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June 26, 2008

Chris Bohjalian: Role Reversal

Posted by carol
Novelist Chris Bohjalian reminisces about how roles were reversed when he spoke with a book club recently about his new novel, Skeletons at the Feast, which was published in May. Chris is the author of 11 novels, including such book group favorites as Midwives and The Double Bind.

The other day a book group I had joined via speakerphone shared with me what they thought was terrific news. They e-mailed me that while they had only awarded my 2004 novel, Before You Know Kindness, a 5.6 rating on their personal 10-point scale, I had received a 9.6 for telephone presence and responsiveness. I was a mediocre novelist, in other words, but one heck of a good interview.

This sort of candor is rare for most of the world, but not in the living rooms, libraries and back porches where reading groups assemble. One of the great gifts of the private book club is the refreshing frankness the members invariably bring to the table. Sure, sometimes the bluntness is fueled by a good riesling or merlot --- or with one notable book group I joined via speakerphone, especially potent margaritas --- but more times than not a book group's outspokenness is the result of something increasingly rare in the digital age: a passion for fiction and a deep respect for the novel.

That's one of the reasons why I always fit reading groups into my schedule --- usually three or four every week. Sometimes I learn something new about my writing --- what has worked in a novel or what didn't --- and other times I discover a book by another author that I want to read. Usually, however, I am doing the lion's share of the speaking.

Recently I joined a book group that had read my new novel, Skeletons at the Feast. The book is a departure for me, in that it is not set in present day New England. It's a love story --- a love triangle, really --- set in the last six months of World War II in Poland and Germany. It was inspired by an actual diary left behind by the German great-grandmother of a girl in my daughter's kindergarten class.

Usually my conversations with book groups focus upon my research for a novel or why I chose a particular subject --- what, in essence, triggered the story. Moreover, they are usually pretty giddy affairs, especially when I regale them with my most embarrassing experiences while on book tours (it's a long list).

Not that night. Skeletons at the Feast is set in what might have been the most brutal six months in human history, and in the novel I did not shy away from chronicling some of the most savage moments I came across in my exploration of the period. But I also included those instances of monumental beauty and kindness and grace that marked so many of the tales people shared
with me. That evening when I opened the conversation up for questions, instead I got stories: their stories. Some of the readers had lost family members in the Holocaust, while others had relatives who been among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled the Russian army in 1945.

Readers in book groups sometimes find connections between the text and their lives that are tenuous at best. But not that group. Not that night. That evening I found myself listening far more than I was speaking, and I was moved in ways I hadn't experienced ever before in a speakerphone chat.

The readers in this group weren't the sort who would volunteer a score for my performance as either a writer or a speaker. But if they had offered up a grade as a listener, I would have earned a perfect 10. And the experience was just one more example of why I savor my evenings with reading groups.

---Chris Bohjalian