Chris Bohjalian is the author of 16 books, including the best-selling novels Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind. His new novel, The Light in the Ruins, will be out in July. He lives in Vermont.
Q: Your next novel, The Light in the Ruins, takes place in Italy during and after World War II. What can you tell us about how you came up with the story and the characters?
A: The novel began as a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, this time set in Tuscany at the end of the Second World War. I have always savored love stories – especially epic love stories set in war. Books such as Atonement and The English Patient.
And while the love story is instrumental to the novel, the tale grew beyond that. Now it’s the story of two young women, one of whom was a partisan battling the Nazis and Blackshirts. The other is a Tuscan nobleman’s daughter who falls in love with a German lieutenant. The book moves back and forth in time between the cataclysm that was Tuscany in 1944 and Florence in 1955 – when a serial killer is murdering one-by-one the remnants of the nobleman’s family.
It’s set in one of my favorite parts of the world: That part of Italy called the Crete Senesi – the hills and woods and the eerily lunar-like landscape south of Siena.
Q: On your website, your novel The Sandcastle Girls is described as your "most personal novel to date." Why is this the case, and what is special about this particular novel?
A: My grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide: The Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenian citizens. Three out of every four Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed between 1915 and the end of First World War.
I had tried before to write of the Genocide and failed. This time, with my father’s health failing, I felt a moral obligation to try again – and this time I got it right. There is a lot of my childhood in that book.
I think it’s interesting that this time I succeeded because I wrote a love story. That says something about the types of books I love to read and write – and about the soul’s need to connect even in the midst of nearly indescribable horrors.
Q: Some of your novels take place in an earlier time period, while others are set more or less in the present time. Do you prefer one to the other, and if so, why?
A: I really don’t have a preference. What does matter to me is that I am obsessed with my characters. I know a book is working when I am thinking about my characters’ dilemmas and plights when I’m on my bike or lifting at the gym; I know a book is failing when I put it aside for the day and don’t think about again until tomorrow.
So, books like The Sandcastle Girls or the novel I am writing now were constructed, in part, from the scribbles I would make I on scrap paper at the gym or on my iPhone. I love dropping my bike in the grass 25 or 30 miles from my home and sending myself emails with bits and pieces of a scene that I know is going to work.
Q: Are there any of your characters that stick with you more than others?
A: I still worry about Laurel Estabrook from The Double Bind. I hope she is healing.
I still think about little Hatoun from The Sandcastle Girls. She’s the subject of my favorite last sentence I’ve written in any of my novels.
And these days I fret a lot about Serafina Bettini, the deeply scarred partisan fighter and homicide detective in my forthcoming novel, The Light in the Ruins.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am about two-thirds of the way through a novel called Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. It’s the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless New England teenager, living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with leaves after a nuclear power plant meltdown has killed her mother and father and rendered Vermont's Northeast Kingdom uninhabitable.
Haunted by the death of her parents and her imaginings of the poet Emily Dickinson, she sets out for Burlington, hoping somehow to start again. There she meets a runaway nine-year-old foster child, who she winds up protecting from all dangers with a ferocity she didn't know she had. The novel is narrated by Emily and I think readers will be reminded of the strong but wounded young women who have appeared in some of my earlier books – notably Midwives, The Double Bind, and The Sandcastle Girls.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The other day my wife and I got a new stove. When the old one was removed, we found 28 cat toys – 28! – underneath and behind it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Chris Bohjalian will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.