4 authors gather for annual Detroit Book Luncheon
Not all authors know the demographics of their readership down to gender and age — not all want to know — but novelist Chris Bohjalian does.
“The lion’s share of my readers are women between the age of 25 and 64,” said the Vermont-based author.
The reason why is simple. “Women read more literary fiction than men,” the author said.
Perhaps another draw is that there are so many complicated female characters with interesting problems in Bohjalian’s books.
He laughs. “Your gender is way more interesting than mine.”
Bohjalian, 55, whose latest book, “The Sleepwalker,” is described as “a dark, Hitchcockian novel” by the Washington Post, is one of five authors appearing Oct. 16 at the 91st Metro Detroit Book and Author Luncheon at the Burton Manor in Livonia.
Also on the author panel that day to speak and sign books are Heather Ann Thompson, Claire Messud, Jane Alexander and Drew Philp (see box).
Without revealing too much, “The Sleepwalker” deals with parasomnia — sleepwalking — and how it affects a family struggling with the sudden disappearance, and possible murder, of their mother.
The author likes to take a deep dive into a different subject in each novel that he weaves into the plot. “The Sandcastle Girls” goes back and forth between the present day and World War I, and touches on the Armenian genocide. “Midwives” traces the aftermath of a home birth in rural Vermont that goes horribly wrong.
While researching “The Sleepwalker,” Bohjalian thought he’d research dreams, “that Freudian abyss,” and see where it took him. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter, so he did some research close by, having lunch with the head of the University of Vermont Hospital Sleep Center.
What ended up intriguing the author were the director’s stories about people who cook in their sleep, drive in their sleep, have sex in their sleep and even murder while slumbering.
“I was hooked,” he said.
While the book starts with the discovery of Annalee Ahlberg’s disappearance and presumed death — she was a known sleepwalker — the plot slows down and then slowly begins to pick up speed again. The reader’s suspicion is aroused by several characters, but there is a genuine surprise in store at the end.
Bohjahlian says he picks up tips on narrative pacing from a surprising source — several of his favorite dramatic TV series.
“I do believe we are in a renaissance of spectacular dramatic television,” he said. “And certainly my writing has changed because of my deep affection for TV shows such as ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Expanse.’ The reason why these shows interest me as a novelist is because of pacing. I think readers in 2017 have a different expectation for even literary fiction than in 1817 or 1917.”
Bohjalian gives an example, from classic literature. “When we think of ‘Les Miserables,’ we think of the musical or the movie, in which Jean Valjean steals the candlesticks in the first act. In the novel by Victor Hugo, he steals the candlesticks on page 101. I can’t imagine readers hanging with that narrative that long today if it had been written by anyone other than Victor Hugo.”
Bohjalian cites an early love of reading for his life as an author of now, 20 novels. After his family moved to Miami from New York, he buried himself in books at the public library.
Many were deep — Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for one — but many more were pop cultural gems of the era, such as “The Exorcist” by William Blatty, and Stephen King’s thrillers.
Letting kids read what interests them, even what may be perceived as “low brow,” is key to developing a love of reading, Bohjalian says, while pushing a 19th-century British novelist such as George Eliot on a 21st century teenager may not have the desired effect.
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to meeting his readers at the Metro Detroit Book and Author Luncheon.
“Michigan has so many readers,” he marveled. “I’ve never had an event in Michigan where I haven’t loved talking to them.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.
Despite a hectic writing schedule — his forthcoming book, “The Flight Attendant,” will be out early next year — Bohjalian is still an avid reader.
He has many recommendations, based upon his own reading:
■“Sing, Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward. “It’s set in Mississippi, and full of ghosts.”
■“My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent. “A debut that just awed me. It’s about a 14-year-old girl with a sadistic, survivalist father.”
■“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid.
■“Testimony” by Scott Turow.
■“The Baker’s Secret” by Stephen P. Kiernan. “It’s about a village in Normandy (France), before D-Day.
■“Fierce Kingdom” by Gin Phillips. “About one mother’s desperate attempts to keep her child safe from a bunch of teenage shooters in a zoo. Very timely now.”
■“Stay with Me” by Ayobami Adebayo. “A beautiful debut about a marriage that’s been destroyed by infertility.”
Metro Detroit Book & Author Society 91st Author Luncheon
Book sales: 11 a.m.; luncheon: noon; authors speak: 1 p.m.
27777 Schoolcraft (between Middlebelt and Inkster, off I-96)
Tickets: $40, available at bookandauthor.info and by phone at (586) 685-5750 ext. 102.
Chris Bohjalian, “The Sleepwalker.” Set in a small Vermont town, “The Sleepwalker” has fascinating detail about the phenomenon of parasomnia. Bohjalian constructs a tense narrative that picks up speed toward the end, leading to a surprising ending.
Clare Messud,“The Burning Girl.” Messud, who specializes in plumbing the inner lives of unusual women, has described her latest novel as “a children’s book for grown-ups.” In it, she writes about emotions beyond understanding, and a friendship between two young girls that can be as intense as romantic love.
Drew Philp,“A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City.” Raised in Detroit’s suburbs by blue collar parents, Philp packed in his studies at the University of Michigan to move to Detroit and live what he felt was a more “authentic” life. His book is about his adventures in one of Detroit’s most challenged neighborhoods, renovating a $500 house during the depths of the recession.
Heather Ann Thompson, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.” Thompson’s riveting narrative about the violent prison uprising at the New York state prison in Attica in 1971, in which 39 men were killed by police and corrections officers, earned the University of Michigan professor the Pulitzer Prize in history earlier this year.