The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of East of the West: A Country in Stories
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Gabrovo, which is a small mountainous town in Bulgaria, and which also happens to be the world capital of humour, satire and stinginess. Gabrovians are so cheap and clever that they chop off the tails of their cats so that in wintertime, when they let their cat out of a room, the door would close faster and no heat would be lost. When they invite guests to dinner, they screw in weaker light bulbs in advance to save electricity and when they go to bed at night, they tie down the hands of their clocks so as to save wear on the works.
When I was four my family moved to Sofia, which is a large town in the foot of a mountain, and which also happens to be the capital of Bulgaria. I didn’t know any English until I was fourteen. All my English I learned in high school – the best high school for learning English called First English Language High School in Sofia.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I wanted to be a writer, but because “writer” didn’t much sound like a profession, I aspired to one day become a film director and write on the side. When I was eighteen I wanted to be a writer, but because “writer” still didn’t sound much like a profession, I aspired to study psychology, become a therapist and write on the side. Now I am twenty nine, and “writer” still doesn’t much sound like a profession. So I teach at a university, and write on the side, and no longer care if “writer” sounds like a profession or not.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I held no strong beliefs at eighteen and I hold no strong beliefs now, at twenty nine. My mind is quick to catch fire and quick to lose it. I’m like the baker’s shovel and peels can’t hold strong beliefs. They get flipped over constantly, without a warning, and so they’ve learned: the only thing they are good for holding is steaming bread.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Michelangelo’s Pieta and his Sistine Chapel instilled in my heart a sacred awe, a reverence for what an artist can do, for how high man can ascend.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina taught me that literature, like no other art form – divine as all others may be – can reveal to us with clarity and depth the human psyche, until at last a character is more real than a real friend, until at last we feel we have become that character.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Let’s consider the innumerable avenues that are open to the cherry tree – grow, bloom, give fruit, wither. None of the first three is guaranteed; the last one is a certainty. So, in view of the cherry tree, you might be overestimating, in quite a dramatic fashion, the number of artistic avenues that were, are and will ever be open to me. Also, I wrote a story collection, though I do hope that, if I’m lucky not to wither prematurely, I might be able to write a novel one day.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Well, it’s a collection of short stories. They’re all about Bulgaria, the country where I was born and lived until, at the age of eighteen, I moved to American to study. Some stories speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. Others speak of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism, of what became of both Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, when so many young people leave for the West in search of a better life.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb…
The debut of a new international star with an outstanding collection of short stories, spiked with homesickness and fizzing with the absurd.
A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov s strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.
In EAST OF THE WEST, Penkov writes with great empathy of centuries of tumult; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as they wrestle with the weight of history, with the debt to family, with the pangs of exile, the stories in EAST OF THE WEST are always light on their feet, animated by Penkov s unmatched eye for the absurd. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free. This is the epitaph on the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis, my favourite writer. Unlike him, I fear many things, and hope for many others, but in writing I am free, and in writing I am liberated from hope and fear.
I’ve written the stories in this book with all the honesty and love I was capable of. I’ve tried to treat my characters the way I treat those closest to my heart. So let the readers take from my stories what they may. In this regard too, I have no hopes or expectations.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
This question can yield a hundred answers. When I was a kid Stephen King was a writer I read widely and admired greatly – for his fearless imagination, for his prolificacy and work ethic. For a while, it was like him that I wrote, but I was able to shake him off, and climb on his shoulders and leap farther, higher. Then when I came to the US, it was Hemingway who took possession of me – I wrote like him and thought like him, hunted lions in my sleep, wrestled bulls and sharks – but I was able to seize him by the ears and climb on his shoulders and leap farther, higher still. Then it was Chekhov and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Carver and William Trevor and Bulgarian writers too – like Nikolay Haytov, one of the finest writers who ever wrote in our language – whose voices, styles and ideas haunted me, and who then allowed me to seized them by the beards and use them as jumping boards.
As far as why, I’ll quote the words of Alexis Zorbas – my favourite literary character. “Why! Why! Can’t a man do anything without a why?”
(BBGuru: Miroslav, I love you, man!)
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To grow, bloom, give fruit and wither. Which is to say, to keep writing, and feel pleasure and gratification in doing so for as long as possible.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Today, it seems, everyone gives advice. You write one book and you rush to advise the teeming millions like you know what you’re talking about. Instead of aspiring writers it is myself I would like to advise: Do not despair.
Miroslav, thank you for playing.