When the phone rang on October 18, 1998, two guys were in their basement wondering how to tell the homeowner that his Eisenhower-era furnace was beyond repair. As he contemplated their predicament and watched his kindergartner, Grace, play with a friend, Chris Bohjalian answered the call that changed his life. It was none other than Oprah Winfrey, who announced she had just selected “Midwives,” his already-bestselling novel, for her book club. A year later, “Midwives” was still on the bestseller list, and 19 years after that, Chris is the author of 20 novels, many of which have won awards and attracted huge audiences.
Because Chris started his career in advertising (we worked together at J. Walter Thompson in the mid ‘80s) and we marketers are increasingly obsessed with the idea of brand storytelling, I thought he would be an interesting and instructive guest for “Renegade Thinkers Unite.” Happily, he was all that and more, offering valuable insights to any brand that’s looking to consistently create content that people actually want to consume. Since we talked for 55 minutes over a two-part episode, here are a few of the key takeaways.
Writing starts with a disciplined approach
The fact that Chris became a successful novelist was of no surprise to those of us who knew his work ethic. “I was writing between 5 and 7 a.m. in the morning before going to work at Thompson and then Monday and Tuesday nights when I came home from work,” Chris recalled. And though his hours changed as he got older, “the goal is to write a thousand words a day [since] it is a whole lot easier to edit garbage than a blank page.” Bohjalian then edits his work with a messy fountain pen and ultimately his books go through seven to nine drafts. How many drafts is your content going through?
Be true to your brand and your audience
During our time together at JWT, there was another budding author on an adjacent floor by the name of James Patterson. At the time Patterson was Executive Creative Director and an intimidating character to us account people, but he nonetheless wrote a blurb for the back of Chris’ first book. When asked about Patterson’s writing, Bohjalian complimented “his deep respect for his readers and his understanding that he needs to be giving them something back.” Chris also pointed out that “James Patterson is also a brand and readers have very specific expectations of what they’re going to get when they open one of his books.” Do consumers know what content they can expect from your brand?
Have the courage to stay in your lane
Learning from one’s mistakes is hardly a new concept, but Chris raises the bar with his clinical self-examination. “When my books have failed artistically, it’s usually because I lost courage,” he shared. He went on to explain, “I’m really proud of the opening third of ‘The Night Strangers’ but then I lost courage and instead of focusing on one individual’s PTSD and the ramifications for his family, I took one of those hard left turns into the sensational and that’s not my specialty.” Do you know your sweet spot and how to tell if you’re veering out your brand’s subject or style lane?
Stay social on social media
Like many brands, you might expect Chris to flaunt his product (i.e., books) on his social channels. But drop into his feed and you’ll get a personal tour of his beloved “802” (AKA Vermont) as well as other aspects of his life. Chris even makes a point not to post about his writing. “Goodness gracious, my fans don’t need to learn a whole lot about my books on the social networks. They want to know what interests me about either Vermont or Armenia because those are my passions,” he explained. Chris also invests time in getting to know his fans on social media. “The social networks are fun,” he concluded. Are you creating social content that reveals the human side of your brand?