Khaled Hosseini: ‘All fiction is characters facing a choice’

Khaled Hosseini: in conversation with Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel on Sunday June 23 for a Berkeley Arts & Letters event.

If you are ever stranded on that proverbial deserted island, you might hope to have author Khaled Hosseini as your companion. It’s hard to imagine a better buddy: one who could erase hours of boredom with storytelling, treat the inevitable scrapes and dehydration by drawing on his years as a practicing doctor, and stimulate the world — the millions of readers enamored by his New York Times bestselling The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and now, And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead Books, May 2013) — to mount a massive manhunt.

Fortunately, Bay Area residents won’t have to fling themselves metaphorically into the ocean to enjoy the particular pleasure of a face-to-face with the Northern California novelist. On June 23, the author will be at a Berkeley Arts & Letters talk and book signing at First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Berkeleyside co-founder and editor Frances Dinkelspiel will host the Sunday afternoon discussion.

Hosseini’s Berkeley stop comes on what seems like a hectic tour schedule as his first new novel in six years gathers critical praise and entrenches itself on bestseller book lists. The New York Times calls And the Mountains Echoed his “most assured and emotionally gripping story yet,” and Publishers Weekly heralds the multigenerational tale as “a jewel,” praising the way his “eye for detail and emotional geography makes this a haunting read.”

The book travels the globe, following a river of characters, whose lives and choices create rapid turbulences, suffer drought-like separations and compose an ecosystem of co-dependencies. Rather like a tumbling Hansel and Gretel tale, readers are enticed along a mesmerizing trail (from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos) by a loosely linked chain of lovingly entwined couplings.

Each pairing represents a care-giving, often sacrificial, dynamic. The interpersonal tangles are permanent, tight, twisted, and, in the hands of Hosseini, wrenchingly real. A brother loses his heart to his younger sister; a father sells his daughter to a childless couple, simultaneously relinquishing his storytelling muse; a doctor’s rash promise to a hospital patient leaves him wracked with guilt; a young girl — her disfigured face not so much bitten as eaten by a dog — is cared for, then becomes caretaker of her aging benefactor. Throughout, Hosseini’s poetic language resonates: inscribing “family” with its uncut, pain-to-joy spectrum.

In an interview from the road, Hosseini talks about his new work and the writer’s journey.

“My childhood experiences are part of my writing and inform it in substantial ways. Oftentimes, they are a starting point: a measuring stick to compare the present to,” he says.

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Hosseini’s new book, which travels the globe following a river of characters, has been widely praised

A lover of rewrites, Hosseini describes his first drafts as “laborious.” The language in his books’ final versions include both completely unaltered passages and passages he says grind themselves into existence. Characters enter along the literary way, “hang” in his head, then come to life during rewrites.

“In my head, they are an idea. When I write, they become real,” he explains.

Afghanistan is as much a character as is Nila, the book’s brazen, fearless Afghan poet who Hosseini hesitates (but chooses) to say is emblematic of what was once possible for a woman in his homeland. Hosseini’s father was a Foreign Ministry diplomat: the family was living in Paris when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. The Hosseinis received political asylum and moved to San Jose in 1980.

“I’m not looking to tell Afghan stories,” he says. “I just have experiences that come back to me. It’s entirely probable that I’ll write something that has very little to do with Afghanistan.”

When he does, it will likely have to do with narrative eclipses — and inanimate objects with stories to tell or withhold. In And the Mountain Echoed, present-day experiences obscure characters’ past perspectives; realizations replace memories; an “iridescent green peacock feather” holds secrets.

“All fiction comes down to characters who suddenly face a choice. What they choose is not interesting to me, but why they choose it and how those choices shape the way they turn out, is,” he says.

Hosseini has made a choice of his own, to turn his good fortune into solving Afghanistan’s massive refugee problem. While serving as Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, he established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a humanitarian assistance non-profit offering shelter, education and healthcare to Afghan refugees.

“Even when I lived there in the 70s,” he recalls, “it was the world’s poorest country. A weak central government, 30 years of war, millions of people coming back after 9-11: the country was ill prepared to absorb them.”

Hosseini says Afghans are “the most resilient, resourceful people, able to eke out an existence in the most egregious conditions.” At the risk of hyperbole, one might describe Melissa Mytinger, Berkeley Arts & Letter’s founder, using similar terms. The former events and marketing director for Cody’s Books began solo-producing hosted evenings with writers and thinkers in 2009.

“What moves me the most is witnessing the dynamic between reader and writer,” she writes, in an email. “That can often get lost in the book business busy-ness.”

The void that she and her supporting band of independent bookstore partners (The Booksmith, A Great Good Place for Books, and Mrs. Dalloway’s) agreed must be filled, has led her on a journey with as many plot twists and turns as Hosseini’s novels. BA&L’s four year history is rife with sold-out successes (Richard Dawkins, Neil Gaiman), continual challenges (over-abundant, competing Bay Area activities) and expanding opportunities (new partnerships with arts, science and literary organizations, academic spin-off events and more).

Most of BA&L’s programs are held at Berkeley’s Hillside Club, but to meet up with Hosseini on June 23, chart your course for First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way at Dana. Books sold at the event or with ticket purchases will be signed after the program. Full information can be found online at Berkeley Arts & Letters.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events — the calendar is free and self-serve.

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