‘Sleepwalker’ roams onto bookshelves; Bohjalian reveals 19th novel
LINCOLN — A Vermont mountain town, a rushing river, a sleepwalking woman who vanishes into the night. For his 19th novel, Lincoln author Chris Bohjalian returns to his fictional setting of Bartlett, a village not unlike Lincoln, perched along a river not unlike the New Haven.
And in “The Sleepwalker,” which hits bookstore shelves next week, Bohjalian again mines the inexhaustible terrain of family secrets — the troubling layers deep beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary family life.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the secrets that exist in all families behind closed doors,” said Bohjalian, in an interview with the Independent. “Tolstoy, of course, at the beginning of ‘Anna Karenina’ talks about happy and unhappy families, but whether you’re a happy family or an unhappy family you certainly have secrets things that you don’t share with your neighbors, things that you don’t share with your friends and very, very often things you don’t share with other people in the household. Parents always have secrets from their children, and children always have secrets from their parents. It’s just a reality.
“I’m really interested in the way secrets shape us.”
“The Sleepwalker” is narrated by 21-year-old Lianna Ahlberg. Home from college for the summer, Lianna wakes up to find her mother, Annalee, missing. A beautiful woman, devoted mother, self-employed architect and seemingly contented wife, Annalee Ahlberg is also a sleepwalker. Lianna once found her sleeping mother stripped naked, arms outstretched, perched precariously on the railing of the bridge above the Gale River, eyes unseeing.
As state police begin to investigate Annalee’s disappearance, Lianna initiates her own search into her parents’ marriage, her mother’s past, her friendships and relationships — known, unknown, suspected and gossiped about. As Lianna tries to piece together some clue as to where her mother could have gone or what could have happened to her, she also finds herself attracted to a young trooper, who asked to be assigned to Annalee’s disappearance and who also, so it seems, had a secret friendship with Annalee.
As the search continues, Lianna’s father, a Middlebury College English professor, increasingly seeks solace in work and scotch. So Lianna begins to fill her mother’s shoes, giving up her senior year of college to push a shopping cart, make dinner, ferry her younger sister home from school and to swim practice and to try to keep her fraying, small family together.
Interspersed throughout Lianna’s first-person narrative are a series of fragments from a sleepwalker’s journal.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Bohjalian said that originally he set out to write a different book entirely, but changed course in the spur of the moment during a research interview.
“Originally I thought I was going to write a book about dreams — that great Freudian abyss the id, the subconscious. So I was having lunch with the director of the UVM Sleep Center at the hospital in Burlington. I wanted to understand the physiology of dreams, what the brain does when we are dreaming, where dreams occur in the sleep cycle. He had just come from a patient who happened to be a sleepwalker, and suddenly he was regaling me with stories of the different things people do when they sleepwalk.
“The reality is that virtually anything we do when we are awake, we are capable of doing when we are sleepwalking.
“And I realized that this is my next book, this is what I really want to write about,” Bohjalian said.
As is typical with many of Bohjalian’s books, he interviewed any number of experts in different fields — sleep studies, search and rescue, state police missing persons investigations, sleep sex. But he found that one of the last places to learn about sleepwalking is from sleepwalkers themselves.
“What was so funny is I can remember early on in my research going to interview some sleepwalkers, and they’d say, ‘Well, here’s what my brother said I did’ or ‘Here’s what my husband said I did,’ but they have no recollection. So you’re getting no details that are interesting because they have complete and total amnesia of what they did,” said Bohjalian.
“It’s way more interesting to interview sleepwalkers’ spouses, parents or siblings because they’re the ones who witness it.”
Bohjalian said that he loved returning to Bartlett as a fictional setting and loved again writing about Vermont itself.
“One of the things that I love about writing a book like ‘The Sleepwalker’ is the fact that it is set in Vermont and that it is set in Addison County. I think Addison County is a particularly great character. I love everything about Vermont as a character. And you can see so much of it here.
“We’ve got the topography, we’ve got the weather, we’ve got this beautiful natural landscape, and we’ve got people around us who are just wonderfully eccentric. How many states have general stores that are the communications hub for the community? Only in Vermont.”
ON TOUR AND BEYOND
Bohjalian will officially kick off his national “Sleepwalker” tour with a benefit for the Vermont Food Bank on Saturday, Jan. 7, at Burlington’s Contois Auditorium (for more information see chrisbohjalian.com). From there he’ll set off for Florida, Colorado, California and places in between. “The Sleepwalker” will officially hit the bookstands on Jan 10.
Not surprisingly, the prolific Bohjalian is already at work on a new novel for 2018. Called “The Flight Attendant,” he said it is about “an alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant” who picks up a stranger and finds herself waking up in Dubai beside a dead body with no memory of how she got there.
Bohjalian said that what interests him as he develops this next novel is “the notion of women and alcohol and sexual assault and consent.”
“I hope it is a page turner about this woman who discovers you can’t ever run from a body you leave behind, not even in Dubai,” Bohjalian said. “But I hope more importantly it’s about deeper issues as well.”
(For more about “The Sleepwalker,” upcoming Bohjalian events and other books by Chris Bohjalian, go to chrisbohjalian.com. “The Sleepwalker” will go on sale at The Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury on Jan. 10.)
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].