Michael Ondaatje and Miroslav Penkov

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

With much in common – they have both changed countries and cultures, and have careers as both teachers and writers – Canadian Michael Ondaatje and United States-based Bulgarian Miroslav Penkov quickly developed a strong literary friendship, exchanging messages and travelling to Bulgaria together. They discussed a multitude of books but, happily for the young Bulgarian short-story writer, a major focus was his debut novel, which he was writing in English, his second language. At the end of the mentoring year, Penkov was delighted with the whole experience, especially as he had completed his novel – which has now been bought by an American publisher and is scheduled for publication in March 2016.

Michael Ondaatje and Miroslav Penkov

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

May 2014

Links in a single chain

Miroslav Penkov, 31, is one of very few Bulgarian novelists to write about his home country in English. An Assistant Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Texas, his ambition for his 2014–2015 mentoring year with Michael Ondaatje is to finesse his novel about the desolation of Eastern Thrace.

On two occasions my life has taken an unexpected direction through the grace of others. I was 16, living in Bulgaria, when the great – and now, sadly, late – Bulgarian-Armenian writer Agop Melkonian published my first story in his literary magazine. A month later, he called me to his office. “I want you to write for me,” he said. “One article a month, and I’ll pay you. Take writing seriously,” he said. “I want to teach you professionalism, discipline.” He believed in me when even I didn’t.

In 2003, the American writer Ellen Gilchrist changed my life. I was studying psychology at the University of Arkansas, determined to make it my career. I took one of Ellen’s classes for fun, even though writing in a foreign language seemed impossible. “You should be a writer, not a shrink,” she told me after our first workshop. Ellen helped me hear the music of the words. It was Ellen who convinced me to apply to the Creative Writing Program and who, for four years, gave me courage.

Life and death books

As well as Michael Ondaatje, there are so many writers I like, beginning with the Russian writers like Chekhov, who saw that anyone, no matter how ordinary, is worthy of a story. Dostoevsky’s novels have great power in terms of language and character; these are life and death books. But Tolstoy is the absolute master, never judging, never philosophizing too much.

The writer I truly love is Nikos Kazantzakis. Freedom and Death is my favourite. It’s about Crete’s rebellion against the Ottomans. The book speaks to me on a deep, personal level, it speaks to my blood. It’s a Balkan thing.

Michael Ondaatje is a larger-than-life figure. There are few writers like him. That’s daunting, but he’s known to be incredibly kind, so I wasn’t nervous about meeting him, though I was giddy as a child.

He’d actually read my short-story collection and parts of the novel I’d written, and gave me useful feedback. He asked me to recommend books he could read. I ended up talking a lot more than him, telling him about Bulgarian and Balkan writers. I thought later, that I might have missed my chance to hear from him what I should be reading.

Give a man a fish

My main objective of the mentoring year is finalizing my novel, which I have been working on for four years. It has been bought by an American publisher. What I like about the mentorship is summed up in the saying “Give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll never be hungry again.” So it’s not just about the novel; it’s about learning about being a writer for the rest of my life.

My novel is, among other things, about the desolation of Eastern Thrace, which borders Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, before, during and after the Balkan Wars. Part of the narrative also centres on a campaign by the Orthodox Church and Communist Party to make Bulgarian Muslims change their names.

I don’t look at my books individually. I perceive them as links in a single chain. I’d like the world to read about Bulgaria, its people, history and folklore. And I’d like the people of Bulgaria to start reading local literature again, something they’ve almost forgotten about over the past two decades of economic crisis. That’s why I write my books in English and in Bulgarian.

A path in the dark

No other Bulgarian writer before me has written stories in English about Bulgaria and published in America. I have no model to emulate. I make my own path in the dark and I’m often scared. But I’m also grateful for this unique opportunity.

I watch soccer, proper football. It teaches me patience. I think there are some similarities between football and publishing. A lot of players are young and gifted, but even if you’re playing for Manchester United, you don’t get to play every week. You work hard and wait your turn.

Michael Ondaatje and Miroslav Penkov

A year of mentoring

Six months with a mentor (Chapter 3 of 4)

May 2015

A writer’s fabled life

East of the West, Miroslav Penkov’s debut collection of stories, announced him as a formidable talent and introduced many readers to the legends and tales of Bulgarian history. Raised in Buglaria, Penkov now lives in Texas and writes in English. Here he describes his experiences trading tales with his mentor Michael Ondaatje, and where it has taken them.

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 ofThe English Patients ome 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 themanuscript.

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!

Michael Ondaatje and Miroslav Penkov

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 4 of 4)

November 2015

Maps for a writer's journey

A little over a year ago, Miroslav Penkov was sitting alone in his house in Denton, Texas, worrying about whether his last three years of work had been in vain. He had just finished a draft of a novel, Stork Mountain, and he simply did not know if anyone would want to read about an obscure village in the mountains on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey. His editor had left his publishing company and he was between agents, and even though his first book, East of the West, was doing well in Bulgaria - two out of the collection of stories had been optioned for movies - doubt had somehow crept in.

Writing a novel instead of short stories was proving a struggle and on top of that he was writing in English, his second language, which meant he would later have to translate the book into Bulgarian for publication in his native country. Like most young writers he felt isolated and even a little despairing, thinking: "If I am really writing a book that is worthy, it would be great for someone to notice." 

Then an email arrived. He opened it and read that he'd been selected for the Rolex Arts Initiative. "I can't tell you how shocked and relieved I was," Penkov remembers. "I felt like I had been given a chance I had dreamed of, but I could never have realized then how perfectly the programme was designed to help someone in my position." 

Penkov and the mentor he was paired with, Michael Ondaatje, the Booker Prize- winning author of The English Patient and The Cat's Table, met for the first time last autumn in New York, where Penkov had an experience that was, to him, surprising though not uncommon for those who encounter Ondaatje. "We probably spent an hour and a half, two hours, talking" Penkov recalls, "and the majority of the conversation was Michael asking me for books he should read. I'm like, wait, what just happened? I'm doing all the talking and I'm giving Michael Ondaatje suggestions on what he should read?"

Pen pals
They soon discovered they had much to discuss. For the next year, the two became pen pals, travel partners, their own book club, even film-goers. The list of books Ondaatje extracted from Penkov grew longer, including Nikos Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. Ondaatje pointed Penkov towards Yasunari Kawabata and the little-known North Carolina novelist John Ehle. They also found they had much in common. Like Penkov, who had travelled from Bulgaria to the U.S. to study psychology, which he abandoned when an American creative writing teacher told him, "you should be a writer, not a shrink”, Ondaatje knew a thing or two about transitions. The world sees him as a distinguished novelist, but long before he wrote prose, Ondaatje was a poet whose early books had been released in small editions of 400 or 500. 

Over two decades, Ondaatje moved out of verse into prose, earning a large readership only once he had crested 50. "Writing as I did allowed me to go my own way, to discover the kind of book I wanted to write,” Ondaatje says. "Today writers are almost forced to find a voice or find a style very quickly and it may not be the right one and then they get locked into that style.” 

But Ondaatje wasn't just a writer. Earlier in his career he worked as an editor in Toronto at Coach House Press and at a respected literary magazine, Brick, most of whose writers worked in obscurity. He, too, was a geographical outsider, coming to Canada from Sri Lanka. 

"What was important, what was similar for both of us,” Ondaatje says of Penkov, "is that we were from other countries and now in North America and we were writing about these other countries where we had come from.”

First literary love
Mentorship was not something new for Penkov. His first literary love was short stories. He also read a lot of Stephen King. As a result, Penkov's first literary efforts were fantastical tales that he'd write in one sitting and then send off to Bulgarian science fiction journals like Zona F, run by Agop Melkonian, a famous Bulgarian-Armenian writer. 

One day, Melkonian sent his own son to the Penkov family's apartment in Sofia to see if Penkov would like to work at his magazine. "This was a huge thing for me,” Penkov says now, "not just to see my work in print, but also to have someone of Agop's stature go out of his way to encourage my writing. And so I kept writing.”

Now a veteran observer of life in the United States, he laughs at how little Stephen King's work prepared him for life there. "I had a very strange perception of what America was,” he says, to which Ondaatje adds: "When I was in England the first thing I read about America was Damon Runyon, so that was my image of the United States.” 

Their similar experiences and mutual interests meant they quickly built a productive literary relationship. By late November, just months into their collaboration, Ondaatje and Penkov had already completed a significant portion of their mentorship and it showed. The two spoke less like strangers and more like conspirators, elaborating and expanding upon each other's points. The discussions intensified after Ondaatje read the first 100 pages of Penkov's novel. Most of their talk, in Toronto, focused on revision. Penkov's draft of the novel began with stories within stories. "And Michael said, well, if you just allowed the narrator to tell us the story from his perception," Penkov says. "It made a big difference. It was a small adjustment. But it was huge."

A week in Bulgaria
The two had also just recently returned from a week-long trip to Bulgaria, where Penkov introduced his mentor to film-makers and friends, and they spent days sightseeing at monasteries. "I wanted to see how he translates that world into another world," Ondaatje explains. 

"One of the things that's interesting when you're from a place like Sri Lanka or Bulgaria," he continues, "if you, yourself are in a different country where the main literary language is English, and you are too faithful to the original story, then it becomes something else." The word "suggestiveness" therefore began emerging in their conversations, and it would keep returning. For Ondaatje, this means giving the reader room enough to imagine the rest. "In a poem you write 70 per cent because the reader is also participating. I think that can apply in fiction as well. I find it difficult to read when I'm told everything like a shepherd who takes me from scene to scene to scene." 

This approach to storytelling is slightly complicated, of course, when where you are writing from is obscure to many readers. When Penkov moved to Arkansas, for instance, he found he had to explain to people that where he was from actually existed. "Bulgaria just wasn't even present in their sphere of knowledge, not just in interest, but existence. They knew nothing about it." It's why when he published East of the West, stories that recycle Ottoman narratives into a present-day portrait of a family, he didn't resist when his publisher asked him to add the subtitle, A Country in Stories, to the book.

Cultural hotspots
In March, Ondaatje flew to Denton to spend a few days with Penkov in Texas. They took a trip to a town called Ponder, and marvelled at the far-flung places a life in writing will take you. "There's a real literary community for him here," Ondaatje says, not hiding his surprise that his protégé has been able to find intellectual companionship so far from the world's cultural hotspots. Ondaatje also says community doesn't entirely erase "the whole problem, the gift, of being someone who comes from another country like Bulgaria". Being far from home throws everything into relief and radically changes one's horizons. 

As if in concert with this extended horizon, as the two approached the final stages of their mentorship, they decided to push the finish line back, just a bit. As Penkov waited for final edits on his debut novel, he began working on a screenplay. Ondaatje decided it would be a good idea to take him to the Telluride Film Festival, where Penkov could meet film-makers and talk to them about their projects. 

"A writer has to be a writer - try a different genre," Ondaatje says, "whether it's non- fiction or opera. There is a kind of reflection that, with some clarity, can show you how you can alter your own prose style." Penkov agrees with this, and he knows he'll probably find new inspirations in Colorado, talking to film-makers. 

So, in little over a year, with some friendly advice from Michael Ondaatje, Penkov has accomplished what he earlier described as the "main objective of the mentoring year... finalizing my novel, which I have been working on for four years". It has been bought by an American publisher. 

How Penkov develops as a storyteller, and what and how that emerges, is a work in progress. "I think the longest, deepest effects of this mentorship won't emerge until book three, four or five," Penkov says. "It's about learning about being a writer for the rest of my life."