Monday, August 23, 2010

Conversation with Cold Snap author Cynthia Phoel

Confession. One of the reasons why I have been so excited about reading Cold Snap is that its author, Cynthia Phoel, was my 8th grade English teacher. She came to Bulgaria in 1994 and started teaching English in Pravetz the same year I started high-school. I remember being totally fascinated with her. She was so smart and SO KIND, everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Thinking back on those days, I giggle a little because at the time she must have been 21. A baby! Interviewing her about her first book feels almost surreal. I hope you guys enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to The Migrant Bookclub! Most of us are Bulgarians who live outside of Bulgaria or non-Bulgarians with some connection to Bulgaria (current and former Peace Corps volunteers, spouses of Bulgarians, adventurous travelers). Many of the Bookclub members have already read and loved your book. Are we the type of reader you had in mind while you were writing Cold Snap?

I'm so grateful to you and The Migrant Bookclub for tackling my book! You've been astute eaders, and I'm touched by your responses.
You know, when I was writing Cold Snap, I was really just writing Cold Snap. I can't say I spent a lot of time thinking about my audience; I spent much more time thinking about my characters and trying to be fair and true to their situations. But as my manuscript was turned into a book, I knew a lot of Bulgarians would find the book--or the book would find them. I think the book will have special resonance for people with a Bulgarian connection but there are plenty who have enjoyed "visiting" Bulgaria for the first time.
Even though your stories are set in Bulgaria, the characters and themes of Cold Snap carry a weigh that goes far beyond our little Balkan world. Why did you feel it was important to introduce your book as "Bulgaria stories"?
In my mind, these were always Bulgaria stories. All other aspects of the title changed a million times, but that part did not. I suppose I was thinking to some degree about Annie Proulx's "Close Range: Wyoming Stories." I was very happy to go to Wyoming with Proulx, and I like the idea of just being straight with the reader. When we got closer to publication, I questioned this with my fantastic editor at SMU Press--would this limit my readership?--but she insisted we keep it. Her feeling was that readers of literary fiction would like to visit a new place.
Your stories are very vivid. I was constantly astonished by how rich in detail the narrative was, how dynamic the dialogue. I LOVED your description of Sofia's Poduene Station, the classroom banter, Ms. Kuneva (my FAVE), Cucumber The Dog, the communal gathering to watch TV, waiting for the HEAT! I kept thinking... oh my gosh, she NOTICED! You were in Bulgaria in the mid-90s, that's about 15 years ago... How come you did not forget all that?!

I've been asked this question a lot. A former Chicago Tribune journalist, Richard Longworth, who has a great soft spot for Bulgaria, assumed I must have kept very good notebooks. But the truth is, I didn't consult my journals even once when I wrote these stories. I lived in Bulgaria for two years, which is a lot of time to internalize a place. And life was probably a bit slower back then. I did not have an internet connection or a cell phone or a T.V. or a car. I was really by myself. I had time to notice things like the color of the sun in the early evening--a thing I'd never noticed until I got to Bulgaria. I'm so grateful for that chance I had to live slowly and to just be where I was.

In one of our previous discussions, a couple of Bookclub members mentioned that even though they loved your stories they felt like there was too much resignation, not enough hope in your characters. They didn't feel that Bulgarians were like that. Now, apart from the fact that Cold Snap is a work of fiction and should not be read as an ethnography on Bulgarian culture, my spotty memory of those years was that it was... well... pretty hopeless. What is your take on this?
Oh, I've been so sorry to hear this reaction, but I'm sure it must be valid. I was in Bulgaria from 1994 to 1996, and my book is certainly about that time. When I started to write these stories, I was thinking about my Bulgarian friends and students and wondering how things would evolve for them. It was a challenging time in Bulgaria for sure, but it was not a joyless time by any means. Triumphs may have been small, but they were possible, and I was definitely thinking about this as I wrote the book. In terms of hope, I just didn't know how things would work out for people. Would my friends be able to make ends meet? Would my sharp students grow up to have rewarding career opportunities? I'm very, very happy to say that my students have done well for themselves.
I loved reading Cold Snap for so many reasons but, perhaps most of all, I enjoyed your subtle commentary on gender relations in Bulgaria. I loved peeking into Pavletta's relationship. Gosh, her husband made me SO MAD! Not because he was that bad, but because he was so typically... argh. I don't want to say "so typically Bulgarian" because so many Bulgarian are nothing like him... but I did think he's a very accurate representation of that type of Bulgarian man: loud and dominant in public, big child at home, disorganized, needy, dependent, demanding to be taken care of, absent. I think it was very brave of you to comment on screwed up gender relations when you must have known that most Bulgarians strongly believe that we don't have an issue with gender ;)
I thought a lot about gender roles when I was in Bulgaria. When I first arrived, I had a wonderful host mom, Didi, who worked full-time at a job and then came home and kept working--cooking amazing meals, always from scratch, ironing my bedsheets, working late into the night. She took pride in the way she kept her home, but it did not change the fact that she was always working. As my time in Bulgaria progressed, I found Didi was representative of many of the women I knew. Amazingly strong women who worked incredibly hard to keep their homes, classrooms, and communities on hum. Of course, you could say much of this about women everywhere, but at a time when Bulgaria was really struggling, I found women to be everyday heroes and very much the glue that held society together.

As for Pavletta's husband, I didn't set out to villainize him. He was chronically unemployed--in a society that, in the mid-90's, was experiencing 20% unemployment. With Boris, perhaps he was a bit boorish and representative of a macho attitude I saw in some men, but I was also thinking about how joblessness erodes the ego, and where does one find dignity? What do you tell yourself to get through so many long days, especially when there is so little possibility of work on the horizon?
Tell us a little bit about your process of writing this book. Did you consult with any Bulgarians? Who were day? How have they responded to your stories?
When I started writing this book, I was really just learning how to write. I took classes, attended a writer's group, eventually got my MFA. I wrote about Americans and Bulgarians. Honestly, I think I was a bit afraid to write from a Bulgarian point of view--I wasn't sure I had the authority to do that. But readers liked visiting Bulgaria. They asked for more. And I liked spending time there. Around the time when my writing started to improve, I was ready to give in and commit
to writing about Bulgaria.I did consult Bulgarians--two dear friends from my town, one who now
lives in the U.S., and one who is still in Bulgaria. Tanya and Miroslava read all of these stories many times, first as the stories were individually published, and then as a collection. They fixed my grammar, answered my questions, and most importantly, validated that the stories rang true. I think they are proud of the book. And I am enormously grateful to them. Without them, I'm not sure I'd have a book.
Where has your book tour taken you so far? Do a lot of Bulgarians show up to your readings? Has anyone told you you didn't get it? That you are wrong about Bulgarians? Are you open to the idea of doing more readings (should one of our members be moved to host a reading)?
My book tour has taken me to Chicago, Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire, and at the moment, Cape Cod. I will be doing more readings in the Boston area (in Sept./Oct./Nov.) and in Chicago (in Sept.), and I'm planning to go to NYC and Washington, D.C., as well. I'm totally open to doing more readings, meeting or Skyping with book clubs, etc. There have been Bulgarians at readings or people who know and love Bulgarians, but I don't think they've dominated my audiences. I've had plenty of Americans tell me that they can relate--that the struggles in my book are universal.

Any chance Cold Snap would be translated in Bulgarian. I would love my parents to read it and they don't read much English.
Shte vidim!
Thank you so so much for taking the time to talk to us!!!
It is absolutely my pleasure. I'm so grateful to you, Petya, and your thoughtful readers!

P.S. You are more than welcome to thank me about the seriously awesome, mid-90s, photographic material accompanying this interview. The subject of Cyndi's email said "Blackmail Material". So true!!! Don't you love the picture of her on the balcony with her very own pepper roaster?! Also, in case you didn't noticed, the picture that looks like a really bad denim advertisement features yours truly. I'm soooo glad high-school is OVER.


  1. A great interview! Thank you Petya! :)

  2. Wonderful interview! Thank you!

  3. This is really a question for the book author. What is the date and place of your reading in Chicago?

  4. Ani: I have an email coming your way.
    Ena: Check Cyndi's website for book-tour info. If you do end up going to one of her readings, be sure to introduce yourself!

  5. Ena, in Chicago, I'll be at the Underground Wonder Bar (with a Bulgarian violinist!) on Sunday, 9/12, and the Book Stall in Winnetka on Monday, 9/13. Check out for details. And absolutely say hello!

  6. Thank you. I look forward to your reading.

  7. Thank you Petya and Cindy. Great interview! Cindy, you should come have a reading in Nashville. You'll be surprised how many Bulgarians live here and PC volunteers as well. We can fill a big room. I loved going through your pictures as well. I am really curious to hear what are you working on next.

  8. I am glad she made it to cape cod...we have lots of bulgarians here and most Cape Codders know nothing about Bulgaria.