Just like in the world of movies, the world of publishing has had its share of sure thingslike every single “Harry Potter” book for instanceand then there are the novels that come seemingly from out of nowhere and become instant phenomena. The latter is surely the case with Khaled Hosseini’s first novel The Kite Runner, which was first published back in 2003 to little fanfare. Hosseini’s moving tale about an Afghan-American writer who must return home to Kabul decades later to make amends for a childhood betrayal quickly found itself an audience. By year’s end, it was on the New York Times bestseller list and then it never really left as it continued to find readers over the years based on word-of-mouth.
Now, Hosseini’s first novel has been turned into a movie by director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and screenwriter David Benioff (The 25th Hour) that perfectly captures the tone and feel of the book for those who never had a chance to read it or hope to see how Hosseini’s vivid writing has been turned into visuals by this underrated filmmaker.
ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to sit down with the novelist on a brief stop through New York City mere months after his second novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was finding similar success on the bestseller’s list.
ComingSoon.net: It’s an amazing experience to read “The Kite Runner” for the first time after seeing the movie, and I’ve been going back and forth between the two quite a bit. I spoke with David Benioff and he told me that you were greatly helpful with his screenplay adaptation. Khaled Hosseini: It’s really his work, his creation. I made myself available to him to answer questions ranging from small details to more broad cultural issues. So he’d email me in the middle of the night and I’d answer him in the morning, so that went really well. We had a really good relationship.
CS: So you didn’t spend a lot of time hanging out in person? Hosseini: No, he lives in L.A., I live in San Francisco, so it was all done either by phone or email.
CS: You’ve met him though, right? Hosseini: I’ve met him a couple times before. When he was hired, I met him.
CS: The book came out in 2003, but it was kind of a sleeper success that just kept rolling as more people discovered it. At what point were the movie rights picked up? Hosseini: Early. I was actually on the book tour for the hard cover in 2003. Maybe in the first week of the tour I met with Bill Horberg and Rebecca Yeldham, the producers in Los Angeles, and we spent a couple hours together in a café and we just spoke. I heard how the book had affected them and they were almost reverential about the novel. They seemed really taken with it and assured me that if we went with them that they would try to preserve all the core things that made the book so appealing in the film.
CS: How many years did you spend writing that first book? Hosseini: “The Kite Runner”? Not very long. I mean I wrote it in like fifteen months. It was a short story I wrote in 1999 and it sat around for a couple of years and then the novel was an expansion of that short story.
CS: How much of it was taken from your own life? Hosseini: There are elements in it. Like I grew up in Kabul on a very similar socioeconomic status, went to the same school, flew kites as a kid, loved film, went to see a lot of Westerns as a kid, I was a writer as a kid. I was actually a writer for as long as I can remember. I’ve always written. A short story that he writes in the movie for Hassan was one I had written in 1974 I think. I came to the States as an immigrant. All of the scenes in the flea market with the Dad, that’s essentially from my life, but it’s not a memoir. The story line itself is fictional.
CS: Was it hard getting the first novel published after having written so much stuff? Hosseini: It’s hard relatively speaking compared to what people go through to get the novel published. I mean I’m appreciative of the fact that mine was relatively straight-forward. I got turned down by like thirty agencies, but that’s part of the process, but when I found my agent Elaine Koster, she had no trouble finding a publisher, so it actually went pretty fast from there.
CS: Since you say that you loved film, did you have any thoughts about adapting it or writing the screenplay yourself? Hosseini: No, because as I said I was mentally already in my second novel. I actually was relieved when they didn’t offer it to me. I didn’t ask them to write the screenplay and I was pretty ready to move on. I was intrigued by these other characters who eventually became the characters in “A Thousand Splendid Sons.”
CS: It must have been a difficult adaptation since there are so many key moments, so did you have any discussions with David about what you felt must be kept? A lot of novelists I’ve spoken to tend to take more of a hands-off approach. They see the movie as a different beast and they feel better if they’re not involved. Hosseini: Yeah, I let David do his thing and I didn’t come in and say, “David, you may want to think about writing this this way, or this that way.” I did not do that. I said, “Look if you have questions email me,” which he did. But I let it come from him rather than me constantly intruding on his process and giving guidance or suggestions. Part of the reason was that I was mentally and emotionally already invested in my second novel and I was already thinking of those characters and that plot line. And that turned out to be a more intricate and complex book. So I was pretty much preoccupied with that. So I was happy to let David do his thing so I could spend my time on my other novel.
(Note: There’s a spoiler for the novel and how it differs from the movie in the next paragraph.)
CS: Did David send you the script and ask you for notes or anything? Hosseini: When David finished his first draft he sent it to all of us including Marc and me and Bill and Rebecca. We all wrote a series of notes and sent them back to David and then he collected the notes and wrote a second draft so it kind of worked that way, but we talked about various things. (BOOK SPOILER!!!) I remember having discussions about the suicide attempt at the end. He stayed very faithful to the book, but the end, I was kind of pushing for the suicide and David didn’t think it would work. He wrote a draft with the suicide in and it actually didn’t work. I felt it was kind of padded on, an extended ending, so it worked better without it. So those were the discussions that we had.
CS: When Marc came along, he had to go find a place to shoot this stuff in order to recreate Kabul and that’s not his background, so did you help with that? Hosseini: We sat around and we looked at hundreds and hundreds of scouting pictures that they had taken in Morocco, India, and Turkey. I was sitting there with Marc and Bill and Rebecca and suddenly the pictures from Western China came on the screen and I said, “Oh my God. Wait a minute. Let’s go back and look at these again.” We looked and they looked so reminiscent of Afghanistan, the architecture, the ethnic look, the landscape, the mountains, everything, so I was very impressed, and it ended up that Kashgar, Western China, where we actually shot most of the film, turned out to be a very inspired choice.
CS: Can you talk about working with Marc on bringing the visuals to life like the kite battle sequences? I also understand that you had a relative who acted as an interpreter for the film? Hosseini: Yeah, my first cousin Hekmat Sadat was Marc’s main translator for the children on the set and actually with all the Afghan actors. She fulfilled a whole bunch of other roles as well, she was doing a lot of troubleshooting and all kinds of stuff, but her official role was as a translator. She was the interface, the liaison between Marc and the Afghan actors, especially the children. She was really fantastic. Marc is so good with children, he worked on “Finding Neverland” and even more remarkable this time, he coaxed these performances out of the children without even speaking their language, so it’s pretty impressive.
CS: What was your first reaction after first seeing the movie based on your book? Haynes: I was very nervous. I really wanted to like the film and I was very nervous for Marc because I know he was a nervous wreck. I mean he really wanted me to love the film, so it was a great relief to see the film and I just found it to be so compelling and moving. I recognized my characters and my story and Afghan culture and the language and the beauty of the countryside and the city. It was a great relief for me that the film turned out so well, and so I gave him a big hug and I thanked him. It has made my job of endorsing the film very easy.
CS: It’s an amazing film considering it was made by two guys who had never been within a hundred miles of Kabul before making the movie. Hosseini: Yeah, and then you have children who have never acted before in their entire life and they are directed through translation.
CS: Have you been back to Afghanistan regularly since the book was published? Hosseini: I went there in 2003 after I wrote “The Kite Runner” but before it was published and then I went there this September and was there for two weeks.
CS: How was the book received over there and how do you think the movie will be received? Hosseini: I don’t think the film will be shown in Afghanistan. I’m sure pirated copies will go in, but I doubt that it will be screened in theaters. The book has been read, but Afghanistan has such a high illiteracy rate that in the countryside, where most people actually live, it’s a rural country, there’s virtually no awareness of me or my book. In the educated elite in Kabul and so on, sure. People have read it and so on, but most of the people in Afghanistan haven’t read it.
CS: What has the reaction to the book like over there? Hosseini: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I receive emails and letters from people in Kabul, but also Afghans living in exile around the world. It’s very positive. They feel represented by the book. They recognize their own lives, their own hardships, their own families on the pages. There’s also that sense of nationalistic pride. Someone from Afghanistan wrote a book that a lot of people are reading, so it’s been tremendous. There’s also a minority of the community that is critical of the book because of the issues it raises mainly having to do with ethnic rivalry and ethnic tension which is a sensitive subject in Afghanistan. And the question is never one of challenging the voracity of what I wrote, but rather one of, “Let’s not talk about these issues now.” Kind of like, don’t air dirty laundry.
CS: There were some worries about the two young actors and the rape scene in the movie, that made Marc and the studio want to move them out of Afghanistan. Being from the area, maybe you could explain what those worries were about since the scene was handled very tastefully, and not at all in a gratuitous way. Hosseini: No not at. The kids were never threatened. Their families were never threatened. Nobody harmed them in any way. It mainly came out of concern from the father of the children who was worried that their might be a reprisal because of the kids’ involvement in the scene. You have to take that seriously. If there is a concern on the part of the family that there might be reprisals against them, you have to be conservative and do the right thing. These are real people’s lives and that comes before everything, the movie, the production, the book, everything. That takes top priority. The studio took that seriously and delayed the release of the film and now the children have left Afghanistan and they are with their guardians in the United Arab Emirates. One of the producers spoke to them a couple days ago. I will be speaking with them shortly. The kids are apparently in excellent, excellent spirits. They are really excited and happy to be in U.A.E. and they want to see the film and they want to celebrate. They haven’t seen it yet, they will very shortly. So the kids are very excited and in good health and they’ll soon be going to school there. I think that this whole thing will die down.
CS: Is there really that big a separation from reality and fiction over there? When you see a film, you know it’s a film, at least here we do, but did they worry that some people might not see this as a film? Hosseini: It’s hard to quantify that. It’s hard to quantify and say, you know, how real is the threat? There were people in Afghanistan when Marc was casting the film who were saying, “You should just shoot the film here. It’s no big deal. Do it here.” There’s such a range of opinion that ultimately you soak it all in and then you have to make the most conservative decision because if you’re wrong on that end it’s no big deal, but if you make a mistake and god forbid something happens that would be a terrible mistake. So I think they aired on the right side, on the side of safety, and took the kids out.
CS: It’s a bit annoying that people are already lumping this movie in with the other movies about the Middle East that have come out this year. Hosseini: I think people will see that this is a drastically different film from say, “Lions for Lambs,” or “Valley of Elah,” or “Charlie Wilson’s War.” The focus there is Afghanistan, especially “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the war there. If it’s not Afghanistan, the focus is the Western antagonists who are involved in a greater conflict in that region. The difference in this movie is that it’s not about war, it’s not about conflict. It’s a very simple human drama about the Afghan people themselves. So I think it’s a very different movie.
CS: I think it’s important that people understand that this movie gives a different view of Afghanistan than the usual American one, which has only paid attention to the country during the Soviet invasion and after 9/11. Hosseini: To my community that’s important as well.
CS: Since the book was published after 9/11, were there any concerns whether a book set in Afghanistan would be read at all considering the negative light in which the country was being painted in the news? Hosseini: I don’t think so. If anything, there was an interest in Afghanistan after 9/11 because we had troops there and had fought a war, were trying to rebuild a country. If anything there was an interest and I can’t help but think the events in Afghanistan helped in the publication of the book.
CS: I can see that. “The Kite Runner” was so well received and read by so many people. Are you surprised that even more people will discover the book from seeing the movie, as I have? Hosseini: Yeah. I think obviously any time a novel adaptation hits the screen it causes a boost for the novel and the novel suddenly has another wave of people discovering it. So we have that for this book I think.
CS: When you talk to people after screenings, have they mostly been people that have also read the book? Hosseini: A lot of people have read the book. In fact, when we go to screenings, a lot of the audience has already read the book. We also have people in the audience who say, “Well, I’m going to read the book now.” Like yourself, you saw the film first, so yeah, we have a mixture.
CS: Would you ever consider trying your hand at screenwriting yourself? Hosseini: I love film. I grew up on film as much as I grew up on books. So I love film and the idea of writing a screenplay it’s something that is artistically appealing to me. I’m never going to become a screenwriter per say. I mean, my first love is writing novels and that’s what I’ll do, but certainly I could see myself dabbling into that.
CS: Have you ever been approached about doing something? Obviously, you’re great with words and dialogue. Hosseini: I’ve never received any serious offers to write a screenplay. I haven’t pitched anything to anybody.
CS: Did you talk to David about the way to make that transition? Hosseini: We obviously have had lots of talks about the differences, given that he’s also a novelist. We’ve talked a lot about the differences between the two skills. How writing a novel can be more difficult and how writing a screenplay can be difficult in its own way. So, yeah, it makes for a very interesting talk.
CS: How hard was it getting to that second book? Hosseini: It was very hard because writing a second novel is exponentially harder than the first. The first novel, you know, nobody’s heard of you, you’re just writing, there’s nothing at stake, there’s no contract, and there’s no deadline, there’s nothing. All of that is in the background and kind of looking over your shoulder when you are writing a second novel. Not only that, but also your own expectations of yourself. So it makes for a more pressure cooker environment when to write a second novel. The fact that the second novel has been so successful and been embraced as passionately as the first book is fantastic for me. I’m really, really relieved by that. It took twice as long to write as the first novel and it was a much more willful act of creation as it were, than the first novel was.
CS: I assume that the rights to that book have already been picked up. Hosseini: Actually Scott Rudin optioned it and he’s hired Steve Zaillian to write the screenplay. He may end up directing it.
CS: Have you been working with Steve at all on the script? Hosseini: No, because of the strike. I’ve had a couple of brief conversations with him, but nothing of substance about the script. He’s essentially doing the script and we’ll probably speak when it’s done.
CS: So it’ll probably be a very different experience. Hosseini: It seems so to be so far. Again, the strike has really changed things. We’ll see once he has the script what happens.
You can see the movie based on Hosseini’s The Kite Runner now playing in select cities with plans to expand further in the next few weeks. You can also read our interviews with Marc Forster and David Benioff.