In the milltown of Lincoln, Vt., Chris Bohjalian is legendary not for his bestselling novel, Midwives, a selection of Oprah's book club last month, but for his chimney fires that summon the volunteer fire department, and for his weekly Burlington Free Press column about the biohazards of his barn or the joys of waiting for the school bus with his daughter.

Bohjalian is 38 years old with a receding hairline and dark, keen eyes. Of average height and unremarkable bearing, he could pass for any of the narrators who figure in his fiction, an "archetypal guy who d sn't get it," as he puts it. The mysteries evading these narrators, however, are the very subjects that interest Bohjalian -- midwifery, New Age practices, homeopathy and, as in his current project, transsexuality.

As Bohjalian invites PW to a lunch of cold Asian noodles and a selection of Vermont cheeses in the kitchen of the yellow Victorian house that he shares with his wife, their six-year-old daughter and four cats, it appears that he's wearing the same nubby cardigan that he wore on Oprah's show the week before. Vermont, one is reminded, is not a land of pretension.

Bohjalian's books are about "everyday people dealing with the complex moral ambiguities that fill this world," he says. His "Oprah" book, Midwives, was published by Harmony in 1997 and issued as a lead Vintage paperback last year. It concerns a midwife who is brought to trial for performing an emergency Caesarian. His previous novel, Water Witches (Univ. Press of New England, 1995), is about a family of dowsers who clash with the ski industry. And his new book, The Law of Similars, out this month from Harmony, portrays a homeopath confronting the medical establishment. It is told from the point of view of a recent widower and father, Leland Fowler, who is torn between his new passion for the homeopath, who unwittingly has given fatal advice to an asthmatic, and his duty as the chief deputy state's attorney to prosecute her.

As a writer who labored for years without recognition, Bohjalian expresses astonishment at his "great good fortune." Speaking with an earnestness that seems practiced yet disarming, he says, "As a novelist there are three phone calls you never expect to receive in your lifetime because if you waited for them you would grow despairing -- one calling from Stockholm with a Swedish accent, one from the NBA and one from Oprah Winfrey."

Yet this same unprepossessing novelist who stacks his wood in a compulsively neat fashion and often refers to himself in the third person has been, in the serenity of his Vermont village, quietly and confidently announcing himself as a writer to be reckoned with in American letters.

"That's one of the weird things about Chris Bohjalian," he explains, seated in his rustic-wallpapered living room containing a Christmas tree freshly cut from a nearby farm, strung with ornaments made by his daughter, Grace, and surrounded by light-filled photographs of Paris and the Southwest taken by his wife, Victoria Blewer. "On the one hand, I'm this guy who grew up in the suburbs of New York City to very conservative parents, and the other side of me is fascinated by the peripheries of our culture, maybe because that's where our culture is most in transition, and where there's likely to be conflict."

Northern Exposure

Bohjalian sees Vermont, where he has lived for the last 12 years and from which he has drawn the stories of four out of his six books, as a culture undergoing change, "rich in conflict" caused by the development of ski areas and the tremendous migration into the state over the last two decades. He and Victoria joined that migration in 1986, when they were 25 years old and living in Manhattan.

The move was prompted by a "cab ride from hell" that deposited them in the midst of a drug sting on the Lower East Side. Immediately thereafter, the Amherst graduate, working as an account executive at the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson to support his writing habit, and his "lovely bride," decided to chuck their urban grief and "retire" north. Both sets of parents considered the couple's decision to move to New England "abject lunacy," says Bohjalian. "They thought we would come to Vermont, see it wasn't for us, return to our senses and go back to New York City. We sure fooled them."

By 1988, he had published a story in Cosmopolitan and found an agent, who placed his first novel, A Killing in the Real World, with St. Martin's. The book still embarrasses him, so much so that he will not mention its agent or editor by name. "How do you begin to describe a book this bad?" he wonders, flinching. "What begins as merely a vacuous coming-of-age story metamorphoses into a truly horrific mystery."

Hangman, his second effort (Carroll &Graf, 1990), was the first of his books to be set in Vermont. It, too, he dismisses as the "apprentice fiction of Chris Bohjalian," the product of wrong-headed but well-intentioned advice ("add some violence, add some sex"). "Hangman was a perfectly fine New England ghost story," he comments with a shrug. "D s the world need another New England ghost story? I think not."

The turning point as a writer came in his late 20s. "When I saw what I had wrought," he says, "I made a very conscious decision that I wouldn't go down that path ever again. I began to understand the kind of stories I write best."

Past the Bleachers was that book. It focuses on a couple grieving for their eight-year-old son, who died of leukemia, and the father's decision to coach what would have been the son's Little League team. Acquired by Carroll &Graf in 1991, it became a Hallmark movie. Bohjalian then jumped to the Ellen Levine Literary Agency (where he worked closely with Anne Dubisson until her retirement two years ago) and was able to quit his work in advertising, which he had managed to carry on in Vermont, for good.

Water Witches required extensive primary research, a process that would be a feature of each of his subsequent books. "I met dowsers and people in the ski industry and lobbyists, you know, those people who at 11:05 on the news justify an 18% utilities rate hike," he says. Eventually the book was published as part of the University Press of New England's Hardscrabble Book launch, and became a Scribner paperback.

The Midwife's Tale

In the market for a subject for his next book, Bohjalian stumbled onto an entirely unexpected idea. "It was about six months after the birth of Grace," he recalls. "We were at a dinner party and sitting next to me was the local independent midwife. She started teasing me very good-naturedly about the notion that we had driven 32.4 miles in the still of the night to have Grace delivered. She said, 'If you had used me, you could have had Grace in your bedroom and you could have caught her.' I had never heard the word `catch' in the context of birth. I grew interested fast."

Bohjalian adds, with polished emphasis, "I realized I was sitting next to a woman who saw more beauty and more drama than any professional I had ever met."

Over the next six months he would interview "no fewer than 65 people," including parents who'd had their babies at home, nurse-midwives across the state and obstetricians. "Even if I didn't know what the book was going to be about," he says, "I knew that I had to understand the culture of midwifery, the politics of birth in this country and certain basics of obstetrics." The voice of his narrator, 31-year-old Connie Danforth, who looks back at the time she was 13, in 1981, when her mother was tried for manslaughter, came to him after a friend of his told him a story about her goddaughter, who returned from preschool one day "entranced" by the word "vulva." He appropriated the story as the first line of his novel: "I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke. It wasn't a swear exactly, but I knew it had an edge to it that could stop adults cold in their tracks."

Midwives was acquired by editor Shaye Areheart at Harmony on the basis of 90 pages and an outline. "It had such a powerful narrator," Areheart says of the book. "It takes us by surprise and sends us tumbling." Crown publisher Chip Gibson was so impressed by the work, and so frustrated that it failed at first to reach a greater audience, that he published an open letter in PW addressed to booksellers three months after the book's publication, urging them to read it. Bohjalian keeps a bulging notebook full of all the faxes received in response to the ad.

Bohjalian's novel brought Oprah to Vermont for the first time, she claims during the broadcast, which Bohjalian replays for his interviewer. After rapidly spliced segments on Dom DeLuise (actually a Vermonter), Ben &Jerry's and a lavish brunch at the Inn at Saw Mill Farm ("I couldn't eat," Bohjalian confides), he is shown seated in a plush, fire-warmed living room with Winfrey and four opinionated women readers. "She is every bit as charismatic as she is on television, and phenomenally well read," Bohjalian says of the talk show star. "How do you thank someone who has done this for you?"

Bohjalian works in a simply furnished room that he calls the library, where a large desk in the center faces a window that looks out toward Mt. Abraham, eclipsed this day by clouds. Here he writes from 5 a.m. till 10 a.m., emerging for 15 minutes to have breakfast with his daughter before kindergarten. He then conducts his research in the form of interviews, d s errands and at "five of three" punctually meets his daughter at the bus stop, across the street from the Baptist church next door. The books on the shelves include his favorite fiction, by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, "because she is so comfortable plumbing the dark side of the human soul," and Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher, whom he considers his "literary godfather."

The walls bear a painting of his wife as a child and depictions of the Bread Loaf campus, where he has taught for the Young Writers conference, 10 miles away. His in-box is stuffed with correspondence from the last three weeks. "I answer two or three letters a day," he says. "I'm just not the he-has-a-secretary kind of guy." What he calls "every writer's self-absorption bookcase" contains all editions of his work, and his research shelf offers the remains of his homeopathy library and a fledging collection of books on transsexuality, the subject of his work in progress, Trans-Sister Radio.

Trans-Sister Radio is not so much a departure for Bohjalian as another step toward exploring the "peripheries" he finds so compelling. The novel features four voices: a 35-year-old transsexual lesbian, a freshman at Bennington College, and a middle-aged heterosexual couple. In order to portray his transsexual protagonist accurately, he spent hours with a patient on the night before her surgery in a clinic in Trinidad, Colo. He speaks of their meeting affectingly. "Like so many of the patients, she was there completely alone," he says. "She understood that I would never be able to create a transsexual in fiction without meeting the transgendered in reality.... I was offering company and she was offering me wisdom."

Bohjalian chooses to write in the first person for authenticity rather than concerning himself with what he calls literary pyrotechnics. The voices of the midwife, Sibyl Danforth, who came of age in the '60s and whose voice emerges through diary entries, and Leland Fowler, whom he terms the "goofy middle-aged" protagonist of The Law of Similars, required a great deal of research to get just right. "I hate to reduce myself to a ventriloquist," the author says. "What is most important to me is that my narrator's voice is believable, and that, though it is clearly an absolute fiction, it has the emotional resonance of memoir."