The very kind Chris Bohjalian managed to answer some questions via email between radio interviews [he’s currently off on tour].
Amy Steele: You mentioned finding a journal that sparked the idea for Skeletons at the Feast. What interested you about writing a book about WWII?
Chris Bohjalian: I have always loved reading big, sweeping, epic World War II love stories – novels such as Sophie’s Choice, The English Patient, and Atonement. That was one factor.
But there was also this: In the past my novels have had, by design, a ripple of moral ambiguity to them. Not this time: World War II was a conflict without moral ambiguity. There was good and there was evil, and good triumphed. That was a factor that drew me to the subject, too.
Finally, there is the reality that the women and men who survived the Holocaust are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of the people I interviewed – the Holocaust survivors and the Germans – were telling their story for one of the last times in their lives. It was important to me to get their memories down for subsequent generations.
STEELE: It amazes me that there are so many untold stories of WWII still to be told. The Russian invasion of Germany is not talked about often. What do we learn from the past and WWII in particular?
CB: Well, we learned that the Greatest Generation really was pretty great. That’s one thing.
We also learned that some people’s fortitude and courage and resilience are profound.
But, sadly, we also saw that the human capacity for barbarism is limitless, too.
And, sadly, as we gaze around the globe and look at the post World War II world – Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur – we just don’t seem to be evolving in that regard.
STEELE: It’s such a difficult subject and you add all these crucially integral details: the basic disregard for humanity—raping young girls/pillaging, Uri who steals SS officer’s identity, discussion of literature/ listening to the BBC, the Hitler youth, Cecile in the camp, the friends who are so verbal in hatred of the Jews… How much research goes into a novel like this? Do you research before you write or as you go?
CB: I do an enormous amount of research, both before writing and as I am writing.
And I do all of my interviewing myself. In this case, that was especially important. I wanted to hear firsthand the stories of the Survivors and the stories of the German refugees. There is often an inflection in an answer or a small gesture that teaches a person more than a transcript of an interview. Moreover, by doing the interviews myself I have the chance to ask follow-up questions I might not have thought of, and to explore avenues I hadn’t anticipated.
STEELE: What is most important to you when writing a novel?
CB: Giving readers a good story – one that makes them really want to keep turning the pages.
STEELE: What is your favorite aspect of this story?
CB: This novel has some of my favorite characters – people like Anna and Cecile and Uri and Theo. This is the first time I have finished writing a book and been sad that it was done. I missed those characters and wanted to spend more time with them.
And, of course, I always think of the extraordinary people I met in my research, and my friend’s mother – the diarist’s daughter. She was a 16-year-old when she and her family made that unbelievably arduous trek west across Poland and Germany in 1945. She’s a remarkable woman.
STEELE: You have a beautiful old house in Burlington, Vermont which seems like an idyllic setting in which to create novels. Why do you like living there and how has it affected your writing?
CB: Actually, I have a beautiful old house an hour from Burlington. I live in a village of barely a thousand people halfway up Vermont’s third highest mountain.
Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about finding their voice. I found my voice in rural Vermont. I never would have written books such as Midwives or The Double Bind had I not moved there.
And while I might have written a World War II love story, it wouldn’t have been Skeletons at the Feast because I wouldn’t have become friends with a wonderful guy (and his family) whose mother and grandmother made that long walk across Europe, and whose grandmother kept a diary.
STEELE: You’ve written novels about vastly different topics. How are you able to switch from one to another? What do you do for down time between novels?
CB: There is no down time between novels. I finish one and embark on the next. Really, I write every day, and I have to write something.
STEELE: Why do you write?
CB: The mortgage.
I’m kidding – sort of. There is a certain artistic passion that drives any novelist or poet (recall Rilke’s inspiring words on this subject), but it is also a lovely way to make a living.
STEELE: What is the greatest challenge of being a novelist?
CB: In my case, it is battling back an ever present inferiority complex – that sense of my own mediocrity. Every month I seem to read a novel that is better than anything I will ever write in my life.
STEELE: What is in your to-be-read pile?
CS: A forthcoming collection of short stories by Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey, and Audrey Niffengger’s Her Fearful Symmetry
STEELE: What advice do you give to someone who wants to start a novel and just cannot start writing?
CS: Aspiring writers can find my thoughts on this at length on my blog
STEELE: Where do most of your ideas come from?
CS: Usually from people I meet. They tell me a story or show me a photo or ask me to look at a diary – and I am off and running.
STEELE: Your publicist sent me an ARC of Secrets of Eden— another topical and potent subject—domestic violence. Cannot wait to read this one. How did this novel come about?
CS: Thank you. Secrets of Eden is a literary thriller in the tradition of The Double Bind and Midwives. It’s about a domestic abuse murder-suicide with a twist; it seems the husband did not shoot himself after he strangled his wife, as everyone initially assumed. Someone else shot him.
The idea grew from the stories women told me after The Double Bind was published. The reality is that violence against women in this country is absolutely epidemic.
Chris Bohjalian will be at the Concord Festival of Authors Breakfast with the Authors on November 7.