Chris Bohjalian sets love amid horror

"The Sandcastle Girls" by Chris Bohjalian
"The Sandcastle Girls" by Chris Bohjalian(Vintage Books, paperback release April 16)

Chris Bohjalian's novel "The Sandcastle Girls" has many traditional elements of compelling fiction — people with secrets, shocking plot twists, compulsively likable characters and a rich love story. It also describes the 1915 mass killing of Armenians — "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About," as one of the characters in his book calls it.

Bohjalian, who is at work on his 17th book, was inspired to write this one by the story of his Armenian grandparents. The author will talk about the novel April 22 as part of the new Baltimore Sun Book Club (see details, Page 7).


The novel begins in 1915 when Elizabeth Endicott, who has just graduated from Mount Holyoke, joins her father in Syria as part of a Boston-based group hoping to bring relief to Armenians being displaced by Turks in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The situation is horrific: Armenians are being annihilated, taken out into the desert into death camps.

In the midst of the chaos, Elizabeth meets Armen, a handsome young Armenian. His wife and infant daughter were rounded up by the Turks in the village of Harput. He is hoping he might find them in convoys of refugees arriving daily in Aleppo. But as each day passes, it becomes increasingly clear that they are gone.

Bohjalian's narrative of the complicated love story of Elizabeth and Armen is woven around another narrative: a first-person account by Laura Petrosian, their granddaughter. Her grandparents, now deceased, never talked about their past, but now that Laura is in her 30s, she sets out to discover more about the genocide and her grandparents.

We caught up with Bohjalian on his tour to promote the release of the paperback edition of "The Sandcastle Girls."

You've said in interviews that "The Sandcastle Girls" was inspired by stories you heard of the Armenian genocide. Did you hear about these experiences when you were growing up?

My grandparents, like many genocide survivors, took most of their stories to their graves. We knew a few bits and pieces of what my grandmother endured, but most of what I know I learned from my father [in] the last years of his life or from my incredible aunt — who has always been like a second mother to me.

I tried once before to write a novel of the Armenian genocide and failed. This was back in 1993 and 1994, and I finished the whole book — and it was awful. I never published it. I wrote the book that would become "Midwives" instead.

In 2010, with my father's health failing, I felt a moral obligation to try again — and this time I got it right. There is a lot of my childhood in "The Sandcastle Girls."


And I think it's interesting that this time I succeeded because I wrote a love story.

What was it like to write about such a painful period in history?

In the course of my career I've written novels about — among other things — a German family's complicity in the Holocaust ("Skeletons at the Feast"), a Vermont social worker who's shattered by a horrific sexual assault ("The Double Bind"), and a couple coping with the death of their twin little girls in a flash flood ("The Buffalo Soldier").

So I seem to manage.

And in this case, I felt a moral obligation to write this story. The reality is that most of North America knows next to nothing of the 20th century's first genocide — the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the First World War. To this day, Turkey and its allies deny what historians have demonstrated is incontrovertible fact — and that is a terrible injustice.

This book is rich with a history — a history that hasn't been widely recorded. What was the research process like for you?


I'm half-Armenian. Even though my grandparents did not discuss the genocide, and my father — like many sons and daughters of immigrants — wanted to be as "American" as possible, I was always aware of it. How could I not be?

But I still did a great deal of homework. And I was aided by my great friend, Khatchig Mouradian, a genocide scholar and the editor of the Armenian Weekly.

I've traveled to Lebanon and Armenia, but I will only be making my first trip to Turkey ... in May. I'm traveling there with, among others, the director and screenwriter of what I hope will become "The Sandcastle Girls" movie.

Elizabeth Endicott is a brave young woman ahead of her time. Was she modeled on a real-life person at all?

Elizabeth is not based on any one person. But Mount Holyoke has a long relationship with the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire; they had seminaries in Bitlis and Van up until the genocide. That's why Elizabeth went to Mount Holyoke in the novel.

She's American for the same reason that Laura Petrosian, my narrator, is American. I needed someone who could: 1) Explain to North American readers that there was this monstrous slaughter in the desert that they knew little about; 2) Explain to them why they knew so little about it.

Also, I think women are a lot more interesting than men. I really do. They're also a lot less emotionally hamstrung. I think the only reason golf was invented was so that men would have an excuse to talk to one another.

Why did you decide to create Laura's character? How is her story like your own story?

Although Laura's childhood was my childhood, Laura's grandparents' experiences in 1915 were nothing like my grandparents'.

But as a result of this novel, this past year I wound up as far more of an activist than I ever expected I'd be about anything. That's a bit like Laura.

What has reaction from readers been to the novel?

Well, readers have loved it — which is hugely gratifying, because this might be the most important book I'll ever write.

If you were to have visited my Facebook page the summer and autumn after the hardcover was published in 2012, you would have seen hundreds — perhaps thousands — of posts saying essentially the same thing: "Why did no one tell me this story when I was growing up? How was it my possible that my history teachers or professors never taught me this?" They loved the novel, and they were aghast.

If you go

What: Chris Bohjalian will speak about "The Sandcastle Girls" as the inaugural author in the 2013 Baltimore Sun Book Club series.

When: 7 p.m. April 22

Where: The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

Future: Other authors in the series include Lisa Scottoline on May 20, Jane Green on Sept. 23 and Vaddey Ratner on Oct. 21.

Tickets: $25. Subscriptions, $90. Subscribers will have a VIP reception with the author at 6:30 p.m. and free parking.

Details: baltimoresun.com/bookclub or 410-332-6431.