Thursday, September 17, 2009

Part II of My Interview with Masha Hamilton, Author of "31 Hours"

Here is Part II of my recent interview with Masha Hamilton, author of 31 Hours, our featured staff pick this month.

We are hoping Glen Ellyn falls for this book in the way we all fell for Little Bee earlier this year. It's just fun to be buzzing about the same book all over town, and I can assure you, the end of this book will make you want to come in the store to talk to us about it!

MARGIE: What did your experience as a Middle East reporter bring to your portrayal of the young man Jonas? Did it make it easier or more difficult to draw a portrait of a home-grown terrorist? After all, Jonas was just the boy-next-door. What was in your thoughts as you wrote about Jonas?

MASHA: I was in my 20s and reporting from the Middle East when I first began to think hard about young men carrying out acts of violence, and about the families of those men. You've heard the saying "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." That concept reflects part of what I was thinking about at the time, and what I was trying to report about: different ways to consider the same set of facts, each way "true" on its own terms. I thought about how these men were once someone's little kid, with all those precious little kid moments. I understood that somehow their motivation made perfect sense to them, and I wondered about the roots of that motivation. Poverty and rage are easy to cite, but it isn't always so simple to trace the reasons someone grows to embrace violence to the point of self-extinguishing. As I became a mother and my kids grew, I heard stories about kids killing themselves via drug abuse, which doesn't have the idea of a "greater purpose" that Jonas is pursuing. It's simply confusion, and vulnerabiity, and fear. I thought a lot about those kids, the insecurity of those years that many of us pass through as we all struggle to figure out who we are. I thought about young adults dedicating themselves, in an obsessive and subsuming way, to a "cause" - which is, in a way, an escape from confronting adult life. Despite the fact that he is very smart, Jonas is also very insecure. As an adult, of course, he'll have more confidence. But he has to get there first.

MARGIE: I'd love to hear your thoughts behind the title (why 31?) as well as the caption at the top of each chapter, which listed the time in New York as well as Mecca.

MASHA: Thirty-one hours was what I always understood, intuitively, was the framework for the story. There was no reason at first beyond my guy, but later I added things like the number of days between menstrual cycles, the 31st verse in the Bible, the 31st name of Allah. The caption at the top of each chapter is to link these two great cities, each with their own separate, loud and demanding Gods, and to subtly demonstrate how small and braided our world has become.

MARGIE: Your love for New York just radiates off the page. It makes me want to take a NYC-31 Hours subway tour, following the paths of your characters. Any chance we could get a subway map to use as a guide as we read the book? How about a link to donate to Sonny Hirt's homeless shelter? (Oh, there I go again, confusing fiction and reality - he felt so real.)

MASHA: Here's a link to the subway map, for a few locations mentioned in the Sonny chapters:

MARGIE: What books are on your nightstand?

MASHA: Oh dear, you sent me up to take a look. A Rumi poetry book, John Wray's Lowboy, PEN America's latest journal, various magazines, Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (loved it, re-reading parts), The Boat by Nam Le, Complete Poems of James Wright, 92nd Street Y Fall Catalog of events, Make the Most of Your Time On Earth: A Rough Guide to the World; Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, and for research for the next novel, I'm reading Farewell, God Speed: The Greatest Eulogies of our Time, and Methland by Nick Reding.

MARGIE: What book would you put on The President's nightstand if you could sneak through secret service?

MASHA: Only one, huh? Maybe An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, written by Jason Elliot and published in 1999. One of the first books I read when I was interested in Afghanistan. It's a very male book, but it humanizes the people, and draws you in the way the country itself does. Right now, the more our administration learns about Afghanistan's complexities and contradictions, the better. (And I suppose I wouldn't be allowed to slip 31 Hours right underneath it?)

MARGIE: Has the resumption of the war in Afghanistan affected your Afghan women's project? Are you able to travel there safely?

MASHA: When I was last in Afghanistan, in November of last year, I was not able to travel as I had on the previous visit. The Taliban held the south of the country and maintained a ring around Kabul. Kidnapping has been a major threat - both by Taliban militants and by basic criminals The women who write for the Afghan Women's Writing Project face a host of challenges. For example, in the days leading up to the election, those in Kabul were fearful about leaving their homes because of rumors of planned suicide bombings. Even on the best days, women largely do not go to an Internet cafe except in the company of a male relative, and even then it is an uncomfortable experience. Some of the women keep secret from their families their participation in the program. We may lose one of our writers because she may be married off against her will. It is because of the current tightening of conditions for women there, in fact, that I wanted to get the project underway this last spring - not a moment too soon.

Again, Margie, THANK YOU SO MUCH! I appreciate these really great questions, and your support of this novel. Warmly, Masha
31 Hours Trailer:

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