Sunday, February 21, 2010

Books feature: Chris Bohjalian, novelist of empathy

Novelist Chris Bohjalian.

By Chauncey Mabe

Empathy pays.

In a confessional age, when the memoir has replaced the novel as the primary literary form, Chris Bohjalian is a bit of an anachronism.

In one bestselling novel after another, he wields that always rare literary gift, the ability to create believable characters far removed from his own background and experience.

Black children, transsexuals, homeless people, Germans and Jews alike in World War II, and women – most especially women – Bohjalian has written convincingly about them all.

“I love the idea you think I have empathy,” Bohjalian says, speaking by phone from a Denver stop on his current book tour. “I need to sit you down with my sisters-in-law, who think I’m a classic middle-aged guy who doesn’t get it.”

Tell it to Bohjhalian’s devoted following of mostly female readers. Accompanied by a flotilla of rave reviews, his latest, Secrets of Eden, debuted at No. 5 on The New York Times bestseller list Feb. 14. A representative assessment, from the Seattle Times: “These characters seem real, and what happens to them feels like it matters.”

No stranger to South Florida, the Vermont-based Bohjalian will be in the area this week for three appearances to talk about Secrets of Eden, a novel of domestic abuse, and also about his previous novel, the Holocaust-themed Skeletons at the Feast.

“I will never tire of talking about 'Skeletons at the Feast,'” Bohjalian says. “It will always be an important book to me because of the material. It’s an exploration of the complicity of an average German family in the Holocaust, and whenever I talk about it I’m reminded of the remarkable people I interviewed for this book.”

But Bohjalian says he expects to feel the same way about Secrets of Eden, a story of domestic abuse and murder in a small Vermont town. In its first 10 days on sale he had already heard from “55 or 60 women” who say it reminds them of their own lives.

“I know my books aren’t going to change the world,” Bohjalian says. “First and foremost I hope I’m writing a ripping good yarn. A 105,000-word op-ed would be pretty dull for most readers and it wouldn’t raise visibility for whatever issue I’m exploring.”

Born in New York, raised partly in Miami, Bohjalian got his big break in 1997 when Oprah Winfrey selected his fifth novel, Midwives, for her television book club. The story of a midwife embroiled in legal trouble after a patient dies, Midwives shocked many female readers when they discovered Bohjalian is a man.

“There were midwives and women who questioned whether I had the moral authority to write about the place of birth in our country because I’m a male and not a midwife,” Bohjalian says. “Since then, people are less likely to question my credentials. I’ve written so many books people start to trust me. They know I will respect their story and I will do my homework.”

And therein lies the secret to Bohjalian’s success – his willingness to conduct extensive research and interviews. As a result, he says, he has no trepidation about “diving” into subjects like the Holocaust, even though he’s not Jewish.

And yet, as a novelist, Bohjalian resists the temptation to “lean too heavily” on that research. Quoting fellow novelist Jay Parini, he says only about 10 percent of his research makes it into the final book. The remainder makes him more knowledgeable and allows him to deepen his characters.

Research can also alter the course of a Bohjalian book. Originally, he envisioned only two point-of-view characters for Secrets of Eden: Stephen Drew, the adulterous Baptist minister, and Heather Laurent, a New Age writer with a tragedy in her own childhood. All that changed when he had lunch with Lauren Bowerman, Vermont’s assistant attorney general.

Bohjalian recalls asking about the damage a gunshot does to the human body. Bowerman, eating a cheeseburger, said, “Oh, you want to know about blowback, how much of the bastard’s brains were up the gun barrel.”

“I love everything about that sentence,” Bohjalian says, “the alliteration, the bluntness. I knew at that moment the fictional state attorney’s voice had to be in the book, too. And all of a sudden the book had more plot, and a more linear drive. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done my research.”

Bohjalian, the son of an advertising executive, has often said he did not find his writing voice until he abandoned his own New York advertising career and moved to Vermont.

“I was trying to write hip, Jay McInerny-Bret Easton Ellis kind of novels,” he says. “When I got to Vermont I no longer felt pressure to be the coolest guy in the bar. I could write about things that really interested me: family, raising kids, marriages. I don’t want to give the impression I don’t love New York, but I wouldn’t have become a very good novelist if I’d stayed there."

Perhaps less known is the origin of Bohjalian’s love of reading, which was fostered in a public library in Hialeah. In 1973, Bohjalian’s family moved from Connecticut to Miami Lakes, where his new orthodontist fitted him with an appliance that “looked like the business end of a backhoe.”

“I had to wear this thing for four hours a day, and I certainly wasn’t going to wear it to my new school,” Bohjalian says. “So I’d come home from Palm Springs Junior High and then go to Hialeah Lakes Public Library with my headgear on. I have the best memories of reading in the library.

"Looking back, that’s were I fell in love with the novel instead of short stories or poems or the newspaper. It was that autumn, in the eighth grade.”

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

Chris Bohjalian appearances

A Literary Afternoon with Chris Bohjalian, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, at the Beifield Auditorium at the Harvey and Phyllis Sandler Center for Jewish Life Enhancement, 21050 95th Ave., Boca Raton. $20. For more, click here. Or call 561-852-3241.

Chris Bohjalian at Books & Books bookstore, 8 p.m. Wednesday. Free. 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. Click here for more information. Or call 305-442-408.

An Evening with Chris Bohjalian, sponsored by the JCC of the Palm Beaches, 7 p.m. Thursday at a private residence. $36. For information and directions, call Sharon Lowenstein at 561-676-4104, or click here.

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