On Monday I reviewed Chris Bohjalian’s new book, The Light in the Ruins. He is the critically acclaimed author of sixteen novels, several of which are my all-time favorites. He is also a genial and kind person, willing to take some of his personal time before his book tour starts to answer my questions. He’s been interviewed hundreds of times so he’s been asked just about everything but I gave it a chance anyway because I respect his talent so much. My first question was hardly subtle- as a research librarian I was hoping for some freelance work, which would be absolutely amazing—working for an author. Sadly, they seem to be an independent sort but, given his answer, it makes sense.
If you haven’t read him- get after it! If you’re in any of these cities head out to a reading of The Light in the Ruins and buy a copy of his book. You won’t regret it, except for the fact that you’ll have to set aside the rest of your life until you’re finished reading. And, depending on the book, you’re likely to cry. And you won’t want it to end.
Several of your books are historical and so finely detailed- do you have someone to do research? Do you do it yourself? How does process work?
No, I do all of my own research. I can’t imagine having someone else do it. So many of the most interesting things I learn come from the follow-up questions I ask or those wondrous digressions that mark any conversation. It’s the same with primary (or secondary) source documents: I never know what will trigger a scene or help me bring a character to life until I read the story or anecdote myself.
This is your second WWII themed novel. Did you feel like you had something left to say after Skeletons at the Feast or did The Light in Ruins surprise you?
“The Light in the Ruins” began as a re-imagining of “Romeo and Juliet.” My older novel, “Skeletons at the Feast,” was inspired by the diary a great friend of mine’s grandmother kept. But I think you are right that there are some parallels in the novels that transcend geography (Europe) and time (the end of the Second World War). Both are about young lovers – I savor a love story, I really do – and about moral compromise and the mistakes of an older generation.
Your novels are wide-ranging in their subject matter- from midwifery, rape, WWII, genocide and the supernatural to spirituality, are there other subjects we might expect to be given your storyteller’s touch?
My next novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” is about a homeless teenager in the wake of a nuclear plant meltdown in northern New England. And someday I might write a novel about biking. Or baseball. Or young lovers in modern day Aleppo. All are percolating.
Which of your characters has stayed with you the longest? Are there any that are still with you?
Hatoun from “The Sandcastle Girls.” And Laurel from “The Double Bind.” I still worry about Laurel.
Once the idea is there- is the writing process different every time? As in, you write chronologically, random scenes, plotting, diagramming? Or, after so many novels, is the story different but the process the same?
I write chronologically. And, yes, after 16 books, the process is the same – but so is the pleasure. I love what I do. I love every minute when I am writing fiction. All that “open a vein” stuff? Hyperbole. It’s important to be emotionally invested in your characters and your stories and to be honest, but – trust me – writing novels is fun.
I also have one of the world’s great editors, Jenny Jackson of Doubleday Books. I really appreciate both her macro sense of how a book feels and moves, and her instincts about which characters and scenes in a story matter most.
When do you know you’re finished with a book? Does the ending present itself as the ending or do you just have to stop?
The ending comes to you and you know this is the place to stop. The story has climaxed and the roller coaster is slowing down.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
Yes. Always. As a little boy I wanted to be what I am or Tom Seaver.
When you have free time, do you read? If so, what?
Oh, I read all the time. What novelist doesn’t? I read a lot of contemporary fiction, but also the classics, too. And a lot of what I read are galley copies of forthcoming books.