Chris Bohjalian moves through the world as a writer. His honest answer to that quintessential question Where do you get your ideas? could be summed up in one word: everywhere. His novels have been born from a dinner party, a wartime diary, a homeless man’s photography, and more than one fortuitous bike ride, though it’s not unusual for those ideas to percolate for years before they start to take form. And just as he might not have a defining moment when a story begins, he doesn’t keep the world at bay once he starts writing, either. In fact, he invites it in—often stopping mid-scene to go in search of new inspiration through hands-on research.
He acknowledges that some writers might find this an unstructured way to work. But to say it works for Bohjalian is an understatement. His 16 novels span a decades-long career and multiple genres—often combining touches of thriller, romance and history. Oprah may have made his name known with her selection of his 1997 novel Midwives at the height of her book club’s popularity, but Bohjalian has kept it a bestseller list staple with his dramatic explorations of such difficult and broad-reaching topics as the homeless epidemic (The Double Bind), domestic violence (Secrets of Eden), the Armenian Genocide (The Sandcastle Girls) and the German retreat from Italy during World War II (his latest, The Light in the Ruins). Readers love him for his open approach to social media, his standing invitation to Skype with groups, and his clear passion for the craft—he even writes a column for his local paper, the Burlington Free Press. In short, he walks the walk so well it’s become his natural stride.
But there have been hurdles: discouraging writing professors, rejections by the hundreds, even a random life-threatening encounter in a New York City taxi that inspired his move away from the city to small-town Vermont—where, as it turned out, he’d find his voice. Bohjalian’s life, in fact, reads like the story of a writer—and as his candid and comfortable conversation with WD reveals, that’s just as it should be.
The full WD Interview with Chris Bohjalian appears in the January 2014 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, he talks more about experiences in publishing, his stance on writing every day, and his process of having expert readers review his drafts.
You’ve written so many different kinds of books, and said earlier that you pride yourself on never writing the same one twice. Is there a lesson there for other writers? So many publishers seem eager to brand their authors. Have you had to resist pressure to stick with one thing?
I never had to resist it because Doubleday Knopf is amazing. In the two decades I’ve been with them, they have been relentlessly supportive of my work. My editor [there] is a woman named Jenny Jackson, and I remember when I was telling her, “I think my next book is going to be about the Armenian Genocide,” her immediate reaction was, “That sounds fantastic—most of the world knows almost nothing about the Armenian Genocide.” There are editors who might have said, “Most of the world knows nothing about the Armenian Genocide. Don’t go there. That’s a career killer, you’ll sell zero books.” Instead, the publishers viewed this as an opportunity not merely to sell books but to sell books and educate. And they worked so hard, because they knew that this isn’t a book with a vampire in it, so it might be a little harder to sell units [laughs].
Now that doesn’t mean that if you’re a young writer, you shouldn’t find your niche and live there quite happily. Book marketing has changed in countless ways since my first novel was published in 1988. And there’s certainly a comfort level to know that you are always writing in the same genre. It might be a lot easier to build a career [that way] in 2014. I think the most important lesson isn’t necessarily to try and write a different book every time, or to try and brand yourself and write one specific kind of book, [but] to write the kind of books you love to read. Because first of all, you’re doing something you love. Second, you’re working in a genre that’s in your comfort zone, and third, even if this particular book you’re writing doesn’t work, I think it’s going to be a lot more pleasant an experience.
You said earlier that it can sometimes be enough, at the end of a writing session, to know that you have written one really good sentence—can you elaborate on that? Do you think word quotas put too much pressure on a writer?
Let me give some clarification: [One good sentence is a great goal] if you have writer’s block. If you are stymied as a writer, if it’s just not coming together, then take the pressure off and don’t feel that you need to write 1,000 words today, just write one really good sentence.
But my personal opinion is that if you’re a professional writer, that you do have quotas. So every day I do try to write 800–1,200 words. I don’t always achieve it, and the reality is that a lot of the words I write will end up on the cutting-room floor. But there are two things to balance here: If it’s not working for you, take the pressure off of a quota. But on a regular basis if you’re trying to produce something, I think you should work every day and set achievable goals.
You have one desk where you write and another where you revise. Is that symbolic of how you view the process?
No, I wish it were—it’s not as poetic as that. It’s because of the size of my desks. [Laughs.] But yes, I do have two separate desks. And the way the process works for me is that I write on a computer, and every 40 or 50 pages I will print out what I have and spend three or four or five days editing those pages by hand, with a fountain pen, because fountain pens are messy, so you have to move more slowly—you’re really thinking about the right word. I’ll input those changes, and write another 40 or 50 pages, and then I’ll print out 100 pages, and spend a week or 10 days editing those pages. And since my books tend to be roughly 100,000 words, I will do that 7–10 times before I have a first draft.
The other important part of the revision process, though, is that often somewhere between pages 100 and 200, the book will change dramatically when I figure something out. … When I have those revelations I go all the way back to Page 1 and I simply start rewriting from the very beginning, even if I’m just retyping what I wrote. Because I always have tweaks when I retype. And in the first draft there’s resemblance to the final draft, but you might say they are no more than cousins, not even siblings, because I will make copious changes between the first and the fifth or the sixth draft based on my own instincts about what’s working and what is not working, what my editor suggests, what my wife suggests, and based on what expert readers think.
By expert readers I mean people who are in the field [that I’m writing about]. So, [for] the book I have coming out next summer, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, I submitted the first draft to a nuclear power expert, [and to a] social worker, and each of them weighed in with interesting observations or thoughts. In some cases they were small corrections about how nuclear power works or how a homeless shelter for teens works, and in other cases it might be a circling of a paragraph with an exclamation point [saying], “This is spot on, I have to tell you a story.” And then they’ll tell me a story, and it will change that scene or lead to the creation of a subsequent scene.
If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian, be sure to check out the feature-length interview—full of valuable insights about the role of research in the creative writing process, as well as must-read inspiration for persevering in the face of rejection (Bohjalian amassed 250 rejection slips before he sold a single word)—in the January 2014 Writer’s Digest.