Monday, October 3, 2011

Chris Bohjalian talks about The Night Strangers, Ghosts, Plane Crashes, Locked Doors--and wait, there's more!

You can't help but adore Chris Bohjalian. First, he's a wonderful writer.  But he's also one of the funniest, warmest people on the planet. I'm honored he blurbed me, and I was thrilled to share a stage with him at Rainy Day books, where Chris threw out t-shirts to audience members who could answer questions like "Which book has more pages, mine or War and Peace?" and he wore the coolest yellow sneakers around. Plus, of course, he likes cupcakes.

The Night Strangers is an unsettling and eerie novel about plane crashes, sinister herbalists, and how the dead and the living interact. I can't thank him enough for answering my pesty questions. But I'll try: Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, Chris! And just for the record, those shiny yellow sneakers below, beside the red cowboy boots? They belong to Chris and me--we are at the fabulous Rainy Day Books Event!

So much about The Night Strangers is harrowing and fascinating. Where did the idea spark?

First of all, thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel.
And spark is an interesting word in this case. More on that in a moment.
My basement just might be the scariest place on earth. It’s not merely that a sizable chunk of the floor is dirt, which means that after a good rain whole sections become the sort of slop that swallowed humans alive in bad science fiction movies from the 1950s. It’s not the fact that there is a Gordian knot of tubes and pipes along the ceiling (which is little more than a crawlspace in some sections), some of which carry water and some of which carry LP gas.
It’s the door.
Along one of the basement foundation walls, below ground, is a door about five and a half feet tall and three feet wide. It’s made of unfinished wooden planks and was added at some point after the 1898 Victorian above it was first constructed. When my wife and I moved into the house in Vermont, it was nailed shut. There was a moldy pile of coal beside it, a decomposing little mesa, and so I convinced myself the door was merely a part of an old coal chute. (Of course, to this day I have yet to find the exterior entrance to the chute.)

Now, the closest I have ever come to accidentally killing myself in my 24 years as a homeowner in northern New England occurred in that basement. Sure, I’ve nearly slid off the roof shoveling snow from atop of the screened porch. I’ve been conked in the head by the blunt side of an ax while hammering away at an ice jam. But the least competent (translation: seriously stupid) thing I have ever done as a homeowner occurred in that basement.

Our first winter in Vermont, our pipes froze. Still under the delusion that I had the slightest idea what I was doing when it came to this old house, I borrowed a friend’s propane torch. His advice? Run it along the pipes and it will thaw the ice. My wife and I descended into the crawlspace and began carefully running the flame over the tubing. We’d been at it two or three minutes when my wife remarked casually, “I wonder if this is a gas pipe or a water pipe?” Yes, it was a gas pipe. My bad. I still get a little queasy when I think about how close I came to blowing up the village.

In any case, it would be years after we had moved in that I would decide to man up and pull that basement door open. The project demanded a crowbar, a wrench, and – at one point – an ax. After hours of toil, behind that door I found. . .nothing. There was a slender cubicle the height and width of the door and maybe eighteen inches deep. The walls were made of wood, and behind them was nothing but earth. It certainly did not resemble a coal chute. It was more like a closet – or a crypt behind which you might wall up a neighbor alive. So, I nailed the door shut and now stay away from that corner of the basement.  
Nevertheless, I think I understood even then that the door was going to lead to a novel. I just didn’t know how.

In 2009, I got my answer. One January afternoon, along with many thousands of other people, I raced to my television set and watched the evacuation of US Airways flight 1549 as it occurred, staring enrapt as passengers stood on the wings and the plane floated amidst the waves of the Hudson River. It may have been the shape of the jet’s cabin doors, but I thought of the door in my basement. The next morning, I wrote the following sentence: “The door was presumed to have been the entry to a coal chute, a perfectly reasonable assumption since a small hillock of damp coal sat moldering before it.” 
And so begins “The Night Strangers.”

I loved all the research that must have gone into all the herb lore. Were you ever tempted to try them yourself?

I am always tempted. Once I wrote an article for Cosmopolitan magazine on herbal aphrodisiacs. My wife and I had the best time.

And knowing what you now know about planes, are you more nervous flying?

I fly way too often to be a white-knuckle flyer. But I am the sort who counts the number of seats between me and an emergency exit. Still, I did read a disturbing number of black box transcripts from doomed airliners. I also watched a lot of terrifying NTSB computer animations of crashes and interviewed pilots. I was even dunked in a mock plane ditching.

Nevertheless, I still rather like the whole experience of arriving at an airport and flying. I have made my share of bad jokes about TSA pat-downs and certainly complained about the size of a seat in a regional jet. But when I travel, I pretend I am George Clooney in “Up in the Air” or that it’s 1967 – an era when people still wore skirts and blazers when they flew, instead of flip-flops and sweatpants. I stand a little taller, walk a little more briskly, and treat myself to a pretty good glass of wine.

 What also impressed me is how different this novel is from your last--how, every novel seems to be different. Is this something you consciously strive for or does your subconscious just hijack things?

I never want to write the same novel twice. “Secrets of Eden” was about domestic violence, a double murder, and a Vermont pastor’s guilt. “Skeletons at the Feast” was a love story set in the last six months of World War II in Germany and Poland, and explored one family’s complicity in the Holocaust. And “The Double Bind” was the tale of a young social worker’s descent into madness after a violent sexual assault.

And so while my characters do take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story, I tend to begin with an idea relatively far removed from my most recent novel.

What's obsessing you now?

I just completed a draft of a novel set amidst the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and the World War One battle of Gallipoli. A young Boston graduate from Mount Holyoke College and an Armenian engineer are among the main characters. It’s called “The Sandcastle Girls.” I am half-Armenian and three of my four Armenian great-grandparents died in the Genocide.

 I love historical fiction. Although the research for this novel and “Skeletons at the Feast” was wrenching, I found the experience of writing those books among the satisfying things I have ever done.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Are you excited about the movie of “Secrets of Eden?” I am, yes. John Stamos and Anna Gunn are terrific. This is second time Lifetime has adapted one of my novels for a TV film, and I have found them a delight to work with. It airs for the first time on November 21.

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