Tuesday, April 19, 2005

'Kite Runner' catches the wind
By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

GARFIELD, N.J — It's a long way from Kabul, Afghanistan, to The Venetian, one of those cavernous party houses with crystal chandeliers and sweeping staircases where brides and bar mitzvah boys make their grand entrances. But Khaled Hosseini made the journey last week, along with about 800 suburbanites who paid $55 to eat boneless breast of chicken and broiled salmon and listen to this most unlikely of literary stars.

Hosseini, an unassuming, gracious and boyish-looking doctor from California's Silicon Valley, is the author of The Kite Runner, the tale of an improbable friendship between two boys more than 30 years ago in Kabul.

Almost as improbable is the enduring popularity of his book.

After an initial printing of 50,000, The Kite Runner is now in its 17th printing with more than 1.4 million books shipped. It began hitting best-seller lists last September and has remained there ever since. It was No. 7 on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list last week.

Don't expect it to go away any time soon. A movie script is being worked on at DreamWorks. Stage adaptations are being planned at high schools from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. And there are the book clubs.

"It's the darling of the book clubs," says Walter Boyer of Bookends, an independent bookstore in Ridgewood, N.J., who was selling Kite Runner here at the Friends of the Ridgewood Library's annual author luncheon. "We've sold as many already this year as we sold all last year."

He and his wife, Pat, also at the luncheon, say that of the 50 book clubs they supply in northern New Jersey, 40 have selected The Kite Runner.

And it all has happened almost entirely through word of mouth, according to Hosseini's publisher, Riverhead Books. A mother tells a daughter. A friend calls a friend. Another paperback is bought.

Hosseini, 40, has taken a year's sabbatical from his practice as an internist to continue promoting Kite Runner, his first novel, and finish his second. He's on the road most every week in addition to helping raise money for Afghan causes through various Kite Runner evenings.

Colleges, from Michigan State and Rutgers to Villanova and Duke, have put the book on the summer reading list for incoming freshmen.

Perfect timing

Hosseini, who concedes he has become something of a poster boy for his native land, says he's surprised by it all. "I thought it would find a niche with people who are interested in that part of the world. But it's not a niche anymore."

Indeed not.

"I read it, my mother-in-law read it, my husband read it and my niece read it, and we were all moved by it," says Barb Vedder, a Hosseini fan who attended the Ridgewood Library event.

The Rev. Ashley Harrington of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Tenafly, N.J., joined parishioners, all Kite Runner fans. He likes that the book is about redemption, about making a wrong right. "You need someone to tell the truth, and that can happen in Tenafly, N.J., as well as in Kabul, Afghanistan."

Even the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, jumped on board. "This book generates a tremendous amount of goodwill for Afghanistan," he said at a Kite Runner evening at the New York Ethical Society last week. "It's being channeled into knowledge of our country."

Riverhead has maintained all along that the book's timing was near-perfect with interest in Afghanistan rising since Sept. 11, 2001.

Although the hardcover was out in 2003 (Hosseini had a solitary fan show up for a book signing early on), Kite Runner's popularity didn't really begin to soar until last year when the paperback edition came out, which is when book clubs began picking it up.

Cindy Spiegel, Hosseini's editor, is one of the few people who isn't surprised by the success: "I was just impatient for it to happen."

Sharon Yacura, a co-chair of the Ridgewood Library luncheon, signed up Hosseini last September and realizes now what a coup that was. "We've never had this number of guests before," she says. The annual event had to be moved to the larger venue, and 200 people still had to be turned away.

At the luncheon, Hosseini addressed the question he gets asked several times daily: Is Kite Runner autobiographical?

Well ... yes and no.

Yes, he grew up in Kabul in the '60s. Yes, his father was a diplomat, had servants and lost it all when the Soviets moved in. The family eventually landed in northern California, where Hosseini lives with his wife and two young children, Haris, 4, and Farah, 2.

"When I say some of it is me, then people look unsatisfied," he says. "The parallels are pretty obvious, but ... I left a few things ambiguous because I wanted to drive the book clubs crazy."

His father, who dies in the book, is very much alive, however, and "a shameless promoter" of Kite Runner, according to Hosseini.

His initial spark to write the book was from a CNN report that said the Taliban had banned kite flying. "I thought it unusually cruel."

Initially a short story, Kite Runner was rejected by the likes of Esquire and The New Yorker. Then, in 2001, a friend suggested he expand it into a novel. Spiegel helped him rework the last third of his manuscript, "which isn't all that unusual with a first novel," she says.

Last week, the book got its debut as a stage presentation in New York as part of American Place Theatre's "Literature to Life" program.

Actor Aasif Mandvi gave a moving monologue of some of the more poignant sections of the book and afterward called it "amazing storytelling. ... It's about human beings. It's about redemption, and redemption is a powerful theme."

From book to stage to screen

The book's stage adaptation is scheduled for schools in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Cleveland and Tucson; other schools can get more information at the American Place Theatre's Web site (www.americanplacetheatre.org).

As for the DreamWorks movie, Hosseini has read the script and likes it, and has made only a few suggestions. A production date and cast are yet to be announced.

His next novel, Dreaming in Titanic City, also based in Afghanistan, is the tale of a 30-year friendship between two women, a story of "how human beings behave ... how they can be great and how they can be horrible."

He's happy with the way it's "rolling along" (he should be finished next spring) and happier that the protagonists are women.

"That should put the end to the autobiographical question once and for all."

USATODAY.com - 'Kite Runner' catches the wind

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