A tortured father suffering from post-traumatic stress. Precocious twin daughters drawn to an abandoned greenhouse. A secret society of women who grow herbs for nefarious purposes. A great Victorian pile of a house in the New England woods, hiding a bolted-tight basement door and a dark past. These sound like the ingredients for a Hollywood scream-fest destined for DVD in a matter of weeks, if not days—but master storyteller Chris Bohjalian, author of the bestsellers Secrets of Eden and Midwives, weaves these elements of the traditional ghost story into a penetrating psychological study that resonates beyond its satisfying late-night thrills. Bohjalian recently answered questions from Chapter16 via email about The Night Strangers, his thirteenth novel.
Chapter 16: The Night Strangers opens with the crash of a regional jet, one sufficiently realistic that a reader who happens to pick up the novel in an airport bookstore might suffer a mid-flight panic attack. How did you arrive at this starting point?
Bohjalian: I knew I wanted this ghost story to begin with a water ditching as I watched live on television the evacuation of an Airbus that had ditched in the Hudson River: Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson,” on January 15, 2009. This was amazing drama, and I watched enrapt. But I also wondered this: what would [it] be like in a post-Sully Sullenberger world to be a pilot who failed to successfully ditch a commercial jet—but lived? What sorts of ghosts—metaphoric and literal—might dog the pilot?
Chapter 16: How did you research the mechanics of the crash?
Bohjalian: In many regards, I did my homework the way I have always have in the past: I interviewed people and I read relevant books and articles. But I also spent way too much time on NTSB crash animation web sites. They are really interesting. And remember that old movie An Officer and a Gentleman, and the dunk tank? Well, I spent a day in the dunk tank, being dropped upside-down in a mock regional jet into a 100,000 gallon tank of water. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to evacuate a plane that is filled with water and sinking.
Chapter 16: The crash scene (like subsequent scenes from the pilot’s point of view) is written in the second person. The last second-person protagonist in American fiction may have been in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Why this point of view for this character?
Bohjalian: I loved that novel. Another great example of second person in fiction is Pam Houston’s How to Marry a Cowboy. I used second person selectively in The Night Strangers. Most of the ghost story is written in a traditional third person. But the second person seemed to allow me to delve more deeply into Captain Chip Linton’s wounded soul and probe his ever-more-frightening madness. I hope second person conveyed his disorientation and despair in a more visceral way.
Chapter 16: The book is many things, among them a traditional ghost story. What drew you to the genre? Are there ghost stories you have admired, or found yourself thinking of as you wrote this novel?
Bohjalian: Given the wooden door in my basement that—along with the “Miracle on the Hudson” —helped to inspire the novel, I would say Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is certainly a story I thought about. I love that story. I love a lot of Poe’s work. One of the only books I still have from my childhood is a forty-five-cent paperback edition of his collected poems and stories.
So, what drew me to the genre? Well, ghost stories are fun. We all love that rush of adrenaline or endorphins. Moreover, I think the best ghost stories tap into the real subterranean currents in our souls—our very deepest fears and curiosities.
Chapter 16: The Night Strangers is your thirteenth novel. How has your approach to crafting fiction evolved over the course of so many books? Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when writing your earlier novels?
Bohjalian: It doesn’t matter whether you begin by writing what you know or writing what you don’t know. What matters is that you always write what you love.
Chapter 16: Hollywood seems to crank out a spooky New England mansion every few months (Dream House being the current offering). The level of suspense and the richness of character in The Night Strangers seem more deeply—and satisfyingly—cinematic than what many current horror movies have to offer. Is there talk of a film?
Bohjalian: No film offers yet. But be sure and watch the Lifetime movie Secrets of Eden on November 14. It stars John Stamos as Reverend Stephen Drew and Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn as Catherine Benincasa.
Chapter 16: Many of your previous books have featured women who are powerful both psychologically and spiritually. The most powerful women in The Night Strangers are so in a deeply sinister sense. Where did they come from? How was writing about these women different from your previous female characters?
Bohjalian: You’re right, I do love writing about smart, interesting, slightly eccentric women who exist on the margins: women like Heather Laurent in Secrets of Eden or Sybil Danforth in Midwives. The element in this novel that differed from my past efforts wasn’t that some of these characters might be more sinister than their predecessors: it’s that some of those characters are dead.
Chris Bohjalian will appear at the 2011 Southern Festival of Books, held October 14-16 in Nashville. All events are free and open to the public.