What you missed if you didn’t see Chris Bohjalian
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Good stuff you missed if you didn’t see author Chris Bohjalian …
Bohjalian called his audience at the Brady Author’s Symposium “Medieval monks in the digital age … you care about reading.”
He cited the grim statistics from the “Reading in America” studies. In the late 1980s, 57 percent of Americans had read one novel in the last year; in the 1990s, 54 percent; in 2009, just 50 percent of Americans had read one novel, “but that’s up 2 percent from 2004, because last year, there were big sales on books about teenage vampires.
“That’s 17 million readers lost.”
Book tours are exhausting, as proven by Bohjalian’s laryngitis Thursday night.
But in the morning, he told his underwear story.
“I had been on 17 regional planes in 13 days and I was wearing a strange man’s underwear'” he said, drawing a big laugh.”The publisher wants you to go to as many cities as possible as quickly as possible.”
It’s rare to have two days in one place, “so I can at least get my laundry done.”
He was staying an extra night at one city, and sent his laundry to be washed. He was so excited when he got back to his room and found a box of underwear on his bed. “Not my underwear. … Not men’s, but some very petite woman.”
He was on his way to the next flight and asked the hotel to send his underwear, if found, to the next city, Orlando, realizing the chances of that happening were pretty slim.
As someone was driving him to the airport, Bohjalian begged him to stop somewhere where he could buy underwear. Done. He dashes to his gate, puts his laptop, his shoes, his cellphone, etc., through security and then realizes he has left his bag of new underwear behind. Over the loudspeaker comes the announcement about a bag of underwear found in the waiting area. Too late, gotta go.
The next day, a box arrives in Orlando. He’s so excited. He opens it and finds 13 pair of underwear ó not his. “But it was a man’s, boxers, about my size, and they were clean, so …”
Reading is not dead ó just different. We’re probably reading more words than ever because of all the time spent on Web sites. “The pixel is replacing paper, and how our brains interpret a linear novel is changing.”
Bohjalian learned so much about World War II during research for “Skeletons at the Feast” he was constantly stunned by things Americans have never heard of.
“Everyone thinks the worst maritime disaster was the Titanic, when 1,500 lives were lost.”But there was a far more horrific loss in World War II. As German cities were surrounded by invading armies, the only way out was by boat, down the Vistula River.
The Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise ship, was loaded with more than 10,000 people, mostly women and children. There are stories of mothers tossing their infants from the docks onto the boat.
Some time into the voyage, a German submarine spotted the ship and the anti-aircraft guns on deck. The sub launches a torpedo, sinking the ship in 42 minutes, killing more than 9,000 people, mostly women and children.
An audience member asked how Bohjalian chose to write from a female perspective in some of his novels. He told a story about one reviewer who referred to him as “she” throughout. “Midwives” was the first novel where he chose a woman’s point of view. “I had interviewed lots of women.” He had considered telling the story from the husband’s perspective, but he realized women were more openly emotional.
“I remembered most of the intense conversations I’ve had with my brother and my father took place over a golf ball or a tennis ball or a football.
“Women don’t need a ball to have a conversation.”
“Midwives” was also the book Oprah selected for her book club. “It was the greatest commercial blessing ever. I was never conflicted.”
When Oprah found the book, it had peaked on the bestseller list at 11 or 12. “Then it became No. 1. … When she holds up a book on TV…”
An Associated Press reporter kept calling Bohjalian and asking him, “Are you a millionaire?” When he wouldn’t answer, she kept calling. She called one day when he was in his basement with two plumbers, “trying to figure out if I could squeeze one more year out of the furnace.”
Exasperated, the reporter asked, “Well, can you afford to buy a new furnace?”
“I said yes.” So a few days later he sees a headline in a major newspaper that reads, “Vermont author can now afford furnace.”
He ended with this bit of good news: There are more public libraries in America than McDonald’s franchises.