Meeting Author Chris Bohjalian

5 Jun
Me and Chris Bohjalian

Me and Chris Bohjalian

I’ve been meaning to write this for a month and I’m overwhelmed because I took SO MANY NOTES when Chris was speaking. Instead of summing up by saying, “What an incredible man!” I do want to go through what he said. Hold you nose and dive in, this will be a long one.

My first impression of Chris was him walking to the podium with a Red Bull in his hand and telling a story about wearing another man’s underwear while on a book tour. Is there a better way to meet someone? I don’t think so. After that story, he started at the beginning, telling us about the 250 rejection slips he got for short stories before he finally sold his first one. And where, Reader, do you think he sold his first story? Cosmopolitan magazine. Yep. But the positive turn was that after he sold it, agents started to approach him. They asked him if he was working on a novel. So of course, he started working on a novel. And like I’ve heard from many writers, he hated it. The only way to learn to write better is to keep writing. So naturally a first book, looking back, is not reflective of an author’s best work. On the bright side, it taught him to learn how to deal with bad reviews.

Chris made some general comments about literacy that I appreciated and want to share. Did you know there are more libraries than McDonald’s in the US? Yeah, fact checked that one. And this makes me incredibly happy because of how much I love my library and how much I enjoy participating in its programs. An opinion he had that made me really happy is that the physical book will not disappear. That seems to be a fear of publishers nowadays, but Chris thinks it’s an overreaction. Modern society has a 4000 year history with books. They hold our past and we have a cultural connection with them. Recorded music has not been around for near as long; only since vinyl popularized it. Our society wasn’t as connected to vinyl so moving from that to tapes to CDs to computer files didn’t force us to lose any part of a shared culture. Books are here to stay. Yay!

Chris’s presentation (and yes, I believe we’re on a first name basis because he follows me on Instagram) was focused mainly on the book that our library read, Before You Know Kindness. You can read my review and book club discussion to dive into the conversations I’ve had about the book. Chris said he is often classified as an ‘issues oriented’ author and it’s easy to think that Before You Know Kindness is one such book but in his mind, it’s not. Many of his books were written to address an issue, but this one was written to reconnect with his own family. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Bohjalian was thinking about his own family, especially his wife who had previously worked in those towers. He thought back to a conversation he’d overheard in his family about crows and ravens and shiny dimes; a conversation that appears in the opening pages of this book. He based Spencer on himself. Both are vegetarians for the same reasons, having realized the pain of animals after spending a summer slaughtering lobsters for hungry tourists so much that Chris says of himself, “I am the Hannibal Lector of crustaceans.” When his mother-in-law read the piece, she responded with a quote from Zelda Fitzgerald, “[Mr. Fitzgerald, I believe that is how he spells his name,] seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

The audience asked amazing questions. Why was FERAL portrayed as so evil in the book if the author himself believes in their goal? In short, it makes for a better story. It adds conflict and allows for human transformation. Spencer needed to change in the book; he needed to show the reader his ‘before and after’ from the horrible accident. At the beginning, he and Charlotte are both very unlikable. Their heads are in the clouds and Charlotte is behaving like a 21st century Mary Lennox, the character she’s cast as in The Secret Garden.  By the end, they are quite different.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

What does the cover image mean? Chris did not pick the picture himself. He thinks it’s supposed to represent an idyllic summer. Maybe the girl is Charlotte, hosing her self off to stay cool. Maybe it’s Katherine as a girl. He says that covers don’t have to be literal because we can create whatever we want them to be in our minds, the same way that we create the characters and setting of a story.

Why did Nan have to die? This was a question our book club covered and one of our members was brave enough to ask. We were more or less spot on. Chris says that the grown-ups needed to lose their matriarch so they could be grown-ups themselves. With her around, they could still act like kids and focus on themselves. After she was gone, they had to stop reliving adolescents.

Do you consciously write in such complex sentences? One of the audience members thought he used too many semicolons and long sentences and this was my one complaint of the book. Chris said that his books tend to be of two types; those in first person which have shorter sentences, reflecting the thought process of the narrator and those with longer sentences where he is able to weave humor, horror, and all other emotions into his sentences.

How did you learn so much about guns? The same way the lawyers in the book did: research and interviews. He never wanted to wake his reader from their fictional dream with something inauthentic.

Why weren’t you harder on gun control? When he wrote the first draft of Before You Know Kindness, it was 185,000 words long. The final is about 135,000 words. In edits, he took out about 90,000 and added 40,000. In trimming it down, he decided it was easier to deal with one issue (animal rights) and leave out any others (gun control) to focus the story. Yay for editing.

There were some questions about Chris’s other books which I haven’t read. The first was about what inspired him to write Trans-Sister Radio. The main premise of the story was based on something that happened to a friend of his. Her boyfriend decided to have a sex change and wanted to stay together. This friend kept hoping her boyfriend would change his mind but he didn’t and went through with the surgery. Afterword, they broke up but she confessed to Chris that he (now she) had been the love of her life but her mental attachments to gender wouldn’t allow her to stick with that person. Chris was inspired to write about if love could survive a sex change.

Nicole and Chris Bohjalian

Nicole and Chris Bohjalian

He was asked about his book The Buffalo Soldier. In this book, he wanted to explore grief. Many times a marriage crumbles when a child dies and in this story, the main couple tries to fill that hole with a foster child. He has members of his family who adopted Asian children  and are themselves white. Chris noticed in his home state of Vermont that his children were in all-White schools. What if the foster child adopted to fill the shoes of a lost child was a different race from the parents and the only non-White in a small community? Boom- instant story.

I was convinced to add The Sandcastle Girls to my reading list based on the discussion about it. Chris was asked if it was his Armenian heritage that inspired him to write the book and he answered with a resounding ‘yes.’ He said that his identity as an Armenian has become very important to him in his adult life. It made me think of my relative Tom Mooradian who I’ve posted about before. I asked Tom later if he knew Chris (because how big can the Armenian writers’ community be?) and he said yes (answer- small). He was asked about the title of the book, because it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of the Armenian Genocide, a focus of the book. Bohjalian explained that he chose the title because he was told that the book would be released in July and in his words, “July is where literary fiction goes to die.” It’s beach reads season and a story about the massacre of the Armenians might not count as ‘light and fun.’ He’d also seen that a lot of successful titles are three words long and begin with ‘The’ so it seemed a good place to start. The line ‘the sandcastle girls’ does appear in the book, so there is still a thin reference to text in the title.

Someone asked him if he ever thought about what happened to his characters after the book ended and he said that had only happened to him once. It was the book Skeletons at the Feast and it was the only time he’s ever considered a sequel. He compared the feeling to postpartum depression and said he missed his characters immensely. I can understand being very protective of your characters!

I was really excited that Chris spoke extensively about his writing process. He said that he writes one book at a time, only moving on to the next when he’s finished the final draft of the previous book. Before something is ‘done,’ he goes through tons of revisions and feels like he “publishes to stop re-writing.” Sometimes his characters will shock him in what they do and where the story around them goes. Chris self-identifies as a pantser: a writer who begins with no plan and writes by the ‘seat of his pants.’ (My term, not his.) Every fifty pages or so, he’ll print out his writing and edit it by hand with a fountain pen so that he’s forced to write slowly and think about the changes he’s making. Then he goes on to the next 50 pages, etc.

Mt. Abraham

Mt. Abraham

I loved what he said about his writing routine. He wakes up and starts writing by 6 AM in his living room, facing Mt. Abraham. He writes for six hours, ending at noon with 750-1000 words (a bit slower than NaNo speeds). After lunch, he goes on a bike ride. If you follow him on Instagram, you can see some of the beautiful sites he sees. Once he gets back, it’s research time until dinner, after which he updates his social media presence. I think it would be great to have a routine like this. But that requires a couple best sellers, so it’s still in the works.

As I always do, I asked Chris what advice he would give to me as a fledgling writer and he gave me three great pieces of advice.

  1. When you start writing for the day, re-write the last 100 words you had before. This gives you a good way to ramp into what you’re going to say. (He thinks he got this from Hemingway, so thank you Papa!)
  2. Leave a little gas in the tank. Don’t write until you’re exhausted and can barely keep your eyes open. Save some for the next day.
  3. Embrace synonyms. Find big words and use them (correctly). I’ll add that as in his writing, Chris has a great vocabulary when he speaks and it’s very obvious how much he loves words.

I encourage you to find him on Goodreads and see what he reads. He’s a very active member. I’ll say again how great of a person he is, giving Nicole and I more time than we deserved to talk to us about writing. I was very humbled and enjoyed talking to him.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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