Author Elizabeth Kostova
Who she is: Author, The Historian
What she does: Writes historical novels. Her first one, “The Historian,” reaches from the present day into the medieval past of Vlad the Impaler, Wallachia’s barbarous 15th century ruler whose gruesome deeds gave rise to the legend of Dracula. It earned her international acclaim when it was published in 2005.
Her latest book: In January 2010 Elizabeth published “The Swan Thieves.” This one is about psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe who has a perfectly ordered life — solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. (More on that later.)
By Hope Katz Gibbs
You may want to tuck a few bulbs of garlic into your pockets when you read Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, “The Historian.”
This novel about the life-and afterlife-of Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476) is wonderfully creepy—especially when read late at night. Even before its release, The Historian was predicted to be as popular as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. And that is what the book’s publisher, Time Warner’s Little, Brown, is banking on.
After a heated auction last summer, Little, Brown paid Kostova $2 million to publish her 656-page book.
The windfall came as a welcome surprise to the author, a Yale grad and literature professor. Kostova worked late into many nights typing her manuscript, and admits writing about the diabolical Dracula at 2 a.m. did make her reach to close the curtains. But then, she was equally spooked in the daytime when 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 masters of fine arts program.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” Kostova says, noting 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 images 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 is 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.
For the next year, Kostova will be working to promote The Historian. 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.”