How I Write

11.07.12

Khaled Hosseini: How I Write

The author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which was cited as a favorite read by Mitt Romney, recounts how his debut, The Kite Runner, began.

How and why did you start the Khaled Hosseini Foundation?

Our family foundation was inspired by a 2007 trip I made to Afghanistan as a Goodwill Envoy for the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). While I was there, I met repatriated refugee families who lived on less than $1 per day, spent winters in tents or holes dug underground, and whose villages routinely lost children to the elements every winter. As a father myself, I was overwhelmed. I decided that, when I returned to the U.S., to make an effort to advocate for these people and do what I could to help improve their conditions.

Who are some great Afghani writers that your readers should know about, but who are not so well known abroad?

Fariba Nawa, author of Opium Nation. Atiq Rahimi, winner of Gaincourt Prize in France, author of The Patience Stone. Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story.

How does literature in your native language differ from English? Is one easier to write in than the other? Does one express certain things better than the other?

I write exclusively in English now. I could likely feign my way through a short story—a very short story—in Farsi. But generally, I lack a narrative voice in Farsi, and a sense of rhythm and cadence in my head, because it has been decades since I wrote fiction in Farsi. English has become very comfortable for me.

Describe your morning routine.

I get up and work out. Get home in time to get the kids off to school (on my days—my wife and I trade off), eat, read the paper, front page first, check all news on Afghanistan. Flip to sports page, check for any San Francisco 49ers news. Then I write, typically from about 8:30 to 2 p.m., at which time I go to pick up my kids from school.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I can’t watch TV without eating peanuts. Can’t be done.

How do you conceive of a book?

I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

Do you have any unusual rituals in your writing process?

I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I keep taped to the wall behind my monitor old drawings my kids made me. Rainbows, fish, trees, very happy stuff. I have a model of a 1965 Mustang. Books on the shelf, of course, mostly novels. Aforementioned guitar next to desk. A big calendar where I write all my appointments—still doing it on paper, though my wife keeps urging me to use my smart phone for this purpose. I have a mouse pad that is a tiny Afghan rug.

What phrase do you overuse?

“It’s coming along.” (Meaning the writing, when people ask.)

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

One day in early 1999, I was flipping channels when I came across a news story on Afghanistan. The story was about the Taliban, and the restrictions they were imposing on Afghan people, particularly women. It mentioned in passing that among the things the Taliban had banned was the sport of kite fighting, which I had grown up playing alongside my brother and my cousins in Kabul. This struck a personal chord with me and I turned off the TV and suddenly found myself sitting at the computer, typing a short story. I thought I was going to write a kind of simple nostalgic story about two boys and their love of kite fighting. But stories have a will of their own, and this one turned out to be this dark tale about betrayal, loss, regret, fathers and sons, loss of homeland, etc.

The short story, which was about 25 pages long, sat around for a couple of years. I was fond of it, but thought that it was deeply flawed. Nevertheless, it did have an undeniably big heart. I made hesitant gestures toward getting it published by sending it to where I knew beyond a shadow of doubt it would get rejected—The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly—and rejected it was.

Then two years later, in March of 2001, my wife found the story in the garage. I reread it, and though I found the same flaws in it again. I saw for the first time the potential for a longer work. The short story format essentially suffocated the story and curtailed its arc. I began expanding it into a book beginning in March of 2001.

Then, six months later, when I was roughly two-thirds of the way through the writing of this book, the twin towers came down. My wife suggested at that time—actually, demanded—that I submit the manuscript to publishers. I was opposed to it. For one thing, I wasn’t sure that it was any good. More importantly, if far more erroneously, I thought no one in the U.S. would want to hear from an Afghan. You must understand that this was in the days and weeks after the attacks, when the wounds were raw and the emotions ran high. Afghans are the pariah now, I told my wife. We’re the people whose country was home to the terrorists who attacked New York. In addition, I worried that it would seem opportunistic, like I was capitalizing on a tragedy.

My wife disagreed. A lawyer by trade, she argued her case to me convincingly. This was, she felt, the ideal time in fact to tell the world an Afghan story. Much of what was being written about Afghanistan in those days and sadly, still now, revolved around the Taliban, Bin Laden, and the war on terror. Misconceptions and preconceived notions about Afghanistan abounded. Your book can show them a different face of Afghanistan, my wife said. A more human face. By December of that year, I saw her point. I relented and went back to writing this story.

When it was done, I sent it to a whole slew of agents and began collecting rejection slips. I received more than 30 before agent Elaine Koster—who has since passed, sadly—called me and agreed to be my agent. Even after I found Elaine, and after the novel was published to generally favorable reviews, I had very serious doubts that anyone would want to read the book. It was a dark story, downright depressing at times, set in a foreign land, and most of the good guys died.

So you can imagine my astonishment at the reception that The Kite Runner has received since its publication in 2003. It still amazes me to get letters from India, South Africa, Tel Aviv, Sidney, London, Arkansas, from readers who express their passion to me. Many want to send money to Afghanistan. Some even tell me they want to adopt an Afghan orphan. In these letters, I see the unique ability fiction has to connect people, and I see how universal some human experiences are: shame, guilt, regret, love, friendship, forgiveness, and atonement.

The most surreal experience I had was when I was doing press for The Kite Runner and was seated next to someone on a plane who was reading my book. It was simultaneously very exciting and very odd. Also, finding that I was the answer to a Jeopardy question. That ranks up there.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

At least three good sentences. And an idea of what I will write the next day. Cannot go in blank the next day, the seed has to be planted today.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

The time in London when I was booked to do a reading as part of a panel. Sadly it was a panel of erotica writers.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I have met so many people who say they've got a book in them, but they've never written a word. To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one—yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night. You also have to read a lot—and pay attention. Read the kinds of things you want to write, read the kinds of things you would never write. Learn something from every writer you read.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“No one he loved ever doubted it.”

What is your next project?

I am currently working on a new novel, partly set in Afghanistan.