Reading by Novelist Chris Bohjalianrecording...
Transcription by Jung Kim · Introduction, speech and Q&A. Rough transcript.
Welcome! It is a double pleasure to introduce Chris Bohjalian, because we're not only welcoming him or welcoming him back, since he left in 1982, graduated with a degree in American Studies, in the interim published 9 novels, most recently of which, as you know, "Before You Know Kindness," perhaps the best known before that "Midwives" published in 1997 which was a choice of Oprah's book selection, first in the New York Times Bestseller list, widely read book.
Like many of his books, certainly read before "Before You Know Kindness" with issues that are a concern to many of us in a way that avoids ideology, that is extraordinarily fair, as I said to him, I even got over a few (inaudible) when I read his last one. And for those of you who are from Amherst now, I think it's interesting to know that Chris Bohjalian works from 5am to 10am, in the morning on his writing, and the rest of his day on research, that he had 250 rejections, before Cosmopolitan took his first published short story. That gives you some sense of what a real writer goes through. And (inaudible) praised his novels about which San Fransisco Chronicle said, "His books are about ordinary people in heart-breaking circumstances, behaving with grace and dignity." I would also recommend his book, "Idle Banter," a collection of the Sunday columns he has written for some time for the Burlington Free Press which are about ordinary, and at times, extraordinary, behaving with the heartbreak and dilemmas of the everyday. It's a pleasure to have him here. (applause)
Thank you, Helen, for that nice introduction, it is indeed a pleasure to be here, as Helen said, it is a pleasure to be back here because, yes indeed, in the Mesozoic period, I was a student here, and it is, it's wonderful to be here for that reason. It is also wonderful to be here because I am the midst of a book tour. Book tour is a word we presume is a lot of glamour to it where you fly around the country and be in a storm, and meet Oprah Winfrey and sell bazillions of books. In reality, the term was coined in 1485, by T--- M---, where he was trying to get a slower more subtle form of torment, rather than either the rack or the iron maiden. And this is a break from that. Returning to Amherst is as decidedly un-Book Tour like as one can get. And there are a lot of reasons for that.
First of all, because it is returning to a community, that still cares passionately about pulp, and ink, and glue, and books. And that is no small accomplishment. Many of you probably saw a study that was released this summer by the National Endowment for the Arts, about the state of reading in America. Here's the statistics that stuck with me when I read it: In 1982, roughly 63% of American adults reported having read at least 1 novel in the past twelve months. In 1992, the number had dwindled to about 53%, and in 2002, the number had plummeted, to a mere 41%. What that means is that, if you subtract everyone that read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, that more of us were bringing to bed in the evening instead of a novel, our shampoo bottles.
I actually made that point about 5 weeks ago in my newspaper column that Helen alluded to, that no one is reading anymore, more people are reading shampoo bottles than novels. And I received a letter from a no doubt, very nice woman, but she was a tad angry with me because her daughter worked for L'Oreal. And her letter concluded, "And so I doubt, Mr. Bohjalian, that if you lived to be 92 you will ever write any words more memorable than lather, rinse, repeat. The frightening thing is that she's right. So in any case, it is wonderful to be here. This book tour began for me on October 2nd, in New York City. I was in New Yorker's book country for a panel on audio books and to my right is the immensely gifted novelist Adrienne T---, and to my left was the wonderful naturalist, Alan T---. We were going to talk about audio books and for the first fifteen minutes of the panel, all of us on the panel had a great exchange with the audience. By fifteen minutes into the panel I saw a really big carton, a carton the size of a dishwasher rolled onto the auditorium stage, and I thought instantly what W.C. Fields said, "You should never ever perform with small children or interesting animals." And I knew what was going to be in that box, because Alan Tenet(?) had just published a book, "On the Wing," a book chronicling his months following falcons from Canada to South America. So I knew there was going to be a really interesting bird in that box and sure enough, Alan gets out the glove.
A medieval leather glove with the leather ties and the straps and sure enough his assistant opens up the dishwasher sized carton and out emerges this proud majestic beautiful red-tailed hawk. He places it on Alan's arm, and for the next forty five minutes, Adrienne and I were completely invisible. I could have said, I could have said to the audience, "We know where the weapons of mass destruction are!" and people would have said, "Now, how sharp is his beak, really?" Then for forty five minutes I said nothing, and finally the panel is winding down and a very nice woman in the very back row raises her hand and says, "I have a question for Chris." And I'm thinking, "God bless you." And she said, "Tell me, how are the reviews on your new book?" And before I could answer, the bird...poops. Now raptor poop is not horse poop, nor is it pigeon poop. It is substantial, everyone notices it, and the moderator says, over the laughter, "Well, we know what the bird thinks of his book."
Then, three hours later, it is 4 o'clock and I'm about to enter a panel on fiction, and with Shari H---, who wrote the wonderful "Dress ----," and "The Man with the Cheese," great book, terrible title, and I was really excited to be on a panel with Shari Holden(?) because I respect her work enormously, and the escort who was bringing us to this panel says, "This is great. We have you in an auditorium for 600 people." It's 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. We don't need 600 seats. But I try to be optimistic especially when she says, "And every single seat is taken." Well, we go into the back to the auditorium, and sure enough all 600 seats are taken, and they're having a great time. And why? Because at the front of the auditorium are eleven people including: Jon Stewart, and all ten writers of the Daily Show.
And they're having a great time. About 5 after 4 or 10 after four, the moderator says, "Well, this has been wonderful. I now understand not just Comedy Central, not just the Daily Show, not just Iraq and politics, now I know why America's the number one book in the country. Hey! Do you want to stick around because next up we've got...novelists? Novelists. It was like a fight for the lifeboats. I had never seen 530 people fight their way out of the auditorium so quickly. It was as if I had stood in the middle of the room and yelled fire. But 70 people did stay. And not all of them stayed because it was raining outside. And so I was pleased. And then, I was in Austin, Texas. And it's 6:43 in the morning, and I am on Good Morning, Austin, or whatever the program is called, you know, the program that precedes Good Morning, America, or the Today Show. You know, you've got this 4 minutes and 45 seconds you talk about your book before you cut away to a Lexus commercial.
And we were having a nice time, we were chatting and this woman has no idea what this book is about and it's fine, and she's asking all the right questions like, "So, tell us what your book is about." Well, finally we are wrapping up and she says, "Now, I understand, you set a lot of your books in New England. Can our viewers find them here in Texas?" I didn't say to her, "No, your producer booked us on a show to talk about a book that was impossible to find" nor did I ever point out to her that no one said to Faulkner, "Now, you set a lot of your books in Mississippi. Can we find that here in Texas?" Which is why I am thrilled to be here.
"Before You Know Kindness" is about three generations of women, and yes, the dysfunctional men in their lives. This is a deeply personal book not simply because it is about personal men, it is a book that had its origins, quite literally, on 9-11. In 9-11 I was in Denver on a book tour. I was, in fact, on the runway, at 7:15 in the morning on Denver time, 9:15 here in the east. And I just raced on to the plane and they hadn't closed the cabin doors yet, so I turned on my cell phone to my lovely bride back in Vermont to say good morning, and she said, "Sweetheart, you heard, it's not a good morning at all." She then proceeded to tell me about the horror that was unfolding in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania and every cell phone on the plane had went off, and within a few seconds, we had evacuated from the plane and from the airport. And we went back to the hotel, where I spent the past two nights in the book tour, and I spent the next 8 days there unable to go home, and it was deeply horrifying for all the reasons it was horrifying for all of us.
I felt particularly lonely because I was 3000 miles away from my wife, who used to work on the 104th floor of the world trade center. All my family who lives in Manhattan, my daughter, who was 7, was profoundly troubled by the fact that her father used to spend a lot of time on airplanes. So I turned off the TV a lot that week, and worked on a book that I was writing at the time. I had it on disk and I had my laptop. And I worked on it really hard. I flew home on the 19th and on the 20th I sat down and resumed work on it, I essentially went back to work when all of us went back to work, put one foot in front of the other, unsure where the next shoe was going to drop or where it was going to be. And I discovered that I couldn't work on this book anymore. It wasn't the subject or material that disturbed me but the book was set in 1766 Boston it had nothing to do with 9-11 or anything that could in any way I could connect to 9-11. But, I realized that morning that I was never going to enjoy working on that book again because it was always going to bring me back to a claustrophobic hotel room in Denver when the world seemed to be crashing around us in ways we never expected.
And so, I put the manuscript away. In all the notes in all the research that I had done for the book, and not long after that I actually sent it here to the archives, where that 150 pages and all those notes now reside. And the next day, I started a new book. And I didn't know what the book was going to be about. There was no issue in my mind that I was wrestling with. The literal or the metaphoric place of birth in our country: foster care, the transgender. I wanted to begin with a scene that was absolutely and unequivocally happy. I scene that I could write and bring no bad image to that would bring me back to the world trade center. And the happiest moment that I could think of on that September 21st was this: It was two months earlier, my family in Vermont was visiting my family in law in New Hampshire. My family in New York City was visiting my mother-in-law in New Hampshire. The whole extended family was gathered together and actually, I mentioned, I told Barry O'Connell this story not too long, just tonight in fact. The whole extended family gathered together, and I was writing, it was about 10 in the morning, and I hear the sound of my seven year old daughter pounding her way down the stairs. My nine-year old niece from New York City pounding her way down the stairs, and they ran out onto the porch. This beautiful wrap around porch on this beautiful Victorian house in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire with its phantasmagorically beautiful views of the fall foliage and the autumn or the cerulean blue skies in July and Mt. Washington and Mt. Lafayette of the three graces.
And there on the porch I saw my daughter, Grace, and my niece from New York City, Katherine. And my mother, Sandra Breuer, chatting in their nightgowns about birds. And I was filled with love for these two generations of women, on either side, and I think I was as happy as any person could be, as a son, a husband, and a son-in-law. And I decided that was going to be the jumping off place of this book. That's not the very first scene in the novel however, because books are pretty organic as you know and they move in pretty unexpected directions. But that was the genesis of this particular novel, it was one of three scenes that I'm about to read. When I'm done reading, I'm then going to turn it over to you, to answer your questions about anything. And the last thing I will tell you before I start reading is that you'll really meet my mother-in-law in a fictional guise, and my two little girls, and you'll also meet, in the very first scene, Spencer McCullough. Spencer McCullough is the catalyst that propels this book forward. He is an animal rights activist in the New York City for the fictional version of PETA, who adds new meaning to the word, fanatic.
And I am assuming that everyone can hear me. (reading from book)
"The bullet (inaudible) forms into a rocket, but tapering to a point almost sharp enough to prick skin with a casual touch was two and a half inches long when it was in the cartridge in his rifle. The shank was made with copper and the expansion chamber would cause it to double in diameter on impact. The tip was designed to swell upon contact as well, ripping apart the skin, the muscle and bone as it made its way through the elks or the bears, or most likely, the deer's heart.
"It looked like a missile. The bullet did not hit Spencer McCullough in the chest that very last night in July, because that would have killed him pretty near instantly. Nor did it plunge into his abdomen, which, depending upon how much the stomach, his liver, and his spleen were in harm's way, would have killed him over the course of minutes. A 30 (inaudible) - 6. A 30 caliber bullet atop the classic cartridge case developed by the Army in 1906 turns bowels into pudding. Instead, it ripped into the man's body just above and to the side of his chest, slamming inner below his right shoulder. It shattered completely the scalpula, the shoulder joint, demolished his rotator cuff, which would have been more dehabilitating for his wife, Katherine, because she still gave a damn about her tennis serve. And mixed into a soup, the muscles that Spencer used to move his shoulder to lift his right arm. The bullet was traveling at around two and a half times the speed of sound, and the tissue had to absorb the velocity. Consider the way a bullet does not appear to pierce a brick of jello, but rather causes it to explode.
What was of most importance to the 2 EMTs that arrived at the house at the very peak of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, however, was that the bullet had also obliterated the first branch of the auxiliary(?) artery, the superior thoracic artery. Though as they were taking, what remained of Spencer's vitals, what remained of the snow peas that summer night in the garden, they tended not to use words like thoracic and auxiliary. They used words like "bleeder" and terms like "bleeding out" and Evan S----, the man of the pair, allowed himself a small assortment of expletives and invectives. Evan was two decades younger than his partner. A 51-year old first-response veteran with hair the color of cold frost that fell over her ears and rounded her skull like a helmet. Her name was Melissa P---, but everyone called her "Missy Fearless." She ignored Evan's occasional lapses of decorum that evening because, he never before seen a gunshot wound. Both the EMTs were volunteers, who did other things for a living. Evan looked at an electrical wire factory in nearby Lisbon. And Missy taught math at the high school in Littleton.
On at least a half dozen occasions, she had pulled her old students over their Dad's toppled 4x4s or their very old Geos, Escorts, and Corollas. The vehicles inevitably crinkled like foiled wrappers that folded themselves around sticks of chewing gum. She had dealt before with (inaudible) bleeding, hemorrhaging that seems absolutely torrential. The flow not of the reality making the noise of the geyser, but seeming to everyone present as if it is, and seeing people impaled on the shards of twisted metal, that once were part of automobiles. Spencer was well into the first symptoms of shock. He was cold and clammy and pale, and he was having great trouble breathing. Consequently, he was what Missy and her seasoned associates referred to as a scoop and run. She and Evan did little at the edge of the garden where they found Spencer other than applying thick guazy trauma dressing to the wound and then lots of hand pressure. Slip a stiff plastic cervical collar around his neck to immobilize his head, and roll him on to a backboard.
Then, they were off the hospital in Hanover. Somehow Missy managed to stick a saline IV into Spencer in the ambulance while continuing to keep weight on the wound. As for the emergency room physicians and the surgeon who fortunately lived within minutes of the hospital, one they had Spencer stabilized, their greatest concern was the reality that before shattering all that bone in his shoulder and upper back, the bullet did pretty fair job of pulverizing the brachial plexis, the network of nerves that sent signals from the spine to the arm and the hand. Recall the jello. Meaningful reconstruction was out of the question. Assuming that they could even save Spencer's right arm, which was no guarantee, it was highly unlikely that it would ever do a whole lot more than flop at his side, like a scare(?).
Inevitably, Spencer was right-handed and so even though he wasn't the athlete his wife was, the rotator cuff was the least of the surgeon's problems. This would be a severe disability. Even though he worked at a desk, Missy overheard enough as she worked to get Spencer to the ambulance to understand that he was a public relations executive for some animal rights organization in New York City. It was going to be a very long time before anything easy came to him again. Once the physicians had started pumping the units, and units of blood into him. Dotted chest x-ray got the only good news that Spencer McCullough's body was going to offer that evening. There was no hemorrhaging inside the thorax and the lung had not collapsed. They set to work, controlling the bleeding in his shoulder, and washing out the wounds. Still, Spencer McCullough was alive. And if anyone had said to Evan S--- or Missy S---- before they had arrived at a house in Sugar Hill that a guy there had taken a bullet from a 30-AUG(?)-6 a couple of inches from his heart, they both would have assumed that they could have driven from the scene to the hospital at the speed limit with the siren two-tone switch off.
Only when they had deposited Spencer at the hospital and had been rushed into the OR did any of them have the time to voice their questions that had crossed both their minds: Why the hell was there a loaded deer rifle on a property three and a half months before hunting season? And why in the name of heaven was the 12-year old kid, the guy's own daughter for God's sake, fired pud shots into the garden on the last night of July?
The sun was up over Washington, Lafayette, and Triode nearby cannonball shaped mountains that were called "The Three Grazes of N---" Elderly, but far from frail, sat sipping her morning coffee a shade's lounge under a Victorian house's wrap-around porch. She noted how the sun was rising much later now than it had even three or four weeks ago. It was already the 28th of July and her children would be arriving tomorrow. Friday. A golden retriever, old like her but nearly so energetic, balled near her feet by the outdoor rug. She had been on the porch close to a half an hour and even the coffee on the stove top percolator she had brought outside of her was cold, when she heard her granddaughters pound their way down the stairs. The older girl, Charlotte, was twelve. The younger one, Willow, a name that drove Grandmother crazy both for it's absolute lack of any family resonance, and it's complete new age remontanteity(?)
The girls collapsed into the two wicker chairs near the outdoor table. She saw that they both had sleep in their eyes and their hair wasn't brushed. They were still in their nightgowns, their feet were bare, and Charlotte was sitting in such a fashion, the sole of one foot wedged against her other leg's thigh that her nightgown had bunched up near her waist. And she was offering anyone who cared to see an all-together indelicate, and in Nan's opinion, appalling show of flesh.
"Good morning," she said to them, trying hard to resist the urge to put down her cup and saucer and pull Charlotte's nightgown over her leg.
"How are my two little wildflowers?"
"Sleepy," Charlotte said, her voice already the uninterested drawl of an urban teenager.
"You girls are up early, any special reason?"
"There's like a bird on the roof," Charlotte said.
"A woodpecker," Willow added as she reached down to pet the drowsy dog.
Nan nodded. She decided the bird must have been over the roof in her kitchen porch on the other side of the house, because otherwise she, too, would have heard it just now.
"They don't normally drum(?) this early in the season," her grandmother said.
"Trust me. We're, like, not making this up," Charlotte said. "It sounds like there's some guy up there and he's trying to open a tin of altoids with a machine gun."
The girl had two tiny hillocks(?) starting to emerge on her chest. Not yet breasts, and not particularly visible in this nightgown, but they were evident in bathing suits and t-shirts. Her eyes were the shape of perfectly symmetrical almonds. Her nose was small, and her mouth was a luscious pucker, once wave like and impudent. She laughed her mother's paralyzingly sensual red hair. But her mane was thick and dark and natural hints of henna, and it fell on her shoulders like a cape. In a few years, Charlotte would be gorgeous, an absolute knock-out. For the moment however, she was in that murky world between childhood and serious adolescence. In one light, she might pass for 10. In another, she might be mistaken for fourteen.
"She didn't say we were making anything up," Willow murmured. And then, she did exactly what her grandmother wanted most in the world that (inaudible). She reached over to her cousin from Manhattan and pulled her nightgown over her knee, so that taut and tanned so that once again she was decently covered.
"Well, if I had a gun, I would have like, shot it," Charlotte grumbled, widening her eyes as she spoke because she understood her remark was gloriously inflammatory. But then, and here was that child, she still laughed the anarchic courage of a truly angry adolescent so she allowed herself a retraction of sorts. "Well, not IT of course. Dad would like completely disown me if I ever did something like that. But maybe I would have shot in the area. Scare its beak off."
"Do you know why a woodpecker might drum in July?" Nan asked her.
"Because it's an idiot?"
"Charlotte!" Willow began, but her cousin cut her off.
"It is! Why do you think we have the expression, bird brain?"
Willow watched woman's wide face carefully. The girl was two years younger than Charlotte and she lived in northern Vermont. She had worried this whole month that Charlotte would, and the word had come to her the moment she had spoken to her own adult children at spring, when they had been planning the girl's annual summer stay in New Hampshire, to corrupt young Willow. So far, it hadn't happened, but she knew that there was still plenty of time. She saw now that Willow was more hurt by Charlotte's tone than impressed by her attitude. The girl was gazing down at her toenails and the salmon covered polish that she had layered on the night before.
Her feet were elegant and small. The soles were smooth, the skin was soft.
"It's not likely the bird is stupid Charlotte," Nan said. "He's either boasting at his responsibility for a second cluster of eggs, or he's lonely and still trying to find a mate."
"I wish I spoke woodpecker then. I'd tell him to like, go write a personal ad. It would be a lot quieter."
"Have you seen the crow?" Willow asked.
"It's so big. I never think of crows as big but yesterday near the garden I saw it."
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "It's probably a raven then. Ravens are much huger. Right, grandmother?
"No, it is indeed a crow. There's a family with a nest at the top of one of the white pines. Try an experiment later today if you girls feel like it. Before we leave for the club, place a dime in the driveway. Tilt it on the side so it'll capture the sun. When we return, there's a good chance the dime will be gone."
"Oh, good," Charlotte said. She smiled. "A woodpecker so dim he thinks bashing on the roof will get him a girlfriend. And a crow is a petty thief. What nice birds you have, grandmother."
"He wants the dime because it's shiny," Nan said simply, patiently as she carefully placed her wicker tray that held her coffee on the table behind the shades and stood up. "Now what would you two like for breakfast. I have some pancake batter from yesterday. And of course, sausages."
"Dad would freak if he knew how much meet you were trying to feed us," Charlotte told her.
"Yes, your father probably would. But you don't have to eat it."
"But Willow still don't eat DEAD things!"
"Yes, Charlotte. We still eat dead things."
Willow's hair was the color of a sand dollar that was not yet bleached by the sun. She looked up now, brushed her bangs away from her eyes, and said to her grandmother, "Maybe I'll just have pancakes this morning too please."
"What? No sausages?" Nan asked, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.
"No thank you grandmother. Not today."
"Hallelujah," Charlotte said and she climbed off the chair and she ran up the stairs to get dressed. The dog lifted its head. The vibration from the human on the stairs causing his spot on the stair to shudder beneath its step.
Willow paused for a moment and it seemed as though her grandmother had something more she had wanted to say but then she stood too, shrugged her shoulders, and raced up the steps after her cousin. While the girls were picking apart their grandmother's pancakes with their forks, each curious in their own way how the edges of a pancake could appear char-broiled while the insides had the consistency of mayonnaise, Charlotte's father was standing before 150 executives and middle managers of the American Association for Meat Substitutes in the Ticonderoga room, at a conference center in West Chester county. The Ticonderoga room was the largest in a series of reading rooms in the buildings, all of which seemed to be named after revolutionary war landmarks. The Saratoga, the Delaware, the Yorktown Heights, though Spencer had yet to see anything anywhere in the conference center that in the slightest way reflected a colonial motif, not so much as a d--- nickers, a tri-cornered hat, a p---ed up broad iron cannon, or a hitching post along the exteriors.
Spencer was asked this morning to provide the group with some light breakfast entertainment and to inspire them in their efforts to garner more and more refrigerator and freezer space in the mainstream supermarkets for their garden burgers, their sausages, their fakin bacon, and their phony bologna, their ground ground beef made from seaweed and soy protein. In his routine speech before he got to his slaughterhouse slides from North Carolina, they had sent 32,000 desperate frightened squealing hogs to their deaths every single day, he played a television commercial on the room's three large tv monitors. The ad was for a more individualized form of torture called the name microwave home lobster steamer. He chose this particular commercial to warm up the crowd, get them good and indignant before they finished their bagels and muffins and vegan granola. Because this morning he was beginning his speech with his own restaurant experience when he was 19, his very first summer in Sugar Hill. He guessed he was choosing this part of his life because he and Catherine would be flying to New Hampshire tomorrow to join Charlotte and the rest of the family for their annual summer vacation.
He had already told the crowds at the restaurants, snapping dying lobsters, those behemoth ear---s on the steroids, and then, on the busloads of tourists on their thin plastic bibs, who came by to steer by the shore, to devour them. They would come for dinner after gazing upon the crabby visage of the Old Man on the Mountain in nearby Fr----, curmudgeon who had since slid down the side of the cliff, someone observing the natural granite bust, indeed, had a Daniel Webster-like resemblance from the side, but from the front looked like nothing but a outdrop on the sh--- and rock.
"No one cleaver a lobster as quickly as I could," said Wayne from his well practiced Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step confessional tone into what he considered his Baptist preacher crescendo. "That's not hyperbole. That's not modesty. That's fact! I could kill two in a minute. One night, I killed 64 in an hour and (inaudible) enough for the whole bus. That evening every single man and woman on the tour ordered the restaurant signature meal, the baked stuffed one and one quarter pound Maine lobster, honest to God, I am not exaggerating. I might have split even more if the restaurant's ovens had been larger because there were three buddies from Texas on a sightseeing trip with their wives, and each of them volunteered their belief that nothing is better than 20 ounces of baked stuffed Maine lobster was 40." The audience then looked appalled and he shook his head now, suggesting that at hindsight, he couldn't believe what he had done. And the truth was that he couldn't. He remembered those evenings well, especially those nights when there would be those sightseeing tours.
As soon as the bus would coast into the dirt in the parking lot. He would retrieve the wooden coop with the torpid crustaceans from the walk-in refrigerator, set the creatures right there beside him on the floor. Then, like an automaton, he would bend over and grab one from the container that would wreak of -----ide. And pin the writhing, asphyxiating decapod on its back, coil the springy ribbon on its tail and hold down his bulbous pressure claw with his fingers and for the split second it took him to line up the cleaver on the lobster's carapace, so that the animal's abdomen was exposed. Then he would press the metal blade straight down his breathed, breathed its last. The point was to get the creature into the 450 degree oven while he was still alive. And whether he was cooking five or six lobsters on any given night, or five or six dozen, the animal lengthwise down to the exoskeleton, he would pat the open cavity with the r-- like gobs of rich cracker crumbs and supermarket margarine.
"The animal would cook for 10 to 12 minutes. I presumed it finished dying within the very first, but it probably wasn't the case," Spencer said. His voice softening both for effect and because he knew this was true. And it disturbed him. "First it's the whales, then it's the dolphins. Next, it will be tuna, it'll never stop you know. Until somebody's protecting the bloody lobsters," the words of the whaler, an otherwise charismatic old bird with a furrowed hard beaten face, had spoken to Spencer, a year before the national gathering of the International Whaling Commission he'd attended in Japan, he remembered their discussion now, as he did often when he talked about lobsters. "Well, yes," he told the whaler, "that's precisely the point." In addition to being lobster boy, Spencer's title was actually second chef. But the grown men who had all been waiters called him "lobster boy," he had also prepared the soul and bluefish and the chicken parmigiana at the restaurant. When Spencer would return to his grandmother's house at the end of the evening, he knew he was sweating from his hours beside the hot ovens and from his exertions. He moved quickly and he always pressed the cleaver down hard, convinced even then that it hurt the end of them less, if the visceration was fast.
But he knew he smelled mostly of fish. Consequently, in late June, July, and early August, when the nights were still warm, he kept a bathing suit in the car and sometimes he would detour to Echo Lake, before going home. There, he would dive into the water, swim along the surface until he felt free of the dead lobsters and sole and the skin on his fingers no longer had an oily film from the bluefishes. He never went skinny-dipping, even though it was dark and he was alone, because he knew the lakes were filled with cr---, and he felt awfully vulnerable among them, when he was naked. Most were even as big as his thumb and he didn't believe they would try to exact revenge in the way he slaughtered their salt-water genus king, but the idea crossed his mind, and he always wore a suit just in case.
Thank you very much. (applause)
And you are so wondrous and so patient to be here on this Monday evening that I want to turn it over to your questions and all bets are off. It's wonderful to be back at Amherst. And I will answer anything. And the first question is always the hardest question for you and for me. (someone raises his hand) Ah, see, this is Amherst. Who am I kidding?
I admire the lobster bit a lot. And if you want to know I never have any Ritz crackers in my house. We got a really good (inaudible) (laughter)
Here is the secret to sea food stuffing at even the finest restaurants. Ritz crackers and only on margarine, you don't want to go with sweet butter. They tell me you want to go with oil or salt. That's the secret recipe. That is by the way the autobiographical section as well, yeah. Most, not most, many writers' novels are the most autobiographical novels they will write. I wait until my 9th until I write a particularly autobiographical novel. I really was. The summer between my freshman year and sophomore years at Amherst, I spent in a restaurant in Northern New Hampshire so I can be with my girlfriend, now my wife, and live in her mother's house, now my mother-in-law's house, and I started out as a dishwasher. But through a combination of pluck and luck, and the fact that the seafood chef was arrested for cocaine possession, I had a Horatio Alger-like meteor rise to seafood chef, and so by the 4th of July, I really was lobster-boy, that was my nicknames. And the professional waiters in a few weeks were deeply troubled by the fact that the restaurant's signature meal, the only item on the menu, that cost more than $10 in 1979, was in the hands of an 18 year old. But that was great aerobic exercise, I was in really good shape.
Are you a vegetarian yourself?
Am I a vegetarian myself. Yes I am a vegetarian myself. I did not become an absolute vegeterian then, as a matter of fact, as late as my sophomore year here, I think I consumed an entire steer at Valentine, because I lived on cheeseburgers. But I was moving away from eating meat by the time I was 23 or 4 I had given up meat completely. I am not vegan, I am wearing a leather belt and leather shoes.
I'm wondering how you dealt with those 250 rejection letters. And I guess I ask that, it seems like it's a very personal experience to be writing and (inaudible) enjoy it, but I also assume that you wanted to get things published if you kept applying, so what was the process like?
The question was, how did I endure 250 rejection letters, what was the process like. And yes I did want very much to get published. But I also enjoyed immensely the process of writing and drafting sentences when I was alone. And even today, other than hanging out with my wife and daughter, there is nothing in the world that gives me more pleasure than writing fiction. When I amassed those 250 rejection slips, there was a part of me that thought that I might never get published. But I would always tell myself, well, first of all, when you play tennis for the first time, you're not going to presume that you'll become an internationally ranked player. And maybe this will just be my apprenticeship and maybe I'll get it right. Either that, or standards would fall.
I will tell you that I made a very commercial decision after that 250th rejection slip. Most of these rejection slips were short stories I was sending to the New Yorker, Esquire, the Swanee Review, and I began to wonder, maybe, I should try a different venue. And Cosmopolitan magazine, at the time, in the 80s, was publishing lots and lots of fiction and not all of it involved m--- l---ds. And so I grabbed, got 6 or 7 copies of cosmopolitan and read through them carefully to see what is the fiction in cosmopolitan and I wrote a short story about a female supermodel living in New York City who's married to this arbitrage trainer who's got this kick-butt house on Fire Island. She goes out to Fire Island because she thinks her marriage is hemmorrhaging and she wants to understand what's wrong with him when most of the time, she's playing scantily clad beach volleyball. Cosmopolitan bought it. And so that was the first story I sold.
Now, in hindsight, I don't think it's a great story. I think it's a horrible story. It is a much better short story than my first novel. I wrote the single worst first novel ever published. There was no first novel published anywhere that is worse than mine. How bad did it come into the real world? When it was reviewed by the Boston Globe in 1988, and this was the first review I ever had in a newspaper, reviewing my books, the reviewer... my wife got a phone call, we got a phone call at 2 in the afternoon from a friend of my wife's who lived in Cambridge. "Guess what? Chris' new book is reviewed in the Boston Globe today." So my wife said, "Is it a good review?" And her friend said, at 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, "I don't remember." So my wife said, "Can you read it to us?" And the friend said, "Uh, I have already bound the newspapers up for recycling and are out in the garage."
Now this was before www.bostonglobe.com. I had to wait for the next day to read a review that ends in this paragraph: "And though Bohjalian attacks his first novel with real energy, the writing is styleless and without grace. And the quaint saint tradition in citing the editor in the acknowledgments, in this case did nothing to ensure the quality of editorial care. Uh, I got d--ed I hope. You could read that novel at the Frost library, but I would discourage you from going there. You could also read that short story in the archives, I would discourage you from doing that too, but that's only going to be a waste of about 10 minutes of your time. So, at any case I did keep writing, because it's always a great pleasure for me. As one of the things I tell writers who are struggling to get published is to enjoy those moments when you are alone with your prose, and enjoy the process because it can be great fun and a great satisfaction in a well-crafted sentence, or a character you care about deeply, or a profoundly evil character, and don't assume that you'll write a great American novel or be the next New York Times bestseller because I do think those two things are mutually exclusive. Is there one more?
Your novel that you threw away, 1664.
The novel that I put away is set at 1666 Boston about a domestic abuse divorce trial of all things. There's actually, and of course here, that I first was interested in Perry Miller, and was interested in the Puritans, and I guess it would have been in the summer of 2000, I was reading through an old Perry Miller essay, and he was talking about how marriage for the Puritans, a secular institution was not a religious service and it would make it ironically easier to get divorced, in the seventeenth century, even the eighteenth century, so I did some research, into divorce, uh, on the Puritans, and there's this subculture of divorce. So I was writing a novel about a woman who was divorcing her husband for what we would now call domestic abuse. And the great footnote to this and this is what I found interesting is that in the 17th century, if you are a woman, and you divorce your husband, and you're granted a divorce, you received 33% of his assets. Not 50% but it's better than what you'd presume you'd get in 1666. So that's what the book is about.
And there's nothing whatsoever to do with September 11, (inaudible) any connection, except for the fact that on that day, I couldn't work on this book, because I was always going to be back in the horrible hotel room. Is there a question in the back?
What is my day-to-day writing routine? You know, I'm really lucky. And I'm lucky for a lot of reasons that come back to this venerable institution. I write every day from 5am to 10:30 or 11 am in the morning. I usually emerge for about 10 to 15 minutes to see my wonderful daughter for breakfast before she heads off to school. Then I go back to my library and work. From 11 to 1 I do whatever research my books demand. For example, "Before You Know Kindness," understanding ballistics, or understanding audible bleeding, or how PETA works. From 1 to 3 I usually bike ride or cross country ski and from 3 o'clock, my daughter gets off the school bus and we are off to voice lessons or ballet lessons or acting lessons or whatever is going on with her life. It is a spectacularly fantastic day, I just love every bit of it. And I know absolutely that I would not lead this life, had I not written so much here. Now I'll say two things about this institution, it's the first time I've been back here that I've had the chance to say this: #1, I can write novels because I wrote so many papers here. And because I learned so much from so many professors here, literally taking a part of the text and understanding the plumbing and wiring behind it, and that is a gift that is worth. You know, it is the absolute greatest gift I would professionally ever have.
The other thing, and now this struck me when I talking to a number of students in the Frost Archives today. I hadn't really thought about this. I sometimes talk about how much of my life I have wasted as this ridiculous newspaper geek when I was here for the Amherst Student. And how I would have been better served if I took more English classes, if I had known who David Foster Wallace was, I didn't. Or Harley Cobain was. I didn't. I didn't even say one word to each other in the years we overlapped here. But then I realized as I was talking to students in Frost today that my years on the Student, the Student produced, among others, is Pulitzer-Prize winner Betsy McKay. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Reed. Emmy Award winner Victor Levin. MacArthur Genius Fellowship Winner Roseanne Hagerty. Me. And Bill Amend, FoxTrot cartoonist. We were all in the basement of Pratt in overlapping years at one time. And I think that was an astonishing bunch.
I mean, I had no idea why they were slumming with me there, but I'm glad they were.
Did you know while you were here whether you wanted to be a novelist? And if you did, what made you choose, I mean, obviously, your major doesn't necessarily correspond to what you do after Amherst, but what made you choose American Studies major.
When I was here, I thought I was going to be a journalist. I wrote, I don't think I wrote any fiction between September and May, freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year. I wrote fiction during the summer occasionally, wrote abysmally bad short stories. But I was not writing fiction while I was here, because I was going to go into journalism and be a reporter. Or maybe even someday, a columnist to some capacity. So that's what I was working towards. Anything professional. And when I was here I wasn't really thinking so much about professionally, I was just savoring the experience, and reading and writing and not sleeping very much. I was an American Studies... I loved being an American Studies major. And I had a great time in all my American Studies. But in all fairness, the only reason, I believe, in hindsight, I became an American Studies major because between 18 and 22, I made a big part of my life, a big role in life is to be, you know, you've all seen Austin Powers and Mini-me. Well, I was sort of mini-me to my older brother. He was here as an American Studies major, so I was here as an American Studies major. He was a newspaper geek, so I was a newspaper geek. If he did a radio show in the middle of the night, I did a radio show in the middle of the night.
I don't think I put enough bite into it in some ways.
(inaudible) your experiences as an undergraduate here, (inaudible)
Can understanding literary theory ever frustrate the creative process? Certainly frustrate the practicing novelist when he or she is reading peers' work. It is very difficult for me to ever read into them, and I'm sure there are professors here who feel the same way. It is almost impossible to disassociate the theorist from the reader when you're reading fiction sometimes, and to never just appreciate the story. Sometimes, that means deconstructing the book, trying to understand where it's going and why it's built this way, and sometimes, it's implicating a whopper of an inferiority complex because you realize how astonishing a 212 word sentence was. But it was never inhibiting me. If anything it has driven me to think harder about what I am trying to do. And how I literally piece together a novel. I had friends who were novelists who were capable of churning out a book a year. And I find that in some ways, breathtaking, and in some ways, appalling. Because I would look through their books and I would always see them, this is (inaudible) 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 more drafts. And this was a book that was insufficiently (inaudible) cranked out. And I'm here to prevent you from ever trying to crank something out. Only because I know that, you know, Will Pritchard, Barry O'Connell or David Wills is going to be reading it.
The question was, Did I have a day job or did it all happen like the topless on a beach story. And first of all, the first bit of journalistic exposure, no one is topless in my story. However, this is Earth. It appeared in the now relatively famous Cosmopolitan, Build a better bust issue that had 8 pages of topless models doing breast exercises. My mother is so proud. Um, now that was a day job. I graduated from Amherst and I (inaudible) as a journalist, I interviewed for jobs at newspapers and I was absolutely astonished at what they wanted to pay me. It was nothing. I just didn't realize this, so I made a really bad decision, it was one of two really bad decisions that I made professionally in my life. Um, I decided to become a running sly-dog capitalist during the roaring 80s and go work for an ad agency. Yeah, my brother was in an ad agency too, so I (laughter)
Anyway, so I would have for Random House to have said, "You look like a young writer of promise, here's a pile of money, go write a book." But they don't do that and so I worked on writing fiction from 5am to 7am, Monday through Friday. Monday and Tuesday nights, I came home from work, and Saturday mornings. And I wrote a lot of short stories, and all of them were rejected, except for "Sparks." And after I sold "Sparks," I embarked on my first novel which was a starting novel. Excuse me, starting, the mistake was writing a novel and listening to an agent when the agent said to me, "They're going to like this. I'll represent it if you add more sex and violence." And I said, "OK." And much to my astonishment, St. Martin's, Scrivener, and Doubleday all wanted to buy it. Though St. Martin's said, "We'll buy it and we're going to pay you X, but you need to add more sex and violence." And so I did, and it would have been simply a boring and predictable coming-of-age novel, you know, best left on a shelf somewhere, you know, became a trashy murder mystery with no redeemable social graces whatsoever.
I didn't quit my day job until I was 30. And I had just, my third novel had just been published, and actually I was 31, and I realized I can't really, I'm getting old to juggle this lifestyle, and my wife is pregnant. And so it's time to jump off that cliff and see what happens. And I was really lucky. I was REALLY lucky. I was so lucky, I jumped off that cliff and two days later Hallmark called and we started filming "Past the Bleachers" for a movie. Is there one more?
Well, thank you. So much. (applause)