Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chris Bohjalian talks about THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, flawed heroines, the bliss of writing, and so much more

 Filled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, ‘The Flight Attendant’ is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work.”
— Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Chris Bohjalian's brand new novel, “The Flight Attendant,” just landed. I couldn't resist opening with that play on words. I first met Chris on a stage at Rainy Day Books. Pictures of You was just published, I was on tour, and I was NERVOUS. Chris was so funny, warm, supportive. AND he wore bright yellow sneakers in honor of my red boots. We had a blast that day, and I've loved him ever since.

His latest novel, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT is smart, surprising, and I guarantee you'll be up all night because what's sleep compared to tension and suspense?

Ready for the impressive bio?

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.

His awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for “Idyll Banter” from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives,was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you, thank you, for everything, Chris.

 I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel.

I didn’t necessarily know “this” was the time for this novel.  Sometimes I seem to get lucky and sense what’s out there in the zeitgeist.  But I wasn’t thinking when I began writing what would become The Flight Attendant in March 2016, “Russian espionage and election meddling will be a news story in March 2018.”  I wish I had that kind of foresight. 
But I have always been fascinated with the Russian soul and loved Russian literature.  And as you know from our wonderful events together in 2011 when you were touring for your magnificent novel, Pictures of You, and I was touring for The Night Strangers, I’ve always been fascinated by aviation and air travel.  I am in awe of flight attendants and pilots.
 And one evening, it all came together at – appropriately – a bar.  I had just flown into JFK from Armenia via Moscow, and I was meeting a friend for dinner at an Armenian restaurant we love in Manhattan.  I was an hour early and so I settled with a glass of arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored alcohol I love.  And my mind was thinking about air travel and Russia, and I suddenly I was scribbling frantically on every piece of scrap paper the bartender had handy.  The premise?  A flight attendant who drinks too much would wake up in a sumptuous hotel bed in Dubai next to a dead body.  All I knew when I started writing was that it would be a thriller with a deeply flawed heroine, and there would be Russian intrigue.

So much of The Flight Attendant is about what we remember and why, what we are addicted to and why, and how those forces shape us. Can you talk about that please?

As a species, we move away from pain and we move toward pleasure.  I assume all animals do. 
In the case of my flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, she has become addicted to the pleasure – alcohol – that took away her pain.  Her deep emotional pain.  All those margaritas and negronis she downs in the course of the novel?  All that arak and all that wine?  It’s drowning a lot of unhappiness and a lot of terrible scars from her childhood. 
 So, yes, she is a functional alcoholic.  And like a lot of alcoholics, she is also a profoundly wounded bird.  I think that’s why I cared about her so much and worried about her so much.

I remember years ago, you were talking about researching plane crashes, and how people shouldn’t rest their feet under their seats if they’re ever told to brace for impact in an imminent crash, because they might break their ankles and be unable to walk away from a crash! I imagine you learned some new things in researching this novel! Pray tell!

 Well, I learned the difference in cost if you want to kill a contracts manager in Donetsk versus Dubai.  That helped the novel immeasurably. 
But the things I learned that have really stayed with me are just how spectacular most flight attendants are and how hard the job really is.  The women and men who keep us safe and manage the passenger cabin of an airplane are well-trained, dedicated, and incredibly fast on their feet – and they deal with all sorts of horrific passenger misbehavior.  The stories they told me about drunk passengers, entitled passengers, ornery passengers, and just plain rude passengers were astonishing.  And, yes, I used a lot of those stories in the novel – including the tale I came across in my research about the grandmother who allowed her toddler grandson to try and urinate into an air sickness bag.  The lad missed.  The nearby passengers wound up soaked.  And the grandmother?  Not an ounce of contrition.

Holy cow, you have movie rights optioned!  Will you do a cameo? Any interest in writing the script?

Yes, Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory has optioned it for a limited series for Warner Brothers TV.  I couldn’t be happier.  There is no actor I can think of more perfect to bring my alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant to life than Kaley. 
 I am not writing the script.  But I am co-writing the screenplay for the film of my 2017 novel, The Sleepwalker. 
I’m also writing a new stage adaptation of my 1997 novel, Midwives.

I also have to ask you this: The galley is phenomenal looking, with quotes from every major paper around. Yet, knowing you, I know that you are one of the kindest, most down-to-earth writers I know. How have you avoided what fame does to some writers?

 Well, I could ask the exact same question of you.  And I think most of our mutual friends who write are pretty down-to-earth and keep us humble.
Also, writing isn’t a zero sum game.  There’s room for all of us. I’ll bet you read between forty and fifty books a year. 
Finally – again, like you – I never lose sight of what a blessing it is to be a novelist.  It’s just so damn much fun.  The Flight Attendant is my twentieth book, and my goal has been to never write the same book twice.  And that’s meant I’ve never been bored.  Some novels have been much harder to write than others and some books have been much better than others, but so long as I’ve tried something new and tried my best, it’s always been pretty satisfying.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 I’m deep into my next novel.  Shhhhhhhh. . .

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