Interview By Narbeh Minassian
Within these colourful pages of our Resident magazine, you will be accustomed to reading about sunnier climates, hotspot restaurants, and culture in Manhattan and the Hamptons. And we pride ourselves on escorting you to a world of luxury. Today, I must temporarily buck this trend and present to you the grave and largely unheard of subject at the heart of Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Sandcastle Girls. This is the subject of the Armenian Genocide.
Chris Bohjalian is a New York Times best-selling author of fifteen books, including ‘Midwives’, which, along with his newest novel, made it into Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. In July of this year, he released what is for him the most important book that he has ever written. This book was the result of more than a year’s worth of research into his own family’s past, in which he uncovers the horrors that occurred in Eastern Turkey and the Syrian Desert in 1915.
While Bohjalian’s novel may be inspired by true events, it is told in a way that only he could tell. A masterfully controlled narrative takes you through a love story set in wartime. It is not an enjoyable, pleasant read – not in the traditional sense anyway- but it is a captivating and emotionally stirring journey through a hitherto untraveled path.
Resident (R): I wanted to start by asking about the title itself; aside from its link to the desert and fragility, what is its significance? Does it represent an enclave of happiness or hope amidst such horror?
Chris Bohjalian (CB): There are a couple of reasons why it is called The Sandcastle Girls. Something I will tell you is that I am convinced that most successful books often have a three word title with first word ‘the’; The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner, The Da Vinci Code. Moreover, I wanted a lot of people from around the world who do not know about the Armenian Genocide to read this novel, so I began with the premise that I wanted a three word title -first word ‘the’- and I knew it was coming out in July, which is a crazy month for books. I needed a title that would work in July and that would entice readers to pick it up. If I called it ‘the death of 1.5 million people in the desert’, nobody would read it. The title also does a couple of things: it is an ironic juxtaposition of what Elizabeth Endicott thinks of sand, she thinks of cape cod and the beach; and then there is Hatoun, who thinks of sand with very different associations. I hadn’t consciously thought of it being an enclave of happiness but that is an interesting idea.
R: What made you choose this particular choice of structure; going from first person to third, and past to present?
CB: I needed a personal way into this novel. My grandparents were genocide survivors, but I will never know exactly what they endured just outside Constantinopleand in Egypt. However, I did know my grandparents as my grandpa and grandma, so I created a female version of me, who knows far too little about her Armenian ancestry but for a variety of reasons will need to discover the past. Armen and Elizabeth are not my grandparents, but Laura is me. The second part of the structure is a more traditional ‘Jamesian’ third person novel, and that is a big sweeping historical epic; I love epics and love stories such as Corelli’s Mandolin and Birdsong. And I wanted this novel to be like those books. I wanted it to be a big sweeping love story in the midst of war, which is why I chose third person for that. And the book is a detective story in a way, she sees this this photo that may be linked to her family so she digs into the past in ways she never has before. It moves back and forth in time because most people don’t know about the Armenian genocide, and as Laura says we need a book about the Armenian Genocide for dummies and you can’t do that without it being clunky in third person because it becomes a historical text, but if you have a very clear first person narrator who can do a litany of all the ways that Armenians were systematically killed, then it works.
R: There is a link to Alice in Wonderland and Hatoun in the book, what do you mean by this?
CB: It is interesting how life in glorious ways impacts art. While I was writing this book my daughter was finishing her senior year of high school with a performance of ‘Alice Underground’, which was a reimagining of the story. So I spent a lot of time thinking about Alice in Wonderland. I reread it and what struck me was that I realised this is a bloody nightmare! So it made me think what it would be like for Alice in real life, and I already had this character, Hatoun, who had struggled in from the desert. At that point I had written the scene in which she sees her sister and mother tied to poles and beheaded by gendarmes riding on horseback as if it were a game –just as the Queen of Hearts does in Wonderland- so I realised Hatoun is going through what Alice in wonderland would have gone through were it not a Lewis Carol novel. Imagine being uprooted from your father, all your possessions taken from you, watching men in your village being massacred and then marched with women and older girls and seeing them killed before your very eyes.
R: What is your writing process, how did you approach this book?
CB: I was deeply invested in this book. It was personally very important to me. But I am used to writing so I am capable of compartmentalising my thoughts and ideas. Nevertheless, whenever I wrote a scene with Hatoun, I was terrified. I don’t know where my books are going and I usually rely on my characters to take me through, and there were points when I thought she is going to die because I didn’t know if she was going to or not. What was different about this book is that when I finished this book I had a post-partum. I really missed my characters.
R: Berk’s Turkish parents talk pejoratively about Armenians; how did it feel to write this?
CB: Whenever I see Turkish denial or fabrication I am appalled. That scene you are referring to was based on a scene from my childhood. We were at a Turkish family’s house for a party, and the only time I heard him speak Armenian was when he was bickering with his parents. So when we were leaving I was surprised that all of a sudden I heard him speak Turkish to the host. And I asked him about that and he said he wanted them to know he understood what they had been saying about Armenians and how they were traitors. He didn’t tell me exactly what they said until some years later.
R: Was the torture in the novel based on real life or was it imagined?
CB: In the Armenian library and museum of America in Watertown, the curator showed me this collar that was used on a man during the march. After his wife was raped, the gendarmes castrated him and made him walk on his hands and knees until he couldn’t keep up then, they shot him. I was reading an interview with a Turkish gendarme in 1919, and the British interviewer asked him what kind of weapons they had on these marches and he said they had good weapons, he had a good Turkish rifle, with which you can kill ten Armenians with one bullet. Talat Pasha, the chief orchestrator of the Armenian Genocide, was sentenced to death in absentia but these soldiers saw no irony in boasting about it. •