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How would you describe this book?
My favorite novels tell big stories through small moments. Blue Hours is about an intimate friendship between two women who don’t behave as they’re expected or supposed to. I wanted to portray the complexity of female relationships beyond the usual rivalries or petty jealousies while, on a broader thematic level, grappling with questions of imperialism and self-determination. Mim and Kyra are inquisitive, courageous, intelligent, and flawed. Their lives extend beyond the domestic, beyond the parameters of the so-called “marriage plot,” beyond their wifedom or motherhood. Their story allowed me to tell a larger one, about Western paternalism abroad and patriarchy at home.
What was the genesis of this novel?
In 2012, I was freewriting in a notebook and found myself thinking about New York in the early 1990’s, right after the Gulf War and before the economic boom, that somewhat clueless pre-9/11 existence. My friends and I all wanted to be artists and actors and writers, and I remembered the feeling of trying to find a path to a dream.
Around this same time, an old friend who for years has worked for the Red Cross came to visit me in Boston; his ICRC headquarters in Libya had been attacked and his project disbanded. (The Benghazi attack would take place the next month.) His experience got me thinking about the conflicted nature of his profession, about intentions versus reality.
The following spring, I heard a brief blip of a news headline about an American serviceman being held by the Taliban—and then the story completely disappeared. (Little did I know how the Bowe Bergdahl story would blow up when it returned a year later.) It got me thinking about these two facets of Western intervention abroad: our military campaigns and humanitarian aid. And about the individuals who do these jobs, about economic opportunity and social class here in America—and the peculiar American “privilege” of ignoring global traumas shaped by our foreign policy. That was the starting point.
Our two countries are inextricably linked, yet many Americans like myself—without Afghan relations or military connections—never experience the reality of our longest war or even seem to truly want to know about it. One veteran I spoke to told me about the particular pain of so many of us never wanting hear about war. He also pointed out to me that because the war there has gone on so long, here in the U.S. there are more and more veterans among us wherever we live—not just in military towns. He said to me, “If you allow us to be heard we have a lot more to say.” Meanwhile, the view of Afghanistan from here is often limited to one of pity, of its citizens as victims rather than people leading daily lives. Blue Hours attempts a glimpse beyond what we see on the news. The challenge was to be true to Mim’s outsider perspective—she’s a reclusive protagonist reckoning with her country’s place in the world—without writing the usual stupid-American-abroad story. To allow the reader to connect the dots.
How did you conceive of the 3-part structure?
Blue Hours moves outward, from the island mentality of young Americans sharing tight quarters in Manhattan to the changing landscape of the broader world. Part 1 is a kind of coming-of-age story, with everything that happens there a micro version of the book’s macro themes. Part 2 shifts to a thriller mode, because I wanted to keep the reader turning the pages while also experiencing the absurdities of our 17+ year war in a place most Americans know little about. Part 3 is an epilogue of sorts, though it looks outward rather than summing up.