“In the novel I’m writing now, the narrator says that if you’ve
succeeded in publishing a book, you most probably have failed in something much more important in real life.
Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t.”
18% Gray. Open Letter Books. January, 2013. Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel.
Religion, politics, the mixing of genres, the magic of structure, the importance of editing and living by a parable. HR’s Vera Asenova discusses life and writing with debut novelist Zachary Karabashliev.
HR: Your novel came out in 2008 in Bulgaria, where it was a best-seller. Is this English version the same book? What are the differences between the Bulgarian and English language editions?
“The book changes with every new reader, who like a film director makes decisions and sees things according to her/his vision and emotional budget.”
Very few minor changes have been made, only in moments where cultural references seemed irrelevant for English speakers.
HR: You mention Bulgaria’s 1997 crisis in the book. Your character was active then. Do you participate in politics now?
ZK: As a novelist I have no business in politics. But as a citizen who writes novels I have a moral obligation to be involved one way or another. I am a political animal. I tried not to be, but it didn’t work. The future of my country and my hometown Varna is on the line now. Very important elections are taking place in May.
HR: You’ve said you wanted to come to America since you were a boy. What made the country so attractive for you? What did you dream to find here? Money? Fame?
ZK: I was preoccupied by North American Indian tribes, their wars, their resistance, the whole idea of the Wild West, all these action figures of Indians and cowboys. My fascination was based on a very few sources, namely novels written in the nineteenth century by two non-Americans. First, the Irish writer Mayne Reid’s The White Chief, The Quadroon, Osceola, The Headless Horseman and so on. I don’t believe he ever set foot in the real West. Then there was his German follower Karl May who wrote novels set in America and created the characters of Winnetou, the chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand, and Winnetou’s white blood brother, all awesome stuff.
“To me America was the Wild West, and I came to find the Indians.”
HR: So, did you see the “Indians”?
ZK: Yes. I went to the reservation, parked in front of Viejas Casino, played blackjack and lost $120.
HR: When did you start writing?
ZK: college. There was a short story contest, and the prize money was good, so I wrote a story the night before the deadline. I wrote it in just one sitting. there was a voice in my head dictating, and I followed it; it was so freaking easy. But I didn’t have a typewriter – they were so expensive – so there was this guy in the dorm, a poet, who owned a typewriter and sometimes typed things for money. I asked him to type it for me, and I promised I’d pay him later. I won the contest. I paid him. I felt rich.
HR: When you were a child what did you want to become as a grown up?
ZK; A writer. But I was ashamed to articulate it in words and even in thoughts. I was a closeted writer way into my thirties. It took a lot of courage to come out.
HR: How do you deal with fear?
ZK: I don’t have to deal with fear now.
HR: How does having no fear impact your writing?
ZK: It gives me freedom. But it doesn’t make me a better writer.
HR: Do you follow any rules for writing? For example, do you write during the day or at night, when depressed or when happy? When do you edit?
“Write sad, edit happy.”
HR: What was the process of editing 18% Gray like?
ZK: This novel started as a short story, but it became embarrassingly long. At one point I sent it to the only person I send any of my work in progress: Pepa Georgieva, my friend and editor in Bulgaria.
“She sent me my pages back. They were all in red, bleeding. She wrote something like, everything is so messy, I barely see the story here, it’s overgrown, you have to clean your backyard-chicken coop and so on.”
So I started working, cleaning, editing out, and I sent it back to her. She insisted I include more of Stella. And I’m glad I did. If it wasn’t for Pepa, this novel would be really different. I strongly believe that writing is editing, editing, editing.
HR: Your novel has a unique structure: two narratives in the present and in the past, and the dialogue vignettes which are outside time. How was the structure born?
ZK: The Now narrative carries the plot. It’s the cinematic, show-don’t-tell first-person present time narrative that moves the story forward. The Before account of events takes us to the back story. It is written in italics, past tense. Typographically separating narratives has always worked for me. I learned that from Birdy by William Wharton, a novel by which I measured people’s intelligence when I was fifteen. You don’t like Birdy? You suck. The Dialogues connect the two together. In my early twenties, I read a Philip Roth novel in translation, I think it was Deception. I loved it; it made me fantasize of composing a novel entirely of dialogues, nothing else. I believed it was possible.
We can talk forever about structure, and the hero’s journey. I love talking about it, because it’s so freaking important. I have been influenced by structure-driven writing: screenwriting, writing for the stage, and American literature. Even my very few European influences have been influenced by Americans.
HR: The book is plot-driven but dialogue seems to be equally important. What is the role of the dialogue?
ZK: Dialogue is life. And you can’t teach dialogue they say. It is a gift to the storyteller. To me dialogue serves at least two functions. It defines character and moves the story forward. One of my favorite moments for dialogue is when it precedes action, when it’s the anticipation of action.
HR: Beginning writers are often advised to imagine the reader. Do you imagine your audience?
ZK: I don’t have to. It’s there. But I know what you are referring to, imagining a particular someone you write for, like your lover, your child or your grandma.
“If your book is addressed to one person, the chances are that it’ll be read by at least a few. But if you write for the anonymous millions of readers out there, good luck.”
HR: 18% Gray was influenced by screenwriting and you have written the screenplay for the movie adaptation of the novel. Tell us something about the way you mix formats.
ZK: I started writing the novel as a frustrated and unsuccessful screenwriter. I was working on a few scripts at the time. But all these restrictions – inciting incidents on this page, the beginning of Act 2 on that page, the point-of-no-return on a certain page, the climax, the grand finale made me feel small and ridiculous, trapped and fake. No one had made me do it, but I felt like a slave to a formula.
So I quit everything I was writing and took time off, and started the novel. I was three-quarters into the writing and I realized that my novel was following a path not much different than the one C.J. Jung and Joseph Campbell talk about, a path known to hundreds of generations of storytellers and found in myths and fairy tales all over the world.
Screenwriting has hijacked the mono-myth, the hero’s journey, but trust me, it wasn’t invented in Hollywood. Filmmakers are the new shamans of storytelling now days, but they learn from the same sources we writers do.
HR: When you write, do you think of genre or prefer to keep it eclectic?
“Years after I wrote 18% Gray I’m yet to know what genre it is. Story is what matters to me. And story is character. And character is action. But the trickiest part for me is to get the narrator’s voice right. You can have everything – a great story, a fascinating character, but if you don’t nail the voice down, boy, are you in trouble.”
HR: It seems so hard to come up with a good title these days. How did you come up with 18% Gray or how did it come to you?
ZK: It’s a term I borrowed from photography. But I don’t want to spoil it.
HR: Your character Zack sees something beautiful and puts his camera down saying that not everything should be captured on film. Is there something a writer should not capture on page?
ZK: This is tricky. I don’t know the answer to that one.
“Sometimes you remember something you read years ago precisely because it did not belong to that page, because it irritated you. Personally, I cannot imagine what it is to write something provoking violence, promoting misanthropy or hatred.”
HR: Is there something that is better captured on film than with words?
ZK: Sex, maybe.
HR: How do readers in Bulgaria and in America react to the novel’s explicit content?
ZK: Bulgarian novelists didn’t write explicit sex until the Berlin wall came down. Sex – with a few exceptions – was considered out of the usual literary milieu, or in many cases it was attributed to characters corrupted by the evil West. You bet this made them even more attractive for all of us. As a kid I loved reading the novels of Bulgarian writer Bogomil Rainov about a Bulgarian spy embedded in the West. He was something like Philip Marlowe meets 007, and at least in my memory or fantasy, he always had sex with Western women, only in the name of the bright communist ideals. What a life, I thought, what a great life.
After the 1970s, the translations of Western literature started offering a view of how one might write about sex. I remember reading certain scenes of “Rich man, poor man” by Irwin Shaw many, many times. Same with The Godfather by Mario Puzo. But still, sex was translated a bit softly. “Fuck you!” would be translated as “Goddam you! “Fucking” would be rendered with the equivalent of “banging” and so on. Immediately after the communist blocc collapsed, new, bolder and truer translations of Western writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski and appeared and he So, now, for the last twenty-four years everybody can write about anything, yet it turned out that sex was the most difficult thing to write about.
Here’s what’s funny about the explicit content of my book. My fan-mail from my thousands of Bulgarian readers, aged fourteen to eighty-eight, is about the way the story touches them, the way the novel spoke to their own experiences, and never about the explicit content. Not ever.
Ironically, when I was looking for a publisher in the US, in the land of free expression, an American agent agreed to represent me, but she made the suggestion I alter or edit out some of the explicit scenes, adjusting it for the American mainstream market, so women won’t be offended by the language of the narrator. Needless to say, our relationship lasted about five minutes. I was like, if you didn’t get this character, lady, why would you want to be my agent?
“American women should be offended by the way agents and editors underestimate their intelligence and taste, wrongly assuming mediocrity.”
HR: You use biblical texts in your fiction. The parable of Jesus about the Master and the talents has an important place in the novel. Are you a believer?
ZK: I am. And this parable is quintessential for my writing and my life in general. I think it’s the most important in the New Testament. But organized religion is not for me.
HR: That parable is about success, failure and reward. How is failure a part of a writer’s journey?
ZK: In the novel I’m writing now, the narrator says that if you’ve succeeded in publishing a book, you most probably have failed in something much more important in real life. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t.
But yes, writing is indeed coping with loss.
HR: In times of economic crisis and discredited political ideologies, religion is on the rise. Why is that?
ZK: Well, everyone needs to belong, and on a global scale the state failed its citizens. As a result, it seems to me that in recent years masses regressed toward organized religion – the key word here being “organized” – because what they actually need is not so much church-time, but structure. Something to rely on, something steady, and until now at least we haven’t seen a serious spiritual bubble. The intellectuals on the other hand swung toward atheism, when actually all they needed was freedom.
“The time we live now is fundamentally different from the tens of thousands of years of human history. A lot of us live for the better part of our time in front of back-lit rectangular pieces of plastic, in front of flickering screens, and so on. The human race has never been so detached from the world outside, from reality.”
Jean Baudrillard wrote, “The eclipse of God left us up against reality. Where will the eclipse of reality leave us?”
And this is the real question now.
Zachary Karabashliev is a writer of plays and fiction among other genres. His play “Sunday Evening” was produced in Sofia and received Bulgaria’s most respected theater award, the Askeer, in 2009. “Lisbon” will premier at La Mama Theater in New York in April 2014. “Sunday Evening” has been also produced in Los Angeles and San Diego; “Recoil” received the audience award at the 2012 Wiesbaden Theater Festival in Germany. He has written two short story collections, A Brief History of the Airplane and Symmetry. The 2013 English version of his debut novel is translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel; the 2008 original was awarded Bulgarian Novel of the Year among other accolades.
Vera Asenova is an associate editor of HR.
Photo: Howard Lipin / U-T San Diego