Writer Ivo Ivanov: "In those stories is written my life, my years, my tribulations and my trials"
Ivo Ivanov can easily be declared one of the most talented contemporary Bulgarian authors. Though he never got a literary award and is far from being praised, discussed and interviewed by the major Bulgarian media, unlike for example Georgi Gospodinov, Radoslav Parushev, or Kalin Terziiski, he is a word-of-mouth, or call it if you like, an underground phenomenon. Ivo has the rare talent to tell extraordinary stories – sad, funny, philosophical and touching – and to make his readers laugh, cry, feel, think and adore him.
It is hard to label his style – some describe him as a sports journalist, others - as a writer, third even compare him with Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson. The genre is difficult to describe – it is a strange blend of journalism, biography, fiction, philosophy and magic realism.
His first two books - “Beyond The Game. On Sports and Something More”, vol. 1 and 2, have long since been completely sold out and are a proper rarity, while “The Curve Of Happiness” (Krivata na shtastieto), which came out earlier this year, can still be found in bookstores. All three are collections of short stories, which Ivo told the readers of the 7 Days Sport and Telegraph daily, the Sportal website, the Top Gear magazine, etc. As of recently Ivo is also an author of the OFFNews website.
Ivo was born in Bulgaria's capital Sofia, but has been living in the US for more than 20 years. This summer hundreds of his Bulgarian readers gave him a welcome worthy of a rock star in a Sofia branch of the Helikon bookstore, where the publishing house Vakon has organised a book signing session.
How did you end up in the US?
It was more or less the trivial way. I went to pursue a Master's Degree in the Kansas University. But I wanted to learn everything I could outside the academic environment – the mentality, popular culture, humor, slang, etc. I was hoping to decipher the American way of living, to travel the roads of their states and their souls; to understand what Kerouac, Steinbeck and Pirsig had in mind, to take everything I learned and bring it back with me to Bulgaria, which I love madly. Back then we still had this complex – we were kept closed in Bulgaria for so long, that we desperately wanted to explore the rest of the world and experience everything we were denied before.
One of my father's best friends – they studied nuclear physics in university together – helped me to get to the States. He's an Armenian who went to California with the mass Armenian exodus in the end of the 1960's and I will be forever grateful to the Armenian community, which helped me so much. Hopefully one day I will be able to pay them back.
Anyway, my return to Bulgaria did not happen. Fate had something else in store for me. I met a girl named Jamie who became my wife. We had babies, we got entangled in our jobs and here I am, almost quarter of a century later, still in the States. But I think that one day I will come back to Bulgaria.
When did you start to write and what made you write?
It is as if I've always had the need to write and I suppose that I started shortly after I found out about the existence of letters, words and sentences. I have a vague recollection of my first school essays when I was looking for my own voice. Even then I knew that when I put my thoughts and impressions on paper, they somehow got clear and found their places. I was enthralled by the architectural element of writing, the possibility to create whole worlds, limited only by your imagination. All one needed was ink and paper...
Where did you publish your first article?
In the Start newspaper (sports weekly). Back then the deputy editor-in-chief Kliment Velichkov was looking for someone who is familiar with American sports, which was no easy feat in the pre-Internet era. Besides, there was the censorship, which limited the access to things like American football, NBA, NHL, etc. My mother worked in the consulate of the US embassy in Sofia, so I had grown up among Americans. I had access to their television and the chance to follow their college and professional sports. Kliment was expecting my first article to be about Larry Bird, Magic Johsnon, Wayne Gretzky or Joe Montana, but I wrote my first article about the sports teacher in the 127-th school in Sofia – Mladen Mladenov – for which I had great respect. He had single-handedly established a basketball republic in this school. It has become a sports institution and an incubator for elite basketball players. Among them, of course, was his legendary son Georgi Mladenov. About a month after the article was published, Mladen Mladenov saw me at a basketball game in Universiada Hall and gave me a bear hug, which made my ribs ache. A great man!
Do you keep count on how many articles you wrote?
No. Sometimes I stumble upon an old article, which is so old, that I barely recognize myself in it. This is logical – we change over the years. 20-30 years ago Ivo was a very different man from the one who tries to tell his stories today.
How do you choose your topics?
It is not enough for a story, event or personality to be interesting. I come across 100-200 interesting stories a month. But I decide to write only when one of them crosses my own life vectors. I have to feel something. Something that provokes emotion or analytical contemplation. This is why it never ceases to amaze me that those stories find their readers. I have always thought that they are too personal and that more or less I write them for myself. But it turns out that this form of literary therapy is needed by other people too – this is both surprising and inspiring for me and makes me believe that my stories have a meaning. Maybe their mission is to build a bridge across the ocean and travel to the hearts of people who speak their language, who understand them and even need them.
Would you write about something different from sport?
I know why you're asking this tricky question. - You know that sport was always just a pretext – an opportunity to crack the door open and put my foot in it. I want to pass other things through the crack, things that would ask the reader to do some independent thinking. To provoke him to ask questions and to never stop looking for their answers, even if sometimes they are impossible to find.
Those are things that should bother every thinking person: If we are here for such a short time – just a whiff that barely ruffles the grass – what is the point of our existence? What is the nature of evil? Of good? Can there be equilibrium between the two? What divides us? What unites us? Is there a collective consciousness? Is there logic in life? Is there logic in death? Do we have a lasting place in universe?
I know that there are no firm answers, but this is the beauty of the questions. Seeking gives sense in life. Or at least in mine. We are all on the road. We all know where it ends and it is very important that we don't stop walking this road. It is terrible to stop living before you've died. It seems that asking questions is my way of walking this road and in my opinion I don't write as much about sport, as about the great quest, which leads us along the road and turns us into living people.
What is your process of writing and how long does it take to write a story, together with the research?
This is very relative. There are stories that take years. There are stories that I write for 20 minutes and which in most cases are an impulsive coverage of an event (such as that story without verbs about the NASCAR race).
The process itself is somewhat chaotic. I am suffering from a severe case of information disease and poke my nose into all drawers of media space. I devour huge amounts of fiction and non-fiction, scientific literature and try to travel whenever and wherever I can. I am annoyingly curious. I have the constant feeling that I am missing something very important happening at the place that I am not at right now. My wife calls this “information paranoia”. Gregariousness, at least when I was younger, was one of the main traits of Bulgarian mentality. As a result, I am a very social animal, I acquaint and befriend people very easily and treat all my friends and acquaintances with equal responsibility and lack of prejudice. I realise that thanks to my Bulgarian soul I enjoy the friendship of interesting and good friends. There are university professors, people working in the garbage disposal sector, doctors, mechanics, builders, senators, coaches, writers, athletes, a newspaper delivery boy, etc. I have a very good friend who is homeless with whom I play chess in a coffee shop and who has been refusing for years my financial help. Only from those people I have gathered so many stories, that I would need at least two lives to tell. And when we add to all this the fact that I listen to all sorts of radio podcasts when travelling between point A and B, it is obvious that I come across hundreds of interesting stories each month.
But, as I said, only those that naturally activate either a very strong personal emotion, or some existential observation, can make me sit down and write them.
As for the process itself, someone advised me years ago to put up a board on the wall and draw a storyboard before I commit it to paper. But I lack the discipline and brain structure to do such a thing, so I keep the storyboard in my head. This is where I usually write the story – among the many flies and other buzzing bugs, which lost their orientation a long time ago. I gather the facts sometimes for months, sometimes for years, and leave them to marinate in my own experiences, emotions and forming memories. Gradually the contours of the story appear from the mist. Often the different points somehow get together by themselves – mostly when I jog, or when I drive my car somewhere along the endless roads of the American West. Gradually the stories acquire part of me and I acquire part of them to a point that they become a fraction of me, of what I am as a human being.
And when I finally sit behind the keyboard, I pour it all out at once, organically it takes its place and gets its flesh. For me those stories are real, because they went through my soul, through my emotional filter, through my years spent on Mother Earth. I've always considered them my own thoughts and tribulations, which could be useful only to me and I am shocked that other people find in them something for themselves.
I was recently thinking about this and about all those people who came to the presentation of a book that is just a collection of articles and the only explanation that I found, was that maybe there is a collective consciousness, which unites different people and makes them share the same views. The Helikon bookstore was full of people who were looking at the world through the same lens that I am looking through, and I am certain that if they had the time, they would have told those stories in the same way or even better. This is why I asked them to write and create, whatever their calling in life may be, because I know myself and I am certain that they are gifted with a lot more talent.
Either way, this was a high point in my curve of happiness. I am aware, of course, that the bookstore full of people who hate my stories is a lot bigger, but I will choose not to spare them a thought and will keep the memory of those smiling good people who came to shake my hand and tell me with their eyes that my life is not wasted.
In the foreword of the book, you are compared to Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson. - Whom would you compare yourself with?
Oh, I am nowhere close to those literary giants. Besides, such comparisons, without doubt provoke rightful anger among the true masters of the pen. Right now Bulgaria is full of creative talent. We have true writers – people who devoted their lives to literature and they are truly deserving of such comparisons. Authors with imagination, own style and colourful palette such as Georgi Tomov, Gospodinov, Karabashliev, Petar Delchev and many others. It is really great that our literature is in upheaval in those hard times, that there is a literary guard which leads our besieged culture into the new century. I have no right to compare myself to anyone, because I am not at such high level and would hardly ever be. I just tell the stories that excite me. It is not journalism and it is not literature. I don't know what it is. I will continue to do what I can in the small space that I carved for myself unintentionally and when the need of this disappears, I will continue to write and publish the stories, but only in my head.
How would you describe your style?
Someone called it “sports existentialism”. Who knows? The sports part is clear. As for the second part – I am an avid existentialism consumer – from Sartre to Pink Floyd. Perhaps through osmosis something sneaked into my stories. Sports existentialism? My true drinking buddies would probably called it “SPIRITual Ivovism”.
Which is your favorite author?
An endless and impossible topic. Because we change constantly overtime, our favorite authors also follow its intervals and change their positions with an almost rhythmic consequence. Actually, when a book touched you, it remains a favorite forever, but you asked me which is my favorite author. I cannot rank them. Maybe once upon a time it was Erich Kastner, Astrid Lindgren, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Jules Verne, Fenimore Cooper, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, John Steinbeck. Then later it was Isaac Asimov, Yordan Yovkov, Ray Bradbury, Jaroslav Hasek, Raymond Chandler, Pavel Vezhinov, Erich Maria Remarque, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac, Douglas Adams, Dostoyevski and again John Steinbeck. Even later: Ken Kesey, Robert Pirsig, Allen Ginsberg, Cormac McCarthy, David Mamet, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski and once more Steinbeck. Today: Alexander Tomov, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Henryk Sienkiewicz and, of course, Steinbeck. Tomorrow? - I don't know, but the likelihood of Steinbeck being on the list is considerable... Timshel!
Who would you write a book with?
Unfortunately, the person with which we started writing a book many years ago, died in a car accident before turning 30. He and I were at the same frequency – we finished each other's sentences. It is a very rare thing. Today I have a couple of friends with which we could have a common project. We are not going to be Ilf and Petrov, of course, but we are at the same level and in a team we could compensate for our shortages. Those are people who are in Bulgaria and I have known since childhood. I hope that everyone has one or two such people in their lives. People, with which he writes a book, no matter if they realize it or not. If you don't have such friends, many of the pages will remain blank and in the very end it will be hard to find the book of your life in the library of life.
Have you ever written poetry?
Yes – I certainly had to. In most cases it was spontaneous. But I never tried to publish it or even share a verse and most likely I will never do it. Probably for pity to my readers, as I realise that my poetry will make Douglas Adams' Vogons commit suicide. But, joke aside, I always thought that poetry is a very personal process, which can be understood only by the person writing it. As it is already clear, among my many flaws, one of the biggest is my extreme emotionality. I realize that sometimes I notice things which I shouldn't be noticing. I am not over-analytical, I am over-emotional. I am struggling with this inclination of mine, but I am losing the game. Either way, I think that there are situations in life which can be best solved with the help of poetry.
And even though I would never publish those rhyming thoughts of mine, I have been consuming huge amounts of poetry ever since I was a child. I've always been attracted to the rhythm of speech... the secret symmetry of thoughts coming straight from the heart. In the hands of the great masters, poetry is not a matter of technique, but of magic. Shakespeare, Esenin, Robert Burns, Pushkin, Yavorov, Shelley, Byron, Lermontov, T.S. Elliot, Jim Morrison, Smirnenski, Khalil Gibran, Margarita Petkova, Vysotsky and many others, are the reason to realise that poetry is everywhere around us, including in prose.
What are you reading at the moment?
“The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch – one of the leading specialists in quantum mechanics. It is a compelling and at the same time confusing book and I will have to start reading it again right after I finish it. Recently I am very interested in scientific literature, which is probably caused by the agnosticism that has been gnawing me.
What are you writing at the moment?
An endless story that has been torturing me more than 10 years and because of which I traveled tens of thousands of miles in some of the most rarely visited and wild corners of America. This saga has already become so big that it will need a book of its own. - I have long since stopped believing that I will fit it in just one article. There are many heroes and anti-heroes, plots and sub-plots. I don't know where to start and where to end, so this is why right now I am writing the middle.
How did you choose the stories in “The Curve Of Happiness”? - Number of shares on the internet, for example, or those who are closest to your heart?
This is a good question, but it is really hard to answer it. I don't know how I picked them. It surely isn't the number of shares, because I don't keep count.
Some of the stories are indeed close to my heart, even too close. Maybe I shouldn't have included them – for the same reason for which I don't publish poetry. Recently I was thinking about the selection of the stories, trying to find something in common among them. I didn't find anything specific, but it seems like I detected the presence of a very pressing question in many of the articles. It appears in the first story in the book and maybe this is the thin red line that connects all the stories, if there is such a thing. The book somehow composed itself. The only thing I did on purpose was to put some humor and satire in it, especially where I felt it was needed. In the end the pre-press and the binding of the book forced us to add a few extra stories, which I haven't included initially.
I was an author in the largest publication in the area – Kansas City Star. In 2008 I won an essay competition of the newspaper and received a contract. They gave me a column in the print edition for a year and an online blog for an indefinite period. My articles were mostly on social and political themes. Sometime in 2009 I stopped writing in the blog – I was juggling with too many things and I had to drop something. I suppose I will start again one day.
Would you publish those stories in English?
Yes. Currently I am translating them and if I find a publisher, I will set them free to roam America. Actually, some of them would be more resounding with the local public. But at the same time, the intra-cultural logistics gives me a hard time translating. It is a problem I will most likely never fully solve. There is a text, for example, which is entirely set around the theme of the “white swallow”, which is a purely Bulgarian cultural reference. This would mean that I would have to re-tell and explain Yovkov's “Along the Wire” and probably the local readers would still not grasp the story to the fullest.
Do your American friends know of your literary pursuits?
They do, but only vaguely. When we meet, we talk of other things. But sometimes I seek help from people on some stories. Sometimes I even travel with friends to a story. In most cases, however, I am alone in my writing. My best friends here have occasionally succeeded in making me translate one story or another.
When people ask you what do you do for a living, what is your answer?
Another good hard question. Usually the reply takes some time. Between 9 and 5 I am a passing myself as a marketing director of a big social agency. But I am also the graphic designer and the webmaster of the agency. I manage 5-6 pages of the company and at least that many in the social networks. I have set up a small film studio, where for many years I have been making short educational, corporate and advertising films. I direct, shoot, edit, draw computer graphics, edit the sound, etc... I have been doing this since before digital editing and video compression appeared. Besides all those things, I also am the coach two teams – soccer and basketball. Each Saturday I host a sports show on a local radio station. Sometimes most of all I wish that there are more than 24 hours in a day.
What would you have been, if you stayed in Bulgaria?
Don Quixote. Like all my friends.
Were you expecting such a welcome from your readers at the book signing in the Helikon bookstore?
Not at all! It was a total shock. I even thought that those people were in the bookstore for something else. I said to myself that there is probably another event at the same time. I was completely stunned when I realised that it was “The Curve Of Happiness” that brought them in the bookstore.
I couldn't believe that all those smiling, good, sunny people are there because of my stories. I couldn't believe they are real. As I already said, in those stories is written my life … my years, my tribulations and my trials. If there are some conclusions and philosophy in them, they are very idealistic, like myself. This means, I said to myself, that those people suffer from the same kind of naivete and share my idealism. And this is happening in a country that is always accused of negativity, cynicism, jealousy and prejudice. I wanted to make sure those people in the bookstore are real – to shake their hands, look in their eyes and hug them. And this is what happened. They were real, breathing, feeling human beings and I hope they remain like this, so I can read their books one day.
What excites you more? - The fact that people cry when they read your stories, or the fact that they laugh?
This is a wonderful question. Thank you for it, because it makes me think about something that has always bothered me, but I never contemplated it actively. It is clear that in both cases it is a matter of emotion – laughter and tears distinguish us from the other mammals. If I, as an author, manage to achieve one or the other, I have obviously let the reader into the innermost territory of every writing person. Truth is - if I reached this place with my stories, I didn't do it just for the sake of doing it. It means that I myself was laughing or crying, while writing the stories. If I made someone cry, I would like them to know that they cried with my tears. If someone laughed, my laughter was there too.
There are stories that are too intense and they crush me emotionally. I write them down and then I can't function properly for a while. I try to leave them behind and never read them again, but they, of course, stay with me. What I noticed is that writing them, composing the sentences and the thoughts, has a therapeutical effect. If something bothers you – write it down. Don't keep it under pressure inside. I appreciate the crying stories. But I also appreciate the laughing stories.
Sometimes, very rarely, there are stories that have room both for tears and laughter. But this is a rare and precious equilibrium, for which there is no recipe or an emoticon. In the end of the day, in spite the many words, I don't know if I managed to answer this question. And I don't know if I should laugh or cry.
Photos: Ivo Ivanov and Vakon publishing house
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