January 06, 2015

Krassi Zourkova

Memorable debut blends magic and myth
Lawyer-turned-author Krassi Zourkova mines the traditions of her Bulgarian childhood in a magical debut, Wildalone. When Thea leaves Bulgaria to study at Princeton, her life becomes entwined with those of two sexy brothers as she works to uncover a long-hidden familiy secret. We asked Zourkova a few questions about love triangles, the literature that inspires her and the appeal of the alpha male.
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Lawyer-turned-author Krassi Zourkova mines the traditions of her Bulgarian childhood in a magical debut, Wildalone. When Thea leaves Bulgaria to study at Princeton, she becomes entwined with two sexy brothers as she works to uncover a long-hidden familiy secret. We asked Zourkova a few questions about love triangles, the literature that inspires her and the appeal of the alpha male.

Like your heroine, Thea, you are Bulgarian born, Princeton educated, and something of a musician—are there any other similarities between the two of you? What’s one way in which the two of you are absolutely not alike?
I hope we are similar, as she is quite the girl! Joking aside, there is a softness and innocence to Thea that I have tried to preserve in myself, no matter how life unfolds. It gets tricky at times, both for me and for her, as these qualities are often misperceived as weakness or naïveté, when in fact they are anything but. True strength doesn’t beg to be loudly manifested.

The main difference between us is that I didn’t grow up in a family damaged by prior loss of a child. My parents were quite strict, and this certainly kept me in check. But they also gave me freedom to make my own choices without the burden of guilt. It was wonderfully liberating.

Wildalone is an enchanting mix and fascinating intersection of both Bulgarian and Greek mythology—can you tell us a little bit about your personal history with these kind of stories? What made you decide to incorporate these specific myths into your first novel?
I grew up in a tiny town in the Balkan mountains where, if you opened the window at night, you would hear crickets and frogs. It was magical. I think that’s when my fascination with Bulgarian folk tales began. The wildalones, in particular, are extraordinary creatures who are vicious by nature but are also susceptible to falling in love, like all of us. They have haunted my imagination for years. I even wrote a poem about them, back in 2001, which a friend of mine liked so much he’s kept it framed on his living room wall ever since. Was that a sign from the universe? Who knows. Maybe the book was asking to be written.

The Greek myths have been another fascination of mine since childhood, but I didn’t set out to write about them. It so happened that, as I delved deeper into the story and its mysticism, the parallels became apparent.

You actually studied law at Harvard and have worked as a lawyer for some time. When did you find the time and inspiration to write?
We hear a lot about the corporate culture on Wall Street and how, in just a few years, it sucks one’s soul out. This hasn’t been my experience, so let me give the world of finance a good name. I’ve had my share of grueling hours (who hasn’t?), but I have also been lucky to work with people whose souls are definitely preserved. My first boss was an extraordinary woman, a mentor in the truest sense of the word. When I signed up for a poetry writing workshop at the New York Public Library, she sat me down and said, “Krassi, when 5pm on Tuesday hits each week, I want you out of here. I’ll cover any fire drills myself. If poetry is what you love, no job should stand in the way.” She has since passed away, but continues to be my role model. The book is partially dedicated to her memory.

You’ve built a smoldering love triangle with Thea and her two suitors. As an author, what do you feel is the key to writing a successful love triangle?
To me, a love triangle is best when it carries no obvious mark of a happy ending. Desiring the impossible—there is a beautiful madness to it. Sartre wrote a smash-hit play about one such doomed triangle: A man falls for a lesbian who falls for another woman who, in turn, falls for the man. It is smoldering gone terribly wrong, to become—quite literally—an infernal flame (the play depicts Sartre’s vision of hell). Not surprisingly, the title is No Exit. And this, I think, is the key: to give the trio no way out.

Love rivalry charges a story with tension early on, but if this is all you have, eventually the reader will yawn. So, I thought, why not give the rivals a reason to be fiercely loyal to each other? Make them best friends. Or even better—brothers. That’s when the real tension kicks in. The most fascinating struggles in literature aren’t between a character and his opponent, but between a character and himself.

If you were in Thea’s shoes, would you choose Jake or Rhys (and why)?
Jake, for sure. He can match Rhys in every respect, but he also has humility. To me, this is one of the sexiest things a man can be. And the lack of it is a nonstarter.

There has been a real resurgence of the “alpha male” in popular fiction and Wildalone’s Rhys joins that list. What do you believe is the allure of such a dominant (and dominating) love interest?
You mean, what is the allure of a man who takes on the world, loves like a hurricane, and has depth to boot?! Unfortunately, being an “alpha male” is often equated with arrogance, but that misses the point. An arrogant man can be (and often is) a coward. A true alpha man is fearless. He is a creature of impetus and intent. He has vision. While all the “beta” boys cower in a corner, he compels momentum, forcing the universe to accelerate. So it’s no surprise that, in response, something in a woman’s DNA tingles.

"A true alpha man is fearless. He is a creature of impetus and intent. . . . it’s no surprise that, in response, something in a woman’s DNA tingles."

Can readers and writers still be good feminists while enjoying these types of relationships in their fiction?
Absolutely. And not only in fiction. Dominance and submission are a rite of heightened intimacy; a consensual role play which, at its best, has the complexity and nuance of an art form. For a woman who is independent and confident, surrendering control this way can be an incredible turn-on. Of course, this shouldn’t be confused with needing to be “saved” by a man—emotionally, financially, socially. Unless there is absolute free choice, dominance falls on the abuse spectrum. But barring that, if you want to explore those sides of yourself (and aren’t forced or coaxed into it), by all means surrender away!

How would you say growing up in Bulgaria—particularly during times of heavy Communist censorship—influenced your approach to storytelling, writing and books?
The censorship was much less heavy than people here were led to believe. No books were banned when I was growing up. One that I recall as being kept out of print was Gone with the Wind, and this had nothing to do with Communist propaganda per se, but with the novel’s supposedly favorable portrayal of slavery. Everything else was published—in smaller print runs for the foreign titles, making them a hot commodity sort of like the Super Bowl tickets here in the U.S.—and very widely read. You could be on a crowded bus, and two out of three people would be reading a book.

I was lucky to grow up in such an environment. The thing about a centralized economy is, there is no corporate pressure on the bottom line. No strategic advertising. No budget boosts to “brand” a product and inflate demand. Instead, there was a genuine obsession with merit. Everyone, writers included, had to stand his or her ground. For me personally, this translated into a compulsive disregard for formula. When a story works, it works. 

Many authors report having a “soundtrack” to which they write their novels; given the huge role that music plays in this book, were there any songs or pieces of music that you found yourself listening to while you wrote?
Yes. I listened to a lot of music, and chose for the story those pieces that I thought would affect people most viscerally. I still have the entire soundtrack mapped out in my work files. I even had a fantasy that a multimedia eBook device would allow the reader to click and listen to each piece right after its description in the text. I have no idea whether technology has come that far. As a fallback, I wrote the story with specific references, so all the music can be found online. My personal nod goes to the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, whose Chopin I am in awe of. His Journal intime” on YouTube starts with a nocturne that is also the last thing Rhys plays in the book. Look at his hands, his face—he doesn’t just play the music, he lives it.

As a first-time novelist, did you encounter any unexpected challenges while writing?
Way too many to list. You read a good book, and it tricks you into believing that writing can be effortless. Someone obviously had talent, so the story just poured out, right? It doesn’t work that way. At least for me it didn’t. Rewarding as the process was, I also found it to be isolating, consuming, and so fraught with hoping against the odds, that I often had to re-examine my own sanity.

What shocked me most were the random acts of cruelty or kindness. I remember one agent’s rejection in particular, saying there was no way those first 50 pages could ever keep a reader’s interest. A personalized sting from a complete stranger, meant to damage and linger. It was hard to go back to writing after that. Then there were also people who were incredibly generous with their time and advice, and whose attention was kept—in the 50 pages and beyond. Which is what makes this universe of ours a beautiful place: There’s room under the sun for everyone.

"The most fascinating struggles in literature aren’t between a character and his opponent, but between a character and himself."

What is the best piece of advice you have received that has influenced you as an author?
That perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. The man who said it wrote one of the most unforgettable—and shortest—gems of literature, The Little Prince. So much wisdom and heart are packed into that book, it could easily have been 500 pages. But it’s tiny. And that’s part of the magic of it.

When we read, language often stands in the way. It demands effort, which ruins the intimacy. So, every word must earn its place. I didn’t want to write a 500-page book, and I deleted obsessively, to a point where I wouldn’t allow myself even the natural “he said/she said” in dialogue. This probably has to do with my background in poetry too, but to me the white space on the page is as important as the text. It belongs to the readers; they are the ones who get to fill it in. As a writer, I am still learning the art of not claiming that space. I think of Hemingway, who squeezed his own 500-page book into a six-word short story: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” Now try to top that!

Your book has been compared to everything from Twilight to Jane Eyre, and is a truly fascinating mash-up of genres. What books or writers have influenced you that you would urge them to check out?Ironically, perhaps, the biggest influence on me while writing this novel has been the theater. I say “ironically,” because there isn’t apparent connection of genres or themes. “What’s hard isn’t writing,” the saying goes, “but writing what you mean.” And, as a writer, I love to watch live theater and learn from it, from its unforgiving economy of language, time, and setting.

My top list? Beckett, who seduces us into dwelling for hours on a single word. Ibsen, who turns his frail, baby-doll heroines into the kind of women hurricanes are named after. Lorca’s poetic reveries of love and revenge. And, of course, Chekhov, in whose hands the human heart becomes a force of nature. So, if you aren’t a theater buff already, check out your local stages—these plays are classic staples, and the performances are often stunning. Or rent them on DVD. Or read them. The spell carries through, I promise!

In terms of fiction, I was influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez (and what to me remains the ultimate love story, Love in the Time of Cholera); the fairy tales and fantasies of Hermann Hesse; the unapologetic eroticism of Anaïs Nin and Marguerite Duras; the mysticism of Paulo Coelho. And Nabokov. Don’t get me started on Nabokov.

The story isn't neatly tied up by novel’s end, suggesting a sequel is in the works. Is that what you’re working on next and, if so, how long will we have to wait to read the next installment of Thea’s tale?
Hopefully, not very long! This book took five years, although most of that time was spent learning how not to write. As for the story itself, it came to me within a week, back in 2009, and it ran through my mind with surprising clarity like a film reel, big-bang ending and all. But it had a much longer plot arc, which scared me. I felt that, if given enough space, Thea’s tale could turn into a saga. So I made a deal with myself: Write the first part, and if people react well to it—do the rest. It was a stroke of luck to be able to work on this book and know where the characters were headed in the long run. And since nobody writes about witches without being a bit of one, I planted a few clues of what’s coming next. You know, for good luck.

Stephenie Harrison writes for BookPage from around the world. Follow her journey on her blog, 20 Years Hence.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Wildalone.

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By Krassi Zourkova
ISBN 9780062328021

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