Local novelist big — in Bulgaria
U-T San Diego
By John Wilkens
The world is full of bartenders hoping for something grander -- actors waiting for their first big part, musicians waiting for their first big hit.
In San Diego there's a bartender who is already a big deal. In Bulgaria.
His name is Zachary Karabashliev. He's 44. He lives in Mira Mesa and mixes drinks at the Sheraton downtown, where it seems fair to say not many people know that back in his homeland he's a prizewinning novelist, short-story author and playwright.
Now he's poised to make a splash here.
On Jan. 29, his 2008 debut novel, "18% Gray," will be published in English for the first time. The translation is part of an ongoing effort by a small, nonprofit publishing house at the University of Rochester in New York to expose American readers to literature written elsewhere. Only about 3 percent of all books published in this country are translations.
Voted by Bulgarian readers one of their favorite 100 books of all time, the novel opens in a fictionalized San Diego. The main character, also named Zack, has a newly broken heart. Drowning his sorrows in Tijuana, he escapes a kidnapping and winds up with a 60-pound bag of marijuana in his car trunk.
The best person he knows to help him unload the pot lives in New York, so he sets off across the country on a journey that's wildly dangerous and oddly healing. His car gets stolen, rear-ended, towed for a parking violation. He drinks a lot of espressos and dirty martinis, takes a lot of photographs. He helps a suicidal woman. He accidentally goes into the wrong motel room and climbs into bed, startling the occupant. Who has a gun.
All that's interspersed with flashbacks to his life with Stella, an artist he fell in love with in Bulgaria and eventually married. And then she left him.
If the story sounds absurd and darkly funny — well, it is. Sitting one recent morning in a cafe in University Heights, Karabashliev admitted he has a healthy appetite for both.
But what, he wanted to know, could be more absurd than his own journey? He's a Bulgarian who came to America only to become known in Bulgaria for writing a story in America.
A story in America written in Bulgarian.
That is now being translated from Bulgarian to English. And is being adapted, by him, into a movie.
"What a weird way to make a living," he said.
Winning the lottery
Karabashliev always knew that one day he would come to America. Maybe it was all those books about cowboys and Indians he read as a child.
He got a college degree in literature and went to work for Coca-Cola, opening new markets for the soft-drink giant at a time of waning Communist influence in Bulgaria. It was, he said, his first brush with the power of America as something more than a place. An idea. A promise.
A two liter bottle of Coke cost about .50, he said, in an economy where the salary for a schoolteacher was a month. "That's a big investment to drink a bottle of Coke, and I was moving product," he said. "It was unreal. I still laugh about it. I think people just wanted to live normal lives. We were kind of in denial."
Around that same time, in 1997, he won a green-card lottery and the opportunity to move with his wife and daughter to the United States. They went first to Columbus, Ohio, because they knew some Bulgarians living there. Then they visited San Diego and like countless others before them were almost dumbstruck by the weather.
“To hear that there’s no winter actually, that was really appealing,” he said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
He worked a variety of jobs: courier, wedding photographer, bartender. That last one he likes and still does part-time because the money’s decent and it frees his days for writing. “It gives me a sense of the pulse of society,” he said. “Since I cannot travel as much as I want to and see the world, I let the world come to the bar.” There are worse things for a writer.
The book that became “18% Gray” started as a short story. (The title comes from photography, a light measurement halfway between black and white.) When he finished the section about the attempted kidnapping and the marijuana, he remembered thinking, “Yeah, this is something bigger.” He kept writing.
Once his protagonist hit the Midwest, though, the story bogged down. Karabashliev set it aside for a couple of years. Then a possible ending came to him, sparked by his admittedly late discovery of the Beatles and “Hey Jude,” with its line about taking a sad song and making it better. Once he knew where his story was ending he could figure out how to get there. He finished the book.
He sent it for feedback to one of his college professors in Bulgaria, who sent it to an agent friend, who got it published in 2008. It won several “book of the year” awards in Bulgaria and became a best-seller. A year later, when a BBC project called “The Big Read” polled readers in Bulgaria for their 100 favorite books ever — any books, not just Bulgarian ones — “18% Gray” made the list.
A Major Talent
Open Letter, based at the University of Rochester, publishes 10 translated novels every year to cultivate an appreciation in the U.S. of international literature.
They picked “18% Gray” (with Angela Rodel doing the translation) because of “the accessibility and vibrancy of the writing,” said Chad W. Post, Open Letter’s publisher. “He does interesting things with the structure, weaving the present-day narrative with the past reflective moments in a way that’s really beautiful, very funny and energetic. He just really leapt out as a major talent.”
Karabashliev is at work now on a screenplay adaptation of the book. He said filming is scheduled to begin next year. The movie will be different, he said, as movies often are, but he’s adamant about retaining the feeling readers sometimes tell him they have when they finish the book: I want to do something with my life. My life starts now.
Other current projects include a play that he said will premiere in April 2014 at La MaMa, one of New York’s leading experimental theaters, and a second novel. He said he writes so much because he has to.
Which brings to mind a scene from his book.
Zack and a painter he finds pretentious are sitting in a restaurant talking about art. The painter says, "Everybody creates art the best they can." Zack slams his hand on the table.
"Art is not doing what we can do!" he yells. "Art is doing what we can't not do. No matter how well we do it. Actually the better you do it — the worse! This turns us from honest amateurs into jaded professionals."
Karabashliev smiled when he was asked whether that part of the novel is autobiographical. "I think," he said, "that was me speaking."
And him writing, like no other bartender you know.
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