Originally published March 2014
Turns out, it all depends on your definition of “filthy rich.” Maybe “rich” doesn’t mean a full bank account—it just means fulfilled.
Bestselling author Mohsin Hamid, in Chicago March 11 for an appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival, has written a self-help book. But if you read it, you’ll recognize any book could be put in the self-help aisle. It’s all about perspective.
“Indeed, all books, each and every book ever written, could be said to be offered to the reader as a form of self-help,” says the protagonist in his latest, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”
In a phone interview, I shared with Hamid my perspective—that the novel, conceived as a “self-help” tale of a young boy growing to old age, moving from poverty to prosperity and then into mediocrity, was really a love story between the protagonist and Pretty Girl. I asked him what the love story was for him.
“I think it was a love story with the idea of the full arc of life,” he says, recounting his move back to Pakistan, and now sharing a house with his children and parents. Recognizing the wonder that is three generations under a single roof, “I wanted to write a love story in the different stages of life.”
Hamid’s novel follows the main character, a young boy born into poverty in rising Asia, as he grows into adulthood and beyond. Like Neil Gaiman’s character in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we never come to learn his name, or any name, for that matter.
“For me,” he says, “ the main character is also the reader. I wanted to blur the boundaries between the book and the reader reading the book by having no name, calling the character—the reader—‘you.’”
The location inside rising Asia is also purposefully vague. “I wanted to not exoticize it,” he says. The city and country (Lahore, Pakistan) “have so many things in common … it’s not just about Pakistan and not just about the city.”
In speaking with Hamid about his novel, we also touched upon the international book scene and its relevance here in the United States. With so many authors and the difficulty in rising to the top of the stack, I asked if it can be frustrating not getting the same attention, perhaps, as some of the more popular authors—the Kings, the Franzens, the Picoults.
If you’re able to do enough to make a living, that’s a quite a blessing, actually,” he says, noting that a book does not have to be a blockbuster best seller in the United States to make one a successful author—Hamid’s work appears in countries around the globe. “It’s the thing I like to do and I’m very fortunate to be able to do it.”
More importantly, though, is that writers are pursuing their craft for the right reason. “Writing is something writers do for love,” he says, acknowledging that while some writers are very fortunate and their books do amazingly well, “In life, that’s not always the case. But just because something isn’t massively popular, it can still be wonderful or amazing.”
“To produce something that is true and beautiful and that endures, that is the goal.”
Hamid’s next project? He’s still unsure, but says it’s a book “that I don’t know how to write.” Drawing inspiration from the challenge of doing something he says he doesn’t know how to do, he’s presently dabbling with science fiction concepts.
“So often these projects are a series of false starts … actually, the writing is what matters. You have to love the act of writing of it. All those mistakes along the way are part of the journey.”