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.
And I loved how the language changed, chapter to chapter, but was so specific for each new voice. Was that difficult to pin down for each person?
That was the most difficult part about this book is that, with each chapter, literally I have to take on and inhabit a whole new perspective, somebody with a different set of beliefs, biases, level of education, level of sophistication — a whole set of values and beliefs that were different from the pervious one, so it’s a whole new take. Not only that, I fully intended on each of the chapters to be more or less, more or less, self-sustained. It’s a whole, in and of itself, although a whole that would be far better appreciated if you had read what happened before. But never the less, I did want each chapter to be kind of free-standing which meant that each chapter then had to come to an end that was satisfying in some fashion and that’s difficult to do
Was there a perspective you were challenged or excited to take on? Was anything more difficult than you expected?
They’re all difficult: The women are difficult, the men are difficult, the boys are difficult. Ironically, one was a little bit easier than the others because some of the experiences that he had reflect my own, to some extent, and that was the chapter with the physician who goes back to Kabul with his cousin after some two decades of living in the U.S. One was I did meet a young girl who was injured in that precise injury which was perpetrated on her precisely the way I laid it out in the book. I had that experience the very first time I returned to Afghanistan after 27 years, which was in 2003. The second is that during that trip after 27 years of being away, I felt very much the way this character did in that I felt both at home and also hopelessly lost, in that I did not share so many of the experiences that people on the street had. I felt unsure of my place in the grand scheme of things. And in some ways also felt badly about my own good fortunes. It’s not an earth-shattering insight and I’m sure many, many people who lived in exile and have returned to their homeland have felt the same thing that I have.
It’s funny that you said that when you were writing them that you were conscious of wanting them to be very self-contained, because the reading order, the way they’re linked, is very powerful, I thought, and really tricky to pull off. How was that process? A nightmare, I imagine.
Yeah, it was really tough because I had to find the connecting fibers for these very divergent stories and figure out how each fits into this one big collective story that I was trying to tell, so it was a lot of plates spinning at the same time and a lot of timelines and the novel moves back and forth chronologically. I guess the one way to describe it is it just starts very small in this village and then keeps expanding outward, getting bigger and bigger. The key was to try to figure out how to sequence them, because I thought that would be a crucial decision. I actually had two additional chapters, one of which I was really fond of, but I could find no room for and so they ended up on the cutting-room floor, somewhat to my chagrin.
I can’t imagine it was a super easy novel to explain to people.
That was my dread, looking forward to this whole publication process, was, How do I describe it to people? And it’s not like I can say, with my second book, “Well it’s really a story about the struggle of women in Afghanistan.” This book encompasses so much more. It touches on family, it touches on duty, on sacrifice, on the loss of beauty, on aging, on memory. But if you said, “Well, Mr. Hosseini you have to give me something,” I would probably describe it as I have described my previous two books which is: They’re both family and they’re both love stories. It happens again and again in this book, where characters find a sense of redemption in love; or they search for it and they search for human connection and they long for it and sometime in that process commit acts of great altruism and self-sacrifice, which speak to me in a very deep level and also represent what is best in mankind. And also they’re family stories because I’m Afghan, at least I was raised for the first 11 years of my life there, and family is such a central part of your identity. Your family is so important to how you make sense of your world, those around you, that to have that ruptured, to have something dramatic happen to that unit, to have conflicts within it, to me, is so rich with possibility of drama and tension and all the things that make for great fiction, that I find it endlessly appealing and I’ve returned to it over and over.
Each new perspective is so emotionally vivid. Are there characters that you’ve heard that readers are connecting with most strongly so far? For me, the beginning in the village was surprisingly emotional.
Yeah, and I’m glad to hear that the one that they’re responding to emotionally the most is what I intended to be sort of the trunk of this tree that this novel is shaped like, which is the story between Abdullah and his little sister and their separation early in life and the question hanging forever over the pages, over the pages, of whether they’ll be reunited or not and if so, how, and how will that reunion go? I think that’s one that people have connected to the most, reading responses thus far.
To switch gears a bit: Your two previous novels have ended up with really visual components — the Kite Runner graphic novel and the illustrated Thousand Splendid Suns. Are you already thinking of something like that for this?
Right now, I’m just happy enough to survive this book tour that’s coming and I will see what happens. But my Canadian publishers have started something pretty cool. It’s called “The Echo Project,” and basically they’ve asked different people to pass along one image based a page of the book. So it’ll be a companion piece to the book, where a person has some kind of image or an idea that comes from something they’ve read on the page. So each person is responsible for one page and submits one image or graphic or something, and so you will end up with as many images as you have pages.