Beyond the Bestseller List
Author Chris Bohjalian ’82 infuses his fiction with real-world detail.
By Melissa Pasanen
Chris Bohjalian has always worked hard to get the details right, and his upcoming novel, tentatively titled The Double Bind, is no exception. To be published early in 2007, the book focuses on homelessness, and endeavors, the author says, to make readers aware of the human face of poverty.
The book was born in December 2004, when Rita Markley, the executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington, Vt., showed Bohjalian some photographs that had been left in an apartment by a formerly homeless man named Bob “Soupy” Campbell. Bohjalian was impressed by the content and the quality of the images, which depicted well-known newsmakers and entertainers from the 1950s and ’60s. “We were all mystified as to how Campbell had gone from photographing luminaries to winding up at a homeless shelter in northern Vermont,” Bohjalian says.
“The reality,” Bohjalian adds in his author’s note to the book, “is that Campbell probably wound up homeless for any one of the myriad reasons that most transients wind up on the streets: Mental illness. Substance abuse. Bad luck.”
Bohjalian includes some of Campbell’s photos in The Double Bind, as testimony to the fact that Campbell and most homeless people “had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.”
For more information on The Double Bind, as well as Bohjalian’s blog, events information and discussion boards, go to www.chrisbohjalian.com.
Chris Bohjalian ’82, author of nine novels, including the number-one New York Times bestseller Midwives, did not receive much encouragement for his fiction writing while at Amherst.
Speaking recently to a group of high school students in Woodstock, Vt., Bohjalian recounted that during his sophomore year, “I wanted desperately to take a course with a distinguished visiting writer-in-residence. We had to submit a short story, and in January, I was summoned to the office of the writer, who said to me, ‘I have three words for you….’” He paused. “‘Be a banker.’”
The teenagers around the room smiled in recognition of a young man’s dashed hopes as Bohjalian continued his story. Despite this disappointment, he persevered—reading widely, reporting for both the Amherst Student and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and writing fiction on his own time. Plus, he added with a grin, “a little indignation is good for a novelist.” The ice now broken, Bohjalian dug into the topic for which he had been invited to Woodstock: the subject of his seventh novel, Trans-Sister Radio. The book is about a woman in love with a man who believes he was born the wrong gender. As is his practice, Bohjalian spent months in the field doing research—interviewing transgendered people, their families, friends, partners and healthcare providers. He sat by the bedside of transsexuals before and after sexual reassignment surgery; interviewed surgeons about the tiniest details of their work; and spent hours with patient-care advocates and nurses at a small hospital in Colorado where such surgeries keep a sleepy former mining town afloat. When it was published in 2000, USA Today called Trans-Sister Radio “inspired” and “impossible to put down”; Publishers Weekly said it made “a valuable contribution to a dialogue of social and political import”; and the Los Angeles Times praised Bohjalian for “great compassion and insight.”
Many successful authors would be reluctant to spend significant time talking about a book that is, by now, old news in the publishing world, but Bohjalian understands that his work helped illuminate an unusual perspective and that it came with a certain responsibility. He has heard numerous stories about devoted fans of his previous novels who picked up the book and dropped it like a hot coal upon discovering the topic. On the other hand, he has also received effusive thanks from readers for opening their eyes to a subject about which they knew little.
Standing in front of juniors and seniors, teachers and administrators gathered in the Woodstock Union High School library, Bohjalian said, “Novels are about the details, and details can make us uncomfortable. When faced with something with which we are not comfortable, we can do one of two things: recoil or reach out.” Regarding transsexuals, he continued, “There is no demographic in our country that is more marginalized. We view them as freakish. They make us uncomfortable. They force us to confront issues of gender.” He stopped and looked around the room. “I was every bit as uptight around transgendered people as anyone,” he admitted. “It’s not about sex, it’s about gender.”
During a break, Larson Hogstrom, a high school senior and leader of the peer counseling team that arranged for Bohjalian to speak, explained the invitation. “There is a basic fear people have of other people who are different,” Hogstrom said. “In each of Chris’s books, individuals are being marginalized for who they are. He really challenged the way I thought about myself and the way I thought about people around me.”
Over the years, Bohjalian has become an unofficial advocate for many of the groups he highlights in his novels. When he wrote about dowsers in Water Witches (1995), homeopaths in The Law of Similars (1998), foster children in The Buffalo Soldier (2002), and animal rights and gun control activists in Before You Know Kindness (2004), he gladly took on the responsibility of educating readers. He speaks reverently of watching a midwife “catch” a baby; he tells of buying a divining rod as a talisman and being gently chastised for wasting its water-finding powers; he shares his own conversion to vegetarianism inspired by a summer spent cleavering live lobsters like the main character in Before You Know Kindness.
His next novel, tentatively titled The Double Bind and due out in February 2007, weaves a story around a young social worker involved with the homeless and mentally ill. During his research phase, Bohjalian became a regular visitor at local homeless shelters, and he has decided to donate a portion of the book’s royalties to the National Coalition for the Homeless. He is glad that, once again, his writing will help dispel stereotypes, but he does bristle a little at being pigeonholed by reviewers. “I have been called an issues novelist, for better or worse,” Bohjalian told the students in Woodstock.
“My strength as a writer is that I’m a good journalist,” he acknowledged to the audience. “I am at my best when I’m researching a subject. I’m careful about authenticating details. I sweat the details.” Some of his literary idols, including John Updike and John Cheever, created fiction from the minutiae of their own social milieux, he explains later. “I could never do what Cheever did,” he admits. “I don’t know if I’m good enough. What I am good enough to do is spend time with animal rights activists, transsexuals or EMTs, and find out the idiosyncratic, riveting part of their stories.” His plots may be constructed around issues he finds compelling, but, he says, “I really do hope that the topics in the books are merely ways to get at the more universal concerns of the human heart, and what makes us function and malfunction as people.”
With Midwives, for example, Bohjalian says, he did not set out to write a novel about a midwife on trial for manslaughter. The story emerged from an interest and a voice, he explains. He happened to meet a midwife and became intrigued with her work. Right around the same time, a friend’s goddaughter became entranced with the word “vulva.” It occurred to Bohjalian that a midwife’s daughter might be the perfect character to speak the words that became the first lines of the novel: “I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke. It wasn’t a swear exactly, but I knew it had an edge to it that could stop adults cold in their tracks.”
Although Midwives does inform readers about the time-honored practice of childbirth, it’s as much about a woman grappling with her faith in herself and a daughter’s reaction to her mother’s experience. Similarly, in The Buffalo Soldier, Bohjalian broadens readers’ awareness of the challenges inherent in the foster care system, but the book is ultimately about a couple trying to survive an immense shared loss. And with Trans-Sister Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Bohjalian delves into the lives of four people…ostensibly to explore transsexuality but also image, loneliness, yearning and, most of all, the human capacity for change.”
Midwives is still the book for which Bohjalian is best known, thanks to its selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Shortly after the book was picked in 1998, the local newspaper ran a story about the author’s high-profile success. The reporter happened to visit Bohjalian’s home in Lincoln, Vt., when the boiler was being repaired. The net message of the article was “author can now afford new furnace,” Bohjalian explains with a chuckle. “My dad called up and said, ‘Chris, do you need money?’”
In any language, Bohjalian is a bestseller.
By the time Oprah Winfrey anointed Midwives, Bohjalian clarifies, he and his family were doing just fine. The book had already sold more than 100,000 copies; it had been selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best fiction works of the year, and Bohjalian had signed solid deals for his next two novels. Oprah was nevertheless a huge boon to his career. Soon after its selection, Midwives soared to the very top of both the New York Times and USA Today’s bestseller lists and subsequently sold more than two million copies in 18 languages. “I have more readers due to Oprah,” Bohjalian says, “but I didn’t change anything about the way I write….It hasn’t changed who I am.”
Bohjalian would rather talk about a different reason for appreciating Oprah. “No one has done more for reading and books in the last half-century than Oprah,” he says, firmly. “She has people reading Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.” Her populist approach has made some literary elitists uncomfortable, but in Bohjalian’s opinion authors should graciously accept all the help they can get. “Fiction is beleaguered,” Bohjalian says sadly. “People are not reading novels or short stories even as much as 20 years ago.”
The decline in reading is a topic Bohjalian raises at every opportunity: when speaking to the high school students in Woodstock; during a college commencement address after a joke about Britney Spears; or sitting in his cozy living room, scratching one of his family’s five cats behind the ears. He often cites a National Endowment for the Arts study that reported that in 2002 only 45 percent of Americans had read a novel or short story during the previous 12 months, down 10 percentage points from 1982. “That’s a net loss of 20 million readers since I graduated from Amherst,” he points out with some amazement.
Naturally, this is hard for Bohjalian because fiction readers are his bread and butter—but it is hard, too, because of his absolute devotion to books and reading. From the age of 13 when, headgear-burdened and new in town, he sought refuge in the public library, Bohjalian remembers the impact of reading The Exorcist and Jaws, as well as classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates. “There’s something very intimate about a book,” Bohjalian muses. “When you’re reading a book you’re in your own little world. You’re internalizing a story in a way no one else is.” Bohjalian forges deep and lasting bonds with books he has treasured, and he hopes others will, too. “Books immediately resonate with the moment you read them,” he continues. “Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep reminds me of the snack bar at Smith College and the smell of the onions on the hamburgers.”
A wall of Bohjalian’s office in the 19th-century village home he shares with his wife, photographer Victoria Blewer (Smith College ’82), and their 12-year-old daughter is neatly and completely lined with books, which also overflow onto shelves suspended from the kitchen ceiling. He keeps a meticulous reading journal, and he is constantly recommending books. Hang out with Bohjalian for a while and you will amass a diverse reading list, including favorites like Little Children by Tom Perrotta, I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. He is on a mission. “I’m an artist in an antiquated medium. I feel a responsibility,” he says.
And when Chris Bohjalian assumes responsibility he takes it very seriously. “I don’t think there’s anything he’s ever done halfway,” says longtime friend Adam Turteltaub ’83. Bohjalian throws himself fully into every role, whether as an author; as husband, father or friend; or as one of the 1,200 residents of the rural Vermont town where he and his wife have lived since 1986. He now presides as Sunday school superintendent at his neighborhood church, and he played a key part in rebuilding the town library after it was decimated by a flood. “Some people come to a community and they don’t want to have anything to do with it,” says town librarian Linda Norton, “but Chris came and jumped in with both feet.”
Bohjalian approached his goal of becoming a writer with similar dedication and determination. After graduation, Blewer and Bohjalian moved to New York City, where he earned a living in advertising and she worked as a bond trader while also working on her photography. Bohjalian continued to churn out stories, and “had amassed 250 rejection slips by the time I was 24,” he notes cheerfully. He finally realized that “maybe I should write something that people want to read,” and shifted his sights from the New Yorker to Cosmopolitan, to which he sold his first piece of fiction in 1984. He was not particularly proud of the story—about a female supermodel married to an arbitrager—but he was very proud of finally being published.
Two years later, the couple fled the city after a cabnapping from which they escaped by jumping out of the vehicle into the middle of a drug bust. Searching for peace and quiet and somewhere to pursue their creative dreams, they hopped a $19 People’s Express flight to Burlington, Vt., and eventually came upon Lincoln, which Bohjalian describes as “an iconic New England town where everyone knows everyone.”
When the couple first moved to the village 45 minutes south of Burlington, Bohjalian recalls, the locals were skeptical: “We were interesting wildlife to them.” Twenty years later, Bohjalian and Blewer have become treasured community members, and the city slicker can even find his septic tank without assistance, he notes wryly. Aside from this new skill, the townspeople of Lincoln vouch for the fact that international fame and fortune have not altered the friendly, earnest man who favors Converse lowtops, cannot turn away a stray cat and frequently pokes fun at himself. Bohjalian has lost some hair and did finally buy a new furnace, but he still lives in the same comfortable, modest home in the center of town and strolls down to the general store to catch up on village gossip, press new Sunday school teachers into service or drum up support for a local senior housing project with which he is involved.
Bohjalian is devoted to his daughter and meets her at the school bus most days to drive the aspiring actress to a variety of performing arts classes and rehearsals. When she was into horseback riding, he took it up too; now that she’s fallen in love with musical theater, he memorizes show lyrics and pitches in to help build sets. He serves on numerous regional boards and often promotes local good works through his weekly columns for the Burlington Free Press, the state’s largest newspaper. “He’s been superheroic in his generosity,” says his former Free Press editor and friend, Stephen Kiernan. “He took the power and the connections that came with his success and gave it away. He immediately laid out the coattails to bring along as many people as he could…and he stayed himself.”
Success may not have changed him, but Bohjalian acknowledges that Lincoln has. Without Lincoln, he would probably not have become close friends with a young man who hugs with abandon, is a wicked mimic, and happens to have Down syndrome; or with a retired farmer who taught him that cows can be difficult, but no worse than some people. Bohjalian would definitely not have bought a house that shares a driveway with the village church, prompting a neighbor to say, “Don’t have much of an excuse not to go to church now, do you?”—and so he probably would not have become a church deacon. Nor would he have been among the crowd that showed up the day after the New Haven River flooded the beloved town library to help pick through the wreckage, devastated but united in an effort to save the books.
The place and the people have enriched Bohjalian’s creative work as well as his life. “I love New York, but I also know I wouldn’t have found an authentic voice had I remained there,” Bohjalian says. “If you don’t live in a hamlet this small, it’s impossible to understand the intimacy you have with your neighbors. You’re not anonymous in a small town. When people are sick and dying you know. When they’re celebrating something happy you know. The kind of stuff that works in a novel is in your face in a small town. People’s bruises are every bit as apparent as their smiles.”
In any language, Bohjalian is a bestseller.
Vermont has helped the author create a solid sense of place for many of his novels, and the settings are not all airbrushed. In The Buffalo Soldier a lonely black foster child struggles to feel at home in a tiny homogenous village. In Trans-Sister Radio, a small-town schoolteacher wrestles with her own and her neighbors’ reaction to her transgendered lover. Bohjalian portrays Lincoln only loosely in his fiction, but in his popular newspaper column the town is openly celebrated for the quiet devotion of a retiring mailman, the impact of an empathetic minister and the rich human connections that weave together a small community. Lincoln, Bohjalian adds, has helped him keep his feet on the ground. “My neighbors keep me humble,” he says with a smile.
Stanley Rabinowitz, the Henry Steele Commager Professor and Professor of Russian at Amherst, recalls that Bohjalian has always been “open to the world, to others, to human experience.” He has made a living of listening to other people’s stories, and he is unfailingly polite and attentive. His Random House editor of 10 years, Shaye Areheart, not only waxes poetic regarding his storytelling skills (as any good editor would); she can’t say enough about his other qualities. “He’s a great writer and a great human being,” she says. She wishes, she adds, that more authors were like him. His many female fans, in turn, seem to wish more men were like him. “You seem to really understand women and how they feel/act,” wrote one in an online book discussion group. “Can I clone you?” (Thank goodness his wife confides that in private “he can be brutally sarcastic.”)
The bottom line, Areheart says, is that Bohjalian “never takes readers for granted and really cares deeply about people’s reading experiences.” If any author can single-handedly lure every one of the 20 million lost readers back into the reading fold, Bohjalian may be the one to do it, thanks to his dedication to the cause and to what The New York Times called his eminently readable stories of “ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.”—He is a tireless advocate for the power of the written word. “I love books that keep me turning the pages,” he says simply, “and I love to give readers the pleasure of turning the pages and losing themselves in the story.”
Melissa Pasanen is a freelance journalist based in South Burlington, Vermont.