Novelist Khaled Hosseini

Originally aired on May 21, 2013

The physician-turned-writer talks about his highly anticipated third novel, And the Mountains Echoed.

Dr. Khaled Hosseini practiced medicine before giving in to his first love—writing. As a 4th grader in his native Afghanistan, he read Persian poetry and Farsi translations of novels. After his family received political asylum in the U.S., he earned his M.D. and began his first novel while working as an internist. Together, his debut text, The Kite Runner—one of the first Afghan novels written in English­and his sophomore effort, A Thousand Splendid Suns, have sold more than 38 million copies globally. Hosseini is a Goodwill Envoy to the U.N. Refugee Agency and provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan through his foundation.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Coming to grips with what it means to see your homeland torn apart by war has been at the heart of Khaled Hosseini’s novels. His first work, “The Kite Runner,” is set in Afghanistan, where Khaled was born, became, of course an international best seller, as did his second novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”

Now, after six years, he has written his third novel, “And the Mountains Echoed,” which returns once again to the themes of war and family. Khaled, good to have you back on this program.

Khaled Hosseini: Nice to be back, thank you.

Tavis: This title comes in part from a rather well-known poem, but you tweaked a word here.

Hosseini: I did. It comes from a William Blake poem called “The Nurse’s Song,” and one of the verses ends with, “And all the hills echoed,” and I thought it was a lovely evocative title. But there’s a lot of mountains in Afghanistan. There are hills, but it’s known for its mountains.

The mountains in this book just kind of do figure fairly prominently. There’s several chapters in which people are traveling across the desert, there’s a lot of mountains, and Afghanistan is sort of known for that kind of topography.

So I took the liberty of changing a little bit of the wording and sort of the title, so it said “Inspired by Blake,” although it’s not the actual wording from the poem.

Tavis: Since you mentioned topography, I know that Afghanistan is always a central character in your novels.

Hosseini: Yeah.

Tavis: We’ll come back to that in a moment, I suspect. But how does the topography, how does the geography play into this particular novel?

Hosseini: Well, there’s a number of passages in the book where characters are actually traveling across the country and having to weather the elements and the topography and crossing deserts and mountains.

In fact, the book begins with a fable where one of the characters makes this very difficult journey and ends up climbing mountains and so on. So it’s sort of a recurring image in the book.

I also loved, what I loved about the poem is the word “echo,” because the way this book is set, there are things that happen early on in the novel that then have long-lasting ripples, and they echo throughout the rest of the story and how far-reaching consequences, and so the arc of the story.

Tavis: Yeah. This might seem like a pretty simple question, maybe even a silly question. Let me ask it anyway. Why, after three novels, are you still so fascinated by your homeland, Afghanistan?

Hosseini: Well, it’s a huge part of who I am. It’s so central to how I understand myself, how I’ve come to understand my life, people around me, my community, that it’s a massive part of my identity.

That’s not to say I’m always going to write about Afghanistan, but the things that have spoken to me with great urgency thus far in my writing career have been things that have to do with people in Afghanistan.

Tavis: Yeah. One of the things that your books are really good about not doing, these novels are good about not doing, that is, is proselytizing.

Hosseini: Yes.

Tavis: Yet one of the ways that people can come to terms with – how might I put this – come to terms with, maybe even revel in, the humanity of the other is through novels.

Hosseini: Yes.

Tavis: Because if it’s written in the right way and if the narrative has the right texture to it, you can get to know an Afghani without having to travel to Afghanistan, and maybe what you hear on the news or see on the news starts to have a little bit, starts to taste a little different to you because you’ve read one of Khaled Hosseini’s novels.

So give me your sense of whether or not you deliberately want us to look at Afghanistan through a different prism as you write about it in your novels.

Hosseini: I guess the honorable and noble thing to say would be that that’s what I really want to do, because I want to help people understand Afghanistan better, but that would be disingenuous, because the things that have always drawn me to the craft of writing is character, it’s story, it’s something that becomes like a pebble in my shoe, a voice that I just can’t get rid of, and I’ve got to see it through.

I’ve got to see what happens to it and try to resolve this puzzle, resolve this dilemma. But I would also be very truthful to say that I am deeply pleased, and in fact really honored that one of the unintended byproducts of my writing has been that it has provided a window into this kind of enigmatic land for a lot of people in the West, certainly here in the U.S., and has helped them see a more humane side, perspective, on this country that is otherwise painted as this chronically troubled, at war, afflicted nation.

So I think novelists, when they write, their books end up having a, occasionally serving a purpose and playing roles that they never really fully either intended or even understood.

Tavis: What do you make of that reality, that at a time – this is my phraseology, not yours – but a moment when it seems to me, at least, and I think the polls would bear this out, but it seems to me that Americans have Afghanistan fatigue.

Hosseini: Yes.

Tavis: If we see Hamid Karzai one more time, (laughter) I think we’re sick of this guy, with all due respect.

Hosseini: Understood.

Tavis: On any given day, you don’t know whether he’s with us or against us, whether he likes us or loathes us. So I think Americans, to some degree, obviously, have Afghanistan fatigue, and yet they don’t have Khaled Hosseini fatigue.

They keep reading about Afghanistan in these novels when we’re sick of it in real life. What do you make of that dichotomy?

Hosseini: Well, I think the government of Afghanistan and its well-publicized shortcomings, including the president, are not, I don’t think, reflective of the people of Afghanistan, fully.

Ultimately, my books are not about the politics, although the toil and the struggle and the wars in Afghanistan have a significant impact on the lives of my characters.

My books are about ordinary people, like you, me, people on the street, people who really have an expectation of reasonable happiness in life, want their life to have a sense of security and predictability, who want to belong to something bigger than them, who want love and affection in their life, who want a good future for the children.

That is not an Afghan theme, it’s a human theme, and I think my readers, whether they’re from the U.S. or from Europe, from all over the world, see themselves in these characters and see a part of themselves in the lives of these characters whose reality is so different from their own.

Tavis: Speaking of characters, let me go a little deeper inside the novel now. I mentioned at the top of this conversation that you always come back to family in one way, shape, or form.

Hosseini: Yes.

Tavis: You’ve got one book about boys, basically.

Hosseini: Yes.

Tavis: One book about girls, basically, and now a book about siblings, if I can put it that way.

Hosseini: A boy and a girl.

Tavis: Boy and a girl. (Laughter) Imagine that, a boy, a girl, a book about a boy and a girl. Why family for you?

Hosseini: Oh, it’s so central to life in Afghanistan. I spent the first 11 years of my life in Afghanistan, and my character, for better or worse, was formed there. You are never alone in Afghanistan. You are always in the company of others, usually family.

You don’t understand yourself really as an individual, you understand yourself as part of something bigger than yourself. So family is so central to your identity, to how you make sense of your world, that to have it ruptured, to have it split apart, to have some kind of catastrophe visited upon it is very dramatic, and therefore an amazing source of storytelling, a source of fiction for me.

So I return to that theme again and again. It just speaks to me on such a deep level.

Tavis: So we know about the boy, we know about the girl. Those are international best sellers. So tell me a little bit about “And the Mountains Echoed,” about the boy and the girl.

Hosseini: Well, the book is shaped kind of like the tree that is occurring in the book itself that is in this village, is that there is a trunk to the tree, and the trunk of this book is this relationship between a boy and his little sister.

We meet them when he’s 10 and she’s three. They live in a small village in Afghanistan, very impoverished, and when the book opens they’re on their way to Kabul with their father, the two of them. They don’t know why they’re going there, but what happens in Kabul ends up separating the boy from his beloved sister.

That act of rupture, of separation between these two characters has echoes and ripples throughout the book and it ends up affecting the lives of many characters, some of whom aren’t even born yet.

So the book is sort of this trunk, and then there’s all these branches that sprout from it, and I just followed all these other voices whose lives have been affected by this.

Tavis: It’s funny in looking at this book, usually you see a novel – maybe not usually, but oftentimes, more often than not, I read a novel and the part that you don’t want to give away is at the end of the book. In your case -

Hosseini: It’s right at the beginning.

Tavis: So I’m glad you said that. (Laughter)

Hosseini: It’s right at the start.

Tavis: I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just me.

Hosseini: No.

Tavis: Because the part you don’t want to give away about this book happens at the very beginning. Is that, like – that’s so unusual, though.

Hosseini: It’s unusual. This book is unusual in other ways as well, in that the final chapter in the book, for instance, introduces a major character, and that’s one of the no-no’s of writing fiction, is you don’t introduce a major character towards the end of the book. But it kind of takes a -

Tavis: Unless you’re writing another book.

Hosseini: Unless you’re writing a – you know, you’re setting up a sequel or something.

Tavis: Exactly.

Hosseini: Which I’m not. I should also say the book is like a choir in that you’re not following the story of one character, but it’s a nontraditional kind of narrative in that each character in this big canvas is granted a chance to speak their perspective.

So the effect that I wanted was to sort of listen to a choir, but by putting your ear to each individual voice, and then when you pull back there’s this feeling that you’ve heard one big song. That’s sort of what I hope readers get out of it.

Tavis: So if not then to set up the next one, why break the rules of writing and introduce a major character near the end of the text?

Hosseini: Well, I think part of it is because I don’t know a whole lot about writing. I write very instinctively, and I mean that somewhat seriously in that I was never trained as a writer.

I don’t know the nuts and bolts of writing. I’ve never been to – I studied medicine. I was a pre-med nerd. So everything I learned, I know about writing is very instinctive, and so this felt for me, I wanted to bring the book to a close and I wanted the book to have a sense of symmetry.

But I wanted to do it in a way that was not predictable, in a way that would upend your expectations. So they felt to me the right way to do it.

Tavis: Well, it is unpredictable. It will up-end your expectations, and we should all be so lucky to not be trained as a writer (laughter) and to know nothing about writing to put out three novels that are all international best sellers.

The latest from Khaled Hosseini, “And the Mountains Echoed.” Of course you know his work “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Once again, the new one, “And the Mountains Echoed.” Khaled, good to have you on this program.

Hosseini: Always lovely to be with you.

Tavis: Congratulations.

Hosseini: Thank you so much.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: May 23, 2013 at 4:25 pm