A conversation with Chris Bohjalian about his gripping new novel, Secrets of Eden, is sprinkled with unexpected observations and self-revelations.
“Here’s a strange confession,” Bohjalian says good-humoredly during a call to his home in the small town of Lincoln, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter. “The better one of my books is, the less time it takes to write. The books that have taken the longest time to write and that I’ve really struggled over aren’t necessarily the books that I think are my better books. There are some real clunkers in that batch.”
“I’m interested in seeing what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
Then, describing his workspace—the library in his “1898 Victorian village house”—Bohjalian says, “The library sits at the corner of the house and juts out ever so much, with southern, eastern and northern exposures. So I can watch the sun rise over Mount Abraham—I start writing usually at 5 or 6 in the morning—and I can chart the progress of my day and the progress of the book by where the sun is and where it hits my desk. As you can imagine, there are lots of books, piles of books, shelves of books. But it’s pretty neat. I’m obsessive-compulsive about neatness. I need to have nothing on the floor as I’m working, and the desk needs to be pretty clean.” He adds, “I think tidiness is overrated. I wish I could get over my clean-freakness.”
But maybe, just maybe, Bohjalian’s “clean-freakness,” is what underlies the clear, clean prose, meticulous research and vivid descriptions that are characteristic of all of his novels, and are particularly evident in Secrets of Eden.
This latest story—a mystery that does not at first appear to be a mystery—unfolds through the overlapping perspectives of four central characters. There is the Reverend Stephen Drew, a small-town minister who suffers a crisis of faith when a parishioner, Alice Hayward, is killed by her husband in an apparent murder-suicide just hours after he has baptized her. There is Catherine Benincasa, the state’s attorney, who is not so sure the crime before her is a murder-suicide and is also not so sure that the good Reverend Drew, who appears distant and cold, is not in some way complicit. There is Heather Laurent, author of best-selling spiritual books about angels who is drawn to the tormented Reverend Drew and whose own parents died in a murder-suicide after years of spousal abuse. And there is Katie Hayward, the teenage daughter of Alice and George Hayward, and longtime witness to—and a collateral victim of—her father’s abuse of her mother.
Actually, as Bohjalian reminds the caller, there is a fifth perspective in the book. “The first character that appeared to me is a character who appears in the novel only through her diary. That is Alice Hayward. The diary was really important for me because I wanted Alice to have a voice, even though the book begins with her death.”
Though he did not know it then, the seed for Secrets of Eden, Bohjalian says, was planted back when he was researching his novel The Law of Similars (1998) and a victims’ rights advocate he was interviewing “reached into her folder and tossed onto the table between us two Polaroid photographs. The Polaroids were of head indentations in sheetrock. The advocate was trying to help a woman extricate herself from a violently abusive relationship. The photographs stayed with me a long time,” Bohjalian says. Then after the publication of The Double Bind in 2007, dozens of women from across the country wrote him about his portrayal of the violent attack on his character Laurel Estabrook, wanting to know how he heard the details of their personal stories. “Violence against women in this country is absolutely epidemic,” Bohjalian observes. “I thought about those images of head indentations in sheetrock and wondered if there might be a novel in that subject.” He decided there was.
So Bohjalian interviewed victims’ rights advocates and victims of abuse. He “spent a good deal of time” with his good friend and pastor, to whom the book is dedicated, discussing crises of faith and pastoral counseling of women victims of spousal abuse. He asked his teenage daughter to read and critique a draft of the book, especially the section about 15-year-old Katie Hayward. “One of her notes,” he says, “was, ‘I don’t talk like this, and I don’t have any friends who talk like this.’ . . . My wife is also a spectacular editor and is the most honest reader I have. I’ve also been lucky to have the same editor, Shaye Areheart, since 1995. So I have two generations of very smart women preventing me from shooting myself in the foot.”
In conceptualizing his story, Bohjalian also drew on deep personal experiences. “My parents didn’t have nearly as horrible a marriage as Heather Laurent’s parents, but a lot of the fights described in the book were just pulled from my own childhood,” he says. “All of my books have got strange unexpected autobiographic minutiae. [For example] there is a lot of me in Stephen Drew. Of all the first-person voices I’ve done over the years I think his might be the most me—that juxtaposition of faith and cynicism. Certainly I love my church and my fellow parishioners, but I can’t tell you how many Sunday mornings over the years I’ve sat there in the pew thinking to myself, oh, suck it up and stop whining, for crying out loud.”
From this unexpected mix of personal experiences and careful research, there emerges a novel with resonant psychological and social implications. “I don’t know that I think of myself as a social novelist,” Bohjalian says, “but there’s a component to my work that involves an important nonfiction issue. That doesn’t mean that my books are polemics or op-eds. I’m interested in seeing what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But what I hope I’m doing first and foremost is giving a reader a ripping good yarn, a book that makes them want to frenetically turn the pages. I’m interested in a good story, and if that story is grounded in a social issue, then all the better.”
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.
Review of The Double Bind
Review of Before You Know Kindness
Review of Skeletons at the Feast