The Write Stuff

Chris Bohjalian turns the events of ordinary life into extraordinary literature

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

To get an idea of author Chris Bohjalian’s passion for writing, one only needs to hear that he wrote his first three novels while he was employed full time at advertising agencies. During those years, he says, he rose every morning at 5 o’clock and wrote until 7, and wrote Monday and Tuesday nights and most of Saturday and Sunday.

All his answers to questions are detailed and specific like that. “I am frighteningly obsessive-compulsive - unattractively obsessive-compulsive,” says Bohjalian with a bit of a grin in his voice, adding that his wife, the photographer Victoria Blewer, “is very patient.”

Obsessive? Probably. Savvy? For sure. A really nice guy? Definitely. In an interview - and he’s had to endure hundreds, maybe thousands of them - he is kind to explain details when the interviewer needs them. His humor is pithy and funny and often self-deprecating, and he’s quite forthcoming about his life for someone whose name has been out there long enough and far enough to have learned that fame has its downside.

Bohjalian (for those who’ve wondered how to pronounce it, it’s boh-JAIL-ean), is the author of nine novels, including Midwives, his fifth, which was on the best seller list in Chicago when it was discovered in a Borders store window there by Oprah Winfrey. After Winfrey made it one of her Book Club’s featured novels, it took America by storm, rising to number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. Through it all, Bohjalian seems to have kept his sense of self intact and his enthusiasm uncorked.

Over the years, his work has been translated into 18 languages, been published in 21 countries and twice become movies (Midwives and Past the Bleachers). Two others, The Law of Similars and Water Witches, are in development for films, and a stage play by Dana Yetton based on Midwives is currently touring. Since 1988, he has written a column for The Burlington Free Press, first in “Business Monday,” and starting in 1992, a Sunday column called “Idyll Banter.”

Bohjalian is one of those lucky people who always knew what they wanted to do in life. “I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve been able to write,” he says. “When I was 7 and 8 years old, I was writing one- and two-page short stories.”

A native of White Plains, N.Y., Bohjalian graduated from Amherst College in 1982. He met Blewer - then a student at Smith - at a college mixer.

A “cab-napping” experience on March 8, 1986, was the impetus for the couple, married by then, to consider moving away from New York City, where Bohjalian was working for the J. Walter Thompson agency, “because when you graduate from college, a publisher doesn’t say, ‘You look like a writer with promise; go write a novel. Here’s a pile of money.’”

On that fateful March evening, Bohjalian and Victoria were leaving a party in Greenwich Village. “As anybody who watched Sex & the City knows,” he says, “New York cab drivers hate to go to the burbs. He was pulled over for a speeding ticket on the FDR Drive, and I said, ‘Excuse me, sir, why don’t you turn off your meter while you’re doing your ticket?’”

After what Bohjalian calls “a 45-minute, nightmarish ride - he ran all the stop lights and stop signs,” the cabbie finally dropped them in a derelict neighborhood where the police were about to raid a crack house. They were instructed to hit the ground for their own protection.

“So there we were, my wife in a little suede blazer, me in a navy blue blazer, and my wife said, ‘Why do we live here?’” The next day, he says, the New York Times travel section had an article on the Independent Republic of Burlington, Vermont, and the Green Mountain Chew Chew. “We decided to travel up here and see what it was all about.” On July 14, 1986, he arrived in Vermont, and on Oct. 30, they moved from their Brooklyn co-op into an 1898 Victorian home in Lincoln, where they still live with their 12-year-old daughter, Grace Experience,.

Bohjalian worked at the advertising agency owned by the late Barbara Sandage before becoming friends with Yoram Samets and Linda Kelliher, the founders of Kelliher Samets Volk, where he worked until 1992, when he retired to write full time.

At the Free Press 15 years ago, Bohjalian met Stephen Kiernan, a journalist and author of a nonfiction book called The Most Important Time in Your Life, soon to be published by St. Martin’s Press. Kiernan, who has since left the newspaper to pursue his writing career, was business editor, and Bohjalian was writing the “Business Sense” column for “Business Monday.”

“I can tell you that Chris is extremely skilled in the business of writing, quite apart from being an excellent writer who has this incredible gift for coming up with stories that hook you and become vivid in your imagination,” says Kiernan, whose friendship with Bohjalian has grown over the years. “Part of Chris’ success is his personality and part is his business acumen.

“If you’ve ever seen Chris on a book tour working a room, he’s masterful: he’s funny, self-effacing, touching. He’s very good at knowing who his readers are, and his approach has been one of accessibility. He makes himself available by speaker phone to about 50 book groups a year and maintains correspondence with readers.”

Kiernan credits Bohjalian with having helped him find “an excellent, first-rate agent, and a lot of the good opportunities I have now stand from his connecting me to a good agent. A lot of people like me are the beneficiaries of his generosity.”

He’s persistent, too. Bohjalian says he amassed more than 250 rejections before he sold his first short story - to Cosmopolitan - at age 24.

Persistence pays off when books require copious research, as have many of Bohjalian’s. “I do a lot of research into professions,” he says. “I imagine a lot of writers begin on the inside and work out; I work from the outside in.”

He uses The Buffalo Soldier, the story of a couple who take in a foster child two years after their twin daughters die in a flash flood, as an example. “In that book, I was principally writing about how women and men grieve differently,” he says. “I began with professions diametrically opposed in emotional depth: a state trooper as the male, who has to be buttoned-up and under control at all times; and the opposite is his wife, a woman who runs an animal shelter, taking in strays, who loves all creatures great and small and doesn’t see people at their worst.”

Each of Bohjalian’s books has that very human core that unfolds in surprising ways in the context of conflict. Professions have been central to many of them: the trooper in The Buffalo Soldier; the midwife in Midwives; the homeopath in The Law of Similars; the dowser in Water Witches. His ideas come from people and events he encounters. “My characters are usually passionate about something, but more than that, I hope they are preternaturally ordinary,” he says.

Before You Know Kindness, which just came out in paperback, is about two families: “one living in northern New England, who are deer hunters, and the other living in Manhattan and the dad is an animal rights activist for a fictional version of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).” Himself a vegetarian, Bohjalian says that this book, like his others, is less about animal rights and hunting and more about family.

Bohjalian seems to have the kind of heart many of his characters have. “I’m really lucky,” he says. “My third movie goes into production this autumn. Not a lot of us can make a living solely writing books; most of us need to teach or need to do other things.”

Luck is certainly what brought Oprah Winfrey his way. It was October 1998. Bohjalian had just returned, exhausted, from a 15-city tour. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m not going anywhere for a long, long time.’ This was my first really long, hard book tour - I now do them in my sleep - but doing 15 cities in 18 days was new to me.”

While he was at the gym, Victoria took a call “from someone who said he was part of an obscure book festival in Lake Forest, Ill., and is this the home of Chris Bohjalian? She said I would call him back, but he said, ‘No, we’ll call back, my boss wants to talk him.’”

When Bohjalian returned, Victoria told him, “You’re about to get a call from an obscure festival in Lake Forest. Be polite.”

“I said, ‘I’m always polite.’ She said, ‘No, you’re exhausted.’

“We had a couple of guys who were seeing if they could milk one more year out of our furnace from the Eisenhower administration. We had four cats, no doubt leaving hairballs on the table. The phone rang. It was a woman saying she was Oprah Winfrey. I said, ‘OK, who is this really?’ and she laughed. Someone with her laughed. I began to think it really was Oprah.”

When Winfrey mentioned her Book Club, Bohjalian still didn’t realize she was choosing one of his books to feature. “I thought she wanted me to be on a committee for picking books,” he says with a laugh. “She laughed and said, ‘There is no committee. I’m the committee.’”

Word traveled fast. A reporter writing a wire service story about him asked if he was a millionaire. “I refused to talk about money and books and numbers that were printed about me. This person said, ‘OK, can you afford a new furnace?’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I have to tell you, I could afford a new furnace before this phone call, trust me.’

“The headline on that article in Florida, where my father lives, said, “Vermont author finally can afford furnace.’ My father called me and said, ‘Do you need money?’ ”

He laughs now, as he recalls those days. “Unlike some novelists, I have never felt quite as conflicted on being part of Oprah’s book club,” he says. “My opinion is that nobody has ever been as good for reading. That is a huge, cultural gift to reading.”

These days, Bohjalian still rises at 5 a.m. and writes until around 10 or 10:30. “Then I do whatever research the books demand, until 1 or 1:30, then I either go to the gym or on a bike ride or cross-country skiing. My daughter finishes school at 3, and I take her wherever she needs to go and become Chauffeur Dad.”

He spends a fair amount of time traveling, doing book-signings and appearances and encouraging reading. He quotes research from a National Endowment for the Arts study that showed “an alarming decline” in reading of fiction among Americans. “Something is happening to fiction that didn’t happen when we got silent films, talking films, radio, television or VHS cassettes,” he says.

“Obviously, there are more things competing for our time, but the big thing is the Internet and the time we spend on the Web and the time we spend e-mailing. I think that has taken a huge chunk out of our leisure time.

“In any case,” he continues, “it’s now been roughly three decades since I starting writing, and I still can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.” •

Photo Credit: Victoria Blewer

Originally published in September 2005 Business People-Vermont