A Conversation with Zachary Karabashliev


Published by Open Letter Books, Bulgarian author Zachary Karabashliev’s debut novel 18% Gray was our Critical Era book club selection back in April.  We loved this at times horrific, yet often quite hilarious tale of one man’s journey across the United States, stating in our review that “[…] the beauty of this particular tale lies in the author’s supreme skill at weaving together autobiographical nuggets with invented exaggerations and half-truths in order to create a spellbinding, slightly skewed, meta-fictional version of reality where every experience, no matter how minor, carries heightened significance, and the absurd becomes the expected norm.”

We finally had a chance to catch up with Mr. Karabashliev and what follows below is a mostly spoiler-free discussion about photography, translation, and adaptation.

Zachary Karabashliev is one of the most awarded and critically acclaimed contemporary Bulgarian playwrights and novelists with artistic voice appealing to a variety of multicultural audiences around the world.

His novel, 18% Gray, published in Bulgaria in his native language is a bestselling title, winning the Bulgarian Novel of the Year 2009 Award given by Edward Vick Foundation and was published in France in 2011. It was published in US by Open Letter Books in February 2013. His short stories and plays are also translated in German, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian and others languages.

His other books in Bulgarian are: collection of short stories A Brief History of the Airplane (Book of the Year 2009 Award of Helikon), collection of stageplays Recoil and the short stories collection Symmetry. He also co-wrote the children’s illustrated book The Doll-maker

His play Sunday Evening, produced in Theatre Sofia, won the prestigious Bulgarian theater award Askeer 2009. His play Recoil won the Best Contemporary Bulgarian Play 2009 award, it was produced at TBA theater – one of the best venues in Bulgaria – and received Audience Award in Wiesbaden Theatre Biennial, Germany “New Plays from Europe” 2012. His newest work Lissabon was produced in April 2014 at the iconic La Mama Theatre in New York.

He sold the film rights of 18% Gray and was commissioned to adapt it into a screenplay. The project is scheduled to start filming in 2014.

His last screenplay is Once Upon A Time in The Western, starring the great film icon Claudia Cardinale is now in post-production in Spain.

Zachary Karabashliev resides in Sofia.

TE: Who is Zachary Karabashliev?

ZK: As soon as I find out myself, I’ll get back to you.

TE: Where did the idea to write 18% Gray come from?


18% Gray

ZK: I was on a parking lot in Solana Beach – a beach town near San Diego – half an hour after I dropped off someone at the airport, and I was watching an airplane flying high above, and I felt as empty as the So Cal sky. And the voice of the main character came, and it was so clear and strong, it possessed my thoughts entirely.

TE: The book’s narrator is an avid photographer.  Has photography ever been a hobby of your own?  If not, did you have to research many photographic techniques and methods?

ZK: No research was needed. I was a professional photographer for years. Before that I loved B&W film photography. The way you frame reality in the view finder, and leave only what serves your shot… It’s a control thing. (But, then again, what isn’t?)  I used to love the smell of chemicals in the dark room. The world outside muffled, reduced to a photograph, trying to emerge from the paper, the amber light, all the good old cliche stuff…

TE: 18% Gray invites readers to ride shotgun on a cross country road trip with a fictionalized version of Zachary Karabashliev.  How much of what occurs in the story is actually inspired by real life events? How close is the fictional Zachary to the real one?

ZK: Close. There was an American agent, who read the manuscript and wanted to sign me, but she insisted I should change the name of the main character, because everything was “too autobiographical”. She also wanted me to tone down the language, the dialogue, the story, because, she suggested I’ve offended too many “American female readers”, and American female readers, she insisted would not LIKE the main character. She kept saying that the character was “not likable”. I thought hard about all that, and finally asked my character what to do. He said, oh, screw that. And so I did – I wouldn’t do something my character wouldn’t do, right? So, I never signed with that agent, thank God. My novel came to in the US anyway, and I met many readers – both female and male, I did a book tour, I was invited to book clubs, the works… The American female readers all agreed that the character was not “likable” – and especially in the beginning of the story – yet they could relate to him in so many ways. The word “lovable” was used often.

TE: How involved were you in the process of translating the novel to English? Are you happy with the results? Do you feel that anything was “lost” in translation?


Angela Rodel

ZK: I was very much involved. My translator Angela Rodel, and I are good friends, so that helps. It turned out she and I were born on the same date – so I guess you could say we are astro-related. Angela is an American with a Bulgarian soul. I’ve always been a Bulgarian with an American spirit. Angela speaks the language better than I do, so If something is missing in the translation it’s probably my fault.

TE: The novel is structured as two narratives, one in the past and another in the present, wrapped around specific snippets of dialog from random points in time. How did you settle on this approach to storytelling?

ZK: As a teenager I fell madly in love with a novel called Birdy by William Worthon. I’ve always been fascinated by the use of different tools for separating the narratives, even on a visual level, using font, for example. I took it a step further aligning some parts of the narrative differently.

TE: The plot structure is extremely reliant upon detail.  Did you intentionally plant “clues” for readers to ascertain the truth behind the narrator’s psychological state?

ZK:We are dealing with a pretty unreliable narrator who’s dealing with his pretty deep trauma. His world is close to your world and mine, but not really. I have planted clues here and there, which you(if you are a careful reader) will make sense of when you get to the end of the novel. I like involving the reader as a co-author. This, of course, needs to be intuitive first, not a carefully planned mission, skillfully executed by the writer. I don’t like the overly  processed writing. It lacks life. It’s like most of the screenwriting out here. Premeditated, dry, predictable.

TE: Did you finish the screenplay for 18% Gray? Will we see a movie adaptation soon?

ZK: Yes, I have. I wrote many drafts. I believe the fifth one is the one I’d be very proud to see – it’s tighter, leaner, visual, more violent – it’s a more mature storytelling. But the producers may not think so. Unfortunately for me they have the final word.

TE: Which authors have influenced you most as a writer?

ZK: I grew up as a disturbingly eclectic reader. So many writers have influenced me – Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain (a lot!), Robert M. Pirsig, Salinger, Philip Roth, the French author Philip Djian, probably Chekhov, also a fine Bulgarian writer by the name of Viktor Paskov(totally obscure in the West), Irwin Show, Eric Maria Remark, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy… yeah, it’s ridiculous, so I’ll just stop right there.

TE: What are you currently working on and are there any plans for your short story collection to be translated to English?

ZK: I’m working on my next novel. I’m trying to finish it by the end of the year.

I have two short story collections published in Bulgaria. The idea is selected stories from both plus some new ones to be published in the US. I’m in talks with American and English publishers now. I’m hoping the collection to be available in English by the end of 2015.


Zachary Karabashliev’s debut novel 18% Gray is published by Open Letter Books and is available wherever fine books are sold. You can learn more about Zachary Karabashliev on Facebook and by visiting his official website.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.