John Harding: ‘[Florence and Giles] was inspired by Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”. The book was made into an opera by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten and on my way home from watching the opera I began to think it would be interesting to tell a similar story, only this time not from the point of view of the governess as it is in the Henry James book, but from the viewpoint of one of the children. I’ve always loved stories like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and I loved writing in the genre. So much so that when the book was a huge bestseller and people in the UK and Italy and Brazil kept asking for another book in the same genre I decided “Why not” (Perchè no?)’
As a working-class girl from Cardiff, she knew more about that world than many of her contemporaries. She was brought up in a rented Victorian house, an only child living with grandparents as well as parents. Her mother and father were both shop assistants for local grocers. ‘My dad used to bone sides of bacon,’ she recalls. ‘He died when I was 11, giving me the opportunity to feel sorry for myself as a semi-orphan. Around that time, I first read David Copperfield and immediately identified with the lone child hero.’
It was the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels, and Girl in a Blue Dress is another fictional take on an aspect of his life, albeit under the name of Alfred Gibson and set in the period immediately after his funeral. The central figure is his wife, Dorothea Gibson—alias Catherine Dickens—who is neither invited to the funeral nor favoured in the will. By the time of Dickens’s death, aged 58, they had been separated (though not divorced) for 12 years. She had been given a home and an income, while the famous writer kept their 10 children and had more time to spend with his much younger mistress.
Barnes never starts with characters. ‘I start with a situation, a moral error, and then I ask who it happens to.’ He described books as animals, with a structural exoskeleton—‘You have the idea of head, body, tail’—and mushier insides that the author must fill in. For ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ he’d originally envisioned a book with a long body and short head—‘a 3:1 ratio of set-up to pay-off’—but, in the course of writing, the body had shortened and the head had lengthened.
The germ of the book was a series of e-mails he exchanged with his brother, Jonathan Barnes, a professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Julian had written to Jonathan in an attempt to excavate details of their shared history such as how their grandfather killed chickens. Jonathan had replied, ‘I don’t think much of memory as a guide to the past.’ Over several years, Julian considered his brother’s point-of-view, and ending up writing a book about time and the tendency of humans, as time accumulates, to narrate our lives into shapes that the primary sources, were we ever to consult them, might belie.—2011 interview in The New Yorker
It seems that the only people who were not fans of the book were Hosseini’s Afghan compatriots in America. On the internet he was called ‘another Salman Rushdie’, and the Afghan community in northern California attacked him in the press and on the radio. ‘It was quite scathing,’ he says, eating sweetmeats and drinking tea in the back garden of his home in San Jose, where he has lived for the past 27 years.—From The Telegraph‘s 2007 interview with Khaled Hosseini.
In Afghanistan, you don’t understand yourself solely as an individual,” he says. “You understand yourself as a son, a brother, a cousin to somebody, an uncle to somebody. You are part of something bigger than yourself. The things that happen within families … I’m so fascinated by how people destroy each other and love each other.—Khaled Hosseini in a 2013 Guardian interview.