Hamish Hamilton interview with Mohsin Hamid (February 2007)
Q: What was the starting point for The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
A: I began the novel in the summer of 2000, shortly after "Moth Smoke" was published, and a full year before the events of 9/11. I had spent much of the previous decade living in America, and I wanted to explore in fiction my own growing desire to leave. It was confusing territory for me, because I loved -- and still love -- so much about America, and yet was still uncertain about staying on. Similarly, I loved Pakistan and yet felt unsettled about returning there. Also, I was working as a management consultant and as a novelist, so I was professionally torn. Those fissures, cracks in my tribal identity and cracks in my romantic identity -- romantic in the sense that "what do you want to be when you grow up" is a passionate question -- gave birth to the first draft of the novel, an utterly minimalist account of a Pakistani valuation expert who decides to return to Pakistan despite loving New York.
Q: Did you worry about how to handle the subject matter, particularly given its timely and in some ways controversial nature?
A: At first, no, because it was not yet a timely subject. All I knew was that I wanted to stretch myself as a writer. "Moth Smoke" was in form a novel with multiple voices and in style one with a degree of bacchanalian abandon to its prose. So I set out to write "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" with a single voice, very stripped down and spare. Then, of course, three months after I finished my first draft 9/11 happened. Delicate themes I was exploring became newspaper headlines. I decided to hold my course and wrote another draft still set in time before 9/11. But it was a struggle and seemed somehow false: pretending to ignore what I knew would happen later. I then completely revised the novel again and addressed 9/11 directly. I say "revised" but actually I don't look at previous drafts in the early stages of writing a novel. I write my first few drafts from scratch every time, incorporating elements from memory, and drafts can be so different as to be almost different novels. In any case, it took me a very long time to begin to digest 9/11, and Afghanistan, and the almost-war between Pakistan and India, and Iraq. By the fifth draft, which I finished in 2005, I had arrived at the characters and plot line of the current novel. But I wasn't yet happy with it. And yes, at that point I was worried about how to handle the subject matter. I knew what I wanted to say, but it was complicated and perhaps controversial, and I wanted to say it effectively -- in other words, in a way that used the seductive power of narrative fiction to deliver something not entirely palatable.
Q: What made you choose to give the narrative its distinctive structure and point of view, framing Changez's story with his direct address to his unseen companion?
A: I got an honest reaction to my fifth draft from my agent, Jay Mandel, and from the editor of "Moth Smoke," Becky Saletan. They said it was a good idea poorly executed. And they were right. I also got an extremely supportive rejection letter from Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus & Giroux, who had been a big supporter of "Moth Smoke" and told me he was surprised by my failure to deliver something he could love as much. The fifth draft had been written in an American voice and in linear first person, without a frame. Jonathan suggested the voice was too familiar and the onset of tension was too late in the narrative. I got this bad news the day I was going to propose to my wife. But a week later I had figured out how to make the novel work. I decided on a voice that was courtly and menacing, a vaguely anachronistic voice rooted in the Anglo-Indian heritage of elite Pakistani schools and suggestive of an older system of values and of an abiding historical pride. And I decided on a frame that allowed two points of view, two perspectives, to exist with only one narrator, thereby creating a double mirror for the mutual societal suspicion with which Pakistan views America and America views Pakistan. Those two decisions unlocked the potential of the novel. I finished the sixth draft a year later, in early 2006. Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton bought it right away and then I worked with him and with Becky, who bought it for Harcourt in America, on the final edits.
Q: What do you think makes Changez feel more stranded: the political situation, or unfulfilled love?
A: I am a strong believer in the intertwined nature of the personal and the political; I think they move together. In the case of Changez, his political situation as a Pakistani immigrant fuels his love for Erica, and his abandonment by Erica fuels his political break with America. Similarly, I think countries are like people. Not that countries are monolithic -- even people have fractured identities and conflicting impulses -- but notions of pride, passion, nostalgia, and envy shape the behavior of countries more than is sometimes acknowledged. In the Muslim world, one sees love for things American co-exist with anger towards America. Which is stronger, politics or love, is like asking which is stronger, exhaling or inhaling. They are two sides of the same thing.
Q: When you wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist, did 'the typical certain type of America' have an individual face for you?
A: Yes and no. I had no single individual in mind, but there is a type of person -- and not just in America -- who exists in places of power and feels entitled to impose their will on others. One sees this sort of person at Princeton, at Harvard, in New York, in military uniforms, on Fox News -- and also, although the Pakistani narrator does not say this, one sees them with brown skin and Pakistani accents in Islamabad, in mosques, and in footage of caves in the mountains as well.
Q: To what extent does the book reflect your own feelings and experiences?
A: I am not much of a researcher as a novelist; I write mainly from experience. Of course, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is not the story of me or of my life. But I do know what it is like to go to Princeton, to work in corporate New York, and to go back to Lahore as war with India looms. If my novels were real, I probably would not be the protagonist, but would fit in quite nicely as a minor character, as a native in the milieu. That said, I have to imagine being other people -- being all the fictional characters I create -- because if I cannot imagine being them I cannot empathize with them, and empathy is at the heart of being a novelist because it is what the relationship between reading and writing seeks to achieve.
Q: Erica uses a wonderful image when she describes the feeling of releasing her novel into the world. Do you think it always feels like an oyster giving away its pearl with every book, or perhaps just the first one?
A: My first two novels have taken seven years each and that is quite a gestation period. So yes, it has felt like an oyster giving away a pearl. For all that my novels are not my story, they are about the issues I am most passionate about at the time, the issues I am seeking to understand and make sense of for myself. So I invest a great deal of myself in them. It is hard to let a novel go when it is doing something so important for you, but it is also an enormous relief.
Q: Where do you do most of your writing and how much time do you spend on it? Or does that depend on where you are in the novel?
A: How much time I spend varies, but I always tend to write on my laptop in bed. Terrible, I know, but there you have it. Sometimes I try to go to beautiful places -- Italy, Chile, the Philippines -- or even set up a desk in my flat in front of a window, but wherever I am, my bed feels the most natural place. Then again, I suppose that isn't so strange. Writing is a creative act, after all, and most of the human race is created in bed.
Q: And what's next for Mohsin Hamid?
A: My next novel has been forming in my head for about a year now, and once my book tour is over I will need to get down to it. I am both excited and hesitant to embark upon something new: after a seven-year, monogamous fictional relationship part of me wants to play the field. But I write novels because I need to -- I think I would be very sad if I was not creating a universe in my head -- so I will commit to it soon enough. I already have a title, plot, characters, formal structure, and tone of voice. Of course, knowing me, every single one of those things is guaranteed to change completely by the time I am done.