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An Interview with Elizabeth Kostova

By Jessie Chaffee

This month’s issue features Bulgarian literature, and we were fortunate to speak with one of its champions, Elizabeth Kostova, founder of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Now celebrating its tenth year, the foundation promotes and supports Bulgarian writers, and connects Bulgarian, American, and British writers and translators through seminars, awards, and opportunities in the field. Bulgaria is also the setting of Elizabeth’s forthcoming novel, The Shadow Land (Penguin Random House, April 2017).  

Words Without Borders (WWB): Can you speak a bit about your own relationship with Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture? What inspired your interest in and passion for the country and the culture?

Elizabeth Kostova (EK): I first went to Bulgaria because I’d heard and sung some of its famous folk music and wanted to see the place it came from; I arrived there with a couple of college friends in November 1989, just a week after the Berlin Wall fell, to do fieldwork on village singing. We took the overnight train from Belgrade to Sofia, and I woke early that morning to see the first mountains of western Bulgaria coming into view. I remember having the strange feeling that I was coming home to something. I stayed in the country six months, visiting towns, villages, and city choirs, and watching the monolith of communism coming down with a lot of shock and dust. Everywhere we went, I was moved by the beauty of the natural landscapes, the evidence of ancient civilizations crossing that patch of earth, the tragedy of Bulgaria’s recent past, and people’s kindness and hospitality. While I was there, I met my future husband, who came to live in the US. with me. We’ve been back there many times over a quarter century and I’ve seen the unfolding of a freer but also neglected and corrupt post-communist world there. I continue to love the place.

WWB: The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF) is now in its tenth year (congratulations!). What initially inspired you to create the foundation? 

EK: Thank you! In 2005, I published a first novel (The Historian) that takes place partly in Bulgaria of the 1950s, and through that met many writers, translators, and publishers. I was struck by the dearth of programs and awards and other forms of encouragement for those professions there and I knew I wanted to give back something to the country that has inspired me as a writer. I created EKF—of which I’m now only a small part—with publisher Svetlozar Zhelev, and it has been an unprecedented success and support in the country’s literary life, if I do say so! A great deal of the credit for that goes to our fabulous director, Milena Deleva, in New York, and her associate in Sofia, Simona Ilieva. It’s been a joy for me to work on these projects with so many gifted and energetic people.

I knew I wanted to give back something to the country that has inspired me as a writer.

WWB: Has the foundation’s mission and scope changed in the decade since its creation? 

EK: We’ve stuck very closely to our original multi-faceted mission: to bring together Bulgarian literary professionals and their colleagues from the Anglophone world; to create fair, competitive, juried awards and other opportunities in the field; to reward the work of outstanding translators in both language directions (English/Bulgarian, Bulgarian/English); to establish the workshop model of discussing writing; and to get all this wonderful contemporary literature from Bulgaria into English—and promoted worldwide. You can see many of these authors and samples of their work on our extensive site dedicated to them

Image: Participants in the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, 2016. Photo © Anthony Georgieff.

WWB: What types of programming and opportunities does the foundation offer?

EK: Our big show is the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, held every June in the beautiful Black Sea coast town of Sozopol. Through global, juried competition, we accept five emerging writers from Bulgaria and five from all over the English-writing world for a week of intensive workshops and presentations. It’s such a moving, fun, serious, productive gathering each year! This event also features public lectures by distinguished writers from each language—in recent years we’ve been honored to host Georgi Gospodinov, Richard Russo, Deyan Enev, Alex Miller, Ilija Trojanow, Claire Messud, Kristin Dimitrova, Barry Lopez, Alek Popov, and Rana Dasgupta, among many others—and panel discussions with pretty amazing rosters of writers, editors, translators, publishers, and critics from the US, UK, Bulgaria, and sometimes other countries as well. Translation is always a major theme at the Sozopol Seminar. A lot of collaborations spring up there, often continuing far beyond that one week. This June, we’re holding a one-time nonfiction seminar to celebrate our tenth anniversary. That has a great line-up, too.

We also sponsor the annual Krastan Dyankov Award for translation of a contemporary literary work from English into Bulgarian, which has become a major force in Bulgarian letters. And we cooperate with Open Letter Press to sponsor a Bulgarian translator to study publishing and editing in Rochester with them. Two years ago, we held Bulgaria’s first working international poetry conference since the fall of the Wall. We also host all kinds of readings and theater events in both Bulgaria and the US. Some years ago, we brought Orhan Pamuk to speak and read in Bulgaria for the first time in his career. 

For a complete list of our programs, and information about participating, readers can check out our main website. It’s been an exciting ten years for us, beyond what I even hoped for when we set out on this path, and we owe a lot to our own numerous sponsors in Europe and the US.

WWB: From your perspective, has the literary scene in Bulgaria changed significantly in the last ten years? Have the types of literary work being produced changed?

EK: When I first started really paying attention there, I noticed there wasn’t very much writing—in any genre except journalism—that attempted to deal head-on with the communist past, which is still keenly recent and has a continued impact on society there. (Of course, there are brilliant exceptions to that generalization.) Many Bulgarian writers seemed to be finding their way into literature through fables and magical realism. This has changed some in the last ten years, and there seems now to be a wider range of experiences, places, and historical subjects in contemporary writing coming out of the country—and also a wider range in terms of tone and attitude. 

Image: The 2016 Krastan Dyankov Awards. Courtesy of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.

WWB: Can you share a few of your favorite success stories—either writers who have gone on to be better recognized because of the foundation’s support or partnerships that have been inspired by the foundation?

EK: I’m really proud as an American writer to see the increased number of Bulgarian books published in English. When we began our work ten years ago, there were only two or three contemporary Bulgarian literary works in print in English—now there are nearly twenty. Many of these have come about through work by wonderful publishers who come to Sozopol and then stay interested in bringing out Bulgarian writers—Open Letter, Istros Books, Peter Owen, and others. When I look at just the books listed on our site now, I can hardly believe it. I’m also grateful to the several editors of literary/translation magazines and other venues who’ve now worked with us to host first-ever Bulgarian special issues and features—very much including Words Without Borders.

I’ve also enjoyed the individual stories I’ve seen unfold—for example, the American writer who came to Sozopol as a workshop fellow and has since published (in the US) almost a dozen different interviews with Bulgarian writers and reviews of their work. I think about some of the barely published younger writers from each language who published books after having been at Sozopol Seminars—that’s mostly their own work, of course, but I like to think they received some real encouragement there. I also think of the passionate young Bulgarian professional translator who started attending an annual translation “atelier” we hold in Sofia, decided to try translating fiction for the first time, worked very hard to learn her new craft, won one of our US. translation residencies, and finally won a Dyankov Award—a truly impressive trajectory. And the distinguished American poet who’s now working with a Bulgarian translator toward a book to be published in Sofia. And the four or five young Americans who had never been to Bulgaria until they attended the seminar, and subsequently sought out and won Fulbrights and other teaching jobs in the region. I think I can say without risk or immodesty that EKF has been crucial for many people in their decisions to pursue writing or translation as a profession. 

When we began our work ten years ago, there were only two or three contemporary Bulgarian literary works in print in English—now there are nearly twenty.

WWB: What up-and-coming Bulgarian writers should we keep an eye out for?

EK: Honestly, there are so many interesting writers coming out of Bulgaria—and now often into English—that I probably shouldn’t list names, or I’ll miss someone! I’m especially happy to see writers in their twenties and thirties doing a lot of vigorous work there now. The teenage writers who participate in our Sofia programs are also inspiring.

WWB: Can you speak a bit about your forthcoming novel (pictured left), which is set in Bulgaria? What inspired it, and what types of research did you need to do to realize it?

EK: The Shadow Land, which will be out from Random House in the US on April 11, is partly the result of my many years of visiting and traveling in Bulgaria and partly the result of research. It’s the story of a young American woman who comes to Bulgaria in 2008, to a chaotic, very-much-post-communist world there, without really knowing anything about the country. She’s been in Sofia for only about an hour when she finds herself helping an elderly couple and their middle-aged son as they struggle to get into a taxi with their luggage—and then discovers too late that she’s accidentally kept one of their bags, which turns out to contain an urn of human ashes with just a name in Cyrillic letters on it. So the novel is the story of her trying to do the right thing, trying to find these total strangers, and learning about a whole life under communism along the way. It has a very dark core but it’s also a travel book, an odyssey through the beautiful landscapes I loved from my first visit in Bulgaria. It’s also very much a book about political repression—and suppression—and I’m glad to be bringing it out at this exact political moment. To write The Shadow Land, I read a lot of oral histories, talked with older Bulgarians and with journalists, and traveled to spots I hadn’t visited before or knew I wanted to write about. Writing and researching it made me look at my second country in a whole new way, and appreciate Bulgarian writers and artists even more. 

Published Mar 6, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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