An interview with Chris Bohjalian, author of The Guest Room
I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for years, so having the opportunity to ask him questions was the literary equivalent of my soccer-obsessed son getting to interview somebody on the FC Barcelona team. In case you’re not already familiar with him, Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of 18 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, as well as Midwives, which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers).
I also received a pre-release copy of Bohjalian’s latest work, due in January 2016, titled The Guest Room, which I loved reading. (Writer friends: check out his description below of how he structures his novels! Fascinating.) I’m aware that I’m probably causing a lot of anguished hair-tearing jealousy among other Book Nerds at this point, so let’s move along.
The Guest Room is an eye-opening thriller with an illuminating view of how one moment in time can change everything. It’s the story of investment banker Richard Chapman, who makes the stupid but completely understandable decision to host his brother’s debauched bachelor party at his suburban home outside New York City. As you might expect, this goes spectacularly awry: the party morphs into an alcohol-fueled, sex-drenched slaughterhouse after a beautiful ‘exotic dancer’ stabs her Russian bodyguards to death in the Chapmans’ living room. As Richard’s career and marriage start to crumble from the fallout, he is surprised to find his life inexorably intertwined with the young prostitute’s as she flees from the violent gangsters who abducted her.
Bohjalian discusses the new novel in a Q & A, below:
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? What do you hope to convey to your readers about the subject?
Chris Bohjalian: 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.
KM: 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?
CB: 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.
KM: The character of Alexandra is heartbreaking; she’s an Armenian teenager who is lured from her home to Moscow after the death of her mother and subsequently shipped to New York as a prostitute. What research did you do in order to accurately portray her life? Were you able to interview anyone who has endured a similar experience?
CB: Sometimes I fear that readers give me more credit than I deserve: they imagine I spend enormous amounts of time in libraries, on-line, or interviewing people. Partly that’s because of my subject matter and partly that’s because my acknowledgments are long. (I like to thank people; I like to give credit.) But I am meticulous with my homework.
There are certainly young women from many countries who endure the sorts of things that Alexandra did. As she asks at one point, who’s worse: The man who sells a young girl or the man who buys one?
But The Guest Room is a novel. I want to stress that. I want readers to immerse themselves in the story and be moved (or surprised), as we all are by the wonderful novels that fill the shelves of the fiction section of this great library.
KM: Without giving too much away, the ending of the story is very unexpected. Did you consider alternate scenarios or did you have this in mind from the beginning?
CB: Oh, I never know my endings when I begin. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. I have always loved that great E.L. Doctorow quote about the process: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I always work on the assumption – especially those days when the work isn’t going well and my novel is trying to kill itself – that I will eventually get to the right destination.
KM: Can you relate a little about your writing process? How does an idea about a subject emerge as a finished novel for you?
CB: When I begin, I know two things: the basic premise of the novel and whether the novel is first or third person – and if it is first person, who the narrator is. I have never outlined a novel.
I think that’s why the process has always been so pleasurable for me: every day is a small discovery.
And I do write every single day when I am not touring. I start about six in the morning and write until lunchtime. My goal is to produce a thousand words, knowing that a great many will eventually end up on the cutting room floor. I edit a lot. As someone once said (and this quote is sometimes attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez), “The only reason writers publish is to stop rewriting.”
I write on a computer and print out what I have written every 50 or so pages. And then I edit those pages by hand with a fountain pen, because fountain pens are messy and force me to write more slowly and think more carefully – to really find the right simile or right word.
In the afternoons in the spring and summer and early autumn, I will go for long bike rides. I do good work on those rides: I clear my head and solve problems with characters and moments. Sometimes, I have gotten off my bike and written short scenes on my iPhone – including critical scenes in The Guest Room and Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.
KM: Since you’ve graciously agreed to attend Verse & Vino to benefit the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation, tell me a little about your own history with libraries. What have they meant to you as a reader and a writer?
CB: I read in an essay in the New York Times this week that one of the ancient libraries in Egypt had a sign above its entrance that read, “Clinic of the Soul.”
When my small Vermont village lost its library in 1998 after a flash flood, I wrote a long essay for the Boston Globe about how the soul of our community had been scarred, because a library is far more than a roomful of books – especially now in the digital age. (Incidentally, we have since rebuilt the library here in Lincoln.)
I remember 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.
And so my debt to libraries is large – as is my appreciation for their cultural importance.
KM: Would you care to share any of your own favorite authors or works? What are you working on now?
CB: Oh, it changes all the time. Today? “A Little Life.” “The Goldfinch.” “Anna Karenina.” “Room.” “Into Thin Air.” “Catch-22.” “The Great Gatsby.” But tomorrow? I might think of some very different titles. I might be obsessed with Margaret Atwood. (That occurs every few years.) Or John Irving. Or Joyce Carol Oates. And I just finished a draft of a novel about a sleepwalker who disappears. You’ll see it in 2017.
Thanks so much to Chris for the interview! I’m looking forward to hearing him in person at this year’s celebratory event for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation on November 5th: http://foundation.cmlibrary.org/verseandvino.