A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Best-selling novelist Chris Bohjalian’s daughter says her father has a talent for crafting flawed young female characters. The critically-acclaimed author is known for novels that center on ordinary people facing extraordinary dilemmas, usually not of their own making. His latest novel is no exception. It features Emily Shepard, a homeless teen living on the streets of Burlington, Vermont. Half a year earlier, a nuclear plant in rural Vermont experienced a meltdown that killed both Emily’s parents. Her father was in charge of the plan and there are rumors that the accident may have been his fault. Diane talks with Chris Bohjalian about his latest novel what he believes are his greatest challenges as a writer.
- Chris Bohjalian author of fourteen novels, including "The Sandcastle Girls", "Skeletons at the Feast," "The Double Bind," and "Midwives."
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Starting at 11 a.m., watch Chris Bohjalian live in studio.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Chris Bohjalian has returned to contemporary New England after back to back historical novels. The best-selling author's new novel charts the life of a teenage girl after a nuclear disaster in rural Vermont, one that may have been caused by her father. It's titled, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." Chris Bohjalian joins me in this studio. We'll welcome you into the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Chris, it's good to have you here.
MR. CHRIS BOHJALIANWell, it's a pleasure to be here, Diane. Thanks for having me on.
REHMWell, you were last on this program in 2011 for your best-seller, "The Night Strangers." And I have the feeling you have another one on your hands, so I'm glad you're here.
REHMTell us about Emily Shepard.
BOHJALIANEmily Shepard is a 16-year-old homeless orphan trying desperately to keep it together on the mean streets of Burlington, Vermont after a Fukushima scale meltdown of Vermont's lone nuclear plant has left her alone. She's a cutter. She pops oxycontin tablets as if they were M&Ms. And she's an aspiring poet with a deep and profound love for Emily Dickinson.
REHMIsn't that interesting that with all of her problems, she turns again and again to the poetry of Emily Dickinson? Why do you think that is?
BOHJALIANWell, certainly, as a writer, I have enormous respect for Emily Dickinson, the poet. And as a writer, I try to focus on her work. The wonderful poet who gave us, "I'm nobody. Who are you? If I could stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain?" But if you're a 16-year-old girl, I almost think Emily Dickinson, the person, is equally as interesting. This woman of immense talent, who made a decision not to publish her work. And clearly, she knew how good she was. Occasionally, her letters or her poems express a certain amount of doubt.
BOHJALIANBut the reality is, she sent hundreds of her poems to friends and to neighbors and to family. And everyone knew that these poems were meaningful and mattered. They were saved. They were preserved like jewels, because they were. And toward the end of her life, Helen Hunt Jackson and Higginson were begging her to publish her work. So, she knew she was special, but she chose not to do it. And if you're a 16-year-old girl alone on the streets, if you envision "The Belle of Amherst" alone in her white with her geraniums, it's something rather comforting and soothing, especially if you're that lonely.
REHMI saw a production of "The Belle of Amherst" with Julie Harris in that role. It was glorious. You have Emily Shepard constructing an igloo made out of leaves. Talk about where that idea came from.
BOHJALIANI've written a column for the Burlington Free Press, a Gannett paper for 22 and a half years, every single Sunday. And a lot of my columns have been about a wonderful social services organization called Spectrum Youth and Family Services that works with teens in trouble. And at least 12 or 15 times, I've written about those kids. And I remember I was having lunch with a therapist, who recently retired, named Annie Ramniciano. (sp?) And she started telling me about how some of the kids who were falling down that rabbit hole, were building igloos made of trash bags filled with frozen leaves against the witheringly cold winds off Lake Champlain, and trying to survive. And I knew instantly I wanted to write about one of these kids.
REHMHave you seen those igloos?
BOHJALIANI've never seen an actual igloo made of trash bags filled with frozen leaves.
BOHJALIANBut, I remember one of the young adults I interviewed for a newspaper article. A girl named Faith. She was talking about sleeping rough. Or, in other words, sleeping outdoors, in the winter, on the Burlington waterfront. And how hard it is. Burlington's a really lovely city. But it's a really cold city in January.
BOHJALIANAnd imagine you're in the woods or the brush by Lake Champlain, which is rock solid frozen right now with these winds from the west and you're trying to survive. When she moved up in the world a little bit, she was sleeping on a floor with about nine other kids in a Brattleboro apartment, no doubt run by a drug dealer or somebody who exploited young adults. And she was the kind of kid who was so instrumental in the creation of Emily Shepard.
REHMInteresting that Emily's father and mother apparently both worked at this nuclear plant and it's Emily's belief that her father is going to be blamed for the meltdown.
BOHJALIANAbsolutely. When the fictional Vermont nuclear power plant has a Fukushima scale meltdown, the power company and the industry needs to throw somebody under the bus. And it is her father, who already has a disciplinary track record for drinking. And her mother, who's the public relations voice, who are thrown under the bus. And that's one of the reasons why, when Emily is trying to figure out who she is now and how she can carve out a life, how she can survive as a 16-year-old kid, she makes up a name. And the name she chooses for herself is Abby Bliss. Because one of Emily Dickinson's best friends was Abby Bliss.
BOHJALIANAnd one interesting footnote I have to share with you about Abby Bliss. Abby Bliss's husband was a missionary named Daniel Bliss, who would start American University of Beirut.
REHMHow interesting. Well, Emily Shepard really tries to lose herself in this whole miasma of people who are lost and affected. She does find one child, to whom she becomes terribly attached.
BOHJALIANShe does. Emily Shepard takes under her wing a nine-year-old runaway foster child boy. His name is Cameron. He's one of those kids who the foster care system has let down. He's had one horrific foster family after another. And I've met a lot of kids like this too. Years ago, I wrote a book called "The Buffalo Soldier" about a foster child who's been let down by the system in horrific ways. And Cameron's like that other kid. And we've all heard about or read about little boys like this.
BOHJALIANHe's kind of like Gavroche in Les Miserables. A kid who's street smart and is not going to be abused by the system one more time. So he runs away and Emily finds him in a run-down plant called the Moran Plant, which actually exists on Burlington's waterfront. And takes him under her wing and he's the only person she will let stay with her inside that igloo. As she says to her readers, quoting Emily Dickinson, "when it comes to Cameron, my life had stood a loaded gun."
REHMThere are huge gaps between the haves and the have nots in this novel. Do you see that in this beautiful Burlington, Vermont?
BOHJALIANAbsolutely. It wasn't too long ago that Vermont was known principally for dairy cows and maple syrup.
BOHJALIANAnd now we are known for heroin. The reality is that Burlington's changing. And because it is the largest city for a lot of -- it's the largest city for a long way, and so it has a lot of social services. And so, a lot of the homeless wind up there. A lot of the needy wind up there. A lot of young adults wind up there, and as a result, a lot of people want to exploit young adults, who want to exploit the needy, who want to exploit the homeless. And they found it's a great place into which to traffic heroin, meth substitutes, ecstasy. So, yeah, Vermont has a horrific drug problem right now.
BOHJALIANAnd I know the Department of Travel and Tourism won't send me a basket of flowers for saying that, but it's the case.
REHMWhat do they do about it?
BOHJALIANGovernor Peter Shumlin is working hard to combat it, and the fact is a lot of the state is working hard to combat it. But a drug problem is hard to stop.
REHMBut Emily gets caught up in this drug problem.
BOHJALIANEmily does. My daughter's 20. And when she read a rough draft of this book last year, she said something that was so astute. She said, dad, take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way. But I think your sweet spot as a novelist is seriously messed up young women. And she's right. And Emily is of a piece with so many of the other seriously messed up young women who've narrated my books.
REHMHow did she -- how did Emily get along with her mother and her father before the meltdown?
BOHJALIANEmily had a complicated relationship with her parents because her parents were alcoholics. There's a great, great term I'd never heard before in yesterday's Washington Post in their review of the novel. The reviewer said that her parents, who've recently moved to Vermont, are "heating with wine." I love that expression, "heating with wine." This is a couple who were never meant to live in rural Vermont, and they're drinking too much, and it certainly affected their raising of Emily. And so while Emily tries to be a good daughter, she does act up and she acts up a bit.
BOHJALIANAnd one of the scenes in the book that I think really drives this home, and her connection to Emily Dickinson, the poet, is this. At one point, when her parents are fighting, she takes their crystal wine glasses, that were a wedding present, goes outside and hurls them against the pretend stone wall that was built to make the house look like it was a more authentic Vermont home. And that was Emily Shepard's own sort of reference to a moment in Emily Dickinson's life that I've always found fascinating.
BOHJALIANWe view Emily Dickinson as so self-controlled, the best little girl in Amherst, as her father always said. And yet, when Emily Dickinson was Emily Shepard's age and her father once chastised her for putting a dinner plate before him that had a chip on it, she walked out to their stone wall and smashed the plate into a million pieces and said, "Well there. You won't have to deal with that plate again."
REHMChris Bohjalian. We're talking about his brand new novel. It's title, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." We'll talk further. You'll hear Chris read from his book after a short break.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Christ Bohjalian is here. He is a Best Selling writer. His newest novel is titled "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." We'll talk about that title just a little later. This is to remind you however, we are video streaming this hour. So if you'd like to join us both by listening and watching the program, feel free to go to drshow.org and click on live video.
REHMYou know, we've been talking about your lovely heroin. And I do call her lovely because she is a child and she has goodness inside her. Why don't you read for us from page four? She has left a shelter.
BOHJALIANFiction always demands wildly suspending disbelief and so pretend I'm a 16-year-old girl. Some people said I left the shelter because someone must have tried to rape me. No one tried to rape me. I left for a couple of reasons. I mean, I did feel kind of hounded by the other girls, one especially, but not by the people who were in the place, the staff. One of the girls was starting to suspect who I was. And I knew that once my secret was out she'd turn me in. I thought she'd want no part of me. And you know what? I wouldn't have blamed her. A lot of days I wanted no part of me.
BOHJALIANAlso I knew the staff wanted me gone, or at least they wanted to figure out who I really was. They were getting pretty frustrated because they couldn't find my parents. My story was starting to unravel so I just left. Given that I was always kind of -- and here's a pretty awesome little euphemism -- a troubled teen, it's a miracle that the counselors who ran the shelter didn't send me packing a lot sooner. It wouldn't have surprised a lot of people who knew me if I really had managed to get myself thrown out. But I didn't. That's not what happened. I was already plenty scared and so I tried playing by the rules. I tried to behave, but it didn't work. And so it would be the last time I try for a while.
BOHJALIANThis was back in the days when the city was still trying to figure out what to do with the walkers. Technically I was a walker even though I didn't walk. I stole a bike and rode to the city from the Northeast Kingdom. I don't know how many miles that is but it took me two full days because I hadn't ridden a bike since I was in, like, fourth grade. The worst was going up and over the mountains. I just walked the bike up the eastern slopes. That took an entire afternoon right there.
BOHJALIANOne time a guy in a bread truck gave me a lift, but he only took me about 20 miles. Still, a lot of those miles were uphill so I was grateful. Lots of people -- most people had families or friends in the city or the suburbs around Lake Champlain who could take them in. And people were taking in total strangers. Vermonters are like that. I guess decent people anywhere are like that. But there were still a lot of walkers just pitching tents in City Hall Park or sleeping in their cars or pickups or out in the cold, or building their igloos down by the water. Squatters. Refugees.
BOHJALIANI guess it would've been a lot worse if Reactor Number Two had exploded as well. You know, gone totally Chernobyl. But it didn't. It was only Reactor Number One that melted down and blew up.
REHMChris, you write several times making reference to the Northeast Kingdom. Tell us what you mean.
BOHJALIANThe Northeast Kingdom is the northeast corner of the state of Vermont. It was given its nickname perhaps 50 years ago by a Vermont governor who viewed it as bucolic, idyllic in a fairy tale kind of land and thought this was a great tourism hook.
REHMThat's what it sounds like, exactly as you describe. And then I wanted to ask you how you envisioned this area of Burlington, Vt. after the explosion.
BOHJALIANSure. When I was envisioning this book, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't entirely dystopian. When we think of Japan today, we don't think of it as a dystopian nation destroyed by Fukushima. We're aware that this thing called Fukushima Daiichi occurred with three of six reactors melting down and blowing up. But the fact is, Japan continues to function.
BOHJALIANSo when I was envisioning Burlington, I was envisioning a New England version of Tokyo, a city that's moved along just fine, thank you very much. We are aware that a part of our infrastructure's different. We are aware that people have been left homeless. But the fact is, the sun is continuing to rise, the moon is continuing to rise and the new cycles have moved on. As Emily Shephard says at one point, maybe we just have very short attention spans as people, but somehow people forgot.
REHMBut the sirens have gone off. Emily is wandering around. People are homeless. There are lots of walkers. So what has happened in Burlington is quite fresh. So I'm just wondering what you saw in your mind immediately after.
BOHJALIANImmediately after I was thinking of, well, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Vermont, Occupy Washington and all of the tents that appeared everywhere. I was trying to envision what a city would like as a refugee camp rather suddenly. And so you're absolutely right, in the three months after Cape Abinacki (sp?) , my fictional nuclear plant, melts down Burlington is a city of refugees. And whether they are living with friends or apartments or in tents on City Hall Park or down by the waterfront, there are at least 15 to 20,000 people who have descended upon the city trying to find comfort and warmth.
REHMAnd the other question, what kind of a student was Emily?
BOHJALIANEmily refers to herself as the queen of the underachievers. She was a terrible student and it drove her teachers wild because they saw her vast potential. And, in fact, her guidance counselors were telling her, start a poetry club, start and Emily Dickinson club, do something or you're never going to get into college. And Emily doesn't see it that way. Emily just wants to keep her journals. She wants to write her poems. She wants to figure out how to navigate her way through her parent's marriage.
REHMA young child who keeps a journal has something special going for her. She has her own thoughts which she can transfer to paper. And those thoughts can propel her in good or not so good ways. How does Emily get tied up with a drug dealer and a pimp/
BOHJALIANEmily Shephard arrives in Burlington two days after the meltdown. And she has to go somewhere and she goes first to the shelter for teens. And she might've done fine there if she hadn't realized that people were figuring out who she was. She'd met a drug-addicted girl on the streets earlier named Andrea Simonetti (sp?) . And Andrea had said to her, look, if you ever need anything like a phone, you know, come to me. And she finds Andrea on the streets and Andrea brings her into what Emily Shephard will refer to as the posse.
BOHJALIANA thagan (sp?) like drug dealer named Poacher, a former Iraqi war vet, takes these teenage kids and has them steal and he prostitutes them out. And in return he gives them Oxycontin, he gives them meth substitutes. He gives them drugs. And they have a place where they can sleep. And she spends four months living with the posse and with Andrea's tutelage learning to become a cutter against all of her deep emotional pain.
BOHJALIANAnd it is only on Christmas Day when she looks at what a disaster her life has become that she realizes, I can't stay here anymore. And so she runs away from the posse on Christmas morning while they're all still asleep and drugged out and goes to the waterfront alone where she builds her igloo made of trash bags.
REHMWould you read for us on page 146? I was really taken by this.
BOHJALIANSure. This is a scene when Emily is on her birthday. For my 17th birthday I bought myself my very own X-Acto knife and a squeeze bottle of Bactine at the drugstore on Cherry Street. I didn't even lift them. Paid cash because these were supposed to be presents. No one in the posse knew it was my birthday. I didn't tell anyone. It was getting cold now so people were spending more time than ever inside at Poachers, which meant there was, like, no privacy.
BOHJALIANPJ and Missy were gone by then but other kids had shown up. Kids came and went all the time. So I took my birthday presents to myself and a couple of Andrea's Band-Aids from her kit and went to the mall. I camped out in a stall in the ladies bathroom and pulled down my pants, and there I tried to cut the numbers 1 and 7 into my thighs. It was just a mess. I was just a mess. I mean it. I was never much of a visual artist.
BOHJALIANDifferent people have tried to explain to me why I cut but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to explain it. I kind of hated myself. I kind of hated the way I was making so many seriously bad decisions. Maybe if the Red Cross still had that tent in City Hall Park, I would've gone to them and said to whoever was there, hi, my name's Emily Shephard. What's yours? Sure, I would've wound up in a foster home somewhere, but would that really have been any worse than what I was doing?
BOHJALIANWhen I wrote that sentence just now, I meant it rhetorically but in all fairness it is more complicated than that. Just think of what poor Cameron endured, then add to that how much people hated my family. And of course there was still my fear of what the investigators would want to know about my mom and dad. But going to the Red Cross wasn't even an option anymore because by then that tent was long gone. Just so you know, the only time I actually tried to carve numbers or letters into my skin was the day I turned 17. Yep, happy birthday to me.
REHMI remember reading in your book the day her roommate was trying to teach her how to cut. And she couldn't quite do it. And so her roommate did it for her. I have known a person now, an adult who went through a serious period of cutting. And it was for her, she said, a psychological release as though somehow harming herself allowed her a moment, an instant of freedom. Is that how you see Emily trying to find that freedom for herself?
BOHJALIANI think that's beautifully put. I think that's a lot of what's going through Emily's mind. I think there's her self-loathing. And I think there's also a certain amount of survivor guilt. Her parents are dead. Seventeen other people died. And she's denying them. She's denying who they are.
REHMChris Bohjalian. His new book is titled "Close Your Eyes, Hold Your (sic) Hands." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Some people have wondered, Chris, whether in fact this is a novel for young adults or whether it's a novel for adults. How do you characterize it?
BOHJALIANWhen I was writing this novel, it never crossed my mind it would be perceived as a book for young adults. The fact that a lot of people are viewing it that way thrills me because there's so much wonderful young adult literature out there. I loved what Jim Higgins said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He said that there has been a lot of discussion about whether adults should read young adult books. And he said, my sense is that this is an adult book but anyone who likes John Green's novels will find this book quote unquote "awesome." It made my day (unintelligible) .
REHMAw, that's wonderful. I like that. She is on the verge -- I mean, she's youthful in her age but Emily has had to confront so much, it pushes her into a kind of adulthood.
BOHJALIANIt does. She grows up way too fast. And in some ways she was almost growing up way too fast even before Cape Abinacki melted down. Because she was so much in some ways a parent to her own parents. She's watering down their scotch. And whenever you've got a 14- or 15-year-old kid who's sufficiently cognizant of her own parents' drinking problems that she knows how to water down the Cutty Sark, that's a kid that's growing up too fast.
REHMWhoa. Whoa. Chris, you've written two very distinct kinds of novels, international and now very domestic. The difference between the two in your own mind?
BOHJALIANWell, I never want to write the same book twice. And the folks at Doubleday are so wonderfully supportive of that lunacy. And I'm so grateful to all of them. I write whatever subject is going to interest me passionately for the next year or two of my life. And in some cases that's a book such as the "Sandcastle Girls," a love story set in the midst of the Armenian genocide or it's going to be a book such as "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," about a 16-year-old girl in the present trying desperately to keep it together. Now, I have found that my contemporary fiction works better in the first person. My historical fiction in the third person.
REHMWhy do you think that is?
BOHJALIANIt might be first of all because I'm more comfortable with a contemporary vernacular for my narrators. Emily Shephard speaks as a 16-year-old girl in 2014 with all of the references you would expect a 16-year-old girl to use. Cold play, for instance, I can't imagine trying to write a first person novel in the voice of a 16-year-old girl in, for example, Aleppo in the midst of the Armenian genocide. It was easier for me to do that in the third person.
REHMBut at the same time, I would think it would be difficult for you to write of a 16-year-old girl who allows herself to be drawn into prostitution.
BOHJALIANIt's difficult as the father of a daughter. My daughter, in fact, actually read the audio of this book. And I steered far away from the recording studio because I did not want to hear my daughter's voice reading the kinds of things that Emily Shephard endures. When I think of all those kids I interviewed for spectrum over the years and what they endured, my heard breaks. I remember interviewing one young woman who now is working in a bank and has made it just fine, thank heavens. But her parents were dealing heroin out of their home in rural Vermont. And she was doing heroin at 15 years old.
REHMChris Bohjalian. The book is titled "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." When we come back from a short break, your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd now it's time to open the phones as we talk with Chris Bohjalian. And by the way, his last name is spelled B, like boy, O-H-J-A-L-I-A-N. His new novel is titled, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." And for many of you wondering about that title, we'll get to it shortly. First, let's go to the phones, to Matt in Houston, TX. You're on the air.
MATTHi. Thanks for taking my call.
MATTI've just got a quick question. If you can picture it, it's 2005. I'm a mediocre architecture student. And the only thing I ever did that got any good reviews was create a house, a shelter out of garbage bags. And I heard earlier in the show, the author say that his character goes down to the river and creates an igloo out of garbage bags. And I'm just totally curious how he came up with that idea. So, thank you.
BOHJALIANWell, first of all Matt, a thousand congratulations, and you're clearly a rock star of an architect. The way Emily Shepard builds her igloo is by taking half frozen, damp leaves, pushing them into trash bags that are moist with dew or melted snow, packing them together, and then allowing it to freeze overnight, so that each trash bag filled with leaves is a building block of sorts. And it takes anywhere from, depending on how big you want it to be, 16 to 25, to make one of these igloos. I learned about this from a therapist at a social services organization that works with teens in trouble.
REHMAnd how long do they last?
BOHJALIANIf it's cold, in January, they will last a long time.
REHMOkay. But if you get a thaw, you've got a problem.
BOHJALIANYou do. And it's a problem for Emily in February, when her igloo starts melting and she can't buttress it any longer.
REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Matt. Let's go now to Sally, who's in Burlington, Vermont. Hello, you're on the air.
SALLYHi. I'm so interested in reading your book.
BOHJALIANThank you, Sally.
SALLYAnd I'm also going to clarify something you said earlier in the program. Northeast Kingdom, that term goes back to the revolution. And it -- I'm not sure of the origin, but of course, Vermont's adjacent to Canada, the French operated Quebec. And there was a military road built. It was the Hazen military road, and it came down from Canada into Brownington, into the Northeast Kingdom, and it winds around and you've got -- there's remnants of it today. But that entire area was referred to as the Northeast Kingdom long, long ago. My ancestors go back, 1800 is the first one I can think of, on both sides of my family.
BOHJALIANThat's good to know. Thank you. That was a very smart Governor to commandeer an existing term, in that case.
SALLYWell, you're dealing with a different ilk when you deal with Vermonters. It's a special place. You know, we don't travel, because we're already there.
REHMYeah. Of course. Do you -- have you lived there forever, Sally?
SALLYNo. No. Actually, I'm transplanted. I'm a transplanted Vermonter. And that's where my heart is and that's where I'll go back to.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.
SALLYThank you so much. Bye-bye.
REHMBye now. Vermonters feel very strongly, clearly, about their home. Where do you live?
BOHJALIANI live in a tiny village called Lincoln, which is halfway up Vermont's third highest mountain. And like Sally, I'm a transplant. And like Sally, my heart is in Vermont. I write in a library that faces Mt. Abraham, and I can watch the sun rise and I can judge the progress of my day and the progress of my work by where the sun is in the day, and where it is as the seasons progress.
REHMHow do you write? Do you write every single day, for the most part?
BOHJALIANI do. I write every single day, for the most part. I start about six in the morning, and I write until lunch. And I always think of the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote, "the only reason writers publish is to stop re-writing." And because I never know where my books are going, I depend on my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. I edit a lot. They go through many drafts.
REHMAnd of course, long bike rides play a big part of this story.
BOHJALIANThey do. They do. I am personally a very, very avid cyclist, and certainly, that appears in this book with Emily trying to bike to Burlington from the Northeast Kingdom. And then when she's back in the Exclusion Zone, and this isn't a spoiler, but at one point, she does go back into the Exclusion Zone illegally. The only person there she believes, sort of the Belle of Reddington, Vermont. She uses a bike and she learns to clip herself in and to bike wherever she wants around Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
BOHJALIANAnd I write a lot on my bike. That scene where Emily Shepard is cutting in the bathroom stall of a shopping mall, I wrote that on my iPhone by a gazebo in Vermont when I was taking a break. And then of course...
REHMFrom a bike ride?
BOHJALIANFrom a bike ride, yeah.
REHMHow fascinating. So, your mind is working. Your imagination is flowing while you're riding on your bike.
BOHJALIANIt's the shower principle. My hippocampus is otherwise engaged, so I'm solving other problems.
REHMYeah. I've told this story before, but I can remember when our son was in high school. He had a math problem. He was really, really wrestling with it. I'm no mathematician, but he came into the kitchen. He had this terrible look on his face. And I said, what's the matter? And he said, this math problem, I can't get it. And I looked at him and I said, do me a favor. What, he said. I said, go take a shower. And he looked at me as though I were nuts. But he took the shower, he came out of the shower and he had it. Isn't that something? What is it that happens to us when we let go?
BOHJALIANIt's a wonderful way the mind works, and I'm not a neuroscientist. I don't play one on TV. But I certainly do respect the shower principle.
REHMYeah. It's a great one. We've got another caller. Let's go to Michelle in Ellicott City, Maryland. You're on the air.
MICHELLEHi Diane. Hi Chris.
MICHELLEI'm a huge fan of your books, and have read several.
MICHELLEThe first -- oh, thank you. The first one I read was "The Double Bind." And it just got me hooked, and have read "Midwives" and "Night Strangers." And currently am gonna be reading "The Sandcastle Girls." And which really interests me, cause I'm of Armenian descent, so I'm anxious to read that.
MICHELLEBut my question is you write such diverse characters, and especially your main characters, and I'd love to know where you get your inspiration. Because you, you know, your books are so different and the characters in them are so well developed, which makes great stories, in my opinion.
BOHJALIANWell, thank you. I actually begin with character. I rarely begin with a story. I honestly have no idea what the book will be about in terms of plot. And so in a book like, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," it all begins with a 16-year-old girl trying to keep it together in an igloo made of trash bags. You mentioned "The Sandcastle Girls." I knew that I wanted to write about the Armenian genocide, but I needed a way in that would make it clear to so many North Americans who couldn't find Yerevan or Aleppo on a map.
BOHJALIANAnd so that meant a love story and I began with a character who isn't Armenian. A Mount Holyoke girl named Elizabeth. And it's really interesting, I just thought of this, how often western Massachusetts and Mt. Holyoke seems to figure into my books.
REHMWhat about the writings of Orhan Pamuk on the Armenian genocide?
BOHJALIANWell, certainly, as an Armenian American, and certainly as a writer, I revere Orhan Pamuk and for his courage. As a matter of fact, in "The Sandcastle Girls," one of the Turkish jarndarms (sp?) who will end up playing a pivotal wonderful role in getting proof of the Armenian genocide out is named Orhan, after Orhan Pamuk, because he is one of those -- you know, those wonderful Turkish writers and scholars who understands the importance of history and why we can only understand the present if we come to terms with our past.
REHMThere is still so much dispute about that Armenian genocide.
BOHJALIANThere's certainly a lot of denial in this world that appalls me as an Armenian-American, it appalls me as an American, it appalls me as a student of history. Because the Armenian genocide is such an incontrovertible fact. If you look at the Ottoman census figures alone, you can see the way the way that the Ottoman Empire was ethnically cleansed of Armenians, particularly when you are outside of Istanbul. And that's just looking at the own Ottoman census figures.
REHMDid you go there to write your book?
BOHJALIANI have been to the Armenian community in Beirut a number of times. I've been to Armenia a number of times. I've been to western Armenia, or eastern Turkey a number of times. In fact, I'm going back again in August. I never did, ironically, get to Syria when I was writing "The Sandcastle Girls," where so much of the book was set, because already, by 2011, the country was cataclysmically imploding.
REHMDo you have relatives there?
BOHJALIANI don't anymore, but I am the descendent of survivors of the Armenian genocide.
REHMInteresting. All right, let's go to Suzanne in Pittsburgh. Hi there. You're on the air.
SUZANNEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm curious, actually, my question has become amplified listening to the last few moments of your talking about your dedication as an historian, and kind of your appall when history is not represented authentically. My question actually is rooted in authors that depict life experience that is not of their own. And what responsibility authors have towards those populations. In more measurable terms, I think of "Memoirs of a Geisha." And historically, the power dynamics of the more privileged people representing others in story.
SUZANNEI myself went through foster care for a small example, and just what it means to have other people continually telling your story and also benefitting from and gaining wealth from those experiences.
BOHJALIANGreat question. Perfectly valid question. One of my favorite reviews of my books I've ever gotten was Library Journal in 1996 for "Midwives," a novel narrated by a daughter of a midwife on trial for manslaughter. And the review ended, "an added benefit of this novel is the candor and the honesty with which Chris Bohjalian writes about her experiences in labor and what it must have been like for her to give birth." I loved the way they presumed that Chris Bohjalian was a woman. It was extremely validating.
BOHJALIANNow, obviously, I am from the ultimate privileged class in North America -- middle aged, white male. I get it. But I also know that as writers, whether we are men or women, regardless of our backgrounds, regardless of our race, regardless of our religions, we have an obligation as writers to write about the stories that move us. And I have no compunction, whatsoever, writing across gender and mimicking other characters. I've narrated books from the perspective of a transsexual lesbian. An African-American foster child.
BOHJALIANWomen numerous times, and men. And here's the interesting footnote. Far and away, the most dislikeable narrators I have are middle aged white guys.
REHMI figured you were going to say that. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But it is, of course, the beauty of imagination that moves a writer, such as you, in whatever your imaginative realm you can find for yourself.
BOHJALIANAnd think of all of the poems Emily Dickinson wrote from the perspective of a male. Imagine if those poems didn't exist.
REHMChris, tell us about the title of this book.
BOHJALIANWell, one of the epigraphs for "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands" is from Emily Dickinson. "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant." And that is precisely how my Emily Shepard tells her story. And when she is explaining the title, she says "it sounds so beautiful. It sounds like a couple holding hands on a dock on a summer day and jumping off into the water." It's taking this beautiful leap of faith. But the realities of the origins of the title, as Emily Shepard will share with you, are far darker, far more cataclysmic, far more wrenching, just like Emily's story.
REHMAnd we are not sure of what happens to Emily.
BOHJALIANNo. No. And I tried to make the ending palpably authentic and palpably real after what she's endured. I didn't want to leave the reader with any false hopes for her future, but I also didn't want the reader to feel devastated, because I know when I finished this book, I felt a postpartum grieving, because I missed Emily so badly. You know, as a father, I cherish Emily Shepard as a daughter, as a person. I want only the best for her. And so when I finished the book, I knew I was going to miss her a lot.
REHMDo you think you'll write about her again?
BOHJALIANIt's possible. You never know. I've never written a sequel to a book. But I've -- only once before have I finished a book and felt this level of postpartum grieving, and that was "The Sandcastle Girls."
BOHJALIANPerhaps. We'll see. There might be more to Emily's story. Who know? I'd love it if there was. I'd absolutely love it if there was.
REHMDo you plan as you have done in the past to speak with book clubs about this?
BOHJALIANOh, I'm always happy to speak to book clubs. It wasn't all that long ago that my books sold briskly, but only among people with my last name. I try never to lose sight of that fact. So, I'm always so grateful when book clubs want me to join them, and you can simply go to my website, chrisbohjalian.com, and sign up on the reading group center, and I'll join you via Skype or speaker phone for 20 or 30 minutes.
REHM"Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." That's the title of Chris Bohjalian's new novel, one I enjoyed immensely.
BOHJALIANThank you, Diane.
REHMThank you. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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