Interview with Masha Hamilton
- September 3, 2013
Masha Hamilton is currently working in Afghanistan as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy. She is the author of five acclaimed novels, most recently What Changes Everything.
About What Changes Everything
What Changes Everything is the story of a woman who gets the terrible news that her husband, the director of a humanitarian organization, has been kidnapped in Afghanistan. What must she do next? Hang up, hope they had the wrong number, notify family, pray. Clarissa does everything and more, and as the days grow harder to manage, her fear is tangled up with that of others who have been touched by loss of limb and life in an incomprehensible war. From this book, we learn of imagined ordinary lives, along with the true story of the Afghan president whose fall from power was sealed by the Taliban.
Masha Hamilton is the author of four previous novels.
You have framed the story in a very interesting way. Two characters must decide how to leave a place they have both loved and cherished. Was the story conceived this way?
Yes, the juxtaposition of Najiband Todd, linked via Amin, was intentional. In addition to creating parallel stories, it also allowed me to give both a happy and a sad ending to the novel, which felt in keeping with our experience of Afghanistan, where so much has been accomplished, but at great cost.
The story is quite powerful without any bloodshed. All of the terrible stuff is off stage and the book is truly compelling. Your characters are in a kind of chapter isolation, yet the story is a whole. Was it easier to tell the story character by character? Why?
Telling the story in the viewpoints of various characters seemed to make it easier to write into the complex gray, because even “bad guys” feel justified. And I felt I needed the multiple viewpoints since one of the themes was the unlikely, unnamable relationships between those linked through conflict — I don’t believe we even have a word in English for those relationships, but they definitely exist.
Did you prefer one character over another? Which one and why?
I really didn’t prefer one over another. For me, they were part of an interwoven tapestry. That said, I do love Stela’s letters, and I love Danil doing street art in the black of a Brooklyn night, and I love the sauciness of Amin’s wife, even though she is a walk-on.
In one of Clarissa’s chapters, you describe the problems in having their only communication through e-mail. “Robbed of touch or expression, words became easily knotted.” Do you think this is a 21st-century paradigm and we’re all a little more confused than we used to be because of e-mail? We’re all at each other’s fingertips and our words are so easily misinterpreted.
Absolutely. Ironically, since I’m a writer, I try to stop typing and pick up the phone or, even better, meet in person, when a misunderstanding begins. Nuances are critical, and hard, in writing. So many people have told me they will write when they retire. They may not realize that writing to the depth of one’s meaning and in the full complexity required of life is not easy. Even though I’ve written all my life and I love it, writing is always, for me, an approximation of the complexity of my meaning, and something that I just keep trying to improve upon.
I’ve asked this many times before without really getting an answer. Maybe it’s just this reader, but some books are loud, they scream their stories. What Changes Everything tells a very powerful story very quietly. The reader waits for the story to unfold and doesn’t mind if it doesn’t happen all at once. How do you craft this quality? Is it the pace? The placement of facts?
Not in the first draft, but by the time I’m in the 10th revision or so, I am consciously trying to create opposing desires within the reader: the desire to turn the page to see what happens next, and the desire to linger on the page to sink in the words and images and characters. In my first draft, I just want to create a story interesting enough to keep me personally writing to find out what happens next. By the time I’m done, and really understand what I’m writing about, I want to create layers for the reader to experience. I think it has to do with profluence as well as varying the distance of the narrative camera.
Danil and Clarissa have the very convenient meeting of two people with much in common: fear and pain. Their meeting is as believable in the story as it isn’t in real life. Did you have any reservations about this moment between them? Is it a just right juxtaposition?
Clarissa in particular feels isolated at that moment, so subconsciously, she is looking for someone with whom to connect. At first, she isn’t aware of what she wants from this connection, and you see her groping a little bit — is this friendly? romantic? motherly? I don’t imagine the relationship between the two of them will develop or continue much beyond the end of the novel. But the connection also feels very New York to me — chance meetings (accident? fate?) that can have outsized impact.
We all need to consider this possibility more: “Maybe all the women on the street at night should be our aunts,” as Danil says to himself. Maybe we should consider all of the people we see at any time a possible relation? How would we all be improved?
Danil asks this question because he feels guilty about backing so far away from his mother, Stela, and the way he has dealt with that guilt is to say his “family” is a created unit — and I think that is partly true. But only partly, and that becomes clear when he initially decides not to help the woman (Clarissa) on the street at night. This pushes him closer to the decision to both connect with Clarissa later, and to reconsider his emotional distance from Stela.
It is true for Todd’s kidnappers; do you also believe that it may be true for any religious man to find it easier to relate to another man who has a system of beliefs in place, and perhaps a book that symbolizes it? No matter the religion?
I don’t think this is confined to religious men. Even when our leaders send us to war, they make use of the premise that there is an “us” and a “them” — which is a fallacy because of its blurred generality. I think it takes flexibility and humility for any of us — religious or otherwise — to listen with openness to those who hold drastically different views from our own.
Mandy’s story fades. And it made this reader wonder if the way her story peters out isn’t much like what happens with so many people like her. There must be countless stories like hers, folks wanting, trying to and giving help. Feels like all of their effort is a drop in a bottomless bucket. There must be some cumulative effect somewhere. What else would you want a reader to learn from Mandy’s story?
That she is like many Americans who have no idea where or what Afghanistan is, and she never had interest in visiting a place where English was not spoken until the moment when the war’s frontline manages to reach all the way into her home in Texas. Just like Stela in Ohio and Clarissa in Brooklyn. That is what conflict does. It spiders out and it strangles people who are so far away from its center that, until the moment they feel the choke around their necks, they believe they are immune.
I love “Choke & Pukes,” Piotr’s description of some of the restaurants he frequented in Afghanistan. It should be the title of a book about the world’s worst restaurants. How about it?
All yours! Write away.
Amin is a quiet revelation Is he a prototype for other men from Afghanistan?
He breaks out of the Western-held stereotype, as many Afghan men do, and for that reason he is important to the book. In some ways, in fact, I feel the story is ultimately his, since he has borne guilt since the death of Najibullah, Afghanistan’s prior president, at the hands of the Taliban. The kidnapping of Todd presents for him both a deeply personal risk and a chance to redeem himself in his own eyes.
You created two women who have one-liners that seem to reveal their entire characters. Amin’s wife tells him that “a man’s pride is as powerful as it is illogical.” The wife of Najibullah says: “A decorated camel is never pointless.” These are the things that we know about these two women, and in each case, it is enough. How’d you work this magic?
Thank you, kind of you to say. I can only credit spending a lot of time at the keyboard, writing on scraps of paper in foreign countries with no electricity, scribbling notes when waking up from dreams. You know: the things all writers do.
Finally, and this question may seem odd. It has to do with the very last line and the placement of the word “enough.” “He believes he has witnessed history enough.” This reader is curious and wonders why you didn’t say: “He believes he has witnessed enough history.”
Comes down to those final rounds of revision and how the words feel to me when read aloud or imprinted from the page.
Thanks much for the great interview.