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“Writing the non-human is one of the greatest challenges for any writer”


Writing plausible non-human characters, such as aliens, AI and animals, is a critical but horizon-broadening experience for any science fiction or fantasy writer, argues Bulgarian author Vladimir Poleganov.


“This, I think, is one of the greatest challenges for any writer. Writing the non-human means looking for new ways of expression. Discovering new languages or new directions in which old and familiar language and forms of communicating a story, an image, an idea to the readers could change and work in order to express such an alien experience. It’s never easy and almost always a failure. We are, after all, human, it’s not easy to simply step outside of everything you are, and start writing from that new, totally alien perspective. But I like it as an exercise, and I think it’s important because writing the non-human could be a horizon-broadening experience,” Poleganov said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.


As a writer Poleganov has developed a deep interest in the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch that suggests we are now living in an age in which human activities are having a massive impact on the planet’s ecosystem.


“The Anthropocene is a sign that we still don’t know how to communicate with the world around us. Maybe we lack the tools and skills to fully understand not only that immense system we call ‘the world’, but also ourselves. It’s an idea that has always interested me – both as a reader and a writer: what happens when you are no longer able to understand something; what happens when you are no longer able to take any form of action? This idea is at the core of my next novel, The Heart and the Beasts, which is set in a world, not much different from ours, where only human beings are able to physically move. All other species have become unyielding to scientific investigation and inaccessible to human touch ‘sculptures’,” he said.


In the exploration of different facets of the craft of writing and storytelling, Poleganov finds he is becoming increasingly intrigued by the interactive.


“I am only now discovering the enormous universe of interactive writing. I think it is one of the faces of future literature. This blend of technologies and traditional storytelling is quite exciting. It’s something I will have to – and want to – explore more, I am now taking my first steps as a reader. But I think it’s a field traditional writers could learn much from,” he said.


His novel The Other Dream, which won the Helikon Award for Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2017, has been hailed as “a psychological novel in the disguise of fiction. Or a truly fantastic adventure whose ultimate goal is the return to the familiar reality.” Poleganov said he was interested in writing something that could be considered both science fiction and psychological fiction.


“It is a novel about finding a way to stay in touch, through technology or pure desire, with someone, a very close one, you’ve lost. It’s about a man who suddenly starts seeing and visiting a strange new world. He’s either losing his mind, or is on the verge of a huge new discovery. I wanted the story to read like one of those old fantastic journey type novels, where usually a person from our world finds him or herself in another reality. And, filled with fear, sense of wonder, but also with desire to go back home, they embark on an adventure. I wanted to write a novel that could be interpreted as both science fiction and psychological fiction, that’s why uncertainty and confusion are so present in the story. The Other Dream is also a novel about memory and technology: what part of us, of our consciousness, of our past could be preserved, copied, accessed again? Is that an actual possibility or some illusion-fuelled desire?”


Also a prolific short story writer, Poleganov said he generally starts writing a story with an specific image in mind.


“My short stories are more in the vein of the general fantastic, where hesitation and confusion, experienced not only by the characters but also by the readers when reading the story, play structuring and emotive roles. I guess, you could say that they are more fantasy than science fiction, but I like to think of them as simply dealing with the strange and the weird. I usually start with an image or idea, rarely with a character or a story that needs to be told. And from there I would start building a world around that image, and then I would look for characters to populate it with. Sometimes image and character and idea come as one: for example, I started writing The Birds because I saw first a woman looking out a window, and then a man appeared in that image. He was somewhere else, probably in the room next to the one the woman was in; he was wounded and suffering; he was sitting behind a desk, a typewriter in front of him. So, I started writing a story playing with the cliché that poets and writers write with their own blood, and that true art is born out of suffering.”


Poleganov has participated it two recent writing residencies in China, one in Shanghai and the other in Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, both of which he described as invaluable experiences.


“Both residencies were unforgettable and truly exciting experiences. The Shanghai writing residency was also my first visit to China. It was like stepping into the future, but also into a space that is so huge it would take lifetimes to fully comprehend. Meeting local writers (and old friends, Zhou Jianing is a dear friend of mine), discussing literature and writing, living the city, being able to explore – these were all invaluable experiences. And in Sun Yat-Sen University I had the chance to work with students, meet other writers from other parts of the world and China, and was reminded once again that language is never a barrier, it’s always a doorway.”


Working as a literary translator, Poleganov has translated writers such as Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Octavia E. Butler, and Peter Beagle into Bulgarian, immersive literary experiences that he believes positively impacts on his own literary style.


“I usually get asked by a publisher to translate a book for them. So far, I’ve been extremely fortunate because it’s almost always been books by writers I love and admire. Translating can teach you a lot about writing. It’s probably the best teacher apart from writing itself. When translating I am able to truly see the way a sentence or a paragraph is structured, the way information fits into that construct. It’s better than close reading because when translating my entire focus is on that particular word or string of words. And that’s when I see language truly working, doing its thing.”


Based on his own experience and growth as a writer, the key advice Poleganov would offer to aspiring writers would be: “Read. Read a lot. Read deep. Read wide. Be curious. Be persistent. Write every day. It doesn’t have to be on paper – most writing happens in the head, that’s where you work with your ideas and images before clothing them in written language,” he said.


At the upcoming 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Vladimir Poleganov will join Tian Rui Shuo Fu, in conversation with Jiang Zhenyu, to discuss their recent writing and the topic “Literary Adventures: Engaging with the Non-Human”.