Khaled Hosseini Discusses Unforeseen Consequences

How his books are influenced by the life he didn’t lead

July 3, 2013

On June 29, Booklist’s Donna Seaman interviewed bestselling author Khaled Hosseini as part of the Auditorium Speaker Series at the ALA Annual Conference, and discussed his new book, And the Mountains Echoed. The discussion delved into the author’s relationship with books, libraries, and the characters he creates. Hosseini began the conversation acknowledging how different his life would have been had he remained in his native Afghanistan.

Hosseini explained how his love affair with books began as a boy in Kabul at the various bookstores where he would spend all his allowance money. He would also write. In fact, a story that was featured in his first novel, The Kite Runner, about a magic cup that turned tears into pearls, was one he had written as a child.

“Creating stories and writing wasn’t new to me [when I wrote The Kite Runner],” Hosseini said. “It was like my secret activity that I had always been doing.”

Hosseini had to buy books because there were no public libraries for him to visit. He revealed that he didn’t know anything about libraries until he walked into one for the first time in France, when he and his family lived there in the 1970s. He felt an immediate connection, as being around stacks of books had always brought him joy.

Hosseini also discussed the connections he feels to various characters in his new novel, which he says he is the most proud of. In describing And the Mountains Echoed, he said he was more discriminating about what he wrote down.

“This book took me the longest because it seems more textured. Each chapter focuses on a character and illuminates the previous story,” he said.

The character Idris, Hosseini explained, represents the author’s experience in returning to his homeland as an expat decades after his family left. “He was a vehicle to describe what it’s like to be an Afghan in exile, to return to see how divergent my experience was from other Afghans,” Hosseini said. “I felt like I’d come and that I was a foreigner, and the locals knew it.”

Hosseini’s time in Afghanistan also inspired him to begin the Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which looks to assist Afghan refugees who have been displaced by decades of war. The character Amra, a Bosnian nurse, represents all the people he met who are helping the Afghan people.

“I wanted to pay tribute to the people who have left the comfort of their lives, many of them young people who could be out clubbing, to go deliver services to the Afghan people. I’m always very touched by the international army of people who deliver aid,” Hosseini said. He explained that Amra, one of his favorite characters, has seen humanity at its worst, and has every reason to be jaded, but she’s everything but.

He went on to describe the character Nila, who Hosseini fashioned after the Afghan women of the 1960s and 1970s that he found “intimidating and alluring.” In many ways, Nila is antithetical to how the Afghan woman dresses, Hosseini said. That description of diversity is what he hopes readers experience about the country after they’ve closed the book.

“The fact is, Afghanistan is much more diverse [than women in burkas],” he said. He added that many of the characters’  life stories are told over the arc of a single chapter, and that the readers witness their transformations. “I really don’t approach my characters with empathy. I can’t imagine what the world is like through a female filter. It’s when you know the heart, when you identify core parts of your character, then I feel I can get a handle on them.”

Hosseini explained that Afghanistan is a large part of who he is, and that his strong connection to the country also instills a desire to be able to help. “I’m sober about the level of impact literature can have. Alas, it doesn’t affect foreign policy. But it does open people to other ideas.” He added that this sort of diversity and capturing of truth make the work of his Foundation deeply connected to his writing. “The people I reach with my Foundation aren’t the people reading my books. They’re the people in my books.”