Not always smooth sailing

‘The Kite Runner’ author Khaled Hosseini struggled with ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’

Khaled Hosseini521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Khaled Hosseini521
(photo credit: Reuters)
For a decade now, Khaled Hosseini has been praised by critics and adored by readers, who have purchased more than 38 million copies of his books.
You might assume that, in that time, writing has gotten easier for him.
It hasn’t.
“The success of one book doesn’t translate into any kind of self-confidence in the writing of another,” he says. “Writing is always a struggle. It’s always a journey of self-doubt and sort of this ever-present suspicion that you’re going to fail. So that’s just an inherent part of writing.”
The author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns also seems to have an inherent ability to touch readers. His newest, And the Mountains Echoed, made its debut near the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list and has enjoyed effusive reviews.
Once again, he’s drawing on his roots in Afghanistan, which he left in 1976 as an 11-year-old. The new book begins with the story of a desperately poor brother and sister separated when she is adopted by a wealthy woman; it ends up spanning several lives around the globe.
The novel’s structure – a series of interwoven stories – grew out of necessity, he says via phone from Seattle.
“The book began fairly linearly, like the trunk of a tree,” he recounts, “and then it just branched out. And it got bigger and bigger as it went along. It expanded in terms of number of characters, but also in terms of geography and time. It spans an enormous period of time, you know, decades and decades.
And it just kind of became more sweeping as I wrote it.”
Some of the characters have lives that seem to run parallel to Hosseini’s own – for example, an expatriate doctor who struggles to reconcile what he sees in his homeland with his comfortable life in California.
“I did draw on some of my personal experiences. I do in every book. I don’t think that this particular book draws on it any more. I think The Kite Runner, probably more than any other book, draws on memories,” he says. “The first third of that book is essentially my recollection of that world of my childhood.
Not the story events themselves, but the world that I sort of created.”
However, And the Mountains Echoed does get at some of the feelings he had when he first returned to Kabul in 2003.
“The sense that you are at home, and yet you’re not. The sense that you sort of carry this pall of guilt over your head because you’ve been blessed with such a more privileged life than anyone on the street – largely by virtue of luck than anything else.”
Discussing that disconnect, he echoes a phrase from one of his characters, a poet, who describes her work as “vandalizing the lives of other people… you steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering.” Is this a sign that he feels guilty about the success he has had, telling others’ sometimes painful stories? “There’s an element of that,” he concedes, then qualifies, “I don’t think ‘guilt’ is the right word. I think all writers, whether they admit it or not, draw from real-life experience… There’s no question that I’ve written about things, in some way, shape or form, written about experiences I had in Afghanistan, and things that I have seen.” It’s part of why he started a foundation to help the real people who are like his characters, he says.
Hosseini says he’s aware that his books might be the main conduit through which many Americans come to understand Afghanistan, and he accepts the role of unofficial ambassador with disclaimers.
“I’m not a historian, or an anthropologist, or a sociologist. I mean, my books – they’re not meant to be exhaustive manifestos on all things Afghan,” he says. But in that role, if there’s one message about Afghanistan that he wishes Americans would hear, it’s that not much separates them from ordinary Afghans.
“My books speak to the sort of universal things that bind all people, regardless of culture, race, religion,” he explains. “They’re really stories about families, stories about having a reasonable expectation of happiness in life, having a reasonable expectation that life can be predictable, that you can have a roof over your head, and safety… those are not Afghan-specific things.”
Sometimes, when people tell him that his books helped them connect with Afghanistan on that human level, he thinks he’s succeeded.
“I do get a lot of letters in that vein, and they are always my favorite letters,” he says. “It does make me feel as if there’s been some good and some virtue in what I’ve done.”