Masha Hamilton is the author of five novels, including The Camel Bookmobile and 31 Hours. Her latest, What Changes Everything, braids together stories of Americans far from the front line whose lives are irretrievably linked and changed by America’s longest-running conflict, and explores the grace of unexpected human connections in a world often too harsh and dangerous to face alone.
Four of your five novels either skirt around or dive directly into the topic of war. You worked as a journalist in war zones and now you are working in Afghanistan, which is right in the midst of its fighting season. What is it about war? Why do you continue to put yourself in places of conflict, and also to write about it, when in fact you are notoriously conflict-adverse?
As a journalist, I wanted to cover conflict because I saw quickly that people under the strain of chronic violence become somehow distilled, the essence of who they are. Nothing can be more dramatic than that. It’s not the action scenes that draw me in as either a writer or an observer. It is the woman who wakes up after a funeral and, in the gilded light of early morning, silently begins to knead dough for the day’s fresh bread. It is the young man who manages to suppress fear long enough to offer a blithe goodbye to the girl he loves before heading off to some front line. It is the grandfather who, having seen conflict since he was knee-high, lives (and dies) with the regret that he couldn’t change the future. It is strangers living half a world away from one another who will never meet, who speak different languages, pray to different gods and often value different things, but whose lives are suddenly irrevocably intertwined.
I see why it fascinates you. But why should anyone else want to read about violence and conflict?
War has been part of the American landscape for the last decade-plus. It has robbed us of amazing lives. The money we’ve spent on fighting means we have far less to spend on pre-school education and on research into cures for Alzheimer’s or cancer. If you are in your twenties, your country has been at war for about half your life. It has shaped this generation in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Exploring through fiction what this has meant to our country and its citizens seems not only fair but necessary.
Have your feelings about war changed from when you were in your twenties and working in the Middle East to today when you are working in Afghanistan?
As a young journalist, I got close to conflict physically, but emotionally I felt at a remove, as though it were happening to other people. I was the observer. I explored this emotional barrier—the benefits and the costs—in my second novel, The Distance Between Us. Over time, as I developed my novelist muscles of deep immersion into another, I find I have a harder time maintaining that protective barrier. I have a great appreciation for the amount of regular life that can continue in a warzone. But it turns out now, I more personally feel the cost paid by those living daily with suicide bombers and tripwires and mortars and the uncertainty that a diet of violence brings to day-to-day life.
One of the main characters is a Brooklyn street artist. How did that develop, and how did you do your research?
I am interested in street art as a means of fleeting, illegal self-expression. New York City is, of course, a great place to appreciate the impact of street art. I wanted to work with a character who had responded to the loss of his brother in Afghanistan by losing motivation to do much of anything except street art, and found himself using a spray can both to try to heal and as a means of anonymous protest. Through my kids, their friends and my own research, my appreciation of street art deepened. I also was able to go out a couple times in the evening with street artists to try to tap into the feelings Danil has while he’s painting.
The street artist’s mother, Stela, owns a used bookstore in Ohio filled with cats named after Russian authors, and she tries to deal with her son’s death by writing letters to famous people, like Bob Dylan and Noam Chomsky. What drew you to explore her character through the letters she writes?
Opinionated and strong-willed, Stela is based in part on the owner of a used bookstore in Washington, DC—a crusty character. She is also very old-fashioned. While her son is creating street art to process the loss of his brother, she is writing letters to renowned people she thinks might have wisdom to share. The letters offer a chance to show the humor in her character as well as her effort to connect more broadly (if improbably). In this way, the letters contribute to the novel’s exploration of unlikely connection through distant conflict.
The contemporary-day story is spliced with letters from Najibullah, living essentially captive in the UN headquarters in Kabul, to his daughters in exile in New Delhi. What research did you do to create those letters?
Najibullah was Afghanistan’s Soviet-installed president from 1987 to 1992, and a complex, larger-than-life character. I researched his life, but to write the letters, I wanted as much of an inside view as possible. Through the Internet, one connection led to another and I ended up having a moving email exchange with one of his daughters. Another family friend I met via Internet shared a poem his wife had written after his death. The letters are entirely imagined, of course, but I wanted to be as true as possible to the way he would have sounded to his daughters and, through them, to his wife.
You’ve been a journalist, founded non-profits, worked for the government and written novels. Can you not make up your mind?
The two most important things to me are writing and family. I also care about words and women and building bridges from one culture to another. The ways in which I’ve been able to engage with the larger world have taken time away from my writing, but also helped it. It has made the work denser. And it’s increased my compulsion to write into the gray.
One last question: you love the ocean and the sand and rocks and seashells, yes?
Absolutely. I’ve never met a seashore I haven’t liked.
Then why can’t you just write a good beach book?
MASHA HAMILTON is working in Afghanistan as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy. She is the author of four acclaimed novels, most recently 31 Hours, which the Washington Post called one of the best novels of 2009 and independent bookstores named an Indie choice. She also founded two world literacy projects, the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She is the winner of the 2010 Women’s National Book Association award, presented “to a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” She began her career as a full-time journalist, working in Maine, Indiana and New York City before being sent by the Associated Press to the Middle East, where she was news editor for five years, including the period of the first intefadeh, and then moving to Moscow, where she worked for five years during the collapse of Communism, reporting for the Los Angeles Times and NBC-Mutual Radio and writing a monthly column, “Postcards from Moscow.” She also reported from Kenya in 2006, and from Afghanistan in 2004 and 2008.