The literary stars we are loving right now | EW.com

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The literary stars we are loving right now

The literary stars we are loving right now -- See why Khaled Hosseini, J.K. Rowling, Ian McEwan, Jodi Picoult, and others made our Ultimate List

Khaled Hosseini The Storyteller

Oon March 20, 2003, the same day the United States declared war on Iraq, Khaled Hosseini arrived back in Afghanistan, his boyhood home, for the first time in 27 years. Writing from memory, he’d just set much of his not-yet-published debut novel, The Kite Runner, in the 1970s Kabul of his youth, and he wanted to see how his hometown measured up to the sophisticated, comfortable city he’d left behind in 1976.

”I knew as I was finishing The Kite Runner that I wanted to write at least one more novel about Afghanistan,” the author explains today. ”And when I got there, this cosmopolitan place I grew up in was suddenly a really overpopulated, destroyed, neglected city, run by guns, with a real hard edge to it that I never remembered from before. And I heard these stories about Afghanistan — stories of just extreme desperation and unimaginable tragedy — that should and maybe had to be told.”

Then, not long after Hosseini returned to America, an unlikely thing happened: Somehow this movie-loving medical internist, living comfortably in San Jose, Calif., with his wife and two toddlers, became the popular American chronicler of the shadowy trouble spot that got pushed off the news crawls after the U.S. invaded Iraq. It was all thanks to The Kite Runner, which, after a year of slow build following its release in June 2003, became a certifiable word-of-mouth sensation, selling 4 million-plus copies. ”Every time we open the paper, the news about Afghanistan is so negative and tainted,” says director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), whose film version of The Kite Runner opens November 2. ”Reading Khaled’s book — and seeing that the country was once filled with warmth and love and beauty — gave us all something we hadn’t seen before.”

And while that book was taking off, Hosseini was busy writing his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which seeks to further illuminate modern Afghan life. Since The Kite Runner was a sentimental tragedy about two boys, Hosseini turned Suns into the tale of two women, Laila and Mariam, who are both married to a monster named Rasheed. Every awful story Hosseini heard in Kabul — from beggar children on the street, from doctors forced to perform C-sections without anesthetic, from terrified women in burkas — fed his imagination when he was writing Suns. ”When I was in Kabul,” Hosseini says, over lunch on the 35th floor of a Manhattan hotel bar overlooking Central Park, ”I heard about a woman who became a widow, and because the Taliban wouldn’t let her work, she didn’t have a way to feed her kids. So she laced dry breads with rat poison and fed it to her kids and to herself.”

True to the spirit of that story, the new novel details the calamities that befall women in Afghanistan. ”And the reality is worse!” insists Hosseini to any reader who wonders if Laila and Mariam’s predicaments are exaggerated. ”I saw things in Kabul that I’ll never put in writing, because it would seem sensationalistic. What’s happened to Afghan women is so horrible, I had to write this novel.”

By all measures, the new book is an early success, debuting at No. 1 on the best-seller lists earlier this month and holding tight. And most reviewers agree that Suns is a writerly improvement over The Kite Runner, a critical take that Hosseini happens to share. ”When I read my first novel, I can see the big heart it has,” he says. ”Then I want to take the pencil out and start editing.”

When he’s not promoting his book or doing envoy work for the U.N. Refugee Agency, Hosseini likes to watch movies from Blockbuster.com. (Current favorites: Children of Men and Volver. All-time favorite: Lawrence of Arabia. He can also quote lines from Raising Arizona.) He’s been on a sabbatical from medicine since December 2004 and can’t yet envision going back.

On the subject of his home country, Hosseini is full of surprises —and not just because he says most Afghans actually love Americans and American things. He tells a story about how he was nearly arrested for videotaping a mosque in March 2003. A cop accosted him aggressively and even looked through Hosseini’s footage. Hosseini explained he was an Afghan, returned to see his boyhood home. ”Eventually,” laughs Hosseini, ”the cop became very friendly and invited me to his house for dinner.” — Gregory Kirschling

Ian McEwan On Chesil Beach

AGE 59

WHY HIM With every new novel, the author of Atonement and Saturday certifies his standing as a literary master, the Brit equivalent of the American writers he loves — Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike. His new novel, On Chesil Beach, describes the 1962 wedding night of Edward and Florence, young newlyweds on the Dorset coast. Anyone who worries that this might be too small and interior to constitute a major novel should stick around for the last 10 pages, which are calmly devastating.

WHAT’S NEXT Director Joe Wright’s film version of 2002’s Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, is due this December.

Jodi Picoult Nineteen Minutes

AGE 41

WHY HER With the No. 1 March debut of Nineteen Minutes, her 14th novel in 15 years, Picoult has established herself as something of a literary Wonder Woman. So when DC Comics asked her to write five issues of the iconic superheroine series, Picoult found inspiration within. ”We all juggle family, career, and self,” says the New Hampshire-based author. ”But even someone infinitely powerful would probably have doubt in some area of her life.”

WHAT’S NEXT Picoult is already at work on her next three novels — and she won’t rule out a return to comics. ”It’s hard to give her up,” she laughs. ”Come on, she’s Wonder Woman!”

Natasha Trethewey Native Guard

AGE 41

WHY HER In her Pulitzer-winning poetry collection Native Guard, the Emory prof tackles big historical subjects — like an African-American regiment in the Civil War — with sly observations and formal eloquence.

FAMILY MATTERS Her strongest poems touch on her family legacy: growing up in the South as the daughter of a white father and black mother (murdered at age 40 by her second ex-husband).

POWER LINES In ”Graveyard Blues,” she writes, ”I wander now among names of the dead:/My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.”

SECRET TALENT ”I was a two-time All-American cheerleader at the University of Georgia.”

Haruki Murakami After Dark

AGE 58

WHY HIM His books are utterly addictive, mixing plainspoken prose, David Lynchian weirdness, and mysteries about things as big as identity and as small as missing cats. His latest novel, After Dark, glides in and out of a 24-hour Denny’s in Tokyo and maps the unlikely connections of fellow nightbirds.

TRAINING DAYS Murakami has run a jazz bar, taught at Princeton, and translated the work of John Irving and Truman Capote.

MUSIC CUES ”Whenever I write a novel,” Murakami has said, ”music just sort of naturally slips in (much like cats do, I suppose).” No wonder his 1997 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reads like a symphony.

Alice Sebold The Brave One

AGE 44

WHY HER Following the release of her surprise 2002 best-seller, The Lovely Bones — narrated by a murdered young girl — Sebold had to remove herself from the accolades and get back to work. After three and a half years, she returns this fall with The Almost Moon, a novel about a woman who kills her mother.

HER DARK MATERIAL ”I think people will think this one’s darker. I don’t, but my mom definitely does.”

THE LUCKY DESK ”I bought a plywood door 10 years ago at IKEA and I wrote Lucky, Lovely Bones, and this last one on it. It’s got grease stains from my elbows, and it kept collapsing, so I switched to a real desk. If things start to go badly, I’ll pop the other one out.”

THE FINISH LINE ”If a book has been a struggle, you feel so gutted at the end.” Husband, novelist Glen David Gold, to the rescue! ”He went out and bought a little half bottle of champagne at 10 a.m. and he insisted that we toast the book. He deserves combat pay.”

Stephen Colbert Truthiness Teller

AGE 43

WHY HIM The Colbert Report host’s first solo book, I Am America (And So Can You!), hits shelves this October.

WEIGHTY STUFF ”I would read this book,” Colbert says. ”Actually, I’d buy it first. And then I’d read it. No libraries, okay? Libraries are for cowards. No free rides. The book is for heroes, and the heroes are the people who buy the book. Don’t lend the book.”

HOW TO SUCCEED ”The book covers basically the things about America that you should know, in the order you learn them in your life,” he continues. ”Family. Pets. Religion. Sex and dating. The homosexual agenda. Higher education…”

GIVE US YOUR TIRED But before the pundit’s ”constitution for the Colbert Nation” can change lives (”Read the book, be me. Hold my truths to be self-evident”), Colbert & Co. have to finish it first. ”We’re kind of tired,” the star admits, but he does have a quick solution. ”We did think about leaving one chapter at the end blank. For the heroes. ‘Cause the book is really about you. YouTube? YouWrite!”

I’LL RETIRE… ”Thirty minutes after Jon Stewart does.”


BOOKS WE’RE DYING FOR

J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

AGE 41

WHY HER She’s responsible for the most eagerly anticipated pop culture event of the year, if not the decade: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Heck, for anyone who’s come of age since 1998 (and a few million parents), this is end-of-childhood monumental.

WHAT TO EXPECT Perhaps the wildest high school graduation in the history of youth literature. Death. War. And a final showdown between the destiny-burdened boy wizard and his eeevil-incarnate nemesis, Voldemort.

Warren Ellis Crooked Little Vein

AGE 39

WHY HIM A hugely acclaimed, acidic comic-book scribe, Ellis expands his repertoire this July with a brilliantly nasty and weird detective novel, Crooked Little Vein.

ENERGY BARS Ellis found it ”murderous” to find time to write it: ”It came down to banging out a thousand words a day in the pub before I started the day’s comics work. If it wasn’t for Red Bull and Silk Cut cigarettes, the damn thing would never have seen the light of day.”

Kristin Gore Sammy’s House

AGE 30

WHY HER The former vice president’s daughter scored with her novel Sammy’s Hill. Her bumbling narrator, now a health-care policy adviser, returns this summer in the sequel Sammy’s House.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? ”Whatever my last name means in the world, it doesn’t have much cachet in the writing world — unless it’s a nonfiction book about the environment or The Assault on Reason. Comedy and fiction? I’m on my own.”

Lorrie Moore ???

AGE 50

WHY HER Moore’s a gifted, sardonic observer of the human comedy — a short-story writer whose prose, to borrow a phrase of hers, is ”fancy without being schmancy.” But she hasn’t published a book in nine years! For fans, her hiatus has been brutal.

WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? Her publisher says we’ll know when they know.


IN THE MEANTIME Check out 1998’s Birds of America, which contains her furious, darkly funny masterwork about a couple whose baby has a malignant tumor.

Borat Sagdiyev Kazakh Attack Dog

AGE 35

WHY HIM Did you see the movie Borat? This is the book version, due out this November.

WHAT? You didn’t see Borat? It is only the funniest movie to come out, ever! Have you spent the past year abusing cold medication?

NO? Then for the love of our sister, the No. 4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan, go rent the movie, and get back to us.

SERIOUSLY Go.

Miranda July noonebelongsheremorethanyou.com

WHY THIS To promote her first book of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, filmmaker and performance artist Miranda July takes the lowest-tech road, writing a website by hand on a dry-erase board. Which she then admits is the top of her refrigerator. Which she then abandons for her stove top, because it’s easier to erase.

FUNNY STRANGE The resulting website has the disarming, neurotic honesty of everything July touches.

WHO WILL HER WORK APPEAL TO? To borrow the name of her lovely first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon Wonder Twins

AGES 31

WHY THEM Comics’ only fraternal-twin artists from Brazil who don’t dig soccer are poised to crack the States with their expressive, energetic work in, respectively, Dark Horse’s Goth-adventurers book The Umbrella Academy (penned by My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way) and Image’s spy-fi thriller Casanova.

WHAT INSPIRES THEM Says Gabriel: ”Having girls. Not having girls. How can I get a girl?”

NO SUPERHEROES, THANKS ”They die and come back, die and come back,” notes Fábio. ”To draw superheroes, you have to be prepared to not care about the story.”

GETTING A LITTLE TOO CLOSE TO THE FORCE ”Once [in the bathroom] at San Diego Comic-Con, I saw black boots and heard [breathes heavily],” says Gabriel. ”Darth Vader was in the stall next to me!”

NEXT The brothers will hit Comic-Con in July. ”We don’t have any groupies,” says Gabriel. ”Yet.”