The Curve of Happiness: On Sports, the Universe and Everything
Превод на български ТУК.
An interview with Ivo Ivanov taken by Hristina Dimitrova for www.novinite.com
Ivo Ivanov can easily be declared as one of the most talented contemporary Bulgarian authors. Though he never got a literary award and is far from being praised, discussed and interviewed by the major Bulgarian media, he is a word-of-mouth, or call it if you like, an underground phenomenon. Ivo has the rare talent to tell extraordinary stories – sad, funny, philosophical and touching – and to make his readers laugh, cry, feel, think and adore him.
It is hard to label his style – some describe him as a sports journalist, others – as a writer, third even compare him with Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson. The genre is difficult to describe – it is a strange blend of journalism, biography, fiction, philosophy and magic realism.
“Beyond the Game” (in two vol.) and “The Curve of Happiness”: all three his books are collections of short stories, which Ivo told the readers of the 7 Days Sport and Telegraph daily, the Sportal website, the Top Gear magazine, etc.
Ivo was born in Bulgaria‘s capital Sofia, but has been living in the US for more than 20 years. This summer (2014) hundreds of his Bulgarian readers gave him a welcome worthy of a rock star in a Sofia branch of the Helikon bookstore, where the publishing house Vakon has organised a book signing session.
How do you choose your topics?
It is not enough for a story, event or personality to be interesting. I come across 100-200 interesting stories a month. But I decide to write only when one of them crosses my own life vectors. I have to feel something. Something that provokes emotion or analytical contemplation. This is why it never ceases to amaze me that those stories find their readers. I have always thought that they are too personal and that more or less I write them for myself. But it turns out that this form of literary therapy is needed by other people too – this is both surprising and inspiring for me and makes me believe that my stories have a meaning. Maybe their mission is to build a bridge across the ocean and travel to the hearts of people who speak their language, who understand them and even need them.
How would you describe your style?
Someone called it “sports existentialism”. Who knows? The sports part is clear. As for the second part – I am an avid existentialism consumer – from Sartre to Pink Floyd. Perhaps through osmosis something sneaked into my stories.
Were you expecting such a welcome from your readers in the Helikon bookstore?
Not at all! It was a total shock. I even thought that those people were in the bookstore for something else. I said to myself that there is probably another event at the same time. I was completely stunned when I realised that it was “The Curve Of Happiness” that brought them in the bookstore.
I couldn’t believe that all those smiling, good, sunny people are there because of my stories. As I already said, in those stories is written my life… my years, my tribulations and my trials. If there are some conclusions and philosophy in them, they are very idealistic, like myself. This means, I said to myself, that those people suffer from the same kind of naivete and share my idealism. And this is happening in a country that is always accused of negativity, cynicism, jealousy and prejudice. I wanted to make sure those people in the bookstore are real – to shake their hands, look in their eyes and hug them. And this is what happened.
Photo: Vakon publishing house
How did you end up in the US?
It was more or less the trivial way. I went to pursue a Master’s Degree in the Kansas University. But I wanted to learn everything I could outside the academic environment – the mentality, popular culture, humor, slang, etc. I was hoping to decipher the American way of living, to travel the roads of their states and their souls; to understand what Kerouac, Steinbeck and Pirsig had in mind, to take everything I learned and bring it back with me to Bulgaria, which I love madly. Back then we still had this complex – we were kept closed in Bulgaria for so long, that we desperately wanted to explore the rest of the world and experience everything we were denied before.
One of my father’s best friends – they studied nuclear physics in university together – helped me to get to the States. He’s an Armenian who went to California with the mass Armenian exodus in the end of the 1960’s and I will be forever grateful to the Armenian community, which helped me so much.
Anyway, my return to Bulgaria did not happen. Fate had something else in store for me. I met a girl named Jamie who became my wife. We had babies, we got entangled in our jobs and here I am, almost quarter of a century later, still in the States. But I think that one day I will come back to Bulgaria.
When did you start to write and what made you write?
It is as if I’ve always had the need to write and I suppose that I started shortly after I found out about the existence of letters, words and sentences. I have a vague recollection of my first school essays when I was looking for my own voice. Even then I knew that when I put my thoughts and impressions on paper, they somehow got clear and found their places. I was enthralled by the architectural element of writing, the possibility to create whole worlds, limited only by your imagination. All one needed was ink and paper…
Where did you publish your first article?
In the Start newspaper (sports weekly). Back then the deputy editor-in-chief Kliment Velichkov was looking for someone who is familiar with American sports, which was no easy feat in the pre-Internet era. Besides, there was the censorship, which limited the access to things like American football, NBA, NHL, etc. My mother worked in the consulate of the US embassy in Sofia, so I had grown up among Americans. I had access to their television and the chance to follow their college and professional sports. Kliment was expecting my first article to be about Larry Bird, Magic Johsnon, Wayne Gretzky or Joe Montana, but I wrote my first article about the sports teacher in the 127-th school in Sofia – Mladen Mladenov – for which I had great respect. He had single-handedly established a basketball republic in this school. It has become a sports institution and an incubator for elite basketball players. Among them, of course, was his legendary son Georgi Mladenov. About a month after the article was published, Mladen Mladenov saw me at a basketball game in Universiada Hall and gave me a bear hug, which made my ribs ache. A great man!
Would you write about something different from sport?
I know why you’re asking this tricky question. You know that sport was always just a pretext – an opportunity to crack the door open and put my foot in it. I want to pass other things through the crack, things that would ask the reader to do some independent thinking. To provoke him to ask questions and to never stop looking for their answers, even if sometimes they are impossible to find.
Those are things that should bother every thinking person: If we are here for such a short time – just a whiff that barely ruffles the grass – what is the point of our existence? What is the nature of evil? Of good? Can there be equilibrium between the two? What divides us? What unites us? Is there a collective consciousness? Is there logic in life? Is there logic in death? Do we have a lasting place in universe?
I know that there are no firm answers, but this is the beauty of the questions. Seeking gives sense in life. Or at least in mine. We are all on the road. We all know where it ends and it is very important that we don’t stop walking this road. It is terrible to stop living before you’ve died. It seems that asking questions is my way of walking this road and in my opinion I don’t write as much about sport, as about the great quest, which leads us along the road and turns us into living people.
What are you reading at the moment?
“The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch – one of the leading specialists in quantum mechanics. It is a compelling and at the same time confusing book and I will have to start reading it again right after I finish it. Recently I am very interested in scientific literature, which is probably caused by the agnosticism that has been gnawing me.
What are you writing at the moment?
An endless story that has been torturing me more than 10 years and because of which I traveled tens of thousands of miles in some of the most rarely visited and wild corners of America. This saga has already become so big that it will need a book of its own. There are many heroes and anti-heroes, plots and sub-plots. I don’t know where to start and where to end, so this is why right now I am writing the middle.
What is your process of writing and how long does it take to write a story, together with the research?
The process itself is somewhat chaotic. I am suffering from a severe case of information disease and poke my nose into all drawers of media space. I devour huge amounts of fiction and non-fiction, scientific literature and try to travel whenever and wherever I can. I am annoyingly curious. I have the constant feeling that I am missing something very important happening at the place that I am not at right now. My wife calls this “information paranoia”. Gregariousness, at least when I was younger, was one of the main traits of Bulgarian mentality. As a result, I am a very social animal, I acquaint and befriend people very easily and treat all my friends and acquaintances with equal responsibility and lack of prejudice. I realise that thanks to my Bulgarian soul I enjoy the friendship of interesting and good friends. There are university professors, people working in the garbage disposal sector, doctors, mechanics, builders, senators, coaches, writers, athletes, a newspaper delivery boy, etc. I have a very good friend who is homeless with whom I play chess in a coffee shop and who has been refusing for years my financial help. Only from those people I have gathered so many stories, that I would need at least two lives to tell. And when we add to all this the fact that I listen to all sorts of radio podcasts when travelling between point A and B, it is obvious that I come across hundreds of interesting stories each month.
But, as I said, only those that naturally activate either a very strong personal emotion, or some existential observation, can make me sit down and write them.
Do your American friends know of your literary pursuits?
They do, but only vaguely. When we meet, we talk of other things. But sometimes I seek help from people on some stories. Sometimes I even travel with friends to a story. In most cases, however, I am alone in my writing. My best friends here have occasionally succeeded in making me translate one story or another.
When people ask you what do you do for a living, what is your answer?
Another good hard question. Usually the reply takes some time. Between 9 and 5 I am passing myself as a marketing director of a big social agency. But I am also the graphic designer and the webmaster of the agency. I manage 5-6 pages of the company and at least that many in the social networks. I have set up a small film studio, where for many years I have been making short educational, corporate and advertising films. I direct, shoot, edit, draw computer graphics, edit the sound, etc… I have been doing this since before digital editing and video compression appeared. Besides all those things, I also am the coach two teams – soccer and basketball. Each Saturday I host a sports show on a local radio station. Sometimes most of all I wish that there are more than 24 hours in a day.
What would you have been, if you stayed in Bulgaria?
Don Quixote. Like all my friends.