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.