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Author Mohsin Hamid on 'How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia'

The author Mohsin Hamid has a home in Pakistan and spent nearly two decades studying and working in the United States. He's 42 now, and he thinks of himself as living almost "between" countries.

"I've lived half my life in America and Europe, and half my life in Pakistan," Hamid says over the phone. He's coming to Baltimore this week, where he will read from his third novel, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia."

"But I also live between generations, and I live between social classes with different political points of view. I like to write stories that bridge different experiences." (A condensed version of the conversation appears below.)

In his new novel, Hamid parodies both the self-help genre and Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories, with such chapter headings as "Don't Fall in Love," and "Avoid Idealists."

But Hamid, who has a degree from Harvard Law School and spent about a dozen years as a business consultant in New York and London, also is trying in this novel to accomplish something far more complex.

Beneath the glib surface is a story of the haves and have-nots, in which a desperately poor boy — though he's addressed in the novel as "you" — lives in an unnamed Third World city. He scrambles his way to the top of the economic heap, but at a cost.

The author talked recently about how such sharply colliding perspectives continue to shape his worldview.

Why did you write this novel in the form of a self-help manual?

I was looking at the notion "Why do I write novels?" It's a weird occupation to sit by yourself as a grown-up man in a room quietly for hours a day, years at a time, making stuff up. Maybe I do this bizarre activity because it helps me in some way. Maybe I need to do it.

And also, when I read books, what am I doing? Why do I want to be transported beyond myself into the mind of another person? Maybe that's a kind of self-help in a way also.

What began as a playful idea of a self-help manual about getting rich really is exploring a different kind of self-help: To what extent does reading and writing stories constitute a way that we help ourselves?

All three of your books are written with a second-person narrator, in which the reader is addressed as "you." Why do you prefer that point of view?

A special thing about novels is that readers help to create them. A novel is just random symbols on paper, and readers then animate those symbols with their imaginations. In a novel, the reader is the casting director and the photographer and composes the score.

A novelist makes half of the novel, and the reader makes the other half. You, the reader of the book, are a co-creator with me, the writer of the book. I always feel compelled to acknowledge that, so the "you" slips in into all of my novels.

Is that why you don't use proper nouns? Your heroine is just "the pretty girl" and you never identify the city, or even the country, where your characters are living.

I was trying to give the reader space to create the characters. I didn't want to over-describe them. I didn't want it to just be my city or my mother or my father.

You have to make some choices. For instance, your made your narrator male.

It's not perfect. There definitely are some choices that I make. Not just anybody can be slotted in.

So, yes, there's a character, but there's also a reader. When I'm reading a novel, the voice of the narrator, the novelist and me blur together. For a while, it's hard to separate us, and that blurring is interesting to me. That way in which writers and readers combine in the process of reading is something I wanted to do explicitly.

What inspired your narrator, who rises from a life of dire poverty to make a fortune selling bottled water?

My first two novels were about characters who were much more like myself. This one, not so much.

I knew I wanted to explore the giant migration that's happening in the world today. In the next 10 or 15 years, 1 billion people are going to move from the countryside into the cities of Asia and Latin America and Africa.

I wanted to explore what that felt like.

With water, what we're seeing is that things that used to be public and shared — air, water and parks — are being privatized. You can live for a month without food, but you can't live for more than about two days without drinking water. We're also running out of it. For someone to make their fortune selling something that we depend on for our basic survival has a double-sided nature. Yes, individuals and countries are becoming more prosperous. But is it sustainable?

You live in a country where businesses are relatively unregulated. Do you agree with the people who think the United States ought to be moving in the same direction?

I think it's a mistake. I understand why in America the free market without the state might sound like a great idea. But the truth is, it's like a sporting match without a referee. You can still believe in fair play. But if you take the referees away and put strangers into a match that has real life-and-death consequences, you're going to wind up with the kind of pretty brutal game that's being played in Pakistan and many other countries today.

In America the state does things that benefit everyone. The schools are better. The roads are better. There are rules you have to abide by.

If you take that away, you're going to see a future America that is going to look a lot like the countries we used to call "Third World." I don't think Americans would like that.

The movie inspired by your second book, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" was released in the U.S. last spring. What was it like to see your characters being played by Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland?

It was very interesting. One thing I learned is that movies and books are very different.

In the book, the American character who our protagonist is talking to never speaks and we never see him. In the movie, he is played by Liev Schreiber. At the ending of the book, you don't know what happens. It's kind of ambiguous.

I think the danger is when you say, "Oh, the movie has to be the way I imagined it." I don't think that's fair as a novelist. If somebody wanted to write a song or make a sculpture inspired by one of my books, I'd be flattered and excited. But, I wouldn't expect the song or sculpture to be exactly like the book. How could it be?

As long as you don't expect the two things to be exactly the same, you're fine.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Mohsin Hamid will read from his new book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 19 at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

About the Book

"How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" was released March 5 by Penguin Books. 240 pages, $26.95.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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