Stanislava Ciurinskiene graduated in journalism from the St Kliment Ohridski Sofia University. She also has a degree in clinical social work from the New Bulgarian University, supplemented by a specialisation at Smith College, Massachussetts. She has published two books, God Bless Stew in 2006 and Finger Eleven this year, which she co-wrote with her close friend and fellow psychotherapist Borislava Krendeva.
What do psychotherapy and writing a book have in common?
Writing is about creating characters, and an author needs to know a lot about human nature. Psychotherapy taught me the truth about human nature and it differs greatly from general stereotypes. People can be very vulnerable and weak and in our frailty we do horrible things: we lie, we envy others, we get jealous, we commit adultery, we even fantasise about killing our parents and we dislike our children.
Isn't this an ugly picture of human nature?
It's a punch in the face for all who refuse to probe themselves deeply. These people are dangerous. Look at George W. Bush - if he doesn't confront and address his deep need for approval from his father, he will continue to be a threat.
Your books are not strictly Bulgarian. Is this intentional?
I'm sick and tired of books by Bulgarian authors who write about Bulgaria's Transition Period. Literature is not nationally distinctive, and our lives are not nationally distinctive either.
You are married to a Lithuanian and you both live in Bulgaria. How do you cope with cultural differences?
By accepting them. Every time I dislike something or find it very bad, I try to see whether it's not just different from what I'm used to.
Explain the title Finger Eleven
When everything is pushing you in one direction and your instinct drives you in another - that's finger eleven. It's your inner voice. It can get you into a lot of trouble but it can also save you. People don't usually heed it.
Who are your target readers?
Parents and children.
by Stanislava Ciurinskiene
Saule was hoping to lose the bet as much as she was certain she wouldn't. To change the topic of the conversation, she looked at the Christmas tree, which she and Anna's son had decorated that same day. At the top, instead of the classic star or a phallic-shaped glass toy, was perched an artificial, electric torch, casting its shimmering light around. Saule stared at it unable to avert her eyes. Anna's voice startled her.
“What are you thinking about?” Anna asked, still putting on her makeup and torturing her hair with the hair-curler.
“I was trying to figure out why the story about the burning sounded so familiar. The one you just told me.”
“So, did you figure it out?”
“I did. It's a funny one. You wanna hear a funny story?”
“Your stories are never funny, but sure, go ahead.”
“This one is amusing. Honestly.
It was just before my first day at school. I was beginning second grade, but not only that. I had been transferred to a new school. My mom and my stepfather had just gotten married and we had moved to a new neighborhood, so that no one would know I was a child of a broken marriage. Catholic morals, you wouldn't understand. Where I come from, it is better for you to have three arms or for your father to be a convicted rapist than to be a child of divorced parents.”
“That's stupid. Even now?”
“Yes, even nowadays, although it's not as bad. So, back to the story. I had organized an evening party for the neighborhood children. I had done it all alone, too, had even come up with a theme for the night – we were going play ‘Indians and Aliens'. My idea was to become so popular in the neighborhood that when they found out what a despicable family I came from the kids wouldn't stop talking to me. Such diplomacy on my part, even then. On top of that, I had my eye on a neighbor's boy who I was going to hit on. I was planning to make sure we would ‘get engaged' by the end of the first term at school. He was so cute and eager to accept my advances that I had devised a strategy to ensure he had kissed me by the time his mom came to pick him up at ten o'clock.”
“And you were what, eight?!?” Anna was bewildered.
“Eight years old. Plus, I had already broken off my first engagement to another pimpled youngster from my old neighborhood, so I had plenty of experience.
It was the beginning of September but the heat was unbearable, even at night, something unusual for our part of the globe. At about eight o'clock, the darkness had fallen and I told the gang it was time for us to go out and plunder the neighborhood, just like real Indians. I mean, we were about to raid a few of the neighboring yards and pick the flowers and the fruit. Naturally, my accomplices were sworn not to tell their parents about it. We made torches from fallen branches and nylon. I don't remember any parents supervising us. Mine must have been somewhere around but they sure had missed the part with the torches. Yes, I'm sure at least my dad was there because I remember that before we went out on the raid he saw the way I was dressed for the occasion and shouted: ‘Change your clothes right away. You are dressed like a slut'.”
“Did you know what a slut was?”
“I did. I mean, sort of. After my mom got divorced and just before she married my stepdad, her brother, my uncle, had tampered with the brakes of our car and we nearly killed ourselves on a steep, icy road. He had done it for revenge. After the accident, our car was a total wreck but we escaped unscathed.”
“Wait a minute. I don't get it. What revenge?”
“For the disgrace my mom had brought to her family.”
“How come? You mean he thought a dead sister and niece was better than a divorced sister and a live niece?”
“You got it. He later admitted having damaged the brakes and yelled: ‘That's what a slut deserves'. From what he said I came to the conclusion that a slut equalled a divorced woman. I was still a child, you know. Later I developed my concept of this notion.”
“What a jerk! Did you change your clothes? What were you wearing anyway?”
“A tunic of my mother's that barely covered my thighs. That and a pair of sandals, nothing else. I was going to come on to that boy, how could I change my clothes?! Even at that early age I was aware that a bare leg would do much more than hours of conversation.”
“So you and your next door's kid, together with the rest of the gang, went on your Indian raid?”
“We went nowhere. We got out of the house and lit our torches on the street. We first lit mine, which burned for exactly a minute before a piece of burning nylon fell onto my left foot. My sandals caught fire, and boy, did they burn! On top of it they were a few sizes too big because they also belonged to my mother. So, a slut's sandal was burning and in it was a child's left foot.”
“Were you screaming?”
“Screaming? Are you kidding me? My dad had ordered me to change and I had disobeyed him. If I had started screaming, he would have heard and seen that I was still wearing my mom's blouse. You don't want to know what would have ensued. So, I silently waited for the sandal to melt. Most of the other kids had run away. Actually, all except one.”
“Let me guess. The next door's boy.”
“Exactly. When he recovered from the initial shock, he took off his T-shirt and threw it on my foot. Then he quickly removed it and started blowing on my foot. I swear, at that moment, I couldn't care less about my burn. Then he checked the damages and said, ‘Saule, I don't mean to scare you but I can see your bones'. What do you mean you can see them? I asked. ‘Never mind, just don't look down,' he said.” “Did you look down?”
“Of course, I did. And surely I could see them. Five bare bones in place of my toes and some strange formations on my shin. Perfect for an anatomy lesson. I had tried a hundred times before to imagine what my body looked like on the inside. I had stared at my hands and feet, trying to see my bones as if on an X-ray. But it was then that I found out what I looked like beneath my skin, and trust me, I didn't like it one bit.”
“Did you faint?”
“No, I just staggered. Then Morten, that was the boy's name, took me in his arms and carried me to my room. I had pressed my finger to my lips, hysterically whispering ‘shh, quiet, quiet'. In the room, Morten, who was eleven years old and God only knows how he summoned the strength to carry me up to the second floor, laid me on the bed. Then he kept blowing on my foot, while holding and kissing my hands and wiping the tears from my eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. After some time he said, ‘I think it's time we told your parents.' Yeah, I think it is, I nodded.
He started for the door, then came back and said, ‘You'd better change into something else'. Whether or not he had heard my stepfather's order, I don't know to this day. Maybe he, too, thought I looked like a slut and it didn't become me. He helped me take off the tunic, opened my wardrobe and chose some T-shirt and a skirt. I told him I'd rather put on a pair of jeans. ‘If you do, it'll hurt more.' I lay on the bed and he stood in the darkness, holding my clothes and staring at me. That was the only moment he lost his self-control and abandoned his role of a savior.”
“Sounds like a case from a children's sexuality textbook.”
“Precisely. But try and convince the person on the street that children have sexuality. So, Morten stared for a while and said, ‘I've never seen anything so beautiful.' Then he dressed me and went downstairs to tell my mom and dad I had burned myself. They ran up – I'll never forget the panicky thudding of their feet on the stairs. I don't remember what exactly happened next. I guess the presence of grown-ups had calmed me down enough to lose consciousness. I don't even remember if they took me to a doctor, how they treated me, or how long it took before I could walk again. But there's something I need to tell you. Whenever I had fallen down or hurt myself in some way, my biological father always got angry and hit me. I did not know my stepfather well yet and was expecting a similar reaction. But it was just the opposite. While I was recovering, he never let me step on the ground. He carried me to the bathroom, fed me, bought me books and changed my bandages. It doesn't matter that I suspected he did that to score points with my mother. Every time I got bored, he would sit by my bed and together we would make up some sarcastic political poems. I was almost happy I had gotten burned.”
“It sounds so good,” Anna said dreamily. “Two men, although one of them was just eleven, taking care of you in such an adequate and loving way without expecting sex in return. I can't imagine what the feeling is.”
“It was good, I can tell you that, but it never happened again. Ever since, whenever I am in need of care I fall sick. And you know what's so strange. You keep asking me why I like Ville. I think, I just found out. In a way Ville reminds me of Morten. Don't ask me how, I don't know, except for the obvious physical resemblance – the wavy hair, the height, the sleepy eyes of a boy from Karelia, the shy smile…” “What happened to Morten after that?” Anna interrupted her impatiently.
“I don't know. I don't remember. I just recall that a few weeks after that accident, my uncle, my mom's brother, decided I needed some entertainment. He had a hidden agenda, of course. He didn't care so much about me, but was looking to reconcile with my mom for fear that she might decide to sue him over the incident with the damaged brakes. So, my uncle, he took me to an amusement park. And my mom too, of course, because she never left me alone when I was sick. She would not let anything happen to me. You would probably call her over-protective, but I think I was a child that needed more than the usual care. So, we went there and my uncle decided we should go on a ride, sort of like a Ferris wheel, that had plastic swans for seats. The swans soared up in the sky, at least 20 meters up, and I should have been scared but I wasn't afraid of the height.”
Suddenly, Saule got startled, choked on the vodka she was sipping and almost spat it out, her eyes wide with confusion.
“Anna, you know what I just remembered. Every time I have sex, at some point a picture forms in my mind. Leaden skies. As if I am there, in the grey, Scandinavian, October sky and look down at the houses with red roofs. And I feel at the same time worried, dirty and happy, but happy in a very ugly, ugly, ugly way. Now I remembered when I saw this view.”
Anna fell silent. Then she said:
“I know I will hate myself for this question for as long as I'm alive but it was the view from the swans, right? You saw the Scandinavian sky and the red roofs from the swans. Where was your mother at the time?”
“She was down on the ground, waiting for us to get off the ride. My mom had panic attacks from heights and close spaces. And the swans could seat only two people, anyway. That's when I saw the view. I saw it.”
Anna was not going to back up.
“What happened on those swans, Saule? What happened?” she raised her voice.
Saule did not utter a sound.
“I'm trying to remember, damn it. I can't remember, but you are right. Something happened. What was it, what was it…?”
Her words faded away. Then Saule screamed. And kept screaming, even when Anna hugged her tightly, trying to subdue her hysteria. When things calmed down, Anna was crying. Saule's eyes remained dry; she wanted to finish her story.
“Afterwards, Morten wanted to see me maybe a hundred times. I always asked my mom to tell him I was sick, or busy, or out. Finally he gave up. In fact, he only gave up when his parents moved to Sweden and took him with them. After that night in my room, when he dressed me and was kissing my hands, I never saw him again. I never stopped missing him. I still miss him. But I was embarrassed; I couldn't look him in the eye; I was afraid he would find out what had happened and would despise me for it, not my mom's brother but me for letting it happen. Or maybe making it happen. But you know what? Last year I found out that my uncle had abused my mom in the same way when she was twelve. Perhaps more than once. Then I felt like killing him, but I couldn't find any connection with me. How could I have forgotten it?”
“I don't feel like delving into that now, Saule. You remembered more than a person needs to remember for one night. But I have some more bad news for you, my dear. Ville is not Morten. He might look like what Morten would as a grown-up, but he's not him. Morten wanted to give, to give to you. Ville doesn't want to and is incapable of giving. Ville is one of those who only take because they have so little that if they gave something out they would fall to pieces.”
“Speaking of giving and taking,” Saule was getting back to reality, “where in fact is Vittor?”
Vittor still had not shown up. It was eleven thirty.
This book tells the story of four people of different nationalities and ages who, over the course of three months, manage to say or do more mean and nasty things than most people even summon up the courage to confess their whole lives. Anna is a doctor and a stunningly beautiful single mother who is often the object of desire of would be or complete psychopaths. Saule is an emotionally unstable investment broker who has a huge success with men but whose biggest dream is to put her family in one place and burn them. Vittor is an extravagant diplomat who has rid himself of his wife so that he can indulge in promiscuity. Ville is a wimpy businessman with a penchant for married women and complications. All four of them are young or not-so-young, successful people, trying hard to lead a “normal” life, but in their effort to be “good” they violate every rule and value of Western civilisation.
The four of them get involved in indecorous relationships with each other but when the going gets tough each one saves him or herself. Because when all the circumstances push you in the “right” direction and your instinct pulls you the other way – that is finger eleven. Is parenthood really a source of immense happiness and meaning? Are the relationships between parents and children really devoid of sexuality?
Does friendship really exclude betrayal?
Is something “wrong” with us if we do not like marriage?
Every morning you see that well-dressed yuppie get in his flashy Mercedes together with his wife and daughter and you say to yourself: “What has he done to deserve such luck?” But could the “lucky bastard” not be a man hiding dirty secrets? Do you have dirty secrets you are ashamed of?
And why should you be ashamed of them anyway?
If you are asking yourself these questions, then Finger Eleven might be telling your story, too.