Author Mohsin Hamid on His Latest Novel and McKinsey Past

The Pakistani-born novelist on writing fiction part-time at McKinsey, reading standing up, and drones

Author Mohsin Hamid on His Latest Novel and McKinsey Past
???To have somebody else come into your society and execute people ... is incredibly unnerving and destabilizing for a society??? (Photograph by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Doha Film Institute)
Photograph by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Doha Film Institute

You had a successful career in business before you published your first novel. How did you end up as a writer?
I stumbled into consulting. I didn’t know how you could make a living trying to write fiction. So I went to law school and had this enormous debt, so I interviewed for a job at McKinsey.

What did your colleagues at McKinsey think when you published Moth Smoke in 2000?
I was working on it in the evenings and on weekends. People were quite excited and supportive. I pitched this notion of working nine months a year and writing three. And I did that for a few years at McKinsey.

Why did you go back to Pakistan to be a writer?
I always thought I was going to wind up in Pakistan. I was afraid that if I kept walking down the path at McKinsey, that I would become a partner and start earning a lot of money and price myself out of my own dream.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was hugely successful. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and there’s a movie. I read that you thought a lot of people in the West didn’t get it.
The book is intended to offer a reflection of how you feel. One of the most amazing things that happened to me with that book was in Washington, D.C., where I was giving a reading. A young man came up to me, and he had dreadlocks and plugs in his ears and pierced eyebrows. And he said, “This book is about me.” This blond guy. And I said, “How so?” And he said, “Well, you know, I went to”—some Ivy League university—“I’ve worked at an investment bank for a couple of years, and I dropped out, and now I’m a yoga instructor.” And that’s the first time it occurred to me that I’d written a novel about an idealistic college student who goes to work in the corporate sector and becomes disillusioned. He told me that. So I wouldn’t say that it’s misread necessarily; I think there’s different readings that come to people. Maybe those readings are not what I intended but actually are better.

Why did you decide to write How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia as a sort of faux self-help book?
A friend and I were chatting about how literary fiction sometimes felt like hard going as a reader. Like we’re reading it almost to help ourselves. We started laughing, and I said, “Well, you know, my next novel is going to be explicitly about self-help.” I thought it was a joke. But the more I considered it, the more I thought, you know, actually, why do I write these things? I don’t do it for the money. Perhaps writing novels is a form of self-help. And perhaps even reading novels is a form of self-help. What we’re seeing in Pakistan, all over the world, is this enormous rise of the market. But the issue with the market, seems to me, is the market will take a spiritual need and say, “How do I monetize that need?” as opposed to saying, “How do I mitigate whatever it is that gives rise to that need in the first place?”

You’re clearly playing with the genre, though.
Absolutely. I think the business self-help book is the model. What Color Is Your Parachute?—the question before that is, Why do you need a parachute?

The book does seem like pretty good advice. A lot of it would help get you ahead, even cheating and bribing and violence. What does that say about Pakistan?
Well, I think it is useful.

You wrote poetically about the surveillance culture that we all inhabit now. Is it any worse in Pakistan than it is in America?
It’s very big in the popular imagination here because of the drones. There’s enormous popular resentment about the drones. To have somebody else come into your society and execute people, particularly using this technology that’s outside of reach—it’s just up there watching and occasionally it kills—is incredibly unnerving and destabilizing for a society.

Do you still walk six miles every day before you sit down at the writing table?
I walk an hour or two a day. It’s easy on the knees, and it’s good for inspiration. Increasingly I don’t read sitting down. I try to liberate myself from this constant pose in front of my computer. It’s a little bit like the Internet. As people self-select and follow other people like themselves, they’re missing the serendipity of bumping into ideas they don’t necessarily agree with. And writing is like that. I like being hit by stuff I didn’t expect.

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