Masha Hamilton: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Masha Hamilton is the author of four novels, including The Camel Bookmobile. Her new novel, 31 Hours, starts in New York City, where a mother with the age-old intuition that something is wrong chooses possible overreaction over inaction. The story then follows several connected paths to reveal one character's motives behind his desire to help carry out an act of terrorism in the very city he grew up in. Hamilton has started two world literacy programs, teaches writing workshops and lives with her family in Brooklyn.

At the start of 31 Hours, you quote a torture victim who said, "instead of saying 'never again' ... we could maybe try to ask the question 'How is this possible?'" On your website, you say this question scares you. Can you describe what is scary?

I think it is easier if we can assume that bad acts are committed by Other People, not by people we know or love. An Us-and-Them mentality is a whole lot less threatening. When Francois Bizot, himself the victim of torture by the Khmer Rouge, asks us to ponder "how is this possible," he is asking us to sweep aside preconceptions and consider the issue more deeply. How is it possible that someone just like us, good and decent and well-intentioned, might be driven to consider an act of violence? How is it possible that a young person might confront the cruelty and chaos of the modern world, as well as its beauty, and from that, draw horribly wrong conclusions? Asking these questions is scary because it makes it far more difficult to dismiss people with labels, i.e. "she's crazy," "he's a terrorist," "she's someone I would never be."

How did you go about researching the rationale of the terrorist act?

I spent time on the Internet looking at websites that reach out to proponents of radicalism. I interviewed people who had been involved with radical sects to ask them how they got enticed to join. I researched whatever I could about training techniques and training camps in Pakistan. I honestly think for a little while my home phone was bugged, probably because I set off some alarms with all this research into how one goes about planning, carrying out and justifying an act of terrorism.

You wrote about your inspirations for this book on your website. As the inspirations culminated, what part of the story came to you first? What section did you start writing first?

I wrote the first draft pretty much in the order in which you see it. I wrote it while sequestered for a month at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks. I lived closely with these characters during that time, and they all took turns talking to me. It was a very intense few weeks. Of course, then there is the revision process! During that period, back home in Brooklyn, I wrote a lot about the subway while actually riding the subway—I love the NY subway and wanted the novel to be, on some level, an edgy love poem to the subway.

You've mentioned you have a 19-year-old son. What does he think about the way you describe the fictional 21-year-old? "She had thought of getting him a T-shirt imprinted with the slogan: 'I'm twenty-one. This isn't who I really am' but discarded the idea."

I just asked my son that question. He said, "I don't really get the joke." I think that speaks for itself! When we are old enough to have kids who are 19 or 21, our view is longer, naturally. As it should be.

How did you come to the decision to end the book (I'm trying hard here not to give anything away) at the 31st hour, and not moments, months or years later?

I can't really say where that creative decision came from, just that it arrived very early and seemed right all along. The 31 hours during which the story takes place was the framework that grounded me and allowed me to be a bit more experimental within the story itself. It was interesting to me, after it was published, that some people called 31 Hours a thriller, as I really never thought of it that way during the writing process. I thought of it as an exploration of prayer and spirituality, of mothering and intuition, of youth's struggle to define the world, of missed connections, and of the power and limits of love. But I think the framework alone, that 31 hours, was enough to make some readers view it as a thriller.

In the story, Jonas is full of frustration and anger towards the unfairness in the world. His mother, Carol, said "we don't let ourselves see it all the time, lest we go mad." As a journalist, you've witnessed more than your share of the world's unfairness. Do you have any philosophical words of advice about how to view the world without feeling tormented?

The short answer is no. Feeling tormented, feeling empathy, is probably what keeps us human, and maybe isn't a bad thing. Of course we can't live at that level all the time—we need to watch a TV show or read a beach book or eat cotton candy or escape in whatever way works for us. But then, I think, we need to return and immerse ourselves fully in our world. All of my novels, at some level, have been about exactly that.

You founded the Afghan Women's Writing Project this year, to ensure the unfiltered and uncensored voices of Afghan women are available to the rest of the world. A question from a reader (via Twitter): "The only question I had for both Masha and the Afghan writers is how they manage to ignore the fear and do what they do?" In addition, what changes have you seen with the project over this year?

Our Afghan women writers are very brave. Many write without letting their families know they are participating in the project. Many have had to endure very difficult lives. How they manage, I don't know. But if the Afghan Women's Writing Project can help in some small way, by giving them voice, and by letting them know we are here and we care, then it serves a purpose. The primary changes I've seen over the months since the project began is that the women are becoming more and more confident about and comfortable in telling their stories. And slowly, this unique blog is gaining readers, which is great for the women. A supportive comment really means a lot.

As a reader/writer, do you have a new year's resolution?

Write more. Much more. Write every day, even on book tour, even when kids get sick, even when our bed and breakfast is full of guests. Read more too. Think more. Sleep less.

What are you reading now, and what books would you like to read before 2009 is over?

Right this minute, I'm finishing up Let the Great World Spin, and I'd like to try to read a couple more of Colum McCann's books before the year ends. I very much loved The Appointment by Herta Muller and her book The Land of Green Plums is sitting by my bedside, begging me to open it.

What's on your bookshelf?

In this regard, my cup definitely overfloweth. Too much to mention, but of course all the books published by Unbridled, because they put out such strong literary work. And right next to my bed, waiting to be read soon, is 2666 by Roberto Bolano and The Edge of Marriage by Hester Kaplan. Also, I've been picking my way through Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences, and rereading The Wind Blows Away Our Words by Doris Lessing.

—interview by Sonya Green

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