Thursday, February 14, 2008

Author Spotlight: Chris Bohjalian

Posted by Lynne Griffin

When I contacted Chris Bohjalian to ask if he would be part of our Author Spotlight series, I admit I expected the New York Times bestselling and greatly revered author of the books, Midwives, Buffalo Soldier, The Double Bind and the soon-to-be released Skeletons at the Feast, to be too busy to respond, never mind accept the invitation to be interviewed. His first response to me was “Call me Chris, Mr. Bohjalian is too formal.” Even our courteous email exchange, couldn’t have prepared me for the generous and gracious interview that was to follow. Chris Bohjalian is a marvelous example of a talented, successful writer and he's an extremely charitable man.

Lynne Griffin: Can you give our readers a glimpse inside your literary life?
Chris Bohjalian: I always knew that I wanted to be a novelist. I’ve been a writer since I was six years old. My dad still has my early pages tucked away and at times threatens to bring them out and show the world.

My day job, until age thirty, was in advertising. I’d get up at five and write until seven. And I wrote Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Saturdays. I think that’s why I still get up and begin writing at five. It’s my most productive time of day.

Now I write between 5 and 10 AM. From 1 to 2, I work on publicity. Writers today must spend a good deal of time marketing their books. There’s always one more email, or book group to connect with, always one more reader. Or interview. (He laughs)

Connecting to readers is deeply satisfying. We all know that today the novel is beleaguered. Years ago, Evelyn Waugh and Eudora Welty didn’t worry about marketing their work. With all the choices people have for ways to spend their time, I’m happy to connect with them when they choose to read my work.

Back to my typical day; after I do some marketing, I ride my bike or workout, and then it’s time to care for my daughter.

LG: How have you managed to maintain your determination to live a writer’s life?
CB: An aspiring author needs a thick skin. I’d amassed two hundred and fifty rejection slips, before I sold a novel. You must write because you love it.

I’ve been writing full time for 16 years. I still begin work at 5 am. And I still must be excited by what I’m working on. If I don’t love it, my readers won’t love it.

My papers are archived at Amherst College. There are over 750 pages or parts of 4 novels cataloged there. These novels weren’t working. And if a novel isn’t working—and it shouldn’t happen—the writer must let it go. This is partly being a good writer and partly being a good entrepreneur.

When an idea simply isn’t working, it’s time to move on. I have two completely finished novels that will never ever be published. They represent a detour worth going after, but not worthy of being published. I don’t want to let my readers down. These novels would diminish what my readers think of me.

LG: What’s harder for you—first draft or revision?
CB: Gabriel Garcia Marquez says the only reason writers publish is to stop writing. I edit right up to the last minute. I finish when I’m asked to please be finished. And still I always find something about the published book that I would change.

I start writing each novel with great hope. There are joys in the first draft, it’s a journey of discovery. I love it when characters take me by the hand and lead me into the dark of the story. Sometimes I know where a scene is going, but not what the character will say and do, you know, the cause and effect of it. Revision is the craft work. Though there is a certain amount of artistry there.

LG: How long does it take you to write a first draft?
CB: First drafts take me about 9-14 months. Once I have a first draft, then I can start making decisions. My shortest drafts were for Midwives, The Double Bind and Skeletons at the Feast. Before You Know Kindness and Buffalo Soldiers took much longer.

I keep a diary of words written each day. I do this for encouragement purposes. But for time management, as well. This way, when I’m going on book tour or doing a lot of book groups, I can gage where I’ll be in the process of writing and submitting a novel.

LG: What’s most important to you in your agent relationship?
CB: What I love about my agent is that she gets my work. She doesn’t counsel me to be something I’m not. A good agent is not simply smart or simply well connected. He or she appreciates what you do, and doesn’t want to mold you into something more marketable.

LG: Does the self-doubt ever go away?
CB: I’m always assailed by doubt. But my wife is usually the one to remind me that I doubt myself at some point with every book. She reminds me to have faith in the fact that I’ve done it before.

LG: What’s the best place to put your publicity efforts?
CB: My instinct is that there isn’t one place. I’m grateful beyond words when bookstores get behind my work. Interviews, connecting to readers, participating in book groups, they’re all important. I keep coming back to booksellers and stores, though. Hand selling a book is critical.

LG: Do you have early readers? Have you ever worked with a writers’ group?
CB: I’ve never been part of a writers’ group. I was fortunate to have a really good editor, early in my career, Mike Lowenthal. For the past thirteen years, my current editor has given me wonderful feedback. And my wife, Victoria Blewer, is a spectacular early reader.

LG: Which of your books is your favorite?
CB: My favorite book by far is Skeletons at the Feast. It’s a book that’s been gestating since high school. And then came back to me years ago, when I was first shown a beautiful diary from the period. For me it was writing about a new setting, and it’s the first book I’ve written, not set in the present. All of that was challenging and wonderful for me. It’s a very dark story, wrenching really, but still it was extremely satisfying to write.

LG: You maintain a terrific website, write a column for the Burlington Free Press and have books hitting the shelves 1-3 years apart. How do you do it?
CB: I’m a bit right brain, a bit left brain. If you’re going to be connected to readers in 21st century, you’ve got to have enormous passion, commitment, and organization. You need a rapier focus on text.

Joyce Carol Oates came to the Burlington Book Festival last year. She said she used to write on a computer then went back to her typewriter because she found the Internet too distracting.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by it, and email. That’s why I dedicate separate writing time and time for publicity.

LG: Some writers carry off one great book, maybe two. What is your secret to hitting the mark time and time again?
CB: Some of my books have done better than others both from an acclaim vantage point and among readers. It seems that those that have done the best are the ones where I was willing to go into the belly of the beast for the story. And I do work hard on editing my drafts. I’m into quality control; I do sweat the commas. And finally, I take risks with my work. Twenty-first century readers love drama. I respect my readers.

Please join me in thanking Chris for sharing his writing life with us. And check out his calender of events, as he tours for the paperback release of The Double Bind. Skeletons at the Feast, due out in May, is available for pre-order.


17 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

Thank you for sharing your process with us, Chris. I admire your ability to compartmentalize your writing life. But more, I'm touched by your dedication to writing the best you can even when it means setting aside a project. You're an inspiration.

Amy

PS- Let's not forget what a fantastic publisher you have -- stellar.

Anonymous said...

I love Chris Bohjalian's books. Thanks for the interview. I'm heading over to amazon right now to pre-order Skeletons of the Feast.

Lisa said...

This is a wonderful interview with some great insights. I've got a beautiful signed first edition of THE DOUBLE BIND from The Odyssey First Edition Book Club that I'll be tackling next. Thanks Lynne and Chris!

Eileen said...

Great interview from one of my favorite writers. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Larramie said...

My favorite interview thus far as Chris and his right-brain, left-brain insights appear to put writing, marketing, publishing and everyday life into a balanced mode. Thank you both.

The Writers' Group said...

Yes, Amy, a wonderful publisher indeed.

Thanks, anonymous, I'm sure Chris will be pleased you pre-ordered Skeletons at the Feast.

Lisa, I'm envious of your first edition copy of The Double Bind. I love that book and still find I think about that ending!!

You're welcome, Eileen. Trust me, it was my pleasure to do the interview.

Larramie, when Chris talked about his left-brain, right-brain approach to living a writing life, I had to smile. I admit to sharing a few of his writing particulars. If these habits serve me half as well as they seem to serve Chris, I will be thrilled!

Lynne

kristenspina said...

I LOVE this series--thank you, thank you, thank you. This particular piece was fascinating, I've long been a fan of Chris Bohjalian, but I never knew much about him. I have two more books to add to my pile. I'm curious now about The Double Bind and definitely must have Skeletons at the Feast.

Carleen Brice said...

This was really illuminating about the biz! Thanks!

Ello said...

I am breathing hard reading this! So exciting to get a glimpse into the life of a writer I admire so much! Thanks so much for the interview! ANd I just wanted to say that Chris, you don't need to say you respect your readers! It shows in your every word!

Thank you thank you.

The Writers' Group said...

Kristenspina,
I'm so glad you love the series. Isn't it enlightening to take a peek inside another writer's life?

Carleen,
It's so important to understand the biz. So many nuances about it can't be found in a book.

Ello,
I agree Chris respects his readers and it flows through his work. Thanks, for sharing your feedback.

Lynne

Therese said...

Wonderful interview, and like you, Lynne, I share many of Chris's "writing particulars."

Reading about his long-running success is both inspiring and affirming. Thank you both!

Lisa said...

Just had to come back to say that I read THE DOUBLE BIND and I'm still thinking about what an amazing double premise the story followed. The interesting thing is that as the story began to unfold, I wasn't sure whether I should suspend my disbelief about the Buchanan's because it was a part of the story or because the character wanted me to, but I did. This was a wonderful read and it kept me captivated from the start.

kristenspina said...

I'm coming back all these months later to say I just now finished The Double Bind. Wow. I loved it.

Well-done. Masterful storytelling. Because, yes, the writing is wonderful, but to my mind, it is the story itself that carries this book.

Thanks again for the great interview, too.

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Bingosbobet'm coming back all these months later to say I just now finished The Double Bind. Wow. I loved it.

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Yeah. Joining...

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