Novelist Khaled Hosseini's first two books, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and "The Kite Runner," were well-received. Each enjoyed an extended stay on the New York Times bestseller list, and the latter was turned into a major motion picture.
Hosseini visited our studios to discuss his newest novel, "And the Mountains Echoed." The story follows a brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, over half a century and across four countries. Like his previous work, this book is set in Hosseini's native Afghanistan, but it also takes the reader to locations in Paris, California and Greece.
Hosseini said the book began "small," with a single image that "just kind of came to me."
"This guy was crossing a desert," Hosseini said, "and he was pulling a little red wagon, and inside it was a little girl, and a few paces behind him was this boy, maybe about 10 years old. And I found this so arresting ... and I really have to dig and try to figure out who these people were. And so I decided that the little girl and the boy were brother and sister and that they had a very deep and loving and intimate relationship. He was almost parental toward her. And they were going to Kabul with their father, where something was going to happen to them that was going to break this bond."
He explained that the process is the same one he's followed in his earlier books: discovering the story, rather than inventing it.
"For me, writing is not so much a matter of creating stuff out of nothing. It's more a matter of having an inkling about something, and then a process of discovery, of investigating and kind of unearthing something that to me feels compelling. That's how all my books have started. They started very small and I just investigate an idea and I watch it grow and grow."
And although his books get credit for raising awareness of Afghan society and culture in the West, Hosseini said, that's not his intent.
"My primary goal is to tell a story. But stories have functions well beyond the intentions of their creators, and they end up serving purposes that the writer never imagined. So in a way, I do get credit for 'raising awareness about Afghanistan,' where the truth is, my primary concern is to tell a really compelling and gripping story. But people who read my stories have gotten a window through this world I've created for my characters — a window into Afghan life, Afghan culture and society."
"I intended this book to be a more active reading experience for my readers," he said. "I think of reading as something active. It's not like watching a movie, where the director has done all the imagining for you, and so you are merely receiving somebody's vision. When you read, you have to create your own vision. You actively have to imagine. You have symbols on a page, and then you have to cast the characters. You have to imagine the settings. You have to connect all the dots; it's not done for you."
To increase that level of reader participation, Hosseini said, he intentionally wrote the novel from a variety of perspectives, and introduced elements that the reader might not understand at first. "This book is intended for readers to have revelations about something that happened 100 pages ago," he said, "and suddenly see the connections and have those 'aha' moments."
With different formats and voices and perspectives, each chapter is its own mini-novel.
Perhaps his favorite character, Hosseini said, is a poet who adopts one of the children at the core of the story. A "raging narcissist," developing alcoholic and openly sexual being, she sits for a magazine interview in a chapter that becomes a "de facto deconstruction of this very popularized image of the Afghan woman as this submissive, oppressed woman in a burka. She is antithetical to all of those ideals. People are always surprised ... they say, 'She's not at all like what we imagine Afghan women to be.'"
That character, Nila, is a relic of Afghan society that Hosseini knew as a boy, when the Soviet Union and the United States were vying for influence over the country, and some people embraced Western values. In addition to her open sexuality and narcissism, Hosseini said, she has great physical beauty.
"There's a line in the book, that beauty is an unmerited gift. It's handed out randomly, and stupidly. And the same could be said for many of our fates," he said. "Whether we're lucky enough to be living in affluence and safety, or whether we grew up in a refugee camp.
"This is something I have felt deep inside me every time I've gone to Afghanistan. It's not the deepest insight, by any stretch, but it's very powerful when you go there. Really, if you boil everything down to its essence, it comes down to a genetic lottery. You happened to be born in a family that had the means to leave, and therefore everything in your life followed from that stroke of luck."
"I feel a sense of guilt when I go to Afghanistan, something akin to survivor's guilt," he said. "I have now lived in the U.S. for 32 years. I lived in Afghanistan 11 years. ... I feel a very powerful emotional bond with Afghanistan, and if somebody had said, 'Decide what you are,' I would have a hard time. But I have so many roots now in the U.S., some very meaningful relationships that I've nurtured here. My children were born here. The U.S. feels like home. But when I go to Kabul, again, I have that very powerful, emotional experience. When the plane is circling over Kabul and is about to land, it is a very strong emotional experience, to know that I was born down there, I learned to walk and talk there and so many of the things that have shaped me as a person happened down there."
Hosseini said he is not like other authors who resist the idea of their books being turned into movies. He likes movies, and "The Kite Runner" was a success, he said. "I thought it was a good movie. I thought the core emotional essence of the book was very much there, and I really thought the kids were terrific."
'The Kite Runner' trailer:
LEARN MORE ABOUT 'AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED'
Resurrecting Afghanistan: Khaled Hosseini's 'And the Mountains Echoed'
"Can literature undo what war has done? If this is the question Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini asked himself in writing his latest book 'And the Mountains Echoed,' then even the formidable accomplishment of two best sellers must have provided little solace. Afghanistan lies blistered and bruised by war, by the ravages of local destruction and international meddling, riven by the dependencies of foreign aid-fueled micro-economies and the alienation of widely scattered diasporas." (Rafia Zakaria, Daily Beast)