|The Basics, The Meaning of Life, and “The Guest Room”
Becoming a Writer
Characters and Content
Other People’s Books
Advice to Aspiring Writers
These first questions come from an interview I did with Kimmery Fleischli of Charlotte, North Carolina about “The Guest Room.”
Q. Kimmery: You are known for character-driven novels that explore a particular issue in depth; in this case, you’ve chosen to illuminate the shadowy business of sex-trafficking. Why did you select this topic as a focus for “The Guest Room?” What do you hope to convey to your readers about the subject.
A: Perhaps the answer is not a “why,” but a “who.”
In 2013, my family and I brought one of our daughter’s friends with us to Yerevan. The young woman was part Armenian, but had never been to Armenia. Our daughter and her friend were 19 at the time. Our daughter’s friend was leaving a day before us and was on a six a.m. flight to Moscow. The plan was that I would meet her in the lobby of our hotel about 3:30 in the morning and bring her to the airport.
I got to the lobby first, about 3:15, and while I was waiting I saw another young woman paying off the bellman to go upstairs. She was clearly an escort, and she was roughly the age of my daughter and her friend. It broke my heart as a father – but I had a sense that here was the kernel for my next novel.
My hope is that “The Guest Room” is a novel of suspense with characters you care about deeply, especially a couple of very remarkable women: a suburban history teacher and mom, and a young woman trafficked to America. It’s a thriller about that one moment you wish more than anything you could take back. But I hope also that it raises awareness of human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Q. Kimmery: “The Guest Room” is told from the perspective of three characters: a married couple, Richard and Kristin Chapman, and a nineteen year-old stripper named Alexandra. Although Richard is a prosperous investment banker, he’s about as far from the morally bankrupt Wolf Of Wall Street stereotype as you can imagine; he’s likable and conscientious and one of the last people you’d expect to become entangled in an underworld of Russian gangsters and abducted teens, illustrating how close to the surface these crimes actually are in our society. How prevalent is sex trafficking in the United States?
A: The numbers vary, but it’s always alarming: The International Labor Organization estimates that 4.5 million people are trapped in forced sexual exploitation around the world. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children believes that one in six endangered runaways are sex trafficking victims. And the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received 3,600 reports of sex trafficking in the U.S. in 2014. (You can learn an enormous amount about human trafficking, as well as how to help, from the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking – www.castla.org.)
Just yesterday, Nicholas Kristof had a wrenching essay in the New York Times about a Nepalese sex slave, a girl not unlike Alexandra in “The Guest Room.”
Just last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the L.A. County Sheriff who announced that the department will stop arresting children for prostitution: “They are child victims and survivors of rape,” he said accurately. “We must remember that children cannot consent to sex under any circumstance.”
As the Super Bowl nears, we will hear more more about trafficking. Sadly, we always do. That’s when we see how prevalent this problem really is.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands?”
A: When my 20-year-old daughter, Grace, finished reading the first draft of the novel, she said, “Dad, please take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way: Your sweet spot as a novelist is seriously messed up young women.”
I know she’s right. . .which brings me back to the novel’s origins.
Over the years, I’ve written about teens in trouble as a Burlington Free Presscolumnist. I’m a big fan of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington, Vermont and the remarkable work they do. And so I’ve met a lot of their kids. I’ve heard the teens’ stories and seen their faces. I’ve met the kids who are going to be okay, and the kids who are already so far down the rabbit hole that there’s no coming back.
One day when I was having lunch with Annie Ramniceanu, a therapist and counselor there, she started telling me how some of the kids – the teens who are falling through the system – would build igloos against the Vermont cold out of trash bags filled with wet leaves, and I knew instantly the novel I wanted to write.
The very idea of a teen girl living alone in one of those igloos broke my heart. That image haunted me – and spurred me on.
Q: Emily Dickinson and her poems play a big part in the fictional Emily’s life and Emily really wants her life & words to be like Emily Dickinson. Was Emily a favorite poet of yours or did you develop this entirely around this story?
A: I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the mysteries that surround her life. Moreover, as a novelist I’ve often wondered about the choices she made about whether (or not) to publish her extraordinary body of work. And, yes, I went to Amherst College, where her spirit hovers over the community. Sometimes it seems to me as if half the buildings I lived in on campus were named after someone she knew.
Q: Emily is perfectly voiced as a teenager. Some of the lingo, I am embarrassed to say, I almost had to look up. How do you, as a male author, get a perfectly pitched teenage female voice for our narrator?
A: I think in some ways the voice came together because of all of those teens I interviewed over the years. I still have the columns and I can still recall vividly some of their stories – and so much of their separate ordeals.
I also need to give a big shout-out to my daughter, Grace. Often when I was writing, I would be at a loss to find the right synonym for a word or to capture the precise expression that a really smart teen girl would use, and so I would text her. I would ask, “What’s a hip synonym for ‘tattoo?’” Or “I need another expression for ‘hook-up.’ Any ideas?” And she would text me back something that would work. Trust me, you would not have found the word “bitchcakes” in the novel without her. She was wonderful.
Finally, whenever I write across gender – which I do all the time – I focus first on the things that link us as people. Then, after that, I can begin to examine the particularities of gender.
Q: Tell us about The Light in the Ruins.
A: “The Light in the Ruins” began as a re-imagining of ‘Romeo & 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. I bike there and do some of my best writing in a medieval granary that figures prominently in the tale.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
The following few questions come from an interview I did with Tom Vartebedian of “The Armenian Weekly” in July 2012.
Tom Vartabedian: What prompted you to write The Sandcastle Girls?
Chris Bohjalian: I’ve been contemplating a novel about the genocide for most of my adult life. I tried writing one in the early 1990’s between Water Witches and Midwives. But it was a train wreck of a book. If I’m going to be kind, I might simply call it “apprentice” work. But “amateurish” would be fitting, too. (Scholars and masochists can read the manuscript in my alma mater’s archives.)
A few years ago, my Armenian father grew ill. And as we visited, we poured over family photos together and I pressed him for details about his parents, who were survivors from Western Turkey. I also asked him for stories from his childhood. After all, he was the son of immigrants who spoke a language that can only be called exotic in Westchester County during the 1930s.
Finally, a good friend of mine who is a journalist and genocide scholar urged me to try once again to write a novel about what is, clearly, the most important part of my family’s history. So I did. And this time, it all came together.
TV: How long did it take you to write?
CB: I started the novel in the summer of 2010 and finished it in the fall of 2011.
TV: Was the story factual or fictional—or a cross between the two?
CB: Oh, it’s a novel. Absolutely. Nevertheless, my narrator Laura Petrosian is a fictional version of me. Her grandparents’ house was my grandparents’ house. But Elizabeth Endicott and Armen Petrosian were not my grandparents. I hope the history is authentic. I did my homework. I hope my characters’ stories are grounded in the particular ring of Dante’s Inferno that was the Armenian Genocide. I hope I have accurately rendered that moment in time.
TV: Any Turkish resistance to the book?
CB: Not yet.
TV: Any chance of this being promoted to television or Hollywood?
CB: One can always hope. If you know any producers, let me know.
TV: How has it been received by the Armenian reading public?
CB: Early reactions have been very encouraging. And here, I think, is the reason why.
A few years ago, I heard the incredibly inspiring Gerda Weissmann Klein speak at the University of Texas Hillel. Gerda is a Holocaust survivor and author of (among other books) All But My Life. Someone asked her, “What do you say to people who deny the Holocaust?”
She shrugged and said simply, “I tell them to ask Germany what happened. Germany doesn’t deny it.”
As Armenians, we have a genocide in which 1.5 million people were killed—fully three-quarters of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire—and yet it remains (to quote my narrator in The Sandcastle Girls) “the slaughter you know nothing about.” It is largely unrecognized.
And so when Armenians have read advance copies of the novel, they have been deeply appreciative of the story and the way it tells our people’s history.
My point? We are hungry for novels that tell our story, that tell the world what our ancestors endured a century ago.
TV: How has the book benefitted you in terms of promoting your own heritage and culture?
CB: It has helped me to understand more about who I am—the geography of my own soul.
TV: How does this relate to your other works?
CB: Pure and simple, the best book I will ever write—and the most important. I know this in my heart.
TV: During its conception, was there any connection made with notable Armenian historians and writers like Peter Balakian?
CB: The epigraph is from one of my favorite Balakian poems. And Khatchig Mouradian (The Armenian Weekly editor and genocide scholar) was more generous with his time than you can imagine. I learned so much from him. And I still do, even though the novel is finished.
TV: Who might your favorite Armenian writer be?
CB: I am deeply appreciative of the work rendered by Nancy Kricorian, Mark Mustian, Carol Edgarian, Peter Balakian, Micheline Aharonian, William Saroyan, and Eric Bogosian. Pick one? Not a chance!
TV: Whatever happened to the first genocide book you wrote 20 years ago?
CB: It exists only as a rough draft in the underground archives of my alma mater. It will never be published, even after my death. I spent over two years struggling mightily to complete a draft and I never shared it with my editor. The manuscript should either be buried or burned. I couldn’t bring myself to do either. But neither did I ever want the pages to see the light of day.
TV: Collectively, as a diaspora, what can be done to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015?
CB: Well, recognition by the Turkish government would certainly be nice. It would also be encouraging to see a sitting American president acknowledge what happened and use that dreaded “G-word.” Seriously, what does “realpolitik” get us with this issue? Regardless, I expect poignant and powerful observances around the world.
TV: Living in rural Vermont, do you feel isolated from the Armenian community? How has it impacted your heritage and that of your family?
CB: I love Vermont, I really do. But I think the fact I live in Vermont was one of the reasons why my visit to Beirut’s Armenian quarter and Yerevan was so meaningful this spring.
I try to remind myself of something I saw written as part of a Musa Dagh mural on a column in Anjar, Lebanon, where the survivors of Musa Dagh were resettled: “Let them come again. We are still the mountain.”
The reality of the Armenian Diaspora is that 70 percent of Armenians don’t live in our homeland. And yet, somehow, we have retained a national identity.
I think that whoever wrote, “We are still the mountain,” wanted the sentence to be interpreted two ways. Certainly, he meant Musa Dagh: Attack again if you want, we are still those warriors. But he also meant Ararat. Even here in Lebanon, we are still Armenians.
And so for me, even though I am in Vermont, I am still a part of that mountain.
TV: What are your impressions of Armenia?
CB: I was so happy there this spring. My hotel was on Abovyan Street and it intersected with Aram Street two blocks away. Well, Abovyan was the first modern Armenian novelist and Aram was my father’s name. He passed away last year and his death made my journey to Armenia all the more important to me. To see his name intersecting with a great Armenian novelist was a wondrous and unexpected blessing—a gift!
Obviously, like many post-Soviet nations, Armenia has a lot of monumental economic hurdles. And those hurdles are exacerbated by its place in the Caucasus region. But, my Lord, is it beautiful! I have never been better cared for and felt less like a stranger in a strange land.
TV: Will there be a sequel to The Sandcastle Girls or another work related to Armenian literature?
CB: I don’t know if there will be a sequel. I have never written a sequel. But there will be more Armenian or Armenian American-set fiction. That’s very, very likely.
* * *
Q. “The Night Strangers” is in part a ghost story. You have always enjoyed ghost stories but you haven’t written one in over twenty years. What was holding you back?
If you look at my personal library, you will notice that it ranges from Henry James to Steig Larsson, from Margaret Atwood to Max Hastings. There’s Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe and volumes of letters from Civil War privates. It is pretty eclectic. The reality is that I rarely read the same sort of book in a season.
And, I hope, I will never write the same book twice. Look at my most recent novels. “Secrets of Eden” (2010) is about domestic violence, a double murder, and a minister’s guilt. “Skeletons at the Feast” (2008) is a love story set in Germany and Poland in the last days of the Second World War, and one family’s complicity in the Holocaust. And “The Double Bind” (2007) is an exploration of a young social worker’s descent into madness after a violent sexual assault; the book moves between a very real Burlington, Vermont and Jay Gatsby’s fictional West Egg, Long Island.
So, why a ghost story? Well, I love them. They’re fun to read – and, yes, fun to write. And when I imagined the subject matter of a plane crash and a pilot’s post-traumatic stress disorder, ghosts seemed as good a way in as any.
Q. How would you describe perfect happiness?
A. I am always happiest when I am with my wife and my daughter. And when we are together in — Warning, Mid-Life Novelist Cliche Dead Ahead — Italy, I am especially content. Give me my family, a bicycle, and a bottle of wine and I am one happy fellow.
Q. What’s your greatest fear?
A. Well, that’s a cheery question. When we get past the basics — fearing for my wife and my daughter’s safety and worrying about their health and happiness — leaving behind a mediocre body of work when I die.
Q. What is your motto or maxim?
A. “Have we learned nothing?” It’s something my daughter once said.
Q. What comment do you hear most often from your readers?
A. I loved Midwives and I thought you were a woman.
Q. Any books into movies?
A. Three: Secrets of Eden, starring John Stamos and Anna Gunn; Midwives, starring Sissy Spacek and Alison Pill; and Past the Bleachers, starring Richard Dean Anderson. Most of the others have been optioned at one time or another or are under option now
Q. Have your books been published in other countries?
A. Yes. Twenty-six or twenty-seven languages, and counting.
Q. You moved to Vermont from New York after an unpleasant experience involving a taxi. How would Chris Bohjalian the novelist in NY have been different from Chris Bohjalian the novelist in VT in terms of inspiration and issues you raise in your novels.
A. Novelists talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about how they found their voice. The reality, however, is that I did indeed find mine in Vermont. Vermont is a fascinating microcosm for issues that have relevance everywhere-the environment vs. development, alternative vs. traditional medicine, all the baggage that we bring to gender and sexual orientation — and it is so small that it is possible to bring these issues to life on a scale that is human, recognizable and profoundly accessible. For instance, I would never have written a book about the literal and metaphoric place of birth in our culture (Midwives), if I had remained in Manhattan. After all, home birth isn’t a part of the dialogue. Nor would have I written a vaguely eco-novel such as Water Witches — and it’s interesting to note that I wrote that novel in 1993 (it was published in 1995), years before we were focused on global climate change the way we are now. It’s not that I am especially prescient — but in some ways Vermont is.
Even novels such as Secrets of Eden and The Double Bind, which explore themes that I would have been likely to come across in New York — including, of course, domestic violence and homelessness — were informed by Vermont. It was easy to research the subjects at the state psychiatric hospital and one of the correctional facilities, as well find therapists and victims’ rights advocates who were available to help me, because we are just so small. A phone call here and a phone call there, and I was able to line up the necessary interviews.
Now, I love New York. I get back there often, and half of Before You Know Kindness is set in Manhattan. But I believe I have found subjects in Vermont that are more in keeping with my strengths as a stylist.
Q. Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
A. I am frighteningly compulsive when it comes to the library in my house in which I write. It is very clean. And orderly. The books are alphabetized; the pens are lined up in their cases. At night, I put a dust cover on my computer.
I actually have two desks. One holds the computer on which I write rough drafts. Along with the computer and printer, it has on it photographs of my wife and my daughter, and two small sting rays made of polished stone from Grand Cayman (an island I love because of the scuba diving and snorkeling) that my daughter gave me. The other desk is smaller, and on it I edit my rough drafts. It has a lamp built from an Art Deco planter of a black panther, and most of my favorite pens.
Both desks have glorious views of Mount Abraham, the third-highest mountain in Vermont, and I watch the sun rise over the mountain as I work.
Q. What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer— and why?
A. I’m actually going to pick a single period in my life, rather than a single book, because I believe it’s the most honest way to answer this question.
When I was 13, my family moved from a suburb of New York City to Miami, Florida, and we moved there the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I started school the following Tuesday, and then, that afternoon, went to see my new orthodontist—a sadist, it would turn out, if ever there was one.
He gave me some orthodontic headgear that looked like the business end of a backhoe, and I had to wear said device for four hours a day when I was awake.
Since I couldn’t (well, wouldn’t) wear it during school, I had to wear it after school. It was inevitable, but I couldn’t speak when I was wearing it.
And so I couldn’t meet any kids in my neighborhood, and make new friends. What did I do that first autumn and winter—winter, such as it is, in South Florida?
I went to the Hialeah Miami Lake Public Library. And I read. I read the sorts of things any adolescent boy was likely to read in the mid-1970s. I read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Peter Benchley’s Jaws.
Also, in all fairness, I read a somewhat higher caliber of literature as well-Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Joyce Carol Oates’s Expensive People.
I read those books in the library as well as in the den in our new home, and from them I learned a very great deal that would help me profoundly as an adult writer. I learned the importance of linear momentum in plot from Blatty and Benchley. And I learned about the importance of voice — and the role of person in fiction-from Lee and Oates.
I learned on a level that may not have been fully concrete yet—but that did indeed adhere—that the narrator in a first-person novel is a character, too, and every bit as made-up as the fictional constructs around him or her.
Q. Many writers are hardly “overnight success” stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
A. When I was a sophomore in college, the writer-in-residence was a novelist whose work I cherished. She was teaching a creative writing seminar in the spring semester, and I wanted very much to be among the anointed she was going to choose to be in it. That meant submitting a short story in December, which she would read over the holiday break.
In January, I was summoned to her office in the brick monolith that housed the school’s English Department, and there I met her for the first time. She was seated behind a desk the size of a putting green. When she saw me, she adjusted her shawl, fixed her eyeglasses, and said, “You’re Chris. I’m not going to try to pronounce your last name.”
I nodded, a little apprehensive now. Then she slid my short story across the expanse of desk as if it were a piece of profoundly disagreeable roadkill. “Well, Chris I’m-Not-Going-to-Pronounce-Your-Last-Name,” she continued, “I have three words for you.” This clearly wasn’t going to be good, but I am nothing if not optimistic. And so I waited.
Then it came: “Be a banker,” she said. And we were through.
Q. Talk about memories from your youth that you cherish most.
A. I had a classically 1960s/1970s suburban childhood. I grew up in a variety of dysfunctional ,Cheever-esque suburbs just outside of New York City, (with a three-year detour to Miami, Fla.). When I read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, I saw echoes of my own childhood.
We also moved a lot, however, and in one period I went to four different schools in four years. And so while my childhood wasn’t bad, it didn’t revolve around great friends once I finished 6th grade. The fact is, my friends changed by necessity almost every year from 7th grade on.
My favorite memories, in no apparent order, are:
Playing Little League baseball in Stamford, Conn.;
Reading Johnny Tremain and To Kill a Mockingbird and April Morning for the first time;
Visiting my grandparents in Tuckahoe, N.Y., and listening to Leo Bohjalian–my grandfather–play the oud, after losing to his wife in pool. I can still smell my grandmother’s beregs;
Organizing baseball cards in my living room before thunderstorms;
Flying anywhere on airplanes;
Being scared silly by the following movies: “The Birds,” “The Haunting” and “Psycho.”
Q. Women figure prominently in many of your novels. Talk about the challenge of writing a novel like Secrets of Eden or Midwives, where delving into the psyche of the female characters is key.
A. I wish I could say there was a specific process, but I don’t find writing about women that different from writing about men. In each case, it’s an act of imagination. How would a person respond to a specific event or moment? What is an individual experiencing or thinking? What are people seeing or hearing?
In the last decade, I have written novels or scenes within novels from the perspectives of (among others) a midwife, a transsexual lesbian, a vigorous female senior citizen, an African-American foster child, a 10-year-old girl, an 18-year-old female Prussian aristocrat in 1945, a young Jewish man from Germany who has jumped off a train on the way to a death camp in 1943, a Baptist minister, and a variety of balding. middle-aged men. I actually found this last category — the balding middle-aged men who are like me — the least interesting.
Q. How do you decide what issues to tackle in your novels? Talk about the process of writing a novel.
A. Invariably the inspiration is something in my personal life: Someone I have met or something I have heard or something I have seen.
The Double Bind may be as good an example as any. The novel had its origins in December 2003, when Rita Markley, the executive director of Burlington’s homeless shelter, shared with me a box of old photographs. The black-and-white images had been taken by a once-homeless photographer who had died in the apartment building her organization had found for him. His name was Bob “Soupy” Campbell.
The photos were remarkable, both because of Campbell’s evident talent and because of the subject matter. I recognized the performers-musicians, comedians, actors-and newsmakers in many of them.
I write a weekly column for the “Burlington Free Press,” which was why Rita wanted me to see the photos. She thought they might make for an interesting story, and she was absolutely right: I wrote about Campbell in December 2003, researching his life and accomplishments and why he might have wound up homeless, and to this day it remains one of my favorite essays I’ve written for the paper. I had celebrated Campbell’s talents (which were extensive) and I had reminded people of the very fine line that separates so many of us from being homeless. But then I thought I was done with the subject.
Six months later, in June 2004, I reread The Great Gatsby. I love that novel. Few writers crafted sentences as consistently luminescent as Fitzgerald or understood class and culture and longing as well.
Then I went for a bike ride on a dirt road deep in a canopy of woods. My wife had heard a story on the radio that day that advised parents to tell their children the following: If someone ever tried to abduct them while they were riding their bikes, they should hold onto the handlebars for dear life. It’s more difficult to abduct someone and throw them into the back of a car or a van if they are firmly attached to their bike. The geometry just doesn’t work.
As I rode, I started thinking about Bob Campbell for the first time in months, and I was thinking about him in regard to The Great Gatsby. Why? Perhaps it’s because we always see The Great Gatsby through a haze of black and white photographs-Campbell’s medium. And, of course, The Great Gatsby is a jazz age novel-and Campbell photographed a lot of jazz musicians.
And so the idea for The Double Bind formed in my head on that dirt road. I knew precisely how a book would begin and-for the only time in my life-I knew precisely how it would end.
Of course, this also meant I know A and Z, but not the 24 letters in between. That meant I had a different set of problems to solve. I wrote four drafts before I could even begin to seriously edit it: A Henry James-ian third person draft; then a first person draft narrated by Laurel Estabrook (the main character); then a draft with multiple first person narrators; and, finally, a draft that was third person subjective-less cold and omniscient than that initial version. This draft worked in ways the earlier ones hadn’t. Only then was I able to start refining and tightening the novel.
Q. What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
A. I feel guilty limiting the list to a mere ten, given how many books that are indeed special to me. I have, however, always enjoyed that game in which you have to pick a few books or movies to have with you on a desert island, and so here’s a group that I’ve read multiple times-the ultimate compliment, I believe, one can bestow upon a book.
Incidentally, the list has 12 titles. I couldn’t possible delete any one of them. Mea culpa.
The Voyage of the Narwahl by Andrea Barrett-A tale of icebound sailors and scientists in the 19th century (and the women they leave behind) that I found as moving as it was gripping.
The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis-Imagine Holden Caulfield with less angst and a better sense of humor, and you have the howlingly funny narrator of this book. The book chronicles the near-dissolution of one wealthy Manhattan family in the early 1960s, and what it takes to keep it intact. Nearly every page is a scream, especially read today, because every moment feels so fabulously retro.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Individual sentences give me a whopper of an inferiority complex, but I love every one. You’ll see echoes of it in my new novel, The Double Bind.
The Cider House Rules by John Irving-I savor Irving’s books because his characters are so gloriously eccentric and idiosyncratic, and this sweeping story is filled with people I cherished.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer-The tale is riveting, and not simply because it’s all true. Krakauer is a terrific storyteller.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee-There is obviously so much to savor in this book and so many ways to examine it. Among the elements that I cherish the most is what an authentic father-daughter love story it is.
Last Rights, by Stephen Kiernan – An exploration of the ways we have died have changed in the last quarter-century, and how the world of medicine needs to catch up to the world of hospice. Moving and illuminating.
Homeboy by Seth Morgan-The only novel Morgan left us before he died in a motorcycle accident. The prose (from page 1) is electric, the story is gloriously seamy, and the ending profound and poignant.
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher-A story about race, yes, but also a tender story of fathers and sons, and the unexpected places where we find friendship.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje-I love novels that teach me something, and in this book I learned a bit about Africa, archeology, and Egypt in the years immediately before the Second World War. It’s also a breathtakingly beautiful and authentic love story.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron-Perhaps the most sad and wrenching novel I’ve ever read.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe-Wolfe is characteristically bemused in this history of the Mercury space program, but he also captures the sense of adventure and courage that peppered the endeavor, as well as the humanity of the test pilots, the astronauts, and their wives.
Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A. Atticus Finch
Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A. I tend to prefer moral ambiguity to straight out evil.
Q. What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
A. I’m asked on occasion what advice I might offer aspiring writers. Here are ten random suggesstions – the last a reference to the fact I was told by a creative writing professor when I was in college that I should become a banker.
1) Don’t merely write what you know. Write what you don’t know. It might be more difficult at first, but – unless you’ve just scaled Mount Everest or found a cure for all cancers – it will also be more interesting.
2) Do some research. Read the letters John Winthrop wrote to his wife, or the letters a Civil War private sent home to his family from Antietam, or the stories the metalworkers told of their experiences on the girders high in the air when they were building the Empire State Building. Good fiction is rich with minutiae – what people wore, how they cooked, how they filled the mattresses on which they slept – and often the details you discover will help you dramatically with your narrative.
3) Interview someone who knows something about your topic. Fiction may be a solitary business when you’re actually writing, but prior to sitting down with your computer (or pencil or pen), it often demands getting out into the real world and learning how (for instance) an ob-gyn spends her day, or what a lawyer does when he isn’t in the courtroom, or exactly what it feels like to a farmer to milk a cow when he’s been doing it for 35 years. Ask questions. . .and listen.
4) Interview someone else. Anyone else. Ask questions that are absolutely none of your business about their childhood, their marriage, their sex life. They don’t have to be interesting (though it helps). They don’t even have to be honest.
5) Read some fiction you wouldn’t normally read: A translation of a Czech novel, a mystery, a book you heard someone in authority dismiss as “genre fiction.”
6) Write for a day without quote marks. It will encourage you to see the conversation differently, and help you to hear in your head more precisely what people are saying and thereby create dialogue that sounds more realistic. You may even decide you don’t need quote marks in the finished story.
7) Skim the thesaurus, flip through the dictionary. Find new words and words you use rarely – lurch, churn, disconsolate, effulgent, intimations, sepulchral, percolate, pallid, reproach – and use them in sentences.
8) Lie. Put down on paper the most interesting lies you can imagine. . .and then make them plausible.
9) Write one terrific sentence. Don’t worry about anything else – not where the story is going, not where it should end. Don’t pressure yourself to write 500 or 1,000 words this morning. Just write 10 or 15 ones that are very, very sound.
10) Pretend you’re a banker, but you write in the night to prove to some writing professor that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Allow yourself a small dram of righteous anger.