Tag Archives: mothers and daughters

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: Interview with author Sarah Cornwell of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU

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By Leslie Lindsay

I am just thrilled to have Sarah Cornwell debut author of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU. Mothers. Daughters. Family bonds. Throw in a little bipolar and psychic action and I’m so there. A writer myself, these are often themes and questions I love to explore in my own writing, but they are tough subjects! WhatIHadBeforeIHadYou hc c

Be sure to enter for the Give-a-way copy of this lovely book!* Sarah and HarperCollins has graciously provided one copy up for grabs for TWO different readers. All you gotta do is share via social media, or comment on the blog. Let me know you shared** by dropping me an email at leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com. Okay…and now with the interview! Apraxia Monday:  He Talks Funny Author Jeanne Buesser & Give-a-Way

Leslie Lindsay: What can you tell us about the type of research you drew upon to create such a compellingly honest composition?

Sarah Cornwell: Thank you for that description! So much of the research that goes into my writing is simply lived life—observing people, pocketing details, taking on odd jobs that might grant some deeper access. For a while as I finished this book I worked part-time as a research interviewer for a psych study, interviewing mother-daughter pairs about their mental health and emotional lives—what a perfect research job that was! I steer my life toward my subject matter; I went to a range of psychics as I wrote this book, for example, to better understand how Myla might present herself in that part of her life.

For the first few years of the ten that I spent, on and off, writing this book, I had no idea that bipolar disorder would play a part in the story. Myla emerged first as a mercurial, passionate, unreliable mom with a carefully guarded past (though not the past she ended up with in the final draft!) and Olivia as a sheltered teenager experiencing an accelerated adolescence. Once I saw that their moods and behaviors pointed to a family history of bipolar disorder, I let it color the story, and then I began research to make sure I rendered that illness accurately. Concerning early onset bipolar disorder, I found much of value in ‘The Bipolar Child,’ by Demitri Papolos M.D. and Janice Papolos. I read many memoirs concerning adult and adolescent experiences of bipolar disorder, and I was grateful for candid conversations with friends with the bipolar diagnosis as well as with mental health professionals. Before publication, I had a child psychiatrist fact-check the manuscript.

L.L.: Okay—full disclosure, I am the daughter of a bipolar mother. She was no picnic to live with; even as an adult daughter I struggle with her. Do you have any personal connection to bipolar?

Sarah Cornwell:Thank you for sharing that. Some of the most meaningful responses I’ve received to the book have been from people who have bipolar disorder or who have bipolar family members. It is the highest compliment to hear that Olivia’s perspective is resonating in this personal way for readers. I am the daughter of a therapist, so I grew up very familiar with mental health issues, and I’ve always been fascinated with the mind—with the variations in how we think and perceive that make us who we are. I come from a family with its own legacy of mental health issues, both diagnosed and undiagnosed (don’t we all!)

L.L.: I find it so very creepy that Olivia has to clean the nursery of her stillborn twin sisters many years after their, uh…birth. How did you dream up this scenario? Is it part of the mother’s bipolar that commands this, or is it grief? Something Olivia senses her mother needs?

Sarah Cornwell: This was one of the very first moments, or series of mental images, from which the book sprang: the nursery, the enforced relationship between living and dead siblings. My own mother had several miscarriages before my birth, and I remember wondering, as a child, whether those were brothers and sisters I’d never know, or just myself, trying again and again to exist. This thought was the seed of the book, and when I sat down to express it, the nursery tumbled out fully formed, a physical expression of that tension between ghost and child.

The ritual of cleaning the nursery is something that Myla needs in order to keep Olivia feeling connected to her invisible sisters, as a priest might ask religious believers to make offerings in a temple—to make a daily show of faith in the unseen, and so to reinforce that faith. It is Myla asking Olivia to support and participate in her delusion—a big responsibility for a child, once she begins to realize the things her mother has told her are not entirely reliable…

L.L.: You write so eloquently about mothers and children, so I have to ask—do you have children of your own?

Sarah Cornwell: Thank you! I do not, but I’m looking forward to it!

L.L.: Psychics have long been a topic that fascinate and bemuse me. In some ways I feel there’s a little psychic action driving the beast under our writerly pursuits. How did this piece drift into your novel?

Sarah Cornwell: This story is so much about the space between what is real and what is unreal. Psychic ability falls into this space for me—I want to believe in it, and other people promise they have seen convincing proof, yet I have not. I am fascinated by that sort of fundamentally human longing for magical explanations for life’s mysteries. The mind is a meaning-making machine; it will sew up holes and ignore fuzzy logic in order to see what it wants to see. As I wrote this book, Myla’s psychic ability bled together with her bipolar disorder in a way that felt meaningful—her unique and special powers come only with the destructive force of her mania. Whether or not you believe, as you read, that she truly has psychic powers, it’s that wedding of identity and talent to unmedicated mania that interested me—she believes in her powers because they make her who she is, and they make her bipolar disorder a source of strength, whereas many people in her early life treated her as a compromised person (as you find out through revelations that come late in the book!)

L.L.: Moving on to the craft of writing, can you give us a glimpse into a typical writing day for you?

Sarah Cornwell: I work best in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Beyond that, I’m completely inconsistent! I don’t write every day, and I’m always irked by the blanket statements you’ll hear that every writer must—we’re all different and we conjure different magic through different means!

My days vary quite a bit depending on where I am in a project, and depending on the form in which I’m writing. Right now, for instance, I am working exclusively on screenwriting projects and I’m under deadline, so I often spend a good four or five hour chunk in a coffee shop in the morning (where the presence of other people working hard keeps me honest), go home for lunch, and spend the rest of the day trying desperately to reach that morning-session level of productivity, failing, forgiving myself, and then cooking dinner. Rinse and repeat.

When I am brainstorming or outlining, though (which I only do preliminarily in screenwriting—in fiction I outline only when I’m already deeply into a project) my days often consist of wandering around, staring out windows, doing other jobs, puttering, complaining… I’ll spend a whole day like that, feeling miserably unproductive, and then a lightbulb will blink on and I’ll realize that I was working that whole time, in a back burner kind of way, and that I’ve accomplished a very necessary step. It has taken me years to get comfortable with handing the reins over to the unconscious part of my mind in that way. And even though I know now that it’s an indispensable part of my process, it’s always uncomfortable.

L.L.: Many of our readers are interested in agents. Can you shed a little light into the agent-getting game, what you felt you did right—and maybe some pointers as to how you would do it differently?

Sarah Cornwell: I didn’t reach out to agents until my novel was finished, in 2012, nine years after I started it and two years after it served as my graduate thesis at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. I knew that thesis draft wasn’t the best I could do (in fact the missing puzzle piece ended up being the whole present-tense timeline, which flowed out of me in months once that particular lightbulb blinked on). By the time I did turn out a draft I felt satisfied with, I had a few agents checking in routinely, who had reached out to me after reading my short fiction in literary magazines, and I had recommendations of good agent matches from writing mentors I met in graduate school. These connections are so valuable, and not in a shmoozy way—I hate shmoozy—it’s about finding allies and mentors in your own education as a writer, however you go about it, and then sharing resources so that writing you love and respect can find its audience.

I believe strongly in waiting until a piece of writing is as good as I can possibly make it before asking an agent or an editor to invest their time in it, and I think that philosophy served me well. I chose two agents to submit the manuscript to and picked the one whose vision for selling it felt right to me.

L.L.:What’s next? Will we be hearing more from you in the future?

Sarah Cornwell: Right now I am having a great time getting things up and running in my Hollywood screenwriting career. My first movie will be produced this summer by David S. Goyer, a horror movie called THE FOREST. Next, I am adapting Jennifer Percy’s amazing work of nonfiction, ‘Demon Camp,’ into a supernatural thriller for Paramount Pictures. I hope to start another novel within the next year.

Sarah Cornwell WHAT I HAD...Bio: Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You, was published by HarperCollins in January 2014, and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the 2008 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and finalist honors for the Keene Prize for Literature. In 2010, her screenwriting was recognized with the Humanitas Student Drama Fellowship. A former Michener Fellow at UT-Austin, Sara was the Spring 2012 Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy and a 2011 Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow for Pennsylvania State. Sarah has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, a writer in the schools, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, a toy seller, and a screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles.Apraxia Monday:  He Talks Funny Author Jeanne Buesser & Give-a-Way

**The Fine Print for Giveaway: Two hardcover copies of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU are being provided by HarperCollins, one for each of 2 winners. Contest runs from today, 4.23.14 thru Wednesday 4.30.14. You must share this link via social media of your choice and then email “I shared” to leslie_lindsay@hotmail to be entered in giveaway. Your name will be selected at random on 4.23.14. You will be contacted via email if you are the winner; please check your junk/spam folder for notification. Books will be mailed to you by HarperCollins. Please be patient while you await the arrival of your complimentary book. Good luck!

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Courtesy of HarperCollins