By Hope Katz Gibbs
You may want to take the risk and read (or reread) Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian.
You may have given this bestseller a gander already, for since its initial release in 2005, the book has sold millions by capturing the imagination of anyone interested in Kostova’s fictional account of the life-and afterlife-of Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476).
As of 2010, it has been published in 44 languages, has more than 1.5 million copies in print, and there is a Sony film in the works.
The Risk of Writing “The Historian”
Even before its release, The Historian was predicted to be as popular as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. After a heated auction, Brown paid Kostova $2 million to publish her 656-page tome.
The windfall came as a welcome surprise to the author, a Yale grad and literature professor who felt compelled to risk her tenure and give up any free time she had to write the book.
When I interviewed Kostova the first time (for The Costco Connection) she told me that she had worked late into many nights typing her manuscript, and admitted that writing about the diabolical Dracula at 2 a.m. did make her reach to close the curtains.
But then, she was equally spooked the day the idea for the novel first popped into her head.
“I suddenly remembered the Dracula tales my professor father told me when I was a little girl and we were traveling in Europe, and I thought this might be a good beginning for a novel,” she shares. “Then I thought, ‘What if it turned out Dracula himself was listening to each story?’”
The more she thought about it, the more the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She knew she was on to something.
About midway through the writing process, Kostova needed a little creative mentoring and entered the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts Program.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” Kostova told me, noting that her supportive professors encouraged her to enter the novel-in-progress in the school’s prestigious Hopwood Award competition. She won that prize in 2004.
It is easy to see why. Not only is The Historian a completely captivating tale, but Kostova’s prose is sophisticated and elegant, her character development rich and deep, and her image vivid. The detailing of European cities is as interesting as a travelogue, and her descriptions of foreign fare are so delectable that reading the book on an empty stomach is sure to have you longing for a bowl of steaming gulyas or a goblet of palinka.
To give readers the feeling they are traveling to foreign lands, Kostova knew it was imperative she romp through many of the European cities in which the novel is set. “How else would I have known the sound of the screams that seagulls make as they soar over Istanbul?” she asks.
Luckily, a trip to Bulgaria wasn’t too difficult, for Kostova’s husband is a native. In fact, the couple met there in the mid-‘80s, while she was on a foreign-exchange program, and married when she was 25.
“Although none of the Bulgarian characters are specifically based on my in-laws,” she says, “I was able to observe them intimately and that helped me include wonderful details about their beautiful faces and particular mannerisms.”
The quantity of research exhausted her, though, and Kostova vowed that she’d never again undertake such an arduous project. Now that she’s rested a bit, however, the 40-year-old has begun another historic novel, but refuses to hint at the topic.
As to whether she believes Dracula still walks the earth, the author simply chuckles, “I don’t think I should answer that question. But suffice it to say, that I am a very rational person. Usually.”
The Swan Thieves
How do you follow the fastest-selling debut novel in U.S. history? That was the risk Kostova took when she published The Swan Thieves, in January 2010.
The Swan Thieves revisits certain themes and strategies of The Historian, another literary(ish) thriller (of sorts) which replaces the Eastern Europe of the Vlad myth with 19th-century Paris and the birth of Impressionism.
In this book, acclaimed contemporary artist Robert Oliver attempts to slash a painting in Washington’s National Gallery and is taken into psychiatric custody. He falls under the care of the protagonist, Andrew Marlow, another painter / doctor known for working with creative and difficult patients.
Oliver refuses to talk, however, which leads Marlow on a quest through Oliver’s past. Readers delve into the mystery, as they meet Oliver’s former wife, lover, paintings and colleagues. Like The Historian, this novel will tickle a hair on the back of the neck.
Meet Elizabeth Kostova at the National Press Club’s Annual Book Fair on November 9th
This review is the first in a four-part series on books that will be for sale at the National Press Club’s book fair on November 9. Held inside the NPC grand ballroom at 14th and F Street in Washington, DC, nearly 100 authors will be on hand to sign their newly released books. Tickets are $5. Don’t miss it!
Learn more here.