Author Chris Bohjalian (credit: Vermont Public Radio)

Chris Bohjalian Is a Born Storyteller

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DETROIT — If a reader finds it difficult to put a label on or pigeonhole novelist Chris Bohjalian, well, that’s intentional. As he said in a recent interview, “My goal is never to write the same book twice.”

His latest novel, The Lioness, about a group of Hollywood stars on vacation in Africa in the 1960s, was published in May by Penguin Random House.

The author, born in White Plains, NY, began writing novels while working for an ad agency in the 1980s. It was not an easy road. “I amassed 250 rejection slips before I sold a single word,” he says, “and wrote the single worst, first novel ever published, bar none.” That was in 1988. Ten years later, his 1997 novel Midwives was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Bohjalian’s star has been meteoric ever since.

From accused witches in colonial New England (“Hour of the Witch,” 2021) to modern-day midwives (Midwives, 1997) and flight attendants (The Flight Attendant, 2018), to victims of the Armenian Genocide (Sandcastle Girls, 2012), a missing mother (The Sleepwalker, 2017) and most recently, Golden Age Hollywood stars on safari in East Africa, Bohjalian’s ability to spin a tale about almost anything has made him an incredible success. His books regularly make the New York Times bestseller list.

 

As broadly appealing and as “American” as Bohjalian’s works are, the genius that underlies this ability is in a way, very Armenian. Christopher Morley, a well-known American literary critic of the 1930s and ’40s, commented of William Saroyan during the height of his fame that he “has the Asia-Minor gift for telling a tale perfectly.” Bohjalian has the gift too, clearly. When asked about this comparison, he states: “I come from a long line of storytellers.  There is no tale, no matter how pedestrian, my family could not embellish and make interesting.  Good Lord, he could make my Little League baseball games sound epic.  Likewise, my brother is one of the funniest humans on the planet and has the two things that make for a great raconteur: an astonishing memory and knowing exactly when to drop the mic. That is the gift of storytelling.”

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In fact, Bohjalian discovered later in life that his great-grandfather, Nazaret Bohjalian of Kayseri (Caesarea), known to the family to have been a tailor, was also a poet and troubadour known as Ashugh Nadiri. Arshag Alboyajian devoted several pages in his monumental and long out-of-print History of Armenian Caesarea to Nadiri, who wrote, among other things, a 70-quatrain epic poem on the Hamidian massacres of 1895 in his native city.

“When I discovered as an adult that my great-grandfather was a poet who had chronicled the Hamidian massacres, I was deeply moved,” the author says. “I had supposed with The Sandcastle Girls that I was the first Bohjalian to try and make sense of the cataclysmic crime of the Armenian Genocide through art.  No, I was the second.  And that left me both very, very proud of my ancestor and very, very sad that I hadn’t known that until I was fifty.”

Bohjalian’s great-grandfather, Kayseri troubadour Nazaret Bohjalian, known as “Ashugh Nadiri” (Arshag Alboyajian, History of Armenian Caesarea)

Lioness Is Roaring Success

Bohjalian’s novels touch on myriad issues while remaining enthralling yarns. Perhaps in the anxiety of the current moment, readers are looking for the escapism of a page-turner, but one, that like The Lioness, doesn’t ignore the existence of pressing social issues.

This latest book is, like much of his work, a gripping page-turner. Set during a 1964 safari in the Serengeti, the novel’s narration shifts from chapter to chapter through the perspectives of ten main characters. Hollywood starlet Katie Barstow is on her honeymoon and has brought seven friends along, in addition to her “struggling gallerist” husband, David. Their guide, Charlie Patton, a sort of “last of the great white hunters” figure who keeps name-dropping Hemingway, leads a crew of Tanzanians in entertaining the mostly white American guests on this trip. Mostly white American, because the character of Terrance Dutton (a co-star of the main character Katie, who has controversially appeared as her love interest, and is sort of a Sidney Poitier type, the reader surmises) is Black, a fact that serves as a point of pride for the Tanzanians and a jumping-off point for a lot of discussion about race in 1960s America and decolonization in 1960s Africa.

“I wouldn’t say Katie is based on one particular actor,” Bohjalian says, “But I often thought of Natalie Wood when I was writing her character and scenes.”

“I’ve written 24 books, and each one has its own origin story,” the author says.

He’s covered a multitude of historical periods and settings. Why Hollywood this time? “I had this idea after leaving a movie matinee in August 2019.  I emerged into the cobalt skies after having been transported in the dark of the cinema, and thought to myself, “My gosh, I love movies.  Why have I never written a Hollywood novel?”  So, I did.”

The book is as much a suspense thriller as it is a snapshot and discussion of mid-century society and culture. The reader learns almost immediately that most of the characters are going to die, and it then becomes clear that there is a double catastrophe involved; a kidnapping by Russian mercenaries and a vicious attack by wild animals.

“I wanted this book to be a thriller,” he says “I wanted readers to really understand and care about each character, and be turning the pages frantically, wondering who is going to live and who is going to die.

Bohjalian spends a lot of time discussing the backstories of his characters and fleshing out their ambitions, hopes, and anxieties against the backdrop of Golden Age Hollywood, American race relations, Cold War politics, and the struggles of everyday life in the 1960s, particularly among the type of people whose colorful upbringing seems to destine them for the film industry.

“There are lot of reasons why I chose 1964 and East Africa, but the big ones were that I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and thought it was time to set a book in a period when I was a child; the 1960s was one of Hollywood’s golden ages; and I wanted to place my Hollywood entourage in the midst of the Cold War and on unfamiliar turf. That’s why we have the kidnapping by Russian mercenaries.”

Race plays a major role in the novel, something Bohjalian felt important given the very Eurocentric depictions of Africa in the 19th and 20th century in works by Hemingway and others, to whose work The Lioness is already being compared. “[Hemingway is] the elephant in the room in any “safari” novel of a certain era,” Bohjalian says.  “I wanted to be sure that my novel wasn’t “Hemingway’s Africa.”  Early into the novel, one of the Tanzanian guides suggests to a guest that in addition to Hemingway, she read Chinua Achebe.  It was very important that the novel conveyed that East Africa at the time was breaking free of colonialism.  The book is very much about race and social injustice, and the Black characters from both continents experience horrific discrimination in the novel.” The character of Terrance Dutton offers the perspective of a Black American and his backstory delves deep into the racial issues and struggles of 1960s America and Hollywood.

Chris Bohjalian at a 2017 event to discuss his book The Sandcastle Girls, with Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan’s Inheritance

Television Comes Calling

Since the premiere of the television series, “The Flight Attendant, on HBO Max in 2020, based on the book of the same name, which stars Kaley Cuoco, there has been an increased interest in adapting Bohjalian’s page-turners for the modern long format TV series. (The fact that his first big success, Midwives, was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 2001 starring Sissy Spacek now seems like something from a bygone era.) The Lioness is already in development for a TV series to be produced via Marsh Entertainment and eOne. Another book, The Red Lotus, is also in development with Marsh Entertainment.

The Lioness has been met with wide acclaim by the press. “The reviews have left me a little overwhelmed,” Bohjalian says. He embarked on a book tour, his first since Covid started. “Readers were thrilled to be gathered together again to celebrate what words and reading and books can mean to the soul.  Some were literally weeping with joy because, once again, they were with their friends at an event all about books.”

Courtesy of HBO

The tour stopped in Watertown on May 18, at the Armenian Museum of America, where Bohjalian appeared in conversation with prize-winning journalist Stephen Kurkjian. “Watertown was fantastic for a lot of reasons. First of all, I was sharing the stage with three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian. It doesn’t get better than a conversation with Steve.  He’s smart and funny, and he’s seen it all.  But it was also a joy because the Armenian Museum of America is a treasure and I love that space.  Finally, it was a treat because our community was there and I am always so lifted up and empowered by our community.”

Bohjalian is an absolute success story after years of hard work at his craft, now having published his 23rd novel. He has a new novel projected for next year as well as a play, and the aforementioned TV adaptations in the works. Does he have any advice for aspiring writers?

“Write in the genre you love to read.  Read all the time.  Write every day.  (I wrote my first three novels between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. in the morning, while working full-time at ad agencies.)  Write because you love it, not because you ever hope to get rich.”

As for Bohjalian? “I just keep writing every day and doing the work.”

Reviews of The Lioness and links to purchase this book and his many previous works can be found at Bohjalian’s official website: (https://chrisbohjalian.com).

The book is also available at stores nationwide.

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