Author Khaled Hosseini on why he is tempted to go back to the “Shahnama” again and again, and the origins of “The Kite Runner” and all other stories
The Berkley library has a series of lectures under the title “Story Hour in the Library”. Authors of repute are interviewed and the interviews made available on Youtube for audiences all over the world. In one such interview, Khaled Hosseini, once again in the news with his third and latest book, “And the Mountains Echoed”, talks about himself and his inspiration to write.
Hosseini says he grew up speaking and reading Farsi and was familiar with poetry, for Persian poetry was the obsession of his family. He read many English bestsellers and classics in Farsi translations. “My mother taught Farsi and History in the largest girls’ school (at that time) in Kabul, and my father was a diplomat. I grew up with the story of ‘Shahnama’. A bad comparison, but ‘Shahnama’ is to Persian literature what ‘Iliad’ is to Western literature, an epic of ancient Persian kings. It has a story of Sohrab and Rustom, father and son, who had never met. They are great warriors and end up on opposite sides of a war, and the father, unknowingly, kills his son. My story ‘The Kite Runner’ is also the story of a father and son. I seem to go back to this motif again and again. I really felt like getting the ‘Shahnama’ in every time I write, for I feel very sad that Western literature is unaware of it,” says Hosseini as he talks of the power of sorrow, guilt, the hope of loving somebody so much and what it can do to reality.
Hosseini says he was writing short stories since he was eight, and even “The Kite Runner” began as a short story. One day he found his wife Roya reading the manuscript. “‘This is really good,’ she said to me, but I told her it is not fully contained in a short story. I saw in that story the germ for the novel I had always been meaning to write. So then I started writing in the mornings and evenings, making it into a full novel,” says Hosseini.
Hosseini was a full-time medical practitioner at that time. “Initially I was polite about being a doctor, but I have realised I was at sea; I was lost, and it is writing that took me back to myself. Medicine was a wrong career for me. I was being a good boy. I was the first-born in the family and felt like if I went to my parents and said I would like to pontificate and sit around writing stories which a few cousins would read it seemed to me so insensible. So I decided to do medicine. I would never have to be on welfare and would make my family proud.”
Hosseini says dramatically that then, “…this miracle happened. My book was published, and an even greater miracle that it was read.” Giving a little backdrop, he says, “I went to a bookstore and bought a book on how to get published. I found I had to find an agent. Then I went back to the bookstore and bought a book on how to find an agent.”
Hosseini got many rejections. “One response sticks in my mind longer. They wrote, ‘We really love your book but we think Afghanistan is passé; now we are looking at Iraq.’”
Finally, he got accepted and received a half a million dollar advance, but he could still not quit medicine. “The book got good reviews but nothing else. A year after it was published it started appearing in bestseller lists.”
Hosseini says his memories of Kabul make his characters, ambience and buildings in his books. “For some reason I have always written about family, perhaps because life in Afghanistan was always about people. You sat around with uncles and aunts. That is what life is all about. All this has influenced my book. I have been inspired by the storytellers in my family. My grandmother was a great storyteller. She told her personal stories with very vivid details,” says Hosseini as he confesses, “You write what you feel. You do not have to apologise if you wish to tell stories. I do think as a writer my sensibilities have changed. I am more trusting of the reader.”