We both remember that after you wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns you told us that in the final draft, the principal characters’ dialogue eventually ‘came from them’ and that they virtually ‘told you’ what they wanted to say. It sounded like a beautiful, almost mystical writing process. Did you have a similar experience writing this book?
Very much so, yes. I learned a valuable lesson from writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, which was that I cannot force my- self to see the world through the eyes of my characters. I cannot go to them. It is quite the reverse process. I have to give them the time and space to come to me, and slowly, draft by draft, reveal themselves. It was very much a similar process with And the Mountains Echoed. Once again, I had no idea how my characters would shape up, so I didn’t force a voice or a path upon them. As a result, I ended up often surprised by their behaviour – Nabi’s pining for Nila for in- stance and the lengths to which he went to win her over – and by the unforeseen twists and turns of their narratives. The downside of not actually planning the characters or their narratives was that at times I spent weeks working on something that simply did not pan out. I had to fumble my way out of a few blind alleys. The positive side was that I left myself ample room for spontaneity and surprise. It may not have been the most efficient way to write this book, but it was the only way I knew how.
What are the psychological pressures of writing a third novel when the first two have been such overwhelming successes?
Firstly, I never thought The Kite Runner would be published. Once it was, I did not think it would find a large readership because of its unfamiliar setting, its dark themes, and its unlikable central character. The success of that first novel continues to be a source of surprise to me. Naturally, I am very fond of all three of my books and they each have a special place in my life. But they were written several years apart, each subsequent book written by someone who was a little older and had developed different sensibilities. The pressure, to the extent that I feel it, is never external, meaning the obvious stressors – publisher and public expectations, book sales, reviews, etc. – don’t really play into it. The real pressure for me, and I think many writers, is the fear that there is nothing left to say, that you have already used up your allotted supply of ideas – at least the good ones. The angoisse of the blank screen – or worse yet, the screen filled with stilted, self-conscious rubbish that merely apes what you have already said before – is very real.
This is your first book set all around the world. What inspired such a wide range of settings, from Paris to Greece to California?
It is true that this is a less Afghan-centric book than the previous two. There was an attempt on my part in this book to expand the social, cultural, and geographic milieu of my characters and to add a more global flavour to the story. The book begins in Afghanistan and hops around the world, from Kabul to Paris to Greece to northern California and elsewhere. Partly, having travelled extensively the last few years, I wanted to expand the landscape for my characters as well, and partly I wanted to surround myself with a few characters who are nothing like me or the people that I know. There are wonderful writers – Alice Munro comes to mind – who can find an endless supply of deeply felt stories set, more or less, in the same settings. For me, I needed some fresh air, so to speak. I needed to, at least now and then, leave a story world that began with Kabul and ended with Kandahar.
What has inspired you on your return trips to Afghanistan?
I am forever inspired by the stout sense of optimism, hope, and resilience that I find among the Afghan people when- ever I visit. This is particularly remarkable considering the rather devastating track record of the last thirty-plus years. Certainly there exist in Afghanistan plenty of reasons to despair – violence, poverty, unemployment, corruption, displacement, lack of basic social services. Yet many polls taken in Afghanistan demonstrate that Afghans feel hopeful about their future and are determined to help rebuild their country, even as they acknowledge the enormous challenges that lie before them. Going to Afghanistan for me is always like receiving a hypodermic injection of perspective.