Ellis Shuman was born in Sioux City, Iowa. At a young age, he decided to make Aliyah, which means he moved to Israel, the old and new homeland of his ancestors. He lived in a Kibbuz, where he met his wife Jodie. Today, they live in Neve Ilan and their children moved out long ago. Recently, Jodie and Ellis lived in Bulgaria for two years. They travelled the country extensively and fell in love with it. Back in Israel, Ellis, who was already an avid blogger, became an author of novels. His first book, “Valley of Thracians”, was released in English. His second novel, “A Burgas Affair”, was released just now – in Bulgarian. Imanuel Marcus spoke to him.
Foreigners and Friends (FF): The fact that “A Burgas Affair” is set in Bulgaria is not a coincidence, is it?
Ellis Shuman: It’s not a coincidence at all. The terrorist bombing at Burgas Airport in July 2012 upset me greatly, not just because five Israelis and one Bulgarian were killed in the blast, but also because I never expected that such an attack could occur on Bulgarian soil. Having grown up in Israel I was quite familiar, unfortunately, with suicide bombings, explosions on buses and at marketplaces. In Israel, everyone is very security-conscious, but Bulgaria, I believed, was supposed to be safe territory. I felt this way because I lived in Sofia for two years and never was worried as a foreigner, an Israeli, or as a Jew. And also, I had been to Burgas Airport so I could clearly picture where the bombing took place.
After the bombing, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The more the events raced through my head, the more my creative mind kept coming up with plot lines and characters, a process that ended with my writing “A Burgas Affair”, a novel which depicts a fictional joint Bulgarian-Israeli investigation following the attack.
FF: How did you develop your fascination for Bulgaria, a tiny country in south-eastern Europe?
Ellis Shuman: My job in online marketing was relocated to Sofia on a two-year contract in 2009, something that was totally unexpected. I had never previously visited Bulgaria and quite honestly, it was not on my bucket list of travel destinations. My wife and I moved to Sofia and began working in our new jobs, however we utilized our free time on the weekends to begin exploring the country. We became very fascinated with Bulgaria’s history and culture, and fell in love with its nature and picturesque villages. And we were pleasantly surprised by the warm hospitality of Bulgaria’s peoples and made many friends.
FF: An American Israeli writing about Bulgaria. You don’t see that kind of thing every day. What have the reactions been so far?
Ellis Shuman: One of the first things I learned about the Bulgarian people is the pride they take in their country. Bulgaria may not be a rich country economically, but it is very rich in nature and the people express a true love for this. When a foreigner writes good things about Bulgaria, it comes to them as a surprise. There are not many foreigners who write about Bulgaria and there are very few authors who set their fiction in Bulgaria. When the Bulgarian media writes about me, they emphasize the fact that I am a foreigner who writes favorably about Bulgaria. I see myself, in a way, as an ambassador of Bulgaria and if my writing manages to introduce the country to people all over the world, I will have achieved my goal.
FF: It gets even better: You have actually written another novel, which is set in Bulgaria: “Valley of Thracians”. What is that one about?
Ellis Shuman: During the two years we lived in Bulgaria, my wife and I visited many museums, archaeological sites, and ancient burial tombs. I began to learn about the Thracians, the warrior tribes that ruled the Balkans before the Romans came. I guess the entire time I was conducting research for my first book, although I didn’t want to write a historical novel. In my mind I came up with an idea. What would happen if a foreigner, let’s say an American volunteering in the Peace Corps, went missing in Bulgaria? Who would go looking for him? And more importantly to me as an author, how could I connect this plot line with my desire to write about the Thracians? The result was a mix of suspense with “travel fiction”, which introduced readers to Bulgaria, its ancient history and modern day culture.
FF: Your second novel was published in Bulgarian, while the first one is available in English. Are there plans to add an English version to the second and a Bulgarian version to the first?
Ellis Shuman: It came to me as quite a surprise that “A Burgas Affair” made its world premiere in Bulgarian, as I have yet to find a publisher to publish an English language edition. I wrote the book in English and its target audience is English language readers, yet the book is set in both Bulgaria and Israel, so no doubt readers in those countries will enjoy reading it. I think, as mentioned before, the whole premise of foreigners writing favorably about their country is something that fascinates Bulgarians. Many Bulgarians read “Valley of Thracians” in English and enjoyed it, and some of them sent me corrections, saying that I had incorrectly described the process of making rakia, for example. I hope one day to see this novel translated into Bulgarian.
FF: You have travelled Bulgaria extensively. Which part has fascinated you most?
Ellis Shuman: It is quite likely that I have seen more of Bulgaria than most Bulgarians, but there are plenty of places I have yet to visit. Each time that my wife and I come back we try to go somewhere new. Last year we traveled to the Rhodopes for the first time and this summer we visited Ruse, although our visit coincided with one of the hottest weekends of the year. A while back I made a list of my favorite 10 places in Bulgaria, but then I realized that limiting this list was quite impossible so I included 15 places, but even that was not enough. My favorite places include Belogradchik, Koprivshtitsa, Melnik, Nessebar, Plovdiv, Rila Monastery, Sozopol, Veliko Tarnavo, and of course Sofia. One of the best hikes I have ever taken in my life was to the Seven Lakes in the Rila Mountains.
FF: Govorish-li bulgarski?
Ellis Shuman: No, unfortunately not. While I did study Bulgarian during the two years I lived in the country, my work environment was English-speaking so I never really needed to know Bulgarian. On my visits to the country I do try to make use of my pidgin Bulgarian, and usually this is enough to get me where I want to go, and what I want to eat.
FF: I don’t either. Thank you for the interview, Ellis.