Michael Ondaatje & Miroslav PenkovMaps for a writer's journey

Published in November 2015icon-clockTime to read: 4m55s

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.

by John FreemanNovember 2015
  • Michael Ondaatje
    The Mentor
  • Miroslav Penkov
    The Protégé

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.”


Rolex Mentor and Protégé