Rolex Arts Initiative : Your stories are full of tales and legends, chance encounters. I wonder, as a storyteller, how the fable of your meeting Michael Ondaatje would begin?
Miroslav Penkov: I remember my parents watching a bootleg VHS copy of The English Patient some time in 1997. I remember wanting to see the film with them, but opting out to work on my English homework instead. In 1997 I started studying English seriously, in high school, and we began in the beginning, with the alphabet. Now I think there is something fable-like in the whole situation – skipping the movie that afternoon so I could study the language which would later allow me to meet the man who’d written the book which had led to the movie.
It’s a good story, did you grow up around storytellers?
As a child, I never liked being read to. What I liked best was for my parents to make up stories. My father’s specialty were stories about the Bulgarian khans, tsars, great heroes, mythical creatures from the Slavic folklore. And my mother had invented these two characters, two little hippos, a boy and a girl, whom I joined on imaginary adventures. She’d ask me, where should we send them today and I’d give her a destination (‛the circus’ was a recurrent one) and off we went (usually on a flying carpet). And as the adventure unfolded, my mother would ask me for greater and greater input until by the end she’d turned the tables entirely and it was I who was telling her the story.
Michael Ondaatje began his career as a poet, then shifted into novels. Has he given you advice that has helped you with your own transition to a longer form?
Michael was kind enough to read the first hundred pages of the manuscript of my novel. He gave me detailed notes which forced me to re-evaluate the ways in which I was unfolding my chapters. Since then, for example, I’ve rewritten completely the opening 15 pages of the manuscript. As for the rest (and I’ve applied his comments to the entire manuscript), I eliminated large sections of exposition and tried to make the novel’s narrator more interesting, engaging, active. I tried to make the writing tighter; to streamline it so that each chapter is not as crowded with little stories within stories within stories. In other words, what Michael provided me with was not just general advice on writing novels against writing stories (though there was some of that as well). Instead, he gave me specific, priceless suggestions that tackled concrete issues within the manuscript.
You’ve studied and been mentored in Bulgaria, the United States and now with Ondaatje in Canada. I’m wondering how these experiences differ.
Regardless of continents and cultures, the relationship between a young enthusiast and an established master is more or less the same. That is, if the enthusiast is willing to listen, if he is unafraid of working hard, of failing and trying again; and if the master is well-meaning, and generous, and kind. This is precisely what I’m getting from Michael now – courage and validation, advice in difficult moments, an invitation to try new things, to expand my horizons. Right now I’m writing a screenplay, which, before meeting Michael, wasn’t something that interested me in the least. But he loves film; in some ways he puts his novels together the way a movie is assembled in the editing room. And his conversations with Walter Murch [renowned film editor and former Rolex mentor] are collected in such a brilliant book. I simply had to try my hand at this new form, especially after working almost exclusively on a novel for the past four years.
What is it like to work with Michael Ondaatje? What’s he like to be around?
To be given the chance to sit across from one of the world’s greatest writers, to listen to what he has to say about art, film, books, your own book – that’s just amazing. Then gradually you get past this initial amazement. And with time even the fear disappears.
You two went on a trip to Bulgaria, what did you hope Michael would see and how did that differ from what he’s seen?
There was no real discrepancy between what I hoped Michael might see and what he actually witnessed. But I was afraid, secretly, that he may tire of sightseeing. After all, one church mural is the same as the next. Wrong. On both counts. Michael did not tire. He took photos, he asked questions. We even got to talk to the Bishop of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I mean, how cool is that!