Weybridge’s Chris Bohjalian publishes historical thriller
Looking for a summer novel? Lucky for us, Weybridge author Chris Bohjalian published “Hour of the Witch” just last month. But don’t expect this book to last more than a week on your bed stand — five bucks says you’ll be up into the wee hours of the morning, devouring every detail of this gripping historical thriller. (I know, I was!)
Set in 1662 Boston, we meet 24-year-old Mary Deerfield and quickly learn the power and cruelty of her husband, Thomas Deerfield.
“When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life,” reads the book’s teaser. “But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary — a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony — soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.”
“I’ve been obsessed with Puritan theology since college,” explained Bohjalian, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Amherst College in 1982. “Imagine living in a world where Satan is as real as your neighbor. Imagine living in a world where you’re constantly wondering: ‘Am I saved or am I damned?’ The Catch-22 of being a Puritan was this: If I think I have lived a life of good works, well there’s the surest sign of being damned — hubris.”
Bohjalian is no foreigner to these shadowy thoughts.
“Given that I live with anxiety and self-loathing, it’s cake to channel that into my work,” said Bohjalian, who is the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of 22 books. “Dread is the high octane stuff that fuels my fiction when it works.”
And it’s always been there.
“When my father died in 2011, I came across a sweater box under his bed with the short stories I wrote in third or fourth grade that my mother had saved… What’s interesting is that even then, dread was clearly my thing. The last sentence in a piece I wrote was this: ‘The dripping stopped and the vultures had their meal.’ That’s from when I was 8, maybe 9 years old. So it makes sense now, whether I’m writing about an alcoholic mess of a flight attendant (like in “The Flight Attendant” published in 2018, and now an HBO Max television series starring Kaley Cuoco, Rosie Perez, Michiel Huisman and T.R. Knight) or a young Puritan wife in a toxic marriage… dread is going to be a defining factor.”
How does Bohjalian write? There’s a fantastic 17-minute video on Facebook that his wife and local artist Victoria Blewer helped him make that outlines his daily writing practices, including honest quirks like his Red Bull habit.
“My day begins always with an 8.4-ounce can of Sugar Free Red Bull,” he tells the camera. “Not kidding I really drink this stuff.”
We enter Bohjalian’s library where he writes in the mornings. There we meet Jesse the dog and Horton the cat, and listen to Bohjalian tell us about his ritual of beginning the day at the dictionary.
“Every day I like to pick out one or two words I have never used before,” he said. “I then go to my desk and I watch movie trailers… The reason I watch movie trailers is that the impeccably produced two to three minute videos instantly catapult me into a particular emotional place. Different videos help me with different scenes.”
Bohjalian explained that he depends on the characters to “take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story,” and that every day he’s at his desk his goal is to write 1,000 words.
“I begin by rewriting the last 250 words I wrote the day before,” he said, crediting Ernest Hemingway with the technique “The advantage to rewriting what you wrote before is first of all you’re getting reacclimated with the material, you’re getting back in touch with your characters; secondly you’re editing, you’re making it better — the first draft is never the last draft; and third, by rewriting what I wrote the day before it’s like I’m a plane on a runway and I’m gathering momentum for lift off.”
Every 50-75 pages, Bohjalian prints his pages and uncaps his fountain pen for revisions.
“I use a fountain pen for many reasons but the main one is this: a fountain pen demands that I think more slowly because fountain pens are messy,” he said. “I have to concentrate more to find the right synonym… Then I take those pages and I input my corrections into my computer and write another 50-75 pages, print it out and do it all again.”
Bohjalian, however, doesn’t sit at his wooden desk in his impeccably tidy library all day. Just the mornings.
“In the afternoons I’m outside,” he said. “In the spring, summer and fall I’m on my bike; in the winter I’m in the woods. Why? Because I think. I think about what I’m going to write the next day. I solve problems with scenes and characters. Someone once said, ‘The most important tool a writer can have is a walk.’ For me it’s a bike ride.”
With pages finished, he passes them off to his three main editors: his daughter, his wife and Jenny Jackson from Knopf Doubleday, who he’s worked with for 11 years.
“What brings me to this chair at 6 or 7 in the morning is the idea that I’m energized and passionate, and I love what I’m writing,” Bohjalian said humbly. “Because if I don’t love what I’m writing, there’s no way I can expect my readers to love what they’re reading… And I never want to disappoint my readers. Whenever I publish a book it’s the very best I can do.”
Bohjalian estimates about 6 or 7 million of his books have been sold. That’s a lot of fans to impress, and Bohjalian does it regularly.
Usually it takes him about a year to write a book. But “Hour of the Witch” was different. He started the novel in 2001, but the project stalled.
“I was on a book tour sitting on the tarmac in Denver waiting to fly to San Francisco when the planes crashed into the towers on 9/11,” Bohjalian remembered. And though he and Blewer were living in Lincoln at the time, his “lovely bride had worked on the 104th floor” of the World Trade Center buildings before coming to Vermont.
When he returned home to Vermont Bohjalian found he couldn’t work on “Hour of the Witch.”
“I was too depressed,” he said. So, Bohjalian pivoted and worked on other novels including “Before You Know Kindness,” “The Red Lotus,” “The Flight Attendant,” and more than a handful of others.
“What next?” Bohjalian asked. “It was early 2019 and I came across 120 pages of this manuscript ‘The Trials of Mary Deerfield.’ I started thumbing through them, thinking to myself ‘Wow, I like this.’ I wasn’t depressed anymore; I was invigorated. So I dove back in and had the best time. I loved writing the book.”
Bohjalian went, as he said, “down the rabbit hole,” reading pages and pages of Boston trials.
“This book is the nexus of witchcraft and divorce… and bad table manners,” he said. “No really, no one had worse table manners than the Puritans. They drank like it was spring break, had plates but only for special occasions, so they were mostly eating from these things called ‘trenchers’ — like mini pigs’ troughs that sat on the table. They didn’t use forks… too much like the Devil’s pitchfork. And they ate a lot of lobsters, which were the size of poodles in the 17th century.”
This is the kind of history you effortlessly absorb reading “Hour of the Witch.” Yes, Bohjalian did his homework to help this period piece ring true, but “it’s the character that counts,” he said. “That’s what will keep the contemporary reader turning the pages.”
“I was writing this book in an era of #Ibelieveher. In an era when Mary Deerfield’s story seemed contemporaneously important,” Bohjalian continued, adding that their daughter, Grace Experience, (an actor in New York City who’s narrated all or parts of five Bohjalian books) was now 24 years old and it seemed important for him to write this book.
“I love Mary Deerfield,” said Bohjalian, who drew inspiration for Mary’s voice from Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver and Rita Dove. “She believes in Satan. She believes in witchcraft. But she also has one foot in 2021. I hope there is a timeliness to her that does not diminish her inspiration.”
On the other side, lurks Thomas.
“Who is the ultimate villain in the book? That’s no secret,” Bohjalian said, “it’s Thomas, Mary’s husband… When I was thinking of an instrument of violence for that brutal scene, I went straight to the fork. The cruelty of Thomas is manifest in the fork. We know that Thomas Deerfield too lives with one foot in 1662, and one foot in the mind of every 21st century man who has horrifically abused his partner.”
No spoilers here, just to say that Bohjalian’s books often have “unbelievable moments of heartbreak.”
“In so many of my books I’ve killed the main character in the last 10 pages,” he said, as he mused about ending a book. “The perfect ending according to Aristotle was two things: It’s surprising and the reader says ‘I didn’t see that coming;’ but then the reader takes a step back and says, ‘but it’s inevitable. It couldn’t have ended any other way.’”
Editor’s Note: You can find Chris Bohjalian’s “Hour of the Witch” for sale at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury. Follow Chris on Instagram @chrisbohjalian.
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