Local, bestselling author offers glimpse into new novel

Bohjalian visits Dorothy Alling Library

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

Author Chris Bohjalian strode confidently to the podium at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library over the weekend, thanking the crowd for coming out on a rainy Saturday to listen to a few passages from his not-yet-published manuscript, “Skeletons At The Feast.”

The energetic novelist welcomed the room of 50, filled with longtime readers of his novels and his weekly newspaper column, calling them “medieval monks of the digital age, who still care about words, about reading and about what books can mean to the soul.”

The well-attended event was a success for the library, according to library Director Marti Fiske.

“This was the first time Chris has read at the library in Williston,” Fiske pointed out. “Ever since he’s gotten Oprah’s stamp of approval, his speaking prices have increased. But he tries to get out into the community as much as he can, and he was very gracious to take our much reduced offer.”

In a sharp dark suit worn over a pink and purple shirt, Bohjalian looked like a trendy Manhattanite, more publisher than author. Yet he is the first to joke about himself, quoting one Internet review for his 2003 novel “The Double Bind” as “the single worst book ever sold anywhere ever.”

He can afford the self-effacement. In a literary career spanning 19 years, he has published 10 books, three of which, including “The Double Bind,” have been New York Times bestsellers. His weekly column in the Burlington Free Press, “Idyll Chatter,” is in its 16th year. His book “Midwives” was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club.

He read the prologue of his new novel, a World War II era love triangle set on a sugar beet farm in East Prussia, with boyish enthusiasm. His hands gestured as his voice carried across the room, the phrases in his confident, researched descriptions exploding like the bomb blasts his characters hunker beneath.

Bohjalian’s novels have covered topics from home birth to homelessness, from animal rights to transgender identity, prompting the New York Times to label him an “issues novelist.” The author does draw the inspiration for many of his stories from real life characters. Yet the living figures are not recreated in his work — rather they are departure points for his fiction.

“I begin each story with the vaguest of premises. A couple, grieving for the loss of their girls in a flood, takes in a foster child. A public school teacher falls in love with a man about to undergo a sex change,” Bohjalian said. “Or when, in 1999, a friend asked me to take a look at his mother’s journal. Spanning from 1920 to 1945, it told the story of a matriarch trying to keep her family together on a massive estate in East Prussia, and how their lives change when their part of Prussia is taken over by the Polish, then the Germans. In the end, the family had to run to stay ahead of the Soviets.”

The author, still glowing from the creative effort of bringing the journal to life, remarked on how society and the industry have changed so much that the writer doesn’t get to just write anymore.

“I am fascinated by the process of publishing books. For an eight-week period earlier this year, I kept a time sheet to see how I spend my time,” Bohjalian said. “I discovered that I spend 15 percent of my time filing, 20 percent marketing, and only about 50 percent of my day writing. If you said to me in 1988 that as a writer, I’d only spend one out of every two hours writing, I’d have been really surprised.”

In Bohjalian’s search for ways to keep his books selling, he has discovered the Internet to be a vast marketplace he can utilize.

“While I worry that there are people out there who would rather watch sock puppet videos on YouTube than read, there are also a lot of people who are using the Web to connect about books. I am thrilled and astonished by the number of people who have reviewed and recommended my books on the Internet. On my Web site there are active discussion boards, reading group signups and you can ask me questions online. To sell books, I try to make myself incredibly accessible via the Web.”

Bohjalian seemed to enjoy fielding questions about his books, because they offered him the opportunity to talk about the origins of his stories. “The Double Bind,” for instance, came to him when Rita Markely, director of Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter, brought to his attention a box of photos left after the death of a homeless man named Bob “Soupy” Campbell. The photos were of luminaries, jazz musicians, and cityscapes. Bohjalian was fascinated by how Soupy had traveled from photographing beauty and glamour to dying homeless and unknown in northern Vermont.

With Bohjalian’s curiosity alive and well, his stories still highlight the sublime in everyday life. “Skeletons At The Feast” is expected to hit store shelves in May 2008.