Each spring the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation selects five English speaking writers and five Bulgarian writers to participate in the Sozopol Fiction Seminar, which takes places in the tiny, historic town of Sozopol, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. In 2011 I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of four American fellows, along with Kelly Luce, Carin Clevidence, and Charles Conley. This is my report from that experience.
The workshop was over. I looked out the bus window and saw Sozopol recede along the coast, its red-tiled roofs spread across the dry seaside. Had it only been four days? It seemed like weeks. My mind was a flip board of images. I settled into the return bus ride beside my wife, Linda, and listened to the animated conversations happening around me. Alex Miller, in our final workshop, had presented the combined group of American and Bulgarian writers with a surprise exercise. He asked each of us to say why we wrote. I have several shallow answers that I give, and in my mind I ticked off the ones most appropriate for this group of new friends, all still basically strangers. Alex cautioned that glib answers were just that, transparent cover ups, and honest answers were difficult, but we were writers after all, and we had an obligation to tell the truth, whatever that was. “Hmmm,” I thought.
Alex called on Kelly first. I felt sorry for her. Such an important question and so little time to prepare. I had time to find words that were honest and clever. How honest did I want to get?
I had it all figured out when Alex turned to me. In that instant my comfortable mask fell and I spoke from a vulnerable place. Emotion welled in me, startling me, and I was unrehearsed. I struggled to stay articulate while weeping about my parents’ divorce when I was a child. It didn’t matter that the facts in question were forty years past. When I finished, the mood in the room had changed. I watched with interest as the next up, our Bulgarian colleagues, all men, all accustomed to protective cloaks, opened up one by one. One Bulgarian talked about a son who had recently died. Everyone was quite and attentive. This is what I thought about on the seven-hour bus ride to Sofia. And I thought how odd it was to travel five thousand miles to a remote part of the former Roman Empire to discover something about myself.
The bus arrived in Sofia late afternoon, and as the highway ended we found ourselves in old narrow city streets jammed with rush hour traffic. The next day, May 30, was the final portion of the Conference’s formal proceedings, a day of literary discussions co-sponsored by the American Embassy and Sofia University. On arrival at the Diamanti Hotel, Nikolaj Bojkov, a Bulgarian Fellow, had invited us to Made In Home, a restaurant located at Shandor Petofi 37, owned by Silvia and Rudi, who host a monthly literary gathering. Six of us sat around the restaurant’s single large wood table and dipped warm bread into a thick soap, a savory concoction of zucchini, onion, dill, red pepper powder, sour cream, with salt to taste, all served family style from a large clay pot. I was in a good mood. We talked, took pictures we promised to share when we got back to the States, and we carried on a lively conversation in broken English with several Bulgarian writers.
The conference ended the next evening, June 1, with readings of Fellows’ work at the Red House, 15 Liuben Karavelov Street, a four story red brick building in the city center built by the famous Bulgarian sculptor, Andrey Nikolov. The building’s style is Mediterranean, which is quite unusual for Sofia. Nikolov built the house after he returned from Rome, where he lived from 1914 to 1927. Today, the Red House is a cultural landmark. The last evening of the Conference’s events began at 7:15 pm sharp with a literary flash mob just outside the steps of the Red House. I was reluctant to participate in an event described with the opposing sensibilities of mob and literary and flash, but I was curious too. Who wouldn’t be? I showed up outside the Red House and joined other writers, conference participants, students, and passers-by. At the precise moment this ‘mob’ started reading out loud. Different work. Our own work. The work of dead poets. Anything. This created a noisy cacophony of literary gobbledygook. Words overlapped and intersected and individual words lost meaning. It ended at precisely 7:20 pm, as suddenly as it began, and just as spontaneously. Each reader dropped his manuscript in a trash basket and we dispersed on the sidewalk.
That evening’s main event was a public reading by conference fellows in the Red House’s second floor gallery. Each of the ten fellows read a brief excerpt of his or her work, and the mixed language audience read the English translation of the spoken Bulgarian text on a large projected screen (or the Bulgarian translation in the case of an English text). I introduced each of my American colleagues and Ivan Dimitrov did the same for the Bulgarian fellows. The presentation format was clever, mixing languages, diverse voices, and literary styles. The Bulgarian excerpts often gravitated toward the absurd – the employer who places a classified ad for a worker willing to be fired. We Americans wrote about varieties of emotion: love, courage, tolerance. This reinforced a running joke at the conference: Americans wrote about divorce and suicide; Bulgarians wrote about waking up a cockroach.
My evening ended on the roof of the Red House under a warm night sky among fellow writers whose company made me feel less alone in the world. I had been vulnerable and felt stronger for it. Wine and appetizers were served on a terrace that looked onto the quiet tree-lined street and Soviet-era apartment buildings. The night was cool, the food savory, and conversations took up memories of the remarkable week we’d spent together, exchanging addresses, hugs, and promises–real promises–to stay in touch.