Chris Bohjalian: Imagine That

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The boy Chris Bohjalian describes as his youthful self is a sorry sight: fat, doomed to orthodontists' headgear, the perpetual new kid in town. "For four consecutive years, I went to four public schools in three different states!" he exclaims. "Moving, moving! Always on the outside looking in." It doesn't take much imagination to picture the boy turned man, surfing the Internet, wanting his readers' love.

Yet by most lights Bohjalian is a successful novelist. The author of 12 books, he has seen them ride the bestseller list, get Oprah'ed, acquire new life as movies. And though he'd just as soon have his first three torched in a fire -- "train wrecks!" -- his latest, Skeletons at the Feast, has been described as "nail-biting, heart-ripping," and "a lush romance."

His father was an advertising man, whose work kept the family in constant motion. His mother suggested books to distract him: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, Jaws. With libraries as refuge, Bohjalian soon opted for the world of the imagination. By high school, he was writing stories of his own.

He graduated from Amherst summa cum laude in 1982, married and became an account executive in a Manhattan ad agency. On the way to a party, a manic cabdriver took him and his wife on a 45-minute hell ride that ended with them leaping out of the car and into a police shoot-out. Face down on the asphalt, she turned to him and said "Why do we live here?" Within days, they were in Vermont.

For all the randomness that suggests, his career was remarkably well plotted. After amassing 250 rejection slips, he made a point to study the kind of story Cosmopolitan magazine liked to feature. "I wrote it. They bought it. Simple as that." When it appeared, literary agents urged him to try a novel. He had been toying with an idea for one when destiny intervened with a crazy cab ride.

His books deal with lives turned in that quick, sudden way by outside forces. Midwives is about a Vermont midwife who unexpectedly finds herself on trial for manslaughter. Before You Know Kindness begins with a bullet that accidentally cuts down an animal rights activist. Water Witches is about ski resort enthusiasts who find themselves on the wrong side of principle.

"Moving, moving!" you can almost hear his characters say, as fate yanks them from one place to another.

-- Marie Arana

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