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Book Talk: Unexpected ghosts a change for Chris Bohjalian

When Chris Bohjalian set out to write his latest novel, he knew it would involve ghosts but expected them to be metaphorical. But the spooks had a mind of their own -- and became real.
/ Source: Reuters

When Chris Bohjalian set out to write his latest novel, he knew it would involve ghosts but expected them to be metaphorical. But the spooks had a mind of their own -- and became real.

That sort of authorial adventure is nothing new for Bohjalian, who in "The Night Strangers" follows airline pilot Chip Linton, and his wife and twin 10-year-old daughters, after they move to New Hampshire in the wake of a fatal accident with a plane that Linton flew, chronicling in vivid detail the family's slow unravelling.

Bohjalian, whose 12 previous books have included bestsellers on subjects as varied as midwifery and transgenders, said that while a common thread in all his works is remorse, regret and second-guessing, he also loves to explore the new and the unknown.

Bohjalian spoke about his first foray into ghost stories.

Q: What got this book going?

A: "Like many millions of people around the world, on January 15, 2009, I was glued to the TV set watching Flight 1549 evacuated on the Hudson River, west of Manhattan. The Miracle on the Hudson, (Chesley) Sully Sullenberger's remarkable bit of flying. It might have been the simple as the shape of the overwing exit door. I was reminded of the freakish, spooky, scary door in the basement of my 1898 Victorian house. The door, about five feet high, that I thought was a coal chute. But when I went to it, it was nailed shut -- that's right, nailed shut. It would be three years before I would take an axe, a crowbar and pliers, and pull the door off its hinges. Behind it I found nothing. It wasn't a coal chute, it seemed to be some strange compartment 18 inches deep, five feet high. Perfect for walling up your neighbor alive.

"I thought of that door, and I was thinking of the plane in the water. I began to wonder: what would it be like to go through life in a post-Sully Sullenberger world, when you're the pilot who's ditched your commercial jet in the water, and your plane cartwheeled in the water, and people died, but you lived. What it would like to have that regret, that guilt? So, I decided to explore this pilot's post-traumatic stress disorder in a creepy old house, with a door in the basement.

"When I started this book, I thought the ghosts would only be metaphoric. It was only when I was a third of the way into the novel that the metaphoric ghosts became literal ones."

Q: Did you have to suspend your sense of belief then?

A: "I learned two things when I was writing this book. I learned first of all that I can be really scared of flying, and I learned that I'm still scared of the dark. I'm incapable of going into the basement of my house at night now... I completely 'creeped myself out' when I was writing this book and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. I put children in jeopardy, and I'm the dad of a daughter. And, the house is based so much on my house. Everything about this house that has ever struck me as remotely shadowy and creepy, I amplified dramatically. That door in the basement, which is what inspired a big part of the book. I can't go to that corner of the basement at nighttime now -- it's really just scary.

"I understand intellectually that this is just an overactive imagination, but it still fascinates me that I was so willing to transmogrify my otherwise very lovely house into this scary haunted house."

Q: Your books examine different permutations of family.

A: "I do love exploring family, and I love exploring family dynamics. I think one of the things that might make 'The Night Strangers' scary is the fact that it's a family falling apart, it's not just that I'm putting twin girls in physical jeopardy. It's that this family unit is breaking apart. When the family's in jeopardy, it leads people to either rise up and try to solve the problem, or succumb. People are sometimes at their best when things are worst."

Q: What do you emphasize in your books?

A: "Sometimes I think I'm a better mimic than I am a novelist. I tend to be good at creating characters and characters' voices. Certainly when I'm writing in the first person. I've had a great time being characters as different as a 31-year-old female ob/gyn in 'Midwives' to being a self-described 'angel geek' in 'Secrets of Eden.' So character certainly matters to me, and creating believable characters. But I also always want to write books that keep people turning the pages, and to keep people turning the pages you're depending on plot. It's always a balancing act. Characters with sufficient depth that readers will care about them, and have a story sufficiently motivating that we can't wait to get back to it, we want to keep turning the pages."

Q: Were there any differences with this one?

A: "Yes. I wanted to make sure that my dead characters were every bit as authentic and interesting as my live ones. That presented a new set of problems. How do you create an authentic and believable world of the undead? I tried to work with my dead characters the way I've always worked with my living ones -- subject them to reasonable cause, and see the effect. If I give them one kind of stimulation, how will they respond, and is it natural, and reasonable? In some ways it's a big Petri dish -- I'm not quite sure how the experiment's going to unfold, all I can do is put in variables and see what happens."

Q: Given this, and the ghosts surprising you, I'd like to ask -- how much do you outline, or do you?

A: "I never outline, never. I rarely know where my books are going. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)