How Chris Bohjalian Released a Pandemic Novel in the Middle of a Pandemic
“Got to be ready for the next pandemic,” a researcher tells Alexis Remnick, a Manhattan ER physician caught up in a murderous plot in Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller, The Red Lotus. “Got to have new antibiotics. Got to know what we’re up against. I mean, it’s coming. And New York City is the perfect place for a catastrophe.” No, Bohjalian isn’t psychic, but he’s close. The 57-year-old Vermont-based author possesses one of the best-tuned antennas in contemporary fiction for absorbing the troubles, forces, terrors, fortunes, and, yes, plagues that turn the world. The Red Lotus, a novel packed with deadly pathogens and paranoiac animal-to-human transmissions, was released right as New York City was shutting down over the spread of COVID-19. Bohjalian’s fictional scourge does not arrive by bats, however, but by rats, and there are plenty of them scurrying through the book, from sunny Vietnam where Alexis is on a bike tour with her boyfriend when he mysteriously goes missing, to the streets of Manhattan where she tries to put together what really happened.
Bohjalian’s plots race at the speed of a 747, but there’s no skimming in the complexity or depth of his subject matter. One of the joys of reading him lies in the precision of his research. His previous novel, The Flight Attendant, was a bestseller, but for me it was one of the finest examples of literary fiction in recent years. Bohjalian’s thoughtful rendering of the imperfect, yet empathetic Cassie Bowden, who is framed for a murder she may or may not have committed while black-out drunk on a layover in Dubai, is as authentic as it is exhilarating. 2020 was set to be Bohjalian’s year. On top of The Red Lotus, a television series based on The Flight Attendant was set to premiere this summer on HBO starring Kaley Cuoco, and his 1997 novel Midwives just premiered as a stage play. Nevertheless, Bohjalian, at his home in rural Vermont, seems optimistic about the future and the fate of humankind. He spends his mornings writing, often accompanied by his new rescue dog, Jesse, and his afternoons on long bike rides where much of a novel’s problem-solving gets worked out in his head.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Before we get to pandemics and rats, one of the things I really admire about your books is how you take these very different subjects—it could be environmentalism or darts or Agent Orange or World War II–era Poland—and you manage to braid them together into a single narrative with such expertise. How do you manage that?
CHRIS BOHJALIAN: There’s no logic at all. My books are often the result of two or three wildly disparate threads. The Flight Attendant and The Red Lotus are each a perfect exampl. The Flight Attendant, which is about an alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant who wakes up next to a dead body in Dubai, had its origins at the now-defunct Almayass, an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant on 21st and Fifth in New York. I had just flown in from Armenia, and I was meeting someone for dinner but I got to the restaurant an hour early. I’d come straight from the airport, so I did the only sensible thing: I checked my bags and went to the bar. As I was at the bar, three threads came together alchemically. The first thread was simply the beauty of booze—the highball glasses, the martini glasses, and the wine glasses, all the labels lining up. The second thread was the miracle of aviation. I’d had breakfast in Armenia and dinner in New York City, which are eight time zones apart. For that trip I had flown the Russian carrier Aeroflot and I’ve always had this interest in all things Russian. This is a country that gave us Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, and Bolshoi Ballet, and yet the man running the show in the Kremlin is an actual James Bond villain. It’s like the job description: “Are you willing to poison someone with radioactive tea?” So I had this idea for a flight attendant and some sort of Cold War espionage novel, and I asked the bartender for all the scrap paper he had and I wrote the first three pages there at the bar.
BOLLEN: Really? Right on the spot?
BOHJALIAN: Yeah. But when I was at the bar, I was envisioning that it would take place in the 1960s. I probably got 50 or 60 pages into the book before I moved it to the present.
BOLLEN: What brought that on? Your flight attendant protagonist feels very contemporary.
BOHJALIAN: In September of that year, I was back in Armenia as a correspondent for The New York Times and I was chatting with a philanthropist there. Suddenly he was talking to me about the cost to order an execution in Dubai. I was utterly fascinated by this. So that’s what took the novel into the present.
BOLLEN: I’m guessing for The Red Lotus, which starts on a bike tour in Vietnam, that you yourself took a bike tour of Vietnam.
BOHJALIAN: Well, I bike about 3,500 miles a year in Vermont. And when I realized I needed to see Vietnam, I decided to see it the way I see my beloved Vermont—on a bike. That was really beneficial not simply because I wound up using a bike tour in the book, but because of the way I was able to meet people on ground.
BOLLEN: Another big theme of The Red Lotus is rats. And it’s only fitting that most of the novel is set in New York City, rat city. You’ve probably been inadvertently collecting a lot of New York rat stories ever since the novel has come out. What brought on the interest in rodents as these perfect carriers of a deadly pathogen?
BOHJALIAN: Two articles. The first was in The New York Times about eight antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria found in New York City mice. The second was in the New York Post, which listed the nine apartment buildings in New York City with the most rat complaints. I didn’t know quite yet where the novel in these articles was, so I called up Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance. He started telling me how worried he was about New York City as an epicenter for pandemic because of such high population density, and the fact that it’s a city that revolves around mass transportation, which is exactly what you need to create a pandemic. I began thinking there might be a novel in a pandemic and a deadly pathogen. About this time, the Ken Burns special The Vietnam War was about to air, and I had lunch with a guy in my village in Vermont, a Vietnam Veteran, and our conversation gravitated to his time in the war. I began to think there might be something to write on the legacy of the Vietnam War. I didn’t know what precisely. No one needed me to write a Vietnam War novel. But the legacy of that war interested me. That’s why I decided to go to Vietnam.
BOLLEN: And what about your protagonist, an emergency room doctor?
BOHJALIAN: At one point on the bike trip through Vietnam, I was chatting with another American who worked for a hospital. She asked me if I knew what the opposite of a hospice was. I, always the eager student, said “maternity ward.” Wrong. The opposite of a hospice is an emergency room. In a hospice we do all that we can to allow someone to die, and in an emergency room we do all that we can to keep them alive. Trifecta: rats, Vietnam, and an emergency room doctor.
BOLLEN: Tell me what draws you to setting your most recent novels in New York—besides the rats.
BOHJALIAN: I just love New York. The last two novels are both set in the Murray Hill area. Cassie Bowden’s apartment in The Flight Attendant is basically my daughter’s apartment in New York City. I love that area. In my early career, all my books were set in Vermont. Then in 2008, when I set a book in Germany at the end of World War II, it was so liberating. I had written ten or eleven books all set in Vermont at that point. And now I’ve written extensively about New York City, which is such a wonderful character in any book.
BOLLEN: It’s a cinematic city. As for writing, nobody really owns it so everyone’s version is equally legitimate. I imagine you can make a lot of mistakes writing about Vermont because people do feel like they own it more than other places. But everything happens and anything goes in New York City, so it’s very forgiving as a backdrop.
BOHJALIAN: I think you are 100% right. Vermonters take great pride in our state and we want Vermonters to be writing about Vermont, which when I speak that out loud, sounds odd because all of a sudden I’m thinking, “God, does that mean that somebody from Nebraska can’t write about Vermont?”
BOLLEN: They can, but they open themselves up to a ruthless critique by locals. I want to ask you about your impressive ability to portray women. Women are often the main characters of your books, and yet there’s a complexity to these characters that a lot of male writers can’t seem to get right, try as they might. I wonder if it’s because you have a daughter.
BOHJALIAN: Yes. My daughter is so stringent, so smart. And she’s also a wonderful actor. She once told me, “Dad, take this as a compliment because I mean it to be. I think your sweet spot as a writer is in seriously messed-up young women.” [Bollen laughs.] And she’s right, although Alexis in The Red Lotus is much more together than a lot of the women in my books. She has her demons and she has her scars. But she is more of a kick-ass hero than some of the other deeply wounded birds in my books. Part of that is because when I was doing research, I fell in love with ER doctors. They’re just amazing to me. They are unbelievable multitaskers. They have six, seven, eight cubicles going on at one time and they’re able to focus on all of them. And they are so empathetic. They see us at our worst. No one ever has on their calendar, “Let’s see, Thursday 10:00 a.m. I’m going to the ER.” They’re not necessarily adrenaline junkies, but they’re capable of handling a crisis.
BOLLEN: We’ve all been thinking about their heroism these days. I’m having enough trouble getting through a day at home during this pandemic. To imagine that they are fighting in emergency rooms 24 hours a day…
BOHJALIAN: I am mightily impressed—but not surprised—by the way they have stepped up in this pandemic. They have been spectacularly heroic.
BOLLEN: Do you think you would have been a good emergency room doctor? You seem like a decent crisis manager.
BOHJALIAN: I would have been good at empathy because, as a novelist, part of what I do is trying to walk in someone else’s shoes and imagine what he or she is experiencing. I think I would have done okay in the even-keeled crisis management department. I would utterly, epically fail when it comes to the hypochondria department. I would be freaking out every time. I’ll give you an example. My wife is an artist and once she had to go to the ER because she got a hook caught in her fingers due to some encaustic work she was doing. All I could think was, “Oh my god, there’s a hook in a human finger.” I once said to my primary care physician, “Am I the biggest hypochondriac you have?” And he looked at me and he said, “No, I have taller.”
BOLLEN: I want to ask about your work discipline. You’re amazingly prolific. Do you take any time off between novels?
BOHJALIAN: If I finish the draft of a book on Monday, I will start the next book on Tuesday. I write Christmas morning, I write Easter morning. I write every morning that I’m not on a book tour or traveling. I think part of it is that writing gives me a lot of pleasure. It’s really fun. I’m sure it’s also because of those emotional demons that we all have. I amassed 250 rejection slips before I sold a single work. There was a time in the early 1990s when my wife and I sold all our living room furniture to pay the mortgage. There was another month when we sold all of our dining room furniture so we could have another month of health insurance. I write every day because I love it. But part of me also writes because I want to keep the wolves at bay.
BOLLEN: Money is a very good impetus to get to work on the next novel.
BOHJALIAN: There was a nature writer in Lincoln, Vermont, named Ron Rood. Whenever Ron was asked, “What drives you to write?” he would look deeply contemplative and then say, “Mortgage.”
BOLLEN: Obviously you’ve written a pandemic novel that has come out in the middle of a pandemic. How are you taking the way life imitates fiction in the meanest of ways?
BOHJALIAN: The Red Lotus is my twenty-first book. I’ve already finished my twenty-second, which will be coming out next March. Look, I had a book published on September 11th, 2001. I had a book published the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. I had a book published a day before we engaged with Iraq in 2003. I’ve had 39 publication days, 21 hardcovers, and 18 paperbacks. Of those 39 publications, 35 were seamless and four not so much. One of the things I try to remind younger writers is that we are always living in history.