Chris Bohjalian and Stephen Kurkjian: Esteemed Writers in Conversation

Armenian Museum of America, May 18, 2022

WATERTOWN, Mass.The Armenian Museum of America held its first in-person event in more than two years on Wednesday, May 18 with a flourish. More than 200 people filled the third-floor galleries to listen to and participate in a conversation between New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Stephen Kurkjian. They talked about “what words and reading and stories can mean to the soul,” as described by Bohjalian. 

Armenian Museum of America Board of Trustees president Michele Kolligian and Armenian Museum of America executive director Jason Sohigian, May 18, 2022

Before the conversation began between the two powerhouse and renowned writers, the buzz in the room was palpable as people took their seats. Michele Kolligian, president of the museum’s Board of Trustees, welcomed everyone with the memory of Bohjalian conducting his research for The Sandcastle Girls in the museum’s library that still boasts a collection of more than 30,000 books. July 25th will mark 10 years since Bohjalian launched The Sandcastle Girls at the museum, which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary year.

Jason Sohigian, who was named executive director of the museum in November 2020, has seen membership quadruple in the last year and a half thanks in part to the diversity of online programming which the museum has presented during the pandemic shutdown and a concerted drive to encourage people to join the museum’s mission. Sohigian introduced Bohjalian and Kurkjian, enumerating their significant accomplishments and accolades.

The Lioness, Bohjalian’s 24th novel, has already reached number six on the New York Times bestseller list, has received rave reviews from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly, Wall Street Journal and others, and is already in development for a TV series from eOne and Marsh Entertainment. His books have been translated into more than 35 languages, three have been made into movies, and The Flight Attendant is now in its second season on HBO Max. The Boston Globe has called Bohjalian “one of our finest storytellers.” 

Kurkjian, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the most acclaimed investigative reporters in the country with a career that spanned 40 years with The Boston Globe. He was the newspaper’s former Washington bureau chief and a founding member of its investigative Spotlight team. He is the author of the 2015 book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, about the still-unsolved 1990 theft of 13 works of art valued at up to $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Kurkjian also appears in the 2021 Netflix documentary “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist.”

New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Stephen Kurkjian, May 18, 2022

Bohjalian opened his conversation with Kurkjian by addressing “the elephant in the room”: his altered voice. He explained that he does not have laryngitis, as many have speculated, but this is his new “post-pandemic voice,” which is a long-haul symptom from his bout with COVID-19 in March of 2020. He reassured the audience that he works with an excellent voice therapist in New York City. Then, before Kurkjian could ask his first question, Bohjalian asked him, as a chronicler of the area for more than 40 years, what makes Boston such a great character, to which Kurkjian responded with appreciation of the immigrant experience in the city, further illustrated by the “gem” of the Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway.

The conversation progressed from the inspiration for Bohjalian’s characters to his discipline in the writing process, the source of surprise for each writer, locations as characters and changes in writing style.

Bohjalian’s inspiration for his latest novel stemmed from a matinee workshop performance of the play based on his book Midwives, after which he emerged from the dark theater into the sunshine reminding him of how much he enjoys movies. And thus was born the setting of The Lioness: Hollywood’s Golden Age when its biggest star finally gets married and decides to take her friends on a safari. Bohjalian and his wife Victoria Blewer went on a safari to the Serengeti in October 2019, and he said the book was made better by that experience and witnessing the great crossing of the wildebeest. He wrote the novel in 2020 when he had just lost his voice to the virus, noting the importance of his “pod” during that time and the dedication at the beginning of The Lioness: “For my pod, literal and metaphoric, from 2020, the Year That Satan Spawned, and the first half of 2021. When I was hanging on by my fingernails, you gave me your hand. You are my safari.”

Bohjalian explained more changes from the pandemic, including an altered schedule that used to begin at his desk at 6:00 a.m. With the advent of the pandemic and addition of his rescue dog Jesse to the family in February 2020, Bohjalian now gets to his desk shortly after 7:30 a.m. with the goal of writing 1,000 words a day, assuming “that they will not all be good.” He discussed Hemingway’s influence and rules for writing, one of which is to “always begin with rewriting what you wrote the day before.”

In discussing the different styles of writing between novelist and journalist, Bohjalian explained that his characters take him by the hand and lead him in a book’s direction, and Kurkjian said that the synthesis of information in reporting leads to sometimes surprising discoveries.

Bohjalian expressed admiration for the work of journalists and the importance of newspapers and magazines, explaining that the beginning of each chapter in The Lioness includes a quote from The Hollywood Reporter, Movie Star Confidential or the Los Angeles Times, an homage to the influence of the publications and a reminder to readers of what was happening in the world during those times.

The advent of streaming television has changed Bohjalian’s writing over the years. “I believe how we consume information has changed,” he said. Previously, his books were a much slower immersion into the characters and story. Now, he will take readers and drop them right into the action. Ten years ago, The Flight Attendant, for example, might have started off with the main character Cassie learning to be a flight attendant instead of beginning with her waking up next to a dead man.

Throughout the evening, the esteemed writers expressed sincere admiration for each other’s body of work, welcoming questions from the audience. Bohjalian passed out exclusive Lioness chocolate bars from Lake Champlain Chocolates as a special treat for queries, after which eager readers lined up to get their books signed by the author.

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.

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