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Christopher Beha at Powell’s

July 8, 2012

I was thrilled to catch up with Christopher Beha at Powell’s last Thursday. His new book, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, shook my world. It incorporates all the themes that my mother told me did NOT make for polite dinner conversation: religion, illness, the progress of your second book, and the state of your disintegrating relationships. After I finished it, I felt my perspective shift. Everything seemed askew. That’s what a great novel does.

WHTSW is the story of Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder who meet in a college writing workshop and become best friends and lovers. Their relationship is intense and complicated–all about books, writing and Sophie’s occasional dalliance with other men.

Eventually, there’s a falling out and Sophie disappears for years. Now, Charlie is living in New York working on his second book, his first barely having made a ripple in the literary world. This is vastly different from Sophie’s first book, which received great acclaim.

One evening, Sophie drops back into Charlie’s life, and she begins to fill Charlie in on what she went through during the years she was missing. She married Tom, “just another one of those boys who majored in economics and lived on the row.” She converted to Catholicism, cared for her husband’s dying father, and quit writing.

Charlie, on the other hand, is still the same Charlie – a moon to her sun. In one of my favorite passages he says, “I can no longer imagine the person I was before I met Sophie, a boy whose father is still alive, whose mother is still fixed to the earth, not etherized and floating. My entire life before she caught up to me after class that day feels like a backstory sketched in by Sophie while we walked through campus that afternoon. Sophie Wilder invented me.”

Their relationship appears to pick up where it left off, but you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what transpires. I would hate to give anything away. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a book that’s not afraid to ask the big questions about love, death and faith. It’s literary, smart and reads a little like a mystery. I found it impossible to put down.

I asked Beha about the genesis of the story, and why he chose the themes of writing, religion, and illness. He said, “You don’t get to pick your themes; they pick you. They work their way in on their own accord.”

He elaborated by talking about his own life’s issues that became integrated into his work, such as his Catholic upbringing and the thread of illness that runs the length of the book. He said, “I have had a number of fairly serious illnesses. When I was in my early twenties I had a bout of cancer and did six months of chemotherapy and a couple months of radiation. I later had chronic Lyme disease, which I still sort of suffer through. Illness is just a major reality of my life and it doesn’t get written about a ton. Virginia Woolf wrote a wonderful essay on this topic. It’s very similar to religious faith, in that, once you’re out of it, it’s very difficult to imagine yourself back into it. I am not a religiously devout person at this point, but I actually think about faith more now than when I actually had it. That’s sort of the nature of those things.”

One of the highlights of the evening was watching the Tin House family fill the chairs for Beha’s reading. Even its publisher and editor-in-chief, Win McCormak, (at right with Beha) showed up to support him. I love that about Tin House!

Tin House, 2012

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction.

  1. Diane’s reviews are always a mix of insight, graceful language and perceptive insights. To put it simply, she get to the “heart of what the author has to say.”

  2. Betsy permalink

    Hello Diane- Sounds like a book that I need to read! It goes on the list. Very insightful review. Thank you for your work. Betsy

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