I stopped reading the novel Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands during the second chapter, when homeless teenager Emily Shepard resorts to prostitution to buy food.
The scene was too painful. I’ve consumed many books and movies that could be considered downers, but I finally reached my limit.
Plus, the title alludes to what police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School told students before walking them past the dead bodies of their classmates on that tragic day in 2012 when 20 children and six adult staff members were fatally shot.
Heartbreak. Starting with the cover.
Author Chris Bohjalian knows his book is challenging. It addresses the death of both parents who are blamed for the town’s nuclear reactor meltdown. The novel also tackles teen homelessness, cutting/self-injury, loneliness, shame, and desperation.
So it’s not surprising he expressed gratitude to his readers at the sold-out Fort Collins Reads event on Nov. 1 at the Hilton:
“Thank you for your bravery in choosing the edgiest book I have written.”
I’m not a literary lightweight. I’ve read a wide variety of award-winning books that were plenty dark, such as Blindness by José Saramago and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
However, in middle age, I’d rather focus on books that temper heavy themes with laugh-inducing stuff, such as those by Rainbow Rowell, Robyn Schneider, David Sedaris, and Aisha Tyler. Next on my wish list: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson.
But Bohjalian is an animated, passionate speaker. And after he explained his inspiration for the book, I decided it deserves another chance.
Bohjalian met with the director of an organization that helps at-risk teens. She told him about three young adults living on the Lake Champlain waterfront in igloos made of black plastic garbage bags filled with wet, frozen leaves. This image became his opening scene.
“As a father, I was heartbroken for them,” he said. “As a novelist, I had [found] my protagonist.”
Room by Emma Donoghue was another source of inspiration, about a woman imprisoned for years with her son who’s never seen the outside world. Bohjalian calls it “a riveting adult novel narrated by a five-year-old boy.”
He saw a connection between that story and his own novels, which examine “relationships that are fraught.” Someone is always in jeopardy. “My books, when they work, are about dread.”
Bohjalian shared insights on the writing life. He usually starts his day reading poetry, pausing over “luminescent” phrases. He also watches movie trailers to get in the mood. Favorites are Birdman, Boyhood, and Cake.
He strives for 1,000 words, or four pages, by lunchtime. “The goal is to just get something down.”
Every 50 pages or so, he walks to a different room in the house and edits a hard copy of the draft using a fountain pen, which forces him to move slowly. Then he types all those pages and continues writing. The next session, he’ll edit 100 pages, then 150, and so on.
Bohjalian always remembers the adage show, don’t tell, which led him to write the scene in which Emily celebrates her birthday by trying to cut 1 and 7 into her thighs.
“Readers needed a visceral connection to how heartbreaking her life had become,” he said.
Bohjalian has written an important book. I know I should read it.
But I’ve experienced enough heartbreak in my life to finally know what I want and don’t want. And what I want is a “happily ever after.” So I flipped through Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands and read the last pages to see if Emily gets hers.
I’m not giving away anything by saying this. In the end, the most important thing she wants people to know is, “Once upon a time, Emily Shepard existed.”
Katherine Valdez gobbled up the young adult novel We Were Liars by E. Lockhart in record time earlier this year after attending Yallwest, and had the same reaction as fellow author Laura Powers: “I was happily heartbroken for days.” Follow her @KatValdezWriter on Instagram and Twitter, and at www.facebook.com/AuthorKatherineValdez.