The 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 Grace’s friend, he got up early to see Grace’s 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 a bellman.
“She 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?”
The answer was yes — 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 doesn’t expect — what no one expects — is the carnage that ensues.
Bohjalian 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 Russian mobsters.
Her story is graphic, terrible and unforgettable. Bohjalian admits he still can’t listen to the audiobook — his daughter Grace, now 20, reads the part of Alexandra. “There are certain things,” he says, “that I don’t want to hear my daughter say.”
Bohjalian, who appears April 11 at Temple Israel for the Brickell Avenue Literary Society, not only lays blame on the mobsters who kidnap Alexandra, he also calls out the Richards of the world for justifying their bad behavior.
“One of the things I inadvertently ended up exploring is the grotesque male herd behavior,” says Bohjalian, who’s 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 parties.
“A 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, ‘I want to grow up to be a hooker.’ It’s the profession of last resort. Men justify it by believing we are more attractive and appealing than we really are.”
Bohjalian calls The Guest Room “a 21st century Sandcastle Girls,” 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 — Bohjalian’s grandparents were survivors of the genocide, estimated to have killed 1.5 million people — but they also spring from the same mindful, socially conscious place, one Bohjalian says has emerged over the course of his career.
“I’m looking for two things at this stage in my life,” says Bohjalian, who’s 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 didn’t think like that consciously 20 years ago.”
The 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.
“It’s 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 doesn’t go by even now, four years after it was published, that I don’t get a message on my Facebook page from somebody commenting they had no idea the genocide occurred until their book group read the book.”
Talking about the topic to a Turkish audience was eye-opening, he says.
“The 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 they’ve 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 that’s why the Armenians moved away. … and the Turkish government is more dangerous now than it was in 2013. The way it’s destroying Kurdish neighbors is horrific. That’s the kind of thing that happens when a government hasn’t acknowledged its past crimes.”
This notion of a being a socially conscious writer, of calling out injustice, is one that Bohjalian hopes he’ll continue to cultivate.
“I don’t think I was a particularly good person as a young man. I was really self absorbed. I’m not proud of that. So if my fiction is able to make a difference, I’m enormously grateful.”
If you go
Who: Author Chris Bohjalian.
When: Noon April 11.
Where: Temple Israel, 137 NE 19th St., Miami, for the Brickell Avenue Literary Society.
Tickets: Event open to members; to join call 786-691-4521, email contact@BrickellLiterary.org. or visit http://www.brickellliterary.org/.