A Night Of Drinking Takes A Deadly Turn In Chris Bohjalian's Spy Thriller 'The Flight Attendant'

Mar 8, 2018

The new novel The Flight Attendant is a page-turner thriller — and the 20th book by Vermont's own Chris Bohjalian.

In the book, protagonist Cassie Bowden finds that the man she slept with after a blackout night of too much booze has been murdered in the very bed she shared with him overnight. Things escalate from there.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Bohjalian about his newest book.

Wertlieb: "Before we get into the meat of the plot that drives The Flight Attendant, what made you choose a character who works at that job to be the focal point of your story?"

Bohjalian: "The book had its origins in March of 2016. I had just flown from Yerevan, Armenia to New York City via Moscow. And I was meeting a friend for dinner at 7:30 — I didn't have time to take a catnap, So I went straight to the restaurant, dropped off my bags and I went to the bar.

"I come from a family of alcoholics on both sides, so I'm never going to glamorize alcoholism, but the reality is that a beautiful bar is, aesthetically, a beautiful thing — the balustrades, the bottles, the glasses, the way everything is lit. And I was thinking about the beauty of the alcohol, I was thinking about Russia and I was thinking about the miracle of aviation — the fact I had breakfast in Armenia and I'm having dinner in New York City. And I asked the bartender for scrap paper and I started to write frantically over the next 45 minutes.

"I was thinking about the beauty of the alcohol, I was thinking about Russia and I was thinking about the miracle of aviation ... I asked the bartender for scrap paper and I started to write frantically over the next 45 minutes." — Author Chris Bohjalian

"Now, well that's when the book really began. It might have been gestating a long time. When I was a little boy, my uncle had five wives — not at the same time; he'd got divorced four times. His second wife was a flight attendant, or what we called then a 'stewardess.' And even as a little boy I understood the waft of scandal that permeated his divorce and the aroma of glamour that surrounded his new bride. She was young, she was beautiful, she went everywhere with this little dachshund under her arm, and she flew internationally.

And my parents used to always joke, 'You know she's a spy.' I have no idea if my Aunt Liz was a spy, but that night in the bar when I was thinking about aviation and flight attendants, I thought to myself, 'Why have I never written about these amazing women and men, and what they do?' And I was off and running."

Wertlieb: "We're not giving away too much here by saying that she does wake up with this murdered person in her bed, but we know right away who the killer is. This is not a 'who-done-it.' But because of her alcoholism and the blackouts that she has, she's not even sure herself if she may have murdered the man.

"It's a very Hitchcockian device, which is wonderful and gets the plot off and running. Why was it important for you to create a character in Cassie Bowden who's acting badly, but also elicits a lot of sympathy from the reader?"

Bohjalian: "First of all, I love the fact that you mentioned Hitchcock, and the fact that it's really not a 'who-done-it,' but a 'why-done-it.' One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest from 1959 with the functional alcoholic Roger Thornhill. I was thinking a lot of Roger Thornhill when I was creating Cassie Bowden, a functional alcoholic who in the midst of her blackouts is capable of virtually anything she fears. That's what I was after. 

"One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock's 'North by Northwest' ... I was thinking a lot of Roger Thornhill when I was creating Cassie Bowden, a functional alcoholic who in the midst of her blackouts is capable of virtually anything she fears. That's what I was after."

"The other thing that was important to me is that I love Cassie. She is so flawed but she is such a wounded bird. I really care about her so very much, and as glamorous as her outer life is, her inner life is a mess. Every day when I started writing this book, I would watch a video of Sia's song "Chandelier" — that remarkable video, that remarkable song about one party girl's reckless self-disregard, incredible self-loathing and inability to escape the allure of alcohol and binge-drinking."

Wertlieb: "I've read a lot of your books, but this one in particular seems ready-made for a movie version. I mean, there is a ruthless Russian assassin who's on Cassie's trail, which she doesn't even know about through most of the book. It's only towards the end that she realizes, 'Oh my gosh, my life is in danger here, never mind who killed this guy that I slept with.'

"That assassin though has a conscience of her own. It makes her something more than just a cold-hearted killer, which I think is also remarkable that you were able to work that into the book. There's international intrigue, FBI probes that have to deal with possible chemical weapons disposal and who has these secrets — there are twists galore. Did you write this novel with your own ulterior motive for getting it to the big screen?"

Bohjalian: "No. And I also didn't realize how in the midst of the zeitgeist I would be. In 2016, two narrative gifts fell into my lap. The first were allegations of Russian meddling in the presidential election, allegations we now know are fact.

"And the second was I went back to Armenia in late August of 2016 to go to the line of contact between the Armenians and the Azeris to write a story for The New York Times about this world where the trenches of the First World War meet the drones of the present, where these soldiers face off a half-mile apart.

"And I was standing there in my flak jacket and helmet, and I was chatting with a British-Armenian philanthropist about projects he desired to create to jumpstart the Armenian economy. And suddenly we were talking about what happens when a deal goes bad with Russian oligarchs in Dubai. And it was chilling, and I knew this was material I just had to use.

"[I]t's a thriller certainly, but I hope it's also about drones, chemical weapons, Syria, social media manipulation and social media terrorism — all current topics of conversation today."

"And so yeah, it's a thriller certainly, but I hope it's also about drones, chemical weapons, Syria, social media manipulation and social media terrorism — all current topics of conversation today. And yes, it does have a movie deal, you're absolutely right. I'm thrilled to tell you that Kaley Cuoco, Penny of The Big Bang Theory, has optioned it and it is set up with Warner Brothers Television for a limited series a la The Handmaid's Tale or Big Little Lies."

Wertlieb: "Wow. That's big news. OK. I had two long plane trips recently to take, to California, so six hours on a plane. I read the bulk of this book with flight attendants really walking up and down the aisles there. They've always had a hard job to do. You're dealing with anything from screaming kids to people who've had too much to drink themselves from the drink cart, people may be getting sick. Was this book also an attempt to let people know, 'Hey look, your flight may have gone bad, but please, be nice to your flight attendant'?"

Bohjalian: "The stories they told me about passenger misbehavior were absolutely incredible: naked passengers, passengers trying to climb over the beverage cart, A-list celebrities telling them never to make eye contact. And the reality is they are always civil, and they are always going to have their act together when the worst that can happen suddenly happens.

"For example, we've often seen a female flight attendant apply lipstick before beginning the final descent. Those are called her 'landing lips.' But that isn't aesthetics, that isn't vanity. In many cases it's because the flight attendant knows that if there's an emergency evacuation or a crash landing and she needs to give instructions, if she has her lipstick on it will be easy for the hearing-impaired to read her lips. If those orange oxygen masks ever fall, it's all of us who will be screaming into them, not the flight attendants."

Chris Bohjalian will be reading from the book, along with a talk and signing, put on by Phoenix Books in Rutland on Thursday, March 8 at 6:30 p.m.