Zachary Karabashliev Тakes AUBG on a Poetic Road Trip
A discussion named “Writing as a Road Trip” with the prominent Bulgarian author Zachary Karabashliev was the highlight event in the Panitza Library on Wednesday, Mar. 15. It took the course of a spontaneous conversation about writing, traveling, inspiration, literature, cinema, and news for upcoming projects.
Assistant Professor Vladimir Levchev from the Arts, Languages, and Literature Department introduced the Bulgarian Poets and Writers Series, ran by AUBG for about 10 years with the mission to bring students closer to famous Bulgarian and international poets and writers.
“Zachary Karabashliev is a novelist, playwright, and a screenwriter,” stated Levchev at the start of the discussion. “His award-winning debut novel “18% Gray” has been a best selling title in Bulgaria for quite many years now and it was published in the U.S., France, Poland, Croatia, and other countries. (…) His short stories included in the collections “A Brief History of the Airplane” and “Symmetry” are translated and published in many languages, and made into short films. His upcoming novel “Freedom” is scheduled to be published this year.”
Right from the very beginning, the author expressed his view that the essence of writing is sharing stories and emotions. Regarding his own story, he alluded to his childhood in Varna, the dreams for getting out of pre-’89 Bulgaria, his secret love for writing, and the school and higher education system under the old regime.
“I envy you, guys, because you [can] study creative writing,” Karabashliev admitted. “This is one thing I never got the chance to study as a student, because it was something really exotic while I was growing up. There was nothing like this, it was not taught in universities. I grew up with the idea that all good writers are dead, or old, or lived in Sofia, if they are Bulgarians. I never saw a real writer until my late 20s. My road trip, I guess, started there.”
Karabashliev mentioned having a secret passion for writing and being a rather “writer in the closet”, due to lack of support from his friends. “The thing about writing,” he further explained, “is that I always try to write only if I really have to say something, have to write something.” Karabashliev described himself as a “late bloomer” because of the late publishing of his first book, which came out a little before he turned 40. Furthermore, he discussed all of his previous occupations such as a DJ, butcher, courier driver, construction worker, and a commercial photographer, which had nothing to do with writing.
Karabashliev then offered some thought-provoking insights on the “road trip” in “18% Grey” itself.
“Driving down the road, while driving East in space, he [Zack, the main character] drives back in time and revisits his relationship with the girl that disappeared, Stella, revisits his past, revisits Bulgaria,”commented Karabashliev. “It’s a journey both in space and time. That book is the definition of a road trip. It’s a life changing trip for the character.”
Questions followed about whether the style of “18% Grey” is similar to the cinéma vérité style. Karabashliev, uncertain himself, mentioned that his editor had also pointed out the resemblance of the book to the “observational cinema” style, because of its realistic nature. Karabashliev considers himself a “low tech” writer and explained that he consciously stayed away from using metaphors in “18% Grey”, or “anything that resembles writing”.
Moreover, the author noted that he already changed some moments from the book while writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation. “The ending is completely different,” stated the author. “Actually I really liked the screenplay. It’s a different animal.” He also revealed that the shooting is supposed to start in June this year and could continue until the winter. Comparing the process of writing a book to that of a script, Karabashliev suggested that creating a novel is a more liberating experience, because there are less restrictions than in writing for film. He also mentioned that he didn’t have a word in the choice for actors for the movie, but still could reveal the name of the actor in the role of Zack – Rushen (Rushi) Vidinliev, a Bulgarian actor, singer, author, and director.
He also shared that “18% Grey” was inspired by a real event, a real loss, and true raw emotion. By his account, there is always something deeply personal that sparks the things that are already within oneself. Talking about inspiration in general, Karabashliev struggled to give a particular answer and instead shared a recent personal experience. Having to write a story, commissioned by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, based on a real, unprivileged person, Karabashliev met with a visually impaired person and later tried to write a story based on his life. However, after having difficulties with the writing, he ended up with a horror story about a guide dog who was the only witness of a serial murder.
„The deadline was pretty close, so I called a friend of my own who is blind, and we sat down and talked,” continued Karabashliev. “And from this couple of hours talk I went home and wrote a second story I really, really like. It’s called ‘The Invisible Man’. And the inspiration was there. With the first person I did not feel it. I wrote a story that was pretty readable, but there was no inspiration. For the second one I knew in my guts that it was a good story. I don’t know why some things touch us and some don’t.”
Karabashliev also read his short story “Tomato”, a part of the collection “Symmetry”, and announced it was chosen to be published in the Best European Short Stories almanac coming out in 2018 in the U.S.
Karabashliev revealed that in his next novel the readers will face the deaths of many characters. According to him, death is not only a part of life, but also the strongest change. He explained that the writing for cinema is especially about change, because in two hours, or in an 110-pages script you have to show change in the characters. “So, the biggest change for a human being is death,” stated Karabashliev. “[…] In Bulgaria especially, we’re not comfortable with the concept of death. Just pay attention where the cemeteries are – they’re not part of our towns and cities.”
Students were an active part throughout the whole event, contributing to the conversation with thought-provoking questions and multiple viewpoints on the discussed topics.
“Zachary Karabashliev is one of my favorite Bulgarian writers and that’s why I was excited about this meeting,” shared Elena Tsutsumanova, a second-year student. “He gave a lot of insights of the art and craft of writing and new perspectives of his books and stories. I have read all of them and it’s even more exciting when you hear about them from the author himself.
Karabashliev turned to the AUBG students with some inspiring thoughts about the biggest road trip – life itself.
“Well – there are so many motivational speeches, there is so much wisdom already shared and written,” said Karabashliev. “So, what we need is taking the time and just read. My advice is – don’t ever take any advises that contradict your stomach. Seriously. Your gut feeling is the most reliable guide. If you don’t feel the thing, don’t even bother. Life is big and beautiful. Enjoy it. Smile. Make push-ups. Walk. Drink only good coffee. Speak truth to power. Always confront mediocrity. Fight ignorance. Use words. But if you must – use other means to fight ignorance. And, yes, sometimes love is painful, but if you are afraid of pain, remember the last loveless night(I’m sure you can.) Now imagine a loveless life. So, go ahead and live. That’s why you are here for.”