Interview with Chris Bohjalian

February, 2010
Chris Bohjalian Vermont novelist Chris Bohjalian tackles complex social issues, often using multiple perspectives to zero in on the source of conflict. His best-known work, Midwives (an Oprah's Book Club selection), explored the thorny ethical milieu of natural childbirth, which still divides midwives and the medical community to this day. Bohjalian's thirteenth book, Secrets of Eden, explores the disturbing world of domestic violence. Beginning with an apparent murder-suicide, his story is told through four divergent points of view that become increasingly unreliable. Bohjalian talked with Goodreads about why he felt compelled to write this book.

Goodreads: What led you to write about the difficult topic of domestic violence?

Chris Bohjalian: In my little state, Vermont, domestic abuse is our dirty little secret. In 2008, only 15 people were murdered in Vermont. But 11 of them were domestic violence. Back in 1997, I was researching the book that would become The Law of Similars. I was in a courthouse in Burlington, Vermont, in the office of a victims' rights advocate who counseled a lot of battered women. She opened up a folder and flipped onto the desk between us Polaroid photographs of head indentations in Sheetrock. Can you imagine how hard you have to shove somebody's head to make an indentation in Sheetrock? She told me these photos were part of an ongoing investigation into a battered woman. Only weeks later I would learn it was a murder investigation. The photos stayed with me. That is why I decided to write this novel.

In 2001, I tried to write a book about domestic abuse for the first time, and it was interrupted by 9/11. I was stranded in Denver on a book tour for a week after that. I worked on that novel about domestic abuse very hard. When I came home to Vermont, I was so depressed that I didn't want anything to do with that material. I went on to write the book that would become Before You Know Kindness.

In 2008, I was thinking what I wanted to do next. Skeletons at the Feast, my World War II love story, had just been published. I realized that I had not stopped thinking about those Polaroid photographs. And coupled with that, my book The Double Bind (2007) begins with a savage attack on a young female social worker. I heard from readers all across the country—from California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont, North Carolina, New Hampshire. They all wanted to know how I heard their story. The sexual assault on Laurel sounded so much like what they had experienced. I realized that violence against women is absolutely epidemic in this country.

GR: Secrets of Eden is narrated by four characters: Reverend Stephen Drew; Heather Laurent, the woman he befriends; Catherine Benincasa, the deputy state attorney; and Katie Hayward, the daughter of the victims of a murder-suicide. Each provides a different view of events. What did you gain by including multiple perspectives?

CB: Only two times in my life have I begun a book and known how it was going to end. The Double Bind and Secrets of Eden. I knew when I started this book essentially what I wanted the last sentence to be. But I knew what I wanted the first sentence to be, too, and I knew the first sentence was spoken by one character and the last sentence by another. And it crossed my mind that maybe it would be a "he said, she said." Once I started working on the four perspectives, I liked it because they each have their own agenda. The reader doesn't know how much to believe or how misguided they might be. My favorite line in the book is spoken by Stephen Drew: "Believe no one, trust no one, assume all of our stories are suspect." I almost made that the title of the book—Assume All of Our Stories Are Suspect. But it was too long and clunky.

GR: How did you settle on the title?

CB: I am a firm believer that the best titles are three words: "The Something Something." The Lovely Bones, The Kite Runner, The Great Gatsby, The Double Bind, The Da Vinci Code.... But I couldn't find the perfect one, and when I was editing the manuscript yet again (as Gabriel García Márquez once said, "The only reason writers publish is to stop rewriting"), I came across that scene when Stephen Drew is in bed with Heather Laurent in New York City, and he's thinking about Genesis, and what it must have been like if you were Adam and Eve waiting for God to say, "You ate the what? The one thing I told you not to do!" And of course, Stephen Drew says Genesis is a pretty blunt instrument, there's not a lot of character development. But if you're a storyteller, how freaking tense must it have been to have those sorts of secrets. Since all of my characters have secrets I decided to call it Secrets of Eden.

GR: Communities often expect a lot from their spiritual leaders—ministers, priests, rabbis, whoever they look to for spiritual guidance. However, these men and women are just humans who are flawed like everyone else. With the character of Reverend Stephen Drew, what did you want to explore in terms of religion and spirituality?

CB: The book is dedicated to my great friend and minister, David Wood. I've been going to the United Church of Lincoln since 1986, when I was a very young man. David and I are really terrific friends. One of the things that David has always made clear is that pastors are people, too. Whenever I have lunch with my friends who are ministers or rabbis, I come away with the same sense that these are people who are smart and wise, but they are smart and wise because they understand that they have demons, too.

Stephen is in some ways very autobiographic. I am not a minister, but all of those snarky things that Stephen is thinking on page 1 of the novel, as people in his church are "caring and sharing," are things that I am thinking. I can't tell you how many times I have been sitting in the pew thinking to myself, "For crying out loud, suck it up!" Or given how much time I spend traveling (up to four months a year), whenever someone is asking for traveling mercies [a prayer for safe travel], I'm thinking to myself, "75,000 people are dead in Haiti, and you want traveling mercies? Oh, come on!" That doesn't mean that I don't love my fellow parishioners, but often they absolutely drive me crazy.

GR: Your first novel, A Killing in the Real World, was released in 1988. Now more than 20 years later, Secrets of Eden is your thirteenth book. Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved?

CB: I amassed over 250 rejection slips while working at ad agencies in New York City. I wrote my first novel while working at an ad agency in New York City. And here's a bizarre tidbit. My first novel has one blurb on the back from someone who worked in the ad agency with me. His name is James Patterson. But my first book is still a terrible book.

I don't look back because my early books are train wrecks. I cannot reread my books once they are finished. I picked out what I am going to read publicly, and that's pretty much it. Some books I like more than others. I like Secrets of Eden, I like Skeletons at the Feast, I like Midwives. Some I think less of. My first three books are horrific.

GR: When did you hit your stride as a writer?

CB: Midwives. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, there is a 10,000 hours rule. You finally get good at something after 10,000 hours. It was at about 10,000 hours that I was writing my fifth novel, Midwives. It is muscle memory. When you've written as many books as I have, hopefully something will stick. Also, I'm much more capable now of writing 800 to 1,000 words a day, acknowledging that I might edit out most of them. But at least you get something on paper you can edit.

GR: You have quite an online presence, with profiles on Goodreads and Facebook, a Web site, and a blog. How have you adjusted to the social networking world?

CB: When my first novel was published back in the Mesozoic period of 1988, it was a very different marketing world. Essentially, you hoped your publisher would take ads in a couple newspapers, including, of course, The New York Times, and you hoped they would send you on a book tour to two or three cities, and you hoped for good reviews. The reality is that the combination of the consolidation of publishing and the elimination of book review pages and the emergence of the digital culture has changed the equation so dramatically. Not all for the bad. Make no mistake, I miss book review pages. I can't tell you how many of my friends at newspapers have lost their jobs. But I love the way the digital world and Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter have made authors accessible to readers. In 1988, an author was a disembodied, two-dimensional head shot on the back of a novel, and the only place you might meet the author would be at a book signing, and the interaction would certainly be superficial. The wonderful thing about Goodreads and the digital age is how many readers you can connect with every single day.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

CB: A typical day: I usually write fiction from about 6 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m. From 10:30 to 1 p.m., I am likely to connect with readers digitally: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads. After lunch, I tend to go for a bike ride (I am an avid cyclist) or I will go to the gym. Then I will have dinner with my lovely bride. After dinner, I am likely to do some more digital marketing, read, and I am typically in bed by midnight. I do all of my drafts on a computer, but I do all of my editing longhand with fountain pens. I always use fountain pens because it forces me to go very slowly and think carefully to find the perfect synonym for "burgundy."

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

CB: Certainly I read all new books by John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Jodi Picoult, all in different ways immensely talented. John Irving's characters are so wonderfully idiosyncratic and eccentric. I think Joyce Carol Oates is so comfortable with moral ambiguity. I think Jodi Picoult has got her fingers right on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist.

GR: Finally, what are you reading now?

CB: Right now I am reading two books. I am rereading Anna Karenina because my daughter is reading it, and I'm loving reading it at the same time. And I am reading William Langewiesche's Fly by Wire, about the Miracle on the Hudson, because I am currently writing a book about an airline pilot (who is not "Sully" Sullenberger). I don't have a working title yet, but it is about an airline pilot and his family who retreat to northern New England after his CRJ (a regional jet) with 39 people aboard pinwheels across Lake Champlain after a bird strike. Three-quarters of his passengers die on impact or drown, but he survives.

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