January 27, 2010 / 9:11 AM / 8 years ago

Novelist Chris Bohjalian tackles domestic violence

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - American novelist Chris Bohjalian's novels focus on specific issues with his latest and 12th novel, "Secrets of Eden," dealing with domestic violence.

The book, out in February, is about a woman and her alcoholic husband who are found dead in an apparent murder-suicide the day after her baptism. The reverend who baptized her is the narrator.

Bohjalian, 49, who worked in advertising before moving to writing full-time, has written about midwives, homelessness, animal rights and environmentalism since his first novel was released in 1988, winning several awards along the way.

His 1997 novel "Midwives" was an Oprah's Book Club selection and also made into a movie, as was his 1992 novel "Past the Bleachers." Bohjalian, who has been writing since he was a child, spoke to Reuters:

Q: Why domestic violence?

A: "In 1997 I was researching a book and spending time with a victims' advocate when she flicked onto the desk a photo of head indentations in sheetrock. The image was a skull print of one of her clients and told me what her client had endured and how she had kept it together for her children. It wasn't important for what I was writing then but it stuck with me."

Q: Is it something your readers will relate to?

A: "When "The Double Bind" was published in 2007 about a social worker who is sexually assaulted and the post-traumatic disorder she endures I started hearing from women all over the United States who wanted to know how I had heard their story. I hadn't, but the rape in the novel felt so real for them. It struck me how epidemic violence is against women."

Q: Is "Secrets of Eden" based on a real story?

A: "There wasn't one story that was the basis of the novel which is really trying to understand what my characters are experiencing. I view myself as a story teller. When someone closes my book I hope they are very satisfied and that I get the occasional gasp of surprise."

Q: Do you have to meet deadlines for your books?

A: "No, but I find the better books are the ones that I write faster. Of my 12 novels there are two or three that I think are dramatically better and they all took between 9 and 12 months to write. Those are "Secrets of Eden," "Skeletons at the Feast" and "Midwives." All my other books took much longer to write."

Q: How do you balance your novel writing with writing columns and promotional work?

A: "I've had to become better at multi-tasking in the digital age but haven't we all? When I started I was just writing novels, I wasn't writing columns, blogging, answering up to 150 emails a day. Now if I am going to focus for 3-4 hours I have to unplug my router. It is too tempting to answer an email. I do the best of my writing between 5 and 8 in the morning because that is when the digital age is quietish. I wrote my first three novels before going to work in the morning and that is probably why that 5-8 am block is still so good for me."

Q: How has technology changed things for writers?

A: "Twenty years ago Phil Roth or Margaret Atwood were two dimensional photographs at the back of a novel, they were not approachable. I hear from 20-40 readers that I have never met every day. Their questions range from why I killed characters to how can they get an early copy of "Secrets of Eden." I do try to answer as many as I can and that takes an enormous amount of time but if someone is going to honor me and read my book then I want to be courteous and give them a reply."

Q: Are you into your next book already?

A: "The book I am writing now is about an airline pilot like Chelsey Sullenberger (the U.S. pilot who landed in New York's Hudson River) who had to ditch a jet into a lake. Unlike Sullenberger, people die. It is his story about what it is like to be the pilot who was not Sullenberger. I spend a lot of time on planes and airlines fascinate me."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Write what you love. If you love romance, write romance, if you love journalism, become a journalist, but don't try to write in a genre that you don't care deeply about as it will never work. Secondly you have to be thick skinned. I had 250 rejection letters before I sold one word. Finally, read a lot."

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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