Calling the readers in his audience, "the medieval monks of the digital age," New York Times bestsellers list author Chris Bohjalian spoke at Catawba College's 23rd annual Brady Author's Symposium on March 26th. The topics he touched on ranged from the state of reading in America, to his latest novel, "Skeletons at the Feast," to the travails he has suffered while on book tour.
Citing a National Endowment for the Arts survey on the state of reading in America, Bohjalian explained that the percentage of American readers who had read at least one novel or collection of short stories within a year had been in decline since the 1980s. Despite the survey showing that the percentage declined from 57% in the late 1980s to 54% in the late 1990s and to 50% in 2009, he said, "I do not believe reading itself is beleaguered. In some way, the pixel is replacing paper, yet we still have a visual connection with words and paper."
Of his newest novel, "Skeletons at the Feast," which came out in paperback in February, Bohjalian said, "It is my favorite novel that I think that I will ever write. This book has a gravitas to it and I felt a moral responsibility to get it right for the people who told me their stories, perhaps for the last time."
Bohjalian's "Skeletons at the Feast" is a World War II love story set in Poland and Germany during the last six months of the war. It was inspired in part by a diary that had been kept by his friend's East Prussian grandmother between 1920 and 1945. Bohjalian's friend asked him to read the diary in 1998 and, Bohjalian explained, that unbeknownst to him at the time, that reading was the origin of his novel, "Skeletons." "The notion that there might be a kernel of a novel in that diary never crossed my mind."
He described the diary that had been translated from German as "180 pages, typed, and single-spaced." One hundred and fifty of those pages concerned the agri-business of sugar beets grown on Prussian estate of the diary-keeper, while 30 pages concerned the exodus from the estate after the diary-keeper decided "to give up everything and walk west" to keep her teenage daughter safe during the last year of World War II. Only about five pages of the diary were "riveting," he said.
It took Bohjalian eight years from his initial reading of the diary before he began work on "Skeletons" in 2006. He said the trigger mechanism which led him to write this book was reading Max Hastings' "Armageddon," an account of the last year of World War II in Germany. While reading Hastings' book, he explained, he had a "sense of déjà vu," so much so that he asked his friend to reread the diary. He then called the 77-year-old daughter of the diary-keeper and asked permission to use the diary as the starting place for his novel, "Skeletons."
"Skeletons" follows the evacuation of the aristocratic Emmerich family from their estate in East Prussia to points west of Berlin, Germany. The family's retreat is hasty and fraught with problems as they make an effort to stay ahead of the Soviet army. The story is told by different narrators who each experience their own variety of fear and loss during their retreat. The novel's title is taken from a statement made by the Emmerichs' Uncle Karl, a man who is unwilling to leave his home even when everyone else is fleeing. He says, "These days, you and I — our families, our world — are nothing more than skeletons at the feast anyway."
When asked by a member of the audience to expound on the reason for the title, Bohjalian explained, that in some North African countries it is a tradition for people to bring a skeleton to the party to remind the revelers that "the good times never last." He said the title was "oblique" and "open to a myriad of interpretations," and originally he had thought about titling this novel, "The ____ Girl," although he never conjured an appropriate word to fill in that blank.
Many in his audience belly-laughed at Bohjalian's stories of being on book tour. He said it was "scary out there" as he visited 17 cities in as many days, traveling between them on regional jets. What authors desire most while on book tour, he joked, was to spend at least two nights in one city so they could have their laundry done. He encountered such an opportunity while traveling through Minneapolis, arriving on a Friday with a Sunday departure. He sent out his laundry to be done and discovered the night before he was to leave that the 13 pairs of his underwear he had sent out were not among the laundry returned to him. Instead, he received 13 pairs of a very small woman's underwear which he returned to the bellhop on Sunday morning when departing the hotel with a plea that it be exchanged on Monday for 13 pairs of his own underwear that could be Fed Ex'd to him at another stop. On Tuesday, when he was in another city, he incredulously opened a Fed Ex box that arrived at his hotel. It indeed contained 13 pairs of men's underwear, none of which were his.
In addition to "Skeletons," Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "The Double Bind," "Before You Know Kindness," "Law of Similars," and "Midwives," all of which were included on the New York Times bestsellers list. He won the New England Book Award in 2002 with "The Double Bind," and his novel, "Midwives," was a selection of Oprah's Book Club, a Publishers Weekly "Best Book," and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery selection. His work has been translated into 25 languages and has sold over three and a half million copies. Twice, his books have been made into movies ("Midwives" in 2001 starring Sissy Spacek and "Past the Bleachers" in 1995).
"Midwives" being selected as an Oprah's Book Club pick, he said, was "the greatest commercial boost," and unlike some authors whose work have been selected by that club, he quipped that he was "never conflicted about being on it."
He is currently at work on a novel titled, "Remind Me Who I Am," scheduled to be released in February of 2010. He described it as a thriller about domestic abuse and a supposed murder/suicide.
Bohjalian makes his home in Lincoln, Vermont, with his wife and 15-year-old daughter where he bikes, gardens and is active in both the local church and behind-the-scenes in the Vermont theater community. He writes a weekly newspaper column entitled "Idyll Banter," in which he chronicles his everyday experiences. The column can be read online at www.burlingtonfreepress.com or on his web site.
Bohjalian is among a distinguished group of authors who have spoken at previous annual Brady Author's Symposia at Catawba College, including Reynolds Price, Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Anne Rivers Siddons, Angela Davis-Gardner, Dannye Romine Powell, Josephine Humphries, Betty Adcock, Kay Gibbons, Fred Chappell, Robert Inman, John Berendt, Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, Jan Karon, Gail Godwin, Ann Hood, Tim McLaurin, Frances Mayes, Rick Bragg, Susan Vreeland, Jodi Picoult, Gish Jen and Joanne Harris.
PHOTOS: Author Chris Bohjalian Visits Catawba