An interview with Masha Hamilton

Editor’s note: Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers in Waynesville, recently conducted an email interview with Masha Hamilton, one of the writers headlining the upcoming Book Mania event Aug. 4 at the Haywood County Justice Center. Masha Hamilton is the author of three novels — Staircase of a Thousand Steps (2001), a Booksense pick by Independent booksellers and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection; The Distance Between Us (2004), chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Library Journal; and The Camel Bookmobile (2007), a Booksense pick. Hamilton was an Associated Press foreign correspondent for five years in the Middle East and spent another five years in Moscow as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. With her extensive background covering Kremlin politics, Israel, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Kenya, Hamilton has been able to draw on experiences in war-torn areas to shed light on the families and individuals in parts of the world that few get to see first-hand. She teaches writing workshops throughout the country and has been awarded several fiction fellowships. She lives with her husband and three children in Brooklyn, N.Y.

How old were you when you started writing?

I wrote from early childhood. I always wanted to be a writer.

Who encouraged you?

I was lucky enough to get lots of encouragement from my parents and teachers early on, and from colleagues as a journalist and an author. I am so moved by the support I got that I try to pass that on whenever possible.

Is there anyone in your educational background who inspired your writing?

I have been inspired by the individuals I met and got to know who lived under conditions of duress in the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union. Fellow journalists and authors have also inspired me. Each of my three novels is also dedicated to people, living and dead, who I admire and who had a direct impact on my work.

I notice that many of your stories are about courageous individuals who live in countries riddled with strife and adversity. I imagine there have been many who have inspired you or touched a place deep in your heart. Would you tell me about one of those experiences?

My second novel is dedicated to Kevin Carter, a photojournalist and a member of “The Bang Bang Club” in South Africa who won the Pulitzer for one of his photos showing a child, a famine victim in southern Sudan, with a vulture behind her. Even as he was given enormous recognition for the work, he also was criticized for not stopping to help that girl. Two weeks after he was awarded the Pulitzer in New York City, back home in Johannesburg now, he committed suicide. His suicide note read, in part: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners....” I thought of Kevin often while working on my second novel which is, in part, about the price journalists pay to bring us vital stories from around the world.

Did you go to Kenya to research for your book The Camel Bookmobile? I understand there really is a camel bookmobile. How true to reality is the one in your book?

Yes, I had the wonderful opportunity to go out with the real camel library. Initially I did my research by phone calls and emails, though. I waited to travel to Garissa and walk out into the bush with the real camel library, in part because of my journalist background. I didn’t want reporting skills to kick in before the story itself was fully formed, and each character impacted by the camel library in diverse ways. I found the area and people much as I’d imagined them from my research, and the issues they struggle with in this isolated region in transition are many of the same issues the characters in the novel face.

We are planning a book drive at our Haywood County Book Mania event on August 4th. Is there any one genre that is most needed for the people in Kenya?

The librarians in the Northeast Province who travel with the camel bookmobile told me children’s storybooks are most popular, general fiction for kids and adults is also high on the list, and much interest is shown in nonfiction books covering topics ranging from astronomy to geography to history. We also like to send books by African authors. The librarians also said, by the way, that patrons especially love it when a book is inscribed with a note from the sender. It helps them feel connected to places only barely imagined.

What are you reading now?

I just finished The Gate by Francois Bizot. Loved it.

What’s next?

I’m working on a novel manuscript called Thirty-One Hours that takes place over that time period in New York City. I’m dreaming of going to Pakistan and returning to Afghanistan.

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