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Interview: March 21, 2024

Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, THE PRINCESS OF LAS VEGAS, revolves around a Princess Diana impersonator and her estranged sister who find themselves drawn into a dangerous game of money and murder. In this interview conducted by reviewer Roberta O’Hara, Bohjalian talks about his inspiration for the story; why he believes the world is still fascinated by Lady Di, more than 25 years after her untimely passing; how it feels to have his books brought to life on the screen; and what he’s working on now --- and when his lucky readers can expect to see it.

Question: THE PRINCESS OF LAS VEGAS is a thriller that revolves around Crissy Dowling, a Princess Diana impersonator who holds a popular residency at the Buckingham Palace casino and hotel. Crissy is an appealing, albeit troubled, character, much like Diana herself. What was the genesis for this story, and why Las Vegas?

Chris Bohjalian: Sometimes I know the exact moment when a novel began. THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT began in a bar in March 2016. I had just flown from Yerevan, Armenia, to New York City, and three strands came together alchemically: the idea I had breakfast in Yerevan and was about to meet a friend for dinner in Manhattan reminded me of the miracle of aviation and flight; I had flown on Aeroflot, which had me contemplating Russia; and I was surrounded by beautiful bottles of alcohol in a gorgeous bar. And I wrote the first three pages of the novel on paper cocktail napkins, a tale of a functional alcoholic --- a flight attendant --- who wakes up next to a dead body in a hotel bed far from home.

THE PRINCESS OF LAS VEGAS has no such precise origin story. Perhaps it was gestating since Princess Diana’s death in August 1997. My wife is a fine artist and was in the Washington Square Art Show that weekend in Greenwich Village, and I recall her telling me how none of the artists and none of their customers were discussing art that day. Everyone was discussing Diana, and everyone was devastated. I was home in Vermont with our little girl, and even at the general store, all anyone was talking about was the princess’s tragic death.

But, in all fairness, I always wanted to write about Las Vegas, too. Vegas is that fiery asteroid that crosses our night sky, that phantasmagoric house of mirrors that seduces the damaged and dreamers alike. My wife and I renewed our vows one year at the iconic Little White Chapel there, and we had a fantastic Elvis as the officiant. (Just for the record, everyone should see their beloved walk down the aisle while Elvis sings “Love Me Tender” with a really tight karaoke machine as his band.)

In any case, I often combine seemingly disparate elements into a novel, and my instincts were telling me there was a delicious cocktail in Lady Di and Las Vegas. In early 2021, I gave in to those instincts and was off and running on a character story of damaged sisters in the guise of a thriller about the Vegas mob, Russian oligarchs and money laundering.

I think it’s ironic --- and perfect --- that months after I’d finished an early draft of the novel, a Princess Diana museum opened in Vegas in September 2022.

Q: The past few years have seen a rash of Lady Diana movies and TV shows that have replayed her short life, and we never seem to tire of hearing or reading more about her and the royals. Why do you think the world is fascinated by the crown culture, and with Diana specifically? (And, as an aside, are you, too, a Windsor-watcher?)

CB: First of all, yes, I am fascinated by the Royals.

But I never considered a novel about the Princess herself. I love to write “historical fiction,” but I couldn’t write “novelized history” about a woman whose children and husband are still alive. That feels unfair to them and her memory.

So, while I loved all those movies and musicals, I wanted to approach Diana differently. I wanted to explore why she is still in the zeitgeist more than a quarter of a century after her death.

And I think there are at least four reasons: If her life was a fairy tale, it was a story spun by Grimm, not Disney. Second, she was a consummate show person: in a two-month period in 1985, for instance, she danced at the Reagan White House with John Travolta and then danced at the Royal Opera House with ballet star Wayne Sleep to “Uptown Girl.” Third, she was decent and kind: let’s not forget the way she embraced people dying of AIDS and people disabled (and disfigured) by landmines. And fourth --- and I think this is the most important factor --- she beat the monarchy at their own game: she played the media better than they did and if, in the end, they are partly responsible for her death, for much of her adult life she understood they were her best weapon in her battle with the entrenched power of the Windsors.

Q: Las Vegas is famous for its not-so-secret mob-related history, and in THE PRINCESS OF LAS VEGAS, you bring us a new family of criminals in Frankie Limback and Rory O’Hara, who are seeking to set up Futurium, a cryptocurrency company in Las Vegas and the Palace. Cryptocurrency is still such a mystery to so many. What drew you to it as a thematic to flesh out in your book?

CB: Oh, crypto is just a MacGuffin for me, that element of the story that seems critical but is actually a bit of storytelling misdirection. (I was a teenage magician, so I love misdirection.) I think a novel about crypto, in the right hands, could be great. Those hands are not mine. All I wanted from crypto was a reason why mobsters might want a casino in 2022, the year in which the novel is set.

Q: Marisa is an awesome character. She’s a child who needs a home and parents, yet in many ways she’s more adult and astute than Betsy, who has taken her in. Was there an inspiration for Marisa?

CB: No. But I have written about foster kids and homeless teens in other novels (THE BUFFALO SOLDIER and CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS), and I think it’s important to show how remarkable and resilient a lot of these kids are.

Think of your work with OneSky. Sometimes, a kid just needs one adult who gives a damn to change the whole narrative.

Q: Crissy and Betsy have a complicated sibling dynamic. What led you to creating the alternating narrative structure of the two sisters? How does that illustrate their relationship?

CB: I’m a fan of narratives with multiple perspectives --- that Rashomon effect. I’ve used it (off the top of my head) in THE LIONESS, THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, SECRETS OF EDEN and THE GUEST ROOM. The truth is, in real life, no two witnesses see one event the same way. Why not use that reality in fiction? And, as you observed correctly, it helps to illustrate their relationship, because readers can know things that each sister doesn’t or won’t admit to herself.

Q: When I think of prolific authors, the first two names that pop into my head are Joyce Carol Oates and Chris Bohjalian. You are incredibly prolific. You never write the same book twice, and you seem to have a new book almost every year. How do you do it? What inspires you?

CB: I’m honored to share any sentence with Joyce Carol Oates. Thank you. But, of course, she is considerably more talented than I am: a better stylist, a better storyteller, a deeper thinker.

But, yes, my goal is never to write the same book twice. I write whatever I find so interesting that --- other than hanging around with my wife or daughter --- there’s nothing I’d rather do than work on that book.

Q: Each of your books hits on big themes and contemporary social issues. Just to name a few, you have written about mental illness, alternative medicine, the Armenian Genocide, climate change, family structure and struggles, racial inequity, transgender issues and more. You don’t shy away from timely and serious issues, or the causes that have the potential to change the world. In fact, one could say that the social issues are primary characters in your novels. What is it about these issues that draw you in? How do you decide to include them? Do you see fiction as having a role in changing the world?

CB: Again, thank you. But, in all honesty, I think the only time I have written about an issue and either educated people or motivated them in some fashion was my novel about the Armenian Genocide, THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS. I think a lot of non-Armenians first learned of the genocide from that book and were motivated to learn more --- and, perhaps, to really begin to understand that genocide is a continuum. As wiser voices than mine have observed, the last step in a genocide is denial --- which is the first step in the next one.

Q: Another strength is your ability to glom on to specific moments in history. In THE RED LOTUS, you have this generational perspective of the Vietnam War. In HOUR OF THE WITCH, you take us to 1662 and the witch trials. Most recently, in THE LIONESS, it’s Hollywood in the 1960s. Historical fiction is a balancing act, isn’t it? When or where are you responsible for precision or accuracy in the retelling, and where can you take poetic, fictional license?

CB: All of these are great questions and illuminate precisely why I did not write historical fiction about Diana Spencer. It’s just too soon, in my opinion.

When I write historical fiction, I sweat the really prosaic details. What people ate, the utensils they used, what they read and how they worked. I am, of course, taking such liberties with their inner lives that their outer lives have to be authentic.

Q: You have successfully translated your writing to the screen and the stage. MIDWIVES has been made into both a movie and a play. THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT was a huge hit on Max. And a few of your other books have been optioned for film or television. What is that like? How does it feel to see your stories come to life?

CB: Yes, I’m very lucky: three of my books became movies (PAST THE BLEACHERS, SECRETS OF EDEN and MIDWIVES) and one a TV series. I have two more shows in development.

It’s important to make a distinction: I have written three successful plays. The film and TV adaptations of my work were written by other brilliant writers.

Now, given how much I love movies and TV --- especially since shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Americans” revolutionized TV --- it was perhaps inevitable that my work would evolve. All of those TV shows are about dread, which is what powers my books.

So, yes, it feels great. But it also has given me license to really feed the beast. When my books work, they are all about anticipatory grief and dread.

Q: As you work on one book, is another book always percolating, sort of at the back of your mind? If so, how do you stay in the immediate lane and continue to focus on the manuscript at hand? Can you tell us what’s next for you?

CB: Next March you will see my 25th novel, THE JACKAL’S MISTRESS. It’s a Civil War love story set in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. It was loosely (very loosely) inspired by two real people, a Vermonter and a Virginian. But unlike Diana Spencer, they lived so long ago that (to go back to your earlier question) I felt comfortable imagining a novel based on the little we know about them.