Luckily for us, Khaled Hosseini is selfish

The author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns says he only tells stories he wants to hear.

Published June 10, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead, 384 pages, $25.95



Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling novel The Kite Runner, says when he was a little boy, "I wanted to be Clint Eastwood."

Maybe he was channeling Clint when he took on Stephen Colbert in front of an adoring crowd at BookExpo America last weekend.

At an author breakfast, Colbert, firmly in his sneering, book-averse character from The Colbert Report, introduced Hosseini. Colbert said he hadn't read The Kite Runner - a dark and violent story of betrayal and redemption - but was told it was "the uplifting story of a boy who loves kites."

Hosseini, dapper in a chalk-stripe charcoal suit and deep blue shirt, took the microphone. "I'm calling you out, " he said mock-seriously. "You trashed The Kite Runner. You went on Amazon.com and gave The Kite Runner an F-minus.

"It is un-American to diss The Kite Runner. Hell hath no fury like a Kite Runner fan scorned."

Colbert parried Hosseini's joke: "Okay, I have to apologize for trashing your book. After I did it, my front yard was filled with women's book clubs, torches in one hand, cheap white wine in the other . . ."

And lots of them. The Kite Runner, Hosseini's debut novel, was published in 2003 and became a book-club-fueled phenomenon, selling 4-million copies. A film version is due in November.

Hosseini was at BookExpo America to promote his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, published in May and set, like the first novel, in Afghanistan.

He said he knew as he was finishing the first novel that he wanted to write another about "the inner lives of these strong women. I can't think of a more compelling story than the struggles of women in my country."

Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965, the son of a diplomat and a teacher. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, his family sought asylum in the United States.

He aspired to be a karate expert, a diplomat or a teacher (like his parents), Clint Eastwood or "a detective with a gun called Betsy and a hot sexy secretary named Velma."

"I never told my parents I wanted to be a doctor or a writer, " he said.

He became both, earning a medical degree at the University of California, San Diego, and practicing for several years as an internist before the success of his first novel. That gave him pause, he said. "I can't tell you how daunting it was to write the book that had to follow Kite Runner. I felt pity for this as yet unwritten novel."

Hosseini visited Kabul in 2003, haunted by what he calls the "iconic image" of a burqa-clad woman walking past glaring Taliban members. When he was a boy, women in Kabul were doctors and university professors. When the Taliban took over in 1996, everything changed. The strict Islamic law they put in force forbade women to work, be educated or leave their homes without a male relative. In many parts of the country, the Taliban remains a powerful influence.

Hosseini recalls a friend telling him about witnessing a woman in a burqa being savagely beaten in the street. Taliban members "beat her until her mother's milk leaked out of her bones, " he told Hosseini.

That image appears in A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story of two strong women. Mariam and Laila come from very different backgrounds and are many years apart in age, but both end up married to Rasheed, a brutal shoemaker.

Enemies at first, they find a friendship forged in their mutual need for defense against their husband's escalating violence and the perils of war, as well as their hunger for emotional attachment.

In telling Mariam's and Laila's moving stories, Hosseini also brings American readers a vivid sense of life in Kabul during the last three decades.

Hosseini called writing novels the "selfish, self-centered act of telling myself a story." In Kabul in 2003, he said, "I would see these women, fully covered, walking in the street trailed by five, six, seven children. And I would wonder, who is that person, what is her story?"

In A Thousand Splendid Suns, he tells himself such a story, what he calls "my modest tribute to the great courage and resilience of Afghan women."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.