Tag Archives: grief

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]

Write On, Wednesday: Deb Caletti on her newest book for adults: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

You may know her from the award-winning YA fiction she’s churned out. You may know her from her 2013 Secrets-She-Keeps_Caletti-193x300psychological suspense debut for adults, HE’S GONE [excerpt and more information here], or you just may know Deb Caletti because she’s been a judge for the National Book Awards.  In her “spare” time, she loves to paint, travel and spend time with her kids. And maybe mosey around in some lovely pink cowboy boots. Simply put, this gal is busy.  I’m honored to welcome Deb back to the blog. So, grab a Moscow Mule. Or coffee, depending on what time of day you’re reading, and come along with a journey to the 1950s “Divorce Ranches” of Reno, Nevada.

L.L.: Deb, thanks so much for popping back over to the blog couch. I’m honored to have . I just finished reading THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and promptly had to run out and order a Mule. Not the kind that is a cross between a horse and a donkey, but the kind with ginger beer and a few other tasty things. That’s what I call “immersive fiction.” What other fun foods did you get a—let’s say, hankerin’ for—while writing SECRETS?

Deb Caletti:  I have to admit, I had to get the copper mugs so I could make Mules at home.  They are so delicious and refreshing!  The ladies knew how to do it right.  But I did crave other foods from the book, too, and not just from the storyline of the past.  My main character, Callie, and her sister, Shaye, are at the ranch of today, struggling with their own issues of marriage, family, and the passage of time.  While there, they reminisce about the lost things from their childhood, and Shaye starts cooking all the food of their youth.  So, yes – veal cutlets (from the time when we forgot to think about what veal was)!  The frying of them in the novel made me both remember them and crave them.  The sisters also do quite a lot of snacking, and once they started in on those Fritos, I needed to start in on some Fritos.

L.L.: Okay, in all honesty, that was kind of a silly question. Here’s a more serious one: what sparked your interest for the setting of this book?

Deb Caletti:  A few years before I started writing the novel, I’d come across a single line in a book that mentioned the term, “divorce ranch.”  Having never heard it before, I looked it up.  Divorce ranches operated in the 1930’s to early 1950’s in Nevada.  High-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches for six weeks to establish residency in the state, in order to secure divorces that were impossible to get elsewhere.  Often, this was called, “The Six-Week Cure,” or, alternately, “Getting Reno-vated.”

After learning about the ranches and the transformative experiences that were had when women gathered together there, I was intrigued.  But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer-moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This.  Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting each other and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships. The setting – the ranch itself (in today’s time and in its glamorous past) and the sweeping vistas of its locale were a place I wanted to spend some time in.

[To read an excerpt from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and find out more about the ranches, click here.]

L.L.:  So these “Divorce Ranches” were actual places women would travel, become residents for the six-weeks required before they could legally procure a divorce, head back to wherever their lives were, and sort of “wash their hands” of the man who sent them there. What happened to the ranches? Are they part of the Wild West “ghost towns” we hear so much about?Bust1

L.L.: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a bifurcated novel in which you weave together two women’s lives, two different time periods, similar secrets, failing marriages, and an overarching camaraderie of women. Was this your plan all along, or did it sort of evolve as you wrote?Deb Caletti:  No, they aren’t a part of ghost towns.  Most are in the Reno vicinity.  Some have become working ranches again, or have remained in the families who owned them.  Many began as working ranches, but when the divorce business boomed, they became divorce ranches for this brief period of nearly-forgotten history.  Of course, as divorce laws changed in other parts of the country, ranches for soon-to-be divorcees were no longer necessary.  

Deb Caletti: It was my plan all along.  What seemed most important thematically, as well as what was most important to my main character, Callie, who is struggling with a marriage of many years, was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love.  The dual time periods underscore this.  Divorce laws have changed, and so have the daily pieces of our lives – the food, the music, the mores, the openness, the technology, our understanding of the land around us – yet the big pieces remain the same.  How do we manage our relationships to the people we love over the years?  How do we make good decisions about love and partnership?  How do we weigh what’s best for ourselves and other people?  How do we sisters and friends support one another through the hard stuff?  How do we deal with our grief over the passage of time and how life marches forward?  Love, marriage, family, sisterhood, the ticking clock – they are all ageless struggles.

L.L.: Is there a character’s story you felt particularly drawn to; someone’s chapter you couldn’t wait to write?EP-140419800

Deb Caletti: Every character has a bit of the author in them, I think, even the villainous ones.  But I was most looking forward to exploring Callie’s issues of longtime marriage.  Her children have just left home.  When her youngest daughter gets on a plane, she says, “For a second, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I was at a total loss.  Thomas and I just stood there together like we were college freshman just dropped off by their parents and assigned to room together.”  There’s this whole piece of a marriage that comes as children grow older, when a couple mourns what was and then must figure out what comes next.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, or follow the pen?

Deb Caletti: I call it “free falling.”  I generally know where I’m starting and where I’m ending up.  The trip along the way is a process of discovery.  This method is much like life itself, and I like that.  There are surprises and pitfalls, but, for me, the story has a natural evolution this way. Don’t you sometimes wish you could outline life and have it follow that plan, though?  It might be pretty dull, but it also sounds awesome.

L.L.: What are you working on next?

Deb Caletti: I’ve just finished my next novel for young adults called Essential Maps for the Lost, coming in April of next year.  My fingers have started tap-tapping on my next novel for adults (coming 2017).

L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you now?

Deb Caletti: Since reading Hampton Sides’ fantastic In the Kingdom of Ice I’ve been on a huge polar exploration/disaster-at-sea book binge.  After KINGDOM came Erik Larson’s DEAD WAKE, books on Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions (ENDURANCE, and others), various Titanic reads, and then PIRATE HUNTERS.  You never know what will sweep you up.  The stacks of books in my office grow while I sleep, I’m sure. 

L.L.: What do you hope others take away from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS? I’ll tell you my take-away, and it’s kind of silly one, but it resonated nonetheless: “Daily life snatched things from a couple. Mattress sales stole intrigue; shirts ruined by that damn spot of bleach grabbed desire and wrung its scrawny neck.”

Deb Caletti: I guess I can answer that with my own quote, my intended take-away:

No life was ever ordinary, and no story of love was, either, not even mine.  Whether tragic or commonplace, each attempt at the damn thing, each shot at love and life itself was brave.  Every effort at it was flawed and messy, complicated, oh yes, occasionally triumphant, often painful, because how else could it be?  Look at the mission we were given, look at the stunning, impossible mission – imperfect love in the face of loss.  Any sane person with the facts would turn their back on a mission like that.  And yet we loved, of course we did…  The courage that took – there was nothing ordinary about that.” 

L.L.: Ahh…thanks for being with us, Deb! We so enjoyed it.

Deb Caletti: Thanks for having me, Leslie!

5x7_to_useBio: Deb Caletti is an award-winning author and a National Book Award finalist whose books—He’s Gone; Honey, Baby, Sweetheart; The Queen of Everything; The Secret Life of Prince Charming—are published and translated worldwide. She lives with her family in Seattle.

For more information or to follow: 

Twitter: @debcaletti

Facebook: Deb Caletti

Instagram: @debcaletti

Read Deb’s essay on divorce ranches/The 6-week Cure via Random House here. 

[Author and cover images courtesy of Ms.Caletti’s publicist, M. Oberrender 6-Week Cure image retrieved from on 8.18.15, Flying Me image retrieved from on 8.18.15]

Fiction Friday: What does Grief Feel Like?

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By Leslie LindsayWrite on, Wednesday:  Decontrusting a Novel

Here’s a little something from my WIP. Working on a novel set in the St. Louis suburbs based on a urban legend. This is a tiny little epitaph that our main charcter, Mel shares on grief:

“What does grief feel like? This is the question the ladies at grief group want us to focus on this week.

Grief feels like a barbed wire fence being shoved down my throat and pulled out many times over and over. Grief feels numb and barren, like nothing but bad thoughts can grow. It hits me when I least expect it, at the grocery store and in line at the bank. And yes, it strikes when I see a baby, bundled in a car seat toted into Starbucks, her tiny face peeking out from a little hole in the blankets, parents overly doting and cooing.

Grief is an evil entity that wants me for itself, like a phantom taking me in, inhabiting my body. If I am not lucky, it will. His ugliness will throw his head back, a sinister laugh erupting because he got me.

The other group members say this is normal. I told them between sips of instant coffee and store-bought cookies. There were nods and a supportive sounds, murmurings that they had been there. But no, I wanted them to be there with me. Right now. But so many of them had moved on, moved into acceptance and other happy places.

They tell me that it will get better. “Just give it time,” the woman to my left says, her hand patting my knee.

I swallowed and lowered my head, breaking off a piece of shortbread and swallowing it down with a sip of instant coffee. I hope she’s right.

Grief feels like I am walking with my legs sewn on backwards, a stutter through the world. Even simple things like bathing and eating and getting dressed feel like a chore.

I feel like Ran doesn’t care some days that our baby died. He has such a different way of coping. Instead of crying or talking about things, he runs. His body is withering down to nothing, his bones are protruding in places they used to not. His face is cadaverous. He tells me that running is a release. And I wonder what he thinks about on those long runs through the roads of Chestnut Ridge. Does he even think about the impossibly tiny baby that emerged from my body, red and tiny and dead.

I look forward to bed. Not for the sex, because that doesn’t happen much anymore. And not for the closeness we used to feel as we fell asleep intertwined in one another’s arms, but for the dreams I might have.

Baby Hope sometimes appeared to me, and if she didn’t, I’d will her to me. Occasionally, her face would appear on the sheers in our bedroom. I’d turn to look, to study the features of her face, but then she’d disappear. I wanted those dreams, because somehow it made me feel closer to her. I wanted tell her I was sorry. Because it was all my fault she didn’t survive.

On those nights, the ragdoll would appear on my nightstand or dresser, sometimes just on the floor near the window.

In the morning, I’d come awake disoriented. I’d check the clock on the bedside table: 9:16 a.m. Not too late. I still had most of the day. My mouth would be dry, sour. The cats would stare at me, their slumber disturbed and stretch long and languidly. My night shirt would be a little damp, my head clogged. I’d realize I’d been dreaming. Not a coherent narrative, but an intermingling of disjointed and haunting images, a parade of all of my fears. Baby Hope being taken away from me at the hospital, her tiny dark lifeless foot, the baby I’d given away.

I heard the thumping again. It was beckoning me to the window downstairs. A smattering of butterflies if I was in a good mood, a swarm of locusts if I wasn’t.

I’d lower my feet to the cream-colored rug. My mind started to catch up, shaking off the dream images and focusing on the real. But sometimes, in those dark days, I wasn’t sure what was real, or what was a product of my imagination, or the otherworld.

[Please remember this is an original work of unpublished fiction. It is not for you to take as your own. Comments always welcome.Thanks for reading!]