With his first two novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, becoming book club classics, Khaled Hosseini is in that rare strata of authors who are so beloved by readers that the publication of a new book becomes a major cause for celebration. Well, get ready to take the day off from work tomorrow because Hosseini's new novel, And the Mountains Echoed, is coming out and, believe me, once you start it, you're not going to want to do anything but read.
I am so honored to have been invited to do this interview with Khaled Hosseini, and can't wait to meet him at a special reading/book signing through Warwick's in La Jolla next month.
There are very few authors whose writing touches me the way yours does -- for so many reasons -- and it is truly a gift to read your words. I am obviously not the only one who feels this way, and millions of readers have been waiting a long time for a new book from you, since it's been six years since A Thousand Splendid Suns. What took you so long?! Seriously, what was the hardest part of creating your new novel?
First, thank you for your very kind words. I actually did not take six years to write this book. In 2008 and most of 2009, I simply did not write much, for a variety of reasons. I did start a few writing projects but none of them really went anywhere. I started this novel in November of 2009, and had a draft by summer of 2012. The toughest part of writing this book was writing from the many different perspectives. Essentially, I had to inhabit a different protagonist with each chapter and take on a different world view as it pertained to that character. There were a lot of plates spinning in this one, due to the multi-perspective structure of the novel. That was both the toughest -- and, of course, the most thrilling -- part of writing this book.
Can you tell us a little about the title, And the Mountains Echoed?
The inspiration for it was The Nurse's Song, a lovely poem by William Blake, in which he ends a verse with the line, "And all the hills echoed."
"Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
And all the hills echoed."
I changed "hills" to "mountains" partly because of the obvious nature of Afghanistan's topography, but also because of the pervasive presence of mountains in the book. In fact, the mountains in this book bear sole witness to a couple of key, pivotal events. Just as a mountain would echo back a shout, the fateful acts committed before the mountains too emit an echo. They have a rippling effect, expanding outward, touching lives further and further away. I liked the idea of a decision or an act echoing through both place and time, altering the fates of characters both living and not yet born.
Storytelling is such an important part of your novels themselves, and your new book starts out with a father telling his children a story that sets the tone for everything that follows. What does storytelling mean to you?
I grew up in a society with a very ancient and strong oral storytelling tradition. I was told stories, as a child, by my grandmother, and my father as well. Some of them featured Divs and Jinns. I read, as a boy, parts of The Book of Kings, or the Shahnamah, which is one of the crowning jewels of ancient Persian literature, a work that tells the stories of great warriors, princes, kings, vengeful mythical creatures, etc. I dipped a bit into that world when I created the fable that opens And the Mountains Echoed.
You have introduced the world to life in Afghanistan through stunning descriptions and rich characters. How important is place to the stories you want to tell? What do you want readers to take away about your homeland?
My novels, by virtue of being set in modern day Afghanistan, touch on the toil and struggles of the last thirty plus years in that country. What has happened in Afghanistan has an impact on the lives of my characters, and so, in part at least, the writing of my novels has necessitated the writing of recent Afghan history as well, or at least enough of it to provide a credible world for my characters to inhabit. I lay no claim, it should be clear, to being a historian. So in my books, the intimate and personal have been intertwined inextricably with the broad and historical. The country's tortured past slowly has been a steady backdrop, though to a far lesser degree in And the Mountains Echoed. At the end of the day, my books touch on universal human themes. You do not need to be Afghan, or even know anything about Afghanistan, to connect with the stories. They are basically about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices. These are experiences that all of us have had at some point, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, culture. My hope, as a writer, is that readers will connect with my characters and perhaps see something of themselves in them, something about how they understand life reflected on the pages. Of course, I will be extremely honored if readers step away from And the Mountains Echoed not only with a satisfying story, but also with a little more insight and a more personal sense of what has happened in Afghanistan in the last thirty years.
And the Mountains Echoed follows a number of very different characters and the ways their lives are intertwined. I would love to read a whole book about any of them. Is there one specific character that's especially meaningful to you or that you can relate to most?
Very tough to pick one. I care about them all and wish I could spend more time with each. But perhaps I would be curious about Amra, the Bosnian nurse who works in Afghanistan. To me, she sounds like a person who has had a very eventful life. She has seen humanity at its worst, having worked in war zones most of her career, and yet she has retained great capacity for compassion and mercy. She is also very street smart, fiercely intelligent, and brutally honest. She is one character who did hold great allure to me.
Love in all its myriad forms is what stands out to me so powerfully in all three of your book and is why I ultimately end up sobbing at some point in each of them. The emotion you convey is so raw, so real and so universal. Talk to me about love.
My books are love stories at core, really. But I am interested in manifestations of love beyond the traditional romantic notion. In fact, I seem not particularly inclined to write romantic love as a narrative motive or as an easy source of happiness for my characters. I am more interested in love that blooms in the most unexpected places, between people who don't really see it coming -the co-wives in A Thousand Splendid Suns, for instance, or between Nabi, the chauffeur in And the Mountains Echoed, and his employer. My characters search love and human connection, and in that process face the limitations of their own hearts and see their own vulnerabilities exposed. It is the overcoming of these obstacles, in the name of love, that leads to those acts of self-sacrifice and altruism that speak so deeply to me and represent what is best in man.
What is the one message you hope readers get out of And the Mountains Echoed?
I don't have a single message to pass on with this book. Each reading is unique, given that individual person's background, biases, beliefs, etc. Reading is an active, imaginative act, it takes work. My job is done. I now leave it to my readers to read the words and imagine, and make their own connections, derive their own meaning, and see whether or not this book has something truthful to say about life as they understand it.
I'm thrilled that I'll get to hear you read when you come to La Jolla next month. How do you decide which passage to read to give audiences a sense of the book without giving too much away?
I think one natural passage to read from with this book is the opening fable, which sets up so many of themes, albeit allegorically, that are then revisited in the novel in far more realistic ways.
Not to put pressure on you, but do you have any ideas about what's next?
Not yet, but I am waiting for a thunderclap of inspiration.