One of Azerbaijan’s most popular contemporary writers, Elchin Safarli, is only 29, but his books have already enjoyed great success outside the country. He has seven books to his name, including the best known The Sweet Salt of the Bosporus, You Were Promised to Me and One-Way Ticket. His most recent – If You Knew – created a buying craze among his readers. Elchin writes in Russian, so his readership is mainly from post-Soviet countries.
He is published by one of Russia’s biggest publishing companies, AST. Elchin says of himself: It so happens that from childhood I have been surrounded by ordinary people, not politicians or artists or writers or broadcasters. I grew up among ordinary people whose destinies are considered average. Every time I start a new book I follow the same goal – to write about those people.
This is probably why readers love his characters; they are recognizable, they are the ordinary people around us in everyday life. And probably this is why a lot of female readers in particular come to meet him. These meetings in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are usually sold out.
So what is the reason for his charm and why are readers fascinated by his books? And, of course, what does love mean to him, the love he writes about in all his works? Elchin spoke of this and more during a conversation with Visions of Azerbaijan in Baku where he had also been meeting his readers.
Don’t you get tired of these frequent meetings? Or are you already used to the publicity?
To be honest, I do get rather tired of it, but I do it with pleasure. It’s part of my life. The pleasure doesn’t come from the commercial benefit, it comes from my passion to write books and communicate closely with my readers. In other words, it makes my life.
So what does tire you out?
(smiles…) Well, things from everyday life. I’ve just finished redecorating my apartment and, believe me, that wore me out.
What about publicity? Do you enjoy it?
Obviously, I don’t feel myself a public or popular person. I live as many ordinary people do. But I have a quality – a gift to convey the feelings of others through my books. That makes me different. To be honest, it is nice when people recognize me on the street.
Could you tell me about your work as a journalist?
Yes, I have a lot of experience in journalism. I started with Zerkalo newspaper (in Baku), and then moved to Echo newspaper where I worked as a journalist for six years. Then I left Echo and worked for ANS TV but only for a short time. Then I moved into PR but soon realized that sitting in an office all day was not for me. I started to write books and put down first my own feelings and then others’ feelings on paper. I remember during lunch time at the office I would open Microsoft Word and type my first novels, saving them as diary notes in the City Life Journal. Some readers suggested I send those novels to Russian publishers. I followed their advice and very soon got an offer from one of the biggest publishing houses in Russia and Europe – AST. So here I am.
Indeed, there are some elements of artistic embellishment in my books, but overall all the feelings and emotions belong to me. Before a book can be written each story comes from my soul; I have to go through this, otherwise I wouldn’t write. As for the characters of my books, they are all real. For instance, in my last three books one of my favourite characters, Panda, comes up very often. She is a real person whose experience I tried to put down on paper. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of writing about people; I prefer to dwell more on situations and the emotions of those people.
And what kinds of emotions attract you to write a book?
I’m very attracted to brokenness in man, to inner conflicts and loneliness. Those are very rich, saturated feelings that make me able to start a book. I don’t like people talking positively very often. It seems insincere. Of course, I do believe in kindness, in the light of happiness. But all these words seem to me to be caused by obstacles and the inner suffering of people. I like real people with real emotions who are not shy of showing what they feel. Also I like people who are revolutionaries and who are not afraid to struggle with the generally accepted foundations of morality. For instance, I can’t accept our stereotype that girls should marry by the time they are 30 because afterwards they will be considered old maids. I like people who are not bent and who cannot be broken.
What does human beauty mean to you? How do beautiful people look in your mind?
Beautiful people in my mind are those with light in their eyes.
That is happy people then…
I think there is no strong meaning of happiness. People are happy in different ways.
What’s happiness for you?
Happiness for me is understanding oneself and having the ability to find oneself in life. Even if you haven’t found yourself yet in your life but you are on the way, this is happiness too. Before I thought that happiness teaches nothing and thought that many masterpieces were written based on the pain and suffering of the human soul. But over time I realized that there is such a thing as happiness and now I wish to prove it.
You said that there is no need to look for meaning in life. You said there is no eternal love. Are your books not about the love that people want to believe in?
Well, I’m changing with my books. My thoughts are changing and that’s natural. What I realized is that there is no universal and generally accepted meaning in our life. We should fill our life with meaning all the time. And each of us has our own meaning. I still think that love is the most emotional and strongest feeling. But at the same time I think love is everywhere, not only between a man and a woman. There is love of life, of God, of animals, of oneself finally. To love oneself doesn’t mean to stand in front of a mirror and admire oneself. It means to care about oneself, to do a favourite job.
But to love someone more than yourself?
That’s not so good. I had this experience and nothing good came of it. Usually it is unrequited love when you love someone more than yourself. But if it happens you will certainly dissolve in the person you love more. In my case I almost lost myself. I felt as though I had nearly been killed. I barely got out of it.
However people do not choose situations. They merely fall into them, don’t they?
Yes, that’s true. But in my case it turned out well for me. I realized that love is such an important thing in our life, but you shouldn’t dissolve in someone you love.
Somehow it sounds like love should be limited?
No, I’d rather say people need to be spiritually ready for love. I wasn’t ready and I couldn’t manage this feeling, so it led me in the wrong direction. I don’t think this is limiting love; I think this is knowing where to stop; this is the ability to control yourself and your inner emotions.
You have already been to many countries. Have you noticed any distinction in different societies – do people love the same way?
No distinction. People do love the same way everywhere.
What about stereotypes and prejudices that cause problems for lovers?
The decorative trappings may be different in different societies, but the rest is the same. The stereotypes and prejudices are decorations and indeed impact on love. For instance here in Azerbaijan it is somehow complicated to speak openly about one’s feelings of love. Here it’s not accepted. Here you should think as others do and this scares me. And we’re not just talking about love. Usually they say you shouldn’t read more books so as not to go crazy; they say if you are over 30 you won’t get married; they say it’s not right to have pets at home; they say it’s not right to speak about gays and lesbians and so on. All these things are considered not fit for public discussion even though they should be discussed. All these are stereotypes and I don’t agree with them. I think people shouldn’t be submitted to stereotypes and negative emotions should not be kept. Rather they should have to do good things. When I lost my dog, whom I loved so much, I became unhappy and didn’t know how to treat my soul. I have started to take care of homeless dogs that face cruelty. And you know it helped me to treat my own pain.
There are many positive things in our traditions – for example, the sense of respect for elders and parents. I have very clear education in this respect. If an older man enters the room, I have to get up. This is a very good tradition and we should always keep it. But some of these traditions are based on a sense of “you have to” that I can’t accept. Why do I have to? I should do it on the basis of love and because I want to, not because I “have to”. As you see I’m quite a rebel...
Where did you get that feeling of protest? Did you come to this by yourself, or was this the atmosphere in your family?
Well, I’m from a typical Azerbaijani family. Maybe, a little was transmitted from my mum, but most likely it occurred to me over the years. One fine day I was faced with a dilemma – to be led by the desires of society or to live by my own desire. I chose the latter.
What do you fear most in life?
To lose myself. To break. To stop my struggle.
Do you have children? Even if you don’t, how do you think you would bring them up?
Not yet. The only thing I know for sure is that my children will never feel alone. Whatever happened I would always accept them. You know why children become prostitutes or addicts? I’m sure because they weren’t accepted at the right time by their parents and relatives for some reason; they were ignored and that led to them following bad ways. I would say to my future children – even if you are in big trouble, I beg you to come to me, I’ll accept you no matter what. I have realized that feeling of responsibility since I lost my dog. By the way, have you ever been to a dog shelter? I’m sure if you go to one, you will love life in all its colour.
Do you have your own idea as a writer? What is that you struggle for?
Yes I have. It is an idea of the harmony people should live in. I struggle for what people call self-belief. Whatever happens, people shouldn’t stop their journey, they have to keep moving.