LINCOLN — Chris Bohjalian thrives on dread.
This isn’t to say the Lincoln author, whose 17th novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” will debut next week, harbors a morbid fascination with dread — in fact, he’s an affable guy.
But he relies on it, the ever-present feeling that something is or is about to be terribly wrong, to drive the action in his novels and keep readers turning pages.
“Going back to my ‘Midwives,’ my fifth novel, I had figured something out about dread,” Bohjalian said during an interview at his home. “My work is at its best when it ratchets up dread.”
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is no different. In it, Bohjalian tells the story of Emily Shepard, a 16-year-old girl rendered homeless and orphaned after a nuclear disaster near her home in the Northeast Kingdom. The novel, told from Emily’s point of view, recounts how her life became unraveled — how she went from living in a middle-class suburban home to marauding the streets of Burlington, using an alias and fearing for her safety.
A sense of dread pervades every facet of Emily’s life, and dogs the reader through every chapter. Bohjalian said he sought to create this perpetual sense of uneasiness, though he said it is hardly a strategy unique to himself.
“Whether it’s “Breaking Bad,” whether it’s “True Blood,” whether it’s “Fargo,” we love dread, and we still love that Charles Dickensian notion of the cliffhanger,” Bohjalian said. “I hope that my books, when they work, give you a combination of both.”
THE VETERAN AUTHOR
Bohjalian sat down with the Independent to talk about his new book on a summer afternoon at his 19th-century farmhouse in Lincoln. He’s 53 now, but still holds on to some vestiges of youth — along with a neatly-pressed black shirt tucked into jeans, Bohjalian wore a pair of multicolored Chuck Taylors.
He speaks in a measured cadence, choosing his words carefully and delivering them with perfect diction; listening to Bohjalian is much like reading his prose. He exudes an unmistakable confidence when talking about his work, and why wouldn’t he? His novels have been translated into more than 25 languages and adapted into three films.
But in the early years of his writing career, success eluded Bohjalian. In the late 1980s he amassed 250 rejection slips for short stories he submitted to publications like Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, before publishing a short story in Cosmopolitan (back when the magazine still printed fiction).
Then in 1988, he published his first novel, “A Killing in the Real World.” Again, success proved to be out of his reach — the book was a flop.
“It did really badly, thank goodness, because it’s a terrible book,” Bohjalian said candidly.
A failed debut is often a death sentence for a new author, but Bohjalian convinced another publisher to take a chance on him.
This time, it paid off — 1991’s “Hangman”was followed by “Past the Bleachers” the following year and “Water Witches” in 1995. Midwives, published in 1997, became Bohjalian’s greatest success to date, becoming a New York Times bestseller after it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.
“The Law of Similars” (1999) and “The Double Bind” (2007) also became New York Times bestsellers.
Despite his success, Bohjalian shows no signs of slowing down. Since his debut, no more than three years have passed between novels, and he’s published a book in each of the last five years.
He began writing “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” in December 2012. Bohjalian said the inspiration for the novel came out of a conversation he had with Annie Ramniceanu of Spectrum Youth and Family Services.
“Annie was just telling me how some of the kids would occasionally build igloos made of trash bags and broken leaves down at the Burlington waterfront,” Bohjalian recalled. “I knew instantly that I wanted to write a novel narrated by a young adult living in an igloo by the waterfront, trying desperately to keep it together.”
The novel begins with 16-year-old Emily Shepard doing precisely that, before jumping back to tell the story of how she ended up there. Bohjalian said this narrative structure is one that he employs in many of his novels.
“My works begin, invariably, with a prologue; something horrific,” Bohjalian said. “And then there’s a flashback, so the novel can proceed apace.”
Bohjalian said to get inside the head of his 16-year-old female protagonist, he relied on the guidance of his own daughter, Grace. It was her blunt assessment of his writing style that helped him create the character of Emily Shepard.
“She said, ‘Dad, take this as a compliment because I mean it that way, but your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed up young women,’” Bohjalian recalled. “And it’s true — when you look at my best work, it’s narrated from the perspective of seriously wounded young women.”
Bohjalian credited his daughter for much of Emily’s contemporary lexicon. When his searches for teenage vernacular on Urban Dictionary were unsuccessful, he turned to Grace for help.
“I don’t think a day went by I didn’t send her a text saying ‘I need some appropriate, hip synonyms for ‘hookup,’ or ‘wasted,’ or ‘angry,’’” Bohjalian said.
Every time, Grace would supply him with a handful of new words — his personal favorite being “bitchcakes” (it means furious.) Bohjalian added that writing the novel would not have been possible without his daughter’s help.
“The fact is, the book wouldn’t be half the book that it is without Grace,” Bohjalian said.
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” like so many of Bohjalian’s novels, is set entirely in Vermont.
“I love writing about Vermont,” he said. “It is a great location for fiction.”
Bohjalian attributed this to Vermont’s small scale, where townspeople share a greater sense of intimacy than people in large cities. He added that he is fascinated with Vermont’s progressive streak, and how the state has lead the nation in several social movements, such as same-sex marriage and environmental issues.
“We’re always, in really interesting ways, at the front of cultural change, and I love that as a novelist,” Bohjalian said. “You can see that in ‘Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.’”
The novel takes place Burlington and the Northeast Kingdom. Bohjalian carefully weaves real places and locations with fictitious ones. He said this allows him to provide readers with a sense of familiarity of place, without being tied to every detail — if he doesn’t want a gas station on the corner, it doesn’t have to be there.
The Kingdom town of Reddington, for example, is fictional, while many places in Burlington are real. Bohjalian said he relies on this blend of reality and fiction to create a sense of setting in much of his work.
“In Burlington, it’s a little different because on the one hand, I need to have the gas stations where they need to be, and need to have the churches where I need the churches to be,” Bohjalian said. “But it’s so recognizable to so many people that it’s fun to drop in a real place, like Muddy Waters or Leunig’s.”
But while he used those familiar landmarks to anchor readers in the heart of Burlington, Bohjalian played more freely with other locations in the city. Several scenes feature a fictional homeless shelter for teens.
“If you look at the shelter, it’s so clear that I was inspired by Spectrum — it’s located on the north end of Church Street,” Bohjalian said. “I didn’t want to be wed to the exact, where-the-furniture-is details. I wanted a fictional world for Emily.”
A DYSTOPIAN NOVEL?
The author said he based the events in “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011.
“It meant learning just enough about nuclear power to make the scenario plausible, and the most recent nuclear cataclysm was Fukushima.”
Once Bohjalian decided that since a nuclear meltdown would be the cause of Emily’s homelessness and the fact that she’s an orphan, he knew he needed to study up on nuclear power. He enlisted the help of Arnie and Maggie Gunderson of Fair Winds Energy in Burlington.
“They taught me a lot about nuclear power, and read the manuscript for me,” Bohjalian said.
While the novel takes place in the wake of a nuclear disaster, Bohjalian said he does not view it as a dystopian novel.
“I definitely don’t want this book to be perceived as ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy,” he said. “Most of the world is fine.”
But while the novel does not exist in a post-apocalyptic world, it does feature scenes of chaos.
“June is the worst-case scenario for the state’s department of travel and tourism, and I was trying to capture that moment in time,” Bohjalian said. “The long caravans of people trying to get away from the Northeast Kingdom, trying to imagine Route 2 clogged with cars as everyone tries to get away from St. Johnsbury and Newport — those scenes were fun to write in a dark, twisted sort of way.”
Bohjalian said that much has changed in the two decades he was been an author. The advent of ebooks has shaken up the industry.
“When I started writing novels there were no ebooks,” Bohjalian said. “Now I’m going to guess that ebooks are 50 percent of my sales.”
When he first started writing, in the ancient epoch before the Internet, publishers sold books through newspaper and radio ads and professional reviews. Now, online amateur reviews from readers, as well as social media, play a large role in selling books.
But Bohjalian said it is easy to get distracted from his craft as he maintains his accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, Redroom and his own website.
“I love the opportunity to connect with my readers on the social networks, but it’s important to remain focused,” Bohjalian said. “Sometimes I take my manuscript and pens upstairs because I need to be focused and it is so easy to say ‘I will answer four emails’ and then go back to work.”
Though “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” won’t hit shelves until next month, Bohjalian is working on his next novel. He’s light on the details about it, though not coy — after all, he’s not even sure where the story is going.
He’ll also be taking “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” on the road next month for a three-week, 16-city book tour that will kick off at Phoenix Books in Burlington on July 7.
TAKING A RISK
Bohjalian said that in “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” he is both exploring new territory as a writer and using the narrative techniques he has honed for decades.
“In some ways, it’s a reversion to what I do best,” Bohjalian said. “I’m thinking of Connie Danforth in ‘Midwives’ and Laura Esterbrook in ‘The Double Bind’ — I think Emily Shepard is a descendant of those two characters.”
But though this is his 17th novel, Bohjalian shies away from relying too heavily on the tropes that have found him success. He said one of the greatest risks he took with “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” was placing the entire narrative on the shoulders of a 16-year-old girl.
“This is the first time I have allowed a female this young to run the entire show,” Bohjalian said. “I’ve never had a teenager take the reigs and say ‘this is my story, I’m going to tell it.’”
Emily’s point of view is inherently subjective. She’s scared, angry, confused and utterly alone, a whirlwind of emotions that obscure her judgment as the narrator of her own story.
To forgo an omniscient narrator and instead tell the story through the eyes of a fragile teenager is a tremendous gamble, and one where there is no guarantee of a payout. But no matter how Emily may view the world, how she may omit some facts and twist others, the story is nonetheless her own.
Bohjalian hints that Emily’s subjectivity may not render her narration unfaithful by choosing a poignant epitaph, a quote by Emily’s literary idol, Emily Dickinson:
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
The truth, it seems, is not that simple. Emily seems to know this all along.
AUTHOR CHRIS BOHJALIAN works in his home office in Lincoln last week. Bohjalian’s 17th novel comes out next week. / Independent photo/Trent Campbell