Q&A with Bestselling Author Chris Bohjalian

Read It Forward: The seed for your new novel stems from two events that occurred years apart. Tell us about those events and how they became the foundation for The Night Strangers.

Chris Bohjalian: Along one of the basement foundation walls of my house, below ground, is a door about five and a half feet tall and three feet wide. It’s made of rough, unfinished wooden planks, and was added at some point after the 1898 Victorian above it was first constructed. When my wife and I moved into the house, it was nailed shut. That’s right: Nailed. There was a moldy pile of coal beside it, a decomposing little mesa, and so I convinced myself the door was merely a part of an old coal chute. Sure, I never found the exterior entrance to the chute, but that was a detail. Perhaps it was under a porch added at some point in the 1940s.

A few years later, in the early 1990s, I finally decided to man up and pull the door open. The project demanded a crowbar, a wrench, and – at one point – an ax. After hours of toil, behind that door I found. . .nothing. There was a slender cubicle the height and width of the door and maybe eighteen inches deep. The walls were made of wood, and behind them was nothing but earth. In no way did it resemble a coal chute. It was more like a closet – or a crypt behind which you might wall up a neighbor alive. So, I nailed the door shut and made a mental note to steer clear of that corner of the basement for as long as we lived in the house.

Nevertheless, on some level I understand even then that the basement door was going to lead to a novel.

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Now, it would take an Airbus ditching one January afternoon in 2009 in the Hudson River, the sky cerulean, before I would begin to understand what was going to exist behind that door’s rough wooden planks. Like many thousands of other people, I raced to my television set and watched the evacuation as it occurred, staring enrapt as passengers stood on the wings and the plane floated, nose up, amidst the waves.

Perhaps it was the shape of the jet’s cabin doors, but at that moment I thought of the door in my basement two floors below me. The next morning, I wrote the following sentence: “The door was presumed to have been the entry to a coal chute, a perfectly reasonable assumption since a small hillock of damp coal sat moldering before it.”

So begins The Night Strangers, a novel about a plane crash and the ghosts – literal and metaphoric – who dog the surviving pilot.

??RIF: The Night Strangers is in part a ghost story. You have always enjoyed ghost stories but you haven’t written one in over twenty years. What was holding you back?

CB: If you look at my personal library, you will notice that it ranges from Henry James to Steig Larsson, from Margaret Atwood to Max Hastings. There’s Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe and volumes of letters from Civil War privates. It is pretty eclectic. The reality is that I rarely read the same sort of book in a season.

And, I hope, I will never write the same book twice. Look at my most recent novels. Secrets of Eden (2010) is about domestic violence, a double murder, and a minister’s guilt. Skeletons at the Feast (2008) is a love story set in Germany and Poland in the last days of the Second World War, and one family’s complicity in the Holocaust. And The Double Bind (2007) is an exploration of a young social worker’s descent into madness after a violent sexual assault; the book moves between a very real Burlington, Vermont and Jay Gatsby’s fictional West Egg, Long Island.

So, why a ghost story? Well, I love them. They’re fun to read – and, yes, fun to write. And when I imagined the subject matter of a plane crash and a pilot’s post-traumatic stress disorder, ghosts seemed as good a way in as any.

RIF: In order to better understand your protagonist Chip Linton, a commercial airline pilot, and what he might have gone through in the opening pages of this novel you visited Survival Systems in Groton, CT. Can you tell us about that experience and some of the tips you learned during your visit?

CB: I loved everything about my day at Survival Systems. One of the first things I did when I started this novel was to go there, climb into a flight suit, get strapped inside a Modular Egress Training?Simulator (METS, for short), and then lowered into a 100,000-gallon tank of water. I was rolled 180 degrees so I was upside-down. The point of this, other than determining if my flight suit should have a diaper, was to get?a taste of what it’s like to exit a plane that has just crashed in the water.

The METS is a cylinder that resembles an aircraft cabin. It has interchangeable exits, so Survival Systems can replicate egress from most types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft.  The device is lowered into the tank, submerged underwater, and then rolled upside down or to an off-angle, depending upon the scenario. The ceiling can be set on fire because, let’s face it, when your plane or chopper has become a lawn dart, there’s a chance that something is ablaze.

The day I was dunked, there were three National Guardsmen being trained as well. I had an instructor in the simulator with me and there were divers in the water around it to make sure that all of us got out with, worst case, a snootful of water.

Altogether I was dunked three times, twice rolled until I was upside-down. Escaping the simulator the two times I was strapped into a seat and had to push out exit?windows while upside-down were particularly satisfying.

And while I learned an enormous amount that helped with the novel, I learned as well that the vast majority of plane crashes have survivors. Obviously if your plane explodes at 35,000 feet or smashes nose first into a mountain, there’s little you can do. But most planes don’t crash in that fashion and National Transportation Safety Board data indicates that more than nine out of ten people involved in plane crashes survive.

Here are some of the survival tips that I learned from the team at Survival Systems:

>> When commanded to brace for impact, place yourself in the position that you’re likely to end up in after impact.  Lean all the way over and wrap your hands around your legs to make yourself a nice, small package. Also, be sure your seatbelt is fastened low and tight around your hips – not your waist. Hips.

>> Make sure your feet are not underneath your own seat or the seat before you. When your plane hits the ground or even the water, there is a chance the seats are going to collapse, and if your feet are under one of them, they will crush your shins or ankles or feet – making it impossible to extricate yourself from the plane before it explodes or sinks. So, keep your knees at a 90-degree angle.

>> Your proximity to an exit door matters. Survival studies show that the closer you are to an exit, the more likely you are to make it out alive. Why? Expect a rugby scrum near those exit windows or doors. Try to be within five rows if you worry about these things.

>> An important footnote to the exit row rule of five is this: Most 100-seat regional jets, which are becoming workhorses for some airlines, do not have over-wing window exits. They have four exit doors, two at the front and two at the rear. Given that these aircraft tend to have 25 rows, that means if you are seated in the middle of the plane, you have a long scramble to an exit – and chances are it will be in the dark and in a crowded, claustrophobic cabin filled with panic, smoke, and an obstacle course of carry-on baggage.

>> Do not count on the emergency floor lighting to lead you to an exit. Instead count how many seats you are from the nearest exits – before and behind you – and be prepared to use your sense of feel and physical cues to navigate your way there.

>> If you are in or anywhere near an exit row, be sure you really do know how to operate the levers – even upside down. Don’t become the roadblock for the rest of the survivors who are trying to get out.  

>> If you are in an exit row seat and your plane has ditched in water, open the window and then unbuckle your seatbelt (not the other way around). Your seatbelt will keep you from being driven away from the exit as water starts flooding the cabin.

I hope you never need to know any of this. But I’m glad I do. And I know my day in the dunk tank did wonders for my soul – and my new novel.

RIF: Like many of your previous novels, The Night Strangers is set in New England, this time near Lake Champlain. The area really seems to draw you in. Was there a time when you were first starting to write this novel that you thought about setting it elsewhere? ?

CB: Not really. I have no objections to venturing beyond New England in my work. Skeletons at the Feast is set in Poland and Germany. My next novel is set in Armenia, Turkey, and Syria. But I do enjoy writing about northern New England. It’s my home and I understand the landscape and the people. And let’s face: The New England ghost story has a long and distinguished literary pedigree.

RIF: In The Night Strangers, you introduce a peculiar group of women whom the locals refer to as herbalists. When did you know they would play such a prominent role in the novel? Are you a “green thumb” yourself?

CB: I rarely know precisely where my books are going when I start them. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. The Night Strangers was no exception, and the herbalists changed dramatically from their first involvement.

I am a pretty good gardener – especially vegetables. I grow flowers, too, but I couldn’t tell you the names of most of the flowers I grow. I’m not kidding. So, I guess there is no chance I will be recruited anytime soon by the local garden club – or any herbalists with ulterior motives.

RIF: In The Night Strangers some of the most interesting characters are not among the living. Was there any difference in how you crafted these characters and their personalities?

CB: I tended to approach my ghosts with the same basic criteria I have for my breathing characters: If presented with certain stimuli, how will they respond? What will they do, given who they are? That was what I was thinking about most often. I wanted their behavior to make sense to readers.

RIF: You often talk about how one of your greatest joys in life is being a father. Was it difficult for you to imagine some of the scenes between Chip and his twin daughters after it becomes clear he’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? ?

CB: The scenes that were most interesting to write in that regard were those in which Chip is contemplating his sense of failure – what his daughters think of him now and how they will see him in the years to come. I would hate to disappoint my daughter and my wife. And while there might not in reality have been anything that Chip could have done to prevent his plane from cartwheeling in the lake, he is nonetheless nearly incapacitated with self-loathing.

RIF: Recently Library Journal gave The Night Strangers a starred review, comparing your novel to Alice Sebold’s instant bestseller The Lovely Bones. What was your first thought upon reading that?

CB: I love Alice’s work. I was thrilled.

RIF: Twice before your novels have become television movies (Midwives, Past the Bleachers). Your previous novel, Secrets of Eden, published in paperback this past February, is set to become the third, when it premiers on Lifetime Television on November 21. It stars John Stamos and Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn star as Stephen Drew and Catherine Benincasa. What do you think about the casting? Can you tell us about the experience?

CB: I think they’re terrific and have brought both characters to life. Stamos really understands Drew’s moral conundrum and the guilt that has become the most meaningful part of his life; likewise, Gunn is fierce as the prosecuting attorney and an absolute force of nature. I couldn’t be happier with their work.

Download an excerpt of The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian.

night-strangers-cabot-cheese-bannerBook group-ers, rejoice! Read It Forward and the farm families who own Cabot Creamery have teamed up to bring you quite possibly the greatest book-group prize known to man: award-winning, bestselling Vermont author Chris Bohjalian (no, you don’t get to keep him). And if that weren’t enough, winners will receive a gift basket filled with award-winning Vermont Cabot Cheese (perfect for those book group munchies!) as well as copies of Chris’s newest book, The Night Strangers for the members of their book group.

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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