Lincoln novelist Chris Bohjalian is on a monthlong book tour that will take him from coast to coast — a “rock and roll book tour,” he calls it in an email. But when we talk on the phone, he downplays those glitzy associations, noting that he just saw Up in the Air — the story of a frequent flier who learns the value of home — and experienced it as a “mental-health wake-up call. It’s all good,” he says the film reminded him. “Live in the moment — you’re not in Haiti.”
Right now, Bohjalian’s moment looks pretty rich. In an age when journalists and bloggers are constantly proclaiming the “death of literary fiction” — in the marketplace, anyway — he’s had an exceptional career. Over the past 22 years, he’s published 13 books — three of them New York Times bestsellers, one endorsed by Oprah. His new novel, Secrets of Eden, has already been optioned for a Lifetime movie and has drawn raves from USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and the Boston Globe. The book would probably sell better, he points out drily, if it were called Vampires of Eden. But for a novel that doesn’t involve bloodsuckers, teenage wizards or globe-trotting symbologists, it’s doing better than most.
One of the secrets of Bohjalian’s success is that, while his books are about real people with real problems, they’re also about issues — contentious topics that make great fodder for book-group discussions. And, unlike some novelists, he seldom alienates a sector of the readership by coming down too hard on one side or the other. Secrets of Eden, for instance, is about domestic violence — a phenomenon the author is very clearly against — but it also poses tough questions about the proper response to that violence and about the roles of spirituality in people’s lives. The novel has four narrators, one of whom claims to see angels, while another — a Baptist pastor — can barely bring himself to believe in a deity. In short, it gives readers lots to talk about.
And Bohjalian likes talking with them. “I love my readers, my gosh,” he says. “They’re really interesting; they’re really smart.” When we talk, he’s fresh from a lunchtime book signing at a Barnes & Noble in Paramus, N.J., and raving about new acquaintances he made there — a neonatal physician who works in Southeast Asia, a victims’ rights advocate. “Both of those women do work that is much more important than what I do, and it’s a real privilege to meet them,” he says.
Back when he published his first novel, Bohjalian notes, readers were less apt to share those personal stories with someone they knew mainly as a photo on a book jacket. A lot has changed since then, and the author has been quick to use new-media tools to his advantage, from online video “book trailers” to avid Facebooking. A former Manhattan advertising account exec, he has no trouble summing up how book marketing has changed as a business. When he started publishing novels, in “the Mesozoic era,” Bohjalian says, “we depended upon two things to sell books: reviews and whatever print advertising we did in perhaps the New York Times Sunday Book Review. We’ve now seen this sort of perfect storm of a contraction in the space newspapers can allocate for books — which has made it that much harder to get review attention — and the explosion of digital media and social networking. It’s become really important for publicists to link authors up with blogs. And it’s become incumbent on authors to reach out to readers.”
Bohjalian knows just how many people attended his afternoon event — 57, mostly women between the ages of 25 and 60 — and how many generally attend his evening appearances (100 to 200). He notes that he’s “inscribed six books in the last two days to infants, and I was the first author event they attended.”
While Bohjalian acknowledges that connecting with readers “helps boost sales,” it’s impossible to dismiss as cynical the two other motives he cites: an interest in readers’ personal stories and a sense that “it’s a huge gift to me that they are willing to spend some of their leisure time with one of my books.” In a world of introverted scribes, this guy likes people.
And he wants them to like what he writes. In a 2008 piece in the Washington Post, Bohjalian recalled his “embarrassingly pathetic” response to an Amazon.com commenter who’d trashed one of his novels: “Wow, you are one of the only readers to feel this way — and to have such rage toward me. I am so sorry! Fingers crossed someday I don’t disappoint you.”
Reading the first section of Secrets of Eden, narrated by small-town pastor Stephen Drew, it’s hard to miss the fact that writers can have the same sort of heavily freighted relationships with their readers that ministers have with their congregants. Both people of the cloth and people of the pen are expected — rightly or wrongly — to provide their audiences with some kind of enlightenment, some kind of truth.
Perhaps that’s why Bohjalian likes to use narrators who exhibit “varying degrees of reliability,” as he does in this novel — thus suggesting that truth may depend on whom you ask. “I am fascinated by the subjectivity of truth,” he says. “I am interested in what goes on when the doors are locked and the shades are drawn. Good marriages and bad marriages are never what the world perceives them to be.”
But just what is a “good marriage”? Are people who claim to meet angels loony tunes or divinely inspired? Is a minister who stops believing in God also a minister who’s capable of murder? Those are the kinds of questions that keep Bohjalian’s readers reading and talking — and his books selling.