Bohjalian, Chris(topher A.) 1960-
BOHJALIAN, Chris(topher A.) 1960-
PERSONAL: Born August 12, 1960, in White Plains, NY; son of Aram (an advertising executive) and Annalee (a homemaker; maiden name, Nelson) Bohjalian; married Victoria Blewer (a photographer and artist),
October 13, 1984. Education: Amherst College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1982. Politics: "I imagine I have some. Generally, I vote Democratic." Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home—Lincoln, VT. Agent—Ellen Levine Literary Agency, Suite 1801, 15 East Twenty-sixth St., New York, NY 10010-1505.
CAREER: Burlington Free Press, Burlington, VT, book critic and columnist, 1987—; Vermont Life magazine, Montpelier, VT, book critic, 1991—; freelance journalist and novelist. New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf, faculty member, 1991-92; novelist.
MEMBER: League of Vermont Writers, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grant in literature finalist, Vermont Council on the Arts, 1990-91; New England Book Award for fiction, New England Booksellers Association, for Midwives, 1998; Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection, 1998, for Midwives; Anahid Literary Award, 2000; Sarasota Herald-Tribune book club selection, 2003, for The Buffalo Soldier.
A Killing in the Real World, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Hangman, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1991.
Past the Bleachers, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1992.
Water Witches, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1995.
Midwives: A Novel, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Law of Similars: A Novel, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Trans-Sister Radio, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Buffalo Soldier, Crown (New York, NY), 2002.
Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Before You Know Kindness: A Novel, Harmony Books/Shaye Areheart Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to numerous magazines, including Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Boston Globe Magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: Past the Bleachers was adapted for a Hallmark television movie in 1991; Midwives adapted for the stage by Dana Yeaton, October, 2000, and by Lifetime cable channel for a TV movie; The Buffalo Soldier also adapted by Lifetime, 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Chris Bohjalian dismisses his first two novels as "apprentice fiction." Regarding A Killing in the Real World he states: "What begins as a vacuous coming-of-age story metamorphoses into a truly horrific mystery." Hangman he describes as "a perfectly fine New England ghost story," but goes on to add, "Does the world need another New England ghost story?" Only with his third novel, Past the Bleachers, does Bohjalian feel that he found his milieu, writing about "everyday people dealing with the complex moral ambiguities that fill the world." Past the Bleachers, which deals with a couple grieving for their eight-year-old son who died of leukemia, became a Hallmark television movie in 1991.
A Publishers Weekly reviewer characterized Water Witches, Bohjalian's fourth book, as "a moving, life-affirming novel suffused with ecological wisdom." The plot centers around a Vermont ski lodge that wants to develop the wilderness that surrounds it. Environmentalists oppose the development, among them local residents who are the "witches" of the title (modern-day dowsers who can find underground water with a forked stick). Bohjalian's protagonist and narrator, Scott Winston, is a transplanted New York lawyer who represents the interests of the developers. Yet as Scott becomes more aware of the situation and is affected by the New England environment, his allegiance begins to shift. "With wit, insight and mordant irony," the Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Bohjalian charts Scott's metamorphosis from rationalistic materialist and skeptic to one who believes in higher powers and the interconnectedness of all life." Janet St. John of Booklist also praised Water Witches, observing that "Bohjalian manages … to retain a proper distance from his characters so that they become believable, realistic, and human without submitting to the author's political correctness."
Bohjalian's Midwives: A Novel was chosen by Publishers Weekly as among the best fiction of the year, and subsequently selected by the Oprah Winfrey television show as a book club pick. Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise. Michelle Green of People called Midwives "a superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful novel." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "readers will find themselves mesmerized by the irresistible momentum of the narrative and by Bohjalian's graceful and lucid, irony-laced prose." Again set in Vermont, the book tells the story of Sibyl Dansforth, an experienced midwife who performs a caesarean section on a woman who has stopped breathing, to save her unborn infant. However, it turns out that the woman may not have been dead at the time and Sibyl must go on trial for involuntary manslaughter. "The description of the nightmarish Caesarean … is harrowing; it is also the book's most effective passage," related Suzanne Berne for the New York Times. Narrated as a remembrance by Sibyl's grown daughter, an obstetrician, the novel details the course of Sibyl's trial and the inevitable conflicts it raises between midwifery and the mainstream medical community. Reba Leiding of Library Journal praised Bohjalian as a "thorough writer," noting that the book is filled "with information about pregnancy and childbirth, and the characters are well developed, especially Sibyl and her trial lawyer."
In an interview with Rebecca Bain for J-B Online, Bohjalian commented, "I don't view Midwives as an 'issue' novel. I have no agenda for or against home birth, though I do have a massive amount of respect and affection for midwives and nurse-midwives, and the midwifery model for birth." He added, "About six months after my daughter was born, my wife and I were at a dinner party and I realized I was sitting next to a lay (or independent) midwife…. That was the first time I'd ever heard the term 'catching a baby,' and I grew interested fast. And as I got to know this talented and charismatic midwife, I learned that she had attended between 650 and 700 births, which meant she had seen between 650 and 700 sobbing men. I began to realize that she was a part of a profession in which everyone saw their work as a calling (not merely a job), and there was a tremendous amount of beauty and drama every single day…. I interviewed over sixty-five people while researching Midwives, including (of course) a great many midwives, nurse-midwives, and parents who'd had their children at home. That research was instrumental in all the 'birth' stories in the book, and in the development of the characters and their language." The BookBrowse interviewer asked Bohjalian if, having written the novel, he and his wife would consider home birth as an option. He replied, "In a heartbeat. My wife and I would be very comfortable having a baby at home, or using one of the terrific nurse-midwives at the hospital. Certainly we'd see an ob-gyn in the beginning as well, to make sure that Victoria (my wife) was a good candidate for a midwife-attended birth. But assuming it was a low-risk pregnancy, we'd be eager to call our neighbor—now friend and neighbor—who happens to be a midwife, and ask her to help us have our baby."
It was after the publication of Midwives that Bohjalian—until then a fairly obscure writer—got the call from Oprah Winfrey telling him she'd picked his novel for her book club. "I understood two things right away. All of a sudden I was on the same short list of writers of the caliber of Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Alice Hoffman (all previous Oprah choices). I also understood that Midwives was going to sell a lot more copies, and it was the greatest professional blessing I could have," he told Grand Rapids Press reporter Chris Schleier.
In The Law of Similars, Bohjalian further explores the central theme of Midwives, the conflict between traditional and alternative forms of medicine. Homeopathist Carissa Lake treats Vermont deputy state attorney Leland Fowler for asthma. Leland is not only cured, he is attracted to Carissa, the first woman he has been drawn to since the death of his wife. Yet when one of Carissa's patients dies, and the man's wife accuses Carissa and demands a criminal investigation, Leland must face the ethical conflict of whether or not he can fairly prosecute a woman with whom he is falling in love. The Law of Similars drew considerably less enthusiastic response from critics than Midwives. According to Pam Lambert of People: "Unlike Midwives … which builds to a wrenching courtroom climax, this book ends with a disappointing whimper." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that the immorality of some of Leland's actions undercut his appeal as a protagonist. Liz Rosenberg of the New York Times found the characterizations flat compared to those in Midwives, but concluded that "despite its flaws, The Law of Similars is fast-paced and absorbing."
Chris Bohjalian told CA: "I view myself fundamentally as a novelist. Although I am also a weekly newspaper columnist and freelance journalist, it is my novels that matter to me most. I have no particular agenda for my writing—especially my fiction—no particular goal. I write because it gives me enormous pleasure, and I can't imagine I'd be happy doing anything else.
"I began writing as a genre novelist, producing a mystery, A Killing in the Real World, and a ghost story, Hangman. It was an accident; it was a mistake. I don't particularly enjoy mysteries. Consequently, my third novel, Past the Bleachers, is the first book I've produced that can illuminate the kinds of work I hope to complete over the rest of my career: traditional adult fiction inspired by the work of such contemporary novelists as John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Howard Frank Mosher."
In continuing that career, Bohjalian's prediction that he would be able to write "riskier books" because of his selection for the Oprah book club has come true. He has produced two more novels that explore the edges of what is acceptable societally: Trans-Sister Radio and The Buffalo Soldier. The first, as Erica Jameson in the Burlington Free Press described, "introduces school teacher Allison Banks, her teen-age daughter, her ex-husband and the man who loves her while on his way to surgically becoming a woman." Brisbane Sunday Mail writer Robyn Garner pointed out that Trans-Sister Radio "is unlikely to top Christian best-seller lists, as the topic is trans-sexuality. That's trans-sexuality, not transvestism; gender reassignment, not gender exploration. There's a big difference between donning the missus' frock and frilly knickers for a bit of a thrill and spending your whole life knowing you've been born into the wrong skin, be you male or female." Garner continued, "There are dramatic changes in store for all—some expected, some coming out of left field—but they are approached with a refreshing level of honesty and integrity. All credit must go to Chris Bohjalian for this sensitively handled, thought-provoking piece of fiction. Fans of his earlier books, including Midwives and Law of Similars, will not be surprised to hear that there is nothing camp, overplayed or remotely stereotyped in his portrayal of Dana." "All of my books, at least my good ones, are fictional memoirs," Bohjalian told Jameson. "It's an individual chronicling the seminal event in her life." Jameson added, "For every hour he spends writing, he spends another researching everything from school board meetings to state's attorneys. He interviewed at least thirty-five people for Trans-Sister Radio, traveled to Colorado to spend time with people going through gender re-assignment surgery and sent the manuscript to [a woman] doctor … who specializes in sex changes as well as once having been a man herself."
According to Robin Vidimos in the Denver Post, "Readers seem to be reacting to the book as a love story, even if the lovers are a far cry from Ward and June or even Bill and Hillary." The writer continued, "The book brings to life an alternative kind of partnering that, over the last year, has been increasingly in the mainstream…. Bohjalian recognizes the trend, saying, 'I think that's a good thing.'" He added, "Traditionally we've viewed it [gender] as [if] there are men on one side, women on the other. There are people in the world who argue quite convincingly and beautifully that [this view] is narrow-minded, and that it's narrow-minded whether you are gay, straight, or transgendered." "The view of gender as a continuum, and also the impossible psychic conflict that arises from being forced into the wrong gender identity box, come through with clear grace in Trans-Sister Radio," wrote Vidimos.
The Buffalo Soldier is a first departure from Bohjalian's fictional memoir format. He writes it in the third person, with different sections in the voices of different characters. The book, again set in a Vermont town, centers on a couple who have lost their twin daughters to a flood. Struggling to work through their grief, Laura and Terry Sheldon decide to become foster parents since Laura is unable to have more children. Into their home and their all-white community comes Alfred Benoit, a ten-year-old African-American child who has been shunted from home to home and is consequently "secretive, shell-shocked, silent," in the words of Book reviewer Paul Evans, who added, "What elevates The Buffalo Soldier … is the presence of young Alfred. As the adults in his newfound home fret, dissemble and nearly disintegrate, the boy becomes stronger and eventually comes into his own."
Alfred's coming into his own is in large part both because of Laura's kindness and because, as Evans put it, "He is helped by a neighbor, an old man [Paul Hebert] who, like Alfred, feels out of place in the community. He gives Alfred a book on the buffalo soldiers of the 1860s, black riders in the U.S. cavalry. For Alfred, those riders become dream heroes, inspirations. An experienced horseman himself, the old mentor even teaches Alfred to ride." In the meantime, the Sheldon family falls apart as Terry buries himself in his work as a state trooper and has a momentary desperate affair with a woman who becomes pregnant. Evans commented, "While Bohjalian isn't the page-turning storyteller that, say, Stephen King and Alice Hoffman are, he may be something rarer yet equally fine, a remarkably empathetic writer who cares sufficiently about his characters to invest them with genuine warmth, an almost tragic dimension that's rare in mainstream, accessible fiction. With this novel, he's again proved himself a valuable resource—an author of concern and attention."
Robin Vidimos in the Denver Post commented, "The Buffalo Soldier is a story that pulls at the reader's heart, but it would be nice to see Bohjalian stretch a little more. He's very good at getting into his characters' souls, but there is a sense, this time, that he could be telling a lot more about what makes them tick. He uses a combination of conflicts to drive his plot; it is tempting to wonder how the plot might have deepened if one of them, perhaps the extramarital affair, had been cut." Vidimos concluded though, that the reader should find much to like in this latest novel, despite the fact that Bohjalian has decided to abandon quotation marks to denote speech, which Knight Ridder reporter James Ward Lee characterized as "post-modern cuteness [that] makes the typing easier, but the reading harder."
Lynette Ingram in a Tennessean book review wrote, "Distributing the narrative among the perspectives of four major characters, Bohjalian weaves shadings of moral complexity into this richly textured novel. Interspersed with journal entries and correspondence from Captain George Rowe of the Buffalo Soldiers and his Comanche wife, the story of one family's problems expands to explore the wider concepts of unconventional alliances and reconfigured community." Seattle Times writer Nancy Pearl, however, judged that "Chris Bohjalian stumbles badly in his eighth novel … a coincidence-strewn, credulity-straining tale of a family's redemption from a devastating tragedy." Pearl found that "here even the main characters never seem fully realized, so that it is nearly impossible to feel empathy (or sympathy) for what they're going through." Philip Herter of the Boston Herald observed that "opting for a prescription of fresh air and wholesome exercise, The Buffalo Soldier raises more questions about race in America than it attempts to answer. As the novel ducks the real social issues that give it weight, it seems the author is exploiting a hot-button topic for effect…. Ultimately, the novel puts a happy face on race relations in America, suggesting that in some decent little communities, the storms of prejudice are raging well beyond the cozy farmhouse yards. Putting a black protagonist into an all-white town is a potentially powerful idea for a novel, but in The Buffalo Soldier it remains little more than a notion."
In a BookPage interview, Bohjalian gave a different view on the purpose of the book: "By design, The Buffalo Soldier is about multigenerational love," Bohjalian said. "I hope it illuminates the fact that friendship can transcend age." Interviewer Alden Mudge, responded, "Not only does the book do that, but through the sympathetic portrayal of the widely varying perspectives of its ensemble of characters, The Buffalo Soldier sheds light on the whole question of what constitutes a family in contemporary America." Bohjalian told Mudge, "I write domestic dramas. Sometimes that term sounds pejorative, but that's not how I mean it. I write about ordinary people in what I hope are extraordinary circumstances."
A collection of Bohjalian's newspaper columns, titled Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, is a diary of the author's life and of small town America. In a Barnes & Noble Web site interview, Bohjalian said, "I have a novel coming out next autumn. It is tentatively titled Before You Know a Kindness, a reference to a lovely poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. It begins: Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth."
Denise Civelli in the Melbourne Herald Sun remarked of Bohjalian's work, "Author Bohjalian gently develops his characters through their own interpretations of circumstances. His narrative ebbs and swells in the exploration of the people in his landscape—his gift is giving credence to what initially appear to be unlikely scenarios." The popularity of his writing continues to grow as he enables readers to empathize with unlikely characters in complex and challenging situations which he does not belittle or simplify.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC), May 23, 2003, p. E14.
Book, November, 2000, p. 86; March-April, 2002, p. 67.
Booklist, March 1, 1995, p. 1177; February 15, 1997, p. 1001; December 1, 2000, p. 743; March 1, 2002, p. 1089; November 15, 2002, p. 615.
Boston Herald, March 24, 2002, p. 048.
Burlington Free Press (Burlington VT), May 7, 2000, p. D01; October 19, 2000, p. D03; June 30, 2002, p. D01; August 9, 2002, p. C01.
Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), April 3, 2003, p. E1.
Daily Variety, March 21, 2002, p. 7.
Denver Post (Denver, CO), May 14, 2000, p. I-06; June 18, 2000, p. F-03; April 14, 2002, p. EE-03.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids MI), April 7, 2002, p. J1.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), June 22, 2002, p. W26.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, p. 1699; October 1, 2003, review of Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, p. 1206.
Kliatt, November, 2002, p. 42; July, 2003, p. 5.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 24, 2002, p. K7220; May 1, 2002, p. K1733.
Lambda Book Report, September, 2000, p. 17.
Library Journal, February 1, 1997, p. 104; December, 1998, p. 152; May 1, 2000, p. 151; August, 2001, p. 186; January, 2002, p. 148; October 1, 2002, p. 143; September 1, 2003, p. 236; November 15, 2003, John McCormick, review of Idyll Banter, p. 88.
Maclean's, July 17, 2000, p. 46.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 14, 2000, p. 06; July 2, 2001, p. 01.
New York Times, May 4, 1997; March 14, 1999.
New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2000, p. 35; March 31, 2002, p. 17.
People, August 25, 1997, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, p. 58; January 20, 1997, p. 390; July 7, 1997, p. 24; October 5, 1998, p. 77; November 9, 1998, p. 21; January 4, 1999, Amy Boaz, "Chris Bohjalian: On the Fringes of Modern Life," p. 67; March 8, 1999, p. 47; April 17, 2000, p. 50; May 6, 2002, p. 22; September 29, 2003, review of Idyll Banter, p. 50.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), March 20, 2000, p. E3.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 2000, p. 11.
Sarasota Herald Tribune (Sarasota, FL), March 2, 2003, p. E4.
Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), March 31, 2002, p. K8.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 2, 2001, p. 003.
Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia), May 14, 2000, p. 024.
Tennessean (Nashville, TN), April 7, 2002, p. D43.
Us Weekly, April 9, 2001, p. 84.
Washington Post, July 30, 2000, p. X05.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), May 30, 1999, p. A18.
Barnes & Noble, http://btob.barnesandnoble.com/ (March 5, 2004), "Good to Know: Interview."
BookBrowse, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (March 5, 2004), "An interview with Chris Bohjalian, about Midwives."
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (March 5, 2004), "Exploring the Trials and Triumphs of an All-American Family: Interview by Alden Mudge."
Chris Bohjalian Home Page, http://www.chrisbohjalian.com/ (March 5, 2004).
J-B Online, http://www.josephbeth.com/ (March 5, 2004), Rebecca Bain, author interview.*