Chris Bohjalian's New Book Blends Mystery, Suspense And Sleepwalking

Jan 6, 2017

For people prone to sleepwalking, slumber is not necessarily the welcome respite it is for others. The condition lies at the heart of a new mystery thriller by Vermont author Chris Bohjalian.

Bohjalian has written 19 books, including The Sandcastle Girls and The Guest Room. His new book, The Sleepwalker, comes out on Jan. 10.

On Saturday he’ll be reading from the book at Contois Auditorium in Burlington.

VPR spoke with Bohjalian to learn more about his new book and why sleepwalking captured his imagination.

VPR: Is sleepwalking a condition that you heavily researched for this new book, or is it something you yourself are all too familiar with?

“I was having lunch with the director of the sleep center at the UVM hospital [University of Vermont Medical Center] because I wanted to understand the physiology of dreams; what is the brain doing when we dream? He’d just come from a patient who was a sleepwalker [and] in our conversation, rather naturally, went there.

“Suddenly we were talking about people who sleep cook, sleep drive, sleep jog, sleep sex, sleep murder. I was hooked. I knew that that was what I wanted to write about.”

What did you learn about sleepwalking that's misunderstood or turns out to be a popular myth instead of reality?

“Before we get to the myths and the realities, here's what sleepwalking is not: acting out a dream. Sleepwalking occurs in the earlier non-rapid eye movement cycles of sleep. Dreams tend to occur in the Rapid Eye Movement or REM cycles of sleep.

"Here is what sleepwalking is: Imagine that the part of your brain that controls motor activity is wide awake and the part of your brain that controls memory and judgment is sound asleep." - Chris Bohjalian

“Here is what sleepwalking is: Imagine that the part of your brain that controls motor activity is wide awake and the part of your brain that controls memory and judgment is sound asleep.

“Here is what really fascinated me: how common sleepwalking is. Ten percent of children sleepwalk and nearly 4 percent of adults have gone sleepwalking at least once in the last 12 months.

“If you are battling depression, you're more likely to sleepwalk. If you have an obsessive compulsive disorder, you're more likely to sleepwalk. And there are very specific triggers [such as] sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress [and] alcohol ... There may even be a sleepwalking gene.”

The central figure of the novel, Annalee Ahlberg, goes missing and is presumed dead due to her history of sleepwalking. But there are doubts as to whether she's dead or missing or something else. How do you go about creating a fully-developed character that the reader is going to care about when she's not really taking part in the linear current timeline of the book?

“You raise a great question from a stylistic perspective. I have no idea where my books are going when I begin them. I depend on my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story.

"Most of my books I really have no idea where they're going. I don't do outlines, I don't know the endings." - Chris Bohjalian

“So to create empathy for Annalee and to introduce her to readers, there are a lot of scenes where her daughter Lianna is going through photo albums. There are a lot of scenes where Lianna and her kid sister Paige are talking about their mom and sharing anecdotes. For this book to work you have to really care about this woman who is gone on page one of the book.”

So many of your books have wonderful twist endings that kind of take the reader by surprise. Do you know what the twist ending is going to be when you start a book like this?

“John Irving has said you shouldn't write the first sentence of a book until you can write the last. And famously, Margaret Mitchell wrote the last sentence of Gone With The Wind before she began writing that particular novel.

“But if I subscribed to that maxim of writing, I think I might have written one book. Most of my books I really have no idea where they're going. I don't do outlines, I don't know the endings, and in The Sleepwalker, I began this book not even knowing why and how Annalee had disappeared.

“I take comfort writing this way by something E.L. Doctorow once said: Writing a novel is driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see 200 feet ahead of you but you have the confidence that eventually you will get where you're going."

The detective in this book, Gavin Rikert, might not be such a good guy, which breaks a little with normal mystery story conventions. Did you set out to play with that trope in this book?

“I did. I wanted Gavin to be morally ambiguous in the reader's view, and I did that because I think moral ambiguity in fiction is really interesting.

“Villains who are all villain are dramatically less interesting than villains with whom we have a certain degree of empathy. Exhibit A, Hannibal Lecter. Now, Gavin is certainly not Hannibal Lecter. But you’re absolutely right, I was aware of that convention.”

There are two very strong female protagonists in this book. Do you enjoy writing women characters? Do you think there should be more of them in mystery novels?

“Yes. I love writing about women and I do think that the more women we can have in literature as not merely women in jeopardy is a very good thing.

“Though, in the interest of full disclosure, I do have to share with you something my daughter once said. My daughter is 23 [and] is a young actor in New York City and when she read a rough draft of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, she said ‘Dad, take this as a compliment because I mean it that way, but I think your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed up young women.’

“And she's right. When you think of Laurel Estabrook [in] The Double Bind or Emily Shepherd in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands or Serafina Bettini in The Light In The Ruins or all of the Armenian girls scarred by a genocide in The Sandcastle Girls.

“I think you meet, in some ways, two more of them in The Sleepwalker. Lianna does take the lead in exploring her mother's disappearance. [She] is very strong, but as is clear, she's also scarred by her mother's loss, as is Paige, her 12-year-old sister. These are two young Vermont women who are deeply scarred by their mother's disappearance.”