Novel Rocket: Interview with Khaled Hosseini

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Interview with Khaled Hosseini

Photo Credit: John Dolan
With more than ten million copies sold in the United States of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and more than thirty-eight million copies sold worldwide in more than seventy countries, Khaled Hosseini is one of most widely read and beloved novelists in the entire world. The Kite Runner spent 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and A Thousand Splendid Suns debuted as a #1 New York Times bestseller, remaining in the #1 spot for fifteen weeks, and spending nearly an entire year on the bestseller list. Hosseini is a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a nonprofit which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

l Being as in demand as you are, you get a lot of media requests. What interview questions do you enjoy answering the most?

I don’t have any favorite questions, per se.  But I find that sometimes readers’ questions reveal something about the story or the characters that will even take me by surprise.  Every reader brings his or her own past and perspectives into the reading experience.  No two people read the same book the same way.  Sometimes what people discover in my stories is amusing, sometimes puzzling, but at times revealing and insightful.  So it is always interesting to me to see where my writing has led people and what sorts of questions it has stirred in them.  Of course, I always appreciate the opportunity to speak about my foundation, especially when young people contact me and want to find ways to partner with the foundation to help people in Afghanistan.  So those questions I always welcome as well.

lWhen just starting out, what made you think you could write a novel?

I always loved stories and dreamed of being a writer, but I never imagined that anyone besides my family and a few friends would be interested in my writing. I wrote my first novel, The Kite Runner, while I was still working full-time as a physician. I did it because I was completely mesmerized by the relationship between the two boys and the father character and simply wanted to see it through.  I wasn’t sure I could do it, until I realized that writing a novel is largely an act of perseverance and determination, of outlasting fatigue and doubt.  And in a way, the demanding medical training in my past helped with that quite a lot.  So I rose at 5 AM each day and wrote until I had to go see patients at nine, and I looked forward to the next morning when I could re-enter that world.

lI had read that you received something like thirty rejection letters from agents before one enthusiastically accepted. One rejection stands out among them. One agent told you that Afghanistan was passee and no one wanted to read about it. It strikes me incredibly funny how subjective this business is and how wrong that agent turned out to be. What advice might you have for writers who are where you were… they believe in their story, but are facing an uphill and seemingly never-ending battle with rejection?

Like many writers, I received a large number of letters of rejections, many from agents who, I suspect, had not read the pages I had sent. My advice is not to take it personally. Rejections are part of the process, but they don’t have to be the endgame.   You only need one agent to find something unique in you. 

lYour debut, Kite Runner, is among the best novels I’ve ever read. The craft, the story, the characters, dialogue, everything, was perfection. How did you learn to write that well and how heavily edited was this book?


Everything I know about writing I know from writing and reading.  I have no formal training at all, but I have loved writing since I was a boy, and have had a voice in my head wanting to create for as long as I can recall.  I believe writers are born, not made.  Programs like MFA’s (Master of Fine Arts) can make you into a better writer, but cannot turn you into one if the compulsion, the need, and the talent to do it is not there to begin with.  The editing of The Kite Runner was largely done in the middle section, and some toward the end.  I was personally unhappy with the middle, the Fremont section, and told my editor I wanted to rewrite it, and she agreed.  We were both pleased with the new middle. 

lMost writers seem to suffer with their sophomore novel. I, myself, struggled greatly with mine. You, on the other hand, wrote another phenomenal book. Did you feel any debilitating pressure because of how critically acclaimed your first novel was? Were you nervous the second wouldn’t be as well received?

Well, when I was writing The Kite Runner, no one was waiting for it! The difficulty of writing a second novel is directly proportional to how successful the first novel was, or so it seems to me. For me, at the outset, there was a period of self-doubt and hesitation, as well as a recurring tendency to question and reassess my own literary capabilities and limitations. This was especially so when I was aware of the people who were eagerly awaiting the book: booksellers, my publisher, and of course, the reading public. This is wonderful—after all, you want your work to be anticipated—and daunting—your work is anticipated!

Though I did experience some of these apprehensions, as my wife will surely attest, I gradually learned to view them as natural and not unique to me. And as I began to write, as the story picked up pace and I found myself immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns, these apprehensions vanished on their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was creating.

lI learned to write by reading every how-to book I could get my hands on, and just as importantly, by reading great writers—among them, you. Did you find any how-to books on the craft of writing particularly helpful and what novelists have you learned from?

Released May, 2013
With regard to publishing and writing, I bought and read two books; the first was a basic how to on how to publish your first novel, which instructed me that I needed to find an agent. The second, not surprisingly, was a marketplace guide to finding literary agents.

I have always loved to read and was raised in a household in which classic Persian literature and poetry was revered and prized. Among those we read were Saadi and Hafez and Omar Khayyam and Rumi. When I was eight or nine, I discovered Western novels at a little bookshop in Kabul. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I was in wonderland. I recall reading abridged young adult editions of classics like Don Quixote and Ivanhoe and Treasure Island and falling in love with the format.

I admire many contemporary authors and make it a point to read them; though I would stop short of saying they are my inspiration.  I do learn something from each of them, but they do not influence me directly, at least I don’t believe they do.  They include Alice Munro, J.M Coetzee, Ian McEwen, Jennifer Egan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, and many more.

lWhen you sit down to write a book, how much of the story do you know going in? Please take us through your process.

I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult, and often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what you thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal you held in your mind when you began writing it. But what I would say is that a first draft is really just a sketch on which you can add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. I struggle writing the first draft, but love writing subsequent drafts because I can see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

lWhere do you do the bulk of your writing and do you still wake up at 5 am to write?

I work from a small office inside my home.  These days I work from about 8AM to 2PM.

lWhat, in your opinion, are the components of a great novel, vs. a good one?

A great novel doesn’t just entertain; it speaks to something universal in all of us.  It articulates complex truths and holds up old ones in new lights.  It enlightens, surprises, delights, moves, shocks, and in the end leaves us envying those who have not read it and still have the opportunity to explore it for the first time.


lThe astronomical success of Kite Runner seems to have as much to do with the timing of 9-11 and the war in Afghanistan as it did with how great the novel is. Were you initially concerned that timing might work against you?

Yes.  I was two-thirds of the way through writing a first draft when the 9/11 attacks occurred.  For a couple of months after that, I felt uncomfortable moving forward—fearful that there would be a perception that I was trying to capitalize on a terrible tragedy, and suspicious that, as an Afghan-born writer, I would be rejected out of hand.

My wife argued that, given the events of 9/11, this story was important, that it was a way to allow readers to hear about the people of Afghanistan rather than the Taliban and Bin Laden. She also persuaded me that well-written stories about family, love, betrayal, and friendship are never ill timed. With her encouragement, I finished the novel and began submitting the manuscript to agents in June 2002.  I have no doubt that the events of 9/11 created an interest in my book.  To deny that would be naive.  But I believe that once an interest has been created, sustaining it depends on the merits of the work itself.  And so I think The Kite Runner continues to resonate not because of 9/11 but because it connects with readers on a common, human level.


lWhat challenges and rewards has success given you?

I travel a great deal more than I did before. I have seen places that I might not have otherwise—something that kept recurring to me when I was on the movie set in Kashgar, in remote western China. I have a slew of new friends in the literary and publishing community and have had the honor of meeting and speaking with writers whose work I had admired for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, I also have the privilege of serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee issues. This work, and the work I am able to do with my foundation, have become very important to me and have enriched my life immeasurably.


lI read that you went into the medical field for the same reason I did, practicality of making a sustainable living. If you knew how successful you’d be as a writer, would you have taken that same path? Also, do you still practice medicine?

When we came as political refugees to the United States, my family had to begin again. We had a suitcase of clothes and initially relied on welfare and food stamps. This was difficult for my parents given the success they had enjoyed in Afghanistan.  It was understood early on, that while our parents worked, we had to make a success of ourselves, my siblings and I.  I chose medicine for the reasons you mention, it was not something I can name a lifelong calling.  Pursuing a career as a writer, frankly, under those circumstances was unthinkable and even irresponsible, no matter how much I loved writing. I am grateful that I was able to earn a medical degree and work as a physician for the time I did. But I don’t look back with any regret at having left the field. Being able to earn a living as a writer is a dream come true for me. I am grateful for how things have worked out.

lA Thousand Splendid Suns is listed on the IMDb site as being “in development”. Where is it in the moving-making process?

Steve Zaillian, who wrote Schindler's List and is a wonderful screenwriter, has written a first draft of the screenplay. The producers are in the process of searching for the right director.

lHow were you approached about making The Kite Runner a movie? Were you pleased with the final result? (I found it to be a wonderful adaptation).

Ian McEwan had a great quote, something about how a screen adaptation of a novel is like a controlled act of vandalism.  I loved film from a very early age, but did not have any misguided romantic notions that my novel would be translated from print to screen without changes.

I was pleased with the film for two reasons. First, I was really proud of the children in the film, particularly since they were amateur actors who had never even seen a movie prior to being in ours. Second, for me the film was a positive step forward for the depiction of that region of the world by those in Hollywood. Usually those films center around political violence, terrorism, things of that nature, and this was a film largely about family, friendship, guilt, betrayal, redemption and regret. Very human things. The characters in the film were Muslim, but they weren't in the film because they were Muslims. Their faith was incidental to that. And I think that is a really positive development.

lHow were your novels received by the Afghani/Muslim community?

My work hasn’t officially been printed in Afghanistan, though pirate copies are available. The book was “officially” published in Iran, but I was never contacted because there are no copyright agreements between the U.S. and Iran. So some of those Farsi editions, and some in English, have made their way to Kabul.

In Afghanistan today there is, among men, maybe a 70 to 75 percent illiteracy rate. Among women it's probably higher than 80 percent. So the people who tend to read novels are the educated, urban, progressive, affluent professionals. So it's a skewed pool of readers to begin with. Among them, I think the opinion is divided, though I believe on the side of being supportive –this I base on the e-mails I receive.  I do have my critics in my community, no doubt.  The common theme among them is that some things are better left unsaid, kept in house, for instance the issue of ethnic tensions and treatment of women and violence against children.  But I think novels ought not to be propaganda tools, but rather conduits for open, honest discussion of difficult, sensitive, even taboo subjects.

lWhat part does faith play when you write?

Very little.

lAre you affected by negative reviews? Do you even read them?

It's never easy to see unkind things said about your writing, but one has to develop a bit of a thick skin—to try not to take things personally unless -and this is rare- the review is a personal attack. I have been lucky that most of the reviews of my books have been generous. It's a privilege to be published, and reviews—good and bad—come with the territory.

lIf you could go back to that green writer you were and give him any piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell him not to spend so much time absorbed in self-doubt. I would also tell him that he was correct to believe that stubborn perseverance is the key to finishing a manuscript.

lWhere do you see yourself writing-wise in the future? Do you plan to continue writing in the genre you are in or would you someday like to do something different?

Right now, I am focused on finishing my third novel. I have no idea what I will write after that.  But I have no doubt that at some point I will approach a wholly different topic.

lParting words, encouragement or advice for your fellow novelists?

I have met so many people who say they've got a book in them, but they've never written a word. To be a writer –this may seem trite, I realize- you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or don’t. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one—yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night. You also have to read a lot—and pay attention. Read the kinds of things you want to write, read the kinds of things you would never write. Learn something from every writer you read.
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Interviewer, Gina Holmes is the founder of NovelRocket.com and award-winning novelist. Her debut novel, Crossing Oceans was a Gold Medallion, Book of the Year and Christy Finalist and winner of the Carol Award. Holmes' sophomore novel, Dry as Rain was also a Christy Award Finalist. Her latest novel, Wings of Glass released in 2013. You can learn more about her at GinaHolmes.com





Released 2013






12 comments :

  1. Interesting. Thanks for landing that interview. His two word response to an important question above was very telling. So too was his "writers are born" comment, but I think he meant one is either born with passion to write or not. The whole "writers are born" myth is elitist, imo, and although he seems gracious and genuine, I hear a bit of that elitism in his overall answers. Still, his first two books were fantastic and I'll likely read his third.

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  2. Lyn, I didn't find anything elitist about his answers. He admits to being "absorbed in self-doubt" early. Starting out on food stamps and welfare, etc. As far as great writers being born, I don't disagree with that. I think there's a certain amount of talent a person has to have to be "great". I think most people can learn to be "good" but greatness, imo, comes with talent plus craft, perseverance, etc.

    Khaled, thank you so much for the interview. I've always said great writers give great interviews and yours was no exception. Thanks for your candor and willingness to share what you've learned. Congratulations on your successes! Looking forward to what you do next!

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  3. GREAT interview... what a treat!

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  4. " . . . writing a novel is largely an act of perseverance and determination, of outlasting fatigue and doubt." So true, and the gem that we all need to post above our computers!

    Thank you, Khaled and Gina, for a wonderful interview. I appreciate the insights you've opened with your work, Khaled, and the good you are doing for others.

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  5. Wonderful interview.

    I think writers are born in the same sense a child is born who can carry a tune or not. No matter how much some people want to sing, they simply can't do it. I think there are many people writing who have tin ears. But I think good writers can learn to be great if they will immerse themselves in great writing. We pick up the accents of our parents. And we pick up the cadence of the great books we read.

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    1. I guess I simply disagree. All talent can be learned. Maybe one has a propensity for or a bent toward a certain creative expression, but that same creativity can be harnessed by every person to master any endeavor - with tremendous work, effort, and discipline of course. But I agree, most of us won't take the time to become masters...

      As for my elitism comment, that may be too strong a word. I simply disagree (again! sorry! :) with another of his comments - that great novels don't simply entertain. Hmm. Why not? I think the difference between great and good is a matter of degree, not of kind. Again, a matter of mastery. An entertaining novel can be great, imo. Anyway, not to argue. Just sharing some random thoughts. Thanks for letting me comment. And again, great interview.

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  6. Thanks, Gina and Khaled. I'm a huge fan. My husband is from the Middle East, so I have a lot of interest in that area of the world and the issues surrounding it. A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite novels and spoke to me on many levels.

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  7. Excellent interview, both from Gina asking the questions and Mr. Hosseini answering them.

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  8. Great interview! I just read The Kite Runner last year.

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  9. I am late in reading this, but thank you so much, both of you, for this interview! I agree that no amount of study on the craft of writing can give you the "compulsion" and the "need" to write ... such an apt description of what keeps us going despite the doubts. Strong encouragement, there!

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  10. Captivating and affecting . . . A masterful and compassionate storyteller, Hosseini traces the traumas and scarring of tyranny, war, crime, lies, and illness in the intricately interconnected, heartbreaking, and transcendent lives of his vibrantly realized characters to create a grand and encompassing tree of life.

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