Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. In 1970 Hosseini and his family moved to Iran where his father worked for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran.
In 1973 Hosseini's family returned to Kabul, and Hosseini's youngest brother was born in July of that year.
In 1976, when Hosseini was 11 years old, Hosseini's father obtained a job in Paris, France, and moved the family there.
They were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the Saur Revolution in which the PDPA communist party seized power through a bloody coup in April 1978.
Instead, a year after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1980 they sought political asylum in the United States and made their residence in San Jose, California.
Hosseini graduated from Independence High School in San Jose in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1988.
The following year, he entered the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. in 1993.
He completed his residency in internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 1996. He practiced medicine for over ten years, until a year and a half after the release of The Kite Runner.
Hosseini is currently a Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He has been working to provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation.
The concept for the foundation was inspired by the trip to Afghanistan that Hosseini made in 2007 with UNHCR. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Roya, and their two children (Harris and Farah).
Interview with Khaled Hosseini
After selling 38 million copies of his first two novels, writer Khaled Hosseini can be called nothing short of a phenomenon. The Afghani American first shot an arrow through readers' hearts with his international best-seller, The Kite Runner, a gut-wrenching story about a friendship between two Kabul boys that went deeply awry.
Four years later his second work, A Thousand Splendid Suns, focused on the lives of two women and their loves—set against 30 turbulent years of various Afghan regimes. Now, after readers have held their breath for an additional six years, Hosseini presents And the Mountains Echoed, a work told in multiple points of view.
Lives are intertwined and overplayed: siblings who are separated early in their lives, a caretaker and his employer embark on an unusual relationship, a bohemian alcoholic mother and her disconnected, adopted daughter serve and volley, cousins who live in the U.S. and face guilt when they return to their homeland.
Hosseini's hallmark themes of fallibility, regret, and reconciliation are present as well as his uncanny ability to generate poetic emotion. The writer talks to Goodreads about the guilt he feels at being an exile, how he never knows where he's going when he writes, being a stay-at-home dad, and how his family loves Goodreads.
Goodreads: You cover so much ground in And the Mountains Echoed, as you have in previous books. How do you prepare or deal with writing about the times in Afghan history that you've not witnessed personally?
Khaled Hosseini: I came to the States in 1980, although I left Afghanistan in ‘76. I lived in Paris for four years, so I've been in the U.S. since the fall of 1980, shortly after the start of the Soviet War. The stuff that I write about that takes place in Afghanistan during the civil war, during the 1990s, the Soviet War, the Taliban, and so on, is made of a composite of vignettes and stories that I've heard from Afghanistan during that era, either from Afghans in exile who came from there and then told their stories here or from my own trips to Afghanistan since 2003,
where I had a chance to sit down with people from all walks of life and hear the stories of what life exactly was like when, you know, militia warfare was destroying Kabul, when the Taliban came, what life was like when the Soviets were in Afghanistan. I've used those accounts to kind of provide a, hopefully, convincing, believable background for my stories
GR: Do you approach the work like a journalist? Do you record transcripts, take notes, etc?
KH: No, no. The thing is, I've never done research with the intention of writing, it's just things that I have absorbed. I went in 2003, for instance, on my own, and I just wanted to educate myself. I just wanted to gain sort of a human dimension to this new story, just for personal reasons. A lot of those stories stayed with me.
Since then, I've gone to Afghanistan three separate times on a sort of official capacity with the United Nations Refugee Agency, and there I've had a chance to sit with people and conduct interviews with them somewhat journalistically, to get their perspective on what it's been like to be away from Afghanistan, what life's been like for them since they returned there for the fall of the Taliban, what are the challenges facing them now, so that I can use their stories to provide a backbone for my advocacy for refugees.
GR: When you see how so many people have suffered in your homeland, do you feel guilty about leaving?
KH: Oh, there's no question about that. I'm maybe the most fortunate person coming from the least fortunate place. I really am. I have a very similar experience to the one character in this book, the young doctor who goes back to Kabul with his cousin. For both he and I there's a tremendous sense of homecoming when the plane approaches Kabul and I can see the city spread out beneath me. This is where I was born, this is where I learned to speak, to walk.
And walking on the streets down there, I look like those people and I know their language, I can speak with them, but there's no question that I'm an outsider. I feel it and they smell it on me immediately, because I don't have the whiff of all those experiences that they've had.
So there's the sense that the life I have is just sheer luck, the genetic lottery—that I was born to this particular family and I happened to be able to leave the country. So there's a sense of guilt about your own undeserved good fortune and that was part of the impetus of starting my own foundation.
GR: Maybe that's why you choose to write about your country. Is it your way of giving back?
KH: I wish I could give you such a noble answer. I could lie my way through it, but it wouldn't be truthful. But I write because I can't help it. You know, I'm intrigued by a story, by a character, by a given situation, by a conflict, and there's no letting go. I have to discover for myself why this is, and what's going to happen, and does it resolve? And what does it reveal about these people?
It's the nuts and bolts of storytelling that has always drawn me to write. But with fiction, you write a story and then it takes on a life of its own and it has functions that exceed whatever intentions you had as a writer.
Books can become windows into a world, bridge gaps between people—even though I have never set out with the intention that I'm going to bridge gaps between people in the West and the region where I'm from or educate anybody. That has never been my intention, but that's a byproduct of writing about that region and my country and what has happened there.
GR: When you're writing, do you even know what's going to happen to your characters if you are on a mission of discovery throughout the process?
KH: I have no clue. I really have no clue. I'm like the guy walking in a very dark room with a flashlight and all I can see is about three feet ahead of me. I have no idea where I'm going. You know, this novel began with one single incredibly vivid image that just came like a clap of lightning, just out of nowhere: the image of this guy walking across a desert pulling a red wagon behind him, and in the wagon there's a little three-year-old girl and behind him is a ten-year-old boy who's trailing him.
And I had no idea who these people were, where they were going, how they were connected, but it was an image that was incredibly compelling to me, and so I sat down and kind of began exploring that and the first thing that I wrote was that second chapter with Abdullah, Pari, and his father going to Kabul. And then it snowballed from there and all kinds of characters came to the fore that I had absolutely no idea existed.
I followed the ripples from that first story, and that became like the trunk of this tree and then all the other branches sprouted from it. I've never known the ending of any of my books. I've never known how any of my books is going to turn out. And that's part of the fun for me, the creating of a book that's so full of spontaneity and surprises and things that I never saw coming.
GR: Fascinating. It takes trust to embark on that kind of a journey with no promise of a resolution.
KH: Yeah, it's a leap of faith, and this is why I write multiple drafts and there are dead drafts of all three of my novels sitting on my desktop. You know, that's a downside because I end up going down a whole bunch of blind alleys and kind of have to fumble my way out of it and probably wouldn't encounter that problem if I outlined my book.
But then if I outline my book, I'm constricted to that plotline, to that story. It kind of chokes the life out of the characters and out of the possibility of surprises and spontaneity, so I'd much rather have it the other way.
GR: That sounds like an inordinate amount of work. How far down the rabbit hole will you go?
KH: I'll spend six weeks and have 75 pages that don't work, so then I have to trash them and then go back to the beginning: see what doesn't work, and then try another path and eventually if I spend enough time with it, something will happen, something will unlock.
For instance, in this book I had some vague notion that in some fashion the story of the brother and the sister wasn't told fully and that there might be a reunion down the road, but how it would happen or who they would be when it happened, what the circumstances would be, what the agent of that reunion would be, was just extremely vague.
GR: You also take a new approach with this novel for you, working with multiple points of view.
KH: I became interested in so many different characters and I saw how what had happened between the brother and the sister would have impact on so many different people that I just trusted to see where it went. It was like listening to a choir, but one voice at a time and then eventually the cumulative effect was this collective song sung by all these different voices. I had more fun writing this book than either one of my previous two because it was difficult. It was challenging; it really kind of pushed me.
GR: Your work is noteworthy for its high emotional tremor. Do you experience pain when you are writing your books?
KH: If you don't experience the emotions as the person creating the story, there's no way another person is going to experience them either. I sincerely believe that. If you're not personally moved by your characters, if you don't feel something personal at stake in the fate of one of your characters, then there's no way that the reader will.
So everything that the readers experience when they read my book, I have already experienced time and time over, because, you know, they might spend a week with my books, but I spend two years with these characters, three years. They live with me every day and, you know, become part of my life.
I come to care for them, and I come to care about what happens to them. And so when Baba dies in The Kite Runner, that was very painful for me to write. At multiple points in this novel, I felt something very personal at stake.
GR: Some of our readers have noted that they struggle with your work because the male characters are "weak." Have you gotten that feedback before and do you agree with it?
KH: I don't think it's just about the men who are weak. I just think people are fallible and frankly, I find the least interesting character in The Kite Runner to be Hassan because you know he is who he is. There's not a whole lot of contradiction in him.
I'm always interested in characters who have faults and flaws and pimples and warts, characters who come with conflict and contradiction, whose impulses may not emanate from the most honorable places, because those characters present you with possibility to embark on other journeys or destinations.
GR: Goodreads member Al Keith asks, "It seems to me that many authors write from experiences they have had. In your case Afghanistan has played a major part of those experiences. I would like to know how you will continue to draw from these experiences, but won't these become more difficult for you if you lose touch with your homeland?"
KH: There's no guarantee at all that I'll write about Afghanistan again. So far what's happened in Afghanistan and the story of the people there has been very close to my heart and I've written about it, but I'm sure at some point I'll write about something that's entirely different. What I can promise is that, at least consciously, I'll never write the same book twice. I'm very leery of retracing my own steps and I want to try something different and new each time.
GR: Goodreads member JoAnne Walter asks, "Had you stayed in Afghanistan, do you think you could have written these books? If not, what did life in the U.S. teach you about life in Afghanistan?"
KH: Well, look, my perspective is that of the Afghani exile. If I had stayed in Afghanistan and I had any kind of talent for writing, I'm sure I would have written, but my book would have read very, very differently, because it would have been a radically different perspective.
My perspective is that of the diaspora. Mine is that of the person who left and it will always be touched by that, it will always be marked by my distance to Afghanistan, so that will be both my asset and my drawback. I think it's not particular to me. I think a lot of writers who write about their homeland (even though they've been away for a long time) have the same advantages and disadvantages I do.
GR: That disconnect between a person and their homeland can trickle down through generations. The children of immigrants and the parents of a departed one also experience an echo effect.
KH: I agree, I've been affected by what happens in Afghanistan and the struggles or the displacement, the violence. It's been enormous, and so it occupies a place in my life. But I don't want it to occupy too big a space.
And that's the reason why the war and the turmoil in Afghanistan is there in this book, it's mentioned in a few chapters, but it doesn't occupy as big a space as it did in previous books.
Part of it is because I just didn't want to write about the same stuff again, but part of it was because it would be nice to have a conversation about Afghanistan and just talk about, you know, more mundane things rather than talking about the extremists.
GR: Goodreads member Robb asks, "How were you able to adopt the female narrative so effectively having grown, as a male, in a heavily male-dominated society? To whom do you attribute the internalization of such a voice?"
KH: Well, this question came up a lot when I wrote my second novel, but I have decided that it's of no use for me to try and imagine what it's like to be a woman, to put myself in a woman's shoes. I can barely understand myself, let alone another woman I don't even know, so what I try to get to the essence of the character.
What is it that this character—regardless of gender—what is it that this character is afraid of? What does this character want? What is her biggest wish in the world? If I understand a character's core, their essence, their most basic need, their fears, then I feel I can present them in a more truthful way. I won't pretend that I understand women very well.
I can't tell you the number of times my wife has said to me, "You're such a knucklehead, how could you not understand how I felt?" And I'm like, "I don't know!" I wrote this book about women, and I don't pretend to have any better understanding than any average guy out there, but I do understand my characters, regardless of gender. I do know how they would react in any given situation, and I do know what it is that drives them and ultimately I think that's what matters.
GR: Goodreads member Isaac Bailey says, "I am interested to know about the social impact of Mr Hosseini's books. Especially on him personally. They are very revelatory of a closed society where abuse is frequently ignored. How have his friends and family and community embraced his work? Do they perceive it as an accurate depiction of Afghani life? Do they resent it, or feel that it is timely, etc."
KH: I think by and large it's been positive. That's been my experience, particularly with the younger readers who don't have as deep a bond with Afghanistan as maybe the previous generation did.
Obviously you put pencil tip to paper and somebody is going to disagree with something you say, and so in that regard I've had my share of criticism from the Afghan community for a variety of things I've written.
But by and large, I think the reaction has been positive in that a lot of writers, a lot of Afghans have written to me and thanked me for writing these books, because there's something positive to talk about.
GR: Goodreads member Shikha asks, "The Kite Runner, for many Americans, was the first insight into life and recent history of Afghanistan. What do you feel is one of the major misconceptions that Americans have about Afghanistan today? And what are your thoughts on U.S. withdrawal in 2014? Will Afghanistan ultimately be able to rebuild itself?"
KH: I think some of the misconceptions are that the Afghans perceive the American presence as an invasion. That's just not the case. I think there's been reasonable populace support for the presence of NATO and the U.S. The presence is seen by a lot of Afghans as a stabilizing force, although they do have their grievances against some of the things that the troops have done, having to do with night raids and air strikes and lack of cultural sensitivity and so on, but by and large there's no comparison in the perception that people have of the U.S.
presence and that of the Soviets, who were roundly despised and had no obvious support at all. It's also frequently said in the media that Afghanistan's stuck in the 12th century, and I guess it's not consistent with what I see when I go to Afghanistan. I see a young nation, 55 percent or so of the country is under the age of 25; I see technology booming everywhere;
I see the start of telecommunication, 12 million cell phone subscribers; I see young people engaged with the world through education, through technology; I see a relatively free press. It's just not consistent with the idea of a remote area in Kabul with mud houses and women in burkas—it's a lazy conclusion to reach, "Oh, this place is stuck in the 12th century." If you actually take time and talk to the people and dig beneath the surface, you'll find something different.
The second part of it is about the withdrawals. I think it's a time of anxiety and uncertainty in Afghanistan, because I don't think anyone really knows whether the Afghan state is prepared to protect its people against the insurgents once NATO and the U.S. leave. I think the Afghan army has its share of troubles.
It's come a long way, but whether its ready to protect people, the jury is out on that, so its the main fear of many Afghans that I've spoken to. There's a possibility of all-out military warfare and a return to the days of the 1990s. I'm hoping that that's not the case.
I'm hoping that the parties who were involved in this conflict have come to see that there are dividends to be paid in the peace process and that they've learned important lessons from that experience, so hopefully it won't go back to those days.
GR: You stopped practicing medicine in 2004. Tell us about your writing process.
KH: When I'm writing a manuscript, I typically take my kids to school at 8 and then I try to do some exercise and I sit down to write at about 9:30 in the morning. I write on the computer in a small office I have in my house, and I write till about 2, at which point I go and pick up my kids.
Once I've picked up my kids from school, then I'm a full-time dad and I try not to write. Although I'm not actually doing any writing, the characters are with me everywhere I go and I'm constantly thinking about it.
GR: How lucky for your kids to have their dad around so much.
KH: That's the best part. And I always tell them, "You guys are lucky, you know, I'm not constantly on business trips, I'm always here to play with you guys, help you with your homework," and they appreciate it. They're going to miss me when I'm gone on book tour. I think that's going to be the hardest part.
GR: And what books and authors inspire and influence you?
KH: I can't say there's one book that's inspired me. I've certainly admired a lot of writers over the years: Salman Rushdie, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiru, Jennifer Egan, Colum McCann, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers. These are all writers whom I've read and admire greatly. And I've learned something from each one of them.
I read for pleasure because I love fiction, but I also read with an eye toward learning something, because everybody has a different approach to the craft. And there's always something to be learned by reading another writer. That's the reason I always give that advice, first and foremost, when people ask, "What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?" I'm like, "You read a lot of novels."
GR: And what are you reading right now?
KH: Let's see. Right now I am finishing the new Alice Munro, Dear Life, and I'm also reading an old classic, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and I am also reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I've got this bad habit of reading two or three books at one time.
GR: Is it a bad habit? If so, I think you have a lot of company. And also, thanks so much for talking with us.
KH: Thank you so much. And I should say, Goodreads is—you probably hear this from all your authors, but it doesn't make it any less true for me—it's an institution in our household.
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