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Bohjalian’s new thriller relies on sense of ‘dread’

MIDDLEBURY — Chris Bohjalian’s daughter, Grace Experience, once told him, “Your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed-up young women.”
A week after the release of his 20th novel, The Flight Attendant, the Weybridge writer elaborated over coffee at Carol’s Hungry Mind in Middlebury.
“Being a father is very important to that. When I write about women in jeopardy, courageous young women, women battling all kinds of demons, I think I’m going to that place because it’s the part of my psyche that causes me the most anxiety, because I love my daughter and my wife so much.”
When his books are working, he said, they are in large measure about dread. “That’s what keeps you turning the pages, certainly in a book like The Flight Attendant.”
The international crime thriller opens with the flight attendant in question, Cassie Bowden, waking up from an alcoholic blackout in Dubai, unsure about whether or not she has committed murder. She vows to quit drinking that day, but finds she cannot.
“I come from a family of alcoholics on both sides,” Bohjalian said. “I will never glamorize alcohol.”
That said, he appreciates the aesthetic beauty of a great bar, and he was in one such bar when he got the idea for his latest novel.
“I was looking at this beautiful bar. I was thinking about the miracle of aviation and the fact I’d had breakfast in Armenia and I’m having dinner in New York City. And I was thinking about Russia.”
Those three threads were enough. He asked the bartender for all the scrap paper he had, and for the next 45 minutes Bohjalian wrote frenetically at the bar, drinking arak, an anise-flavored alcohol he described as “weaponized ouzo.”
Bohjalian doesn’t typically write in bars, however, and alcohol is never part of his creative process. “I drink pretty little,” he said.
Instead, Bohjalian begins his writing days at 6 a.m. with sugar-free Red Bull on the rocks and a few minutes with the dictionary.
“I’ve got a really big dictionary that sits on a podium in my office, and I’ll just pick out a fun word for the day — ‘luminescent,’ ‘noctivagant,’ ‘cerulean’ — and I will see if I can work it into the text.”
Bohjalian conducted plenty of research on the FBI and flight attendants, but sometimes he just got lucky, he said.
“I was chatting at one point with a British-Armenian philanthropist about economic development projects in Armenia and he started telling me about dealing with Russian oligarchs of a certain ilk, and what it’s like when a deal goes bad — in Dubai or Donetsk — and these stories were chilling. The more he talked, the more I thought, ‘This is just the ultimate narrative gift.’”
The Flight Attendant is the third of his novels in which Russia makes an appearance.
“I love Russian literature. And every time I’m in Russia or Armenia or a post-Soviet republic, I’m utterly fascinated by the unbelievable beauty of the people that you meet on the street, and by the unbelievable corruption and excess. Our 1 percent is downright democratic compared with their 1 percent.”
Speaking as an American citizen, he said, Russian president Vladimir Putin is a nightmare, but for a novelist he is the gift that keeps on giving.
“I mean, the guy’s a Bond villain.”
He’ll likely return to Russia for future literary adventures, but Bohjalian said his next project, set in 1662 Boston, will focus on the first woman in North America to file for divorce because of domestic violence.
“I hope the reader will be captivated by Mary Deerfield’s story, and the way she is standing up against the patriarchy, but I hope also you’re seeing parallels with the Women’s March or the #metoo movement in the present.”
The three strong women in his life, Bohjalian said, are his best readers: his daughter; his wife, Victoria Blewer; and his editor at Doubleday, Jenny Jackson.
“They are quite clear and candid with me about when something is working or not working. As my wife has said to me when she’s being critical about a scene: ‘Wouldn’t you rather hear it from me than The New York Times?’”
The Flight Attendant debuted at No. 8 on that newspaper’s April 1 bestseller list and is available at the Vermont Book Shop and elsewhere.
After they’ve turned its last page, Bohjalian fans will have something else to look forward to while they await the author’s next novel: Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco has announced that she plans to produce and star in a TV-movie adaptation of The Flight Attendant.
The filming schedule has not been released yet, but Bohjalian is excited about the project.
“I have complete faith in Kaley,” he said. “Kaley gets Cassie. It’s preternatural how much she understands this woman.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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