Stories define Chris Bohjalian’s life trajectory and career
LINCOLN — Bestselling author and local literary celebrity Chris Bohjalian knows how to spin a story. His last 15 novels have spanned time, place and a range of difficult and compelling themes, without sacrificing excitement. His latest, “The Light in the Ruins” (on sale next week), is no exception.
It might be the hidden ad man in him.
“I always wanted to be a novelist,” Bohjalian said in a recent interview. “But when you graduate from college, Random House doesn’t say to you, ‘You look like a young writer of promise! Here’s a boatload of money, write a book!’ So you get a day job.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bohjalian’s first day job was at a New York City advertising agency. He wrote his first three novels while employed full-time at ad agencies, first in New York and then in Burlington. He would write in the early hours of each day, clock in a full day of work, and then write some more in the evenings.
“I was an account executive, not even a copywriter,” Bohjalian recalled. “I was one of those guys like Pete Campbell, in a suit. I was Roger Sterling without the gray hair,” he joked, referring to characters on the popular television show “Mad Men.”
Bohjalian’s departure from the city, and ultimately from advertising, is a story in itself.
As Bohjalian remembers it, his life changed late one night in March 1989. He and his wife, Victoria Blewer, had been at a party in Lower Manhattan, and hailed a cab to take them home to Brooklyn.
“And as anyone who lives in New York knows, cab drivers don’t like to go to the outer boroughs, because there is no return fare,” Bohjalian explained.
The evening soon took a wild and unpredictable turn. The cabbie, apparently feeling put out, went speeding down the FDR Drive (the freeway that runs down the east side of Manhattan) and was pulled over by police.
“Here’s where I changed my life forever,” Bohjalian said.
As the officer processed the cab driver’s information and issued a speeding ticket, Bohjalian leaned forward and asked the cabbie to turn off the meter.
“Then he got his ticket and turned the meter on, and proceeded to take my wife and me on a 45-minute joyride ignoring all stoplights and stop signs and screaming obscenities at us. When he finally came to a stop, my wife and I bolted out of the cab.”
But their night wasn’t over yet. Bohjalian and Blewer spotted a police officer at the corner and went to tell him about their extremely discourteous cab driver — but instead of helping, the cop screamed at them to drop to the ground.
The couple complied, and quickly understood the policeman’s panic.
“There were three guys spread-eagle against this brick wall, with Tower Records bags overflowing with guns and drug paraphernalia, five police officers with their guns out,” Bohjalian remembered. “They’d just stormed a crack house. My wife whispered to me, ‘Why do we live here?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
The very next day, he said, The New York Times Travel Section had an article on Burlington, Vt. Bohjalian and Blewer visited Vermont, fell in love with the state, and bought a house in Lincoln.
After coming here, Bohjalian initially worked at an ad agency in Burlington, but soon phased into being a full-time novelist, also writing columns for the Burlington Free Press.
He has been honing his craft from his home in Lincoln, where he and Blewer have now lived for nearly a quarter of a century.
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