Bohjalian on the pandemic, war and social injustice as “Hour of the Witch” draws nigh

Author Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian’s new novel Hour of the Witch “tolls on May 4,” as he notes. As is a beloved tradition at the Armenian Weekly, we had the opportunity to discuss the latest in his vast and award-winning literary offerings, along with the pandemic and the unprovoked and vicious war brought against Armenia and Artsakh by Azerbaijan. In addition, Bohjalian has generously offered the Prologue of his upcoming novel, exclusively for Weekly readers. 

Armenian Weekly (A.W.): Hour of the Witch centers on life as a Puritan and the taboo subject of domestic violence. What led you to Boston in the mid-1600s and this particular theme?

Chris Bohjalian (C.B.): When we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem in 1692. But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford in 1662 – 30 years before Salem. 

Now, one of the things a lot of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated and seen as outsiders: sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism. 

I was looking for a way into a story like this when I came across a reference in the records of Boston’s Court of Assistants: in 1672, Nanny Naylor successfully sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. And I was off and running.

A.W.: One common theme in your books is injustice, often told from the female perspective, and society’s response. Is there a reason why you gravitate to this theme?

C.B.: The answer might be as simple as this. I have a wife. We have a daughter. 

As a novelist, I also think a lot about something E.M. Forster once wrote: “We all know that fiction is truer than history because it goes beyond the evidence.” Most of the subjects I write about could be approached from the perspective of non-fiction: as history or memoir. 

But that’s not how I’m hardwired. I love reading history, and I depend on historians for a lot of what I do. But it’s easier for me as a writer to approach injustice – whether it’s domestic violence, sex trafficking or genocide – if I’m crafting fiction from history, rather than recounting history. 

A.W.: Much of the book was written during the pandemic. Did you find your process, both in research and in writing, to be radically different under the extraordinary circumstances?

C.B.: Yes. Over 550,000 dead? The world shut down? My wife’s and my daughter’s careers in shambles? (My wife is a fine art photographer, and our daughter is an actor – a stage actor, mostly.) We all have PTSD and will for a long, long time. I know I am a mess – or, to be precise, even more of a mess than usual.

And let’s not forget about the nightmare in Artsakh. That was just the icing on the cake from hell.

Now, Hour of the Witch was written before the pandemic. I did, however, write my entire 2022 novel during the pandemic. But it’s a novel set in Hollywood and East Africa in 1964, and I was only able to write it because at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic, I traveled to Tanzania to do my research. 

So, the fact I was in lockdown in 2020? That also was a radical change. I am used to traveling a lot for my books.

In short, the whole awful year impacted my process and what I do, both emotionally and logistically.

A.W.: Since The Sandcastle Girls, you have included some key characters in your novels who are Armenian, such as Alexandra in The Guest Room, Ani Mouradian in The Flight Attendant, and Ken and Taleen Sarafian in The Red Lotus. Why is that? And will this remain a trend in your upcoming novels?

C.B.: At a 2015 event commemorating the centennial of the Genocide, I was on a panel with Eric Bogosian, Alexander Dinelaris and Dana Walrath. I was writing The Guest Room at the time, which (yes) features a young Armenian woman, and all of us on the panel agreed: it is critical to tell stories about the Genocide, but it is also important to show Armenians in Armenia and Armenians in the diaspora in work that has nothing to do with the Genocide. 

We had a rich and beautiful culture before the Genocide, and we have built remarkable lives around the world since the Genocide. So, yes, I do try and do two things when I can: first, show Armenians living in the world as it is, whether the world is in Yerevan or Los Angeles; second, show something of Armenian culture, whether it’s as simple as a building or an earring or a song. It’s a way of reminding my readers, “We’re still here, thank you very much. And we are not just victims.”

A.W.: While this year has been extremely challenging due to the pandemic, the global Armenian community also is reeling from the outcome of the 2020 Artsakh War, as well as the devastating blast in the Port of Beirut. Knowing that these places hold a special place in your heart, how were you affected by these events?

C.B.: I wrote in the New York Times in 2016 that I never thought Artsakh would lose a war. I never imagined that Shushi would be under Azeri control. I have visited some of the churches in Artsakh that already have been desecrated. (So, my 2016 New York Times essay is probably another reason why I should not be trusted as an historian and should stick to fiction.)

Now, I am not surprised that the world did virtually nothing in the autumn of 2020. I wrote an op-ed in early October for the Boston Globe and the response from legislators in Washington, DC was largely crickets. (Not entirely crickets.)    

In any case, I am exploring a novel for 2024 in which the 2020 war figures in the background. Again, think of that Forster quote. I can teach more people about Artsakh in a novel than I could in a history book.

A.W.: How do you think we, as Armenians who care deeply for Artsakh and Armenia, as well as our diasporan communities, can move forward, maintain hope and continue pursuing justice, particularly as we prepare to commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24?

C.B.: Will we ever see justice? We may see the word “genocide” used by a US President on April 24 this year – which would thrill me – but will we ever get back Van? Ararat? Shushi?  

I will always live with one foot in 1915, but the other in the present, and that means supporting initiatives that build the Armenian economy and better schools for our children in Armenia. It’s not easy for Armenia to move forward with a post-Soviet mentality and the fact it is a landlocked country surrounded by neighbors that loathe us. But that’s – to paraphrase someone wiser than me – our paper spoon. Fortunately, the Armenian people are nothing if not resilient. We are nothing if not survivors. 

We will get through this, too. As I said a moment ago, we transcend victimhood.

Before diving into the “Prologue” of Hour of the Witch, let’s set the scene. Hour of the Witch takes place in 1662 Boston and centers on the character of 24-year-old Mary Deerfield. With porcelain skin and delft blue eyes, she is the second wife of the cruel and powerful Thomas Deerfield. Following a vicious attack with a three-tined fork by her drunken husband, Mary decides that she must divorce him if she wants to stay alive. However, “in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil,” Mary is regarded with suspicion and subjected to rumors. A series of events lead to Mary’s fight to not only escape her violent marriage, but also the gallows. Hour of the Witch is a timely thriller about “socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt,” as described by the publisher.

Prologue

It was always possible that the Devil was present. Certainly, God was watching. And their Savior.

And so they were never completely alone. Not even when they might wander out toward the mudflats or the salt marshes which, because they all but disappeared at high tide, they called the Back Bay, or they happened to scale the Trimountain—three separate hills, really, Cotton and Sentry and Beacon—they had virtually flattened as they moved the earth to create the jetties and wharves and foundations for the warehouses. Not even along the narrow neck that led to the mainland, or when they were in the woods (most definitely not when they were in the woods) on the far side of the slender spit.

They knew there was something with them when they were otherwise alone in their small, dark houses—the windows sometimes mere slits and often shuttered against the wind and the cold—and a man could write in his diary (his ledger, in essence, in which he would catalog the day’s events and his state of mind in an effort to gauge whether he was among the elect), or a woman could scribble a few lines of poetry about the trees or the rivers or those astonishing sand dunes that rolled in the night like sea waves.

Sometimes the presence was frightening, especially if there were other indications that the Devil was at hand. But then there were those moments when it was comforting, and they, mere sheep to their divinity, felt the company of their shepherd. It was soothing, reassuring, breathtakingly beautiful.

Either way, more times than not, the women and men took consolation in the notion that there were explanations for a world that was so clearly inexplicable—and, usually, inexplicable in ways that were horrifying: a shallop with a dozen oarsmen disappearing beneath the water somewhere between the piers and the massive, anchored ship with its barrels of seasonings, its containers of gunpowder, its crates of pewter and porcelain and pillowbeers. That shallop vanished completely. One moment, sailors on the docks in the harbor could see it plainly. But then the clouds rolled in and the rains began, and the boat never emerged from the froth and the foam, and the bodies never were found.

Never.

Or that farmer who was gored through the stomach by a bull and took three days, every moment of which he was in agony, to die in his bedstead. How do you explain that? By the end of the ordeal, the feathers and cornhusks in the great bag beneath him were as red as the linen in which they were wrapped. Never had it taken a man so long to bleed out.

Three days. A number of biblical import.

But, still. Still.

How do you explain a husband who will break his wife’s leg with a fireplace poker, and then chain her around the waist to the plow so she can’t leave his property? And who then goes away? The woman waited a full day before she began to cry out.

How do you explain hurricanes that suck whole wharves into the sea, fires that spread from the hearth to the house and leave behind nothing but two blackened chimneys, how do you explain droughts and famines and floods? How do you explain babies who die and children who die and, yes, even old people who die?

Never did they ask the question Why me? In truth, they never even asked the more reasonable question Why anyone?

Because they knew. They knew what was out there in the wilds, and what was inside them that was, arguably, wilder still. Though good works could not in themselves change a thing—original sin was no fiction, predestination no fable—they might be a sign. A good sign. Sanctification followed justification.

And as for divorce . . . it happened. Rarely. But it did. It was possible. At least it was supposed to be. Mediation was always better than litigation, because this was, after all, a community of saints. At least that was the plan. There were the tangible grounds: Desertion. Destitution. Bigamy. Adultery (which was indeed a capital crime because of the Lord God’s edicts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, though no adulterer ever was actually hanged). Impotence. Cruelty.

It was a violent world, but still you weren’t supposed to strike your spouse.

At least not without provocation.

Mary Deerfield knew all this, she knew it because God had given her an excellent mind—despite what her husband, Thomas, would tell her. And though brains hadn’t helped Anne Hutchinson (Winthrop himself opined that her problem was that she meddled too much by trying to think like a man), and in later years brains most definitely would not help the score of women who would be hanged as witches in Salem, she knew intellectually she had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to be hit like a brute animal. She wouldn’t stand for it. It seemed that her mother and father, bless them, wouldn’t demand that she stand for it, either.

The issue, of course, would not merely be his violence, nor would it boil down to a debate over what she said versus what he said. The wrack of their marriage was not solely his cruelty, and the divorce petition would be grounded by snares beyond her ken. Here, she realized, there were times when she would have been better off if she could have been alone but for the angels or her God, and—conversely—there were times when she would have given a very great deal for a witness that was human.

Because even for a mind as sharp as Mary Deerfield’s, it was the recognition of her own mean desires and roiling demons where things began to grow muddy.

Hour of the Witch is a publication of Penguin Random House and is now available for pre-order.

Advance Praise

“Absolutely riveting historical fiction that reads like the most pageturning of thrillers, driven by its compelling heroine Mary Deerfield, a young wife who finds the physical and moral courage to stand up for herself in a time when women could be hung as witches… Hour of the Witch is a woman’s story, a romance, a history lesson, and a legal thriller, all of a piece. I haven’t read a novel like it in recent memory, and I doubt that I will for years to come.”

—Lisa Scottoline

“A probing page-turner about society’s scapegoats and how elusive justice can be.”

—AARP

“Throughout Bohjalian’s prolific career, he has rewarded readers with indelibly drawn female protagonists, and the formidable yet vulnerable Mary Deerfield is a worthy addition to the canon. Conjuring up specters of #MeToo recriminations and social media shaming, there are 21st century parallels to Bohjalian’s atmospheric Puritan milieu, and his trademark extensive research pays off in this authentic portrait of courage in the face of society’s worst impulses. Bohjalian is a perennial favorite, and this Salem Witch Hunt drama has a special magnetism.”

Booklist, starred

“A twisty thriller set in 17th-century Boston…With its exploration of themes including domestic abuse, toxic masculinity and mass hysteria, the novel feels like anything but a period piece.”

Publishers Weekly

“In 1660s Boston, blue-eyed, porcelain-delicate Mary Deerfield is determined to escape her marriage after her husband, the cruel and controlling Thomas Deerfield, shoves a fork through her hand in a drunken rage. Yet unfortunate incidents—a screaming maid, a boy’s death after Mary treats him with herbs—leaves her longing not just for freedom but for her life; she could be condemned to the gallows as a witch. Another surprise read from the fabulously protean, New York Times best-selling Bohjalian…”

Library Journal

“Illustrates how rough justice can get when religion and institutional sexism are in the mix.”

Kirkus

About Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of 22 books. His work has been translated into 35 languages; three of his books became movies.

His new novel Hour of the Witch arrives on May 4, 2021. The tale is a historical thriller set in 1662 Boston — inspired by the first divorce in North America for domestic violence — and America’s original witch hunt.

His 2018 novel, The Flight Attendant, debuted as a New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and National Indiebound Bestseller. It’s now an HBO Max television series starring Kaley Cuoco, Rosie Perez, Michiel Huisman (“Game of Thrones” and “The Haunting of Hill House”), and T.R. Knight (“Grey’s Anatomy”). Susanna Fogel (“Booksmart” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me”) directed the first two episodes. It was just renewed for a second season.

Bohjalian’s most recent novel The Red Lotus is a twisting story of love and deceit that debuted as a national bestseller. An American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met. It is in development for a TV series from the teams that brought us Pose, A Discovery of Witches, and Vikings.

The special 25th anniversary edition of his 1995 magical realist novel about global climate Water Witches was published in 2020.

Bohjalian is also a playwright and screenwriter. He adapted his novel Midwives for a play, which premiered January 21, 2020 at the George Street Playhouse. Broadway World said of it, “The fine playwriting by Bohjalian, the directorial talents of the Playhouse’s Artistic Director, David Saint and the show’s accomplished cast make this play unforgettable.” 

His first play “Grounded” premiered at the 59 East 59th Theatres in New York City in the summer of 2018 and is now a full-length play called “Wingspan.” It is also available in its one act version as an audiobook and eBook.

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage and Salon.

His awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for “Idyll Banter” from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He was a weekly columnist in Vermont for The Burlington Free Press from 1992 through 2015.

Chris graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Amherst College. He has been awarded Honorary Degrees as well from Amherst, Champlain College and Castleton University.

He lives in Vermont with his wife, photographer Victoria Blewer.

Their daughter Grace Experience is a young actor in New York City. Among the audiobooks she has narrated are Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, The Guest Room and Hour of the Witch.

Pauline Getzoyan

Pauline Getzoyan

Editor
Pauline Getzoyan is editor of the Armenian Weekly and an active member of the Rhode Island Armenian community. A longtime member of the Providence ARF and ARS, she also is a former member of the ARS Central Executive Board. A longtime advocate for genocide education through her work with the ANC of RI, Pauline is co-chair of the RI branch of The Genocide Education Project. In addition, she has been an adjunct instructor of developmental reading and writing in the English department at the Community College of Rhode Island since 2005.
Pauline Getzoyan

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2 Comments

  1. Isn’t Chris Bohjalian a gift of humanity and literary genius to us and the whole world? His stories, characters and themes are so compelling. Don’t his novels help pull his readers into a world that some of us would never experience otherwise. And finally, what about his appreciation for his Armenian history and culture? His support for Artsakh, the recent war and to Armenia are exemplary. This piece in the Weekly was so well written and presented. We appreciate your continuing effort to enrich the lives and mind of you readers!!!

  2. I have found his writing to be riveting and many truths come to light as well. It is easy to understand his success. And I, myself, recommend his books to those searching for literature that informs life experiences in the most beautiful of prose. I pay attention to notices of anything he writes about. Lately, these little Facebook inside stories have truly grabbed my attention.
    And, everyone loves for a great novelist to respond to him or her. He does that and he shows us his own life, when he posts about Vermont and his family. I know only one other author so open and gracious. It depicts a humility and a willingness to expose his true self. I feel like I should just say, “Thank You, ” for all you do, sir.

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