Chris Bohjalian: ‘The Double Bind’ author explains how old photographs, Jay Gatsby and a bike ride make for a great read

By TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Author Chris Bohjalian has something to say and gives us a compelling reason to listen. His books have received praise from the reading public and critics alike. Oprah selected “Midwives” for her book club and it was made into a movie starring Quitman native Sissy Spacek.  

The Double Bind
By Chris Bohjalian
Random House. 
$25. 384 pp.
5/5 Stars

In “The Double Bind,” his latest offering, Bohjalian tells the story of Laurel Estabrook, a young social worker at a homeless shelter in Vermont.

From the opening sentence –  “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year of college” –  until the book’s stunning finale, Bohjalian offers up one of the most intriguing psychological dramas in recent memory. 

The story begins when Laurel’s supervisor asks her to inspect some old photographs left behind after one of her residents dies suddenly. 

As she digs into the resident’s background, Laurel realizes there is a connection between the dead man’s family and her privileged upbringing on Long Island, New York. The more Laurel finds out, the more frenetic her quest to find the missing link becomes, driving her to the very edge of reason. 

�The Double Bind� is not a quick summer read. Watching Laurel�s life unravel is not pleasant, and I, too, felt driven to learn how it all plays out.

It’s nice to know Chris Bohjalian’s work is being well-received by critics and the reading public alike. Hopefully, he will continue to produce well-told stories for years to come. 

Chris Bohjalian took time from a summer vacation to answer some questions about the backstory of  “Double Bind” and to explain how plots make the long journey from his imagination to the printed page.

News-Telegram: The main plot line for “The Double Bind” came from an interesting source. Tell us about it.

Chris Bohjalian: The novel had its origins in December 2003, when Rita Markley, the executive director of Burlington, Vermont’s, Committee on Temporary Shelter shared with me the contents of a box of old photographs. 

The black-and-white images had been taken by a once-homeless man who had died in the studio apartment her organization had found for him. His name was Bob “Soupy” Campbell.

The photos were remarkable, both because of the man’s evident talent and because of the subject matter. I recognized the performers – musicians, comedians, actors – and newsmakers in many of them. Most of the photos were at least 40 years old. 

Chris Bohjalian

We were all mystified as to how Campbell had gone from photographing luminaries from the 1950s and 1960s to a homeless shelter in northern Vermont. He had no surviving family we were aware of that we could ask.

Rita wanted me to see the photos because I write a weekly column for the “Burlington Free Press.”  She thought they might make for an interesting column about the face of the homeless and raise visibility for the work of the shelter. 

She was absolutely right. I wrote about Campbell, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite essays. I thought I was done with the subject.

Six months later, I reread “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Then I went for a bike ride on a long dirt road deep in a canopy of woods and remembered how my wife had heard a story on the radio that day that advised parents to tell their children how to avoid being abducted while riding a bike. They were told to hold on to the handlebars for dear life, because it's almost impossible to throw them into the back of a car or a van if they are still attached to a bike. 

I ride with a clipless pedal system – the soles of my shoes are locked to the pedals of my bicycle – so I wondered if an assailant could pull someone off a bike who was locked onto the bike by the souls of their shoes.  

Then I started thinking about Bob Campbell in regard to “The Great Gatsby.” 

The connection sounds vague, but the mind indeed works on mysterious levels. I think there were two connections. 

We always see the Jazz Age through a filter of black and white photographs. Campbell photographed jazz musicians – in black and white.

Moreover, I never did learn much about Campbell's father.  His mother? A little bit. But his father? Largely a mystery. 

An idea for a book formed in my head during that bike ride on  the dirt road. I knew precisely how the story  would begin and I knew precisely how it would end. 

�The Double Bind� is my 11th book � and 10th novel � and this is the first time I have ever known exactly what was going to occur.�Usually I have only the vaguest of ideas and I'm feeling my way in the dark�� or hoping my characters will take me by the hand and lead me.�Not this time. It was all right there on that dirt road.��

Still, it would take close to two years to finish the novel. I had a first draft complete in April of 2005, but I didn't have a final draft until February of 2006.

�The Double Bind� is certainly not Bob Campbell�s story. But the book would have been very different had I not had the privilege of seeing his work.

NT: Did social worker Laurel Estabrook's character come to you full grown or did she develop along with the story?

CB: Oh, she evolved. All my characters evolve. My books are pretty organic.

NT: A lot of this plot is intertwined with the book “The Great Gatsby.” Do you think a reader needs to be familiar with the novel to follow your story?

CB: Not at all. This was never, in my mind, a book about Gatsby. It's a book about mental illness, the homeless and violence against women. 

NT: Take us through a typical day when you're working on a story. 

CB: First of all, I am always working on a story. Always. 

I write fiction from about 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then do whatever research my books demand starting at 1 p.m. Then I am likely to go for a bike ride or to the gym or do errands. I answer e-mails periodically during the day, but mostly in the late morning and late afternoon.

And then there is my newspaper column. My books can be pretty dark – real page-turners, in some cases, but still dark. My column, more weeks than not, is pretty light. Often I am writing about the silliest, most bizarre, and most humiliating parts of my life in that column. I think that's why I've written it every single Sunday for 16 and a half years.

NT: You added a “Reader's Guide” at the end of “The Double Bind.” I've noticed this is a trend among writers. What do you hope to accomplish with the guide? Have you had positive feedback from your readers about the guide?

CB: Even my hardcovers have reader's guides – which is rare.  I do it to support reading groups, as a way of thanking them for being the monks of the digital age, and keeping pulp vibrant and alive in a world of podcasts and YouTube.

NT:  You make yourself available for book club via speakerphone chats. How does that work? 

CB: I began doing this in 2000 with “Trans-Sister Radio,” because local book clubs – within 200 miles – were asking me to join them for dinner.

When I would visit a city on tour, there would be lots of book clubs present, asking me to join them for drinks or dinner after my appearance.

�So I began asking them to call me at an appointed time for half an hour, and it just grew.

Now lots of authors do it.

NT: What's next for you?

CB: I have a novel coming out in May 2008 called “Skeletons at the Feast.” It is a love story – a love triangle, really – set in Poland and Germany in the last six months of World War II.

For other titles by Chris Bohjalian and to see Bob Campbell’s photos, log on to the website

www.chrisbohjalian.com

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