Monday, August 24, 2009

Interview with Masha Hamilton, Author of "31 Hours"

Regular customers and the members of my book club already know I'm a big fan of Masha Hamilton and her previous books, including The Camel Bookmobile, which continues to sell well at our store.

So I know I have good company in my excitement for Masha Hamilton's new book, 31 Hours. It's set in post-9/11 New York City, and it's about a young home-grown terrorist and his mother's quest to protect him. (On sale Sept. 8th, more information at

I'm thrilled to report that this book is a stunningly good read, and that it will make a great book club selection. It's a suspenseful, well-paced story that keeps you turning the pages well into the night. But more than that, it's a love story about a mother desperate to save her 21 year-old son when she senses something is terribly wrong.

I read this book as I was about to drive my daughter back to college, knowing that no matter what we do as the parents of older children, we are only one phone call away from devastating news. And that no child is immune from mental illness or potentially fatal mistakes. Not even a well-loved child.

So I jumped at the chance to interview Masha Hamilton about this book. As you will see, she indulged me with long, thoughtful answers to my long, earnest questions, so I'm going to split the interview into two parts. Stay tuned for the rest, and in the meantime, if you'd like us to put a copy of the book on the hold shelf for you, just call 630-469-2891 or e-mail:

MARGIE: 31 Hours is going to make a fantastic book club discussion book. My colleague Sue and I are deeply divided over our interpretation of the book, and we're at a complete impasse. Without giving away the suspenseful ending, can you offer us some kind of clues, some crumbs through the forest that we should consider, pro and con? The more opaque you'd like to be, the better. We really just want more fuel for the fire. We can't wait to invite our customers to join the debate.

MASHA: Margie, first, THANKS for your support of this novel! I am so grateful, Re the above, there were several things I wanted to explore as I wrote. First, the possibilities and limitations of maternal intuition. Carol feels her son is in trouble, though she has nothing solid on which to base that. Her son is 21, and is supposed to have his own life at this point, so she doubts her intuition even as she feels it. I tapped into my own changing maternal role and my own amorphous fears as my children reach young adulthood. (I have three kids, ages 14 to 20.) Secondly, the place of spirituality in modern life was something I thought a lot about while writing 31 Hours. Carol at one point asks her ex-husband if they made a mistake by not raising Jonas with a religious tradition, any tradition, something that would provide comfort and a set of answers. Mara, who feels she doesn't know how to pray, enacts this middle-of-the-night ritual with everyday objects. And Sonny feels the subway is his church, his sanctuary. Finally, I wanted to look beyond the headlines and understand the humans who exist in that space. That's where the challenge of the book comes in, in my view - both for me as the writer and actually, for the reader as well. 31 Hours asks the reader to empathize and identify with difficult characters: Jonas, of course, but Sonny also.

If you are asking me about the final outcome of the story, Margie, I'm going to be worse than opaque. I have my own theories, of course, but I am going to leave that in the eyes of the reader. SO sorry!

MARGIE: The mother in the story trusts her own instincts. It feels like such a powerful affirmation of motherhood at a time when mothers of college-age children seem to be under assault for too much "helicoptering." On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for giving your older children the space to suffer through and learn from the consequences of their own poor decisions. In the face of all the advice and criticism out there, it's easy to doubt your own maternal instinct. Is this book your response to these doubts?

Yes, absolutely, as you can see above. There is absolutely no question in my mind that our role as parents must change as our kids move into young adulthood. And yet in our culture, young adulthood feels to me a little like a parenthesis in life - you are certainly NOT a kid, but nor are you really an adult yet with adult responsibilities and concerns. Our world is chaotic and confusing and violent and Jonas is a sensitive young man. When is a poor decision - and we all made them as young adults - going to have a relatively benign outcome? When might it derail a young person's future life? This is Carol's struggle. She knows Jonas will be angry with her for meddling, trying to track him down as if he were a teenager violating curfew, going to see Vic. Yet she can't quiet her own disquiet.

MARGIE: There will be more questions and answers in a future post, including the book Masha Hamilton would sneak onto President Obama's nightstand if she could get past the secret service!


  1. I must reiterate for Margie what a great book club discussion 31 HOURS will provide. She and I have agreed to disagree about certain parts, but we have already had many spirited discussions and hope we'll have many more participants in our debate!

  2. Wow! Excellent start to the interview. 31 Hours was our book club selection this month (meeting was yesterday) and it created a lively discussion. It was interesting that there was an age divide. The members who are in or close to their 20s were less taken with the book than those of us who are 40 and older. Perhaps because we have a more distant (wider, longer) perspective, perhaps because we are mothers and aunts.

  3. Although I didn't love this book, I do agree with the comment that you left on my blog, Margie, and with what Candace (Beth F) said about it appealing more to people in a different place of life. I also do think it would be a fantastic book club book, even though I didn't adore it, it did spark a lot of conversation during the 20 minute book club.


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