Chris Bohjalian, THE RED LOTUS

Chris Bohjalian, THE RED LOTUS

Zibby Owens: I’m thrilled to be here today with Chris Bohjalian who’s the New York Times best-selling author of twenty-one books including his most recent novel, The Red Lotus. His other books include The Flight Attendant, The Guest Room, and Midwives, which was a number-one New York Times best seller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. Midwives, along with Secrets of Eden and Past the Bleachers, have all been made into movies. The Flight Attendant is in development as a limited series. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He’s also a playwright. He currently lives in Vermont with his wife.

Welcome, Chris. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Chris Bohjalian: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. This is great. Your new book is The Red Lotus. Would you mind telling listeners what it’s about?

Chris: The Red Lotus is my favorite kind of book. It’s a ticking clock thriller, the story of Alexis Remnick, a New York City ER doctor who goes on a bike tour of Vietnam with her new boyfriend, and he disappears. In his absence, she discovers that almost everything she knew about him was a lie and she is in spectacular amounts of danger.

Zibby: Never what you want to find out when you take a trip with a new paramour.

Chris: No, absolutely not.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was wondering if you were a biker or a spinner. Then I saw on Instagram, a picture of you biking in Vietnam. Was that to prepare for this? Are you a biker?

Chris: I’m a crazy serious cyclist.

Zibby: Cyclist, that’s the better word. Sorry.

Chris: No, biker is fine. Biker’s absolutely fine too. I will ride 3,500 miles a season in Vermont on my bike. When I decided that I wanted to explore a novel in Vietnam, it seemed natural to research it on my bike. I do my best work, in some ways, on my bike. I don’t recall who said this, but someone once said the most important tool a writer can have is a walk. For me, it’s a bike ride. I do so much thinking about my characters. Who’s going to live? Who’s going to die? What are their anxieties? What are their dreads? What is their heartbreak? I’ve pulled over on the side of the road on my bike so often and written whole scenes on my iPhone.

Zibby: Wow. They need an iPhone case or something so you could just type as you pull over.

Chris: Conceivably, though I certainly don’t mind just dictating whole scenes.

Zibby: Oh, you dictate?

Chris: I do.

Zibby: That’s interesting. I was picturing you pushing in all the —

Chris: — I’ve done that too, especially if it’s just a character observation.

Zibby: Do you feel like you see things differently when you’re on your bike if you’re in Vietnam getting in such a granular level versus just whizzing through the country in a car?

Chris: What a beautiful expression, on a granular level. Yes, that is precisely it. The conversations that I had with the people I met in Vietnam were really different because you just pull over on your bike. The conversations you can have are just so interesting and intense and surprising when you spend two or three or four days with someone on a bike. I remember one of my guides, chatting with him on the third day of our ride. I said to him, “What did your mom, dad do in what we call the Vietnam War and you call the American War?” He said, “My parents were both Vietcong. They were building the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They’d build it. You’d bomb it. They’d build it. You’d bomb it.” Of course, that went on for years. I just loved chatting with him and learning about what his childhood had been like and what his parents’ experience had been like.

Zibby: What drew you to Vietnam for this book to begin with? Do you have a personal connection to Vietnam? I know your character, Austin, has family, his dad and his uncle who had been in the war. Do you have family? Or has anyone been in the war?

Chris: I have no family who served in the Vietnam War. My father and my uncles were all in the army. They timed it so that they were not part of the Vietnam War. The book had its origins when I was having lunch with a neighbor of mine in my Vermont village. The Ken Burns remarkable documentary on the Vietnam War had recently aired, and so our conversation rather naturally gravitated there. He was a Vietnam veteran. I started asking him questions. He started telling me stories. He was one of those guys who, when he’d been a kid, had been a gunner on a helicopter sitting on his helmet or his flak jacket so that his most private parts would be protected from groundfire. He saw friends die. He saw helicopters crash. He saw the Vietnamese children with birth defects we know now were likely the result of Agent Orange. He said to me so many times, and so many Vietnam veterans I interviewed for this book said this to me so many times, “I never told anyone that. No one asked me that. Never told my wife that.” I knew I wanted to write a book about the legacy of the Vietnam War. It wasn’t going to be a war novel. Karl Marlantes and Tim O’Brien and Viet Nguyen, they’ve given us those. The world doesn’t need me to add that to the bookshelf. I knew that one of the parts of my next book was going to involve the legacies of the Vietnam War, and so I went there.

Zibby: Wow. How much research goes into your books? I know you’ve written twenty-one books at this point. For example, this one, how much research? How long do you spend researching versus the actual writing?

Chris: I will usually spend at least three weeks or four weeks researching a book before I write a word just so I can understand if the concept is viable, if what I’m thinking I want to do makes sense. Then I will begin to write. I will be doing so much research as I am writing. I’ve never had writer’s block, but I’ve had those mornings where the scene just isn’t working. Usually, that’s because I haven’t done my homework. For this book, in addition of course to interviewing human beings on both sides of the Pacific who witnessed the Vietnam War, it meant researching the emergency room. Oh, my gosh, did I love interviewing ER doctors.

Zibby: It felt so real, the way you described the scenes, even just in the beginning in the opening, all the different people coming in. I was thinking to myself, I wonder if you positioned yourself in an ER for days on end and watched this or if you just talked to people about it. Or was it both?

Chris: It was both. I interviewed a lot of ER doctors. I enjoyed chatting with them immensely. If there’s an ER doctor in your world, you have to drop everything and say, what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever experienced or seen? Invariably, they’re going to begin with a story about an inappropriate object in an orifice. Very often, they’re even going to have an X-ray of the object in the human body on their phone. But then they will tell you the stories that are either unbelievably beautiful — because the thing about ER doctors is their spectacular empathy. We all talk about them as adrenaline junkies, and many are. But they see us at our worst. They see us when we’re in pain, when we’re embarrassed, when we’ve done something stupid, when we’re bleeding. If we’re a senior citizen at an ER, you might have a diaper that needs to be changed. If you’re a young person, your breath might be toxic. They’re unbelievable multitaskers. They might have seven, eight, nine individuals in cubicles who they have to be vaguely aware of what the heck is going on. They’ve all got great senses of humor. Here are two things I just loved learning about the ER in New York City. What are two of the most likely reasons you are to go to an ER in Manhattan over the weekend? Number one, tripping over your pet.

Zibby: No.

Chris: Yep. Number two, slicing a bagel.

Zibby: I mean, I shouldn’t laugh.

Chris: You wouldn’t expect that. I laughed too.

Zibby: I know. I’m thinking gunshot wounds.

Chris: Of course. That’s what you think. Of course, they’ve all seen horrific gunshot wounds. They’ve dealt with horrific gunshot wounds, but they’ve also dealt with the senior citizen who tripped over his or her best friend’s dog. They’ve dealt the nineteen-year-old who sliced the heck out of her finger slicing a bagel one morning. They’re just amazing to me. Here’s the other thing that fascinated me about ER doctors. It was an ER doctor who pointed this out to me. Especially years ago, an ER doctor was first and foremost a detective. It was all about pattern recognition. He reminded me, think about Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was a physician.

Zibby: No surprise then.

Chris: I was fascinated by that.

Zibby: One thing I always wonder when I’m in the ER because I’m sure everybody —

Chris: — We all have, absolutely.

Zibby: We’ve all been there at certain times. The intensity of it is so much. I can’t wait to get out of there. It’s too much for me. I wonder, how do people who work here just leave? How do they punch out at the end of the day and go out to dinner? How do you transition back into civilian life when you’re in this war zone atmosphere day in and day out? What kind of effects long term does that have on a person? I found it so interesting in your book how Alexis actually uses that adrenaline to get over her own mental health issues and her anxiety and how she used to cut herself. She attributes the helpfulness of the adrenaline of the ER to helping her get through that. What did you find in that? That was a long question. I’m sorry.

Chris: No, it was a great question. You pointed out a couple of things that are absolutely brilliant and spot on. First of all, if you’re an ER physician, you often don’t get the closure the way other kinds of physicians do. You bring a lot more home with you in different ways because you will often leave somebody in the cubicle. You’ve done everything you can. Now you’re waiting for the neurologist to arrive or you’re waiting for their specialist to arrive or you’re waiting for the OR to open up. That’s the first bit of interesting trauma that ER doctors learn to manage. Secondly, the utter unpredictability of what you’re going to see. You might do a shift where it’s pretty chill. You take care of a couple of kids who are brought in by their parents with fevers. You take care of the fever. You might deal with some people who think they have the coronavirus, and it’s the flu and you’re done. Then yes, then there’s the horrific car accident. There’s the violent, unexpected shooting. All of a sudden, you look at the ER and it looks like a MASH unit. Those are the kinds of moments that if you’re an ER doctor, you either take enormous satisfaction that I helped keep that person alive; and then there are the moments when you realize there’s nothing I could do, and you call it. You have to go out from the ER into the waiting room and tell someone, a spouse or whomever, that we did everything we could, but it wasn’t enough.

Zibby: You had this one quote in the book about a patient who had had, I think, a coronary artery and had a stroke. I don’t know. I’m not even going to try to do the medical terms. You said, “You just never know when a stroke was going to leave you a string-less marionette on the dining room floor besides the half-eaten remains of your supper,” which is what happened to this man. That’s how you learn how to live your life a little differently. Do you feel like you take that with you as a guiding principle?

Chris: I do. I’ve taken that with me as a guiding principle, however, not simply from writing this book, but simply because I’m now on the far side of fifty. When you’re on the far side of fifty, you lose people. They die. Your friends die. Your parents might be near death or have just died. I really do try to live my life on the assumption that if I have a stroke right now, is the last thing that I’ve done decent and kind or at least not unbelievably horrific? Is the last thing that I’ve done in my life isn’t said something unbelievably untoward and awful?

Zibby: Does it make you make big decisions differently?

Chris: Yeah, it does make me make big decisions differently. This stage in my life, if there’s something I care about, I do it. If I want to see lions in the Serengeti, I go. If there’s suddenly tickets to see Emojiland, I’m going to go right now. Life is short. It’s precious. I definitely approach life that way. Certainly, writing The Red Lotus encouraged that.

Zibby: I think it will encourage readers also. Sometimes just the reminder of it helps. I feel like when there are times and periods of loss where you get that clarity, that, oh, my gosh, nothing is promised and this could be it, and then you live that way for a little while, but then it’s easy to become lulled into the fake security of life everlasting.

Chris: I don’t remember which Bill Bryson memoir it’s in, but Bill Bryson has got this howlingly funny observation about that. He’s flying into a tiny little airport in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. It’s when he was living in New Hampshire. He’s on this little regional jet. They’re bumping around like crazy. It’s a horrifying flight. It’s one of those forty-five minutes where you’re just miserable. You’re nauseous. You’re terrified. He says to himself, god, if I land, I’m going to really be a decent person. I’m really going to be a decent person. He lands. He’s grateful. His wife meets him. She gives him a big hug. She says, “I made meatloaf for dinner.” He says, “Meatloaf? I freakin’ hate meatloaf. Why in the name of god have you made me meatloaf?” He realized that we are incapable of being our best selves for forty-five seconds. I often feel that way. I do.

Zibby: That’s why that’s such a nice idea, just to live your life making sure the last comment was something kind. That’s much easier and much more of — not easy, but actionable than, I’m going to take big trips to Africa whenever I get the chance.

Chris: Wouldn’t Twitter be a better place, wouldn’t Twitter be a magnificent place if everybody said, if this is the last tweet I’m ever going to send, what do I want it to say?

Zibby: I feel like they should just get rid of Twitter. It’s such an angry place. Why do we need this? It stirs the pot. That’s all it does. It’s like a friend you want to just not be friends with anymore.

Chris: I understand completely.

Zibby: Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I found it so interesting, your daughter reads your audiobooks. Is that true?

Chris: My daughter is a spectacular actor and a spectacular audiobook reader. She reads a lot of my audiobooks. She doesn’t read all of them. For example, she doesn’t read The Red Lotus. Penguin Random House audio, the producers and the directors there are fantastic. They’re going to use my amazing Grace Experience when she has the right voice, as she was for the Russian assassin Elena in The Flight Attendant or the Armenian sex slave in The Guest Room or Emily Shepard in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. If they want an older sounding voice such as Alexis Remnick in The Red Lotus, they will use a different reader. I’m always so thrilled when Grace Experience reads one of my audiobooks because she’s just such a great actor and such a great narrator.

Zibby: Did you name her Grace? What’s a stage name? What’s what you gave her?

Chris: I am married to the immensely talented artist Victoria Blewer. Our daughter’s full name is Grace Experience Blewer. Victoria and I decided if we had a boy, we will give him my last name; if we have a girl, we will give her Victoria’s last name. Now, the Experience is her middle name. It’s a family name. Though my family, my Armenia half of my family, has only been in this country since the early part of the twentieth century. I’m a grandson of survivors of the Armenia genocide. Victoria’s family literally goes back to 1620 named Brewster. Brewster had some, I don’t remember whether they were grandchildren or great-grandchildren because now we’re in the middle part of the seventeenth century. Among the grandsons was a man named Experience, great seventeenth century New England name. My wife and I just thought, okay, we have to use that. How could we not use that? Just over time, Grace went from Grace, to Grace Experience. Yes, that is her Screen Actors Guild name, and her equity name is Grace Experience.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Chris: She’s so cool.

Zibby: I bet. I saw her picture, not to stalk her. She’s in one of your plays, right?

Chris: She’s actually been in two of my plays.

Zibby: Two of your plays.

Chris: She stared with KK Glick, Odd Mom Out, great sitcom; in Grounded, directed by Alexander Dinelaris at fifty-nine. He’s fifty-nine. She closed Midwives at the George Street Playhouse. She played Anne Austin, the midwife’s apprentice.

Zibby: I remember reading Midwives when it came out. I have not forgotten it. I know I’m one of a zillion people who read that book.

Chris: In some ways, there’s a link between Midwives and Red Lotus. It’s Connie Danforth, the narrator of Midwives, and Alexis Remnick, the main character of The Red Lotus. They’re both physicians. They are both damaged. They are both really, really strong women who are trying to understand an injustice. The difference is that Midwives is a courtroom drama and The Red Lotus is a thriller. I definitely view Alexis Remnick as a literary descendant of Connie Danforth.

Zibby: Maybe that’s why this book is so good. I mean, they’re all good.

Chris: Thank you.

Zibby: This is a very big question. How did you get to be such a good writer? Do you feel like your first book was as good as this? Do you feel like you’re getting better as you go? Do you feel like it’s something you learned in school, or you were born this way?

Chris: First of all, thank you. Second of all, I am responsible for the single worst first novel ever published, bar none. There is no book worse than A Killing in the Real World. It’s terrible. My first three books, A Killing in the Real World, Hangman, Past the Bleachers, as well as another book from that era which was not published, are just train wrecks. They’re terrible. Malcom Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about ten thousand hours. I think it’s worth noting that I once calculated it. When I started writing Midwives, I’d been writing fiction about ten thousand hours. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, talks a lot about how being a good writer is a bit like being a good tennis player. If you work at it, you can get really, really good. There are the Andre Agassis and Rafael Nadals, the Serena Williams of the world who are just genetically born to be tennis stars. That’s just who they are. That’s what’s in their DNA. They still, of course, had to work like crazy. Not every human being, no matter how much they work, is going to become Margaret Atwood. That’s just a reality.

But all of us, all of us, can become a lot better writers by writing very often. I write every day. I’ve written almost every day of my life since, gosh, I graduated from college. My first jobs were in advertising. I would write from five to seven AM in the morning before going to J. Walter Thompson in New York City to do my day job. Then Monday and Tuesday nights when I came home from work, I wrote my first three novels working at ad agencies. Fun fact, the best part of the worst novel ever, A Killing in the Real World, is the one blurb on the back because the one blurb on the back was from a person who worked at J. Walter Thompson with me. I was the very, very bottom of the pyramid, an assistant account executive. This person was the creative director, but he’d published four or five books at the time. He was gracious and kind enough to blurb my terrible book. It was, drumroll, James Patterson.

Zibby: No way.

Chris: Yeah.

Zibby: Wow, that’s impressive.

Chris: It’s the best part of the book, his blurb, by far.

Zibby: I worked at Ogilvy & Mather and also Young & Rubicam when I was just starting out.

Chris: Oh, my gosh, I didn’t realize that. I was doing it in the Mesozoic era. I love the fact that we share that Mad Men, Mad Woman DNA. Isn’t it great? Did you love it?

Zibby: I loved it. I loved the figuring out what inspires consumer behavior, what makes people buy certain things, understanding all that, the psychology behind it and how to make that research and turn it into a campaign. I thought it was so neat.

Chris: Creative department? Account management? Media?

Zibby: I was in brand strategy.

Chris: Brilliant. Love it.

Zibby: Which was really fun, but not for very long, but it was great.

Chris: I was responsible for some of the most ridiculous line extensions imaginable. I won’t bore you with one of them, but off the mic, I’ve got to tell you some of the consumer product tragedies that are on my resume.

Zibby: In the brand planning department, I got to do Pepperidge Farm cookies. I did a toy company.

Chris: Perfect. There’s nothing better than a mint milano.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s true.

Chris: That is the great cookie.

Zibby: I like chessmen a lot.

Chris: Oh, my god, yes.

Zibby: My grandmother always has those in the same cabinet in my entire life, so there’s something very nice about that.

Chris: I agree. The chessmen’s a great cookie.

Zibby: In terms of advice, people should write all the time. They will get better the more they work at it.

Chris: I agree.

Zibby: Is there any other advice you would have?

Chris: Yeah, this is something I think about a lot. Here’s one piece of advice that I’ve given for a lot of years. Here’s a piece of advice I think about a lot more in 2020 than I ever thought about in 2014. Here’s the piece of advice I’ve thought about forever. Read what you love. Write in the genre that you love. If you love romance, then for crying out loud, write a romance. If you love science fiction, write romance. If you love literary fiction, write literary fiction. You have to write what you love to read. Read vast amounts in that genre. Now, my writing has changed a lot since Midwives. It’s changed a lot in the last decade because of streaming television and the digital age. I write differently now than I did twenty years ago because of Mad Men and The Sopranos and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Succession and just so many spectacular television shows that are now in existence. What I mean specifically is that when my books work, and god knows they don’t always work, but when they work, they’re about two things: heartbreak and dread.

Because of programs like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos and Mad Men, my books begin with a level of dread that they did not used to begin with. They do that because as a reader and as a viewer, I find dread the ultimate thing that makes me turn the pages. Think of The Red Lotus and how much of The Red Lotus — the first hundred pages of The Red Lotus is the dread of what has happened to Austin, Alexis Remnick’s boyfriend who’s disappeared. That’s what it’s about, dread. Then the second two-thirds of the book are about, is Alexis going to get out of here alive? I love that. Then there’s that heartbreak notion. So much of Mad Men isn’t just about dread, but it’s about heartbreak and all the bad choices that we make. I think Succession works because it’s about heartbreak. I hope that, to a certain extent, the underlying layer of The Red Lotus beneath all that dread is heartbreak, heartbreak about Alexis realizing how little she knew about Austin, Alexis trying to overcome those childhood demons you brought up so eloquently when we started to speak.

Zibby: Wow. So what are you working on now?

Chris: I’ve got a lot going on now. It’s really fun. I’ve got a new book coming out in twelve months which is about the first divorce in North America for domestic violence. It’s called The Devil Herself. It’s set in 1662, Boston. I’ve got a couple TV series in development, none of which I actually have anything to do with at all, which is fine because smarter people than me who know more about these things than me are making them. The Flight Attendant is well on the way. I think they’ve probably filmed at least the first four or five hours. That’ll start streaming on HBO Max staring the amazing Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Rosie Perez, Merle Dandridge, TR Knight, just a great, great cast. I can’t reveal the details here, but The Red Lotus has its movie/TV deal.

Zibby: Yes, excellent.

Chris: I’ve got a play that just closed at the George Street Playhouse that I’m going to be workshopping this summer based on my novel Midwives to take it to the next level so that hopefully it will be in New York City in the next twelve to eighteen months.

Zibby: Fantastic. That’s great. I can’t wait for all your new stuff.

Chris: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Chris: Zibby, thank you for all that you do to celebrate what words and reading and books can mean to the soul. You’re just crushing it reminding us how beautiful books are. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. Thanks.