Monday, May 21, 2007

From Kabul to New York Times Best Seller

Today, Kristin Ohlson, New York Times best selling co-author of Kabul Beauty School tells us what kind of story it takes to make that list - and reveals that best selling authors also need to keep their hands in writing articles to make a living.
And, if you have any questions for any of the authors featured on the blog, post them on the comments section and I will ask the author to answer them for you!

Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in a very small town in California where we had nice little library but no bookstores. My mother signed me up for all sorts of book clubs (fiction, science, and some others) through the mail, and these arrivals were always the highlight of the month. Most of the earliest pictures of me show a book splayed across my lap, so I've always been a reader. My first experience in journalism wasn't until I wrote for my college newspaper, but after that I continued writing articles. I began to write fiction when I was a little older. Somehow it had never occurred to me that an ordinary mortal like myself could write novels.
I now live in Cleveland.

Tell us about the new book you co-authored.
My agent called one day and said, "Do you want to write a book for this hairdresser who's running a beauty school in Afghanistan?" I told her no, that I had no interest in writing someone else's book and that I really wished she'd get around to selling my novels. She said, "But this woman is really really interesting, and I think you'd be a good person to tell her story." So I listened and agreed that Debbie's story was interesting--amazing and interesting. I finally asked my agent if I had to go to Afghanistan to work on this book. When she said yes, that was it-- I decided to do it.

How did you meet Deborah Rodriguez, why did she want a co-author and how did you both know you were the right person?
It turned out that Debbie was in the states with her Afghan husband (called Sam in the book, because there were and remain some concerns about security for anyone connected with the book) for a short visit. So a few days after I spoke to my agent, I drove from Cleveland to Holland, Michigan to meet Debbie. Mapquest did me wrong, and I drove in circles around the city for about forty-five minutes. It wasn't so bad, because I decided at some point that Holland, Michigan had probably been the setting for The Bobby Twins in Tulip Land--a favorite book from my distant past. When I finally arrived at the Applebee's (or something like that) where we were going to meet, I found Debbie and Sam in the parking lot. We sat down for coffee and Debbie began her stories-- about her first visit to Afghanistan in 2002, about getting the idea to help Afghan beauticians, about the women who have come through the Kabul Beauty School. She's a born storyteller, and I was transfixed. Then her husband walked outside to smoke and Debbie leaned across the table with a wicked smile and said, "He doesn't know this, but---." I'm not going to tell this secret and it's not in the book, but it was really funny. I thought it would be a great adventure to work with anyone who had this combination of candor, humor, boldness and charm.
Debbie wanted a co-author because she's a hairdresser, not a writer. She especially wanted a co-author who hadn't been to Afghanistan before, so that this person would look around with the same kind of astonishment and wonder that she had when she first arrived. And she said she wanted someone who could tell a story and who was funny. Other people had approached her about a book, but she wanted a different kind of writer. She read Stalking the Divine and liked it.

Why is this a memoir, with most of the reviews giving credit to Rodriguez, rather than an as told to story?
At first, Random House wanted this to be ghostwritten book. They later changed their minds, but--I assume-- the Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) that went out to reviewers had already been printed and they didn't mention my name. So I don't think most of the early reviewers knew there was a co-author. Even though the writing is mostly mine, I still consider this Debbie's memoir. She had written many emails and blog entries during her years in Kabul and had tried turning some of her stories into chapters for a book. When we started working together in Kabul, we'd sit for hours and she'd tell me her stories and I'd type furiously, often shouting at her to stop so that I could catch up. She had a hard time stopping (she's silence challenged). I stayed in Kabul about three weeks that first time. Back in the states, she and I would email 4-5 times a day while I was writing so that I could plumb her for more details: "What did this person look like, how exactly did she or he do X, what were you thinking at the time, why was this important to you" and so on. I think this was probably like being in confession for her. I think it probably forced her into a new kind of introspection.

You have your own memoir, Stalking the Divine, what are the challenges of helping to tell someone else's story?
I have a terrible memory, but that didn't really affect the writing of Stalking the Divine-- it focuses on two years in which I got to know some cloistered contemplative nuns and explored some ideas about faith, but I was writing the book as it was happening and didn't need to rely much on memory. So it was fun to work with someone who has such a great memory, especially for visual details. The challenge was being able to imagine myself as Debbie so that I could write a first-person narration. It helped, of course, that I was using many of her own words. It also helped that I lived with her and Sam for nearly six weeks, so that I could see how she behaved in different situations, and so that I could see all the places where different stories in Kabul Beauty School took place. I think being a fiction writer made this process easier, too. I think that living in the mind of a character comes easier to fiction writers than to nonfiction writers.

Why did you feel Kabul Beauty School was an important story?
Debbie has a really unique perspective on the lives of ordinary Afghans. There are lots of other westerners living in Kabul as aid workers, journalists, missionaries and soldiers, but very few have the relationships and the daily experience on the street that she does-- many of the westerners live in compounds and rarely get out. And she herself is unique-- big, bold, unafraid, boldly plunging into situations that any sensible person would avoid. She doesn't always make the right decisions, and I don't think many people could live the life she's made for herself. Still, I found that all my preconceptions about what is possible in a life were challenged by being around her. I think readers will feel that, too.

Your memoir, Stalking the Divine is about your conversations with some elderly nuns about why they gave up their lives for their religion. How and when did you know you had a book? What makes a good memoir?
Some of them would bristle at being called elderly! They may be nuns, but they still have a little vanity!
This might seem weird, but I felt I had a book the first time I walked in the door of St. Paul Shrine. I came because I had read in the paper that the nuns (called the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, which I said in the book sounded like something from a Saturday Night Live skit) were going to be singing carols at a Christmas mass. The church was shadowy and silent when I arrived and I kept looking around for the nuns. Then they started singing from behind these carved wooden screens at the front of the church, and I suddenly realized they were cloistered. I was struck by the mystery of why these women would give up life on the outside. I had been an atheist for years, but one with a growing wistfulness for faith, and I just knew I wanted to write about these women.

How did you find your agent for Stalking the Divine?
When I was writing Stalking the Divine, I gave part of it to a friend--a well-published author-- to read. He liked it so much that he sent it to his agent, without even telling me. I got a letter from his agent telling me she didn't think the book was right for her, but that she loved it. She gave me some good suggestions for light revision and later, when I was finished, suggested some other agents for me to try. I think the fifth or sixth was Marly Rusoff, who took it immediately.

How did you feel when Kabul Beauty School made the New York Times Best Seller list?
Amazed and excited, of course. I told my husband that for the rest of my life, I could tell people I was a New York Times bestselling author. Then, when he started telling everyone who walked past the house, I was mortified.
Frankly, I don't think that much about it now. It really is Debbie's book, not mine. I'll be very excited if my next book--with MY name only on the front-- makes it to the NYTimes bestselling list.

What is your next project?
I'm working on lots of articles, because that's how I make a living. I have an idea for a nonfiction book about cows, but that's not too well developed yet. I also have an idea for a novel set in Kabul's expat community, not based on Debbie but rather on the visions that I couldn't help having of myself (or someone like me) moving there and starting some kind of aid program and getting caught up in all the political intrigue and taking up with some dashing, difficult man. Sort of Graham Greene meets...oh, I don't know...maybe Alice Munro and Diane Johnson (in my fondest writing dreams).

Visit Kristin's website and blog: and


Blogger Irreverent Freelancer said...

This book sounds quite intriguing. I think I need to add it to my wishlist.

3:20 PM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading this!

7:53 AM CDT  
Blogger WillWorkForFood said...

I just heard about this story on npr and i am apalled by the greed of the two authors.

The women in the beauty school are in mortal danger thanks to this absolutely shameless attempt by Deborah to capitalize on their virtual slavery.
Why on earth did she have to publish pictures without their burkha? Despite havig promised the ladies not to do so. Deborah has SOLD out to her publishers ...and is profiting on the possible murder of others.
And at the first signs of trouble ,she escapes from afghanistan and leaves her beuty school girls to face the music.
But wait she promised them a whole whopping 5% of her royalty or profit from the book.
Good work..i guess that is what their lives are worth....
absolutely APALLING and SHAMEFULL...all under the guise of "telling their story"
I guess faceless girls with Burkhas would not have quite sold the story huh?

6:19 PM CDT  
Blogger Kristin Ohlson said...

Willworkforfood-- No one could be more shocked or horrified at the recent turn in this story than I.

As far as I can tell--and I'm in Kabul right now, working on some freelance stories--Debbie fled Kabul because she feared for her life. I have no idea if those fears were valid or if someone just wanted to scare her-- but she left. Things are usually chaotic at best at her salon/beauty school, with people pounding on the door for this bill to be paid or that one-- she always has managed to put one fire out after another. Now that she's not here, those fires have gotten out of control. And it's very very hard for me to figure out how I can help, but I'm doing my best-- at least, to help the girls.

I never had any indication whatsoever from the girls when I was writing the book that they felt they were in any sort of danger. They were willing to be interviewed and tell me their stories; the only thing I recall is that they wanted to know if they would share in the profits of the book. I agreed that they deserved a share in the profits of the book and assumed Debbie was doing something about this. I now hear that she's putting all sorts of mechanisms in place for them to get something, but --of course--this should have happened months ago. They need help now, and I'm trying to give it to them.

Frankly, the stories of the women who work in the salon/beauty school now are not remarkable; if you google, you can read many many stories written by journalists here about women who have similarly difficult stories. There is one story in the book that is causing some waves here-- this is about the woman who faked virginity on her wedding night (the Roshanna story); that’s the story that makes the book volatile here, because such things are not talked about openly. But since it is not the story of any of the women who now work in the salon/school, I had no idea that it would cause repercussions for them. And I'm not sure if it is. As I said before, it's very difficult to figure out what's really going on here, even for my Afghan friends.

I don't think anyone expected this terrible ending to the Kabul Beauty School story-- even the NPR reporter, who was one of Debbie's salon customers for six months, hadn't any idea that this was blowing up like this. She had gone to the salon to get a pedicure or whatever and to hear how Debbie's book tour had gone-- and then found the girls all upset.

Inshallah, as I've learned to say here, the girls will get the help they need and can go on with their lives.

2:41 AM CDT  

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