07/24/12 - Mr. President, Vermont boasts many talented artists, creators, composers and authors. Not least among them is Chris Bohjalian of Lincoln, an accomplished writer whose recent novel, The Sandcastle Girls, is drawing the praise and accolades of critics and readers alike. Marcelle and I were inspired by the story Chris has committed to the printed page; it is a novel that I believe will secure his place among the most accomplished writers of the 21st Century.
I read with interest an interview with Chris published in Vermont's Burlington Free Press on July 15. Like many artists and authors, Chris drew from his own heritage in his case, Armenian--to pen a moving story of compaslion and perseverance amid horror and tragedy. Perhaps this is why he has called The Sandcastle Girls the ``most important book'' he will ever write.
Chris is a longtime friend, and I have always enjoyed reading his works. The Sandcastle Girls is an achievement that stands apart and will deeply affect its readers.
I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the RECORD the article, ``The Most Important Book I Will Ever Write.''
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
[From the Burlington Free Press, July 15, 2012]
``The most important book I will ever write''--Bohjalian talks about `The Sandcastle Girls'
(By Sally Pollak)
Chris Bohjalian is a novelist who lives in Lincoln. Bohjalian, 51, writes a Sunday column for the Burlington Free Press. ``The Sandcastle Girls,'' his 14th novel, comes out Tuesday. In a recent conversation with Free Press reporter Sally Pollak, Bohjalian said ``The Sandcastle Girls'' is the most important novel he will ever write. He said, as well, he thinks it's the best book he's ever written.
``The Sandcastle Girls'' is set in Aleppo, Syria, during the Armenian genocide, nearly a century in the past. The story centers around a young American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, who travels to the Middle East to assist Armenian refugees. She befriends (and aids) a group of interesting people, and falls in love with an Armenian engineer who has suffered devastating losses.
The book is narrated by a contemporary American novelist of Armenian heritage, Laura Petrosian. Bohjalian says Petrosian is a female version of himself.
BFP: What compelled you to write this book?
CB: This is the second time I've tried to write about the Armenian genocide. I tried to write about it when I finished ``Water Witches,'' prior to writing ``Midwives.'' I wrote an entire novel called ``Sugar Daddy.'' Terrible book, never published.
Not only was it a terrible, terrible book, but about this time Carol Edgarian wrote ``Rise the Euphrates'' about the Armenian genocide.
And I remember thinking to myself, Why does the world need my book when it has ``Rise the Euphrates?''
Rather than try to save the novel I went onto my next project, a novel about a midwife who dies in childbirth, and wrote that book instead.
I was about 100 pages into the manuscript about the Sandcastle girls when Mark Mustian published his interesting and marvelous novel about the genocide, ``The Gendarme.'' Once again I thought the world doesn't need my novel.
But I was so emotionally invested in these characters, I cared so much about the story, that I soldiered on and finished it. I'm really glad I did. I love this novel. Elizabeth Endicott, Nevart and Hatoun are my three favorite female characters, along with Sibyl Danfroth in ``Midwives,'' that I've ever written.
BFP: ``The Sandcastle Girls'' is a mystery, a love story and a narrative of war. How do you approach writing a novel that weaves together these themes?
CB: Those elements are woven together through the characters. I know when I read a novel, I'm interested in characters I care about. And so when I began this book I began with the people, I began with the characters. And I do care so deeply about the characters in this book, especially those women.
BFP: How did you come up with ``the compound'' in your novel, the setting for much of the action and the place where many of your characters live?
CB: Partly, I was simply after historical authenticity: Where would Elizabeth Endicott, an American, be living? Then, however, I saw the importance of the juxtaposition of where Elizabeth lays her head at night compared to where the refugees who are coming from the desert are sleeping. The square of the citadel is an innermost ring of Dante's inferno, compared to the compound.
BFP: Did you know when you started writing the book how you were going to resolve it?
CB: I never know where my books are going when I begin them. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. I didn't know this novel was even going to have a component that was mysterious when I began it. All I knew was that I wanted to examine what my narrator calls the ``Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.''
BFP: Can you describe the sense of responsibility or obligation you might have felt writing a novel that would tell people something about this mass killing, now a century in the past?
CB: I know in my heart this is the most important book I'm ever going to write. I'm telling a story that is not known but was precedent-setting for some of the most horrific tragedies and crimes of the last century. There's a direct line between the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. It's a long list.
In 1915, there were roughly two million Armenians living in the Ottoman empire. By the end of the First World War, 1.5 million would be dead, three out of every four of them. In 1915, I had four Armenian great-grandparents. By the end of that year, at least one would be dead. Both of my Armenian grandparents are genocide survivors.
My family history is a part of that horrific global narrative. So when I started this book, I began with the personal. My narrator, Laura Petrosian, is a female version of me. That's my grandparents' house in the novel.
Elizabeth Endicott and Armen Petrosian (central characters in the book) are not my grandparents. They are completely fictional.
BFP: When did your grandparents, Leo and Haigoohi Bohjalian, come to this country?
CB: There were two points of arrival. I believe my grandfather, Leo, first arrived here in 1920 but he didn't stay. He went back to get my grandmother and they lived in Paris until late 1927, or very early 1928.
BFP: What do you know about your own Armenian ancestors? And how does your family's history figure into this work?
CB: I know almost nothing about my Armenian ancestry; I know even less about my (maternal) Swedish ancestry.
I don't know what demons dogged my mother and father, but they never talked to me about their childhoods. That's why perhaps ``The Sandcastle Girls'' is a novel and not a memoir. I couldn't tell you enough about my Armenian and Swedish ancestors to write a memoir. I have wondered if I am going to learn a lot about my (Armenian) ancestors when this book comes out, which would be great.
My aunt believes that Haigoohi's father (Bohjalian's great-grandfather) was murdered by Turkish soldiers because he supplied horses to the army. They killed the Armenian and took the horses.
The history of ``The Sandcastle Girls'' is accurate. I did my research and I did my homework. I believe that Aleppo of 1915 (where the novel is set) is the real thing.
I knew so little about the Armenian genocide as a child, and what my grandparents must have endured, that I saw no irony in the fact that my first serious girlfriend when I was 13 and 14 years old was Turkish. I understood as a child that my grandparents were from Armenia and were magnificently exotic, by the standards of both grandparents. My mother really did call their house the Ottoman Annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their English, up to as late as 1970, was heavily accented.
BFP: Your father, Aram Bohjalian, died last summer, about a year before the publication of ``The Sandcastle Girls.'' Did you get a chance to talk to him about the book? What were his feelings about the novel?
CB: My father's eyesight had been diminished by macular degeneration for so long, he was not able to read even large-print books. That photograph (of Bohjalian's father and grandparents) is one of many photographs that my dad and I pored over the last two years of his life. Because he was so ill, I was visiting him a lot. The way I would try to take his mind off the pain he was in was to get out family photo albums and ask him to tell me stories, ask him to tell me about the different people in the photographs. A lot of it he didn't know.
My father, as a first generation son of immigrants, in many ways distanced himself as much as he could from his Armenian ancestry. He grew up in a house in Westchester County in which everyone spoke Armenian or Turkish. When he started kindergarten, he spoke not a single word of English. He didn't even know how to ask where the bathroom was. In terms of distancing himself from his Armenain ancestry, he became as American as possible.
He was not as handsome as Don Draper in ``Mad Men'' but he was a Mad Man. He was an advertising executive at large New York City ad agencies.
I think my father knew more than he wanted to share with me. He had mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, he was always really proud of me; even when his eyesight was gone, he loved listening to my books on audio, even the bad ones.
But I think he also felt that this story was too painful for a novel. I remember once reminding him when we talked about this that I had written novels about a woman dying in childbirth, a couple who had their twin daughters washed away in a flood, the Holocaust, and a domestic abuse murder-suicide. And I also told him that as an Armenian-American, I felt an incredible desire to write this story because it feels so much a part of me.
BFP: Can you tell us something about your recent trip to Armenia and Lebanon?
CB: The principal driving force that led me to Armenia was the death of my father, and not simply his death but his illness. The more time I spent looking at old family photographs, the more time I spent seeing images of Leo and Haigoohi, the more I felt this profound desire to see Mount Ararat.
I have never in my life been outside Vermont and felt less like a stranger in a strange land, than when I was in Yerevan, Armenia. I was so happy there in ways I hadn't expected.
BFP: ``The Sandcastle Girls'' will be released Tuesday. Are you nervous as publication approaches?
CB: I've never been as emotionally invested in how people respond to a book as I am with this one. Because this is the most important book I will ever write. And I think it's the best book I've ever written. And the reason why it's the most important book is pure and simple: because it's about the ``Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.''