Two of his novels have been made into film and two others are in the process of development. “Past the Bleachers,” (1992) the story of a couple who lose their eight-year-old son to leukemia was made into a Hallmark television movie in 1995 and “Midwives” (1997) was broadcast on Lifetime last year.
A former publisher for The Amherst Student, Bohjalian graduated the College in pursuit of a career in journalism. Instead, he began publishing short stories and became a full-time writer. “Buffalo Soldier,” (2002) his most recent work, is, according to Bohjalian, “the story of a 10-year old African-American foster child in lily white Vermont whose foster parents’ marriage is going to Hell in a handbasket.”
Q: Within your eight books, do you see a running theme that unites them?
A: John Gardner contended that all fiction has to have conflict and human transformation. Conflict and human transformation are the two points on a compass that matter most in fiction, which is why I love writing about New England and why seven of my eight novels have been set in Vermont. Was I surprised when, in 2000, little Vermont was on the front page of every country newspaper because we were the first state to legitimize gay partnerships, a civil union that extends all the rights of heterosexual marriage to gay couples? In Vermont, I can find all those conflicts right here.
Q: With the amount of literature being published everyday, how do conceive an original story for your books?
A: Critics frown upon plagiarism and babbling. Generally there’s a certain amount of muscle memory that comes into fiction. Before I start writing, however, I always have two things: a voice and a vague premise for a novel. “Midwives” is a good example. I grew interested in midwifery about six months after my daughter was born. We were at a dinner party and a woman sitting next to me, a midwife, started teasing me very good-naturedly about how my wife and I had driven 30 miles in the middle of the night to have my daughter delivered. “If you used me you could’ve had Grace in your bedroom and you could’ve caught her.” And I never heard of the word “catch” used in a delivery. I spent six months doing nothing but immersing myself in [midwifery], in the literary and metaphoric place of birth. I had that first element, a subject, but I did not have a voice.
Q: How do you find the voice?
A: When my daughter was about six years old-it was one of those moments, you may have some point in your life when you’ve got 15 pounds in your arms that you love more madly than you ever thought you could love anything-I remembered this story that a friend of my wife’s had told us about how her four-year-old goddaughter had recently come home from preschool, entranced by the word vulva. She knew it was a perfectly fine word but she knew that every time she said it, her mom and dad sweat bullets. “I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids say butt or penis or puke. It wasn’t a curse necessarily but I knew it was a word that could stop adults dead in their track.”
Then I called the daughter of a midwife I had interviewed. “I have no idea how to ask you this question so bear with me, but when you were a kid did you have a greater comfort level with the anatomy than your peers?” “Oh yeah I was always the most popular kid in her sandbox,” [she said.] So I knew I had a voice and I knew it was the voice of the midwife’s daughter, someone who could speak with detachment and objectivity.
“Trans-Sister Radio” began a similar way. I met a woman who had fallen in love with a man who loved her madly as well but was going to have a sex change.
Q: Could you say that there was an exact moment you decided to delve completely into writing?
A: There are all those moments in my life that change everything, that one scene that changes everything. It’s March 8, 1986. My wife and I are 25 years old and we are living in Brooklyn Heights. At about 11 o’clock at night, we left a party at East 8th Street in the Village-the last thing a cabbie wants at 11 o’clock at night is a fare to Brooklyn because there’s no return fare. So he’s annoyed with us as soon as we get into the car. He was pulled over for speeding on the FDR drive, and you know you’ve got to be motoring to be pulled over. Then I proceeded to say the one sentence that changed my life, “Excuse me, sir, why don’t you turn off your meter while you get your ticket?” And he was enraged, as I probably would’ve been if I was him.
The police officer drove away and [the cab driver] then proceeded to take us on a joyride through lower Manhattan. He ignored all the stoplights until he got us back on the FDR drive going north. I was suggesting to him that we were getting precariously close to abduction. Finally he exited Houston Street and, at the corner of Avenue A, B or C he came to a stop. My wife and I didn’t look at why he came to a stop; we bolted out of the cab.
That’s when we saw why he came to a stop. There were guys with Tower Record bags filled with guns. So she’s lying facedown on Houston Street-this police officer told us to get down-and she whispers to me, “If you want to be a writer, why are we living here?” So the following morning we started making plans to move to northern New England � that’s why I took the plunge. In all fairness, I’ve been writing fiction in the evening for three years now. I had a manuscript for a novel, I sold a few short stories, so it wasn’t an absolutely certifiable [decision].
Has fiction writing always been a passion of yours?
I’ve always been interested in stories and I’ve always been interested in storytelling. When I was at Amherst, I presumed I was going to be a journalist. It was only after-and that’s one of my greatest regrets-that, as much as I enjoyed journalism and still do a fair amount of magazine writing,, it was only after Amherst that I decided to take the plunge to explore writing fiction seriously.
Q: Was there something about Amherst that led you to later pursue writing as a serious career?
A: I find this an incredible irony. When I was at Amherst, I never knew David Foster Wallace ’85, Susanna Grant ’84, Harlan Coben ’84. I knew Rand Cooper ’80 a bit through the newspaper. But, the reality is, that I was never spending time with them. My life at Amherst was decidedly antisocial, at least in terms of playtime and frat parties. The reality of my time there revolved entirely around my classes, The Student and the woman I am married to now. Two nights a week I was up all night at The Student. Two nights a week I was up all night at the public switchboard at Converse. And one night I was actually up all night to work at the Smith College newspaper to help make money so we wouldn’t have to depend on the student allocations committee.
Certainly the regular faculty were wonderful, are wonderful. I always come back when no one is there. Every year, I go on one of those 20-or 24-city book tours that publishers design to try to break a novelist’s spirit and one of the places I always go is the Odyssey Book Shop in South Hadley. So every year I always drive around the Amherst campus, find a place to park and spend an hour wandering aimlessly. You have may have [seen me], looking dewy-eyed at James and Stearns or studying the brand new Fayerweather or the math and science center.
What were your first career choices after graduation?
I presumed I was going to go into journalism when I left Amherst. Instead, I was offered a job as a running slime dog of capitalism as an account executive in an ad agency. I didn’t [enjoy it]. Fortunately, I figured out by the time I was 25 that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Since I wasn’t a journalist, I was indulging myself with writing fiction before work and in the evenings. And I sold a couple short stories in my early 20s, in some cases to small literary magazines and, in some cases, to larger magazines like Cosmopolitan. So [my wife and I] decided that I wanted to be a novelist, which I did, and she wanted to be a photographer, which she did. We needed to get off that 1980s escalator before we were completely sucked into that 1980s Manhattan lifestyle. So we moved into a northern village in Vermont, which I hope I won’t leave until I’m carried out horizontally.
Q: How do you imagine your life to be different had you become a journalist?
A: It is very possible that if I had gotten a job as a 22-year-old reporter I might not have become a novelist. I think, in some ways, it’s perhaps very fortunate that I didn’t get a job as a reporter because I absolutely love what I do and I’m getting better as it as I get older. You do something long enough; you work out the bugs eventually. At some point in the next five or six months I will finish my ninth novel, so persistence alone should suggest that I’ve gotten better.
Q: As a writer, how do you respond to the popularity of your novels?
A: I love it when people read my books and, make no mistake, most contemporary novelists want to be read. Anything that encourages people to read my books makes me happy. When “Midwives” became a part of Oprah’s Book Club, I was happy because it meant more people were going to read my work. I want people to read my work because, first of all, it’s a validation of what I do and, secondly, because of the enormous pleasure that I derive from other people’s fiction. When I finish a novel such as Ann Packer’s “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier,” I’m not simply impressed by the prose or the structure of the book, I’m grateful for the evenings of pleasure that this writer has given me.