Bulgarian-born Penkov’s debut novel, Stork Mountain, follows a young man as he travels back to the land of his ancestors to search for his grandfather.
Have you made the journey back to Bulgaria yourself, as your protagonist does?
I usually spend my summers, and often a month in the winter, in Bulgaria. I started writing Stork Mountain even though I was an ocean away, in Texas. The mountain I was going to write about was always going to be the mountain of my childhood. So I began to invent strange, enchanting places—a giant tree heavy with stork nests, and human skulls buried in the nests. I imagined crossing the border into Turkey to discover ancient Thracian ruins up in the hills. I had gone mad imagining these things, and before I knew it I’d written half the book. Fear set in—what if I was wrong? So I flew [back] to Bulgaria, and my father took a break from his job (I may be crazy, but not enough to drive a car in my home country), and we drove to the Strandja Mountains—the ancient crossroads between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey—and watched the fire dancers, roamed the hills and met their people. It was a surreal experience, because I could see the very places I’d described in the book. They were exactly as I’d invented them.
Your protagonist encounters folks dancing on fire after he arrives in the town of Klisura, on the border of Turkey and a stone’s throw from Greece. Do people still practice these ancient rituals?
When I was a boy, my parents took me to vacation on the Black Sea, and one evening, at a tourist attraction, we witnessed an ancient ritual—fire dancing. The memory of these nestinari, beautiful women and men walking barefoot across glowing coals, never really left me. The Strandja Mountains happened to be the only place where the nestinari still practiced their dance. I read about [the] tragic history of this place, about the countless wars, the massive migrations of people forced to abandon their homes. The more I read, the clearer it became to me that the Strandja itself was a fire dancer. That for millennia, time and again, she had passed through fire, been reduced to ash and risen again. In 1913, the retreating Ottoman armies carried out the extermination and ethnic cleansing of the Bulgarian population, and the Balkan Wars were especially devastating for the region. Then I learned about the storks, the beautiful white storks, which fly over the mountains on their way from Africa to Europe and back again. In giant flocks. I knew this too must make it into the novel.
In your story, the girl and the boy climb trees and smoke pot in the stork nests.
That was their safe place. The storks don’t nest in trees anymore because they have electricity poles. They actually prefer the poles. It’s so cool—in that village where they do the fire dances, on every pole for electricity they’ve put a metal frame around it, so the storks can build their nests there.