Ask the Author: Khaled Hosseini

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Khaled Hosseini I read daily, Armando, not so much for the benefit of my writing, but because I am addicted to it. There is nothing in the world for me that compares to being lost in a really good novel. That said, reading is an absolute must if you want to write. It is a trite enough thing to say, but very true nonetheless. I cannot understand aspiring writers who email me for advice and freely admit that they read very little. I have learned something from every writer I have ever read. Sometimes I have done so consciously, picking up something about how to frame a scene, or seeing a new possibility with regards to structure, or interesting ways to write dialogue. Other times, I think, my collective reading experience affects my sensibilities and informs me in ways that I am not quite aware of, but in real ways that impact how I approach writing. The short of it is, as an aspiring writer, there is nothing as damaging to your credibility as saying that you don’t like to read.
Khaled Hosseini For me, story and character always come first and social circumstances second, although it is often difficult to separate the two. In my books, the social circumstances -war, poverty, exile, oppression, extremism, etc- are the background against which the characters’ lives unfold. But those events and those realities also impact who those characters are and how they behave. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, for instance, the Taliban rule of Afghanistan is the background, while the domestic drama taking place inside the house takes center stage. But the Taliban’s rule impacts Mariam and Laila’s lives and in many ways, their presence forces the women’s hands into certain decisions, some of the fateful. The key for me has always been to focus on the characters first, understand the extent to which those external social forces exert their influence in their lives and shape them as people, then go from there.
Khaled Hosseini Thank you, Anushri. I think we all can look back at our lives with some degree of surprise. Few of us are where we thought we would be, I know that is certainly true for me. When you think of the goals and aspirations you had as a young person, and you take stock of your current life, there is such a gap. You set out be one kind of person, lead a certain kind of life, and at some point things do not go as planned -whether in a positive or negative way- and you look back and see that the path you have taken, the epiphanies you have had, the changes that have come over you could not possibly have been planned and can only be understood in retrospect.
Khaled Hosseini Soon after I started the book, in fact about the time that I got to Nabi’s perspective, I realized that a whole host of characters were taking shape in my mind and crying out for their stories to be told, a feat that would prove impossible with a traditional linear structure. Though my intent was still to write something with both the heft and the arc of a novel, I saw that I could only do it in chapters, each standing more or less on its own, eacg structurally complete, but each also augmenting and illuminating part of a much bigger story. I wanted each chapter to provide answers to questions raised earlier in the book, each to reveal epiphanies both minor and major, and each chapter to be better understood and appreciated if you had read the previous ones. The intent –to what extent I succeeded is of course up to my readers- was to create a better whole from a series of units that are, to varying extents, free-standing and complete.
Khaled Hosseini Thank you for your kind comments! To be blunt, nothing comes naturally to me and I have found that nothing is easy about writing. It is a struggle each and every day and every sentence is work. The great writers make their prose seem fluid and effortless, but that does not mean that there wasn’t hard work, trial and error, and frustration behind it.
Khaled Hosseini It is very difficult to write purely from an imaginary place. Sooner or later, pieces of you will seep into the story. I will give you the example of The Kite Runner. The story line and characters in The Kite Runner are fictional. However, there are autobiographical elements woven through the narrative. The descriptions of Kabul circa 1970’s, the social set up, the political milieu, are based on my own recollection and experiences. The kite fighting and the games Amir and Hassan play, their love of films, in particular westerns, come from my own experiences as well. Probably the passages most resembling my own life are the ones in the US, with Amir and Baba trying to build a new life. I too came to the U.S. as an immigrant and I recall vividly those first few years in California, the hard task of assimilating into a new culture. My father and I did work for a while at the flea market and there really were rows of Afghans we knew from Kabul. So the simple answer is that in the end, novels are hybrids, part autobiography, part imagination, with the line often blurring between the two.
Khaled Hosseini I read a lot, watched documentaries, spoke to people. I will give you a example, about the writing of A Thousand Splendid Suns. In March of 2003, I went back to Kabul for the first time after a twenty-seven year absence. In Kabul, I spoke to traffic cops, NGO workers, teachers, doctors, nurses, bodyguards, women on the street. Everyone had a story to tell. I heard stories about women who had been raped, beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, women who had seen their husbands blown to pieces, seen their kids starve to death. It was then that I saw the devastating effect that anarchy and extremism had had on these women. I saw for myself, for the first time, the enormity of the suffering that these women had endured. And I came away humbled by the fight that these women had in them, by their resilience and their courage.

So though it is true that I have not actually lived in Afghanistan in a very long time, when I sat down to write A Thousand Splendid Suns, early in 2004, I kept hearing those women’s voices in my head, I keep seeing their faces. And so I think that to a large degree, that book was inspired and formed by the collective hardships, struggles, by the collective hopes and dreams of those women I met and spoke to.
Khaled Hosseini I plan very little and I outline nothing. I start with an idea or an image or a line of dialogue and see where it leads me. Because I never know what the next page will contain, let alone the end of the book, I am perpetually surprised by the course that my characters take. The writing process is as full of surprises and twists for me as the reading experience is for my readers. I love the spontaneity of writing this way, the possibilities left open, the feeling that I am not constrained or committed to any given path. Every day, I am surprised by something. It may not be the most efficient way of writing, but it has served me well thus far.
Khaled Hosseini

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