You may already be familiar with author Chris Bohjalian, whose career spans an impressive two decades and eleven novels. Though he was first published in 1988, things really took off for the Vermont-based writer when Oprah repped his 1997 book, Midwives as one of her book club selections. A few years later, that novel was adapted for TV. Nice work if you can get it.
But Bohjalian wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, and last year’s challenging, suspenseful read, The Double Bind (Vintage, 2007), offers concrete evidence that this author keeps stepping up his own game.
To go into much detail about the story line of Bind would be to give away the shocker of an ending. What I can say is that, complex and multi-faceted as the plot is, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Strange, since it’s not exactly an action-packed thriller. There is an aura of mystery, but the sleuthing is underscored by the intricate twists of mental illness. And yet, despite addressing schizophrenia, homelessness and sexual violence, the book manages to avoid self-righteousness or pitiable characters.
Bind is crafted from three subplots represented by three main characters. The first is Bobby Crocker, a homeless man who dies, leaving behind a cache of snapshots from his career photographing celebrities. Crocker is based on the real-life Bob “Soupy” Campbell whose photos appear at points throughout the text.
The second character is social worker Laurel who, after nearly being abducted and raped, winds up working at a homeless shelter where she meets Crocker.
That Bohjalian could weave such far-flung themes together is admirable in and of itself. That he could do so and wind up with such an absorbing, addictive and utterly readable book is remarkable.
To learn a bit more about the novel, the author, and his process, Xpress recently spoke to Bohjalian by phone.
Mountain Xpress: Since you’re now about two years out from the writing of The Double Bind, is it strange to revisit it on this book tour?
Chris Bohjalian: It always is. The thing that I find, whenever I’m looking at my work, is how frustrating it is because I always look at all of the things that could be so much better in the book when I have some distance from it. And I’ll just be reading passages in bookstores and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, talk about unfulfilled promise.’
MX: Do you imagine how you’d write the book now, if you had it to do over?
CB: I will tell you, with a hardcover, I used to pencil in emendations sometimes on some of the words where I wish I’d found a better synonym. Some of those corrections have actually been made in the paperback. I mean, I don’t change the ending, but if I found the perfect synonym for ‘claret,’ I would use it.
MX: Your next book (Skeletons at the Feast) is due out this Spring; are you doing any advance promotion on this tour?
CB: The new book comes out May 6. I’m on tour now to support the paper back of The Double Bind.
MX: This is a very complicated plot. Did you know from the beginning how it was going to play out, or did the story reveal itself to you as your wrote it?
CB: The Double Bind is an anomaly for me. Most of my books, I begin with only the vaguest premise. [For example], Midwives: Coping with a bad outcome. Not this time. I knew precisely how the book was going to begin and I knew precisely how the book was going to end. I knew A and I knew Z. What I didn’t know were the 24 letters in between. It was rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle and having all four border done and 500 piece floating around that table, but having no idea what the image was or where those pieces fit together.
MX: How long did it take for you to flesh it out?
CB: Six months after I wrote about [homeless photographer and inspiration for The Double Bind] Bobby Campbell and his photographs for the newspaper, I reread The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby will always be one of my very favorite novels. I don’t think anyone writes sentences as luminescent as [F.] Scott Fitzgerald or understood as well the connection between class and culture and the human heart.
So, now it’s June of 2004 and I went for a bike ride after having reread Gatsby. It was a dusky evening and I was thinking about Bobby Campbell’s photos for the first time in six months and the connection was clearly The Great Gatsby. Why? The Great Gatsby set in the 1920s, is of an era we see through the haze of black and white photographs. Bobby Campbell sure loved to photograph in black and white. Secondly, Gatsby was a jazz-age novel and Bobby Campbell loved his jazz musicians.
So, for the first time in six months I was thinking about Bobby Campbell and I was thinking about a third thing. My wife had heard a story on the radio that day. It was a warning and we shared it with out daughter at dinner. The warning was this: If you were ever riding your bicycle and somebody tried to abduct you, hold onto the handlebars for dear life because it is almost impossible to throw somebody attached to a bike into the back of a van or a car. The geometry just doesn’t work. So, literally, that moment on the dirt road, I had the idea for The Double Bind.
What I didn’t know was how to get from A to Z. So, the first draft of the book I wrote between June of 2004 and March of 2005. Then, from March 2005 to May 2006, I took it through at least four or five dramatically different drafts. I wrote it in the third person, I wrote it in the first person, I wrote it from multiple first person perspectives: That was a cacophonic mess. Then I rewrote it again in the third person, but this was a softer third person perspective, and then I could begin to edit it line by line.
MX: Do you spend more time rewriting than completing the first draft?
CB: Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that the only reason writers publish is to stop rewriting. I think there’s some truth to that. I do work very very hard with whatever voice I have for the book to make the book seamless and smooth. I want readers to be turning the pages but I also want them to be challenged intellectually. My subsequent drafts always take more time than the first draft.
MX: How do you maintain the motivation to keep working on a book for years, and how do you know when it’s finished?
CB: When I can’t put any more time into it because I’m just disgusted with it. When I’ve reached a point where I realize it is never going to be the book I’d dreamt it would be, it will never be as good as I envisioned: ‘Once again you have failed to write the great American novel.’ Then I finally let go of it.
MX: The story of Bobby Crocker (the character of Bob Campbell) is so fascinating; why not just write a novel about him?
CB: That initial story was fascinating. I think it was almost alchemy. What causes a writer to say I want to invest two years in a story? Bobby Campbell’s story, for whatever reason—and I love Bobby Campbell’s story—I didn’t see a novel in it. It might also have been as prosaic as the fact that I’d already written about Bobby Campbell.
MX: Was adding the Gatsby element a personal challenge for you?
CB: To a certain extent it’s a challenge that frightened me. [Ernest] Hemingway used to talk about how he never wanted to get in the ring with [Leo] Tolstoy. I love Fitzgerald and I never would have thought I’d be willing to get into the ring with Fitzgerald. But, I just loved the notion, and I wanted to see if it would work. I did feel in the early drafts that, even though it wasn’t there yet, it was something I wanted to keep exploring.
MX: How much of an undertaking was it to make the time lines and characters of Gatsby match up with the modern settings in Bind?
CB: One of the first things I had to do was to deconstruct Gatsby and to figure out where Tom ann Daisy were all the time. …All of the minutia. I never viewed this as a book that was in some way a sequel to The Great Gatsby. I didn’t even view The Great Gatsby as the important part of the story. I always viewed this as a book about homelessness, mental illness and violence against women. That’s what I always thought this book was about, and I still think that’s what this book is about.
MX: Why did you decide to include the real photos of Bob Campbell in this work of fiction?
CB: I love the photos that Bobby left behind that are in the book. When I asked Rita Markley [The executive director of the Burlington, Vt. Committee on Temporary Shelter] to read the first draft of the manuscript—I wanted to know what was authentic, what was inauthentic—well, she was great, great friends with Bobby Campbell. She said, ‘You who would’ve loved this book? Bobby Campbell. He wanted nothing more than for the world to view his photographs.’
I thought to myself, ‘Huh, there’s no law that says a novel can’t have photographs in it.’ So I went to a probate court and a state court and I acquired the rights to 12 photographs and I chose them because either I could weave them into the text of the novel, or because I liked them, or most importantly because they were images that Bobby had told Rita were some of his favorite images.
On page 370 there’s an image of a father, mother and little girl: That little girl is Mira Sorvino. I love the photograph just before the book opens: It’s a very young Judy Collins. There’s a photograph on page 70 of people playing chess in Washington Square Park. I’ve heard from a woman since the book came out whose dad is in the photograph. I love that.
MX: It’s kind of startling to be reading the story about this fictitious man and then come across a real photograph. The photos really blur the line between fantasy and reality.
CB: I wanted this book to be very disorienting, to feel like you’re in this fog, in this twilight zone, and the photos help with that. That’s why they’re not captioned.
MX: Bind has a surprise ending. Did you plan that from the beginning or was that a decision you made later in the process?
CB: I wanted it to be surprise from the very moment I was on that dirt road on my bicycle. For ten years readers have been telling me that they loved Midwives and how the ending made them gasp. They wanted another book that made them gasp at the end.
MX: Did you have the write that ending both from the beginning and the ending to make sure it added up?
CB: There are clues. Yes, I did layer in clues.
Chris Bohjalian reads from The Double Bind on Tuesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at Malaprop’s. The event is free, Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter