Words to Remember

#1 New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian shares his reflections on his new book, The Lioness, his life in Vermont, and the stories behind some of his most cherished novels


STORY

BENJAMIN LERNER

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY

CHRIS BOHJALIAN


Chris Bohjalian’s novels are truly powerful. As their storylines unfold, beautifully-crafted phrases and scenic descriptions blend together like the vivid and brilliant colors in a summertime Vermont sunset. Over the past four decades, Bohjalian has published 24 books, most of which are New York Times Bestsellers. Many of his most well-received novels are set in the Green Mountain State, where he has lived with his wife, Victoria, for 34 years. “My books walk a tightrope between heartbreak and hope,” says Bohjalian. “My goal is to never write the same book twice.”

Bohjalian’s writing style is strong and distinctive, and the behavioral nuances of the protagonists and supporting characters in his novels are brought to life in exquisite detail. His exceptional ability to effectively capture a broad spectrum of human experiences, topics, and themes in his writing has garnered him an enduring legion of loyal followers and cemented his position as a respected figure in the world of modern fiction. His novels have been adapted into several films (Past the Bleachers, Midwives, and Secrets of Eden) and the Emmy®-nominated HBO® television series The Flight Attendant, which is now in its second season. He is also an accomplished journalist and playwright.


Bohjalian’s newest novel, The Lioness, is a perfectly-paced thrill ride that is sure to delight his longtime fans and new readers alike. Within its pages, a captivating narrative takes shape through the viewpoints of a diverse range of contrasting characters. Bound together through a shared traumatic experience, their lives hang in the balance as they are faced with a threatening incursion. The bold and uncompromising fashion in which the story is told serves as a perfect manifestation of Bohjalian’s indomitable creative spirit, which has enabled him to overcome a series of difficult challenges throughout the course of his career. By tapping into a vast reservoir of unflinching determination and artistic tenacity, Bohjalian found the strength to rewrite the story of his life, one day – and one page – at a time.


Defining Moments


Much like many of the characters in his novels, Bohjalian has experienced a series of defining moments in which he was confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The first of these moments happened during his college years at Amherst. It was there that he met his wife, Victoria Blewer, who is a gifted photographer and artist, and was a student at nearby Smith College.

Unfortunately, he also met an esteemed professor who greeted his creative efforts with a disappointing response. Bohjalian recalls: “There was a visiting creative writing professor who was very accomplished, and I really wanted to be in her class. In order to determine who would be among the students chosen for her creative writing seminar, the professor requested that we all submit a short story. After I handed in my story, I was summoned to the brick monolith that housed the English department. It was a dusky January day when I walked into the building. I saw her sitting behind a desk that was the size of a putting green. She looked up to me and said, ‘Ah…you must be Chris. I’m not even going to try to pronounce your last name.’ She beckoned me in, slid the story across the desk as if it was roadkill, and then said the following: ‘I have three words for you, Chris: Be a banker.’”



Although the professor’s words were painful to hear, Bohjalian used the ensuing feeling of creative disillusionment to fan the flames of his creative ambition. “I often tell young writers that it’s important to write with a fire in your belly,” says Bohjalian. “Write because you love it madly, write because you want to prove your doubters wrong, and write because you want your words to be remembered.”


After graduating from Amherst, Bohjalian moved to New York City, where he followed in his father’s footsteps and took a job at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. “I went into advertising to pay the rent, but I never stopped writing. I wrote short stories and sent them relentlessly to publications like Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. My stories got summarily and consistently rejected, so I came up with another plan.”


In the wake of his creative setback, Bohjalian doubled down on his efforts. At the time, Cosmopolitan was publishing many short stories. Bohjalian rounded up several issues of Cosmopolitan, and began studying them in an effort to understand what constituted an ideal short story that would appeal to their audience. After carefully reviewing the tone and style of the Cosmopolitan pieces, Bohjalian drafted a short story called, “Sparks,” which told the tale of a female supermodel who was unhappily married to a spectacularly wealthy arbitrage trader. Bohjalian found success through his strategy, and Cosmopolitan published the story in their June 1988 issue.


One month before that story was published, a coincidental confluence of events prompted Bohjalian to consider a change of scene. The day after Bohjalian and his wife witnessed a forceful and frightening drug bust while walking down the street in New York City, they saw an article about Burlington in the travel section of The New York Times. “At the time, there were express flights that flew between Newark and Burlington for $19,” says Bohjalian. “We flew to Vermont on Memorial Day weekend in 1988, and the rest is history.”


The Vermont Connection


After falling in love with Vermont during his trip to Burlington with his wife, Victoria, Bohjalian set up a series of interviews at advertising agencies in Burlington. Bohjalian quickly landed a job at Sandage Advertising & Marketing, and he and Victoria purchased a house in nearby

Lincoln, Vermont. During this period of transition, Bohjalian’s debut novel, A Killing in the Real World, was published in July 1988. Bohjalian and his wife finalized their move from Brooklyn to Lincoln in October 1988, and he spent the next several years working at Sandage while continuing to pursue his literary aspirations.


The first novel that Bohjalian wrote in Vermont, Hangman, was published in 1991. The story is centered around a couple who moves to Vermont from the city to start a new life, only to find tragedy and death at the hands of an uncertain perpetrator. According to Bohjalian, writing Hangman helped him face his fears and doubts about his relocation and embrace his new life in Vermont.


In 1989, Bohjalian began writing for the Burlington Free Press as a contributing business and marketing columnist. In the years that followed, he wrote lifestyle columns and book reviews, and also penned articles for VERMONT Magazine, Vermont Life, Reader’s Digest, and newspapers such as The Boston Globe. In 1992, Bohjalian wrote the first of his celebrated weekly “Idyll Banter” columns for the Burlington Free Press. The columns candidly articulated his experiences as a Vermont transplant who was adjusting to the pace of rural life. The column ran from 1992 to 2015, and a compilation volume of selected columns, Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, was released in 2003.


In the same year that Bohjalian wrote his first Idyll Banter column, his touching and poignant third novel, Past the Bleachers, was published in 1992. At the time, Bohjalian was grieving the deaths of his older family members while anticipating the birth of his first child. He channeled his feelings regarding life and mortality into the novel, which also featured a baseball diamond that was inspired by the field that hosted little league baseball games in Lincoln.


After Bohjalian’s daughter, Grace Experience, was born in 1993, Bohjalian decided to quit his job in advertising to focus on writing fiction and journalism full-time. Although Bohjalian’s decision resulted in a brief period of financial instability, his creative efforts were rewarded when Past the Bleachers was made into a film in 1995. Bohjalian’s fourth novel, Water Witches, was also published in 1995. The novel marked the beginning of a series of Vermont-based stories that incorporated topical themes. It told the story of a water diviner whose livelihood and community were put at risk by the ambitious construction campaign of a nearby ski resort. Bohjalian followed up that environmentally-conscious novel with Midwives in 1997, which ended up becoming a breakthrough national bestseller that launched his career to new heights. Bohjalian put his journalistic skills to use during the research period for Midwives. He interviewed 65 different midwives, nurses, and new mothers and fathers across the state of Vermont.


According to Bohjalian, the easy accessibility of public figures and social workers in Vermont greatly aided him in his writing process for several additional novels, including Trans-Sister Radio (2000), The Buffalo Soldier (2002), and The Sleepwalker (2017). “Vermont is a great place to be a writer,” notes Bohjalian. “When I wanted to write a book about the foster care system, I called the department of Human Services in Montpelier directly to learn more about their programs. I expected to get an administrative assistant who would put me on hold. Instead, I got to talk to the head of Human Services and scheduled a lunch with him the next day. That type of interaction would never happen in many other states.”


Bohjalian has drawn inspiration for several of his other books from his personal experiences in Vermont. The opening scene in his 2009 novel Secrets of Eden is set at a picturesque pond, which is directly based on a small body of water in South Lincoln. The pond serves as the location of a pivotal scene in the book and sets the stage for the gripping tale of a community that is rocked by a grisly murder. Bohjalian says that the idea for The Sleepwalker first began to percolate when he was having lunch with the head of the Sleep Center at the University of Vermont Hospital. “I originally thought that I was going to write a book about dreams and the subconscious, but he had just come from working with a patient who was a sleepwalker. He started telling me stories about sleepwalking, and I was instantly hooked.”


Write Global, Act Local


After Bohjalian stepped away from his career in journalism to focus on writing fiction, he decided that he wanted to expand the settings of his novels beyond the borders of the Green Mountain State. The first novel to break from his established pattern of Vermont-based books was Skeletons at the Feast (2008). “I really wanted to write a novel about the Holocaust,” says Bohjalian. “I also felt a moral obligation as an Armenian-American to write a novel about the Armenian Genocide.” Bohjalian paid tribute to his Armenian roots with his 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, a timeless love story spanning several continents that tugs at readers’ heartstrings while dealing with themes of romance, loss, and generational trauma.


As time passed, Bohjalian also began to change the formula of his books to accommodate the changing tastes of his readership. “I watched how television shows were changing and books were changing, and I knew that readers wanted something different. My more recent books are still very literary in nature and not pure thrillers, but they move at a much faster pace than my earlier novels. Books like The Red Lotus, The Flight Attendant, and The Lioness open with a bang, which reflects the changes I have witnessed in our culture.”


Penguin Random House Audio has been recording his audiobooks since 1997. Several of his audiobooks have been recorded by his talented daughter, Grace Experience, who is also a successful actress. “She’s done the audiobooks for Hour of the Witch, The Flight Attendant, The Guest Room, The Sleepwalker, and The Lioness,” says Bohjalian. “Raising her here in Vermont was one of the best parts of my life, and it brings me so much happiness to be able to work with her.”


In 2018, Bohjalian branched out into a new medium when he wrote his first play, Wingspan. “I wound up writing plays because my friend, Alexander Dinelaris, who wrote the screenplay for Birdman, suggested that I write one. I originally thought he was kidding, but he kept asking about it, so eventually I did. I wrote a play about two flight attendants that was completely different from The Flight Attendant, and I had a lot of fun doing it.” Wingspan premiered in 2018 at 59E59 in New York City, and starred Grace Experience and K.K. Glick. Bohjalian then worked with David Saint, the Artistic Director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to write a stage adaptation of Midwives, which premiered in 2020.


Bohjalian is known for his ability to create believable characters from all walks of life, and he goes above and beyond to be mindful of the societal impact of his novels, including The Lioness. “I believe that it would be wrong to write a book in certain settings without diverse voices, such as the African voices in The Lioness, and its many female characters. It’s a story that is deeply-rooted in both the Hollywood experience and the African experience, and they come together in the novel in complex and fascinating ways.”


In line with his commitment to advocating for racial equity, gender equity, and female empowerment through his creative works, Bohjalian has partnered with Lake Champlain Chocolates to create a limited-edition chocolate bar that will coincide with the release of The Lioness. Bohjalian elaborates: “I have been delighting in Lake Champlain Chocolates for years. If I’m allowed one food on a desert island, it’s going to be their chocolate truffles. When I heard that they wanted to create a chocolate bar to celebrate my new novel, The Lioness, I felt like a kid in a candy store. They have come up with a delicious extra dark chocolate bar, and I really appreciate how two dollars from each bar will be donated to Fair Trade USA to empower women in agriculture across Africa.”


In addition to savoring some tasty treats from Lake Champlain Chocolates, Bohjalian also loves traveling around Vermont and enjoying the best of what the Green Mountain State has to offer. He’s a fan of the Dorset Theatre Festival and the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Southern Vermont, and he always makes sure to stop in at the Northshire Bookstore whenever he is in Manchester. “Up north, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington is phenomenal, and the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe is gorgeous,” adds Bohjalian. “Addison County is a spectacular place to bike. It has quiet two-lane roads with almost no traffic – it’s heaven for cyclists.”


Bohjalian is also grateful to be a member of Vermont’s extraordinary literary community – and is thankful for the life lessons that he has learned in the Green Mountain State. “We have a lot of talented poets, novelists, and short story writers living here, including Archer Mayor, Julia Alvarez, Jay Parini, Stephen Kiernan, and Jennifer McMahon, among others. Wallace Stegner and Howard Frank Mosher made an incredible impact with their work, and I also have a great deal of respect for everyone who is working as a journalist in Vermont today. Vermont is a wonderful place to live, raise children, and write, and I’ve learned a lot from living here and having conversations with my neighbors. There are so many amazing stories here, and I’m excited to find new stories about Vermont that haven’t been told yet.”


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