As part of their 2012 One Book, One Community series, The Saginaw Public Libraries are bringing in Best-selling author Chris Bohjalian to discuss his work about Nazi Germany, Skeletons at the Feast on Thursday, April 19th at 7:00 PM at the Temple Theatre in downtown Saginaw. Admission is free.
Bohjalian is the author of fifteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers, The Night Strangers,Secrets of Eden, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, Before You Know Kindness, The Law of Similars, and Midwives. His newest novel, The Sandcastle Girls, is an historical love story set in the First World War.
Bohjalian novels often focus on a specific issue, such as homelessness, animal rights and environmentalism, and tend to be character-driven, revolving around complex and flawed protagonists and secondary characters. Bohjalian uses characteristics from his real life in his writings; in particular, many of his novels take place in fictional Vermont towns, and the names of real New Hampshire towns are often used throughout his stories.
"Writers can talk with agonizing hubris about finding their voices, but for me, it was in Vermont that I discovered issues, things that matter to me,” he explains. His novels also tend to center around ordinary people facing extraordinarily difficult situations resulting from unforeseen circumstances, often triggered by other parties.
The son of a senior vice-president of a New York advertising agency, Bohjalian graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In the mid 1980s he worked as an account representative for J. Walter Thompson Advertising in New York City, where he lived with his wife in a Brooklyn Co-op until March 1986, when the two were riding in a taxicab and the driver refused to let them out of the car for 45-minutes, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs.
Around midnight, they were dropped off at a near-deserted street in front of a crack house, where police were conducting a raid, and Bohjalian and his wife were forced to drop to the ground for their protection. The incident prompted the couple to move away from Brooklyn and a few days later, the couple read an ad in The New York Times referencing the 'People's Republic of Vermont'; and the couple decided to move to Lincoln. “After it was all over, we just thought, 'Why do we live here?” notes Bohjalian.
After writing weekly columns for the local newspaper about small town life, Bohjalian developed into a writer with an ear and empathy for the 'common man'. He continued writing the column for 12 years and his first novel, A Killing in the Real World, was released in 1988. Almost two decades after it was released, Bohjalian said of the book, “It was a train wreck. I hadn't figured things out yet.” His third novel, Past the Bleachers, was released in 1992 and was adapted to a Hallmark Channel television movie, as have many of his works been adapted, most recently Secrets of Eden.
The book Bohjalian will address in his Saginaw appearance, Skeletons at the Feast, takes place in 1945 during the waning months of World War II, when a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.
Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred-who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz. As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred-assuming any of them even survive.
The work won acclaim for its depictions of the power, poignancy of romance, and the terror and tragedy of war, especially the manner in which Bohjalian crafts a rich tapestry that puts face and adds dimension to one of the 20th Century's greatest tragedies.
When asked how he decides what topical issues to tackle in his novels, Bohjalian explains that “Invariably the inspiration is something in my personal life. Someone I have met or something I have heard or something I have seen.”
He speaks at length about one of his most inspirationally complete works, The Double Bind.
“The Double Bind may be as good an example as any. The novel had its origins in December 2003, when Rita Markley, the executive director of Burlington's homeless shelter, shared with me a box of old photographs. These black-and-white images had been taken by a once-homeless photographer who had died in the apartment building her organization had found for him. His name was Bob "Soupy" Campbell.”
“The photos were remarkable, both because of Campbell's evident talent and because of the subject matter. I recognized the performers-musicians, comedians, actors-and newsmakers in many of them.”
“I wrote about Campbell in December 2003, researching his life and accomplishments and why he might have wound up homeless, and to this day it remains one of my favorite essays I've written for the paper. I had celebrated Campbell's talents (which were extensive) and I had reminded people of the very fine line that separates so many of us from being homeless. But then I thought I was done with the subject.”
“Six months later, in June 2004, I reread The Great Gatsby. I love that novel. Few writers crafted sentences as consistently luminescent as Fitzgerald or understood class and culture and longing as well.”
“Then I went for a bike ride on a dirt road deep in a canopy of woods. My wife had heard a story on the radio that day that advised parents to tell their children the following: If someone ever tried to abduct them while they were riding their bikes, they should hold onto the handlebars for dear life. It's more difficult to abduct someone and throw them into the back of a car or a van if they are firmly attached to their bike. The geometry just doesn't work.”
“As I rode, I started thinking about Bob Campbell for the first time in months, and I was thinking about him in regard to The Great Gatsby. Why? Perhaps it's because we always see The Great Gatsby through a haze of black and white photographs-Campbell's medium. And, of course, The Great Gatsby is a jazz age novel-and Campbell photographed a lot of jazz musicians.”
“And so the idea for The Double Bind formed in my head on that dirt road. I knew precisely how a book would begin and-for the only time in my life-I knew precisely how it would end.”
In addition to his Temple Theatre appearance, the Saginaw Public Libraries will also conduct Bohjalian 'Book Talks'Online April 1-30 and at Claytor Library, 1410 N. 12th on Wednesday April 18 at noon; and Thursday, April 19th at 2:00 PM at Butman-Fish Library, 1716 Hancock.