On Christmas Day in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, securing Kabul within two days and remaining for a nine-year war with anti-government insurgents. During the time of the initial invasion, Afghani born Khaled Hosseini was living in Paris, France, where his father worked at a diplomatic post at the Afghan Embassy. When Hosseini and his family returned to their home country in 1980, they found the landscape violently changed and found themselves in need of political asylum in the United States.
As he grew older, Hosseini feared the Afghanistan that existed prior to the Soviet war and the subsequent rise of the Taliban would be forgotten forever. Even as he reached great levels of success as a practicing internist in California two decades after last having been to Afghanistan, he never forgot his roots. So, rising at 4AM every morning before beginning his medical shift, Hosseini began writing a story that not only captured the unsullied Afghanistan of his youth but also tracked its ensuing downfall. "I wanted to write about Afghanistan before the Soviet war because that is largely a forgotten period in modern Afghan history," he told Newsline.com. "For many people in the west, Afghanistan is synonymous with the Soviet war and the Taliban. I wanted to remind people that Afghans had managed to live in peaceful anonymity for decades, that the history of the Afghans in the 20th century has been largely pacific and harmonious."
The novel that resulted from Hosseini's early morning writing sessions was The Kite Runner, a heart-rending tale about two Afghan boys, best friends pulled apart by personal betrayal and the immense upheaval of war. Drawing raves from a long list of publications, this 2003 debut went on to become an international hit. Four years later, Hosseini delivered A Thousand Splendid Suns, an emotionally resonant crowd-pleaser focused on the plight of oppressed Afghan women before and during the rise of the Taliban.
In 2003, Hosseini revisited the place of his birth for the first time in nearly 27 years. "I returned to Afghanistan because I had a deep longing to see for myself how people lived, what they thought of their government, how optimistic they were about the future of their homeland," he said. "I was overwhelmed with the kindness of people and found that they had managed to retain their dignity, their pride, and their hospitality under unspeakably bleak conditions." In Hosseini's gripping novels, their voices rise strong and clear above the clash of violence.
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During his years in the U.S., Hosseini has soaked in more than his share of American culture. He professes to be a fan of such U.S. institutions as the music of Bruce Springsteen and football. Still, he admits that he simply cannot appreciate baseball, saying, "I think that to fully appreciate baseball, it helps to have been born in the U.S."
When it comes to chickens, Hosseini is a chicken. "I'm terrified of chickens," the writer confesses. "Absolutely petrified. This intense and irrational fear is, I believe, caused by the memory of a black hen we owned in Kabul when I was a child. She used to peck her own chicks to death as soon as the eggs hatched."
When Hosseini isn't writing or tending to one of his patients, he enjoys games of no-limits Texas hold 'em poker with his brother and friends.
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In the spring of 2004, Khaled Hosseini took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school in 1983. My family had immigrated to the U.S. three years before, and I had spent the better part of the first two years learning English. John Steinbeck's book was the first book I read in English where I had an "Aha!" moment, namely in the famed turtle chapter. For some reason, I identified with the disenfranchised farm workers in that novel -- I suppose in one sense, they reminded me of my own country's traumatized people. And indeed, when I went back to Afghanistan in 2003, I met people with tremendous pride and dignity under some very bleak conditions; I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy -- A hypnotic novel about damaged people and forbidden love. The writing is as lush as the landscape, the imagery rich (see the opening page), and the array of characters unforgettable. The use of language -- such as the children's lingo, which runs throughout the narrative, or the use of nouns as verbs and adjectives as nouns -- was brilliant, and the metaphors will always stay with me: A man's muscular stomach is a slab of chocolate; a bitter, divorced woman gazes at her wedding picture and thinks that applying her makeup that day had been "like polishing firewood."
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley -- With daily news about our rapidly advancing biomedical technology and reports of humans already cloned, I lately find myself thinking of this great novel (which I first read in high school), and the questions it raises on the perils of unattended scientific creation and the manipulation of nature.
Animal Farm by George Orwell -- I have always loved this fable-like, allegorical little novel, written about what happened in Russia in the early 20th century but still so relevant in today's world, where still far too many totalitarian regimes oppress people while claiming benevolent intentions.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- See above. This story of the Joad clan and the hardships suffered by oppressed migrant laborers in the 1930s still resonates with me today as much as it did when I first read it in high school. The theme of the exploitation and oppression of dispossessed people appeals to me, and I think the final scene of selfless sacrifice -- Rose of Sharon breastfeeding the dying man in the barn -- is the most haunting final scene I have ever read.
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb -- Troubled love between brothers, regret, overpowering fathers, and the human need for redemption and freedom from the burden of one's own past are themes that I also felt compelled to explore in The Kite Runner, and it is no wonder that I admire this daunting (at 900-plus pages) but enthralling novel by Wally Lamb.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- This book can be as highbrow as it can be vulgar and obscene. I love books with marginal characters as protagonists, as Nabokov gets us to, if not like, at least empathize with Humbert.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel -- Destined to be a classic. From the very beginning -- including the so-called Author's Note -- to the conclusion, nothing is what it seems in this book. Or is it? An astounding statement on the nature of faith and how far we will go to find it.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides -- This is an enchanting novel about, among many other things, the meaning of identity. It took Eugenides nine years to write this book, and every minute was worth it. This is the kind of book that brings other writers dangerously close to simply giving up.
Being Dead by Jim Crace -- Two dead bodies on a beach make for an unforgettable and unsentimental look at death. One of the bravest premises ever for a novel.
The Rubbayiat of Omar Khayyam -- I used to memorize his irresistible quatrains as a child:
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The Magnificent Seven -- Because of the cast, the theme music, and because I am a sucker for westerns.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- See above.
Lawrence of Arabia -- Omar Sharif's entrance by the well has to be one of the great entrances in film history. Who could forget Peter O'Toole's blue eyes against the white desert sand? And who could forget Anthony Quinn snarling, "Thy mother mated with a scorpion."
The Godfather I and II: Too many great scenes to recount. James Caan's death scene still rattles me.
Pulp Fiction -- It broke all conventions of narrative.
Fargo -- Grotesque and hilarious. And in one of my favorite lines ever, Marge looking in her rearview mirror at the captured killer, shaking her head and saying, "Don't you know there is more to life than a little money?"
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when I write -- I find it distracting. I have been listening to quite a bit of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan lately. He is a master of qawali music, the improvisational Sufi chanting that praises God. It is packed with spirit and grace. I was deeply saddened at his passing.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I give novels as gifts, and there is nothing I like to receive more as a gift. My last three birthdays, I have asked my wife to skip the tie and cologne and get me a good novel. She responded with Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Waiting by Ha Jin, and She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Who could ask for better gifts?
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in the very early hours of the morning. Typically I get up at around 4 a.m., have cereal, read the San Francisco Chronicle, and heat up some black coffee. Then I head to our basement, where my writing den is located. I write for the next 2-3 hours (I pace quite a bit), before I call it a day and get ready to go to my other job (I am an internist and have been in medical practice since 1996). I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I like to read a few lines from a favorite novel before I start writing, to sort of put me in the flow of things.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
The Kite Runner was my first attempt at writing a novel. I began in March 2001 and finished it in June 2002. By July of that year, I had found a literary agent who then sold the manuscript to Riverhead within a few weeks. So I was quite fortunate, as my path to publication was pretty seamless.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I would give them the oldest advice in the craft: Read and write. Read a lot. Read new authors and established ones, read people whose work is in the same vein as yours and those whose genre is totally different. You've heard of chain-smokers. Writers, especially beginners, need to be chain-readers. And lastly, write every day. Write about things that get under your skin and keep you up at night.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Khaled Hosseini had to say:
Atonement by Ian McEwan -- An elegantly told story of guilt and redemption, and a heartrending, whopper of an epilogue.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer -- The opening story alone, Brownies, is worth cover price. Then come stories of alienation, disillusionment, and despair. ZZ writes her characters with respect and intelligence, using the kind of exacting details that make them leap from the page.
The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King -- A delicious mix of pop culture, mythology, the old west, and Stephen King's trademark edge of the seat prose. My favorite is Wizard and Glass, the fourth in the series, a love story set in a parallel, old west world complete with bad guys, a nasty witch, and a damsel in distress.
Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss -- A fictionalized account of the famous Siamese twins, told with wit, sympathy, and a persistent sense of longing. Read the first page and you won't stop.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri -- Stories of immigrants and expatriates assimilating in a new home. Lahiri's gift is telling stories in a breezy, seamless manner, yet charging them with a sense of urgency that keeps you turning the pages.
West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary -- Ansary's memoir hails back to an Afghanistan most people have forgotten, one I personally remember fondly and recreated in my book, an Afghanistan living in peaceful anonymity, a "lost world" of walled villages, extended family networks, a world where instead of television, "we had genealogy." His prose is rich with the sounds and smells of this old world, but it transcends mere nostalgia. Tamim's memories serve as tools for his keen observations about the social and political mores of that time, about ripples in the calm way of life which led in part to the communist coup -- see the chapter titled "Unintended Consequences."
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas -- In one word: Hilarious. I recognized so many of my own relatives in this tale of an Iranian girl growing up in the U.S., living in a family of lovable eccentrics.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving -- Irving's Owen Meany, the diminutive, self appointed vehicle of God's will, is one of the most unforgettable characters of contemporary fiction. A lyrical coming of age story, perfect for the dog days of summer.
Waiting by Ha Jin -- A story of infinite patience and boundless love, told in deceptively simple prose. As an aside, make sure you have access to food nearby; Jin's descriptions of food will make your stomach grumble.
Islam, A Short History by Karen Armstrong -- A concise and easy to read revision of Islam and its roots, told by one of the world's top scholars. An important book in this world climate.
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