Chris Bohjalian on Telling a Good Story


I recently interviewed Chris Bohjalian, author of the enormously popular MIDWIVES as well as many other thought-provoking and captivating novels. His upcoming release, SECRETS OF EDEN just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Do you feel the subject matter of your books are ever rooted in a current event, a hot news story or a popular debate?

I don’t always relate a novel to a current event. “Skeletons at the Feast” is a love triangle set in Poland and Germany in the last six months of World War II. “The Buffalo Soldier” was about parental grief and loss and recovery. “The Double Bind” harkens back to “The Great Gatsby” and the literary canon. And even “Midwives” wasn’t about an issue that was out there in the news: No one was talking about midwifery in 1997. There was no national debate about home vs. hospital birth.

Still, I do have novelist friends who are preternaturally gifted at tapping into the cultural zeitgeist – and they sell boatloads more books than I do. So, clearly they’re on to something.

In any case, the last thing I would tell a novelist is that the key to great art is a great hook. Sometimes great art has a great hook…but I wouldn’t recommend beginning there.

Now, I think that if you are determined to pull something off the newspapers or news web sites and craft it into a novel, be sure there is some moral ambiguity or conflict to the story. Drama still needs conflict, even if your source is the news.

How do you decide what makes a good story?

Some writing professors will tell you to write about what you know; others will tell you to write about what you don’t know, but learn all you can. My sense is that it really doesn’t matter if you are writing about a subject you know all about or one that is completely foreign. The key is to explore a subject you care about so passionately that you want to get up at five a.m. to dive in. That has always been the barometer for me.

I should also note that for every novel I finish, I must go down two dead ends, some of which are hundreds of pages long.