unpredictable chrysalis. Maybe I’ll spit something in a short series of months, or maybe a project, like Kojiro, will take many years to see print. I’m already at work on the follow up, so Kojiro 2 will not take nearly as long as the first one did.
I have heard of writers that could only write in one place – then that cafe closed down and they could no longer write! Where do you find yourself writing most often, and on what medium (pen/paper or digital)?
I recently discovered that a thing I have in common with Toni Morrison is that I do my best writing early in the morning, while it’s still dark and the rest of the surrounding world is still sleeping. I like to imagine myself a conduit of dreams in these hours, not just my own, but those of the collective unconscious. I don’t remember who it was that said it, but I agree that every writer, inevitably, is part philosopher and part social scientist. We all have our finger on the pulse of society in some way or another, it’s maybe at once a gift and consequence of the neurosis that drives creativity. You don’t just research your topic, you research yourself and the many influences that characterize your thinking. Doesn’t matter where I’m doing the writing to facilitate that process, really. It’s more a matter of when. I make notes usually on paper, but the writing writing I do strictly digital. The keyboard is my guitar.
I am lucky enough to have very literate and brutally honest people in my sphere who proofread my material before I unleash it on the world.
I walk past bookshops and am drawn in by the smell of the books – ebooks simply don’t have the same attraction for me. Does this happen to you, and do you have a favourite bookshop? Or perhaps you are an e-reader fan… where do you source most of your material from?
Physical media is where it’s at! There’s nothing like the smell of a freshly printed book! I’m the cartoon character being drawn to it by tendrils of animated fragrance that forms a hand hypnotically beckoning me to ‘Come on!’ E-readers are incomparable to that. Audiobooks, forget it.
I used to find myself buying books in only one genre (fantasy) before I started writing this blog. What is your favourite genre, and have your tastes changed over time?
If I had to choose a favorite genre, it would be gumshoe fiction. Because that’s what life is for me, an ongoing high stakes investigation. I used to joke in fact about how being deaf or severely hearing impaired, in every conversation I’m like a detective working to crack a case. Studying clues in voice inflection, random words that I hear clearly in a bombardment of verbal hyroglyphics, context, etc… This is especially true in my work as a 5th grade English teacher when talking to students… But I love literary fiction, contemporary fiction, and, obviously, fantasy and sci fi. I’m drawn to sci fi for its inherent optimism for the future. There’s optimism even in distopian sci fi, because, ultimately, those stories are still about the heroic journey of overcoming. What’s more optimistic than self-actualization in the mist of tyranny and utter despair? I love fantasy, mythology, for its unapologetic expressions of archetypical pantheons, and for an undercurrent of, again, hope requisite to the very imaging of fantastical worlds, quests, and larger than life beings.
Social media is a big thing, much to my disgust! I never have enough time myself to do what I feel is a good job. What do you do?
I agree that social media is a hassle. More than that, it brings out there very worst in some people. The paradox being that it is antisocial, a breeding ground for toxic behavior, unchecked prejudices, and all around ugliness. Indeed, poor character and anti-intellectual fringe thinking is celebrated in the dark corners of so-called social media. But at the same time, when used effectively, it can be a great tool for connection, for networking and, again ironically and in spite of its nature, building real friendships that last forever. That said, I manage my own social media pages. I can’t imagine that changing sometime in the future, but I guess we’ll see.
Answering interview questions can often take a long time! Tell me, are you ever tempted to recycle your answers from one to the next?
In answering interview questions, I try not to ever lose the conversational aspect, the human connection at the foundation of it. It’s the point, I think, to interviews anyway; connection. So no, I don’t ever consciously recycle answers. If I’m asked a similar question, I may give a similar answer. But it’s never a copy and paste sort of thing. That’s not how conversations work. Indeed, it’s not how honesty works. If we’re talking, we’re talking. Answers, responses, comments, they’re influenced by the moment. And sometimes, caffeine.
Springing from a restless imagination, tulpas–otherwise known as “thought-forms”—can go on to live lives independent of their creators. This can have dark, troubling—even violent—consequences. No one knows this better than Coletrane Marx.
The only son of an eccentric billionaire archeologist, Coletrane one night unwittingly creates a tulpa—one that, to his horror, visits him in demonic form and murders his parents with a samurai sword.
Forever changed by this trauma, Coletrane soon discovers that his fevered childhood imagination has created a mysterious, cursed samurai warrior named Kojiro. But not just Kojiro: It has also created an alternate feudal history in which Kojiro lives his own prophetic story, in a world full of mythic creatures, powerful humanoid animal Lords, living deities, and evil Tricksters. A world—Coletrane soon learns—that could overlap with his own in catastrophic ways. Can Coletrane and Kojiro reconcile their dark, shared past? Can they join forces to defeat cataclysmic destruction?