Khaled Hosseini is 'Less Likely to Reach for Shock Value'
In his 2003 mega-bestseller, "The Kite Runner," Khaled Hosseini exploded onto the literary scene and gave millions of readers around the world a sense of what it means to be Afghan. With his newest bestselling novel, "And the Mountains Echoed," Hosseini tells Bookish that he's become "more trusting of the reader," blurring the lines between "good" and "bad," whereas in in "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns," "it was pretty straightforward that there was a good person and there was a villain." Hosseini also reveals what he thinks are the best and worst things about being a writer, which book he has recommended the most and how he got a sense of perspective on his own good fortune by visiting "the most vulnerable people" in Afghanistan.
Bookish: You were raised in Kabul, Tehran, Paris and California. Which of these places most influenced you as a writer, and why?
Khaled Hosseini: I've found a great deal of inspiration in Kabul. I've drawn on experiences that I've had in that city over and over again. "The Kite Runner" was really just based on memories of childhood that I tapped into. But with the subsequent two books, my last 10 years of traveling to Afghanistan and having experiences with the locals--hearing their stories, being able to see what they've gone through and what the reality of Afghanistan is like--has informed my writing enormously, and some things that I've seen have been reproduced in the books almost verbatim. Other things have just merely inspired me in some fashion. But definitely Kabul.
Bookish: In the last two years, what book have you recommended to others the most frequently, and why? Over the course of your lifetime, what book have you recommended the most?
KH: In the last two years, the book I've found myself recommending to a lot of people has been "What Is the What," by Dave Eggers, which is a story about the Sudanese civil war, and it's about the South Sudanese refugees. This one boy, whose village was attacked, loses family members and he makes this long, difficult journey across the desert to Kenya, where he lives in a refugee camp and ends up finding asylum in the United States. I thought it was a very, very moving story, the classic example of how fiction can connect you to something that is entirely foreign to you and inhabit someone else's world for a while. I thought it was just beautiful, and I felt it helped me develop a sense of personal connection with the Sudanese.
Lifetime, I probably would have to say "The Shahnameh." That's a crown jewel of Persian literature that's been around for about a thousand years and is a massive epic--[it's] well-known in the Persian-speaking world and has over 500 characters. It begins with the dawn of time and ends with the Arab invasion of Persia in the seventh century. It's told as one big, massive poem, but it has amazing stories of kings and princes and warriors and villains and mythical creatures, and in terms of just pure story, it's unparalleled.
KH: I think I've changed over the years. I'm not sure it's for the better or for worse. That's up to my readers to decide, ultimately. But I do find that I'm more trusting of the reader. I do find that I'm less quote/unquote "pedal to the metal," less likely to reach for shock value. I think my characters [in "And the Mountains Echoed"] are far more ambiguous than my previous characters. They're more conflicted, more contradictory. I think there's a bigger sense of mystery around them; [they're] less archetypal. The whole idea of good and bad--especially in this book--the line between those two things is very much blurred over and over again, and you really have to make a judgment call about what you think of these characters. Whereas, previously--and I love both of my previous books--it was pretty straightforward that there was a good person and there was a villain, and there really wasn't much room in between.
Bookish: Was there an experience from your own life that made you call into question your former distinctions between good and evil?
KH: Well, you get older, and you see a lot of the gray. You see how reductive these questions can be, about who's a good person and who's a bad person. I think the capacity for both is fully existent in all of us, and we operate out of a very messy and often contradictory set of values.
Bookish: In the beginning of your new novel, the father character tells a story in which a father in a village sacrifices his son to a demon to save his family--"a finger cut to save the hand." Were you focusing on the theme of sacrifice in this book?
KH: Well, rather than sacrifice, I look at it as a theme of your responsibility to the people around you. How do you measure your own happiness, your own personal gratification, versus what you owe the people around you, versus the greater good? Are you willing and able--or capable of--taking on loss, deep, resounding personal loss, out of a sense of duty, out of love for the people around you? That's come up again and again, partly because it's a theme that appeals to me, partly because, when you go to a place like Afghanistan, you do see people that have made painful compromises in order to survive, and they've made choices that the rest of us hope we never have to make.
Bookish: There's a scene in "And the Mountains Echoed" where a wealthy urban woman, Nila, comes to a poor village and tells a family that they are living more authentically, that the provinces are the "real Afghanistan." Were you trying to explore the link between authenticity and wealth, and whether it's possible for a rich person or a very poor person to live authentically?
KH: I think when she goes to the village, she is faced with some of the hypocrisies of her own life, and some of the artifice of her life as she has lived it. She's given a sense of perspective. And certainly, when I go to Afghanistan, I'm faced with the same. Not that I feel they're living a more authentic life, but it does provide me with a great sense of perspective in the sense that I see that what I take for accomplishments, for success, for things that, at least on the surface, I have merited and deserved, are actually really a byproduct of incredible stroke of luck, in the sense that it was just a genetic lottery that landed me in this particular family that had the means to leave, and if I'd been born in another family, I might have been the one trying to survive in a Pakistani refugee camp. And so you do get the sense, when you go to those places and you visit with people in their small homes, just how absurd the world is, how random it is, and but for the stroke of luck, roles can so easily be reversed.
Bookish: Did you find when you visited that the people were happy with "their station," so to speak? Is there an analogue to what we think of as the "American Dream," in the sense of economic progress? Or are Afghans in the small villages you reference generally content with remaining in their circumstances?
KH: They have goals, but those goals are far more modest. I would say that the "Afghan Dream" for a lot of people is to be able to provide for their children and have a roof over their head. At the end of the day, it's a universal dream. But the people that I meet are the most vulnerable people in the country. They're the ones with the least in terms of material possessions. They're living in a deeply impoverished country, where the central government is very weak and basic resources are badly lacking, and so these are people whose daily life is shaped around finding water, around trying to find daily labor for a dollar or two a day, around trying to find a place where they can have a roof over their heads and maybe a school for their kids. Very essential necessities of life preoccupy a huge portion of the Afghan population.
Bookish: What are the best and the worst things about being a writer?
KH: Well, they're intertwined. They're sort of the same thing. Writing--the act of creating--is both very painful and it's also extremely gratifying. I really don't mean to sound highfalutin', but writing is really a struggle. Every word on the page was hard work to me. The entire process is just marked by great stretches of self-doubt and lack of confidence and an absolute certainty that this is a waste of time, and that can be very unpleasant, especially when you're absolutely certain of it. And yet, the best thing about it is that somehow, against all odds, and despite your own skepticism and frequent temptations to give up on the whole thing, that something emerges that at least you feel is truthful and beautiful, and therefore miraculous.
Bookish: Is there anything that you're currently obsessing over that you think might make it into your next book?
KH: I never know ahead of time. It's only after I sit down to write that I recognize that, oh, this is coming from something that I've seen. Often it's well into the writing process that I realize, "Oh my God, I'm writing about that experience that I had." I rarely have an experience and say, "Well, I'm going to write about this." That's never happened. And it's usually quite a bit of time after I've had the experience, when I'm writing and I recognize that I'm writing about something that I've seen or heard or experienced. It's possible that our conversation right now has inspired my next book.
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and moved to the United States with his family in 1980, where he went on to train as a doctor with a specialty in internal medicine. In 2006 he was named a United Nations Goodwill Envoy as part of UNHCR, The United Nations Refugee Agency. Inspired by a trip he made to Afghanistan with the UNHCR, Hosseini created the The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.