Even Khaled Hosseini Can't Tell Stories as Effectively as He Wants To

The author of The Kite Runner and And the Mountains Echoed touts the introduction of Stephen King's "The Body" as a poignant encapsulation of an author's limitations.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Most novels are never finished, only abandoned. Herman Melville scribbled changes onto the final proofs of Moby-Dick until the printer's deadlines could wait no longer; in her journals, Virginia Woolf announced at least four separate times that she'd finally completed The Waves. Writers often keep writing and keep refining, even as the waiting world hollers that it's finally time to stop.

The reason for this, says author Khaled Hosseini, is that it's terribly hard for a book to recreate the scope and grandeur of an author's ideas before they hit the page. Even for novelists, words only approximate the vividness and urgency of thought. "Everyone is an ocean inside," he told me. "Every individual walking the street. Everyone is a universe of thoughts, and insights, and feelings. But every person is crippled in his or her own way by our inability to truly present ourselves to the world."

So when I asked him to discuss a favorite passage from literature, Hosseini chose the opening passage from Stephen King's story "The Body," which comes from a book of four novellas called Different Seasons (and was adapted for the screen by Rob Reiner as Stand by Me, starring River Phoenix). The narrator, Gordie LaChance, wants to tell the reader about the time he saw a dead body as a kid—but he's sure he won't do the story justice. For Hosseini, this opening beautifully invokes the anxiety that our words will come out mangled and misheard—as well as the joy we feel when people, against all odds, connect.

Despite the author's ever-present awareness of his limitations, Hosseini's books have profoundly resonated with readers. His first two novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, sold 38 million copies in 10 years. His latest, And the Mountains Echoed, comes out Tuesday. Like "The Body," it explores the way that childhood events shape us: A father, crippled by poverty in rural Afghanistan, keeps his son alive by selling his daughter to a wealthy adoptive family in Kabul. The novel, narrated in many voices, explores the long legacy of that decision.

The author spoke to me by phone.

Khaled Hosseini: My freshman year in college, I got a job working security. This was a high-tech building in Santa Clara, engineers coming in and out all the time. During the day I'd sit at the front desk to sign guests in and check their bags. Just as often, I worked the graveyard shift—which started at 11 p.m. and lasted until 7 in the morning. Then I'd watch over the building alone, everything totally dark. I'd make a round of the building once an hour, but otherwise had to pass time at my desk.

Trying to read during the day was a nightmare. I had a camera trained on me like Big Brother, and if a book snuck onto your lap you'd get a call from a vigilant boss somewhere: "Put that away, son." Grave, by contrast, was a perfect time to do homework or read—but you weren't supposed to. I found this an unbelievably cruel expectation: to stay up all night alone with nothing to do except stare at surveillance screens and an empty parking lot. Luckily, at night, there was no one around to supervise what I did. So I spent my grave shifts studying, reading books, and writing short stories. (Maybe I'll get in trouble now, 30 years too late.)

I don't remember how I picked up Different Seasons, but it was a book I read on a grave shift. I was absolutely floored by it; "The Body," a story about kids who go searching for a corpse in the woods, impacted me especially. I find myself drawn to that period where children are about to leave childhood behind. When you're 12 years old, you still have one foot in childhood; the other is poised to enter a completely new stage of life. Your innocent understanding of the world moves towards something messier and more complicated, and once it does you can never go back. Stephen King captures this brilliantly, and with such humanity, for the boys in this story. By the time they return home, each one has changed fundamentally. None of those four boys is ever going to be the same again.

I read the story not knowing that someday I'd write about similar things. I've written a lot about children—in all three of my books, it turns out. I'm fascinated by the way early experiences haunt and revisit you, remain present in your life for decades and decades—they can even shape who you ultimately become. "The Body" captures this idea as well as any work of fiction that I know. It moved me very deeply, and it still does.

Years later, I can see that the story's wonderful opening has layers I didn't fully appreciate as a young man and unpublished writer. Gordie, the story's adult narrator, looks back on his childhood with fear he won't do justice to the tale he wants to tell:

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemy would love to steal away.

When I first read these lines, I was 20—not a teenager anymore, but certainly a young man. At that age, especially, you feel like the world doesn't get you—if only people could look inside you and see all you carry inside! This passage is an expression of how alone we are, really. How fully we live inside our minds, that the person who walks down the street and shakes hands is only an approximation of the self inside. The personas we inhabit publicly are merely approximations of who we are internally—shrunken, distorted versions of ourselves that we present to the real world. This is because the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express. I felt all this as a young man reading "The Body" for the first time.

But now I realize what I couldn't have known then: This passage is one of the truest statements I've encountered about the nature of authorship. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it's been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you're lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.

When this happens, it's quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer. It can be extremely frustrating. When I'm writing, a thought will occasionally pass unblemished, unperturbed, through my head onto the screen—clearly, like through a glass. It's an intoxicating, euphoric sensation to feel that I've communicated something so real, and so true. But this doesn't happen often. (I can only think that there are some writers who write that way all the time. I think that's the difference between greatness and just being good.)

Even my finished books are approximations of what I intended to do. I try to narrow the gap, as much as I possibly can, between what I wanted to say and what's actually on the page. But there's still a gap, there always is. It's very, very difficult. And it's humbling.

And then, you must consider another layer. You may not be able to express yourself perfectly, but your audience is composed of imperfect listeners. Gordie addresses this anxiety, too:

And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.

We fear we'll be misunderstood—and, at times, we surely will be. The most powerful human emotions are terribly difficult to explain in a way that doesn't diminish them, or that doesn't make you look slightly ridiculous in the telling. How easy to safeguard them then, and keep things close, rather than risk looking foolish or being misheard.

But that's what art is for—for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true. It seems miraculous, doesn't it? That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog. Great art reaches through the fog, towards this secret heart—and it shows it to you, holds it before you. It's a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens. You feel understood. You feel heard. That's why we come to art—we feel less alone. We are less alone. You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have—and you feel better.

I began writing at a very young age. From the time I could pick up a pen. I loved the idea of trying to speak what's inside of me—of creating things that felt real to me. And I've kept writing my whole life, kept developing and deepening this compulsion I was born with. At the same time, it's an unbelievable honor and pleasure to know that someone has read my book. To receive an incredibly passionate letter explaining how something I wrote touched another person in an authentic way. What a gift to be on the receiving end of that. There's no greater reward, as a writer, than that.

This interview was condensed and edited.