Book, Meet Film – An Interview with Mohsin Hamid
Read the first installment of this series here.
As promised, we are back with the second half of our special feature on novel and film adaptations. One of the most anticipated big screen adaptations of the coming year is Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is being directed by the incomparable Mira Nair (of Salaam Bombay! andMonsoon Wedding fame).
On a first read, The Reluctant Fundamentalist appears to be very much a book of its time. Set in New York and Lahore, it documents through a Pakistani immigrant’s eyes the change that America underwent after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The issues that Hamid picks up, however, are more far reaching and enduring than the political events of a specific era or country. He focuses as much on changing conceptions of home as he does on the ability to forge new connections in a world with increasingly fuzzy borders and boundaries. At the end of the day, this novel is about identity issues and deciding who you are, and that is what makes it so relevant to our theme.
A.A. What is the process by which this book is being turned into a movie? How involved have you been and what has it been like for you as an author to see it happening?
M.H. Mira contacted me shortly after the book was published in 2007. She was in London for the screening of The Namesake and took me out for lunch to discuss this project. She was full of enthusiasm for the book and was very charming, with a real love for Lahore, for Pakistan, for Pakistani music. The biggest impression I had of her that day was that I felt I trusted her. She seemed very sincere and well meaning and that put me at ease. She was making Amelia at the time, which was her first experience with a big studio film. Now she wanted to do a smaller film, one that she had complete control over and was more to her vision. She also wanted to do a film on Lahore and I think she was personally quite interested in this issue of Americans, Muslims and conflict. Her husband is a Columbia University professor who’s written a book called Good Muslim, Bad Muslim in which he’s explored exactly these issues.
After that, our main challenge was to write a screenplay. Mira was finding it difficult to locate a screenwriter who combined the knowledge and expertise of a corporate environment in New York with a Pakistani and Lahori experience. She therefore suggested that she, her assistant and I co-write the screenplay. It was going to be difficult and delay my next novel but it would teach me how to write a screenplay. We spent several months writing the first draft.
A.A. What was it like for you as a novelist to write a screenplay?
M.H. As opposed to one person and their prose, which is what writing a novel is, co-writing a screenplay is about working collectively. It’s very different and quite fun. It’s about sitting in a room, writing a scene, laughing like crazy. We’d come up with some absurd thing that obviously none of the characters would ever say in the real thing (Changez says to the American, “HEY! Aren’t you my long lost cousin??”) and then we’d all crack up. I enjoyed it. On the other hand, it was challenging because as a novelist my novel was exactly what I wanted, but as a film it had to change. I had to think of it more as trying to realize Mira’s vision while also trying to create my own. That was very unusual.
Eventually, Mira retained another screenwriter called Bill Wheeler, who’s an American based in LA. We had a joint session in New York, talked about the screenplay, came up with ideas and now they’re taking things forward with him. For me, the journey this far was worthwhile and I learnt a lot, so maybe for my next book I will also try to make a film. I feel now I understand how one would do so.
A.A. Is this book autobiographical?
M.H. Changez is not meant to be me and is fundamentally different from me in many ways. It wasn’t my intention to write a character named Changez so that a person could read what Mohsin Hamid thinks.
When I create a character, I try to imagine being that person. In Changez’s case, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if I had been younger, more volatile and more caught up in the post-9/11 scenario. Now, my innate nature is that pluralism and hybridity are good things. I’m not somebody who thinks that being absolutely clear or not having any conflict within yourself is good… I couldn’t imagine being that. So I’m okay with saying there are some things about America that piss me off and some things about Pakistan that piss me off. I’ve spent time in America, so I’m Americanised in some ways and I’ve lived in Pakistan, so I’m Pakistanised too. I am me.
But Changez is someone who feels that he should be one thing. I wanted to explore this character because I feel that this tendency is latent in all of our natures and if you take it to an extreme, it can become quite frightening. So I wanted to take a character who wasn’t religious (because I don’t think any of this has anything to do with religion, it’s all about politics) and completely absent the issue of religion; also completely absent the issue of violence. No one in the book is violent and no act of violence takes place.
A.A. And yet there’s this undercurrent of violence…
M.H. Exactly… and yet there’s this feeling of violence. I think that because we have violent feelings right now we look at the world as a violent place and we many times perpetrate that violence. So if you ask me are Changez’s views my views, I say no. Changez’s views are views that I can imagine as a way of exploring one side of things in my own head, but to a much greater degree.
A.A. How do you write a book and why has it been taking you seven years to write each one?!
M.H. I write and rewrite and rewrite my books over and over again. I tend to write a first draft and then a second draft, third draft, fifth draft, seventh draft… about a draft a year. After I’ve written the first draft, I’ll write a second one on a new Word doc without looking at the first. Usually, there’s nothing in common between the two.
A.A. Are you serious? And it doesn’t bother you that one of the two will have to go?
M.H. No. And the first one goes.
A.A. I would die if I had to throw away my previous work. I work too hard on it.
M.H. Oh, I throw. I also work hard, but I throw. If the voice isn’t precisely what you want it to be, you can’t tweak it, I think. You have to write a new voice. If you don’t want to be third person now, you can’t just change the sentences and make them into first person. I have the first draft, I’ll refer to it and I know it because I’ll have read it out loud to myself so many times. I would say that out of all my time in a day, at least one hour is spent reading stuff out loud. I read every sentence, every page, a hundred times, an infinite number of times. I need to see how it sounds and when I listen to it I can say, “Okay, this word is not working.”My eyes can give me a sense of plot arc and structure, but at the sentence and word level, I use my ears.
I think that writing is about speech. We don’t just think the way that we write, we speak like we write. For me the novel has to be able to be spoken and wherever the speaking of it is awkward, the writing is awkward. I do know that when I read a book and I like the voice, if I read the voice out loud, it does have a real rhythm and cadence and sound…. Itfeels like a voice.
A.A. What’re you working on these days?
M.H. (grins) Book 3.
A.A. You don’t say.
M.H. (laughs) I don’t like to talk about work in progress. I can tell you it’s a novel and it should be done in about two years.