In Three Stages, we ask Massachusetts artists to shed light on their art-making process by focusing on three stages in the creative life of one work of art.
Listen to an excerpt from Cynthia’s novella COLD SNAP.
Inspiration, in this case, took the form of evergreen mountains hovering over a valley of crumbling cinderblock apartment buildings. A ragged road that trudged up the mountain, passing old plaster houses and wrinkly babas in knit sweater vests. Caring (sometimes too much) neighbors who brought me food, invited me into their homes, and made my business their business. And 250 students, some of whom got a kick out of the young American teacher, others who did not.
The seeds of Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories were first planted during the mid-1990s, along with onions, garlic, tomatoes. Peace Corps years for me. Early post-Communist years for Bulgaria. These were wobbly, precarious times. The value of the Bulgarian currency had dropped precipitously, robbing people of their life savings. The country had recently emerged from a time of food shortages, and the residual distrust was palpable. If I harbored some doubt that this ramshackle bus I boarded would reach its destination without a flat tire or other mishap, this paled in comparison to the doubt Bulgarians likely felt in every aspect of their lives: that tomorrow might be a predictable continuum of today and that a stable future – let alone one that offered opportunity – was possible.
I did not go to Bulgaria with a writing agenda in mind (I did keep journals, but I have yet to harvest them). I was just there, living long, hard, wonderful days, without a computer, TV, radio, or reliable phone, but with plenty of time to watch the sheep that clustered on the main drag outside my apartment building, waiting for the shepherd to take them up the hill. Or the orange slant of the setting sun.
I did not entirely recognize the inspiration that had been sown in Bulgaria for some time. When I returned to the States, I had to find a job and start paying on student loans. My college boyfriend (now my husband), who had waited for me for two years, was ready to get married. I had to leave Bulgaria behind for a while and live in my new reality. But the seeds were there, like vague lumps beneath the soil.
Within a couple of years, I was dabbling in night courses and writing workshops, attempting to capture my Bulgarian experience in writing. I have a whole graveyard of stories about young American women living in small Bulgarian mountain villages. The stories are flat and comic and mocking. Nothing ever happens.
The big leap, for me, involved believing I could write from a Bulgarian point of view. This seemed too audacious to me: the entire time I was in Bulgaria, I knew my perspective was different, in part, because my time there was temporary. Bulgaria was not my destiny, and I didn’t dare own it as a Bulgarian might.
After a few years of floundering around, I eventually summoned some audacity. I was working on an MFA at Warren Wilson College at the time, churning out lots of material, and I found myself wondering how my friends and students back in Bulgaria were faring. What did the future have in store? When my students graduated from university, would they manage to find jobs? I wondered about the tolls that corruption and chronic unemployment would take on character. I thought about the aging population and about the load that women, in particular, carried in Bulgarian society. Women are the unsung, everyday heroes in Bulgaria – and in my book as well.
I was at Warren Wilson to learn, not necessarily to write publishable material. With learning as my intent, I finally dared to walk in Bulgarian shoes and to own characters that were fundamentally very different from myself.
The result was magical. With all that distance between me and my characters, I was finally writing fiction. I was deeply inside my characters, imagining how they would feel, what they would do, letting them take the lead. I stopped trying to poke fun, and instead started to simply see the humor that was inherent in my material. Most of all, I was respectful of my characters and generous, possibly to a fault. Being an outsider meant I had to give each character, no matter how unlikable, the fairest possible shot.
In short, I was beginning to write stories that worked.
Once I made this breakthrough, the stories started coming, slowly, slowly, but without too many missteps. The stories in Cold Snap were written largely in order. At some point, some of the characters began to reappear. At some point, I realized all these stories took place in the same town. At some point, I decided I wanted to spend more time with the characters I had left behind, and I could bring them back for an encore performance. Thus, the idea for the title novella was born.
People often ask me, how true are these stories? And the answer is very. Writing as an outsider meant that I couldn’t totally make things up. I had to represent my experience truthfully. I took people I had known on some level and got to know them a whole lot better, aging them, subtracting some characteristics and adding others, introducing them to situations I had seen others experience.
I doubt many people in my wonderful mountain town in Bulgaria recognize themselves. This is fiction, after all. But Bulgarians tell me they can see, feel, and smell what I’ve written. And Americans tell me that this very foreign terrain doesn’t feel so foreign at all.
Cynthia reads from Cold Snap during the Concord Festival of Authors on Sunday, October 24, reading at 3 PM. Then, on Tuesday, October 26, 7 PM, she reads at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. On Thursday, October 28, 7 PM, she reads at Andover Bookstore (for both the Porter Square Books and Andover Bookstore events, she’ll be joined by Tracy Winn). Finally, she takes part in the Blacksmith House Reading Series: Monday, November 1, 8 PM, at Blacksmith House in Cambridge.
Cynthia Morrison Phoel holds degrees from Cornell University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and Cerise Press. She lives near Boston with her husband and three children.
All images courtesy of Cynthia Morrison Phoel; delivering the Peace Corps swearing in speech (in Bulgarian); visiting friends – and baby goats – in the village; with students Preslava and Petya; roasting peppers on her balcony in Bulgaria; Peace!; Krastavitza the dog, who is included in many of the stories in COLD SNAP.