Miroslav Penkov’s debut novel, Stork Mountain, is full of “strange and vertiginous language.” It was with great pleasure that we asked him about the Balkan lineage of his book and what he’s reading lately.
Who is your ideal reader?
Writing simultaneously in two languages—English and Bulgarian—has always put me in a difficult spot. For example, who is Stork Mountain really meant for? Readers in the West who are not intimately familiar with Bulgarian culture and history and for whom certain historical and cultural elements should be streamlined and simplified? Or readers in Bulgaria who would be supremely annoyed by too much simplification and streamlining? I don’t know how to deal with this issue other than to write for one ideal, imaginary reader—someone who knows close to nothing about Bulgaria, yet is not afraid to wade out deep into its history and myth; who is not easily frightened by the politics of an unaccustomed region, but is curious, hungry and excited to learn; a traveler who understands that it is the journey that matters, the winding path with a heart, and not necessarily the straight, easy line which leads us quickly to the final destination.
What’s one book you return to over and over again?
There are a number of writers I return to with regularity. Every year (and this has something to do with the fact that I teach fiction at a university) I reread stories by Chekhov, Carver, William Trevor, Katherine Anne Porter, Ellen Gilchrist, Wells Tower, and Bonnie Jo Campbell (students love the last two). I also reread the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and John Williams (I’m always deeply moved by Stoner’s elegant and quiet prose). I keep nearby Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and The Cat’s Table and read them like poetry, a few pages at a time. I do the same with Jack Gilbert’s collected poems.
What book would you consider an “ancestor” of your own most recent book and why?
I wanted Stork Mountain to be a proper Balkan novel. I read and reread Nikos Kazantzakis’s Freedom and Death, which is packed with stories—not only of its heroes, but also of its minor characters; characters who appear on one or two pages, yet burn with a blinding flame. But in many ways Stork Mountain is also a novel written in the tradition of the American South. When I was nineteen I moved to Arkansas and studied there for eight years; the literature of the South had a profound influence on the way I think of life and writing; the Faulknerian credo—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—truly changed the way I think of personal and collective history.
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I really, really disliked Wuthering Heights and have always felt guilty about it. It has one of the best openings I’ve ever read; so atmospheric, so powerful. And then . . . Heathcliff. A romantic hero to be sure, destructive in his passions, but so much less interesting, so much more of a caricature than someone like, say, Dmitry Karamazov who may very well be my favorite fictional character; a man full of uncontrollable passions, contradictions and corruption that have always felt truly human to me.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
About a year ago I read Shusaku Endo’s Silence and cried my eyes out. It was a book I didn’t think I would like much—I love many Japanese novels (The Makioka Sisters being one of my favorite books), but this one was different; Endo was Catholic and this story is focused on two Portuguese missionaries in the seventeenth century, held captive by the Japanese, tortured and forced to renounce Christ. It’s a really great novel (Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis comes to mind) and I can’t wait to see Martin Scorsese’s adaptation, which comes out later this year (Liam Neeson as a Jesuit priest must not be missed).
What are you reading now?
I’m finishing William Gay’s Provinces of Night. A stunning, stunning novel. I’ve always loved his short stories, but for some inexplicable reason never read his novels. What a silly mistake. His sentences are extraordinary. His characters are so alive. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as much in another book; not just paragraphs, but entire pages which I’ll be going back and rereading for years to come.
Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He moved to America in 2001 and received an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. His stories have won the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 and The Southern Review‘s Eudora Welty Prize and have appeared in A Public Space, Granta, One Story, The Best American Short Stories 2008, The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Published in over a dozen countries, East of the West was a finalist for the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the Steven Turner Award for First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. In 2014–15 he was the literature protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, working with mentor Michael Ondaatje. Penkov teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is editor in chief of the American Literary Review.
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