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Chris Bohjalian’s career a long and winding road (and read)

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Chris Bohjalian’s career a long and winding road (and read) (photo by Victoria Blewer)

If you haven’t read Chris Bohjalian, you really should.

It’s not like you don’t have options – over the course of his decades-long career, Bohjalian has written over 20 novels. He’s graced the New York Times bestseller list numerous times. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he has shown not just the willingness, but the ability to explore a wide range of themes and styles along the way, even as he maintains a consistency of voice throughout.

From his 1988 debut novel “A Killing in the Real World” to his latest work “Hour of the Witch,” which was released just this week (you can read our review here), Bohjalian has demonstrated a proclivity for taut narratives and well-realized characters. He’s that rare writer whose prolificity has never undermined the quality of his output – if anything, he just keeps getting better, even as he refuses to be bound by the trappings of any particular genre.

Few authors are able to combine Bohjalian’s prose gifts with his unwavering empathy and concern for the world around him. He wraps important issues in compelling narratives, leaving the reader to be exposed to powerful ideas even as they turn page after thrilling page.

I’ve long been an admirer of Mr. Bohjalian’s work, though I’ll admit that I came to him rather late in the game – my first exposure to him was 2014’s excellent “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” though I’ve read each of his subsequent releases while also catching up on the back catalog.

Fans of prestige television are likely at least somewhat familiar with his work as well – his 2018 novel “The Flight Attendant” served as the source material for the HBO Max series of the same name starring Kaley Cuoco.

Again, the breadth of Bohjalian’s range cannot be stressed enough. In just the past few years, he’s given us the shame and scandal of “The Guest Room,” the deep mysteries of parasomnia in “The Sleepwalker,” the international thrills of the aforementioned “The Flight Attendant” and another globe-trotting adventure in last year’s “The Red Lotus.” And now, in his newest release, a journey inside the mind of a woman struggling with the realities of Puritan life in 17th century Boston with “Hour of the Witch.”

All that in the span of just five years. Incredible.

In honor of “Hour of the Witch” and its release, Mr. Bohjalian was kind enough to answer a few questions for us here at The Maine Edge, talking about his process, his relationship to his work and even responding to a few queries from a bit farther afield. It’s a conversation that I’ve wanted to have for years now – and even with that anticipation, the author’s answers still somehow managed to exceed my fairly lofty expectations.

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A Q&A with Chris Bohjalian

One of the many notable things about your work is how meticulously researched it feels. How much time do you spend on research before diving into the work of writing the book?

I usually spend a couple of weeks researching an idea before starting to write, just to make sure it’s viable and it really does interest me. That second factor is critical. If the idea doesn’t have me excited, I sure won’t be able to make it exciting for my readers. But I am always researching as I write. If a scene isn’t working or my momentum has slowed, it usually means I haven’t done my homework and there is more to learn.

You’ve shown a proclivity over the years for tackling all sorts of subject matter. How is it that you come to have such diverse interests with regard to the books you choose to write?

Curiosity. I doubt I am any more or less curious than most people, but I have the great privilege of a job that encourages and rewards my curiosity. And that curiosity extends to the present when I am writing an international thriller such as “The Flight Attendant” or historical fiction such as “Hour of the Witch.”

Your work also sports an almost theatrical energy, a kinetic quality that comes through regardless of subject. Your books read like you understand performance, if that makes sense. I know that you’ve written plays and that your daughter is an actress – is there any on-stage experience in your background?

First of all, thank you for your kind words. I appreciate them immensely.

The last time I auditioned for anything was in 11th grade, when I auditioned for the high school production of “Hello, Dolly!” We had a new drama teacher and he listened to me sing and said to me from the piano, “You’re kidding, right?” I was so awful that he thought I was pulling his leg because he was the new guy in town. I wasn’t. He was a terrific person and let me be the assistant director so I could be part of the process and never have to set foot on stage.

But I love theater. I love every element.

And, yes, I love watching my daughter, my amazing Grace Experience, perform. She is way more talented than I am, and I think I’ve seen her on Maine stages three times. She has also narrated all or parts of five of my audiobooks.

Walk me through a typical writing day for Chris Bohjalian. What’s your process on a day-to-day level?

A writer’s daily life is spectacularly boring when you’re writing: I get up and walk my beloved dog, Jesse, and then grab a Red Bull and get to work – which means sitting at my desk. Now, I do have two quirks. I begin the workday by scanning a massive library dictionary and picking out two or three words I think I have never used before. (After 22 books, I can’t be positive.) I try to use them that day. I might fail, but it’s interesting to try because, after all, words are our principal tool. Second, I watch movie and TV series trailers. Those impeccably produced two- and three-minute teasers instantly propel me to an emotional place that helps me get in the groove for whatever scene I am trying to write that day.

My goal is to write 1,000 words a day. Again, I might fail. But that’s the goal.

Now, research can be a lot more interesting. I went on a bike tour of Vietnam and Cambodia when I was researching “The Red Lotus.” I had the best time interviewing Puritan and legal scholars about seventeenth-century Boston while researching “Hour of the Witch.” I mean, who knew the Puritans didn’t use forks and drank beer like college kids on spring break? That is the magic that makes a book come to life.

Your historical fiction has never gone as far back in time as you have with HOUR OF THE WITCH. How did you land on 17th-century Boston as the setting for this book? Is there an aspect of that time and place that you find particularly interesting?

I’ve been obsessed with Puritan theology since college. Imagine a world where Satan is as real as your neighbor. Imagine a world where you are constantly wondering, “Am I saved or I am damned?”

That’s the aspect I found most interesting: a world where you struggled to explain the inexplicable. This is from the novel’s prologue and gets at that notion:

How do you explain hurricanes that suck whole wharfs into the sea, fires that spread from the hearth to the house and leave behind nothing but two blackened chimneys, how do you explain droughts and famines and floods? How do you explain babies who die and children who die and, yes, even old people who die?

Never did they ask the question, Why me? In truth, they never even asked the more reasonable question, Why anyone?

Of course, I’m sure I was also drawn to the era for the same reasons Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stacy Schiff and Arthur Miller were. It was a world awash in demons.

A hallmark of your work is the presence of strong women; HOUR OF THE WITCH continues that tradition. Why do you think you’re able to craft such engaging female characters?

You are kind to say so. Thank you.

It helps that I have always been surrounded by brilliant women. My lovely bride, Victoria Blewer, has read every word I have written since we were 18. Our daughter, Grace Experience, is now another of my principal readers. And I have always had great female editors, including the wonderful Jenny Jackson.

And, yes, I always have my early drafts read by the experts I have interviewed in my research, and, thankfully, more times than not that has meant women.

What was it like to experience the remarkable coincidence of releasing a book like THE RED LOTUS, which revolves in part around a burgeoning pandemic, at the same time that a real-life pandemic was shutting everything down? Has that impacted your relationship to that particular book at all?

Mostly I am just gutted. I am pretty resilient and have tried to be upbeat and comforting and strong. But the reality is that by the time this is over, we will have lost the equivalent of the population of Vermont. That is a level of death that was unimaginable to us 14 months ago. Our children will be forever scarred by this. Whole industries and careers have been devastated. My heart breaks for my daughter, for instance, a young actress whose career was just taking off in February 2020. My heart breaks for my wife, a fine artist, who saw some of her galleries go out of business and big solo shows cancelled.

And for me? Minor by comparison. Yes, the book tour was cancelled and people couldn’t easily buy – or never discovered – a book that went on sale the very week the world shut down in March. But it’s one book out of 22. We soldier on. And people are discovering it now and enjoying it.

But I look at my best friend from college who had to bury his father while sitting in a car because it was April 2020. I look at the ER doctors I interviewed for that novel, one of whom said to me she’s going to be in therapy forever after what she lived through in a New York City hospital, and my heart breaks.

What was your involvement with the translation of THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT from page to screen? And how different was it from the experience with previous movie adaptations of your work? I know some authors are very hands-on with adaptations, while others stay mostly uninvolved – where did you fall on that spectrum?

Oh, my gosh, isn’t that TV series wonderful? Kaley Cuoco is brilliant. The show runner, Steve Yockey, is brilliant. Producers such as Suzanne McCormack and directors such as Susanna Fogel and Marcos Siega were a dream come true. I knew Kaley would be spectacular as Cassie Bowden the moment she first approached us about wanting to bring the flight attendant to life.

I was about a thousand times less important to the project than craft services. I spoke with some of the team early on and expressed a few thoughts, but they were so many steps ahead of me. They’re the best.

Now, I am involved with the writing of two other books I have in development. I love TV writing as much as playwriting. I’m not as good at it as I am writing fiction, but that’s because I haven’t put in my ten thousand hours.

You’ve been vocal about recognition of the Armenian Genocide for many years now, both in your fiction and elsewhere. And your Armenian heritage is obviously very important to you. How did it feel for you to hear a sitting U.S. President finally use those words to officially describe and acknowledge that atrocity?

I was thrilled. It was a long time coming. The fact is, the lack of acknowledgment has been an open wound for those of us who are descendants of survivors. (I am a grandson of two survivors.) Now, acknowledgment doesn’t mean justice. The fact that Turkey continues to deny the blood on the hands of its Ottoman ancestors and has never been held accountable is infuriating. I have visited ancestral Armenian lands in what is today eastern Turkey and walked across the mass graves and through the gutted remains of what once were magnificent Armenian churches and monasteries.

And, yes, I believe that reality is one of the reasons why Turkey was so happy to help Azerbaijan in its unprovoked attack on the fledgling Armenian republic of Artsakh last autumn. And now, in all the land the Azeris captured, the cultural ethnic cleansing of Armenian history continues.

Nevertheless, I am so very grateful to President Biden for showing that courage.

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 10:39

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