Lincoln author rolling out first ghost story
LINCOLN — Bestselling author Chris Bohjalian of Lincoln always goes to great lengths in researching background for his books, whether it be midwifery, domestic violence or interracial adoption.
Bohjalian this time literally submerged himself into the subject matter in order to put himself in the right mindset for his latest book, “The Night Strangers,” a riveting story that springs from a dramatic airplane crash in Lake Champlain. In order to get a first-hand understanding of the horror of trying to escape the confines of a submerged aircraft, Bohjalian strapped himself into a pilot’s seat for a simulated (and supervised) escape from an underwater fuselage.
Bohjalian’s many faithful readers will be pleased to know that the still-nimble 50-year-old was able to make his Houdini-esque escape within the requisite 22 seconds.
“I am still fascinated that you can sit in a chair five miles above the earth and go somewhere,” said Bohjalian, who has already logged more than a few frequent-flyer miles.
“The Night Strangers” is a dark, supernatural thriller that begins with a harrowing tale of pilot Chip Linton being forced to ditch his plane in Lake Champlain due to double-engine failure. Linton survives, though 39 of his passengers and crew don’t. A guilt-ridden Linton and his family — wife Emily and twin daughters Hallie and Garnet — move from Pennsylvania to Northern New Hampshire to make a fresh new start.
But Chip Linton finds escaping the trauma a challenge, due to internal strife and external forces emanating in part from his new neighbors, who include a group of herbalists who take an unusual interest in his family. And Linton’s life further unravels when he begins to see some of his deceased passengers in the family’s new Victorian home, which happens to possess a door-to-nowhere in the basement that is sealed shut by 39 bolts — the exact number of people who perished on the fateful flight.
Along with his fascination with flight, Bohjalian cited two other inspirations for “The Night Strangers”: The successful 2009 landing of an Airbus in the Hudson River by pilot Sully Sullenberger, and Bohjalian’s discovery of a mysterious basement door-to-nowhere in his own Victorian home in Lincoln after moving in in 1987.
The Sullenberger case had the happiest of endings, Bohjalian noted. But it got him wondering, “What if?”
“I began to wonder, ‘What would it be like to go through life if you’re the pilot who doesn’t land your plane perfectly?’” Bohjalian said.
The mysterious cellar door added a new dimension to the story.
“The aircraft over-wing exit doors made me think of this door in my basement, which was this spooky, scary door to nowhere,” Bohjalian said. “Somehow, the basement door and the over-wing exit doors conspired in my mind to create the book “The Night Strangers.” The basement door seemed like a good way into all of the post-traumatic stress issues that are kept in the pilot.”
Along with getting his feet wet in a submersion tank, Bohjalian spent many hours interviewing sources to faithfully impart the other themes of the book — post-traumatic stress syndrome; shamanism and herbalism; and the logistics of trying to land a plane on water (and how the aircraft would likely pull apart if that maneuver were unsuccessful).
“The Night Strangers” led Bohjalian on quite the journey as he was writing it. He did not know it would become a ghost story when he started it.
“I thought it might be a book about the metaphorical ghosts that haunt the pilot,” Bohjalian said. “I was half-way in before the metaphorical ghosts became literal ghosts.”
Bohjalian didn’t decide on the ending of the book until it was four-fifths written. And it is quite the ending.
Bohjalian acknowledged that “The Night Strangers” is somewhat of a departure for him, as it his first ghost story. Some of his previous books — such as “Skeletons at the Feast” — had dark moments, too, but not quite like this.
“I love ghost stories,” Bohjalian said, noting one of the only books he has left from his childhood is a 45-cent pocket book of stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
But don’t look for Bohjalian’s career to take a Stephen King-like twist.
“I think ghosts ended up in this book because they were a way into the pilot’s madness,” Bohjalian said.
His next book, titled “The Sandcastle Girls,” is already in draft form. It’s an historical epic set in the midst of the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is tentatively set for release by next fall, or the spring of 2013.
In the meantime, he will promote “The Night Strangers,” beginning with an event at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on Monday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. That’s when Bohjalian will kick off his nationwide “The Night Strangers Let’s-Keep-It-Dark Rock-n-Roll Book Tour,” hosted locally by the Vermont Book Shop. It will be Bohjalian’s first Addison County book debut since Bristol’s Deer Leap Books closed several years ago.
“Since Deer Leap Books has been gone, I haven’t really had an opportunity — until now — to premier a book in Addison County,” Bohjalian said.
The Oct. 3 event will have a flexible format, Bohjalian said, though he promised to read some passages from the new book and entertain questions from the audience. He will also tell stories about the research, as well as on funny moments during the writing process and on book tours.
“I never want a ‘reading” to be so pompous and so erudite and so pretentious that the fun of fiction is lost,” Bohjalian said. “I like these events to be rocking good times.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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