Emerald Musings is pleased to have Ellis Shuman, the author of Valley of Thracians: A Novel of Bulgaria join us for one of our famous (or potentially infamous) 5 Question Interviews. So pull up a chair, relax, and gain some insight into the mind of this great author!
1- What was the inspiration (if any) behind Simon Matthews of Valley of Thracians: A Novel of Bulgaria?
In the opening chapter of Valley of Thracians, my debut novel, retired American professor Simon Matthews arrives in Bulgaria desperate to locate his grandson, Scott, who mysteriously disappeared while serving in the Peace Corps three years earlier. Matthews knows nothing about Bulgaria and doesn’t have a clue where to begin his search. He teams up with Sophia Ivanova, a lecturer on ancient Thracian History, and the two are lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artifact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover.
Like Matthews, my wife and I arrived in Bulgaria in January 2009 with no knowledge of the country, its history or its culture. My job in online marketing had been relocated to Sofia for two years. We were determined to make the most of our stay in Bulgaria and on the weekends, we began to explore the country. One of our first trips was to the small town of Vratsa, north of Sofia. We visited the town’s regional historical museum. That was when we first learned about the Thracians, a militant tribal nation that ruled the Balkans before the time of the Romans.
During our travels in Bulgaria we came across many traces of its Thracian past. Burial tombs where tribal leaders awaited the afterlife. Golden relics displayed in museum showcases. An ancient people that nobody knows anything about. Unless you are familiar with the story of Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who led a slave uprising against the Romans.
In my novel, I wanted to introduce readers to Bulgaria, and to the Thracians, but I didn’t want it to be a historical novel. Instead, the narrative takes place in the modern day. Professor Matthews learns about the Thracians just as I did. And he is as amazed at their story as I was when I lived in Bulgaria.
2 – How did serving in the Nahal branch of the Israeli military influence your writing habits?
I was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and moved to Israel as a teenager. After finishing high school in Jerusalem, I enlisted in the Israeli army, a requirement of every high school graduate. But in my military service, I did something unique. Along with my wife, I was a member of a nucleus group set to establish a new kibbutz in Israel’s southern desert. We served half of our time in uniform, and the other half working in agriculture. A good part of my military service was spent picking tomatoes, driving tractors, and milking cows.
My army service didn’t influence my writing as much as the years I spent living on a kibbutz, one that was literally in the middle of nowhere. It was an exciting to be a founding member of a collective society, one in which every member was equal. In kibbutz ideology, each member gives according to his/her ability, and receives according to his/her needs. In reality, this isn’t always the case.
My wife and I left the kibbutz after nearly seven years, having decided to raise our three children elsewhere. I have fond memories of my kibbutz years. My first book, The Virtual Kibbutz, is a collection of short stories about the many aspects of living, and working on a kibbutz.
3- Why did you choose the 2012 Burgas Airport terrorist attack as the basis for your book, The Burgas Affair?
When I returned to Israel after living for two years in Sofia, I couldn’t stop thinking about Bulgaria. As a writer, I was able to return to the country every day in my writing. One of my goals was to introduce readers to Bulgaria. In addition to writing Valley of Thracians, I began writing travel articles which encouraged people to learn about Bulgaria, and to consider visiting the country.
I remember always feeling safe in Bulgaria. I didn’t experience anti-Semitism, or hatred of Israel. The opposite was quite the case, as Bulgaria is a strong ally of Israel.
Having grown up in Israel, I was unfortunately quite familiar with terror attacks and suicide bombings. When a terrorist bombed a bus at Burgas Airport, killing five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver, I was shocked. How could such an attack occur in Bulgaria?
As those responsible for the bombing were never brought to justice, my creative mind went to work. I imagined a joint Bulgarian-Israeli investigation. The result is The Burgas Affair, a crime fiction thriller based on a very real terrorist attack.
4 – When it comes to writing, is there a habit that you wish you could break?
It’s hard for me to find enough time to write! I adopted a daily routine in which I start my day at a coffee shop, writing for nearly an hour while drinking a cup of cappuccino, before reporting to my day job. I wish I could say that the hour is fully productive but alas, some of the time is spent looking at social media. I am very active on Twitter, but being active there means that I am not accomplishing as much as I could in my writing.
5 – And finally, what does 2018 hold for you? Any new things that your fans should be on the lookout for?
There is a fascinating period in Bulgaria’s history that most people know nothing about. Despite being allied with the Nazis during World War Two, Bulgaria refused to send its 50,000 Jewish citizens to the concentration camps. Bulgaria’s entire Jewish community survived the war! (Unfortunately, over 11,000 Jews who lived in Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace—areas under Bulgarian military control during the war—were sent to the camps and murdered in the Holocaust.)
I hope to tell this amazing story through my fiction. I have completed a first draft but there is much more work to be done!
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