Zachary Karabashliev lives in San Diego, California, but was born in Varna, Bulgaria. After finishing his Master’s in Bulgarian Philology, writing and publishing in literary journals, he won a green card and set off to Columbus, Ohio, aged 29, with a few words of English and the belief that – to borrow from his novel – “somewhere something great is awaiting”. After coming to America and short of words in a foreign language environment, he used the camera as a way of expression and enrolled at Ohio State University’s photography program. Talking about his first years in the USA, he always mentions with gratitude the American Public Libraries.
“Nothing wastes a writer quicker than his engagement with literature alone” says Bulgarian poet and literary critic Atanas Dalchev. A bartender, a photographer, a DJ, a radio rock show host, a sales rep for the world’s biggest soft drink corporation, a courier, a meat cutter and who knows what else, Zachary has not limited himself to books.
The story of his life is re-imagined and re-membered in his novel 18% Gray which came out in the USA January 29, 2013. When it was published in Bulgaria in 2008 it became an instant best seller, ranked among the 100 most loved books of all time by Bulgarians in the BBC campaign “The Big Read” and won a Novel of the Year award by VIK Foundation. Zachary Karabashliev also wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation of 18% Gray.
Besides novels and short stories he also writes stage plays. His Sunday Evening received the most respected Theatre Award in Bulgaria, the “Askeer”, and it was produced in Sofia. After a successful reading at City University of New York in 2011 his Lissabon will premier at La MaMa Theatre, NY in April 2014. Sunday Evening has been also produced in Los Angeles and San Diego; Recoil received the audience award at the Wiesbaden theatre festival in Germany in 2012.
Vera Asenova: How did you get the scar on your head?
Zachary Karabashliev: Wow. Phew. You’re not wasting time – straight on (laughing).
I got it chasing a girl I had a crash on – her name was Mariana – she was a tomboy and I was about 5. I was running after her, and I fell hard and next thing I know – the curb met my head – blood all over. I remember my mom carrying me, a nurse trying to take my sweater off over my bloody head, and it was stuck and she had to cut it with scissors. They stitched the wound, but the scar remained. I guess there’s a lesson there – love hurts, ha-ha…
When did you start writing?
In 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 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, who was a poet, he 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 back. I felt rich.
At the time you were a student Bulgaria was coping with a political crisis, which you mention in your book. Back in the early nineties your character was active. Do you participate in politics now?
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 – both depicted in the book – is on the line now.
You have said you wanted to go to America when you were a little boy. What made America so attractive for you? What did you dream to find here? Money? Fame?
Ha ha ha. As a kid I was preoccupied by “Indians” – 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, and namely – novels written in 19 century, by two non-Americans. First was the Irish writer Mayne Reid: The White Chief, The Quadroon, Oceola, 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 – he created the characters of Winnetou, the chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand, and Winnetou’s white blood brother – all awesome stuff… So – to me America was the Wild West, and I came to find the Indians.
So, did you see the “Indians”?
Yes. I went to the reservation, parked in front of Viejas Casino, played Black Jack and lost 125 dollars.
Now that you can buy anything in Bulgaria, what American souvenirs do you bring for your friends?
I bring Zippo lighters – still an American classic, one of the few items out there “Made in the USA.” Back in the day, these few words alone were enough to get you in trouble, they were the middle finger in the face of the communist regime.
And what do you bring for your American friends from Bulgaria?
Funny stories and refrigerator magnets.
When you were a child what did you want to be as a grown up?
Writer. But I was ashamed to articulate it in words and even in thoughts. I was a closeted writer way in my 30s. It took a lot of courage to come out.
How do you deal with fear?
I don’t have to deal with fear now.
How does having no fear affect your writing?
It gives me freedom. But it doesn’t make me a better writer.
Do you have any rituals when you write?
Yes. I sit and I write.
Do you follow any rules? Do you write at night, or at daytime, when depressed or when happy? When do you edit?
Write sad, edit happy.
Tell me more about the process of editing 18% Gray?
This novel started as a short story, I guess, 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 the Stella’s line. 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.
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?
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 backstory – it is written in italics, past tense and so on. Typographically separating narratives have always worked for me – I learned that from Birdy by William Wharton, a novel by which I measured people’s intelligence when I was 15. You don’t like Birdy – you suck.
The Dialogues connect the two together. In my early 20’s 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 and so on. And 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 also American literature. Even my very few European influences have been influenced by Americans, LOL…
The book is plot-driven but dialogue seems to be equally important. What is the role of dialogue in your novel and in your other works?
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: a) defines character and b) moves the story forward. One of my favorite moments for dialogue is when it precedes action, when it’s the anticipation of action.
Beginner writers are often advised to imagine the reader. Do you imagine your audience?
I don’t have to. It’s there. But I know what you are referring to – imagining a particular someone you write for – your lover, your child, your Grandma and so on. Here’s what I think – 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.
Four years since your book came out in Bulgaria is this the same book?
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.
How about the English and the Bulgarian versions are they different in some way?
Very few minor changes have been made, only in moments where cultural references seemed irrelevant for the English speakers.
You mentioned 18% Gray was influenced by screenwriting. Tell us something about the way you mix formats.
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 – they 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 quite everything I was writing and took time off, and started the novel.
I was 3/4 in writing and I realized that my novel was following a path not much different than the one Jung, and Joseph Campbell talk about, path known to hundreds of generations of storytellers and found in myths and fairytales all over the world.
You see, screenwriting has hijacked the mono-myth, the Hero’s Journey, but trust me, it wasn’t invented in Hollywood. Film-makers are the new shamans of storytelling now days, but they learn from the same sources we writers do.
There are moments in my novel I use screen-writing techniques, but it is dictated by the Point of View of the narrator, it’s not self-indulging.
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.
It looks like it is 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?
It’s a term I borrowed from photography. But I don’t want to spoil it.
At some point in the story 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?
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.
Is there something that is better captured on film than with words?
You also write plays but have distanced yourself from some adaptations of your plays in Bulgaria because of property rights violation. Would you like to comment this issue?
It’s a long story. The director figure is still a huge presence over there – a sad legacy from totalitarian times – changing the text for the sake of changing the text. In the beginning I fought that a lot. At one point I even took legal action against a theatre company that butchered my play cutting important scenes and characters. Then there was this director who added characters and scenes working with another play of mine, employing 12 actors on stage to perform scenes that were written for 4. The actors were carrying around small chairs, sometimes getting on top of them, sometimes putting them on top of their heads. I felt sorry for the poor souls – they didn’t deserve that shit. I had hired an attorney to try to stop the madness, and that made me the only Bulgarian playwright paying money to have his plays NOT performed. So I say fuck that – my plays will be produced only when and where they are protected. Or wont be produced at all – no biggy. There are so many great plays written already.
Until recently Bulgarian literature was “sanitized” of any sexual content, f-words, porn was a taboo. How do readers in Bulgaria and in America react to the explicit contents in your book?
Bulgarian novelists didn’t write explicit sex until The 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, which activity – you bet – made them even more attractive for all of us. As a kid I loved reading the novels of a certain Bulgarian writer named Bogomil Rainov. He produced a series of novels about a Bulgarian spy embedded in the West. He was something like – let me try this – Philip Marlow meets 007, and he (at least in my memory/fantasy) always had sex with Western women, only in the name of the bright communist ideals. What a life, I though, what a great life.
After the 70‘s, 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 Show many, many times. Same with The Godfather by Mario Puzo, and so on… But still, sex was translated a bit soft. “Fuck you!” would be translated as “Goddam you”! “Fucking” would be rendered with the equivalent of “Banging” and so on. Same with movies.
Immediately after communist block collapsed, new, bolder and truer translations of Western writers like Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and the bunch appeared and the whole hell broke loose.
So, now, for the last 24 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 14 to 88 – 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, a couple of years ago when I was looking for a publisher in the U.S., in the land of free expression, an American agent agreed to represent me, but she made the suggestion I alter/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 5 minutes. I was like – 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.
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?
I am a believer. 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.
It is a parable about success, failure and reward. How is failure a part of a writer’s journey?
In the novel I’m writing now, the narrator says at one point 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.
In times of economic crisis and discredited political ideologies religion is on the rise. Why is that?
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 – 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.
Now the intellectuals on the other hand swung toward atheism, when actually all they needed was freedom.
The fact is 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. 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 Bulgarian born novelist, playwright and a screenwriter, now living in the U.S. His debut novel, 18% Gray is a bestselling title with 11 editions in Bulgaria, published in France and released in the United States in February 2013 by Open Letter Books. It won the prestigious Novel of the Year Award in Bulgaria and was chosen by anonymous vote to be among the 100 most loved books by Bulgarians in the BBC campaign “The Big Read.” His books and stage plays have won numerous prestigious awards; his play Recoil received an Audience Award in Wiesbaden Theatre Biennial, Germany “New Plays from Europe.”
Vera Asenova is a social scientist, blogger and translator. She is a PhD candidate at Central European University, Budapest and teaches economics in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the creator of Demo Text – a platform for creative writers, performing own texts live on stage at different venues in Bulgaria.