Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Q&A with Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of the new novel The Guest Room. His many bestselling novels include The Sandcastle Girls and The Double Bind. His work has appeared in a variety of places, including The Washington Post and the Burlington Free Press. He lives in Vermont.

Q: You've said you were inspired to write about sex trafficking after glimpsing a young woman, the age of your daughter, getting into a hotel elevator in Yerevan, Armenia. What was the writing process involved in humanizing and fictionalizing this difficult issue?

A: There were a couple of issues that were important to me as a novelist while I was writing this book.

First of all, I did not want the sex in the novel to be erotic or gratuitous. I wanted it to be clear that this behavior is about violence and degradation and enslavement.  

Moreover, I know a little violence goes a long way: I wanted to be sure that readers would keep turning the pages.

So, I often had my novel The Double Bind in mind. That book revolves around a horrific sexual assault, but most readers stayed with it.  And I believe they stayed with it because there is respite from the violence.  It’s about other things: homelessness, photography, etc.

Consequently, The Guest Room is about a lot of things: a marriage in crisis, a man’s fall from grace, what it means to be a parent. 

Second, I hope — again, like The Double Bind — there are characters my readers can identify with and care about. 

In this case, that meant making sure that Alexandra and Kristin and Richard and Melissa all have rich, internal lives and backstories.

In the end, I feel The Guest Room is first and foremost a literary thriller. But, of course, my hope also is that it will help raise awareness of these issues.

Q: The novel includes the viewpoints of several different characters, but only Alexandra’s story is told in the first person. Why is that?

A: My daughter said something very astute after she read one of my earlier novels, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

“Dad,” she said, “take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way.  But I think your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed up young women.”

She was referring, of course, to that book’s narrator, Emily Shepard. But she was also thinking of Connie Danforth in Midwives or Laurel Estabrook in The Double Bind or Serafina Bettini in The Light in the Ruins. And she could have been speaking now about Alexandra.

All of those young women (and many others in my work), have deep emotional or physical scars. But they are also survivors. They are strong and interesting and courageous.

And I view Alexandra the way I do all of them – and so I wanted her to have her own voice.

But I also wanted to juxtapose her voice with the perspective of the Americans. She is presented, as you observed, in the first person.  Richard and Kristin and Melissa and Philip and Nicole are all presented in the third person. I hope that makes Alexandra’s utter loneliness – her aloneness, to be precise – all the more apparent and wrenching.

Q: You focused on Armenia in your novel The Sandcastle Girls, and in The Guest Room, one of the main characters is also Armenian. Why did you decide to set some of this new book in Armenia?

A: In some ways, the two novels are bookends – the past and the present.

The Sandcastle Girls gives voice to the 1.5 million Armenians systematically annihilated in the Armenian Genocide, and that is profoundly important to me as a descendant of survivors. 

At the same time, however, I never want to lose sight of Armenia today, and the amazing, beautiful, intelligent new generation growing up there. I want to give voice to them, too. 

Every time I’m there, I am utterly dazzled by the young people. When I was in Yerevan in September, I spoke at some of the universities, and the students’ enthusiasm and drive humbled me.

But the nation really needs those of us in the Diaspora to step up. The country is trying to build a market economy while surrounded by closed borders and nations that wish it did not exist; it is trying to build democracy after generations of communism; and one of its largest cities, Gyumri, is still rebuilding from a cataclysmic earthquake.

That is all material for great drama and great fiction.  I hope you see elements of all of it in The Guest Room.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Oh, these things tend to change a lot: the characters, the plot, the themes. But I have been researching parasomnias lately and studying some very specific kinds of sleepwalking. Expect a literary thriller in 2017.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Chris Bohjalian, please click here.

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