Wednesdays with Writers: What happens when you sleep? Could you be capable of murder? Chris Bohjalian explores this and more in his latest novel, THE SLEEPWALKER, plus rising early, following characters onto the page, being a teen magician

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Guest Room comes a spine-tingling novel of lies, loss, and buried desire–the mesmerizing story of a wife and mother who vanishes from her bed late one night.

Psychologically astute rift with family secrets, mystery, and a terrifying sleep disorder, THE SLEEPWALKER is at first a family portrait swallowed in the throes of grief.

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With an author like Chris Bohjalian, you’re in good hands; expert hands, in fact. When I learned about THE SLEEPWALKER, I knew I had to read it: missing people, mothers especially, are a fascination of mine. So too is sleep and dreams. Toss in a lovely flawed family portrait and I am putty in your hands.

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. She once spray-painted the front hydrangeas silver, and yet…things always work out just fine.

But this time it’s different. This time, she can’t be found. Days turn to weeks. An investigation ensues. Speculation swirls. What happened to Annalee Ahlberg, a healthy, fit architect?

Infused with lovely snippets of research about sleep and their accompanying disorders, THE SLEEPWALKER is a gorgeously written family drama.

Join me in welcoming Chris Bohjalian to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: I’ve long been a fan of your work, Chris.  Your books cover a lot of ground…YA, historical, mystery, gothic, literary suspense. I’m always curious: why this book, why now? What inspired THE SLEEPWALKER?

Chris Bohjalian: Originally I thought I was going to write a book about dreams, that great Freudian abyss. And so I went to have lunch with a sleep doctor to understand the physiology of the brain when we dream. He had just come from a patient who was a sleepwalker, and our conversation rather naturally went. We discussed how people sleepcook, sleepdrive, sleepjog, sleepsex, sleepmurder – and I was hooked.

Check out THE SLEEPWALKER’S book trailer: 

L.L.: Your research into sleep disorders is evident. Can you talk a bit about that process?

 Chris Bohjalian: I always love my research, but this was especially interesting because sleep study is such a new field. The term “arousal disorder” wasn’t even coined until 1968. Medicine didn’t begin to categorize parasomnias until 1979. And forensic sleep medicine, the investigation of sleep crime? As a discipline, it only dates back to 2007.

L.L.: I personally love to sleep! I find it’s a great place to flesh out some of my creative download (8)processes. The best is when I fall asleep reading. My brain sort of takes over and creates a whole new story. Do you ever dream about your works-in-progress? Do you ever get ideas for novels this way?

Chris Bohjalian: I think you’re on to something. I have heard that sleep really does recharge creativity. Now, I don’t precisely dream of my books, but I know that I have to go directly to my desk when I awake at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning.  I do almost all of my writing then. It’s far and away the most productive time of the day for me, and I believe that is not merely because I am most rested: I believe it is because of my mind’s connection to sleep and the subconscious.

L.L.: Let’s talk character for a bit. You do a beautiful job of ‘getting into the head’ of a 21-year old college female. How did you make the decision to tell the story from Lianna’s POV, and not…say, her English professor father who might be more aligned with you as a male author?

Chris Bohjalian: My daughter, a young actor in New York City, once said to me after reading a rough draft of one of my novels, “Dad, take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way. But I think your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed-up young women.” She’s right. Just think of Laurel Estabook (“The Double Bind”), Emily Shepard (“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands”), Serafina Bettini (“The Light in the Ruins”), or all the young female survivors of the Armenian Genocide in “The Sandcastle Girls.”

There are a lot of reasons why sometimes I write across gender. Originally, “The Sleepwalker” was a traditional, third-person Jamesian novel. But about halfway in, it began to feel to me a lot like a story of mothers and daughters and loss. And so I tried it from Lianna’s perspective and liked where the book seemed to go. I liked the wistfulness of first-person past in this case.

L.L.: Lianna is an amateur magician, giving magic shows for kids’ parties, etc. How did that piece of her character develop? Is it a sort of metaphor for the overall narrative? Appearance/disappearance themes?

Chris Bohjalian: Yes. You nailed it. She can make anything reappear except her mother. Also? I was a teenage magician. Everything in Lianna’s set was in my set. I did those children’s birthday parties.

“Scary, limiting and downright dangerous, sleepwalking inspires a hard-to-put-down story that also mixes sex and a mystery in a polished package. . .Bohjalian is on top of his already stellar game with The Sleepwalker.”
— Amanda St. Amand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

L.L.:  For you, does structure follow plot points or is it more character-driven?

Chris Bohjalian: Well, I never know where my stories are going. I have no plot. I have only a premise and a character. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. It is – to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow – driving at night. You can only see 200 feet ahead of you, but you have the confidence that eventually you will get where you’re going. 

L.L.:  Do you have any writing rituals or routines? A few  “Chris facts?” 

Chris Bohjalian:  I begin my day by skimming a dictionary for an interesting word or two. Then I watch movie trailers for ten minutes, usually enjoying three or four. They instantly catapult me into the right head space. Usually they have nothing to do with the book I’m writing in terms of subject. It’s all about the emotion.

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Chris Bohjalian:  These were great. Thanks!

For more information, to connect with Chris via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE SLEEPWALKER, please see: 

Chris Bohjalian.jpg ABOUT THE AUTHOR: CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the author of nineteen books, including Close Your EyesHold Hands; The Sandcastle GirlsSkeletons at the FeastThe Double Bind; and Midwives. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of EdenMidwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media contacts. Love to see ya ’round!

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Doubleday. Collage of previous works from author’s website. Image of ‘sleep and creativity’ from YouTube, all retrieved 3.16.17]

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