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Best-selling author, Chris Bohjalian, has made a reputation of being unpredictable. He has written novels about holistic medicine, tran-sexuality, and water dowsers. And his most acclaimed novel is centered on the trial of a midwife. In his latest book, Bohjalian tells a ghost story inspired by a door in his basement and Sully Sullenberger’s successful ditching of an Airbus in the Hudson River. Set in rural New Hampshire, it features ghosts, herbalists who may or may not be witches, and a family thrust into a realm where only uncertainty is normal. Chris Bohjalian joins guest host, Steve Roberts, to talk about defying expectations and the art of fiction.
- Chris Bohjalian author of fourteen novels, including "Skeletons at the Feast," "The Double Bind," "Midwives" and "Secrets of Eden."
Chris Bohjalian said he never wants to write the same book twice. The bestselling author of “Midwives” has written about the accidental shooting of an animal rights activist, interracial adoption, and a love story set in Poland in World War II. His latest novel takes on two new subjects – post traumatic stress disorder and herbalism. The book, his first ghost story, is titled “The Night Strangers.”
Why Do We Love Ghost Stories?
As a child, Bohjalian had a paperback of Edgar Allen Poe’s collected works that he loved. He recently pulled it down from his bookcase and was delighted to find that he had written big stars and underlines throughout “The Cask of Amontillado.” “To a certain extent, the ghost story plums that great subterranean part of our minds, our unconscious,” Bohjalian said. He also thinks ghost stories can be strangely comforting in that they give us the idea that when the coffin closes, “the show isn’t necessarily over.”
Ideas for Fiction Rooted in Reality
Much of the scariest action in “The Night Strangers” takes place in one of the all-time scariest archetypal places of the American childhood – the basement. (Closets and under-the-bed are obvious runners-up). A commercial airline pilot who had a disastrous water ditching that resulted in the death of three-quarters of his passengers finds a door in his basement that is nailed shut. Bohjalian imagined what might have happened if Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” flight had not had the same successful outcome, and what kind of lasting psychological scars a traumatic event would have had on such a good man. The idea for the door came from a real door in Bohjalian’s own old Victorian house that was nailed shut when he moved in. It took him 3 years to get up the courage to pry it open, only to find nothing at all behind it.
Dead Ends and Ways Forward in the Writing Process
At times, Bohjalian has had the experience of starting to write a book and realizing that someone else has already written a similar – and better – one. “Or, and Ann Patchett talked about this movingly once in a New York Times essay, you get halfway through a book and you realize I’m not capable of writing this book, I’m not good enough, this isn’t the great American novel,” Bohjalian said of his writing process. If that’s the case, he gets to the end of a first draft and hopes there is a way to salvage the work in subsequent drafts.
Making a Choice
Bohjalian’s career path to becoming a writer began in the advertising business. He wrote every day before work, between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., and a few nights a week. He wrote his first three novels that way. It was when his daughter was born that he realized he could no longer juggle being a novelist, an ad guy, and a dad. “I was really fortunate because as soon as I jumped off this cliff, Hallmark suddenly parachuted into my life and made a movie out of my third novel “Past the Bleachers.” Not a very good book, but a really delightful made for TV movie,” Bohjalian said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm while she's away on vacation. She'll be back on Monday. Chris Bohjalian says he never wants to write the same book twice and it appears he's succeeding at that goal. The bestselling author of "Midwives" has written about the accidental shooting of animal rights activist, interracial adoption and a love story set in World War II, Poland.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSHis latest novel takes on two new subjects, post traumatic stress disorder and herbalism. The book, his first ghost story is titled "The Night Strangers" and author Chris Bohjalian joins me from WBEC in Chicago. Chris, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. CHRIS BOHJALIANThanks for having me on, Steve.
ROBERTSI know you have a lot of fans out there who've read "Midwives" and some of Chris's other books "Secrets of Eden," so give us a call, this is a chance to talk to him about this book, the new one, as well as some of his other works, 1-800-433-8850 is our number. Drshow@wamu.org is our e-mail address and, of course, you can do Facebook, Twitter and carrier pigeon, however you want to communicate with us. Chris, why a ghost story?
BOHJALIANOh, and, you know, I think, all of us have a certain affection for ghost stories. The way they get the adrenaline pumping, the way they get the endorphins going and certainly I have an affection for ghost stories. One of the only books, from my childhood, I still own is a 45 cent Washington Square paperback of Edgar Allan Poe's collected works.
BOHJALIANI actually pulled it down from a bookcase about two months ago and I was delighted to find two things. First of all, I had written big stars and underlines all over "The Cask of Amontillado" and my penmanship was every bit as bad in third and fourth grade as my mother always said it was.
ROBERTSAnd what is it about ghost stories, you say, it gets the endorphins going? You think, is it -- is the appeal. You write, kind of, darkly that it -- a lot of it has to do with the fear of death and calling up those very deep and dark feelings we all have on some level.
BOHJALIANI think that's absolutely right. I think, that's correct, Steve. To a certain extent, the ghost story plums that great subterranean part of our minds, our unconscious. It plums our fears of death, and at the same time, ghost stories, I think, strangely fan our hope that when the casket is shut or when the body goes into the crematorium, the show isn't necessarily over.
BOHJALIANFor a book like "The Night Strangers," inadvertently, I think I tap into that because so much of the book is set underground, literally, underground when this commercial airline pilot who's had this disastrous water ditching with three-quarters of his passengers dying, finds a door in his basement that's nailed shut. And by design, all of those scenes, I hope, are vaguely reminiscent of the idea of opening a crypt or opening a mausoleum.
ROBERTSYou say that, in one of the interviews that I read, that I creeped myself out, when you wrote this book. Is that how you want readers to read it? Do you want them to be creeped out?
BOHJALIANI've got a really creepy basement. Now, first of all, I need to tell you that I am the world's most inept handy person. What my wife and I were doing buying this 1898 Victorian is unfathomable to me, but...
ROBERTSIn rural Vermont.
BOHJALIAN...in rural Vermont, yeah. We moved there from Brooklyn. But about three days after we moved into the house, I was carrying a load of laundry downstairs and I noticed, in our basement, this door. I'd never noticed it before because I was so fixated on the mud floor basement. So I put down the laundry and go to the door and it's nailed shut, literally nailed shut.
BOHJALIANI -- to this day, I presume it was just a coal shoot. But it would never the less be three years before I would finally man up and get the crow bar and the axe and the pliers and pull the nut -- the door open. And behind it I found nothing, absolutely nothing. Behind that door were these thick beams walling up the dirt and the foundation and...
ROBERTSNot even one or two bones? Not a shroud, no, nothing?
BOHJALIANNo, no, I'm...
ROBERTSWhat a disappointment.
BOHJALIANWell, you know, and I'm happy to reporter also, that when I went upstairs, the dining room walls had not started to bleed. But I was still deeply disturbed by the fact that, for whatever the reasons, one of the previous owners of this house had created this 18-inch deep compartment and then nailed the door shut.
BOHJALIANSo I put the door back in place and, indeed, I did hammer the nails back in place. And ever since then I had the sense that this was an entry to a novel. I just didn't know what the story was going to be. And as a result, to this day, I find the basement a little unnerving. Since writing "The Night Strangers" I've made sure never to go down there at night. I, you know, it's nice when (unintelligible) ...
ROBERTSThis is an excuse -- this is clearly and excuse not to do the laundry anymore, right?
BOHJALIANI just do the laundry in daylight. But, you know, it really has brought back all of my 8 and 9-year-old boy fears of chiller theater. My daughter is 17 and her response after reading the book, is she doesn't even want to go into our basement at daylight.
ROBERTSWell, you talk very vividly, in fact, the first page of the book, describes this scene which, as you point out, is taken largely from life. But the other event, the other real life inspiration for this book, as you eluded to, was the famous ditching of an airliner in the Hudson River by the, well celebrated, pilot Sully Sullenberger.
ROBERTSHe was able to save all of his passengers. But the core of the story, the instigation for the story, or one of them, is that the character in your book, Chip Linton, fails to do what Sullenberger did.
BOHJALIANYep. Yeah. When I found that door in my basement, I honestly knew that someday, that was going to do an opening to a novel. But I wouldn't figure out what the novel was until January 15, 2009 when, like millions and millions of people around the world, I watched transfixed or I listened transfixed to the evacuation of flight 1549, the airbus in the Hudson River, Chesley Sullenberger's miracle on the Hudson.
BOHJALIANAnd it might have been the shape of the over wing exit doors but I thought of the door in my basement. And I began to wonder what would it be like in a post Sully Sullenberger world to go through life as the pilot who wasn't Sully? The pilot who had to ditch his commercial jet and in cartwheels or it pinwheels and people die, but the pilot lives. What kind of ghosts would dog him?
BOHJALIANWhat kind of post traumatic stress disorder would be with him forever, perhaps? And that was the book that I originally expected to write. When I started this book, I imagined that all the ghosts would be metaphoric. I was, perhaps, a third of the way into the novel before the ghosts became literal and real.
ROBERTSChris Bohjalian's new book is called "The Night Strangers." I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane today and we're talking about his latest book and how it came about. And we have some lines open so give us a call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and share some of your ghost stories, some of your places, secret places that resonate in your imagination and in your life.
ROBERTSBut, Chris, one of the things that is -- you did in researching this book, was go to a flight simulator in Connecticut and try to capture the experience of what it would be like to be in that plane when it capsized on Lake Champlain, in your story, or in the Hudson in real life version, talk about why you did that and what it felt like and how that infused your sensibility to write that scene.
BOHJALIANSure. For "The Night Strangers," as with all of my books, I do a lot of research. I interviewed Shamans, herbalists, pilots, lots and lots of pilots. But one of the things that no one could really tell me is, "What does it feel like to be in a passenger jet, upside down that's starting to sink?" There aren't a lot of people you can interview about that. But I remember that great 1982 "An Officer and a Gentlemen" with Lou Gossett and Debra Winger and Richard Gere and the dunk tank.
BOHJALIANRichard Gere gets into that egg and is dropped into the swimming pool. And I thought to myself you've got to go in the dunk tank. Well, the dunk tank has come so far since then. Imagine a cut away of an airplane fuselage that dangles above a 100,000 gallon tank of water. And this 35 or 40 foot simulator can be dropped into the tank, rolled upside down, it can be set on fire as it's dropped into the tank because sometimes when a helicopter or a plane's going down, there is smoke and flame.
BOHJALIANAnd I spent the day in the simulator getting wet, largely with three National Guard aviators. And I wanted to do this because I wanted to understand what is it like? I knew it would be scary, I understood that. But I wanted to know the more prosaic details that might bring the plane crash scene to life.
BOHJALIANAnd I learned an enormous amount, especially in the final drop we did. They configured the simulator to be a regional jet with a flight deck. And they put me in the flight deck as Captain Chip Linton with a 5 point pilots shoulders harness, the yolk in front of me, the flight deck door behind me, drop it into the tank, roll it 180 degrees so it's -- so I'm completely upside down, strapped in underwater.
BOHJALIANAnd they gave me 28 seconds to get away from the yolk, undo my 5 point harness, open the flight deck door, upside down, swim into the passenger cabin, find the emergency exit door, open it and swim to the surface. And I learned all of these small details that I hadn't anticipated that are so important to make a book feel authentic. Everything from the monumental burning, snootfuls of water you get because you're not holding your nose and you're upside...
BOHJALIAN...down and you're so focused on tactics and your hands and doing things. Secondly, I was unprepared for how heavy my clothes would be or how much water would be in my shoes and even though I had been so coached by the folks at Survival Systems, the sense of panic to it. They warned me, that in a 5 point shoulder harness, you need to spin it 360 degrees around your chest so that all of the belts around your legs and your arms and shoulders fly away.
BOHJALIANThey told me, very specifically, you're going to be so scared, upside down, in this confined space, that you're only going to spin it 345 degrees perhaps or 300 degrees and one of the straps is going to be holding you in.
ROBERTSHold that thought. We'll find out whether he actually got out of the harness and, in fact, he is talking to us live or whether he's one of his own dead characters. Chris Bohjalian, his new book is "The Night Strangers." We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back, I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of books like "Midwives" and "Secrets of Eden." His new book "The Night Strangers," his first ghost story. He's on the line with me from Chicago. And, Chris, you were -- before the break you were telling us how difficult and how petrifying really this experience was. But you did get out.
BOHJALIANI did. I did indeed. But exactly like the scuba divers had warned me, with a five-point shoulder harness I would be so nervous underwater that I would spin it insufficiently far. And so sure enough, I started to try to swim from my seat underwater and one of my legs was still in the harness. And I did at that moment of panic that, oh my god, you're not going to get out of here alive. You're going to be the first person to ever die in the simulator. But then I remembered, wait a minute. Just spin it again. They warned you to spin it again and sure enough my leg came free and I was able to swim to the door.
ROBERTSNow, you're able to experience this very scary and important moment in the book. But then, as you point out earlier, the book evolved from your first conception of it and that ghosts that were once metaphorical became real characters in the book. Now, presumably you didn't have the ability to experience what it's like to be dead. So how did you graft those characters?
BOHJALIANYeah, that's a great question. In some ways, the most difficult part of writing this book was trying to create dead characters that were every bit as vibrant and vital and interesting and authentic as the live ones. And that meant trying to understand the full back stories of the characters in the book who are dead. And not simply their back stories when they're living, but, for example, why are they present for Chip but not necessarily for other people in the house? Why are they present for Chip at certain points and what Chip is...
ROBERTSChip, of course, is the pilot, just to remind our listeners. Go ahead.
BOHJALIAN...and what Captain Chip Linton presumes are tangible manifestations of these ghosts? Are they indeed tangible manifestations or is it just a further indication of Chip's spiraling descent into madness? This is a guy who, prior to this water ditching, had really had the right stuff. And now, as his wife Emily has observed, he's just a shell of the man that he was as he focuses relentlessly on remorse, regret and what-ifs.
ROBERTSOne of the other dimensions of this book and characters in this book are Chip's twin daughters. And you have previously written about twins in a variety of ways. Now, I'm a twin, I have twin nieces and I have twin grandsons who happen to be the same age as the twin daughters in your book, ten years old.
ROBERTSWhat is it about twins that you find so compelling, almost mystical?
BOHJALIANWell, first of all, did I get anything right about the twins, Steve, to be honest?
ROBERTSAs long as you -- as I will just simply tell you one line from my twin grandsons when one of them got a bunch of stitches and the other one said, how many did you get? And the guy said -- you know, first one said maybe six or seven and the first twin said, yes, I'm still ahead. And I said, boys, this is not a competition. And they said to me in unison, everything is a competition. So if you got that part of it you got it right.
BOHJALIANOh, well, thank you, thank you. I appreciate that. You're right. This is not the first time that twins have appeared in my fiction. Most notably in "The Buffalo Soldier" there are twin girls who perish in the prologue in a sort of violent unexpected flashflood in Vermont that, as a state, tragically we just experienced on the very last day in August when tropical storm Irene thundered into the Green Mountains.
BOHJALIANI'm not quite -- I'm not honestly sure why I am so drawn to twins in fiction. But I know that I read a lot of novels where twins have just found -- I just found the twins relentlessly interesting, most recently perhaps Audrey Niffenegger's "Her Fearful Symmetry." And the thing that mattered to me in this book about the twins wasn't necessarily that they were twins, but that they were close in age, they were going to be spending a lot of time with each other.
BOHJALIANAnd I'm not revealing anything about the ending of this book, but clearly the twins are going to be in a certain amount of jeopardy as the novel progresses. And I wanted readers to have a sense of fear and anxiety about them and specifically wonder, is one more in danger than the other.
ROBERTSWell, I won't reveal the ending either. But, you know, a lot of critics, Chris -- at least some that I've read -- have used the word sinister to describe this book and said -- and compare it to some of your other books and say it's more -- there is this level of dread or -- that you just described that is a departure for you. Do you agree with that description?
BOHJALIANI do. I certainly think this is a scarier book than any of my bother books. It's certainly a more sinister book. But I think it's also for those reasons in some ways a lot of fun. Once this book became a ghost story and once it wasn't simply focused on the tragedy of this one good person, I think the book became a lot more of a page-turner because suddenly you're not slothing through the mud of despair. You're hopefully rifling through the pages to wonder what's going to happen to Emily and to Chip and to these twin girls.
BOHJALIANI will say that I think the darkest book I've ever written is not "The Night Strangers" but "Skeletons at the Feast," which is a love story set in the last six months of World War II in the cauldron and the holocaust of Poland and Germany, the most nightmare six months in human history. Now that is a legitimately dark book.
ROBERTSChris, there's a lot of your readers who want to join us and I particularly want to go to Beth here in Washington who has a personal connection to your story. So, Beth, please. Thank you so much for joining us and go ahead.
BETHHi. Good morning, Steve and good morning, Chris.
BETHI am so overwhelmed by listening to you talk about how you decided to write this book. The first question I have actually is did you actually get to talk to Captain Sullenberger about his experience so that you could write about the other side of it where this pilot didn't save his passengers?
BOHJALIANNo. I never interviewed Captain Sullenberger. I wish I had, not necessarily for this book but just because I loved his memoir, "Highest Duty." What a great guy he clearly is. What a terrific pilot he is. But I think that first part, what a terrific guy he is that so interests me. He tells some stories in "Highest Duty" about how he never wanted to be a bystander. And in some cases that simply meant finding for a young couple their infant car seat, which had been checked when they boarded the plane. And now it's disappeared and U.S. Airways baggage is closed and he did not go home until he'd found them their car seat. I mean, clearly he's a great, great guy. But I...
BOHJALIANHe is. I will tell you from knowing him now that he is one of the finest men you'll ever meet.
ROBERTSYou should -- you should -- excuse me. Excuse me. You should tell our listeners that you were a passenger on that flight.
BETHThat's why I'm so intrigued.
BOHJALIANOh, Beth. What -- oh, Beth, it's wonderful to hear from you.
BETHI was driving along on the highway. I had to get off of the highway because I could feel -- when you started talking about the water and being turned upside down in the water. And I was never upside down in the water, but I could feel that terror as you were talking about it. I could feel it all over again and so I had to get off the highway and make the call to tell you how much your words just struck me right away. But I (unintelligible) .
BOHJALIANWell, your words -- well, your words have struck me too and I'm so, so thrilled that you've called in because it means you're alive. It's great to hear from you, Beth, my god.
BETHOh, yes. We're all alive and we're very much alive and we love the fact that we are.
BOHJALIANYep, me, too.
BETHAnd we all have gotten to know a little bit about Sully and many -- most of us have gotten to meet him personally. I mean, he is one of the finest men you'll ever meet. But...
BOHJALIANThat's my sense.
BETH...aside from that also the co-pilot Jeff Stiles is one of the finest men you will ever meet. And we love that we know them, we love that they saved our lives that day, of course. But we -- now that you're writing this story, I'm just so intrigued by your comments about how you wanted to write the story like this and how you went about doing that test. That's amazing to me that you went that far into the characterization of it that you would do that kind of a test.
ROBERTSOkay, thank you so much, Beth. We really appreciate it.
BOHJALIANThank you, Beth.
ROBERTSYou know, one of the things that her description of Sullenberger and your own description in his book (sic) , what you've tried to do is take that sense of a good man, as Sullenberger clearly is, and turn it upside down. And what happens, as you say, when it's not a heroic ending but a tragic ending. And that's really the crux of the book in some ways.
BOHJALIANYes. And it's a tragic ending in my novel through no fault of Captain Chip Linton. He has a 70-seat regional jet, he's bearing down on Lake Champlain. He's profoundly familiar with what Captain Sullenberger accomplished and how the emergency checklist has even changed in the wake of Flight 1549. And it looks like it's going to be perfect.
BOHJALIANHe's going to get everyone out alive in the waters of Lake Champlain, when one of the ferry boats that link New York State and Vermont is turning to rescue this flight that is veering into the water. And the low wingtip of the regional jet is caught in the wake of the wave and suddenly it's pitch pulling. And there was nothing that Captain Chip Linton could have done differently, but he's never going to forgive himself, never, never, never.
ROBERTSLet's talk to -- I hope I have your name correctly, Oda Alice in Eustis, Fla.
ODA ALICEYes. Hi, how are you?
ALICEIt's Oda Alice.
ROBERTSOda Alice, okay. Thank you so much.
ALICEI just wanted to make a comment because I listen to the show every day during lunch. And I have not read any of your books, but I'm extremely intrigued in reading this one. And your story of the basement really brought back some extremely strong memories that I had as a child. Going down -- I grew up in New Jersey right by the Hudson River where that flight situation took place. And (unintelligible) ...
ROBERTSSo did I. What town did you grow up in?
ALICEI grew up in West New York.
ROBERTSAll right. I grew up in Bayonne. It's just a few miles from West New York. I know what you're talking about. Go ahead.
ALICEYeah, Exactly. Well, I just wanted to say how powerful a child's imagination can be because I would literally go down to that dark dingy basement. And to this day you brought back the memories of the mustiness, the smell. I would literally get myself to believe that as I went up the steps and down the steps that were only, you know, the wooden planks that there were hands that were going to grab my legs. And to this day...
BOHJALIANYep, I know that feeling.
ALICE...yes, I fear scary movies...
BOHJALIANDid you run up it...did you run up the basement steps, Oda Alice?
ALICEYes, I would run up and would run down. And I could see the little glimmers of light coming through, you know, the windows. But it's amazing how powerful what you were saying just brought back all those memories. And how -- I don't know if it's because of those memories and those experiences as a child that to this day I stay away from anything scary. But I am going to pick up your book and I think I'm really going to enjoy it.
BOHJALIANThank you so much.
ALICESo thank you so much for sharing with us.
BOHJALIANThanks, Oda Alice.
ROBERTSThanks for the call.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Those fears and those feelings that she expresses, very common in childhood. Do your own kids -- you mentioned your own kids feel that way about your own basement.
BOHJALIANYeah, my daughter's absolutely terrified of our basement now. And it's not just because she doesn't want to do the laundry. I mean that. But I was really glad Oda Alice called because it reminded me of some of the scenes in the book that I found most interesting to write. And those are scenes involving the twin girls, Hallie and Garnet. They're ten years old and I tried to recall my own visceral fears when I was ten years old and the things that went bump in the night that would leave me scared.
BOHJALIANAnd then now I've dropped these two ten-year-old girls into an 1898 three-story Victorian house and a house that will turn out to have, yes, a history, strange corridors, ridiculously terrifying wallpaper and, yes, the basement. And so to a certain extent I'm hoping this is also a book about all of the things that scared us as kids.
ROBERTSAll right. Well, I think this is almost universal. I remember growing up just a few miles from where Oda Alice was and the basement had coal bins and -- because that's the way we heated the house in those days was through coal furnaces. And almost by definition the darkness and the blackness of the coal was part of what just coated everything literally and metaphorically.
BOHJALIANIndeed, indeed. It's almost Dickens-onian.
ROBERTSOh, absolutely. Let's turn to some other callers who want to share their own stories with us. Shawna in Gilford, Conn. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SHAWNAThank you so much. And, Chris, I've read many of your books and I love them so much.
SHAWNAWe also bought our own 1890s Victorian here on the Connecticut shoreline and we moved in. And on our first block party all our neighbors came up to us and asked us if we'd seen our ghost yet.
SHAWNAAnd, indeed, my daughter ended up seeing him. He's like an old sea captain, you know, benign guy. And I started looking immediately into getting rid of him. And my husband and I had a big argument because my husband wanted to keep him. And so it was funny 'cause we had this argument about whether or not to keep our ghost. So that's our (unintelligible) .
BOHJALIANRemember "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir"?
BOHJALIANDo you remember The Ghost And Mrs. Muir"?
SHAWNANo, I don't.
BOHJALIANGhostly sea captain. Mrs. Muir has the house with a ghostly sea captain who is not merely benign presence in the strange world of 1960s television. I think he's almost a romantic -- a person of romantic possibilities.
SHAWNAWell, you know, I don't know if he's still around, but several people have lived in this house and they also come by and tell us about the sea captain. So thank you so much.
ROBERTSWell, just a minute. You never told us what you did.
SHAWNAWell, I looked into -- I never knew this term -- smudging him out. And I went around -- this is so embarrassing -- I went around...
ROBERTSThat's all right. You're among friends. No one's listening.
SHAWNA...I went around and you take this sort of herb and you burn it. Make sure you don't burn down your house, but the smoke -- I guess, you go into every corner of your house and it smells exactly like pot.
BOHJALIANYou will learn the details of that herb in "The Night Strangers."
SHAWNAAnd you say, sounding totally ridiculous to yourself, move on towards the light. You can go. We love this house. You can go. And I am convinced that he has gone over to the other side.
SHAWNASo that's my story.
ROBERTSNow, Chris, you say that you have an herb -- you know what -- the herb she's talking about and it plays a role in your book.
BOHJALIANI do, I do. Among the other characters in this novel -- you know, we focused a lot on the plane crash, but the plane crash figures predominantly in the prologue. The lion's share of the book is set in this creepy backwater New Hampshire town deep in the White Mountains. And Chip and Emily Linton arrive there and are astounded at the number of greenhouses, and how all of their neighbors have these unbelievable green thumbs. But not necessarily for tomatoes and peas and flocks and daisies and roses, but for herbs with unpronounceable names that seem to have been brought to New Hampshire from India and Africa and South America. And as the book unfolds you will learn more about them.
ROBERTSAnd we will learn more about the book. We will learn more about your phone calls and your own ghost stories when we come back, so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Chris Bohjalian, author of many novels including several New York Times bestsellers "Midwives," "Secrets of Eden," "Skeletons at the Feast." His new book is "The Night Strangers." And Chris and I have been talking about it and this is his first ghost story. But several of you have been calling in to share your own ghost stories and I will now turn to Chris -- to several of our other callers who wanna join this. And Ben in Columbus, Ohio has been waiting patiently. Thanks for joining us. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BENHi, thank you. Good morning. Good morning, Chris. Good morning, Steve.
BENOne of my -- really the question that I had for you, Chris, and this is -- so, in the earnestness of full disclosure, I'm actually a mathematician. I don't get the joy of writing a lot, but I do enjoy writing. And it's been something that I've done since I was younger, just use my imagination and have a healthy outlet for it. But something that I've noticed that I do is that even if I feel like I've read the story, I feel like I've seen it on TV or something, if there's a story that I just cannot get out of my mind, I have to write it. And if I don't write it, if I try to say, well, it's already been done, you know, it sticks with me and it won't let me go.
BENAnd I feel like even, you know, if I was in your position as an author, sometimes I would wonder, you know, should I spend the time writing a new story, writing something, a novel in the sense that is new. And I just wonder, do you ever find yourself with a story that you just feel like you can't out of your head, but you know it's already been told? And what do you? How do you -- how do you cope with that? How do you handle those -- that internal conflict between writing something new and writing something that you have to get out?
ROBERTSThanks, Ben. Yeah.
BOHJALIANYep. You know, Scott Fitzgerald used to talk about the dead end. And very often he wouldn't know whether a story was worth pursuing or a novel was worth pursuing until he'd written part of it. And his scrapbooks were filled with what he called the dead ends. And in some cases, they were dead ends because it was a failed effort. It wasn't the book or the short story that he was destined to write or he couldn't get his arms around the material in quite the right fashion. And in some cases, they were dead ends because, precisely as you suggested, Ben, someone else had already done it or somebody had done it better.
BOHJALIANCertainly in my case I've started to write books and then in my research discovered that, gosh, somebody else has already written a book like this and it's better. Or, and Ann Patchett talked about this movingly once in a New York Times essay, you get halfway through a book and you realize I'm not capable of writing this book, I'm not good enough, this isn't the great American novel. And so then you just slog your way to the end to get a first draft and hope in subsequent drafts you can salvage it. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, the only reason writers publish is to stop rewriting.
ROBERTSBut it's also true and I teach young readers nonfiction, but a lot of the same issues come up that you can't flinch from familiar stories. In some ways I tell them there are stories that are great because they hardly ever happen. And then there are stories that are great because they happen every day. And that just because...
BOHJALIANYeah, well put.
ROBERTS...a story is familiar doesn't mean it can't be a great story.
BOHJALIANNo. I think that's so well put. How many times have we discovered "Romeo and Juliet" in yet another form or -- and, you know, in all my novels, not all my novels, many of my novels have a template, a book that I read that I absolutely loved and the structure was perfect for what I wanted to do and I've thought of that book as I was writing my book.
BOHJALIANSo for example, Kent Haruf's "Plain Song" is the template for "The Buffalo Soldier." Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the template for "Midwives." A first person, female narrator in her late 20s or early 30s looking back on a seminal event in her childhood that changed everything for her, her discovery of that the world is not necessarily a just place, that adults are not always kind and good and smart.
ROBERTSGood points. Let's turn to more of our -- more of our callers. Pete in Fern Park, Fla. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show" with Chris Bohjalian.
PETEHi. I don't know if -- your story here says all the passengers died and the pilot survived. Did I understand that correct?
BOHJALIANNo, that's not correct. Three-quarters of the passengers died.
PETEAnyway, sometime in the late '50s there was a midair collision over New York state between a four engine propeller driven aircraft and an early 707. The 707 sheared off the entire tail section of the propeller driven aircraft. It was -- then the 707 was able to make a safe landing. The propeller driven aircraft without a tail can't steer very well, but the pilot did have all four engines. And as a result of those, he was able to bring that airplane down in a controlled level flight as it crash landed in a field. As he increased speed, the plane would pitch up. Decrease the propeller noise, the propellers, it would pitch down. No, he couldn't turn it left or right. He was able to bring it into a flat crash landing in a field. The only person that died was the pilot.
BOHJALIANWow. That's pretty wrenching and pretty heroic of him to do that. Thank you for sharing that story. I was not -- I'm familiar with a lot of aviation disasters, but that's one I had never heard.
ROBERTSThanks for calling, Pete. We appreciate it very much. You know, let's turn to Jim in Dallas, Texas. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
JIMOh, thanks very much. Yeah, I had a little off counter question here. You talk about using twins. And I think that novelists are predominately obsessed with distilling their story. And I think that twins -- the use of twins helps them to just double down on that type of distillation, if you understand what -- you know. And that's just my observation. But I think it's a truly bona fide way to do it.
BOHJALIANWell, thank you, Jim.
ROBERTSThank you, Jim. How many -- in how many novels have you used twins?
BOHJALIANYou know, I believe it's three. I was thinking about this. The two books that twins figure most prominently are certainly "The Buffalo Soldier" and "The Night Strangers." And I think it's interesting to note that in both cases they're twin girls and in both cases they're in the fourth or the fifth grade. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our daughter -- we have one -- we have one girl, one child. We used to talk about wouldn't it be great if you had twins and we would instantly have a nuclear family of four.
BOHJALIANI remember about two months after our daughter, Grace, had arrived, my wife and I were standing in our kitchen surveying the utter chaos and the madness and the debris and the plates that are the size of skyscrapers in the sink, and we both said, wow, anyone who has twins, any parents who have twins are just freaking amazing to pull this off and keep their sanity.
ROBERTSWell, I'll tell you what my mother said when -- since it was 1943 during the war and pre all the technologies which now can tell you so much more than you could then, she had no idea she was having twins. And when she woke up from the anesthetic and they said, by the way, Mrs. Roberts, you have two, she said, oh, my God, that's a lot of baby, and went back to sleep. It was...
ROBERTSAnd my brother was quite small and he was in the hospital for a while and, you know, it was an impulse, say, well, keep him for a couple of years, you know. I mean, as you say, one is enough. But it's a great way to grow up, I can tell you. I treasure being a twin. And I love having twin grandsons. But I wanna ask you a bit about your own background because people will see your name, Bohjalian, and those who know about such things know it's of Armenian ancestry and that while you grew up in New York, your next book reaches back to your own Armenian history for part of the inspiration. Why don't you talk about that?
BOHJALIANSure. My next novel is called "The Sandcastle Girls." And it's a bit like "Skeletons at the Feast" in that's a big, sweeping, epic, historical, love story. In this case, however, it is set in 1915, largely in Lepo, Syria, but also in Turkey, Armenia and the Battle of Gallipoli. It's a love story between a new graduate of Mount Holyoke College who follows her father into the caldron of the Armenian Genocide and there falls in love with a young widower named Artiman who has lost his family in the Armenian Genocide.
BOHJALIANAbout 1.5 million of the two million Armenians living in Turkey died in the first World War or three out of four, which seemed a statistic too personal not to examine it. And here's why I say too personal. Because of my four paternal Armenian great grandparents, three would die in that cauldron between 1915 and 1917.
ROBERTSAnd have you always wanted to write about that period and that dimension of your own ancestry?
BOHJALIANNo. No, it's -- no. I had actually envisioned that I might go through life and never examine it. But then when my father's health started deteriorating a few years ago, we would be looking through the photographs of his parents. And I would look at the photographs of them taken in 1927, when they first arrived at Ellis Island in 1928. And I thought back on how my Swedish mother used to refer to her in-laws' house in Tuckahoe, N.Y. as the ottoman annex of metropolitan, because it really was so oddly Armenian.
BOHJALIANAnd I started talking to my father about his childhood and the reality that until he was five years old, he spoke only Armenian and Turkish. When he started public kindergarten in Tuckahoe, N.Y., he didn't know how to ask where the bathroom was. And it dawned on me that this is a story that needs to be probed. And so "The Sandcastle Girls" goes back and forth in time between a woman novelist in the present, a stand-in for me, and the fictional love story of her grandparents in the midst of the Armenian Genocide.
ROBERTSOf course the Armenian culture are very literate and there have been a number of Armenian -- or authors of Armenian descent, Michael Arlen with "The Green Hat" was a wonderful book.
ROBERTS"Black Dog of Fate." There have been some...
BOHJALIANBy Peter Balakian, yeah.
ROBERTS...you know, some wonderful nonfiction books about that period. But your being a novelist, you're taking a novelist's view of it and not a literal one.
BOHJALIANAnd there was one -- yes, you're right. First of all, yes. I think Peter Balakian has written -- aside from being a magnificent poet, I think he has written the most important memoir there could possibly be for our generation of Armenian Americans, and that is "Black Dog of Fate."
ROBERTSIt's a great book. I agree with you.
BOHJALIANYeah, it's just -- and his childhood in so many ways paralleled mine. Sort of the great Armenian novel, the novel of the Armenian Genocide though is "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" written by Franz Werfel in 1934. I read that book earlier this year and it is like the whole story. It's riveting, it's big, it's epic and alas it is out of print. The edition I read is a 1934 cloth bound edition that is discolored with age and absolutely magnificent.
BOHJALIANHere's one interesting footnote to the Armenian Genocide. When the Nazis were finally destroying the Warsaw Ghetto once and for all, they were astonished to find so many copies of "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh." Why? Because the Jewish resisters, the Jewish fighters were reviewing that novel as sort of their rallying cry in some cases because as Gabriel says in "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," it is best to die like a lion.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, to reinforce that point, Chris, as you know, throughout the Ottoman Empire -- your Swedish mother referring to the ottoman outpost of your grandparents' house. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Jews and Armenians played very similar roles. They were -- along with Greeks. They were the commercial class. Even today in Istanbul, they've shrunk, but they were at one time vibrant Jewish and Armenian and Greek communities and they often were the merchants and the traders throughout the Ottoman Empire. So historically Jews and Armenians had that parallel as well.
BOHJALIANYeah. And among the delightful, wonderful, we are the world footnotes to my own childhood and my own adolescence, is the first girl I ever seriously kissed and had a serious teen crush on, she was Turkish.
ROBERTSOh, dear. I don't think...
BOHJALIANIt was great.
ROBERTS...I don't think you told your parents that, though.
BOHJALIANThey were -- you know, they were actually aware of it. And in my father's declining years, we talked about that a little bit, and his relationship to her parents.
ROBERTSYou know, it's interesting how someone becomes a novelist. Your dad was an ad man in New York. You started your career in advertising. And we've had -- you know, callers always call in and wonder how does one make the break and become a novelist. Having started you worked with words, but you found a different way to work with words and move to rural Vermont to pursue that life. How did that happen for you?
BOHJALIANYou know, when you graduate from college, Random House doesn't say to you, you look like a young writer (unintelligible) ...
BOHJALIAN...here's a boat load of money. But I knew I wanted to write fiction. But I got a day job in an ad agency in New York City and I wrote everyday between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. and Monday and Tuesday nights. And I wrote my first three novels that way while employed at ad agencies in New York City and Burlington, Vt. And I did it because I just loved to write. And to this day unless I'm hanging around with my beautiful wife or my daughter, there's nothing in the world I love more than writing fiction.
ROBERTSAnd at what point were you able to give up the day job and do fiction full-time?
BOHJALIANIt was when my daughter was born. I realized that, you know, you can no longer juggle being a novelist, an ad guy and a dad. Something has to go. And it sure it heck wasn't going to be being a dad and it wasn't going to be being a writer, so I officially left advertising once and for all in my early 30s then.
ROBERTSAnd at that point you had published three books?
BOHJALIANRight. I had published three books. And I was really fortunate because as soon as I jumped off this cliff, Hallmark suddenly parachuted into my life and made a movie out of my third novel "Past the Bleachers." Not a very good book, but a really delightful made for TV movie.
ROBERTSAnd that started paying the bills and the rest is history?
BOHJALIANYeah, that's precisely right.
ROBERTSGreat hour, Chris. Thanks so much for being with us. Chris Bohjalian, his new book is "The Night Strangers" and, as he mentioned, author of many others. The New York Time's bestsellers "Midwives," "Secrets of Eden." And we also wanna thank our friends at WBEZ in Chicago for hosting Chris today. Thanks again, Chris, appreciate it.
BOHJALIANSteve, thanks so much. I had a great time.
ROBERTSI've Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. She's on vacation, but she'll be back on Monday. And thank you for spending this hour with us.
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