Open Letter Love from the West Coast, Part I
A couple weeks ago, we released Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, which looks like this:
and should not be confused with Anne Tenino’s 18% Gray and looks like this:
Anyway, Zack’s book, which was the co-winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest (sponsored by the ever-wonderful Elizabeth Kostova Foundation) and which is a really fun, enjoyable, occasionally heart-wrenching book about a man, a camera, a cross-country road trip, a missing wife, and a huge bag of week, has been getting a lot of praise, including this amazing feature in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
The world is full of bartenders hoping for something grander — actors waiting for their first big part, musicians waiting for their first big hit.
In San Diego there’s a bartender who is already a big deal. In Bulgaria.
His name is Zachary Karabashliev. He’s 44. He lives in Mira Mesa and mixes drinks at the Sheraton downtown, where it seems fair to say not many people know that back in his homeland he’s a prizewinning novelist, short-story author and playwright.
Now he’s poised to make a splash here. [. . .]
Voted by Bulgarian readers one of their favorite 100 books of all time, 18% Gray opens in a fictionalized San Diego. The main character, also named Zack, has a newly broken heart. Drowning his sorrows in Tijuana, he escapes a kidnapping and winds up with a 60-pound bag of marijuana in his car trunk.
The best person he knows to help him unload the pot lives in New York, so he sets off across the country on a journey that’s wildly dangerous and oddly healing. His car gets stolen, rear-ended, towed for a parking violation. He drinks a lot of espressos and dirty martinis, takes a lot of photographs. He helps a suicidal woman. He accidentally goes into the wrong motel room and climbs into bed, startling the occupant. Who has a gun.
All that’s interspersed with flashbacks to his life with Stella, an artist he fell in love with in Bulgaria and eventually married. And then she left him.
If the story sounds absurd and darkly funny — well, it is. Sitting one recent morning in a cafe in University Heights, Karabashliev admitted he has a healthy appetite for both.
Additionally, Steven Wingate interviewed Zack for Fiction Writers Review:
SW: The author bio mentions that you’ve written a screenplay for 18% Gray, which is in development. The novel has its cinematic elements, most obviously its use of third person present tense narration. Yet you break completely from the cinematic model in other ways—something I think is crucial for fiction writers to do because the cinematic aesthetic is so omnipresent that it threatens to engulf everything else in narrative culture. In what ways do you see yourself embracing or distancing yourself from the cinematic?
ZK: It’s funny how after cinema adopted the rules of millennia of storytelling and practically hijacked the “hero’s journey” (the monomyth) now, we fiction writers have to deal with and challenge that. Cinema replicates narrative tradition with new means, but in terms of storytelling it has not invented all that much.
The feedback from my readers unanimously touches on the cinematic aesthetic of the novel. “It was like I was watching a movie,” “I read it in one day,” and so on. And I take that as a compliment. I guess that was also the appeal for the producers to buy the film rights and trust me with writing the script. I love film. But 18% Gray was conceived and constructed as a novel. It was not meant to be a surrogate for a movie. Even though I employ techniques from screenwriting, and at times borrow from the visual arts, I am not an advocate for the “show don’t tell” doctrine that has dominated the craft of too many fiction writers for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years.
Our civilization today is ruled by the visual, and this is normal—nearly a third of our brain is dedicated to vision. Through brain scanning, neuroscience and linguistics research shows that while reading words, we use the same cognitive tools that allow us to react to our environment, reconstruct memories, and so on. So if you want to be “heard” as a writer, you need to “show” more. Great, but that makes us, storytellers, compete with visual artists (especially film makers) for the mercy of the almighty Visual Cortex. Well, what about Proust then? Dostoyevsky? James Joyce? What about Kundera, or Robert Pirsig, or a long line of writers that like to not just show, but tell us what they think about things?
I like “show and tell.” Looking back now, I think I have used certain cinematic approaches to bribe the reader’s attention, to suspend disbelief and hold attention to the words. I never take my reader’s attention for granted. I always feel I have to fight for it.
The interview is definitely worth reading in its entirety—especially the opening sequence about when Steven first met Zack,
a man in denim jumping up and down with infectious excitement and energy. He looked about my age, with a bit of gray at the temples—just old enough to have done the pogo at a punk rock show back in the day—and he exuded the kind of vibe it’s almost impossible to be downhearted around
Additionally, you should buy 18% Gray. Actually, since I’m feeling really good about the attention we’ve been receiving for A Thousand Morons and 18% Gray, if you subscribe to Open Letter for a year we’ll throw in both of these books for free—you’ll received 12 books for $100.
(And if you’re already a subscriber and have one or both of these, we’ll just extend your subscription for an additional two titles for re-upping now.)
This will only last through February though, so sign up now!