So much of his grandparents' lives before he knew them remained a mystery to author Chris Bohjalian. His father's parents were Armenian. But their heritage only came out in glimpses. His father spoke Armenian and Turkish only when bickering with or teasing his parents. Questions about those exotic words were avoided. His heritage was present yet inaccessible at the same time.
He did know that his grandparents survived the Armenian genocide, a time when about 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed through either massacre or forced deportation in the late 1910s.
The subject was avoided in his childhood. But when he became a writer, Bohjalian began to explore it.
"The Sandcastle Girls" was published this month. The book cuts between present day New York and World War I-era Syria. A novelist traces her family's past to when her grandparents -- one American, one Armenian -- first met during the genocide.
Bohjalian will speak about the book at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort's Lunch With Author Series on July 24.
"I know in my heart that this is the most important book I will write," he said from his home in Vermont.
The book has similarities to Bohjalian's story -- the author's protagonist is basically him but female, he said -- and a devotion to historical accuracy, but most of the plot itself is pure fiction. It's a novel because he simply didn't know enough to make it a memoir, he said.
"The Sandcastle Girls" is Bohjalian's 15th novel. Many of his others have charted on the New York Times best-sellers list. "Midwives," perhaps his biggest hit, was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1998 and made into a TV movie starring Sissy Spacek.
It wasn't until recently that he felt he could write about the genocide that affected his family. He tried before. In the early 1990s, he attempted a novel. He now describes it as "amateurish," at best, done at a time when his skills as a writer weren't strong enough to find a compelling story amid a complex subject.
"The only people who might have any interest in it are scholars and masochists," he said with a laugh.
He placed the subject aside for nearly 20 years.
About three years ago, his father fell ill. He'd travel to south Florida to visit, and together they'd talk about the past. It was a way to take his father's mind off the pain. But Bohjalian began to learn more about his family. They'd pour over family albums; Bohjalian pressed his father for details. He found that his father, too, was clueless about much of his parents' lives. He also got the feeling that his father was holding back. The past was simply too difficult to speak of. But his father told stories from his childhood. Slowly, amid the fog, a greater sense of history started to take shape.
A friend encouraged Bohjalian to tackle the subject once again. Now a more seasoned writer, he found the story came easier.
He still didn't know all he wanted to about his family's history, but his words were finally able to tell what had been left unsaid.