Elena Aleksieva: A novel is like a huge battering ram

If you are not careful, it can run you over and crush you

We, humans, appropriate a lot of things - we believe that the only existing form of intelligence is the one we possess, that only we have emotions, feelings and the right to freedom in a world we have usurped. This is such a fallacy, says writer Elena Aleksieva in an interview to Europost.

Elena, your latest book, Saint Wolf, earned the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award. How significant is this prize compared to the rest of your accolades?

I am not vain enough to pretend to disdain awards. By definition, they are forms of public recognition and have their own encouraging effects. I am especially pleased to see this particular novel win the award because this work represents a watershed moment for me, heralding a new stage in my writing; and opening a new chapter or going to another level always brings on a sense of insecurity for an author. You do not necessarily need this type of external validation to know that you are on the right path, but getting it is nice nevertheless. I see awards not so much as a personal acknowledgment as much as a stamp of approval for the specific work. It seems like the healthier attitude. If it is a book it will get published, and if it is a play it will get put on stage. The recognition is for the work that you have put into the world so it can have a life of its own, and now it has all grown up.

What makes this novel so different from your previous works and a turning point for you?

It is the writing style. I have always approached the novel genre with a bit of trepidation. In order to have some semblance of security, I have always felt the need to map out the road ahead of me in advance. I did not do that with this novel, I let it take shape in the writing process, which turned out to be extremely beneficial for me. If the surprise of what is happening with the characters at any given moment is not there, I simply lose interest and that immediately shows in my writing. I overcame that fear with Saint Wolf. On the other hand, this is a novel about Bulgaria as I see, know and live it. I wanted to write about this complex and dynamic world without exorcising it from either its obscurantism or its hilarious side. My goal has shifted from staying true to myself as an author, to giving the material justice. This means discarding any self-involved tendencies and taking a closer look at the surrounding world. In my case, this important transition happened last and was the hardest to achieve in the novel genre. I think I have come on the other side now. Otherwise, a novel is like a huge battering ram - if you are not careful, it can run you over and crush you.

Who is Saint Wolf - a modern hybrid of good and evil?

It is an ambiguous thing because I like to leave the readers with greater freedom to participate in the process of storytelling. It may be the protagonist, but it may also be any other character. It is a paradoxical image of a person who can be saintly in the broadest, unreligious sense of the word, without intentionally interacting with the people and the world around. By simply being, this human inadvertently affects them and simultaneously stays whole. I love all animals, especially lone creatures, individualists. In fact, a lone creature is an animal or a man who is solitary but not in the strictly physical sense so much as in a “self-sufficient” kind of way. Solitary and self-sufficient.

Your characters are often on the extreme side. Are you yourself an extreme type of person or do you live vicariously through the personages in your works?

I am pretty much on either end of the spectrum, quite unpredictable. My actions follow the logic of my own nature and convictions and often seem surprising, puzzling and even frightening to other people. I am a bit of a wilding; my inner world is a hectic place. To me, being peaceful is like a state of nirvana that I would like to reach but I doubt it will happen soon. For most of my life I have been fighting this constant restlessness, the reckless speed, the insatiable curiosity pulling me into five different directions at all times. I was raised to think that is not the most normal state, and it bothered me until I finally told myself, “This is who I am, after all.”

Do you do extreme sports?

I am a bit lazy. At times when I did any sport activities, I got bored really quickly. To hold my interest, it has to be some kind of a game with an end goal, but not just losing weight or pumping muscles. Besides, there are many things I just do not like doing in the company of other people. I am competitive, but I do not channel that energy into sports. Walking a dog is the closest I have gotten to regularly exercising, when I used to have Great Danes. I have always dreamt of having a small farm with animals that I would not exploit but would take care of. I want to communicate with animals as with equals, understand them and identify with them. I truly believe that we are not all that different. We, humans, appropriate a lot of things - we believe that the only existing form of intelligence is the one we possess, that only we have emotions, feelings and the right to freedom in a world we have usurped. This is such a fallacy!

In addition to being a writer, you interpret from English. Does this experience help you as an author? Have you come up with storylines thanks to your work as an interpreter?

Actually, I am first an economist and then a semiotics expert, before I am a freelance conference interpreter. It happened by accident - back in the university, I and a fellow student took a job of that nature and we were thrown into the deep end of the pool. Later on, I was in a stage when I needed more time to read and write. Being a freelancer affords you such time, but as an interpreter you never know where you will be the next day, things change that much overnight. This occupation takes you to places that you would otherwise never have the chance to access and helps you meet people whom you would never encounter in your normal life. I have visited numerous prisons, nursing homes and psychiatric clinics. These institutions are their own little worlds and the people there are very interesting to a writer. These are the things for which I have the interpreter job to thank - it may entail moments of uncertainty and periods of being unemployed, but it is all worth it for those rare glimpses.

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Elena Aleksieva was born on 12 April 1975 in Sofia. She is an alumni of the English Language High School, has a master's degree in international economic relations and a PhD in semiotics and literature. She has authored several books of poetry, collections of short stories, novels and plays. Her latest book, Saint Wolf, won the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award, whose laureates include Georgi Gospodinov, Emilia Dvoryanova, Zdravka Evtimova, Momchil Nikolov, Zachary Karabashliev, etc. Her works have been translated into French, Spanish, Russian and Serbian.

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