Vintage WD: Chris Bohjalian, The WD Interview

Chris Bohjalian's newest book, The Red Lotus, was released this week. To celebrate, here's Jessica Strawser's 2014 interview with Chris Bohjalian in which they discuss his passion for the craft and his goal to never write the same book twice.
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Chris Bohjalian's newest book, The Red Lotus, was released this week. To celebrate, here's Jessica Strawser's 2014 interview with Chris Bohjalian in which they discuss his passion for the craft and his goal to never write the same book twice.

Chris Bohjalian

Writing the World

By Jessica Strawser

Writer's Digest, January 2014

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.

Even before you delved into historicals, most of your fiction was inspired by something in life. Do you feel the most powerful fiction is born from a grain of truth?

I know in my case I have to be passionately interested in a topic. The reality is that a novel [usually] takes years to write, and if you’re not emotionally invested in the subject, it just becomes work. And I never want writing a novel to be work. My sense is that if I’m not having fun when I’m writing the book, readers aren’t going to enjoy reading it. Certainly not everything I write in my books is fun—my books are pretty dark, that’s the reality—but still, there has to be a real spark for me to want to invest so much of my life in one story.

Given your affinity for drawing inspiration in that way, did it at some point seem as if historical fiction was an inevitable next step for you?

I never thought I was going to write historical fiction—I never thought that was my sweet spot. The first time I wrote historical fiction was Skeletons at the Feast, my 2008 novel, and that is a book that ended up gestating for a lot of years before I started writing it. It actually had its origins when a friend of mine [asked if I’d] have any interest in taking a look at his grandmother’s diary. His mother had just translated it from German. The diary was incredibly interesting, and his grandmother when she was 15 years old [during WWII] was spectacularly heroic, but it never crossed my mind that there was a novel in this—instead, I sent the diary to publishers to see if they wanted a memoir, and nothing became of that. It would be at least five or six years later that I happened to read a history of the last year of the war in Germany, and I kept seeing echoes of this diary. And that’s when it clicked that that diary was the kernel for a novel.

So that was the first time I wrote historical fiction, and obviously [my two most recent novels are] historical [as well]. But my next book is set in contemporary Vermont. The book I’m anticipating will follow is probably going to be set in the present Adirondacks. That doesn’t mean I won’t write more historical fiction, but I tend to write whatever interests me at the moment. And I never, ever want to write the same book twice—that is so important to me. I don’t want to be sitting down with readers and have them tell me that my new book is too reminiscent of my previous novel.

[But] to go back to something you were getting at earlier, even The Light in the Ruins began with a deeply personal moment. I was watching a production of West Side Story, and my daughter was one of the Shark girlfriends, which meant I saw that production a lot. And I realized that I loved [that idea of] reimagining Romeo and Juliet, and I wanted to tell my own. But I had no idea where it would be set and when, so I just sort of squirreled away that idea. Then, two summers later I was biking with a friend of mine in Tuscany. He pointed out [Montisi’s] 14th-century granary tower, and he said, “You know, don’t you, that that used to go up 15 feet higher? The Nazis blew it up when they were retreating.” And then he sort of shrugged and smiled and said, “They tried to blow the whole thing up but they couldn’t. Man, we built things to last 700 years ago.”

And the minute he told me that story I realized, this is where I wanted to set my Romeo and Juliet. … I hadn’t realized until that moment how violent Tuscany was in 1944. And so that’s why I decided to write my Romeo and Juliet as historical fiction when it very well could have been set, if I had a Baz Luhrmann sensibility [laughing], in Miami in the present. Those events just married nicely.

You’ve said that researching your books is a process of discovery, where you don’t know what will trigger a scene or a character until you stumble upon it. How much of a story do you typically know at the start?

When I begin a book, I have only the vaguest premise of what it’s about. I know that a lot of novelists think that’s a really bad way to work. But I really do depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. So when I begin, all I have to know is, 1) Is it third person or is it first person? And if it’s first person, who is the narrator, and why is this voice appropriate? And 2) A vague premise of what the book is going to be about.

For example, Midwives didn’t begin as a dark novel about a mother dying in a home birth and a midwife on trial for manslaughter. It began as a gently comic novel narrated by a midwife’s daughter who is having a lot of fun at the expense of her hippy-dippy midwife mom. And if you look at the first chapter and the lion’s share of the second chapter, you will see nothing in there that suggests this is going to be a devastating book.

But about 5,000 words in, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and it was clearly going to be terminal. And so this book took this unexpected turn and suddenly the young girl is coming of age as her mother is on trial for manslaughter. Most of my books have changes that dramatic at some point in the first draft.

Even The Light in the Ruins changed dramatically. Originally the book was going to be set entirely in the last year of [WWII] in Italy. There was going to be no moving back in forth in time between 1955 and the end of the war, [the way the chapters alternate now]. I was writing a scene where I was killing off a very minor character, Serafina. But that morning I couldn’t bring myself to kill her because I liked her so much. So instead I simply scarred her—physically, emotionally. And when I broke for lunch, I was really excited, because I had before me my own Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And the book morphed, because where is Serafina 10 years later? Well, she’s the first woman in the Firenzi homicide squad.

Are your stories often inspired by a character that way?

They usually begin with a premise and a voice. I hesitate to say a character because with a book like The Sandcastle Girls, it was [all] about the premise: I wanted desperately to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide to the millions of people in this world who can’t even find Armenia on a map. …

In writing a book like that, where does the research stop and the writing begin? Or do the processes overlap?

They definitely overlap. Before I start a book, I might spend between a week and three weeks researching the plausibility of the premise. … Once I start writing, I research simultaneously. I know a lot of writers think the Internet is satanic when it comes to creativity. I actually find the Internet incredibly helpful, principally via things such as Google Images.

I’ve also found that when I have writer’s block, it isn’t precisely writer’s block so much as it’s the reality that I’ve failed to do sufficient homework. So I will often stop writing a scene and interview whoever I need to interview to learn more.

The book I have coming out [in summer 2014], Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, is narrated by a [teenage] girl in Vermont who is trying to keep it together on the streets in the wake of a nuclear plant meltdown. There were a number of people who, when a scene wasn’t working, I’d meet with to learn more. A perfect example is a terrific therapist who works with homeless teens. I’d want to know, “OK, how is Emily going to get a shower?” And it isn’t necessarily that [she ’d] solve the scene by saying, “She’d take a shower at the Y, she’d get a day pass.” She might say something else about, who knows, shoplifting, that would trigger a whole new scene.

I was astounded to read that for Midwives you interviewed 65 people. I was going to ask: What makes you keep digging? But it sounds like the story leads you.

That’s really true. To go back to Midwives, the scene where Sybil performs the cesarean is the heart of the novel, and I wanted that scene to be emotionally devastating. I can remember thinking, This might take three full days to write. Well, it ended up taking closer to three weeks—[in part] because I ended up spending two days following around the medical examiner for the state, because I needed to understand exactly how much blood would be in the cavity [to make the arguments in the story’s resulting manslaughter trial plausible]. I also [talked] to an OB-GYN about, “What does the uterine wall feel like when you’re pulling it aside in a cesarean?” I wanted to know what it would feel like to Sybil.

Early in your career, did you find that people were open to sharing those experiences? I think aspiring writers can be intimidated by that kind of research.

In my experience, we’re all a little narcissistic about our professions and love sharing information. That doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t be a little intimidated, maybe, but I would encourage writers—even if they haven’t published yet, even if it’s just for a short story—to approach even professional strangers with their questions. More times than not people will enjoy talking about their work, and will elevate the writing in unexpected ways. … When my books work, I think they’re filled with those unexpected wonderful tidbits.

How much of a responsibility do you feel novelists have to be historically or factually accurate? Is there a philosophy you have in deciding what liberties to take?

What’s more important to me than anything, whether it’s historical or contemporary fiction, is not having something so implausible that it wakes the reader from the fictional dream—that’s a great term from John Gardner, I think in The Art of Fiction. He was really onto something. You don’t ever want to violate your reader’s trust by playing so fast and loose with either history or contemporary plausibility that you lose your reader.

You’ve written so many different kinds of books. 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 genre?

I never had to resist it because Knopf Doubleday is amazing. In the two decades I’ve been with them, they have been relentlessly supportive of my work. …

Now that doesn’t mean that if you’re a young writer, you shouldn’t find your niche and live there happily. Book marketing has changed since my first novel was published in 1988. And there’s a comfort level to know you’re always 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, [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 your comfort zone, and third, even if this particular book doesn’t work, it’s going to be a lot more pleasant an experience.

[Read the outtakes from WD's Chris Bohjalian interview here.]

Following that rule, you must love a little of everything.

[Laughs.] I really do! I probably have the only Sirius radio in the world that has as the two presets the NFL Network and Broadway. The truth is I do read a lot of [different genres]—the only things I really don’t read a lot of are short stories and poetry. And I think that’s because I’m a terrible poet, and I’m terrible at writing short stories.

Here’s a true story: I amassed 250 rejection slips before I sold a single word, and all of those were for short stories I was writing in my late teens and early to mid-20s. And when I finally sold a short story and it was published, I started hearing from agents, and they all were asking the same thing: “Do you have a novel?” And I didn’t. And this lightbulb went off in my head. I had not tried to write a novel because I was intimidated by it, and because I wanted the immediate gratification of short stories—and you get no immediate gratification from a novel. You might get no gratification ever from a novel. But the truth is, when I had been in college, I had never been one of those young writers sitting at the feet of the short-story gurus. I always loved doorstops. I loved War and Peace, I loved Anna Karenina, I loved Les Misérables. So, I wrote my first novel. I wasted a lot of years writing short stories when I clearly should have been writing novels because that’s what I loved.

Did you sell that first novel?

I did. And it sold quickly; it went out to three houses and got two offers. Just for the record, however, that novel is the single worst first novel ever published, bar none. If you go to my website you won’t see anything about my first three published books. In some ways that’s the sort of apprentice fiction that should never have been published, but for better or worse it was.

How would you describe your path of finding your way as a writer from that point, then? Was it a straight path, or were there a lot of turns?

Part of it is finding my voice. And writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about how they found their voice, but the reality is that I found my voice when my wife and I moved to Vermont. I wrote my first books when I was still living in New York City. And I love New York City. But it was when I came to Vermont that I wrote books like Water Witches and Midwives that are first-person, vaguely new-age-y books about women and men on the social margins. Narrators like [those] I think are where I found my voice. In subsequent years I’d get more comfortable with third person, with omniscient, and historical fiction, but I am really grateful to Vermont. … So while it feels like a linear path, it certainly had its ups and downs.

Here’s a story I’ve never shared with anyone: In 1990, my wife and I sold all the furniture in our living room to pay the bills and make sure we had health insurance. To do what I wanted to do certainly took not simply unbelievable persistence—250 rejection slips—unbelievable hubris, selling the furniture, and unbelievable commitment. I mean, here’s another reality: I wrote my first three novels while employed full time at ad agencies. So I wrote fiction from 5–7 a.m. every day of the week, then Monday and Tuesday nights when I came home from work.

You’ve often told a horrific story about a novelist you admired leading a writing workshop you applied for when you were in college, and advising you to become a banker. And that was before the 250 rejections. What was it that made you keep writing all those years?

The short answer is: I always had fun writing. Even when people really close to me were saying, “Maybe it’s time to give up this dream,” it never crossed my mind to stop—because I’ve just always loved telling stories, I’ve always loved crafting sentences. And there was always that immense satisfaction when I would stop that I’d written even one sentence that I really liked. Or one scene that I felt was really moving. And I love that experience. I don’t want to liken it necessarily to being a weekend tennis player versus Rafael Nadal—but, the truth is, not everyone who picks up a tennis racket is going to wind up at Wimbledon, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play tennis.

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.] The way the process works for me is that I write on a computer, and every 40 or 50 pages I 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 seven to 10 times before I have a first draft.

The other important part of the process, though, is that often somewhere between Pages 100 and 200, the book will change dramatically when I figure something out, such as my revelation about what I wanted to do with Serafina [in The Light in the Ruins]. 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.

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 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—people who are in the field [that I’m writing about].

So you’re not afraid to start over when you’re revising.

[I do it] all the time. Was it Gabriel García Márquez who said, “The only reason writers publish is to stop rewriting”? Yeah!

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