When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

Be Prepared: Finishing Your Book Can Bum You Out

I’m currently a few chapters away from a solid draft of my 26th book, and even though I’m excited that it’s been going so well, I’m sad to be seeing the end.

I’ve published books in a wide range of genres–including memoir, historical fiction, erotic vampire tale, and literary novels–but no matter what I’ve written, the experience is always the same: immersive.

I may be worried about something in my own life, about a friend’s health, or about the state of our nation’s politics, but when I’m writing a book, I feel protected and cocooned.

It’s not that I don’t register what’s going on around me; I experience it all inside a kind of bubble.  The book-in-progress is always on my mind, whether I’m at the gym, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or walking the dogs.  I may not be consciously working out the next scene or chapter, but the book is as real and present as soft music coming from another room.

A book of any kind is an adventure, a promise, a series of doors that open and some that close.  It changes as it grows and I change with it.  The end point likely won’t be what I thought it would be, though sometimes the last line is waiting for me like a charming host ready to pour me a great glass of wine.

Ironically, with the end in sight, everything is clearer and I usually write faster, but I feel a countervailing pressure to slow down, to enjoy these last moments with the companion of many months–or even years.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what happens when it’s done: editing and revising, the chance to revisit a manuscript and see it with fresh eyes after a break.  And working with a good editor is one of the joys of publishing. But that’s not the same as creating something new.  When I’m done, the sense of wonder and discovery that Mandy Patimkin sings about in Sunday in the Park with George has vanished.  “Look, I made a hat…” he sings.  “Where there never was a hat.”

When the book is done and revised however many times it needs, the technical, business side is ahead.  It becomes a product in the marketplace. And though I love doing readings from my work and have a great time on book tours thanks to being an extrovert with some acting experience, I’m already thinking about the next book, the next adventure….

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Shakespeare & A Writer’s Revenge

I’ve been publishing for a long time and I’ve dealt with all kinds of editors.  Some are laid back.  Some are very hands-on.  Some are hard to pin down.  Some are extremely helpful and supportive.  And a few–very few–are difficult or even opaque.  They tell you one thing but mean something completely different that you couldn’t have guessed at.

huhHere’s what happened a few years ago with one of those.

I pitched an idea to a magazine about the farkakteh theory that Shakespeare was a Jewish woman (yes!), which is just another bit of nutty Shakespeare Denialism that’s been a flourishing industry for way too long.  James Shapiro wrote an entertaining book about it: Contested Will.

The editor really liked my approach–at least I thought so.

Then he sent back my blog and basically told me that it had to be completely rewritten.  But that wasn’t all: he thought it should be re-shaped to say what he wanted, which was bizarre, since in our previous emails, he’d never told me any of his opinions.  If he had, I would have gone elsewhere.

Was I annoyed?  Of course.  I’d been publishing dozens of articles, essays, short stories, and books for years and dealing with editors who were much more professional than that.  Except for one, “and thereby hangs a tale….”

I sent the piece to The Huffington Post.  They took it right away, beginning my long relationship with that site, and you can read it here.  I waited till the blog was posted and wrote back to the first editor that I was sorry he didn’t like my approach, but someone else did.

I included the link.

Sometimes revenge isn’t just sweet, it’s swift.  This time it was so swift that it wasn’t even worth saving the editor for a character to put into my Nick Hoffman mystery series–appropriately disguised, of course.  I just brushed it off.

dirt off my shoulderLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

The Editor Who Worked My Last Nerve

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have terrific editors for stories or essays appearing in magazines and anthologies.  The same goes for all my books, whether the presses were large or small. Well, almost all my books.

An editor at a good trade press once asked me out of the blue if I had a book for him–now isn’t that every writer’s dream? The dream became tarnished within a year. I was headed on a German book tour for another book while “his” book was in press and he told me the schedule had been advanced several months.  He insisted on sending me the e-galleys for correction while I was going to be in Germany. I told him I couldn’t go over them because I’d be on and off trains and rarely in one city more than one day. It wasn’t feasible: I wouldn’t have enough uninterrupted time to concentrate and do a good job. I thought I was being a responsible author, but he ignored my concerns.

db-overview-3This was my first book tour in Germany and it would turn out to be the worst flight I’d ever have going to Europe.  Trouble started with being in a seat that didn’t recline behind an over-sized passenger who reclined all the way. Then I was right across from a toilet so I was enveloped in that chemical smell for the whole flight.  A kid threw up in the aisle just a few feet away from me and soon after that, the plane turned back somewhere over the Atlantic because a man had a heart attack.

We landed in Newfoundland in complete darkness which was terrifying, and I knew for sure I would be late getting to Schiphol in Amsterdam. Very late.  And that’s a confusing, crowded airport anyway.

schiphol 2I was able to make some calls when we landed in Newfoundland, but I was totally stressed out and unable to sleep when we were back en route to Europe.  In Amsterdam, I had to run through that enormous crowded airport to make a connecting flight, and arrived in Berlin sleepless and exhausted.  There was just enough time for me to wash my face at my hotel, put on deodorant and change my shirt before being rushed to my reading (which I still managed to introduce in pretty good German).

berlin at nightBecause I used only a PC at home, I didn’t have a laptop in Germany and discovered to my horror that Internet cafés had German keyboards–well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But the layout and letters threw me and my emails looked like I was drunk.

Proof my book under those extra-trying circumstances? I explained to this insistent and clueless editor that even if I had time it couldn’t happen, so I asked him again to please wait till I got home in a few weeks–or proof the galleys himself. I’m not sure if he bothered, because at the next stage, back home, the book had a major goof which, he, I, and the copyeditor had all somehow missed.  This happens in publishing all the time as any author will tell you: mistakes slip through. But if I’d had the galleys and had time for them (say, with only half as many readings on my schedule), I would have caught the problem.

It was too expensive to reset the book at this late date–that’s what the publisher told me. So the book I was so proud of wasn’t published in as polished a form as it should have been, and the editor I was originally flattered to work with turned into an unsympathetic jerk.

An author friend told me when my career had just gotten started that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.  It opened you up to a range of shocks and disappointments you never knew existed. But I’m glad my career has proven his wisdom true only sometimes, and that this editor was a very rare exception for me.

Happy-Writer1Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, including Assault With a Deadly Lie, a suspense novel about militarized cops, which was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.