Chris Bohjalian has written some thrilling novels tackling some tough subjects - Armenian genocide, the ethics of midwifery, and, most recently, in The Guest Room, sex trafficking - but he speaks about the process of writing with humor and aplomb.
What's harder to write - the first sentence or the last?
It's something in between. I usually have no trouble with the first sentence, because the first sentence is the inspiration that launches the novel. And by the time I've gotten to the last sentence, I understand what the book is about. it's somewhere in the middle where my novels, invariably, try to kill themselves. I'm somewhere between 100 and 200 pages in and I realize that my talent is not commensurate with my vision, and it's really easy to decide "let's abort mission on this book and try something new." Those are the most difficult sentences, and that is when I need to most channel E. L. Doctorow, who famously observed (and this is a paraphrase), "writing a novel is like driving at night. You have your headlights on and you can see 200 feet ahead of you, and you just keep the faith that eventually you will get where you're going."
When you sit down and write that first sentence, are you pretty clear on what it's going to be?
Absolutely. For example, when I started Midwives, I knew the first sentence. I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids used butt, or penis, or puke. It wasn't a swear exactly... but I knew it would stop adults cold in their tracks. And whenever I needed to channel Connie Danforth's voice in Midwives, I would go back to that sentence. And certainly the same was true with Alexandra, one of the main characters in The Guest Room.
Are there any personal habits that you would encourage new writers to take up - or avoid - in order to be more productive?
I take great pride in my productivity. The reality is that I'm at my desk every day at quarter to 6 in the morning with an 8.4 ounce can of sugar free Red Bull and I am off. And my goal every day is to write a thousand words. I might not write a thousand words, but as NH's own Jodi Picoult has observed, you can edit a bad page, you can't edit a blank page. You need to get something down. I always encourage young writers to just try to get something you can work with down on paper.
I also think it's really important to write in the genre you love. If you love literary fiction, write literary fiction. If you love science fiction, write science fiction. If you love to read romance novels, write a romance novel. Because, if you're going to be spending your day writing, immerse yourself in the sorts of material that just makes you so happy when you read.
Do you edit as you go along or do you wait until the end?
I do edit as I go along, because there are two parts of my process that I owe to Ernest Hemingway's process. The irony of course is that one of the reasons why, I think, Ernest Hemingway killed himself was writer's block.. but these are two ways to prevent writer's block and to edit as you go along. First of all, I always begin by rewriting the last 200 or 300 words I wrote the day before, and this does a couple of things. First, you are editing, making it better; secondly, you are reacquainting yourself with the material and whatever themes are important in that section of the novel; and third, imagine a plane taking off on a runway... you're reconnecting with the keyboard or the pen and gathering speed and momentum for liftoff, so by the time I am done editing those two or three hundred words, rewriting them, I am off and running on the next, hopefully, one thousand.
You sound so well disciplined and geared toward process. So, for you, what is the worst distraction that keeps you from writing?
The worst distraction is the digital age and everything about the digital age. The reality is that novelists today have to be social network animals. And that's fine - I think it's a great gift that now I'm not simply a disembodied black and white author's photo in the back of the book. But it's so easy to get sucked into the vortex in the morning. You spend a moment on Facebook then Instagram then Tumblr then Twitter then Pinterest then Goodreads - and before you know it it's lunchtime and you've written seven words. If you see me on Facebook in the morning, here's a confession - I have probably scheduled that post the night before. It is really important for me to stay off the social networks in the morning and to remain focused on my characters, to spend some time with whoever are the characters that matter to me at that moment and really understand that they are enduring.
So, if we saw two posts, would we think, "Chris Bohjalian is on a bender?"
[Laughs] You'd think, "he's slacking off! Get back to work!"
How much research do you do before you start, or do you do it throughout?
I do research before I start and I do research throughout. I don't do as much research as my readers ever believe that I do. It's just a reality. I'm a novelist, I want to write stories that keep you riveted and turning the pages with characters you care about deeply. I'm not a historian, a memoirist, or a non-fiction writer. For example, I view The Guest Room as a literary thriller about a marriage in crisis, two remarkable women, and that one moment you wish more than anything you could take back. Yes, human trafficking and sexual slavery [are] critical to the plot and I did research that... I talked to people, I read, I did my homework. But if you want to really understand sex trafficking, read Siddharth Kara's book on the subject, which is a monumentally smart book on the economics of this most egregious human rights violation.
What do you think is the most common mistake new writers make?
I think the most common mistake that a new writer makes is to try to write something that isn't in their heart and soul and is not part of a genre they love. Exhibit A, yours truly. My first novel is the single worst first novel ever published, bar none... it's a mystery. I don't have anything against mysteries, but certainly then I wasn't reading them. I wrote a mystery because I just sold a short story to Cosmopolitan and my agent at the time thought mysteries were hip and hot and it was a venue into publication. So I wrote a mystery. And it was published, but it is a truly terrible book. You know Fahrenheit 451? It was written so we know how to make my first novel go away.
How many times were you rejected before you were published?
Here's the irony. I amassed two hundred and fifty rejection slips for short stories before I ever sold a single word; I amassed zero rejection slips for my novel. I wrote the novel, there was a bidding war, and a couple publishers made offers.
That's a great first outing...
It's a testimony to the era. I could have written a shopping list and someone would have bought it.
What's the best piece of advice you ever received about writing?
I think it goes back to that Doctorow line - which was not given directly to me, of course - but I think so often, when I'm writing a novel... because I love novels, and I love big, thick doorstop novels - I don't happen to write that kind, but I love them... and so I always think about the reality that when I'm writing a book, I'm driving at night with the headlights on, and keep the faith - I'll get to where I'm going.