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Meet Chris Bohjalian

Where: Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord
When: Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m.
Contact: gibsonsbookstore.com, 224-0562, chrisbohjalian.com




Finding a story
Chris Bohjalian talks about his writing process

01/14/16
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 The first people to see Chris Bohjalian’s novels are usually his wife, photographer Victoria Blewer, and his daughter, Grace Experience Blewer, who’s been reviewing his rough drafts since she was 13. Both, he said via phone, are “brilliant readers.”

And it’s perhaps because of them that many of Bohjalian’s titles are told from the female perspective. His last book, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, for instance, is centered around a homeless teen, Emily, who lives in an igloo made of ice, trash bags and frozen leaves after a nuclear plant meltdown kills her parents. His latest book, released in January, The Guest Room, tells of a bachelor party gone horribly wrong, and in which a young sex slave, Alexandra, is running for her life.
“I tend to write about things that worry me the most,” Bohjalian said via phone New Year’s Day from his Vermont home. “So that means writing about women in jeopardy and women in trouble. My fears, my worst fears, are for my wife and my daughter.”
Just the same, he enjoys writing across gender and has done it for about half his books. His daughter even went so far as to say he found his niche with Emily.
“When my daughter, Grace, read Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, she said, ‘Dad, please take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way, but I think your sweet spot as a novelist is with seriously messed-up young women.’”
Grace Experience Blewer, a New York actress and recent graduate of  New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is also the audiobook actress for both that title and The Guest Room, among others for Penguin Random House Audio.
“She’s really good. I steer very clear, very far from the studio when she’s recording. Because first of all, she’s a professional,” Bohjalian said. “And I don’t want to hear her voice some of the things her character has endured. … I will listen to a few chapters I know are safe for me to listen to, but I will steer clear from listening to the most heart-wrenching, heartbreaking scenes in the books.”
Bohjalian does all his own research, and having written a column for the Burlington Free Press for years, he’s become accustomed to and enjoys talking with people for interviews. His life as a journalist taught him how to ask the right questions, the importance of doing your homework and to be concise.
“It teaches you to write scenes quickly and get to the point,” Bohjalian said. “I fear I’m the kind of novelist if, unencumbered, I could spend 50 words describing a scene.”
But he performs interviews differently as a novelist, with more leisure and different expectations. Often, they’re done to fact-check, to confirm his characters and scenarios are realistic and relatable. It sometimes takes longer, but his subjects usually find it easier, knowing they can have complete anonymity if they want to.
Living in Vermont also helps. Even when he wasn’t a big name, a little more than 20 years ago, he always found people willing to talk because everyone knows each other.
For The Guest Room, there was also a lot of reading — an important title was Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery — and a lot of playing around with the idea. This one came from an experience he had while staying in Yerevan, Armenia. His daughter’s friend had come along with the family for the trip, and while he waited in the hotel lobby to take her to the airport, Bohjalian saw a young woman, clearly an escort around 19 or so, paying off the bellman to go upstairs. It was heartbreaking.
The first chapter he wrote for The Guest Room was one of the last chapters in the book, told in Alexandra’s voice.
“That was a good indication to me this was a book I wanted to write, because I knew Alexandra’s voice. I had fun writing in Alexandra’s voice, and it felt authentic to me,” Bohjalian said. “I go through a number of dead ends before I figure out what my next book is going to be, and that’s fine. I wanted to explore this, even if I wasn’t precisely sure what ‘this’ meant.”
When he’s not on a book tour, he wakes at about 6 a.m. and writes until lunch, with the goal of producing about 1,000 words. Besides spending time with his wife and daughter, he said there’s little he enjoys more. When he was in college, a writer-in-residence told him to “be a banker.” He ignored her and ventured forward anyway.
“I have written some truly terrible stuff in my life — I’ve written the worst first novel ever published, so maybe she was on to something at the time, and maybe my writing at the time really was a trainwreck,” Bohjalian said. “But I [kept at it] because I just loved to write.” 





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