Today we're talking with Nikolai Grozni, author of Wunderkind
FQ: Konstantin is fantastic - a truly mesmerizing literary character. I would assume that Konstantin and his life is loosely based on your own experiences?
Yes, the character of Konstantin is based to a large extent on my own experience at the Sofia Music School. Perhaps I’m a writer without any imagination: I always end up writing about myself!
FQ: Is this, in a way an autobiography - a way to work through the feelings and experiences you had to go through?
I knew that one day I’d have to write this book even while I was still at the music school. For many years I kept putting this project off, convincing myself that I wasn’t ready, that it’s too much to talk about these things. When I finally got down to writing it, I told myself that this was going to be a healing process and that I needed to address all the anger that’s been brewing in me for years. Unfortunately, the process of writing this book turned out to be incredibly traumatic.
FQ: I know you were a musical prodigy. Can you tell readers a little about your background - performances you played, and how piano playing came about in your own life?
I started playing when I was still in daycare. My mother had played the piano for many years before becoming a doctor and she owned a beautiful old German piano. I remember leaving daycare early to go to ear-training classes. At seven, I was accepted to the Music School. At nine I auditioned to travel to Italy and play at an international piano competition. I ended up winning the competition and continued to perform and take part in competitions until I was kicked out of the Music School at age seventeen.
FQ: Now, you are a native of Sofia, Bulgaria - the country focused upon in the book. Can you tell our readers what that situation was like? How you lived behind the Iron Curtain?
Bulgaria had one of the harshest—if not the harshest—authoritarian regimes among all the Eastern bloc countries. Dissidents were sent regularly to concentration camps or imprisoned. It was like being in a virtual reality nightmare where most people thought everything was real, while those who knew the truth were too afraid to say it. I remember going to school one morning when I was ten and seeing a huge red paint graffiti on the school wall which said, "Todor Zhivkov is a murderer!" Todor Zhivkov was the country's dictator whose name and image was so ubiquitous you couldn’t open a door or a window without meeting his sick stare. When I read the graffiti I felt as if a large chunk of the virtual reality dome had disintegrated and there had appeared an opening large enough for all of us to go through and escape into the real world. But no one wanted to escape. Students and teachers refused to read or even look at the sign—which was promptly washed off before the end of first period. When, sometime later, I learned through friends the name of the boy who had painted the graffiti, I thought of him as god. I couldn’t believe that someone would have the guts to do something like that.
FQ: Can you also tell our readers how you left Bulgaria, and what life was like once you were not ruled over by communism?
When I arrived in the United States, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I had to grow up a second time so that I can function in a society where people had many choices and were free to think and be inspired. Just sitting in Boston Public Library on Boylston Street was enough for me: there were books on everything you could imagine. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was forbidden. In a sense Boston is my home town. It’s where I grew up emotionally and as a person.
FQ: I read in your bio that you lived in the Catacombs in Bulgaria. Can you explain what this location is?
The Catacombs were a vast network of underground tunnels and passageways where a lot of society’s outcasts lived year-round. I was first brought there by a friend and quickly found many kindred spirits.
FQ: And am I right in saying that you no longer play the piano? Is your focus now literary only?
I still play the piano, only now I play it for myself, to experience music.