By Khatchig Mouradian
The Armeian Weekly
December 22-29, 2007
Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of 11 novels, several of which have become New York Times bestsellers. His novels include Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Before You Know Kindness and The Double Bind. His work has been translated to 20 languages. Bohjalian graduated from Amherst College, and lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Bohjalian’s articles have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He has been a columnist for Gannett’s Burlington Free Press since 1992.
In this interview, conducted earlier this month, Bohjalian talks about his novels and columns, as well as passions and memories.
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Khatchig Mouradian—You moved to Vermont from New York after an unpleasant experience involving a taxi. How would Chris Bohjalian the novelist in New York have been different from Chris Bohjalian the novelist in Vermont in terms of inspiration and issues you raise in your novels?
Chris Bohjalian—Novelists talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about how they found their voice. The reality, however, is that I did indeed find mine in Vermont. Vermont is a fascinating microcosm for issues that have relevance everywhere—the environment vs. development, alternative vs. traditional medicine, all the baggage that we bring to gender and sexual orientation—and it is so small that it is possible to bring these issues to life on a scale that is human, recognizable and profoundly accessible. For instance, I would never have written a book about the literal and metaphoric place of birth in our culture (Midwives), if I had remained in Manhattan. After all, home birth isn’t a part of the dialogue. Nor would have I written a vaguely eco-novel such as Water Witches—and it’s interesting to note that I wrote that novel in 1993 (it was published in 1995), years before we were focused on global climate change the way we are now. It’s not that I am especially prescient —but in some ways Vermont is.
Even a novel such as The Double Bind, which explores themes that I would have been likely to come across in New York—including, of course, mental illness and homelessness—was informed by Vermont. It was easy to research the subject at the state psychiatric hospital and one of the correctional facilities, as well find therapists and social workers who were available to help me, because we are just so small. A phone call here and a phone call there, and I was able to line up the necessary interviews.
Now, I love New York. I get back there often, and half of Before You Know Kindness is set there. But I believe I have found subjects in Vermont that are more in keeping with my strengths as a stylist.
K.M.—How do you decide what issues to tackle in your novels? Talk about the process of writing a novel.
C.B.—Invariably the inspiration is something in my personal life: Someone I have met or something I have heard or something I have seen.
The Double Bind may be as good an example as any. The novel had its origins in December 2003, when Rita Markley, the executive director of Burlington’s homeless shelter, shared with me a box of old photographs. The black-and-white images had been taken by a once-homeless photographer who had died in the apartment building her organization had found for him. His name was Bob “Soupy” Campbell.
The photos were remarkable, both because of Campbell’s evident talent and because of the subject matter. I recognized the performers—musicians, comedians, actors—and newsmakers in many of them.
I write a weekly column for the “Burlington Free Press,” which was why Rita wanted me to see the photos. She thought they might make for an interesting story, and she was absolutely right: I wrote about Campbell in December 2003, researching his life and accomplishments and why he might have wound up homeless, and to this day it remains one of my favorite essays I’ve written for the paper. I had celebrated Campbell’s talents (which were extensive) and I had reminded people of the very fine line that separates so many of us from being homeless. But then I thought I was done with the subject.
Six months later, in June 2004, I reread The Great Gatsby. I love that novel. Few writers crafted sentences as consistently luminescent as Fitzgerald or understood class and culture and longing as well.
Then I went for a bike ride on a dirt road deep in a canopy of woods. My wife had heard a story on the radio that day that advised parents to tell their children the following: If someone ever tried to abduct them while they were riding their bikes, they should hold onto the handlebars for dear life. It’s more difficult to abduct someone and throw them into the back of a car or a van if they are firmly attached to their bike. The geometry just doesn’t work.
As I rode, I started thinking about Bob Campbell for the first time in months, and I was thinking about him in regard to The Great Gatsby. Why? Perhaps it’s because we always see The Great Gatsby through a haze of black and white photographs—Campbell’s medium. And, of course, The Great Gatsby is a jazz age novel—and Campbell photographed a lot of jazz musicians.
And so the idea for The Double Bind formed in my head on that dirt road. I knew precisely how a book would begin and—for the only time in my life—I knew precisely how it would end.
Of course, this also meant I know A and Z, but not the 24 letters in between. That meant I had a different set of problems to solve. I wrote four drafts before I could even begin to seriously edit it: A Henry James-ian third person draft; then a first person draft narrated by Laurel Estabrook (the main character); then a draft with multiple first person narrators; and, finally, a draft that was third person subjective—less cold and omniscient than that initial version. This draft worked in ways the earlier ones hadn’t. Only then was I able to start refining and tightening the novel.
K.M.—Women figure prominently in many of your novels. Talk about the challenge of writing a novel like Midwives or The Double Bind, where delving into the psyche of the characters is key.
C.B.—I wish I could say there was a specific process, but I don’t find writing about women that different from writing about men. In each case, it’s an act of imagination. How would a person respond to a specific event or moment? What is an individual experiencing or thinking? What are people seeing or hearing?
In the last decade, I have written novels or scenes within novels from the perspectives of (among others) a midwife, a transsexual lesbian, a vigorous female senior citizen, an African-American foster child, a 10-year-old girl, an 18-year-old female Prussian aristocrat in 1945, a young Jewish man from Germany who has jumped off a train on the way to a death camp in 1943, and a variety of balding middle-aged men. I actually found this last category—the balding middle-aged men who are like me—the least interesting.
K.M.—Talk about your upcoming novel, Skeletons at the Feast.
C.B.—This novel is a departure—and it was creatively the most satisfying thing I have done in my life. (That doesn’t mean it’s any good or I got anything right—just that it was a struggle and it was rewarding.)
Back in 1999, the father of a girl in my daughter’s kindergarten class asked me if I would read an unpublished diary his grandmother had left behind. His mother had just translated it from German into English and typed it up. We’re good friends, and so I was happy to take a look at it.
The diary chronicled this woman’s life on a massive estate and farm in East Prussia, and there was a lot in it that fascinated me—especially the desperate journey the women made in the last months of the Second World War to reach the British and American liners ahead of the Soviet army. I shared it with some editors, but there weren’t any takers.
Years later, in 2005, I read Max Hastings’ Armageddon, his non-fiction account of the last year of the Second World War in Germany, and I kept coming across references to scenes that were familiar. And then I realized why: I had read of similar occurrences in that diary six years earlier. I asked my friend if I could see it again. When I reread it, I decided I wanted to write a novel set in the period, and thus began some of the most intense research (and writing) of my professional career.
Skeletons at the Feast is a love story—a love triangle, really, set in Poland and Germany in the last six months of World War Two.
The characters? There is 18-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats who were originally pleased when their massive estate once more became a part of Germany in 1939, but who discovered over the next five years what Nazi management really meant for their rural district.
There is her lover, Callum Finella, a 20-year-old prisoner-of-war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a 26-year-old Wehrmacht corporal who the pair know as Manfred—but who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a German Jew who managed a daring escape from a train bound for Auschwitz, and who has been sabotaging the Nazi war effort ever since.
The novel chronicles the longest journey of their lives: Their attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.
K.M.—We discussed the role Vermont played in your work. What about the role your parents and extended family played, and the role your wife and daughter play now? How do they inform your work?
C.B.—My mother passed away in 1995. And my parents—my father, of course, since 1995— have lived thousands of miles away since 1988. Certainly my father is proud of me. My mother was until she died. But I wouldn’t say they were instrumental in my decision to become a writer. They were loving and supportive and literate —everything a child could want from parents. But they were not a conscious factor in what I do or the subjects I choose for my fiction.
My wife and my daughter, however, play critical roles in my work. My wife is a wondrous and patient editor: She, along with Shaye Areheart (my editor at Random House), are the first two readers of all that I pen. I value my wife’s judgment enormously.
And being a parent has monumentally changed what I write. Look at novels such as Midwives and Before You Know Kindness and The Buffalo Soldier. Being a parent was pivotal to them.
They wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been blessed with my daughter. And the little girl in The Law of Similars? Well, that is my little girl at three and four.
K.M.—Talk about memories from your youth that you cherish most.
K.M.—Talk about memories from your youth that you cherish most.
C.B.—I had a classically 1960s/1970s suburban childhood. I grew up in a variety of Cheever-esque dysfunctional suburbs just outside of New York City, (with a three-year detour to Miami, Fla.). When I read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, I saw echoes of my own childhood.
We also moved a lot, however, and in one period I went to four different schools in four years. And so while my childhood wasn’t bad, it didn’t revolve around great friends once I finished 6th grade. The fact is, my friends changed by necessity almost every year from 7th grade on.
My favorite memories, in no apparent order, are:
Playing Little League baseball in Stamford, Conn.;
Reading Johnny Tremain and To Kill a Mockingbird and April Morning for the first time;
Visiting my grandparents in Tuckahoe, N.Y., and listening to Leo Bohjalian—my grandfather—play the oud, after losing to his wife in pool. I can still smell my grandmother’s beregs;
Organizing baseball cards in my living room before thunderstorms;
Flying anywhere on airplanes;
Being scared silly by the following movies: “The Birds,” “The Haunting” and “Psycho.”
K.M.—You have been writing a column for Burlington Free Press for almost 17 years now. Talk about that experience.
C.B.—I enjoy writing the column. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. I usually write it at the end of the week, and it’s a nice respite from my fiction, which can be rather dark. That doesn’t mean that I don’t address serious issues in my column on occasion: I do. I have, for instance, written about the death of my mother, global climate change and the war in Iraq. But usually it’s an opportunity either to explore something personal or something that makes me smile.
And while people tell me that it must be a lot of pressure to turn out a column every single week, it really isn’t. It’s a lot less pressure than a novel. The secret? I try never to lose sight of the fact that a few hours after the column runs in the newspaper on Sunday morning, it is either helping to light a fire in a wood stove or lining the bottom of a cat’s litter box.