It was March 1986 when Chris Bohjalian made a decision that would have an incalculable impact on his writing. He and his wife had just hailed a taxi home to Brooklyn after a party in Manhattan's East Village when they suddenly found themselves on a wild and terrifying 45-minute ride. The crazed cabbie, speeding through red lights and ignoring stop signs, ultimately dropped the shaken couple off... in front of a crack house being stormed by the police. It was then that Bohjalian and his wife decided that the time had come to flee the city for pastoral Vermont. This incident and the couple's subsequent move to New England not only inspired a series of columns titled "Idyll Banter" (later compiled into a book of the same name), but a string of books that would cause Bohjalian to be hailed as one of the most humane, original, and beloved writers of his time.
While Bohjalian's Manhattan murder mystery A Killing in the Real World was a somewhat quiet debut, follow-up novels (many of which are set in his adopted state) have established him as a writer to watch. A stickler for research, he fills his plotlines with rich, historically accurate details. But he never loses sight of what really draws readers into a story: multi-dimensional characters they can relate to.
The selection of his 1997 novel Midwives for Oprah's Book Club established Bohjalian as a force to be reckoned with, igniting a string of critically acclaimed crowd pleasers. His literary thriller The Double Bind was a Barnes & Noble Recommends pick in 2007.
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Bohjalian's fascination with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald extends beyond the author's prominent influence on The Double Bind. In an interview with Loaded Shelf.com, Bohjalian estimated that he owns "at least 42 different editions of books by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald."
Two of Chris Bojalian's novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed TV movies. An adaptation of Past the Bleachers with Richard Dean Anderson was made in 1995, and a version of Midwives starring Sissy Spacek and Peter Coyote debuted in 2001.
In our interview with Bohjalian, he shared some fascinating and fun facts about himself:
"I was the heaviest child, by far, in my second-grade class. My mother had to buy my pants for me at a store called the "Husky Boys Shop," and still she had to hem the cuffs up around my knees. I hope this experience, traumatizing as it was, made me at least marginally more sensitive to people around me."
"I have a friend with Down syndrome, a teenage boy who is capable of remembering the librettos from entire musicals the first or second time he hears them. The two of us belt them out together whenever we're driving anywhere in a car.
"I am a pretty avid bicyclist. The other day I was biking alone on a thin path in the woods near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and suddenly before me I saw three bears. At first I saw only two, and initially I thought they were cats. Then I thought they were dogs. Finally, just as I was approaching them and they started to scurry off the path and into the thick brush, I understood they were bears. Bear cubs, to be precise. Which is exactly when their mother, no more than five or six feet to my left, reared up on her hind legs, her very furry paws and very sharp claws raised above her head in a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave and guy on a bike might consider something a tad more threatening. Because she was standing on a slight incline, I was eye level with her stomach -- an eventual destination that seemed frighteningly plausible. I have never biked so fast in my life in the woods. I may never have biked so fast in my life on a paved road."
"I do have hobbies -- I garden and bike, for example -- but there's nothing in the world that gives me even a fraction of the pleasure that I derive from hanging around with my wife and daughter."
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In the fall of 2003, Chris Bohjalian took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I'm actually going to pick a single period in my life, rather than a single book, because I believe it's the most honest way to answer this question in my case.
When I was 13, my family moved from a suburb of New York City to Miami, Florida, and we moved there the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I started school the following Tuesday, and then, that afternoon, went to see my new orthodontist -- a sadist, it would turn out, if ever there was one.
He gave me some orthodontic headgear that looked like the business end of a backhoe, and I had to wear said device for four hours a day when I was awake.
Since I couldn't (well, wouldn't) wear it during school, I had to wear it after school. It was inevitable, but I couldn't speak when I was wearing it.
And so I couldn't meet any kids in my neighborhood, and make new friends. What did I do that first autumn and winter -- winter, such as it is, in South Florida?
I went to the Hialeah Miami Lake Public Library. And I read.
I read the sorts of things any adolescent boy was likely to read in the mid-1970s. I read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home, and Peter Benchley's deceptively fine novel Jaws.
Also, in all fairness, I read a somewhat higher caliber of literature as well -- Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Joyce Carol Oates's Expensive People.
I read those books in the library as well as in the den in our new home, and from them I learned a very great deal that would help me profoundly as an adult writer. I learned the importance of linear momentum in plot from Blatty and Benchley and Tryon; I learned about the importance of voice -- and the role of person in fiction -- from Lee and Oates.
I learned on a level that may not have been fully concrete yet -- but that did indeed adhere -- that the narrator in a first-person novel is a character, too, and every bit as made-up as the fictional constructs around him or her.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I feel guilty limiting the list to a mere ten, given how many books that are indeed special to me. I have, however, always enjoyed that game in which you have to pick a few books or movies to have with you on a desert island, and so here's a group that I've read multiple times -- the ultimate compliment, I believe, one can bestow upon a book.
Incidentally, the list has 11 titles. I couldn't possible delete any one of them. Mea culpa.
The Voyage of the Narwahl by Andrea Barrett -- A tale of icebound sailors and scientists in the 19th century (and the women they leave behind) that I found as moving as it was gripping.
The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis -- Imagine Holden Caulfield with less angst and a better sense of humor, and you have the howlingly funny narrator of this book. The book chronicles the near-dissolution of one wealthy Manhattan family in the early 1960s, and what it takes to keep it intact. Nearly every page is a scream, especially read today, because every moment feels so fabulously retro.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Individual sentences give me a whopper of an inferiority complex, but I love every one.
The Cider House Rules by John Irving -- I savor Irving's books because his characters are so gloriously eccentric and idiosyncratic, and this sweeping story is filled with people I cherished.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer -- The tale is riveting, and not simply because it's all true. Krakauer is a terrific storyteller.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- There is obviously so much to savor in this book and so many ways to examine it. Among the elements that I cherish the most is what an authentic father-daughter love story it is.
Homeboy by Seth Morgan -- The only novel Morgan left us before he died in a motorcycle accident. The prose (from page 1) is electric, the story is gloriously seamy, and the ending profound and poignant.
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher -- A story about race, yes, but also a tender story of fathers and sons, and the unexpected places where we find friendship.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje -- I love novels that teach me something, and in this book I learned a bit about Africa, archeology, and Egypt in the years immediately before the Second World War. It's also a breathtakingly beautiful and authentic love story.
Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- Perhaps the most sad and wrenching novel I've ever read.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe -- Wolfe is characteristically bemused in this history of the Mercury space program, but he also captures the sense of adventure and courage that peppered the endeavor, as well as the humanity of the test pilots, the astronauts, and their wives.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Three of my favorite films are actually adapted from three of my favorite novels: Sophie's Choice, The English Patient, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Each is not merely faithful to the integrity of the novelist's vision, it broadens the story in wondrous and unexpected ways. Sometimes this is the result of the actor -- think of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice -- and sometimes it's due to a brilliant bit of cinematography: Recall that moment in The English Patient when Hana is viewing the frescoes inside the chapel by candlelight, suspended high in the air on the ropes Kip has rigged for her.
I also, in truth, like a lot of the very same movies my nine-year-old daughter likes, (again, in many cases, movies that happen to have been adapted from novels). I thought Freaky Friday was a howl this past summer, and the two of us have probably watched About a Boy together a half dozen times.
And then there is the little boy in me that can savor any movie about the Mercury or Apollo space programs (The Right Stuff and Apollo 13) or any film that has John Belushi or Bill Murray in it. My wife and I have seen Groundhog Day together at least as often as my daughter and I have seen About a Boy.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Actually, I need complete silence when I write.
These days, because my young daughter is a young thespian, I listen to a lot of musicals. My favorites at the moment? The Secret Garden, West Side Story, and Once on This Island. And I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Ellen Green singing "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels. They are my favorite to get and my favorite to give. People seem to read so much more nonfiction than fiction, and so it always gives me great pleasure to introduce a friend or family member to a novel I believe they'll cherish but might not otherwise have thought to pick up and read.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I am frighteningly compulsive when it comes to the library in my house in which I write. It is very clean. And orderly. The books are alphabetized; the pens are lined up in their cases. At night, I put a dust cover on my computer.
I actually have two desks. One holds the computer on which I write rough drafts. Along with the computer and printer, it has on it photographs of my wife and my daughter, and two small sting rays made of polished stone from Grand Cayman (an island I love because of the scuba diving and snorkeling) that my daughter gave me. The other desk is smaller, and on it I edit my rough drafts. It has a lamp built from an Art Deco planter of a black panther, and most of my favorite pens.
Both desks have glorious views of Mount Abraham, the third-highest mountain in Vermont, and I watch the sun rise over the mountain as I work.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
When I was a sophomore in college, the writer-in-residence was a novelist whose work I cherished. She was teaching a creative writing seminar in the spring semester, and I wanted very much to be among the anointed she was going to choose to be in it. That meant submitting a short story in December, which she would read over the holiday break.
In January, I was summoned to her office in the brick monolith that housed the school's English Department, and there I met her for the first time. She was seated behind a desk the size of a putting green.
When she saw me, she adjusted her shawl, fixed her eyeglasses, and said, "You're Chris. I'm not going to try to pronounce your last name."
I nodded, a little apprehensive now. Then she slid my short story across the expanse of desk as if it were a piece of profoundly disagreeable roadkill.
"Well, Chris I'm-Not-Going-to-Pronounce-Your-Last-Name," she continued, "I have three words for you."
This clearly wasn't going to be good, but I am nothing if not optimistic. And so I waited. Then it came: "Be a banker," she said. And we were through.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read lots. Have a thick skin. And write often -- and write about things that interest you passionately. Writing teachers often encourage young writers to write about what they know -- or, conversely, to write about things that are foreign to them. I think neither should be a cardinal rule. Instead, you should write about things that interest you, regardless of whether you know anything about the topic when you start, or you're among the world's foremost experts. The key is to care so deeply about the subject – -- find it so extraordinary -- that you are willing to give up a year or two of your life to it. If you bring that level of enthusiasm to the story, it certainly increases the chances that you will create something of interest to strangers browsing in a library or bookstore.
One more thing: Have fun and avoid a mean spirit. I've never felt a writer needs to be tormented to succeed in this business.
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