10 Questions with Award-Winning, Bestselling Novelist Chris Bohjalian

by Pamme Boutselis

Bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian

Award-winning novelist Chris Bohjalian is the author of fifteen books, including The New York Times bestsellers, “The Night Strangers,” “Secrets of Eden,” “Skeletons at the Feast,” “The Double Bind,” “Before You Know Kindness,” “Midwives” and his latest book, “The Sandcastle Girls.”

Bohjalian has won the New England Society Book Award in 2012 for “The Night Strangers,” the New England Book Award in 2002 and the Anahid Literary Award in 2000. Many readers were first introduced to his work through “Midwives,” an Oprah Book Club selection, a “Publisher’s Weekly” Best Book, a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick and a number one-ranked New York Times bestseller. He is a former visiting faculty member at SNHU.

“The Sandcastle Girls” published in July 2012 to widespread enthusiasm, debuting at #7 on The New York Times bestseller list. Bohjalian said that this is the most important book he will ever write.

You refer to “The Sandcastle Girls” as a book that was in gestation your entire life. What was the process like when you finally started to write?
It was invigorating. I know how important the subject is. And I felt energized that after so many years of thinking about the Armenian Genocide, I finally understand how I wanted to tell the story.

Has it been cathartic for you to finally get the story out?
No, it wasn’t cathartic. But it was meaningful. It mattered to me and, unlike many of my other books, it felt like I was doing something significant.

While the book had its genesis in your own family’s history, where did the characters come from?
I made most of them up. A few, however, had historical models. As I explained in the Author’s Note, Ryan Donald Martin was based on Jesse B. Jackson. Ulrich Lange was based on Walter Rossler. In addition, the two German engineers were inspired by the German nurse, Armen Wegner.

Did you know what their stories might be from the start and how their lives would intersect?
No. I never know where my books are going. I think that’s why writing is such fun for me. I have no outline. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story.

Of course, that might also explain why my books go through so very, very many drafts.

You’re known for stopping by bookstores and interacting with the booksellers, which creates tremendous appreciation for you and loyalty to your books. Have you always done that?
Yes. It wasn’t all that long ago that my books sold briskly. . .but only among people with my last name. I try never to lose sight of that reality.

It is said that in order to write, one must love to read. How important were books to you in your youth and how did they influence your choice to become a writer?
I can’t imagine a novelist who doesn’t love to read. It’s inconceivable to me. When I was 13, my family moved from a suburb of Manhattan to Miami, Fla., and we moved there the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I started school the following Tuesday, and then visited 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 the device four hours a day. I certainly wasn’t going to wear it to school, given that immortality as the biggest geek at Palm Springs Junior High wasn’t chief among my aspirations. So I waited until school was out, and then my headgear and I went to the public library … where I read.

That year I discovered Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.” And Peter Benchley’s “Jaws.” But “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be the story that fueled my desire to be a novelist. It would be the book that would teach me that a narrator in a first-person novel is as made-up as the fictional constructs around him or her. It would be among the tales that would drive home for me the importance of linear momentum in a plot.

What do you know now with regard to writing that you wish you had known back when you started out?
I wish I had done my homework and research before starting a project. I wish I had interviewed the right people. Some of my earlier books are terrible because, pure and simple, I did not roll up my sleeves and take the time to learn how things work.

What’s the toughest part for you in creating a new book or does it change book to book?
It changes book to book. But I always hate reviewing the copy-edited manuscript. THAT is an innermost ring of Dante’s Inferno.

For you, what have the most beneficial things about being a writer been?
I love writing. The best thing? I love what I do for a living.

What are the best and worst parts of a book tour?
The best parts? Meeting readers. Room service at 11:30 at night when you’ve just made a bestseller list or gotten a really terrific review. There are no “worst” parts. I am so lucky that I GET to go on book tours.

When you want to unwind with a good book, what genre are you most apt to choose?
Literary or historical fiction.

Advice from Chris Bohjalian: