idea for his latest novel came to Chris Bohjalian in an
organic and sobering way. Visiting Armenia in 2013 with
his wife, then-teenage daughter Grace and Graceís
friend, he got up early to see Graceís friend safely
to the airport to fly home. Waiting for her in the hotel
lobby around 3 a.m., he spotted a young girl talking to
was paying him off to go upstairs," he says.
"She was clearly an escort, clearly younger than my
daughter. It was heartbreaking to see, as a dad, as an
Armenian American. She was just so young. I began to
wonder: Is there a novel in a girl such as this?"
answer was yes ó "The Guest Room"
(Doubleday, $25.95), which tackles the harrowing subject
of human trafficking and sexual slavery. The novel opens
with a bachelor party gone horribly wrong in a tony New
York suburb. Richard Chapman has grudgingly hosted the
gathering for his younger, disreputable brother, his
wife and daughter off to the city for the evening. He
expects strippers, and there are two of them. What he
doesnít expect ó what no one expects ó is the
carnage that ensues.
examines the aftermath through the eyes of the stunned
and guilty Richard, his angry wife and confused daughter
and Alexandra, one of the strippers, an Armenian
teenager abducted and forced into sexual slavery by
story is graphic, terrible and unforgettable. Bohjalian
admits he still canít listen to the audiobook ó his
daughter Grace, now 20, reads the part of Alexandra.
"There are certain things," he says,
"that I donít want to hear my daughter say."
not only lays blame on the mobsters who kidnap
Alexandra, he also calls out the Richards of the world
for justifying their bad behavior.
of the things I inadvertently ended up exploring is the
grotesque male herd behavior," says Bohjalian, whoís
the author of 16 other novels, including "The
Sandcastle Girls," "The Light in the
Ruins," "The Secrets of Eden,"
"Midwives" and "Close Your Eyes, Hold
Hands." "Men in a herd behave in very
different ways than we do individually. In no place is
that more manifested in this country than at bachelor
strip club is just the most depressing place in the
world. I think men justify strip clubs and prostitution
by viewing it as a monetary transaction among equals,
which it is not, ever. No 7-year-old girl says, ĎI
want to grow up to be a hooker.í Itís the profession
of last resort. Men justify it by believing we are more
attractive and appealing than we really are."
calls "The Guest Room" "a 21st century
ĎSandcastle Girls,í" referring to his novel
that touches on the Armenian genocide carried out by the
Ottoman government during and after World War I. Both
novels involve Armenia ó Bohjalianís grandparents
were survivors of the genocide, estimated to have killed
1.5 million people ó but they also spring from the
same mindful, socially conscious place, one Bohjalian
says has emerged over the course of his career.
looking for two things at this stage in my life,"
says Bohjalian, whoís 53 and lives in Vermont (he grew
up mostly in New York, with a brief side trip to Miami,
where he attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes High). "I
look for a good story, and I look for a good story that
can make a social difference. I know no one would have
ever read The Sandcastle Girls if it were a litany of
the dead in the desert. I needed characters who excite
me and make me want to be at my desk at six in the
morning. I didnít think like that consciously 20 years
idea may have lurked in his subconscious, however: His
fourth novel, "Water Witches," was set against
a backdrop of drought and climate change in Vermont.
Still, he says the reception to "The Sandcastle
Girls," published in 2012, changed him and how he
thinks of his fiction.
great that the book turned me into an activist,"
says Bohjalian, who has traveled across the world to
discuss the book and the genocide, including trips to
Russia, Lebanon and even Turkey. "A day doesnít
go by even now, four years after it was published, that
I donít get a message on my Facebook page from
somebody commenting they had no idea the genocide
occurred until their book group read the book."
about the topic to a Turkish audience was eye-opening,
thing about the genocide in Turkey is how many young
adults and intellectuals are aware of the crimes of the
Ottoman empire and want to see their government
acknowledge it," he says (Turkey has continued to
deny it happened). "But the majority of Turkish
citizens know what theyíve been taught, that Armenians
were a horrible minority, turncoats in the war who
slaughtered Muslims. Maybe a few Armenians died, but way
more Muslims died and thatís why the Armenians moved
away. Ö and the Turkish government is more dangerous
now than it was in 2013. The way itís destroying
Kurdish neighbors is horrific. Thatís the kind of
thing that happens when a government hasnít
acknowledged its past crimes."
notion of a being a socially conscious writer, of
calling out injustice, is one that Bohjalian hopes heíll
continue to cultivate.
donít think I was a particularly good person as a
young man. I was really self absorbed. Iím not proud
of that. So if my fiction is able to make a difference,
Iím enormously grateful."