You’ll be forgiven for thinking that Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed (out today), is just like his previous two. Like bestsellers The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, his latest is a multi-generational family saga — a novel that starts in rural Afghanistan, yes, but that grows up and out, jumping both forward in time and across the world, to Europe and the United States; and informed, in part, by his own experiences traveling to Afghanistan in recent years. The result has a deceptive emotional scale, often in the same chapter. (Our Stephan Lee gave it an A.) “Everything for me starts very small and snowballs. So I rarely start with the grand idea and find a place for it and narrow down,” Hosseini says. “It’s really just start small and as I’m writing it I begin to see, sometime to my own surprise, what’s unfolding and what’s blooming.”
The author spoke with us about the gap between his second and the third novel; the experiences that informed the very large cast of characters; and how readers have begun responding to “the tree” that is his newest novel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take me through the five-year gap between the last novel and this one.
More like six. So 2007 was a really crazy year for me: I wrote this book and I traveled probably more than I ever have in my entire life. 2008, 2009, my father fell quite ill and I ended up taking care of him along with my mother quite a lot. And so I felt disinclined to write and it just didn’t seem all that, I just couldn’t concentrate enough and it just took up a big space in my life. Really wasn’t until November of 2009 that I began writing this book.
When you were actually writing, was it a constant, daily thing where you were living with the story every day or did you go away from it and come back?
No, I live with my characters. The deal is such that when I begin writing something, I open a door and those characters come in and then they won’t leave and so I live with them every day, all day. They are there with me when I’m driving my kids to school, when I’m standing in line at the grocery store. They’re always there so the act of writing alone is not, does not include the full effort it takes to write. Long after I’ve kind of logged-off for the day, still a lot of work going on, it’s just all in my head.
How did the writing process for this compare to the writing for Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns?
There’s nothing easy about writing. It’s always difficult. It’s always a struggle. Every word on the pages of the book that you’re reading now was a struggle for me. Maybe it’s not the case for other writers, but it is for me. I’ve learned things about the craft of writing and about structuring a book and about character development and so on that I’ve just learned on the fly. But that hasn’t made the process of actually creating a character and creating the book any easier. You’re just as insecure, uncertain, and dreading the very real possibility that this will fall apart as you were the first time around.
When I was reading it, it does feel different in a number of ways from your previous two books. But I was wondering if it felt very different to you and if that was intentional?
I don’t want to sound too high-minded, but certainly I think this book is kind of distanced from the archetypal notions of good and bad and black and white as in the first two books, and certainly the first novel. And so I think the characters in this book operate from more mysterious places and have conflicting realities regarding within them. That was something I had noticed when I wrote and I can only talk about to the natural process of growth as a I writer. I really am fond of the fact that maybe more so than my previous two books, this one kind of expands on the mysteries rather than enlighten them.
When did you first notice when you were writing that there was this new ambiguity weaving itself in?
I know what I said earlier, but I was kind of aware of it all along because as I was writing these characters, I began to see that there are things about them that are contradictory. Sort of the classic one, and maybe it’s not the best example but it just illustrates the point so vividly, is the war lord character in one of the chapters, who is sort of this thug and probably a war criminal and a guy who has probably done some atrocious things in the past. And yet he is kind of a benevolent figure in the community. I mean he’s the reason that the women have a labor delivery clinic and he’s the reason why there’s a school and why so many businesses are booming and people are able to build homes. So there’s a benevolent, philanthropic aspect to his character that is undeniable — as undeniable as the fact that he is menacing and he is kind of a dictator in that town and probably somebody who’s got a very, very shady past and yet those two things coexist as a person and they’re both realities of his personality.
When I first started reading the book, it was interesting because I was seeing your familiar themes and then as it went on, the story touches on a lot more, thematically. Was that intentional? Did you want to tackle new themes?
Everything for me starts very small and snowballs. So I rarely start with the grand idea and find a place for it and narrow down. It’s really just start small and as I’m writing it I begin to see, sometimes to my own surprise, what’s unfolding and what’s blooming. And as I wrote the book, I began to see that that’s one of the things that’s recurring again and again is the idea of the passage of time and all of us, in some form, being victims of the fact that time is passing and how we measure that is through memory and the complicated role that memory plays and the way that we understand ourselves and how we forge a narrative of our life through it.