Elizabeth Kostova: Author of The Historian

image-elizabethkostova200Elizabeth Kostova’s second novel is The Swan Thieves, a story of obsession and art. Her first, The Historian, shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, becoming the first debut novel to do so. This historical novel explores the history and folklore of Vlad the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for the Dracula story. It went on to sell over two million copies worldwide, and was published in 26 foreign editions.

The Historian won Elizabeth the Best Newcomer Award in the 2006 British Book Awards. She has also won the Hopwood Award for a Novel-in-progress. She graduated from Yale and also holds a Master in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.15

The Swan Thieves

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Elizabeth, thanks for joining us today.

Elizabeth
Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie
Now, for those people who are listening who are wondering how you got into writing, tell us about what were you doing before you released your first book, and the process of that first book.

Elizabeth
Well, like many writers I worked for many years before publishing a novel. I was really writing seriously for over twenty years before The Historian came out. I spent about ten years of that time on The Historian, but I was also always writing short work and publishing essays and poetry, and short fiction in literary magazines.

During that time, also like most writers, I was working a lot of jobs to make a living.

Valerie
Yes.

Elizabeth
Including a lot of teaching, which I really enjoyed, and doing many other things. So, I was always kind of writing around the edges of what I had to do every day.

Valerie
When did you know that you wanted to write? Was it from when you were at school? Or, was it later? When did you discover this wonderful world we call writing?

Elizabeth
I think it really was in childhood. I grew up very much a reader. Like a lot of children, I started writing because I was imitating the books I loved to read. I think I started writing poetry when I was about eight, and fiction when I was nine, and very true juvenilia.

It was sort of the beginning of my trying to write and experimenting with those forms.

Valerie
Now, you say that you were writing for twenty years, at which point in that twenty years did you decide, “That’s it. I’m really going to write a novel.” And, “I’m really going to have a go at it?”

Elizabeth
Well, I had always wanted to write a novel. I didn’t manage to write a novel, a true novel until I had wrote The Historian. I had traveled a lot in Eastern Europe with some colleagues and with fellowships, and I wanted somehow to encapsulate that experience in a novel, but I just had no idea how to get into the material.

One day, well, it’s been fourteen years now probably since then, but one day I had a sudden idea from my own childhood. I suddenly remembered my father, when we were little, we were traveling in Europe with him. He was a professor, retired now. He had a fellowship in Eastern Europe.

When we were traveling with him he would tell wonderful stories including sometimes stories about Dracula, which were diluted for children, but just wonderfully eerie. They were always based on the Bram Stoker story.

I suddenly wondered if this might make a good structure for a novel, the idea of a father telling a young daughter stories about Dracula. Then I wondered, “Well, what if Dracula himself turned out to be listening to these stories?” And, “Why would he be listening?”

It was the first time I had an idea that was kind of big enough for a novel. I began writing it right away. I didn’t know when I started it that it would take me ten years of work to write and everything else. But, it did, and it was great. It was great training, around I learned a lot from that book about writing a plot, and writing about place, and doing research.

Valerie
So, it took ten years to write, but then it was phenomenally successful and went on to sell over 2 million copies worldwide, published in 26 foreign editions. Did you have any clue that would happen?

Elizabeth
No, I didn’t.

It really took me pretty much completely by surprise. In fact it was shocking, and wonderful. But, also I was stunned by it. I had written The Historian in knowing that it’s kind of an odd mix of elements. It’s a literary novel, but it also includes a little bit of the supernatural in a very mysterious way. And, it’s a travel book, and it’s a mystery. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to place one book shelf or another. I was really stunned when it sold at auction. It’s not something that you ever expect to have happened, if you write a book for yourself.

Valerie
Do you remember when it reached the number one spot on the New York Best Seller List? Do you remember where you were when you found that out? Or, how you felt?

Elizabeth
I do, actually. It was an unforgettable moment. I was already on tour. It was my first week of book tour, and the List was- the inside information about the List was announced. There’s a little bit of lag time after a book comes out before you know where it will be on the List. It was the first debut novel to hit number one in its first week.

I didn’t know that could be done. I had never thought about- I never really thought about the Best Seller List because I’m not a writer writing for that. I had written the book in such a kind of private way.

I was with my editor who had come on tour for a couple of days with me in Chicago. It was lovely that we were together when this happened. I was having an interview with a journalist, a Chicago newspaper journalist, and my editor walked into the restaurant where we were having our interview. She walked up to me and she said, “It’s number one.” And, for a minute, and she looked electrified, and for a minute I couldn’t even understand what she was talking about.

“Number one, what?” “What one?” And, then I suddenly realized that she was talking about the New York Times Best Seller List, or maybe she explained. It was an incredible moment. It was an incredible moment for her, as an editor and someone who had worked hard to promote the book, and had done a wonderful job. And, it was a stunning moment for me as well.

Valerie
Incredible.

Now, you mentioned that in that ten years you learned a lot about plot and structure and research – now did you – as you were writing the book, were you actually learning the craft as you went along, or had you already had some of those skills and techniques under your belt?

Elizabeth
Well, I learned a tremendous amount. I think I knew a little bit from reading and reading deeply and widely, and from the models I wanted to use that book, as you probably know from reading it, has a lot in common with the three part suspenseful Victorian novel. I was really saturated with those as a reader. So, I knew a little bit from that.

I also had been writing and plotting, especially short fiction for years. That is somewhat different, but I had an idea that I would need to outline and think ahead and pace the book over a long stretch.

I think one of the things that I learned from writing The Historian was a lot of patience. It takes a great deal of patience to write, and plot, and then edit a very long book over a very long time.

The thing I most wanted from that book was to finish it. I felt that if I didn’t finish it, you know, especially once I was four or five years in, I felt that if I didn’t finish it I really would lose my nerve as a writer. And, that if I finished it whether or not anything ever happened with it, and whether or not it was ever any good I would at least have the knowledge that I could get all the way through something. That was really important to me.

Valerie
So, ten years is a long time. What did you feel at the end? You must have had nothing to do with yourself? You know, like, you spent all these years writing this book and suddenly it’s finished.

Elizabeth
Well, I did feel a sense of loss. I’m so busy with other things all the time that I certainly- I had a lot to catch up on, actually, after I finished it. Then I had to, of course, learn about the industry, edit with an editor for the first time, and participate in publicity for the first time. All of that had a very steep learning curve.

But, I started a new book right away. I think it was because I so much miss those characters. That was one of the main reasons.

Valerie
Now, before we move onto your next book, The Swan Thieves, I understand that the film rights for The Historian have been sold. How does that feel? What are your thoughts about seeing your book on the screen?

Elizabeth
Well, I think every author feels a little bit nervous about that, but I think when you sell a story you need to really let it go too. You sell it to the best studio, if you have an opportunity to.

And, I really like this studio that bought it, Red Wagon Pictures. They made, for example, Memoirs of a Geisha, which is quite a beautiful movie. They work pretty closely with authors, as studios go. For example, with Memoirs of a Geisha, they worked for about seven years with Arthur Golden.

They’ve retained me as an informal consultant on the film. We have discussions about it. I’m just as happy not to be writing the screenplay, because that’s something that drives novelists out of their minds, I think.

Valerie
Yes, I’m sure.

Elizabeth
But, it’s a long, slow process and it’s interesting to learn about that industry too. I think whatever comes out of it will be Hollywood, so there will probably be compromises. It will also be- it’s also just a different animal. I think film is such a different medium that you have to kind of enjoy it in its own way.

Valerie
So, tell us about The Swan Thieves.

Elizabeth
The Swan Thieves is like The Historian, partly a historical mystery, but it has a very different subject. It’s about the rise of Impressionism in France, that’s the history at the heart of the book. It’s also the story of Andrew Marlow who is a Washington D.C. psychiatrist in 1999, who also an avid amateur painter, and a really kind of orderly guy. He has his life very much in the way he wants it. He’s a distinguished professional.

One day he receives the great case of his career, Robert Oliver, who is a genius painter who’s approaching the height of his powers. And, Robert Oliver has been arrested for attempting to stab a painting in the 19th century section of the National Gallery of Art. So, he is brought into treatment with Andrew Marlow. Andrew Marlow discovers that his new patient won’t speak. He won’t talk about himself, or what he’s done.

Of course the question of why a painter, of all people, would try to damage a painting is a very troubling one. So, Andrew Marlow begins to go beyond the bounds of his own profession to interview the women who have been close to Robert Oliver, and try to find out who this very striking man really is. In the process he finds himself drawn into a mystery at the heart of French Impressionism, which is something that obsesses Robert Oliver, as a painter and as a person.

This is very much the story of how art can change lives and both awaken people and do damage, and bring joy, and a lot of other things. It’s also a love story, or several love stories, actually. Some of them rather unusual.

Valerie
Have you always had an interested in art? You’ve obviously always had an interest in history. Have you always had the same kind of interest in art as well?

Elizabeth
Very much so. I mean for me art is very much apart of history. It’s- when I sort of stand in front of any painting I feel as if I’m looking through a window at a particular moment in history. I think painting is a very incredible document of our human past. This book in many ways was a happy excuse to go back and look at, for me to go back and look at a lot of paintings I love in museums, and paintings I didn’t know yet and had to learn about for the book.

There are a lot of paintings in this one piece, which are pivotal parts of the plot, or have an enormous impact on their viewers, and most of them are fictional paintings, but they’re all based very carefully on particular movements, or looks, or experiments in the past.

Valerie
So, obviously with both of your books there’s an incredible amount of research. Now, as a writer what’s your regular process, because I know other writers have different processes to each other. Do you typically do all your research first and then when you feel like you’ve got that critical mass you start writing? Or, do you kind of write and research as you go along?

Elizabeth
Well, I guess in a way I do both. I find that- I always find myself writing about things that I’m already somewhat interested in. So, I have a little bit of reading background. Then I start reading more generally, and I usually realize at that point how little I know.

Then I go back and start reading more specifically to answer questions I have for the plot, or for the characters, or for their setting, and then there’s kind of a final wave. I think a lot of historical novelists would say there’s a point at which you’re questions are incredibly specific and you’re looking for the train time table to get you from Paris to the Coast of Normandy in 1879. And, at that point you’re really doing very directed research.

Valerie
Absolutely. The first novel took ten years. How long did the second novel take?

Elizabeth
You know it took a mere four years.

Somebody was asking me the other day, “Why did it take you so long to write this one piece,” and I was laughing. I just thought, “Wow, this seemed incredibly fast to me after ten years.”

Valerie
Yes.

Elizabeth
I still do some teaching, and a lot of social service, and have a lot of other responsibilities, so I still was not writing a break neck speeds full time.

But, I did get to spend a lot more time immersed in this one piece at one time then I ever did with The Historian. I felt very grateful for that. At the same time research is a very- it’s a slow business. I seem to write long books, so I’ve been really immersed in it for quite a while now.

Valerie
So, when you are writing and not doing publicity and all that. When you are in the depths of your writing can you describe to us your typical writing day? Do you have routine? Or, any rituals that you go and do to get into the zone? What’s your typical writing day?

Elizabeth
I wish could say that I have a typical writing day. I find that each of my days is different enough with different duties and activities and especially with teaching, and publicity, travel, the kinds of projects involved and including promoting my last book. I find that every day has somewhat different schedule often.

My one routine is to try each evening to look at the next day’s schedule and book myself for some writing, for whatever amount of time I have. Whether that’s four hours on a wonderful day, or 35 minutes.

If I have a big deadline coming up sometimes I’ll clear a lot of extra time and space, but I find that- I just try to make an appointment with myself to write for the next day. That kind of puts it on my calendar and commits me to it. But, on the whole I just try to write daily whenever I can, and as much as I can fit in.

Valerie
So, you don’t have to be at home to get into the zone? You can write anywhere as long as you’ve got your computer? Is that what happens?

Elizabeth
Yes, you know I really try to have that flexibility because I’m often on the road. I think there’s a certain danger in getting attached to a ritual of writing. I know writers who find it very hard to write except in the morning, or late at night, or in a particular place, or if it’s noisy.

I actually often take my laptop to a noisy café and write there, and just enjoy feeling surrounded by people but alone with my story. That, of course, that also gets you away from the dishes, and the phone, and the other distractions of home. I really like the fact that I can write almost anywhere. I can write in an airport. I wrote a good part of The Swan Thieves on airplanes while I was touring for The Historian.

Like any writer I get tired, or I am stumped by a problem, or I have other things that I need to take care of urgently and I get thrown off track. It’s not that I’m some kind of paragon of work, but I do think that this kind of flexibility is a really good thing for a lot of writers in the real world.

Valerie
So, what are you working on now, your next novel?

Elizabeth
I started a new novel in November and I’ve been working on it a little bit at a time. I can see already that it’s going to take a huge amount of research.

Valerie
Right.

Elizabeth
So, I’m sort of bracing myself for that. It’s wonderful to be starting to explore new characters. I think every writer feels kind of a sense of loss when a book ends and you’ve spent so much time imagining these people and living their lives, living with them, and then they’re kind of done, or gone, and you remember them fondly, but it’s wonderful to be immersed in something new.

Valerie
So, can you reveal to us what it’s about at all?

Elizabeth
Well, you know, I think there’s something about the beginning of a project, when it’s really raw that shouldn’t be revealed. I don’t mean that in sort of a secretive way, but I’ve always found if you talk a lot about projects in their beginning they can lose a little of their energy because you feel as if you’ve already told the story.

You don’t need to tell it on paper.

Valerie
That’s nice and mysterious.

Elizabeth
I’m still wrestling. I’m still wrestling with it.

Valerie
Sure. And, to people out there who are listening who have their novel in a drawer, the aspiring writers who are reading The Historian, and The Swan Thieves and just going, “Oh my God. I wish that was me.” What’s your advice to them?

Elizabeth
Well, I think there are several things that help writers a great deal. One of them is reading, as much as you have time to. But, also the best possible work you can find, the work that readers have revered for centuries, for a millennia, and to immerse yourself in those classics, because they really are our teachers. I read a lot of contemporary fiction also, and essays, and history of course, but I always turn back to the masters and mistresses of prose.

I think another thing is just to have a sense of not giving up. To know that it’s very important not to write because you think you’ll be published, or because you think you’ll win this or that, or you’ll have this or that outcome. Writing is really about, like any craft, it’s about challenging yourself and being very, very determined, believing in it.

Valerie
Great. Great advice. On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth
Thank you so much for talking with me.

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