Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel, The Historian, was an international sensation when it was first published in 2005. A page-turning account of three generations of historians on the track of the original Dracula, the book put Kostova in the middle of a publishing bidding war that ended with her accepting an astonishing $2 million contract. The novel went on to become the fastest-selling hardcover debut novel in American publishing history and the first debut novel to ever appear premiere at number one on the New York Times Best-Sellers List. SONY/Columbia Pictures is currently producing a film adaptation of the book, which was followed by a second international best-seller, The Swan Thieves.
On Thursday, June 21, Kostova will appear with her friend and debut novelist Natalie Bakopoulos (The Green Shore) at the City Opera House for a National Writers Series conversation about their lives and works. In a recent phone interview, Kostova spoke with MyNorth about her whirlwind experience writing and publishing The Historian, the recent reconnaissance in popularity of vampire fiction, and the historical project she's working on next.
MyNorth: The Historian is a highly unique novel, especially for a first book. What was the inspiration behind the plot?
Elizabeth Kostova: I've been interested since childhood in the legend of Dracula. When I was a little girl, my father had a Fulbright to Eastern Europe, so we traveled there. I saw these wonderful, evocative places as a child, some of which are in the book. While we were traveling, my father told us a series of stories about Dracula – they were watered down for children, of course – based on the movies he'd watched growing up. I loved those stories – I think a lot of children love creepy stories.
As I grew older, I began to understand there had been a real Dracula, in addition to the Dracula created by Bram Stoker. So my fascination with those stories grew, and stayed with me when I began writing this book. I have to say, I was surprised to find myself writing a book with a supernatural element. I think of myself as a very traditional, literary writer, and most writers who write supernatural plots are working in genre fiction. But I had a lot of fun doing it.
MyNorth: There has been a resurgence in the last decade or so in the popularity of vampire fiction – both in books and in films and television. Why do you think this particular myth, which is centuries old, continues to be one that holds such a strong fascination for people?
Elizabeth Kostova: I've thought about this a lot. The Historian was published in 2005, so it came out before Twilight and all the films based on that series and the subsequent teen interest in vampires. Obviously we've been fascinated with vampires for thousands of years – there are even vampires that are part of tomb paintings in ancient Egypt. And every culture that has been a herding culture has had some kind of vampire legend, traditionally. We have a huge human history of being interested in and worried about vampires, and worried about things like proper burial, and the mysterious border we see between life and death.
My personal take on the recent resurgence in interest in vampires is that it has a lot to do with the general anxiety we feel as a culture. At this moment in our history, and our planet's history, I think we all feel we're living in a precarious present. This interest in vampires is a safe way to explore the dangerous, anxious state of life. It's mysterious, and titillating, and at the same time it's not real. It gives us a chance to feel scared while knowing it's all a fantasy.
MyNorth: There is so much history and geo-specific detail in the pages of both The Historian and The Swan Thieves. What was your research process like for these books?
Elizabeth Kostova: It was very different for the two books. In The Historian, I was mostly writing about places I had been in Europe – either as a child or when I was in college. The ten years I spent working on that book was during a time where I didn't have the money or flexibility to be able to travel much, so it was mostly armchair travel – writing from memory, or journals, or back-up research. I try to do three-dimensional research: I try to interview people who have lived in a particular place, and to watch movies filmed on location in that place, and to listen to music from that place. I even cooked food my characters would eat in The Historian.
With The Swan Thieves, I finally had the ability to actually go on location. I went to France for 10 days, and went to the museums and looked at the paintings and visited the coastal towns described in the book. That is a thrilling research process, to actually go to your book's location and come home with a body of material and experiences to process and then write about.
MyNorth: Natalie Bakopoulos mentioned in her interview with us how happy she was for you for the success of The Historian. For a debut novelist to have that kind of overwhelming critical and commercial response is almost unheard of. What was that experience like for you?
Elizabeth Kostova: It was a total surprise, first of all. I really wasn't sure the manuscript would be picked up by any publisher. About half-way through writing it, I thought, "I've mostly been writing this for fun, but I ought to show it to someone when I'm done, because I've put so much effort into it." But I knew enough about publishing – not very much, but just enough – to know that it was a hard book to categorize. Publishers like to put a book on one shelf or another, and I knew it might just be too strange a book to find a home. So when it went into being sold at auction, I was stunned – I didn't expect it at all.
The experience of having your first book do that is, of course, thrilling, but it's also overwhelming. There's a great feeling of your life not being your own any more. It can actually be an invasive experience, in some ways. I felt very lucky – few writers would say they don't want to have a lot of readers – but it gave me an increased appreciation for what's essential about the writing craft, which is sitting by yourself at a desk and doing the best you can day after day. When I was writing The Swan Thieves, so many people asked me, "Millions of people are waiting for your next book. Is that a scary feeling?" And I thought, "Well, it is if I think about it, yes!" But for a long time it didn't occur to me to think about it. Because when I'm sitting alone with a book and my characters, especially if the writing process is going well, I'm really not thinking about anything else. I don't remember even who I am, or the fact I wrote a first book that did well, or that there's pressure for the next book, or whatever the case may be. For me, the act of writing fiction is such an absorbing one that those other things fall away.
Another thing this process made me realize was what a fluke it was that the book did so well. It was partly because of the great PR of my publisher, but it also came out at just the right time and just the right place and hit just the right nerve in the publishing industry. In many ways, it was a happy accident. It wasn't anything I could control or that had anything to do with why I wrote the book. Because of that, I have a great sense of needing to share that fortune, and of needing to be as available as possible to other authors and to give back to the literary community.
MyNorth: Having gone down this road already yourself, what is it like for you to now see Natalie embarking on the process of publishing her first novel?
Elizabeth Kostova: I'm thrilled for Natalie. I know firsthand how hard she worked on that book and what a personal book it is for her. I imagine she's in that state of shock right now, of realizing the book is now something she can actually hold in her hand. She and I have a lot of interesting commonalities in what we write about and how we approach it and the way we feel about history, particularly the way we try to recreate or reimagine history in a personal way. Her book is full of so many small, perfect, very real details about people's lives that make you believe you're in this time and place. One of the hardest things to do with a historical novel is to not just include a checklist of historical details but create a personal reality against the background of history, which is what Natalie's done. I think that's something we'll have a lot to talk about in Traverse City, about how you make history feel real and personal, because it's something we're both passionate about.
MyNorth: Do you have a third novel or book in the works right now?
Elizabeth Kostova: Yes, I am working on a third novel. This one again involves a lot of history, mostly 20th-century, Eastern European history. It's something of a family saga set again the backdrop of communism. I've been working on it for about two years now, and I think it's going to end up being a big, long book. I keep telling myself to write a short story set in my hometown, but that never seems to happen. (laughs)
"An Evening with Natalie Bakopoulos and Elizabeth Kostova," which will be moderated by National Writers Series founder Doug Stanton, will take place on Thursday, June 21 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door ($5 for students and $10 for educators) and are available at the City Opera House box office or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include pre-event live music, dessert courtesy of Morsels, a cash bar, an audience Q&A and a book signing with the authors.