In peaceful Kabul, Afghanistan, many years ago, there was a young boy who, like most young boys, loved his family, loved his country, and loved great stories. He was taken by his culture’s tradition of oral storytelling, and soon discovered a deep love for reading fiction, and writing it, too. When his father’s work took the family to France, it was meant to be temporary. But then, a war began back home. They lost their belongings, their land, their way of life.
When the boy was 15, his family came to the United States as political refugees. He saw his educated, affluent parents resort to paying for groceries with food stamps. He spoke only Farsi and French on his first day in a California high school. And as he watched his family struggle to rebuild, his dream of writing now seemed “outlandish.” He learned English by immersion and, determined to “make something” of himself—and make his parents proud—went on to study medicine. He became Khaled Hosseini, M.D.
But the boy who became a doctor never let go of writing as a hobby. In fact, he began writing in English, his third language. Then one of his short stories, a tale of boyhood friends in Afghanistan that was inspired by a real-life Taliban ban on kite flying, seemed as if it held the potential to become something more. Now a husband and father, he began getting up at 5 a.m. to write every day before work. But as he neared the end of the manuscript, the attacks of Sept. 11 occurred. He almost abandoned the novel, in doubt that there was now a market for such a story, and not wanting to seem “opportunistic.” His wife insisted he keep writing.
In 2003, that novel, The Kite Runner, was published. At first, sales were slow. Then, word of mouth began to spread. The unknown writer’s book went on to spend a staggering 103 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and eventually became a major motion picture.
Hosseini soon left his career in medicine. In 2007, he followed with A Thousand Splendid Suns, a tragic story of women in war-torn Kabul. The two novels combined have sold more than 38 million copies in more than 70 countries.
The next time you’re having one of those days when your writing dreams seem out of reach, you might try opening up a book by Khaled Hosseini.
And if you’ve ever wondered if good writing still has the power to make a difference, take heart. The literary career that has brought compassion to his native country’s plight has opened other doors for Hosseini, now a goodwill envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency and founder of his own humanitarian aid foundation for Afghanistan.
In May, Hosseini ended worldwide readers’ six-year wait for more from the novelist with the release of And the Mountains Echoed, the story of an Afghan family devastated by circumstance, but bound forever by love. In a feature interview the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, he discusses his inspiration, the writing craft, and hope. (Download the full issue now to read the complete interview with this talented and inspiring author.)
Here, in these exclusive bonus interview outtakes, Hosseini talks more about the heartbreak of writing characters who don’t meet happy endings, his writing rituals, how he balances writing and book promotion, and what’s up next for him.
Even your minor characters—or your characters who when we first meet them seem like minor characters—are amazingly well developed. What are some of the techniques you use to make them seem so real? It sounds like you’re a very organic writer.
Thank you—it’s really nice to hear. I don’t plan anything out. I wish that I was a more organized writer and I would plot everything out, and then it would be a matter of simply writing it. I just can’t do it. It just doesn’t work for me. I lose patience with it, number one. And number two, I always feel boxed in; I feel confined by the parameters of my outline.
One of the things that I really love about writing—and it happened repeatedly in the course of writing this book—is all the spontaneous moments, all the surprises, all the unforeseen developments that pop up and take you by surprise and give you an insight into how different things might be connected, or how differently things might be arranged than you originally thought, which would make for much more interesting storytelling.
So I don’t plot out. And my characters are, I try to remove myself from them—that’s one thing that I’ve tried to do. I mean, my first book was probably the most autobiographical, the second less so, and then the third even much less so (although there are elements of me in the book). I try to let the characters just kind of get away from me, and have their own voice, and have their own life. And at some point, it happens. It rarely happens in the first draft—my characters, I find in the first drafts, particularly my central character in whatever I’m writing, tend to be flat, and not developed the way I like—but it really is through reviewing the story and writing a second, and then a third, and a fourth, and often a fifth or sixth draft, that slowly, that working over finally stirs a character to life, and those unexpected things happen and I begin to see how small changes here and there make such a big difference.
Often it’s a matter of removing things, it’s a matter of deleting things that you just don’t need, that are weighing the character down. I’ve always found that for me, revising a character is sometimes even more about removing rather than adding. So, I just work my way through it and eventually I hope that at some point the character will start having their own voice, and I won’t hear myself, and there won’t be a mouthpiece for my voice.
How long were you working on And the Mountains Echoed?
Well, there’s a precise answer for that, because one of my rituals is that whenever I start a book I put down the exact date and time that I started it and I put the exact date and time that I finished it. [Laughs.] So this was started in November of 2009, and I finished it in August of 2012.
How many drafts did you do over that time?
Including the formal editing with my editor? Including that, gosh, I’m going to have to say six or seven.
You mentioned you sort of get to know these characters, and you’re living with them for years as you write—
—and they don’t always get their happy endings.
Is that difficult for you as a writer? Because I think it is for your readers, sometimes. I can only imagine it must be for you.
Yeah, I mean, you nailed it. Whatever emotions the readers are going through when they read, I went through them writing it—whether it was rooting for them, or whether they feel disappointed, or whether they, as you say, don’t meet a happy ending.
They’re very real to me, in some sense, they’re like living people that happened to occupy a part of my mind, and happened to keep talking and talking for quite a long time, and I hear them. And so I become very intimate with them, at least the characters that are fully fleshed out, and they’re alive. For instance, the character of Baba in The Kite Runner, the father of the main guy, Amir. He was somebody that was deeply flawed but also somebody that I was very fond of. When he met his end it was very emotional for me.
Would you like to tell our readers a little bit about the Khaled Hosseini Foundation?
I’d be happy to. I started the foundation basically as a way to extend my own personal good fortune to the people about whom I had been writing for a number of years: people in Afghanistan. The bulk of my focus through the foundation has been to reach those people who kind of are under the radar and are vulnerable in Afghanistan, and that’s women and children. The grants that we’ve given through the foundation virtually always have been to projects that benefit women and children, whether it be paying for the education of girls, or whether it be to provide protection from abuse to children. The bulk of the money we have sent to Afghanistan has gone to the building of shelters in Afghanistan for homeless, returning refugee families. We have a program called SOS, which stands for Student Outreach for Shelters, in which we partner with high school students across the [United States] who’ve been reading my books in class, and we’ve developed a curriculum for them to enjoy the book on a literary level, but the curriculum also has a service-learning component through which they can raise funds as a group to build a shelter for an Afghan refugee family in Afghanistan. … We have a very informative website: khaledhosseinfoundation.org.
So where do you see your writing career going from here?
Oh, I don’t know! I wish I was plotting things out and, you know, maybe writing a seven-book series and I was on book three and there were four more books and they were all plotted out and I was already working on book four [Laughing]—I really do, a part of me, envy that! But it’s also kind of exciting not to know what’s coming next, and to know that there’s something out there that’s going to speak to me at some point, and I’m going to be interested in it, and then I’m going to be compelled to sit down and do it. I just don’t know what that is right now.
You’ve said it’s important to write every day, but I’d imagine that’s almost impossible during the promotional period after a new release.
Oh, man. Yeah, I tried that. I should put a qualifier: Except when you’re on whirlwind book tours! [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s impossible.
How do you balance it all? After the hardcover, it’s new in paperback—there’s always something.
Yeah. You know, it really helps to have perspective because I’m not going to go into the woe is me kind of thing about a book tour, given how many writers get a box full of paperback copies of their book, drive 200 miles to a bookstore, and read to 12 people and sign copies and come home and then go to a “real job.” Having been there and having done some of that—not a whole lot, but I’ve at least experienced it—I have a very healthy perspective on what the book tour is and how unusual and good it is to have a big publisher backing your book and be willing to fly you from city to city to promote your book. So I’m looking forward to the book tour, I know it will be tiring, but it’s all for the good. But I won’t get any writing done, it’s impossible.
What do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in your career that you could pass along to writers who are hoping to enjoy the kind of success that you have?
My answer is to … the temptation to give up, to surrender, is very, very strong. And you have to have faith in the work that you’re doing. You have to have faith that as dark and unlikely and as dreary as things may seem, that it’s worth pursuing, and that there’s a very good chance that you’ll be glad you did. It’s basically advice to resist surrender, and to have stamina, and to push forth, because writing a novel—this is a cliché—is very much like a marriage. There are ups and downs, there are difficult times, there’s times when you just want to leave and close the door, you just want to be alone, you don’t want to hear that voice, and so on and so forth, but it’s well worth it, and I’ve learned that, to stick with it. You know, I came very close to abandoning all three of my books, very, very close, multiple times. Where life seemed so much more pleasant if I just didn’t have to carry this load—if I just didn’t have to try to work my way through the impasse. But I didn’t give up, and I kept working, and I’m thankful every day that I did. Because I like all three of my books. I’m pleased with all three of them. Are they great books? I don’t know. But I’m pleased with all three. I’m glad I stuck it through.
To read the full interview with inspiring bestseller Khaled Hosseini, download the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest now.