Book Talk: Chris Bohjalian on history, anxiety and writing

Thu Jul 11, 2013 10:59am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian had long been searching for a way to write a book set in Tuscany during World War Two, but it wasn't until his daughter performed in "Romeo and Juliet" that all the pieces came together.

The result was "The Light in the Ruins", a tale centering on the doomed love between an Italian woman from a noble family and the German soldier she comes to know during the period in 1944 when Tuscany, as Bohjalian puts it, "became an innermost ring of Dante's Inferno."

Bohjalian, the author of 15 novels including "The Sandcastle Girls", which deals with the killing of Armenian Christians by Ottoman Turks during World War One that his grandparents survived, spoke with Reuters about history, anxiety and making use of darkness in writing.

Q: The idea of reimagining a classic is interesting, and sometimes it works better than others. How was it for you?

A: In some ways, I thought it was going to be a project a bit like my 2007 project, "The Double Bind," which is about a social worker who believes she's found Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby's bastard son... But the book took one of those surprising lefthand turns, and it evolved well beyond "Romeo and Juliet". It's still a love story. I love big, sweeping, epic love stories, especially love stories set in the midst of war, but it grew beyond that. It's not simply the love story of Cristina and Friedrich. The characters that I think about most are actually parallel women - both 19 in 1944, and then somewhat older in 1955. Those two women are Cristina Rosati, my Tuscan nobleman's daughter, and Serafina, my partisan, who is both emotionally and physically scarred by the war... Their paths will cross again in 1955 when Serafina is investigating the murders of the Risati women in Florence.

Q: Obviously "The Sandcastle Girls" is on a subject that's closer to you personally than a lot of your books, did this make it harder or easier for you?

A: Sometimes a book is a book, and sometimes a book becomes a mission. And "The Sandcastle Girls" became for me a deeply personal mission. Outside of the Armenian Diaspora, most of the world knows next to nothing of the Armenian genocide. I'm the grandson of genocide survivors, so it was important for me to tell this story and tell it in a way so that everyone would want to read it, which was why I framed it as a love story.

Q: I read that you've said "The Sandcastle Girls" helped you understand the geography of your own soul, how did "The Light in the Ruins" compare?   Continued...