Chris Bohjalian: The WD Interview 2021

New York Times-bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian talks about working with the right editor, how he finds the perfect ending for each novel, and the inspiration for his new historical thriller, Hour of the Witch.
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In late January, WD joined Chris Bohjalian in his writing office via video call to talk about his newest book, Hour of the Witch. Like many of Bohjalian’s novels, it features a misunderstood but strong female protagonist, Mary Deerfield, who has to fight her way past rumors, false accusations, injustices, and the control of inept (and insecure) men in power to try to get the life she wants. “I love my heroine,” says Bohjalian. “I love Mary Deerfield. She’s courageous. And like many of my female heroines—Serafina Bettini, Alexis Remnick, Cassie Bowden—she’s deeply human. I mean, these are powerful, powerful women and they’re human beings. They’re imperfect, but they are so damn courageous.”

Mary Deerfield is courageous. She’s a 17th-century Puritan woman married to an abusive man nearly two decades her senior whom she tries to divorce after he stabs her with a newfangled eating utensil—a fork, also called “The Devil’s Tines” because of its resemblance to the Satan’s accessory. Shortly thereafter she is accused of witchcraft when another fork is found buried by her front door. What follows is classic Chris Bohjalian—moments of deep dread, extraordinary plot twists, and characters you love to root for paired with characters you love to hate.

For nearly three decades, Bohjalian has been entertaining readers with stories that by turn are pulled right from the headlines (an airplane pilot tries to land his damaged plane on a lake Sully Sullenberger-style in The Night Strangers) or surfaced from the depths of history, shining lights on little-known or nearly forgotten events as with The Sandcastle Girls during the Armenian Genocide. In all instances, he connects those events to the inner lives and motivations of individuals, showcasing our shared humanity.

[Hear Chris Bohjalian speak at the 2021 Writer's Digest Annual Conference.]

In the case of Hour of the Witch, the origin story is a little bit of both. While the setting takes readers more than 350 years into the past, the courtroom drama and historical thriller also has echoes of current events. The details of how the novel came to be is where we began our wide-ranging conversation.

You’ve always told interesting stories about where you get your ideas for your books. How did you come up with the story for Hour of the Witch?

I have always been obsessed with a Puritan mind and Puritan theology. First of all, for the Puritans, Satan was your neighbor. Satan was a real, actual creature—as real as the midwife, as real as the minister, as real as Jesus Christ. Secondly, imagine going through life where you are constantly wondering, Am I among the saved or the damned? That’s the reason why the Puritans were so meticulous in their diaries and their ledgers. They were always examining their behavior because of the great catch-22: If you come to the conclusion you’re saved because of your works, there’s the ultimate sin of hubris and you’re probably damned.

The other thing that I love about the Puritans is we view them as these women and men dressed in black and coifs who were utterly humorless, but when you read the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, who was the muse for Mary Deerfield in Hour of the Witch, you realize that they were deeply passionate. I mean, there were five reasons you could divorce in the 17th century. Polygamy, you discover that your husband has another wife in London; desertion, your husband runs off to New Haven; and, of course, adultery. But, among the reasons a woman could divorce her husband was impotence. And I think that speaks to the fact that the Puritans expected normal
conjugal relations.

Where did this book come from? When I was in college, I was obsessed with Puritan theology and I’ve moved a lot since college, but the only books that have come with me through all the moves are my books on Russian literature and my books about the Puritans.

Now the real inspiration for this book probably was a three-line reference from the Boston Court of Assistants in 1672. Only one of the 31 divorces in the 17th century was granted because of what today we would call domestic abuse—then they called cruelty—which there were three lines. The whole idea of a woman in 1672 standing before the Court of Assistants and saying, “My word against his”—because it’s all behind closed doors—“my husband is a beast” and getting that divorce, fascinated me. And I just thought this woman was unbelievably courageous. This is one of the first women to really take her destiny into her hands and stand up against the patriarchy.

It’s a very timely novel for a book set in 1662, and when one of the magistrates says to Mary Deerfield, “You are a nasty woman,” the reference will not be lost on our readers. I mean, I could’ve said, “But her emails!” I was writing a lot of this during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and I kept wanting to say, “Believe her!”

There are so many echoes to our current political arena and that was one of the things that stuck out to me, this politicizing of something that is seemingly innocuous, a fork, and turning it into “The Devil’s Times.”

Well, there are two issues. I started writing this book in 2001, and I had it with me on my laptop on 9/11 when I was on a book tour for Trans-Sister Radio. I was actually on the tarmac, 7:15 a.m. in Denver, about to fly to San Francisco, when the towers were attacked and collapsed. We never flew on to San Francisco. I returned to my Denver hotel, and I spent the next week working on this book because I was all alone. My wife used to work on the 104th floor of Two World Trade. Finally, about a week later, I was able to return to Vermont and I resumed work on the book.

And I couldn’t write it. I was so depressed. Every moment I spent with a manuscript brought me back to Denver and being all alone in that hotel room. So I scrapped the book and instead I started a new one that I thought would allow me to channel happier memories. I wrote Before You Know Kindness.

Years later, Trump was elected and we had the Women’s March the Saturday after his inauguration. All of these remarkable women around the country standing up for women’s rights. At the time, I was writing The Flight Attendant and I was having a great time, but something about the Women’s March reminded me that in a filing cabinet in the basement were 100 pages of Mary Deerfield’s story.

I began to think, I wonder if I can emotionally deal with this material? And the damnedest thing happened: It invigorated me. Instead of feeling as I felt in 2001, I felt this is a book with a purpose. This is one of those legacy books for me, like Midwives or The Sandcastle Girls. Yes, it’s going to be a novel of historical suspense, a slow burn, but this is a book for all of those remarkable women who, for the last four years, have said, “I matter, you are not going to diminish me.”

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

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You’ve written historical novels previously, more set in the recent past hundred years or so. But this one, you go back almost 400 years. What kind of unique challenges did that present?

First of all, here’s what made it easier. No one in the 17th century is alive today to point out to me any mistakes I’ve made about trenchers or pillowbeers.

What made it more difficult in some ways is the same thing. There was no one I could interview. When I was writing The Light in the Ruins, I interviewed an Italian cop from the 1950s who could talk to me about a Florence homicide investigation. When I was writing Skeletons at the Feast, I was able to interview Holocaust survivors and Prussian refugees to tell me their stories. No one could tell me what it was like to be tried as a witch in Boston. So I had to deal entirely with antiquated primary sources and historians. And I loved the primary sources, and I loved the historians. It’s how I work; I love having lunch with someone who was there. I love having coffee with somebody who’d say, “No one ever asked me that,” or, “Wow. I never even told my husband that.” And so that was different, but fortunately the Puritans, well, they didn’t have email but they saved so much of their correspondence.

One of the things I did, the Puritans used the words thou and you, depending on whether it’s formal or informal. The writing varied dramatically depending on the level of education, but I made this decision. All of the second-person pronouns would be thou, thy, thine, and thee because it felt to me 17th-century New England. I looked at Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. I looked at 16th-century Shakespeare. One of the ways that I could ground the sensibility of this book was making that one simple change. I know at the beginning for some readers, it’s going to feel, “Oh, dear God, no, can we just have the second person we know?” So many readers have told me that the more they read Hour of the Witch, the more they got into the groove, and thou, thine, and thee were this funky music they got into once they were into the book.

One of the things that I love discovering every time I open up a new Chris Bohjalian book is seeing how it’s set up. I loved that Trans-Sister Radio was the five-part NPR series, that The Double Bind had “medical records” interspersed throughout, and that Hour of the Witch has “court documents.” After reading the whole book, I go back and read those parts again to see what clues I missed that could inform my reading of the book. At what point in your drafting do you have that part of the book figured out?

I am usually three-quarters of the way into a book before I know the ending. When I was writing Hour of the Witch, I had no idea what the ending was going to be. I did not know Mary Deerfield’s fate. And so what that means is, going back and rewriting, not simply the interstitial pages, but the book itself once I know the ending.

But I can’t imagine, most of the time, knowing the ending for a book, because the pleasure for me is being in this room and letting my characters take me by the hand and lead me through the dark and the story. In Hour of the Witch, I was at least halfway through the book before I knew who and why there were Devil’s Tines buried in the dooryard. I had no idea.

All my books begin with a premise—often a character, but rarely the plot. I mean, alcoholic flight attendant wakes up next to a dead body in a hotel room far from home. Love story set in the midst of the Armenian Genocide. Young Puritan woman wants to divorce her husband for domestic violence. That’s often all there is.

Chris Bohjalian | Hour of the Witch

I want to talk more about endings. At the end of The Red Lotus, I gasped because I thought, Oh, there is more going on there, even if I didn’t need to see precisely what the “more” was. Do you write multiple endings and then figure out which one works?

I love an ending that is Aristotelian and that means two things. It is utterly surprising, but the reader says, “Oh, it could not have ended any other way.” I also love endings that do one of two things: They either break your heart or they make you happy. There’s no in-between. In my opinion, if an ending doesn’t break your heart or leave you happy, you have not stuck the landing. Your floor routine might’ve been impeccable, but without an ending that fits one of those two criteria, you haven’t nailed it.

Some of my books, yes, end in utter heartbreak and some are happy. But I mean, think of all of the main characters I’ve killed right at the end of my books! You and I were just talking about The Red Lotus, and just when you think it’s essentially a happy ending, (I mean, not completely because one of my favorite characters dies), but you think it’s OK. I didn’t pull—I try at least—to pull the rug out from under you so you go, “Holy cow, no, please no!” especially in 2020—the year that Satan spawned. In Hour of the Witch, I did try out multiple endings. The Flight Attendant had multiple endings. The Red Lotus had multiple endings before I decided on the one that most perfectly, in my opinion, stuck the landing.

I’ve often got in this room, two massive whiteboards with black, blue, and red erasable markers showing all of the different possible endings and what that means for each character. When I’m at that stage, I’m sitting at that desk looking at the whiteboards there, just deciding, “OK, heartbreak or happiness.”

In terms of the craft, what do you wish you had known when you first started almost three decades ago?

When I graduated from college, I knew nothing about how to write fiction. I was a great reader, but I was a terrible writer. It’s why I’m responsible for the single worst first novel ever published. Bar none. My second novel is pretty bad, too. The third isn’t great. That’s why the earliest of my books that I allow to remain in print is Water Witches.

Malcolm Gladwell taught us the 10,000 hour rule. You’ve got to do something for 10,000 hours. And my first three books, I was putting in my 10,000 hours. That was my Beatles in Hamburg phase and I wish I could take those three books back. I wish my first book was Water Witches because by then I had, first of all, learned how to move characters around a book, how to move the pieces around the chessboard. I didn’t know that in my first three books.

Secondly, I learned something so basic, that as a young writer, I had lost sight of. What we do as fiction writers is cause and effect. If this cause, this deus ex machina cause occurs to this character, what is the most normal thing for him or her to do? What’s the effect?

And third, research. I didn’t do a hell of a lot of research for those first three books. I thought, Virginia Woolf and John Updike, did they research their books? They’re just writing about human beings and the human condition. You can do that if you’re Virginia Woolf; you can do that if you’re John Updike. Clearly you can’t do that if you’re me! I have to do the homework, especially given the kinds of books I write.

Speaking of research, as I read through your books, I sometimes saw hints of connections between earlier books and your newer books, even though they’re all distinctly different stories. You’ve got a pilot in The Night Strangers and The Flight Attendant, or a story about the foster care system in The Buffalo Soldier and a homeless teen who will do anything avoid the foster care system in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Do you intentionally save bits of what you can’t use in one story to inspire later ones, or when you’re looking for a new idea, do you go back to your older work and think, Oh, there’s something I could explore in a whole different way?

It’s actually a third answer. My books are weirdly autobiographic and filled with the things that interest me. I’m obsessed with aviation. I mean, going all the way back to Midwives when Sibyl Danforth, the midwife, her attorney Stephen Hastings is explaining all the things that have to go wrong for a mother to die in birth. His analogy, which is like 10 pages in the book, is all the things that have to go wrong for a plane to crash.

So aviation, the natural world, the way children and teenagers are so often screwed by the system are clearly things that interest me and that recur in my books. And autobiographically, my biggest fears are for my wife and my daughter—always—and I channel that Dread, capital D, into my work.

You’ve worked with mostly the same two editors over the course of your career, Shaye Areheart and Jennifer Jackson. What is it like working with the same editor for such a long time? How do you think they’ve influenced your writing?

Working with Shaye Areheart and Jenny Jackson has been among the greatest professional blessings of my life. When Shaye left Penguin Random House in 2010, I wanted Jenny to be my editor for a couple of reasons. She’s smarter than me and we have the same taste in books. So when Shaye moved on, I went to Jenny and Jenny said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” Jenny is just brilliant, just as Shaye was brilliant. Shaye was the first person in a major publishing house to take a chance on me. She was the one who read 60 pages of Midwives and said, “Oh my God, there’s a book here.”

The first book that Jenny Jackson and I did together was The Sandcastle Girls about the Armenian Genocide. There were a lot of people in 2010, who said, “Do not write a book about the Armenian Genocide. It is a career killer. No one cares.” But I said, “I need to write it as a grandson of two survivors.” And when I told Jenny, this will be our first book together, I hoped, she said, “That’s wonderful. People need to know this story. And you’re the perfect person to write it.”

She and Todd Doughty and Suzanne Herz and Bill Thomas at Doubleday got behind this book about the Armenian Genocide and understood that it was fundamentally a love story like The English Patient or Atonement or Corelli’s Mandolin. It’s now the second bestselling novel ever about the Armenian Genocide. The only one that’s bigger is from 1933, Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

It’s interesting that that was the reaction because when I read it a few years ago my reaction was, How did I not know about this? I’m really glad that you chose to write about it and that she was behind you in taking that risk.

That’s the moral for young writers and aspiring writers. Two of my most successful books begin with a premise that no one knows about. Shaye Areheart took a chance on Midwives and people were telling her, “Why are you publishing this book? No one knows about midwives.” People were saying about The Sandcastle Girls, “no one cares.” And Jenny Jackson said, “You care and that’s what matters.” The moral to that is write what you love.

[Learn more about Chris Bohjalian in his 2014 WD Interview with Jessica Strawser.]

You said you’ve already got your next book finished?

Book 22 is done. Did you see the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? It’s fantastic. It’s Hollywood 1969 and it’s about the Tate-LaBianca murders, but it’s also about movies. So my 2022 book is called The Lions of Hollywood. It’s set in 1964 and it’s about an Elizabeth Taylor-like starlet who brings her entourage on a honeymoon safari into the Serengeti and it all goes to hell. Think And Then There Were None. How many of these nine Hollywood people are going to be alive at the end of the book? I just loved writing it because I’m writing about Hollywood in 1964 and I’m writing about East Africa in 1964. I was in heaven writing it during the pandemic.

Any last tidbits for aspiring authors?

Here are the things I like to tell aspiring writers: Read a lot. Write in whatever genre you love. If you love science fiction, write science fiction. If you love romance, write romance. If you love literary fiction, write literary fiction. Understand the first draft is not the last draft and try to be disciplined. Don’t wait for the muse. Writing is work. It’s a marathon. Get your 10,000 hours and do it every day, even if you’ve got a full-time job. 

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