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If you like Khaled Hosseini's story, you might also like:
Benazir Bhutto,
Mohamed ElBaradei,
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
John Grisham,
John Irving,
Hamid Karzai,
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and Gore Vidal

Khaled Hosseini can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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Khaled Hosseini
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Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini
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Khaled Hosseini Interview (page: 5 / 9)

Afghanistan's Tumultuous History

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  Khaled Hosseini

Did you quit your job right away after your book was published?

It was really, really stunning to see suddenly this book that I thought was going -- and I kept practicing medicine. I mean, when my book was published, I took two weeks of vacation from work, I went on a book tour, came back and resumed my normal life of seeing patients. And that went on for a year and a half, even after the book became a New York Times bestseller. After it became big, I tried to continue practicing. And I did until December of '04, and then it became unmanageable. The book really needed its own career. My travel demands and my speaking engagements, everything became -- I had to -- and medicine is not the kind of thing you can do part-time, really half-heartedly. You owe it to your patients to be available all of the time and to be there and I felt like this is doing a disservice to my patients if I stay. So at that point, I said, "You know, I can't do both anymore. I'm going to go and write full-time and take a year off." So I went on a sabbatical at that time.

From Kaiser?

Khaled Hosseini Interview Photo
Khaled Hosseini: I went on a sabbatical from Kaiser. I thought it was going to be for a year. By then I had started writing my second novel, and I really took a year to write my second novel. A year later I hadn't finished my second level, and I decided to take another year, but decided, "You can have one year. You have to resign after a year, so I did." But they left the door open for me and said anytime I want to come back, we would love to have you. But it is starting to look pretty small in the rearview mirror for me, and it looks like the writing, which I used to kind of facetiously call a gig, has just turned into a career for me.

Did your patients read the novel?

Khaled Hosseini: Yeah. In fact, towards the end of it, by the time I left Kaiser, I began to notice that a lot of my patients were making social visits, and that they were coming in, got some minor thing wrong with them, but they were really coming in to get the book signed. Or Christmas was around the corner, and they had brought like six or seven copies, and they wanted to sign to Uncle Joe. It was really sweet and endearing, but I started to -- this is what I went to med school for? And so at that point, that made my decision to leave a little easier.

That's pretty funny. Your patients were almost telling you.

Khaled Hosseini: They would come in with legitimate problems, but they would spend ten of the 15 or 20 minutes talking about my book and then five minutes left to talk about their heart disease. So I felt like I was kind of hurting my patient encounter.

The Kite Runner is such a vivid portrayal of Afghanistan. How much of it is autobiographical, how much of it is fiction?

Khaled Hosseini: Like any other first time novelist who writes a novel in the first person, those first books, as you know, tend to be a little more autobiographical than the subsequent ones. It's not a memoir by any stretch of imagination, although I have surprisingly a hard time convincing some of my readers of that. You know, there are some parallels within my life and the life of the boy in The Kite Runner. I grew up in Kabul in the same era, I went to the same school, we both were kind of precocious writers, we both love film, loved those early Westerns of the '60s and '70s. We love poetry and reading and writing from a young age, both me and this character. And both of us left Afghanistan and became political refugees in the U.S., and probably the sections in the book that resemble my life more than any other are the ones in the Bay Area, where Amir and his father are selling the goods at the flea market and socializing with other Afghans who left Afghanistan. I did that with my father. We would go to the flea market to sell some junk, and we just socialized with other Afghans. So there is quite a bit of me in the book. The story line itself, what happens between the boys and the fallout from that, that just -- that is all imagination.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you have a sense of guilt about being raised in a family of great privilege economically when there were people nearby who were so much worse off? It seems like the emotion of guilt is very powerful in that book.

Yeah, it is.

Khaled Hosseini: I don't want to say that I was an exceptionally observant child, but I think to some level, I must have been. I must have had some sense of awareness about my life and some ability to put it in context for myself. Because I remember when I was a kid in Kabul writing stories, and all those stories, now that I think about them, and I don't remember them all, but I remember some of them, had this idea of social class. They had this theme of the clash between the different social classes and the kind of inequities that exist in the world. Because when you grow up in a Third World country, you know, poverty and affluence are juxtaposed. It's literally next door -- you don't have to go to another zip code. It's right there when you walk out in the street, and there are beggars and so on and so forth. So it becomes part of your life, and you can either not, just not reflect on it, but I must have, because I remember my stories always had to do with these things. There was always some guy who came from a very affluent background and some person who came from a much less privileged background, and their lives collided in some way, and tragedy would ensue inevitably. I mean, sort of a recurring theme in my stories, and The Kite Runner is very similar to that. So I think I must have had that, and maybe you call it guilt or it's quite possibly that.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Certainly there was a sense of survivor's guilt about my life in the U.S. when I went back to Kabul in '03 finally. Went back there as a 38-year-old doctor, and I had left an 11-year-old boy. And I saw what my life could have been. I saw these Afghans were living there, and I realized the reason I'm not there and my life is -- I have a 401K at home, and I have a home with children and everything, is sheer dumb luck. That's really all it is. So there is a sense of you that questions whether you made the most of what you were given and whether you deserve to be where you are. And that's a kind of guilt that I think a lot of people that are refugees from states that are in conflict have. And then you go through a phase where you kind of get over that, and you think, "Well, how do I turn that into something a little bit more positive, more productive? How do I turn that -- instead of turning you inside, how do you turn it back out and externalize and do something useful with it? And so I reached that stage as well." And part of the reason why that happened is because people began contacting me because my books became quite well read, and I had credible organizations that wanted to work with me and give me an opportunity. To use a tired old phrase: "to give back" -- and to kind of segue my literary success into something, hopefully a little bit more meaningful.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What response did you get from Afghans in exile to The Kite Runner?

Khaled Hosseini Interview Photo
Khaled Hosseini: Largely positive, although I should footnote that by saying that people who hate a book usually don't take the time to write the author. Most of the letters that authors receive are from fan letters. I got some hate letters and that sort of thing, too, but by and large, it was very positive. When people saw their own lives on the pages of that book, they identified with the characters and what happened to them, and there was also a sense of pride and an improvement in self-esteem. Afghanistan has been associated with so many horrible things -- war and famine and terrorism and these things -- that to have something be associated, even in a modest way, with something that gets more positive recognition, for a lot of people that is a source of self-esteem and a source of pride, of community. So I got a lot of letters for that theme as well. That said, I also received letters, in my estimation the minority of people, but certainly a distinct minority in the community, who feel that the book is harmful. That the book talks about things that shouldn't be talked about and that it paints a negative image of Afghans and that it destroys the image of Afghanistan. In fact, one person went so far as to say that I had managed to do what the Soviets could never do, which was destroy the image of Afghanistan, which I felt, even by Afghan standards, was really over the top. But my response to those things, and I understand that criticism, and this was the reason why The Kite Runner, the film, was not released in Kabul. I understand that.

These issues of contempt, of rivalry between the ethnicities, for instance, between the Pashtuns and Hazaras, this goes back centuries, and it has very bigger old roots and wounds that have not healed. And this book talks about those things in a very unveiled, open fashion. And for a lot of people, that was a jolt. Things were being said in this book that it would be unimaginable that it would be said publicly within the Afghan community. Lots of people would think it and maybe discuss it privately in their home, but would never blog it, they would never write in the newspaper an op ed or let alone write a book. And so it became -- I understand why it's a subject of controversy, but I feel as a writer that writers, artists, cannot shy away from things merely because it makes people uncomfortable. I don't feel that that's a good reason to not write something. In fact, that's a very good reason to write about things. If things make, if a subject matter makes people uncomfortable, if it touches on those things that people fear, if it touches on those things that are sensitive, then maybe that is what is worth writing about. I don't think we, as writers, shy away from things that are wreathed in reality and shape a society and not write them out of mere politeness. And so in whatever modest way, I hope that The Kite Runner has opened a useful and productive dialog within my community. And I think, to some extent, it really has.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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