Interview with Masha Hamilton
Masha Hamilton has written four award-winning novels, The Camel Bookmobile (2001), The Distance Between Us (2004), Staircase of a Thousand Steps (2007), and 31 Hours (2009). Highly praised by both independent and commercial booksellers, Hamilton’s books attract readers who are in particular interested in North Africa and the Middle East, locations where Hamilton served as an Associated Press reporter for five years. Masha has also founded two world literacy projects: The Camel Bookmobile and The Afghan Women Writers Project (awwproject.org). These groundbreaking efforts have brought books to remote villages in Kenya and have given women in Afghanistan an international platform from which they can be heard. Masha’s achievements as an artist and activist earned her the 2010 Women’s National Book Association Award, given annually to a woman who makes her livelihood from writing and who uses her voice to improve the lives of others.
I interviewed Masha when she was a featured guest writer at Pacific University. During her visit, she shared strategies for effective fiction writing and gave talks on the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East as well as the status of women in Afghanistan. Students and faculty alike were excited by her creative approaches to problem solving. She demonstrated that writing a novel or helping others require strikingly similar skills: The ability to imagine the reality of someone different from you, the willingness to withhold judgment, and the drive to pull seemingly disparate elements into an elegant, tangible whole.
For this interview I focused in her most recent book, 31 Hours. In the novel, a terrorist plot to blow up the New York subway system unfolds over 31 tense hours. As the story builds, the reader encounters characters who either know about the plot or who will be destroyed by it. While deeply menacing, this kind of large scale violence directed at New York would not by itself make for a compelling story, and handled by a less skillful writer could simply reaffirm assumptions about who would want to destroy America’s most prominent city and why. Masha does not take the easy route. It is 31 Hours’ central character, Jonas, the twenty-one-year-old ready to strap a bomb to his chest and kill hundreds of people, who tips the scale: He is white, born in New York, raised in an educated, middle class family, and by all accounts was a gentle, thoughtful child. With deft skill Masha crafts a character who over the course of the novel will ask us to consider what motivates someone to commit mass destruction and how religion is co-opted by or feeds the desire to destroy.
Silk Road: This book could have very easily become a polemical statement. The US has been the site of mass murders inflicted by angry young American men, and religious extremism, like mental illness, could be a believable trigger. Certainly you could have made the murderer a foreign religious extremist who comes into the country with the intent to kill. Yet you avoid either one of these options with the novel and humanize all of your characters. I was pulled into the complexity of the story, but I found myself struggling against sympathizing with Jonas as I read.
Masha Hamilton: Is it fair to ask the reader to sympathize with someone who would do this? I asked myself that as I wrote 31 Hours. Yet at the same time I could not stop myself from writing Jonas into a place of grey, and by that I mean I was purposely avoiding an easy black and white solution. I was asking myself, Who is this kid? Why would he be capable of committing this kind of act? As a mother of three children, a daughter and two sons, I know something happens when our kids reach 17 or 18. They can close down, go underground and at the same time their outbursts or actions are sometimes shocking. It’s difficult to reconcile the child you knew from this person you cannot now read and who may be capable of incomprehensible acts. As a parent you might have done everything right. Here is this boy you dealt with in his terrible twos or difficult fours. You gave him timeouts, you set limits, and while it was frustrating you were still sharing that frustration with him. In this book, I was looking at what can happen later when kids get older and can go somewhere menacing and dark, somewhere parents cannot easily follow. Jonas is caught in such a place and that makes him vulnerable to extremism.
I was also holding myself to be excruciatingly honest about the role religion can play in terrorism. This meant I could not absolve or humanize the Islamic extremism that Jonas is pulled into. One reason Jonas finds this misguided path so attractive is, ironically, because he was not raised in a spiritual tradition himself. Working as a journalist for five years in the Middle East, I saw first hand religious intolerance and what it stems from, and that includes young men being raised without a space to question their religion or its assumptions. When I started having my children I tried to find a faith I was comfortable raising them in, and I couldn’t. But I struggle with what that choice means for my children and how it may put too much responsibility on them to make their own decisions. Carol, Jonas’ mother, struggles with this as well.
SR: How did you go about researching and doing the early drafting for this book?
MH: I interviewed people who joined extremist groups, including jihadist groups, and spent time on their websites. My phone was bugged because I visited those sites—I was basically doing what a potential terrorist would do, so oddly enough I was comforted when I realized I was being bugged. At heart I’m a journalist, so I had to go and see for myself. I went to recruitment sites specifically because I really wanted to understand Jonas the way I had Steven Judy, a twenty-four-year-old I had covered when I was an Associated Press journalist in the US. In 1979 Judy raped and murdered a young mother in Indiana then drowned her three young children. His actions were abhorrent, and yet I wept while attending his execution because of what I had learned about him and his family by writing his story. I’m not saying we need to forgive everything, but we don’t read novels or good journalism for black and white portrayals of people and their motivations.
In one month during a writer’s residency, I wrote the entire first draft. Masoud, the older terrorist who recruits Jonas, had many more chapters in that draft. As I rewrote, I realized I didn’t want competition between possible Masoud and Jonas sympathizers, so I cut Masoud’s presence in the book to largely one chapter. But by then I knew him better. It was the whole tip of the iceberg theory, so that piece of Masoud is rich.
SR: How does your training as a journalist, besides helping you do research, influence how you write fiction?
MH: Ego needs to be out of it. I learned as a journalist that I was the pipe that carried information. I feel the same way as a novelist. We’re trying to listen really hard to these characters, to be empathetic to their concerns—and that needs to be the same with a character like Jonas who is preparing to set off a bomb or someone like Mother Teresa. Of course our own concerns must be woven in, but fiction cannot be solely about me as a writer. I believe fiction is about writing into that other space, the ambivalent and even frightening space where there are no clear answers. If I already know the answer to the question I’m addressing, then the writing is not interesting to me.
SR: As you write, who is your audience? You write books that have characters in suspenseful places and situations, and yet your books cannot be called thrillers.
MH: It is true publishing houses usually want books that are more definitive than the ones I write. There’s this accepted idea that a book couldn’t be both a “thriller” and a “women’s book.” And what’s more women, we’re told, don’t like politics.
I try not to write to readers as a group, which sounds weird and counterintuitive, I know. What I want most of all is to make my writing better, more real, stronger, and deeper. I above all else don’t want to worry about what’s going to sell. The act of writing is so important to me that compromising to appeal solely to the reader would be betrayal of me. I have to live with the decision to go that route as a writer. I’m fine with that because if a book I write reaches the audience it’s supposed to reach, then I know I’ve been as authentic as possible, and that usually means I’ve been true to who I am and what I was trying to say. That’s the best thing all of us can do. If you love thrillers or mysteries write them. But if you don’t, the lack of authenticity will show itself. You have to ask yourself, Why am I writing? What’s my relationship to the work? What’s so important I will spend hours and days of my life on it, time I could spend hanging out with my husband or friends? What is so compelling for me I’ll be working at it so hard that I’ll be cross-eyed with exhaustion at the end of the day? Those are the questions you need ask yourself when you decide to write.
SR: The ending was tough for me as a reader. I felt my heart in my throat as I finished 31 Hours. When I reached the penultimate page, I was riddled with anxiety because I knew there wasn’t enough time in the last page for you to write a comforting resolution. It haunts me.
MH: I took three years to write that ending—I thought hard about it.
The question, one that I kept going back to, kept me from making the end simple: What would this young man do, considering all I learned about him from writing the book? I felt if he could survive to the next stage as an adult, beyond the young man we see in the book, he would be an original thinker. But I also had to look closely at the imperative of the ticking clock. I had to consider what can happen in those brief, crucial time spans when so much is at stake, those loaded hours in places around the world—not just New York-when so much rests upon the shoulders of young men like Jonas.
I write novels because they ask these kinds of questions. I guess it is personal for me in that way. I don’t have the answers myself, and I couldn’t take the easy way out in the final chapter. A book group emailed me to say they didn’t like the ending but it generated the best discussion they ever had.
Learn more about Masha Hamilton’s books and work in Afghanistan and Africa at