Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interview with Chris Bohjalian, Author of Skeletons at the Feast

Chris Bohjalian sent out an email a few days ago to announce that this Sunday his latest novel, Skeletons At the Feast, is set to debut on the New York Times Bestseller List. Set during the final six months of WWII the book features a small group of travelers whose rank includes a Prussian aristocrat, a Scottish prisoner and a corporal with a secret past. Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

In light of the success of Chris Bohjalian's Skeletons At the Feast, I thought it might be interesting to present the Loaded Questions interview I did with Chris a year ago.

Kelly Hewitt: In doing some research about you I recently stumbled across "Idyll Banter" a column that you have been writing for the Burlington Free Press in Vermont for the last thirteen years. (The column has been turned into a book of essays that shares the same name...) Despite not having ever set foot in Vermont I found the columns very interesting. Would you share a bit with our readers about what "Idyll Banter" is about? How has it changed over the years?

Chris Bohjalian: Actually, I have been writing the column since February 1992. We are approaching the start of my 16th year.

"Idyll Banter" began as the ruminations of an idiot flandlander who moved directly from Brooklyn to a village of barely a thousand people in rural Vermont. The town in which I live sits halfway up Vermont's third highest mountain.

Over the decade and a half I have been writing the column, however, it has evolved into a chronicle of what I have learned as a father, a husband, and a resident of a community so small that you simply have to take responsibility for how you live your life and the footprint you leave on the planet.

That sounds a tad crunchy, a tad sensitive. Its true. But the column is also a reasonably funny 19 column inches each week. In the last month, for example, my columns have addressed why my wife and I went to see "Jackass 2;" how wistful fall is for everyone -- not just James Blunt; why one woman lives for Halloween and black vinyl; and why the ladies room is such a mystery to men.

To read it weekly, simply visit the front page of my website, or the Burlington Free Press.

The Columns are also brought to life periodically on the Hallmark Station's "New Morning" program weekdays at 7 a.m. To see the filmed version of "Idyll Banter", simply turn on the speakers to your computer and click here.

Kelly: A couple of profiles of you I have read have painted you as a neat-freak who can't help but write perfectly thought out and tidy novels. Does that ring true? If so, what is your biggest pet peeve as far as neatness goes?

Chris: Yes, I am very neat. Very tidy. I detest clutter, and I simply have to have an immaculate desk and an immaculate library to be productive.

I control the clutter in my library. Alas, I do not control the clutter -- at least with the same draconian vigilance -- in my family's cars. And so I think my biggest "neat freak" pet peeve is the way people view cars as really big knapsacks in which you just toss anything.

Kelly: You are an author who spends a great deal of time researching the subject of your novel. You spent time with transsexuals and their families for "Tran-Sister Radio", learned about the beliefs of gun rights activists for "Before You Know Kindness" and witnessed the birth of a baby for "Midwives". What sort of research went into your new novel, "The Double Bind"? Can you tell us a bit about the new novel?

Chris: "The Double Bind" had its origins in December 2003, when Rita Markley, the executive director of Burlington, Vermont's Committee on Temporary Shelter, shared with me the contents of a box of old photographs. The black-and-white images had been taken by a once-homeless man who had died in the studio apartment her organization had found for him. His name was Bob “Soupy” Campbell.

The photos were remarkable, both because of the man’s evident talent and because of the subject matter. I recognized the performers – musicians, comedians, actors – and newsmakers in many of them. Most of the photos were at least forty years old. We were all mystified as to how Campbell had gone from photographing luminaries from the 1950s and 1960s to winding up at a homeless shelter in northern Vermont. He had no surviving family we were aware of that we could ask.

The reality, of course, is that Campbell probably wound up homeless for any one of the myriad of reasons that most transients wind up on the streets: mental illness. Substance abuse. Bad luck.

I was profoundly moved by the work he left behind, and was inspired to write a novel. The new book is about a young social worker who works with the homeless, the elderly photographer she befriends before he dies, and the images he left behind. In the novel (versus in reality), the social worker realizes the photos are the link both to her childhood on Long Island, the old Jay Gatsby estate (which has since become a swim and tennis club in the 80-plus years since the bootlegger's death), and a violent crime in northern Vermont with which the social worker is all too familiar. The book is a bit of a thriller.

My sense is that we tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight. We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart. And so, long after I had finished the novel, I decided to explore the possibility of incorporating some of Campbell's work into the final book.

Consequently, there are 12 of Campbell's actual photos woven into the fictional text. Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel is fictitious. But the photographs you will see in The Double Bind are real.

To see Campbell's photos and read an excerpt from The Double Bind, click here.

Kelly: Maybe you get asked this a lot and if so, so I'm sorry, but what is like to be the author of a book selected by Oprah? Some readers are turned off by the Oprah book club but it seems to like its a way to get people reading and literacy is always a good thing. Did the experience change you as an author?

Chris: Unlike some authors selected for Oprah's Book Club, I was never conflicted. I don't think anyone has done as much to remind people of the great pleasures to be found in a book as Oprah Winfrey.

And I have always been honored to be on a list with the likes of Ernest Gaines and Alice Hoffman and Joyce Carol Oates and Andre Dubus III and Toni Morrison and Sue Miller.

Kelly: Does your last name get misspelled often? If so, what kind of strange concoctions do telemarketers come up with?

Chris: My favorite? Crystal Jellian.

Kelly: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

Chris: A lot of books -- probably no surprise there. And I have at least 42 different editions of books by or about Scott Fitzgerald.


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