A few years ago, when Khaled Hosseini began writing fiction in earnest, he was reluctant to give up his day job as an internist in California. "I thought it completely outlandish and unattainable, the idea of becoming a writer," says Afghan-born Hosseini. Even after his first book, The Kite Runner, became an international publishing phenomenon in 2003 (6 million copies in print in the U.S. and 18 million worldwide) and a critically acclaimed film, he still found it hard to imagine that his writing career would last. "For a year and a half after its publication, I refused to believe that it was possible that I could do this for a living," says Hosseini, 43. "I was reluctant to let go of the security of a very stable life." But, he says, "when I started seeing people at airports reading my book, and when my patients would come in to visit me, more out of a sense of getting a book signed than getting their diabetes treated, I started to see the writing on the wall." He was wise to hang up his stethoscope. In 2007, his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, also hit number one, and has just appeared in paperback. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs sat down with Hosseini to discuss his work and his native country:
How did you come to write A Thousand Splendid Suns?
I was finishing up The Kite Runner, which had turned out to be a novel about men the lives of men, fatherhood, brotherhood, and so on. Even as I was finishing the editing of that book, I had decided that I had to write a second book and address the issues pertaining to women. So I put that idea on the back burner and just kind of let it simmer. I went to Afghanistan in the spring of 2003, and I met with people who worked for nongovernmental organizations, people who worked as policemen, women who were working as teachers, and I basically just listened to their stories. The purpose of the visit was to educate myself. I really wasn't thinking at all about researching a book. But I came home with this amazing repertoire of eyewitness accounts and stories that were vivid and heartbreaking, and that sat in my head for about another year. When I began writing this novel, all those voices came back and I think the two main female characters in A Thousand Splendid Suns were kind of inspired by my collective sense of what women in Afghanistan went through, particularly since the withdrawal of the Soviets and the breakout of anarchy and extremism and criminality. (See Art from war-torn Afghanistan.)
Was it hard to shift to a female perspective after you had been working so much from the male perspective in The Kite Runner?
I didn't think it would be at first. I remember calling my agent and telling her what I was going to write, and she said, "It sounds pretty daunting." And I didn't take this seriously at that time. But once I got into the thick of writing, I thought I had really kind of cornered myself into a difficult spot, especially since I had set my heart on writing from two women's perspectives, two very different women. So it became very difficult, almost to the point where it kind of crippled the writing process. I was agonizing over whether I was doing it right and obsessed with this notion that women live in a different emotional arena. At some point I just let go and I began to view these two women, not as Afghan women, but rather just people and focused on their humanity rather than their femininity. Suddenly a really transformative thing happened. These women began to speak for themselves, and I kind of became a mouthpiece for them rather than me speaking through them. The novel almost wrote itself after that.
What has it been like for you in becoming so famous?
I don't feel I am. It's a very nice kind of quasi-fame being a writer, because you remain largely anonymous and you can have a private life, which I really cherish. I don't like to be in the public light all that much. I don't crave the whole fame thing at all. I'm a pretty uncomplicated person. I live a very simple life with my family and I enjoy very ordinary things. I feel blessed that I can still do those things without too much worry. When there is a moment when I'm recognized, people are invariably gracious and very effusive about how they feel about my books. All in all, it's a very beautiful thing.
Does your medical training inform your writing in any way?
Not that I'm aware of, frankly. Part of the attraction of writing when I was in practice was that it was such a radically different undertaking than medicine, which is very regimented and straightforward. I guess the only thing I would say is, both as a writer and as a doctor, especially in primary care, you have to have a sense of people. It doesn't hurt to have some kind of understanding of why people behave the way they do, what motivates them, what they're afraid of, what they're hoping. I will say that there is an inordinate amount of medicine in my novels, especially the first one. There are a lot of medical things that happen. A hip fracture, three different kinds of lung cancer, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and so on.
Recently, there was that horrible story about an acid attack on schoolgirls in Afghanistan. Do you have thoughts about that?
We're facing a very difficult challenge in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there are people we are battling who don't feel that an enlightened, educated society is necessarily in the best interest of Afghanistan. This has been going on for quite some time. My publisher built a school in my name, on my behalf and on behalf of all the educators, the teachers, the librarians, and booksellers in this country who supported The Kite Runner and made a donation to the organization that I'm affiliated with, the U.N. Refugee Agency. They built a school in a region I had visited last year, just about 150 kilometers from Kabul in Northern Afghanistan. That school is a beautiful pink building. It has 270 students, grades 1 through 6, six teachers, two of them women. A third of the students are girls. There have been threats against them that they should not go to school. But nevertheless they go. There is such a hunger, a craving for education, for self-improvement, for enlightenment. I have school-aged children of my own and to see them every morning kind of groaning about having to go to school, the irony hits you pretty hard.
Are you encouraged by the new Administration [vis a vis Afghanistan]?
You have to be. Absolutely I'm encouraged. Afghanistan has been in the shadow of the Iraq war for a number of years. But I don't envy Mr. Obama his task in Afghanistan. The scale of the conflict has changed, and there's going to be no quick fix, no quick solution. I think we have to accept that we're going to be engaged there long-term. What long-term means, I don't know, but certainly years and possibly a decade or two.
Are you well known in Afghanistan? Have they read your books?
In Afghanistan today there is, among men, maybe a 70 to 75 percent illiteracy rate. Among women it's probably higher than 80 percent. So the people who tend to read novels are the educated, urban, progressive, affluent professionals. So it's a skewed pool of readers to begin with. Among them, I think the opinion is divided, largely on the side of being supportive. Not always agreeing with everything that I've said, but being glad that these issues are being discussed, that Afghanistan is being discussed. Also there is, I think, a sense of nationalistic pride. It's kind of a boost to their self-esteem as it were. But there are always people who disagree, and in my estimation there is a minority I could be wrong of people in that community who feel that my books are divisive, that they talk about things that ought to be kept private within the family, and they feel that I'm kind of capitalizing and benefiting from the tragedy and the sorrow of other people. I don't agree with that at all, of course. I feel that my books talk about issues that shape people's lives, that shape society and that are important. I see it as my duty to parlay my own personal success and blessings [into benefits for] Afghanistan and to try to hopefully make a meaningful impact there.