By Atina Dimitrova
Making a phone call more than 2200 miles away from London leads me to a writer with stories of three continents. Ellis Shuman, born in Sioux City, Iowa, the U. S., is an author of a collection of short stories and two novels. He now writes regularly for the Huffington Post and has more than 43k followers on Twitter, but the roots of his career could be traced back in his youth in Israel as an agricultural worker.
Moving as a teenager from the U. S. to Israel had a great impact on Shuman. Working as a founding member and a general secretary of a kibbutz, in his juvenility, ignited the passion for writing. This was a place where agricultural workers like him were living and working on the principles of communal ownership and complete social justice. “Most of what I write is based on my own experiences, but the stories had an element of my imagination too,” he said. “My first pieces were connected to a period of time I spent in a form of a collective settlement in the Arava Valley, in Israel’s south. I was able to fictionalise this experience.” Shuman collected the stories from this period and published them in 2003 under the title “The Virtual Kibbutz”.
However, Ellis’ pure ambition in life was to find a subject matter for a novel. This experience of great importance for him as a writer was directly linked to a country he was not familiar with. Ellis was relocated to Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, in 2009 as part of his job of that time in online marketing. This was the climax of his writing career. Ellis said: “My wife and I used every weekend to travel around Bulgaria. We really fell in love with this country; with the contrast within the country trying to catch up with the modern world with its high-tech innovations and preserve the traditions of the past. We were amazed at the villages in the countryside. Bulgarians still honour the traditions from 1300 years ago.” The book is called “Valley of Thracians” and was published in 2013. It is a suspense novel which follows the story of a retired literature professor travelling through a Balkan landscape searching for his missing grandson, a volunteer for the U. S. government carrying out a research in Bulgaria.
Ellis bears no resemblance to any other author. Coming from America, spending his life in Israel, he popularises Bulgarians’ values. He longed to promote foreign culture, thanks to writing a new book, which speaks volumes about his magnanimity as a human being. The love for writing was revived one more time – with Shuman’s second novel – “The Burgas Affair”. This book was based on Ellis’ research about the link between Israel and Bulgaria. “Unfortunately, one of the things that connected us was the terrible terrorist attack in Burgas airport in 2012,” he said. “There was no resolution who actually committed this tremendous crime and I decided to put this question into fiction.” The novel’s premiere will be in Bulgaria in May next year in collaboration with one of the biggest publishing houses there. “I wanted to write a book that I would enjoy reading myself,” Shuman said. “I write for me. I am the first audience. The book that really keeps my attention is the thriller, the suspense. That is what I decided to write.”
Ellis’ life has many unique stages he enjoys talking about. Therefore, the conversation got back to the initial idea of what working in a kibbutz means. Shuman also explained that this was linked to his service in Israel’s Defence Force. “I went in the Israeli Army at the age of 18. Both men and women serve in Israel, respectively three and two years. My wife and I actually matched as members of an army unit. I was not involved in any real act of service. I was not a combat soldier,” Shuman revealed. “But as part of our military service, we worked in the agricultural sector. This was part of our commitment to Israel. Every citizen has to take part in defending the country.”
Writing has many different directions for Ellis. He was also the editor-in-chief of Israel Insider, an online daily newsmagazine. Currently, Shuman is a book reviewer. Ellis finds it as a natural extension to his love of writing. This versatile talent also actively writes for his own blog trying to create at least one article a week. He shared: “I have been writing all my life. I am writing short stories, non-fiction, but I always wanted to document the things I am doing in the form of a blog.”
Posting on his blog almost for five years now, Ellis’ vehement desire is to share his experience. An author is expected to be erudite on pivotal issues of our history. However, a writer is primarily a creator of new analyses and stories. Ellis uses his knowledge on different topics like Bulgarian customs, but he also goes beyond the facts. His imagination is the triggering element for his writings.
Shuman spent two years in Bulgaria which enriched his life especially as a writer. Moreover, his experience in Bulgaria contributed to Ellis’ progress in the famous American blog site the Huffington Post. He wrote his first article for them, “10 amazing things you don’t know about Bulgaria”, which went viral, received more than 27k likes and was translated into Bulgarian twice. This also encouraged him to keep on submitting approximately 20 articles per year to the Huffington Post.
Furthermore, Ellis’ writing habits vary but he admitted that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Haruki Murakami were among the authors helping him form a vision of what good writing means. Ellis also mentioned proudly that John Irving, an American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, is his idol. Irving’s writing style of using his first sentence in a novel as the last one too is something Shuman admires. Ellis said: “I use it as a guideline for my writing; when I start writing, I already know where I want to end. I can envision it.”
As Shuman’s favourite author, John Irving, has said: “Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” When asked what the essence of his advice towards the writers in terms of routine might be, Shuman outlined: “A person has to commit themselves to writing. They have to make writing a daily habit. It is not homework. You should be writing for yourself. You are writing to get your ideas and your creativity down on a paper. You have to make time for this. I, personally, devote one hour every morning in a coffee shop to write before going to work. I devote a full hour, undivided attention to writing.”
For Ellis the pieces of writing should be informative and apart from raising questions, they should provide many answers as well. He explored in depth the Bulgarian culture from a geographical and a historical perspective to offer many answers. He writes about top destinations in Bulgaria. Ellis visited the most popular museums and monuments; he climbed Bulgaria’s mountains. “There are many things we only see in retrospect,” said Ellis’ idol, Haruki Murakami. Being familiar with specific destinations, customs and festivals, Ellis goes back to his memories and represents the country with self-assuredness.
The essence from the conversation is that a writer has to be knowledgeable and precise. The necessity of an author to produce well-researched pieces will never fade away. Enduring the life of a storyteller is about knowing much, training every day your mental muscles and purely enjoy daydreaming about the foreseeable future. Exploring a new culture is this splendid challenge for a writer. And this passion does not wane. More than five years after his departure from Bulgaria, Shuman’s love towards Bulgaria still reflects on his interest in books, originally written in Bulgarian, and then translated into English. Ellis continues reading and reviewing books coming from the country.
To recapitulate briefly, Ellis embraced many different concepts in his life, he tried a wide variety of activities. Yet, writing has always had a decisive role for him. His pieces of writing exert power because the stories represent strong human interest and questions about life with an universal focus.
“To practise any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow,” said Kurt Vonnegut. Ellis shows how travelling broadens your horizons thanks to meeting new people, being exposed to new stories. Shuman provides an inside into many cultures and into his own soul as well.
And going back to Ellis’ inspiration, John Irving, who said, “imagining something is better than remembering something”, it can be argued that Shuman somewhat represents this. Shuman’s immense knowledge on different cultures is a key element of his personality, but he also highly praises daydreaming and freedom of imagination.
This American-born, Israel-based, Bulgaria’s admirer puts writing into a completely positive perspective while insisting that: “To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. Most writers’ toolbox of vocabulary and ideas are based on things they learnt by reading.”
Thank you, @ellisshuman!
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London