Although he was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, award-winning novelist Mohsin Hamid spent part of his childhood in California while his father attended grad school at Stanford. Returning to the U.S. to complete his own education, Hamid graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He worked for a while as a management consultant in New York, then moved to London, where he continues to work and write.
Hamid made his literary debut in 2000 with Moth Smoke, a noir-inflected story about a young banker living on the fringes of Lahore society who plummets into an underworld of drugs and crime when he is fired from his job. Providing a rare glimpse into the complexities of the Pakistani class system, the book was called "a brisk, absorbing novel" (The New York Times Book Review), "a hip page-turner" (The Los Angeles Times), and "a first novel of remarkable wit, poise, profundity, and strangeness" (Esquire). Moth Smoke received a Betty Trask Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
In 2007, Hamid added luster to his reputation with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Written as a single, sustained monolog, this "elegant and chilling little novel" (The New York Times) is an electrifying psychological thriller that puts a dazzling new spin on culture, success, and loyalty in the post-9/11 world. The book became an international bestseller, as well as a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Decibel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and went on to win the South Bank Show Award for Literature.
There is no question that Hamid's unusual life experience, a cross-cultural stew of influences and perspectives, has informed his fiction. In addition to consulting and writing novels, he remains a much-in-demand freelance journalist, contributing articles and op-ed pieces -- often with a Pakistani slant -- to publications like Time magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, and The Washington Post. He holds dual citizenship in the U.K. and Pakistan.
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Some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Hamid:
"When I was three years old I spoke no English, but fluent Urdu. We moved from Pakistan to America for a few years. I got lost in the backyard because all the townhouses were identical. I was knocking on the door of the townhouse next to ours by mistake, and some kids gathered around, making fun of me. For a month after that I didn't say a word. When I started speaking again, it was entirely, and fluently, in English."
"I once woke up in Pakistan and found a bullet in the bonnet of my car. Someone had fired it into the air, probably to celebrate a wedding, and it had hit on the way down. That incident set in motion an entire line of the plot of my first novel, Moth Smoke. Without it, the protagonist would not have been an orphan."
"My wife was born four houses from the house in which I had been born in Lahore, Pakistan. But we met for the first time by chance in a bar in London, thirty-two years later. It's a small world."
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In the spring of 2007, Mohsin Hamid took some time to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Toni Morrison's Jazz. Not because it is her best book, nor because it is my favorite book, but because it was the first book of hers I read and also the book I was reading when she read me. I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Moth Smoke, for a creative writing class with her in my final semester at Princeton. When she read my words aloud I understood something about writing, about the power of orality, of cadence and rhythm and the spoken word, that unlocked my own potential for finding voices and shaped everything I have written since. This book opened a door that I walked through without ever, in fourteen years, looking back.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones -- For his erudition, his humanity, his incredible intellect. This book is a collection of the greatest books never written, presented in a series of short stories that all presume the existence of imagined texts so conceptually brilliant that they are shocking.
Albert Camus, The Fall -- For its compression, the exquisite nature of its voice, and the formal possibilities of its dramatic monologue. A short novel, but a great teacher.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows -- A rip-roaring adventure that also touched the young me deeply with its portrayal of nostalgia, wanderlust, melancholy, and friendship.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby -- Because he went to Princeton, because he wrote about the wealthy from a place just outside, because he understood a social class in decline, I have always felt a kinship with Fitzgerald. This is the only one of his books that truly impressed me, but it impressed me so much that I hold it as a kind of perfection, with its elegance, its brevity, and its portrait of a nation and of an age.
Saadat Hasan Manto, Collected Stories. Some of the greatest short stories I have ever read, showing me the fictional possibilities of my own city of Lahore. Pakistan's all-time master, and my favorite Urdu writer.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. A book I loved so much that I have never been able to bring myself to read it again. Romantic, glorious, and for me radiant with the possibilities of what a novel could be.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita -- Because no one has ever written in more masterful a voice, and no one has ever been so funny while treating subjects so painfully grim.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. By far the single tale I spent the most time with growing up. Taught me fiction's power to take me to another world, and keep me there.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina -- For his understanding of human nature, the scope of his imagination, and his ability to tell a story that never lets you go.
E. B. White, Charlotte's Web -- The first book that ever made me cry. One of the most profound and gentle treatments of the subject of death I have ever encountered in fiction.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The first Austin Powers film, because it was hilarious, cool, had a great soundtrack, and captures a moment in my life.
Pulp Fiction because of all of the above and also because its formal construction spurred me to reach the eventual structure I chose for my first novel, Moth Smoke.
The original Roman Holiday because it is perhaps the most romantic film of all time.
Star Wars, although watching it again now it's hard to believe I loved it so much as a kid.
The 1960s cartoon version of The Jungle Book because it is the film I'd most like to show my own kid, when I have one.
The first Matrix film because when I walked out of the theater I was buzzing with creative energy and dying to write.
Godard's Breathless because images from it keep coming into my head.
Fellini's La Dolce Vita because I wanted to live that life so badly I could taste it, despite every argument to the contrary.
Kubrick's 2001 because nothing has ever blown me away that way before or since, although it's best not to comment upon the state in which I saw it.
Woody Allen's Manhattan because it is the ultimate love song to New York.
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 need silence so I can hear the sound of the words. But I love music, and after a long writing session I often need something with real power. Rock will do for that, so anything from the broad swath between Pink Floyd to Metallica to Dire Straits. And blues is an old favorite, particularly John Lee Hooker. But I also love female vocalists, especially Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Among the Pakistani greats, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is beyond comparison, but there are amazing modern bands like Junoon as well. I like to dance, so that brings in a sweep of dance music from the '70s to now. And I have a weakness for pop as well, if it's cheesy and catchy enough. Basically, asking me what kind of music I like is like asking what kind of food I like: anything that tastes good, is the answer. I'm the kind of guy who spends three times as much on his speakers as he does on his television.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books that I love so much that I cannot help but give them out, like telling a joke that strikes me as too hilarious to keep to myself. Books one likes or finds interesting are perfectly nice to give and to receive. But books that meet the test of "please you must read this before you die" do exist, and they are often found in surprising places written by people one has never heard of, and they make for incredible gifts because they say so much about the giver.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I buy a notebook for each novel. For The Reluctant Fundamentalist it was one bound in a gorgeous orange suede that I bought in Tuscany. I don't tend to wear or buy things in bright colors but this gave off an exuberance I could not resist. That novel took seven years to finish and was an incredible struggle. So I have gone for the opposite this time: a black notebook, although it is a Moleskine and a pleasure to hold. But notebooks are just for capturing the thoughts and sketching the ideas that will become my novel. For the words themselves I turn to my computer and almost always write in bed, with it sitting on my lap. This may seem unromantic, but writing is a creative act and, after all, most of the human race is created in bed.
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?
Both of my novels sold quickly once they were done. But "once they were done" meant seven years each. So I have spent fourteen years on two rather short novels. Luckily, I have good readers: friends, editors, agents who tell me when my drafts just don't work. And none of my drafts do work until the final one, when suddenly the response goes from "sorry, pal" to "don't change a thing." I operate on a six-annual-rejections-followed-by-a-loud-hallelujah-in-the-seventh-year cycle. Nothing good gets written without the writer suffering along the way, in my opinion. Writing should be a pleasure, but unless you feel almost broken many, many times in the journey to a novel, you haven't pushed yourself hard enough.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Novel writing is the slowest art form in the world. It is not a sprint. It is not even a marathon. It is a series of marathons that stretch over and over across a continent. So do it because you have to do it, because it feeds some need that cannot be met in any other way, and then you will persevere and find the strength to finish, and finish well. And once you have done that you must have faith in your work, and trust that you have done enough. Discovery will follow, but more importantly you will have done what you needed to do.
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