Q: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue about a Pakistani’s experiences in America at the time of the 9/11 attacks. What made you choose this format, which has the Pakistani narrating the tale to an American whose voice is never actually heard?
A: The form the novel, with the narrator and his audience both acting as characters, allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another. The Pakistani narrator wonders: is this just a normal guy or is he a killer out to get me? The American man who is his audience wonders the same. And this allows the novel to inhabit an interior emotional world much like the exterior political world in which it will be read. The form of the novel is an invitation, which if the reader accepts, will in turn implicate the reader, because the reader will be called upon to judge the novel’s outcome and shape its ending.
Q: Your protagonist, Changez, faces both internal and external pressures as a foreigner living in a country that’s shocked into a volatile patriotism. What was your biggest challenge in writing his experience?
A: My biggest challenge lay in not having the delicate architecture of the novel, its plot and characters, be overwhelmed by the enormity of the political events that occurred as I was writing it. The first draft, of a Muslim man working in corporate New York who decides to leave America for Pakistan, was completed in the summer of 2001, before September 11. The catastrophe that followed swamped my story; it was years later that I had something which could be salvaged, and years more still before it took on its current form. The novel was written over seven years and with as many drafts. Then again, so was my first novel, “Moth Smoke,” so it may just be that this is how I write.
Q: Changez’s reaction to the September 11 attacks is likely to surprise some readers. Did you worry that a tale of someone who is, on some level, sympathetic with the attackers would strike a sensitive nerve in some audiences?
A: I did worry about it. I have lived much of my adult life in America and have enormous affection both for the country and my many, many friends there. I didn’t want to write something that was gratuitously offensive or, even worse in today’s environment of government-erected walls, could lead to my being prevented from visiting the United States. I feel I have written from a stance that is both critical of and loving towards America, and I hope that readers will feel my affection and see that my intent is not to gloss over the very real pain of September 11 but rather to reconnect parts of my world – and myself – that have grown increasingly divided.
Q: Personal and public mourning run side-by-side in this story of raw emotions. Changez loses his footing when he is unable to separate the two. Was it difficult to find balance as you simultaneously probed the intimate pains and passions of one man’s loss and explored an entire nation’s tragedy?
A: I believe that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined; certainly in my own life I experience them as such. So I don’t set out to find a balance between the two in my novels. Instead, I try to explore the places where they intersect most powerfully. People and countries tend to blur in my fiction, both serving as symbols of the other. Which is not to say that my characters are chess-pieces: I see my characters as fully human, not as mere motifs. Rather, the countries in my fiction are far from monolithic and are capable of envy, passion, nostalgia; they are, in other words, quite like people, and I try to explore them with that sensibility.
Q: The stunning ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist leaves room for speculation and debate. Have you answered in your own mind the question of what happens in the final scene? Were you deliberately working toward a surprise ending when you first started the novel?
A: I was certainly working towards an ambiguous ending, one which reflects the reader’s own view of the world back at him or her. The reader can see the novel as a thriller or as an encounter between two rather odd gentlemen, depending on what the reader believes about the world in which the novel takes place. But because the emotional journey I was asking readers to undertake is a troubling one, I knew I wanted a strong narrative pull, a mystery that added urgency to their reading, and the ending is I hope the culmination of that.
Q: Both you and Changez grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, attended Princeton, and worked in America for a time. How does setting your stories in familiar locales influence other story elements for you, like plot and characterization?
A: I am not much of a researcher as novelist. I tend to write about what I know. So I have done much of what Changez has done: I have worked in New York and in Lahore; I have spent time in Chile and in the Philippines. His story is not my story, but I certainly have inhabited the geography of his world. I find knowing a milieu intimately very useful as a writer: it frees me from having to prove that I know it and allows me to harness it to the purpose of my story. If I can believe in my characters and in my plot, if I have seen evidence of them in the world and in myself, then I feel a certain power comes to my prose without which it might be insincere.
Q: Changez tells the American visitor that knowing history helps put the present into perspective. In your first novel, Moth Smoke, the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India directly influences contemporary characters and events. How do you hope The Reluctant Fundamentalist might influence readers’ perspectives of the present state of American/Muslim relations?
A: I believe that the core skill of a novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel. And I believe that the world is suffering from a deficit of empathy at the moment: the political positions of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush are founded on failures of empathy, failures of compassion towards people who seem different. By taking readers inside a man who both loves and is angered by America, and hopefully by allowing readers to feel what that man feels, I hope to show that the world is more complicated than politicians and newspapers usually have time for. We need to stop being so confused by the fear we are fed: a shared humanity unites us with people we are encouraged to think of as our enemies.