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The Doctor turned Writer

Khaled-Hosseini.jpg

You might be familiar with the excellent Kite Runner, with almost 30 million copies sold. But did you know that the author:

  • Was a full-time doctor when he wrote it?

  • Couldn't speak a word of English at 15?

  • Wrote the Kite-Runner premised on Afghanistan, which he only had a few years' of childhood memories of?

   Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan, the son of a diplomat father and a vice-principal mother. Due to his father's work, the family shifted around different countries in his childhood. When he was 11, Hosseini's father secured a job in France, and the family moved there. That would be the last time Hosseini was to see his own country until nearly 3 decades later - Afghanistan broke out in a series of wars over the next few years.

In 1980, with the advent of the Soviet-Afghan War, Hosseini's family sought asylum in the United States. Hosseini was thrust into a shock. He was unable to speak a single word of English and felt deeply alienated: "I was completely ignored. I felt on the periphery of high‑school culture; one of those invisible creatures that walk the campus. I think it was a lot worse for my parents. My dad was a diplomat and my mum vice-principal of a high school and now she's a waitress at Denny's, working the graveyard shift, and my dad is a driving instructor."

With their background and the language barrier, Hosseini's family often faced financial difficulties and had to depend on welfare. Hosseini was impacted by how challenging life was for his family, and was determined to become a doctor to ensure financial security. He graduated from the University of California in 1993 and then completed his residency in internal medicine at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in 1996.

Why did he start writing?

In 1999, Hosseini came across a news story of the Taliban imposing more restrictions on the Afghan people; among them was the banning of the sport of kite fighting, which is an activity that many Afghan children had grown up with. Hosseini was greatly saddened hearing this, and set out about writing a short, nostalgic story about two boys and their love of kite fighting, an activity he himself enjoyed. 
 

He sent his short story, 25 pages long, to various publications - The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly. As he expected, his story was rejected. At this point, Hosseini gave up and went back to his normal life. 

 

2 years later, his wife found the manuscript of the story lying about in the garage. Hosseini re-read his story and realised it still resonated strongly in his heart. He also saw that the story had its flaws, namely that the shorter format curtailed the story's arc. He decided to expand his story into a book. It's useful to note that he was devoting all this effort for interest, but even though it was just an interest, he was committed to doing it as well as he could. 

Six months passed, and Hosseini was two-thirds of the way through writing his book. And then something happened.

 

9/11.

The act of terror greatly coloured the views of Americans towards Afghans. Afghanistan became the home of the terrorists who killed thousands in the U.S. In Hosseini's words, "Afghans are the pariah now." He thought he should stop writing his story; people were unlikely to read it at such sensitive period, and even if they did, Hosseini felt that it would seem opportunistic", akin to "capitalising on a tragedy."

 

Hosseini's wife disagreed and demanded that Hosseini finished his book. She felt that it was the ideal time to share with the world a different side to Afghanistan. A more human side, of every day Afghans who lived normally peacefully, beyond the Taliban, beyond Bin Laden, and the war on terror. It took a few months, but eventually, Hosseini was persuaded, and he resumed writing to complete his book. 

One final point, not uncommon for many great pieces - The Kite Runner was rejected 30 times before Hosseini found a publisher. 

How did he manage to finish a book while working as a full-time doctor?

Not only did he have to put in long hours as a doctor, Hosseini was also a new father. So how did he find the time to write a book that became a best-seller?

Well, he developed a routine. He would wake up at 5 a.m. daily and write for an hour before getting ready for work. And he did so without fail.

He also found a way to make the task less intimidating. His philosophy for writing: "At least three good sentences. And an idea of what I will write the next day. I cannot go in blank the next day, the seed has to be planted today."

Some takeaways:
 

  • Hosseini's started writing as an accident. When he expanded his original story into a book, it was also incidental, because of the 9/11 tragedy. The biggest change in his life happened by chance. 
     

  • He undertook writing a book even though he could not speak a single word of English at age 15, and without much memory of Afghanistan. He also undertook writing even though there is a massive difference between his initial job - the strict processes and rationality of being a doctor in internal medicine, to a fiction writer centred on creativity and emotion. So he didn't take up something that was easy for him.  He also continued writing even though there was a very high chance of failure. 
     

  • While he started writing out of interest, he didn't take it lightly. He was committed to doing a good job, even sacrificing sleep and whatever little free time he had.
     

  • The importance of a routine in accomplishing difficult tasks. I think we'd all agree that it must be massively challenging for a new dad working long hours to even think about writing a book. But he saw that the writing was important, and dedicated time for it. And he kept a routine. (find out in our series on:

  • Even after finishing the book, he was rejected 30 times before he got his book published. This is not a novel "story", we've heard of many other successful authors who had the same fate. But remember Hosseini is not an author,  never intended to be one, and by all traditional measures, seem unlikely to be able to write a good book. Yet, he did not give up. One big reason he was able to keep going was that the book was close to his heart, it was something that he thought was important to do. 


Two final bits, just for interest.
 

Hosseini's advice to aspiring writers
 

"I have met so many people who say they've got a book in them, but they've never written a word. To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one—yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night. You also have to read a lot—and pay attention. Read the kinds of things you want to write, read the kinds of things you would never write. Learn something from every writer you read."

And the Mountains Echoed

 

[Spoiler alert]  

I really enjoyed Hosseini's latest book, "And the Mountains Echoed". One piece of the story was particularly thought-provoking.

 

At the start of the story, a Div, a mythical monster of Afghan folklore, takes away one child from each family of the village, among which a peasant's most beloved son. The peasant risks his life and goes on a crazed mission to the Div's liar to rescue his son. The Div shows the peasant his son, living in what seemed to be paradise, playing with other children in beautiful conditions. The Div gives the father a choice - he could take his son back to the life of poverty and hopelessness that the villages lived in. Or he could leave his son in starkly better and happier living conditions, and be forever separated from him. 


In despair, the peasant accuses the Div of the ultimate cruelty. Despondent, the Div replied: "When you have lived as long as I have, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same colour."

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