Perhaps you've heard that Elizabeth Kostova's father told her Dracula stories when she was young. You know Dracula, of course, from Bram Stoker's novel, or from the movies, cartoons, and chocolate breakfast cereal it inspired. At the very least, several small children dressed as the infamous vampire have hit you up for candy on Halloween. Five centuries after his death, Dracula lives.
What if, all this time, he's been paying attention? What if Dracula has been listening in?
Part mystery and part travelogue, The Historian sprawls across Europe, from Amsterdam to Istanbul. Feeding off Cold War tensions, epistolary intrigue, the supernatural, and a pair of budding romances besides, Kostova's debut satisfies on so many levels that a bidding war among publishers escalated well into seven figures. Already, translations are slated for twenty-eight languages; Sony has purchased the movie rights.
Which explains, really it does, why the author of the summer's breakout book wound up talking about lemon pound cake, good writing font, Pablo Casals's hands, steam whistles, false documents, Bulgarian antique stores, and happiness.
Laura Miller assured Salon.com readers, "This year, the publishing business finally delivers on its promises: Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian is a hypnotic yarn, saturated in authentic history and eerie intrigue."
Dave: Let's start with the hard-hitting questions: Growing up, did you ever wear those plastic vampire teeth?
Elizabeth Kostova: I did. I remember having a pair and loving them. The problem is they fall apart really fast. And I was delighted, on my book tour—at the Harry Schwartz store in Milwaukee, they handed out those plastic vampire teeth at the door to everybody. They gave me all the extras.
Dave: So your father told you Dracula stories when you were young. What other kinds of stories did he tell?
Kostova: Those were certainly the most Gothic; they were pleasantly creepy, full of crypts and creaking doors. The other stories he told were much more along the lines of fairy tales—a king has a problem to solve, and he calls his ministers in...
The Dracula tales were the only ones based on a really specific tradition; he based them on the Dracula films he grew up watching during the Great Depression.
Dave: I didn't go back and count, but I wondered how many languages are described in the book, being read or spoken. How many languages do you speak?
Kostova: Probably half a dozen are referred to in different ways. The only language I speak really well is English. But I also speak Bulgarian pretty well. I used to speak French quite well, but that's gotten rusty.
Dave: But you did a bunch of traveling when you were younger, and then again recently, right?
Kostova: I did. A lot of my travel was in Eastern Europe, before I started writing the book. I've been back a few times since then, but the wider travel, in Western Europe and some parts of Eastern Europe, I did before I began composing it.
Dave: Do you have a favorite bookstore in Eastern Europe?
Kostova: I really don't, and one of the reasons is that they change constantly. When I first went to Bulgaria in 1989, it was the end of the communist era, literally the last days. The bookstores were government-run; they all had the same books in them.
The really interesting place to buy books was antique stores, where there was often a mix of old furniture, Ottoman jewelry, and the occasional odd, really old book. Those were wonderful stores, though many went out of business during the very hard times that followed the change to capitalism.
I wish I had a better answer. There are probably great bookstores in places like Prague, but in Bulgaria nothing is stable. And it's not like Paris where there is a tradition of old bookstores or kiosks.
Dave: If you could spend time in any city's libraries, independent of specific research materials you might need, which would you choose?
Kostova: That's a hard question. I think Oxford. Those libraries are so beautiful, and not only are they full of treasures, but they're such a pleasure to sit in. And smell—they smell so good.
Dave: There's a lot of talk in your novel about the smell of certain books.
Kostova: That's true.
Dave: Do we need to go deeper here? What is it with you and the smell of books?
Kostova: I think everybody who loves books, especially old books and research, has a kind of fondness for the smell of old books. And I have to admit that when I go into a library, especially if I'm in the stacks by myself, I pull books off the shelf and smell them.
I should add that not all old books smell good. If they've been in a damp environment, they can smell pretty bad.
Dave: How about some word association? I'll throw out a few words, and you tell me whatever comes to mind.
Kostova: Olive oil.
Kostova: Steam whistles.
Dave: When I said history, you said horror.
Kostova: I did....
You know, if you spend enough time studying medieval history or twentieth-century history, you develop a fairly dark picture.
Dave: Have you always liked studying history?
Kostova: I really have. I grew up in the kind of family where questions about history come up at the dining table and somebody is sent to get the encyclopedia in the middle of the meal.
Dave: At one point in The Historian, Paul explains, "I felt the loneliness, suddenly, of standing outside my institution, my universe, a worker bee expelled from the hive."
When I think of the Gothic, I tend to think of a novel like Wuthering Heights, where the characters have been cut off from society. The horror comes from a kind of claustrophobia. In Paul's case, though, you've written a character that is thrown into society, into something like a vast, unidentifiable doom.
Kostova: That's true, and at the same time you can argue that at that moment Paul is thrown out of society—his society is the academic world, which has been very safe and sheltered. All of a sudden, he's propelled out of his cocoon by an artifact, propelled into history; within days, he's on the other side of the world.
But that's interesting what you said about the Gothic. I've never really thought about that as an essential element of Gothic fiction, but it's so true.
Dave: For some reason, Wuthering Heights has always stuck with me. When I read it, in college, I wouldn't have said I loved it—I enjoyed it—but I still think about it all the time.
Kostova: I thought about Wuthering Heights, and reread it, while I was writing The Historian, even though the stories are completely different. The reason I decided to reread it—I read it a long time ago, too—is that it is a long, long told story. The housekeeper sits down with her mending, and the guest says, "Tell me the story of Wuthering Heights." She says, "Oh, certainly," and begins darning a sock or something. Thirty-five chapters later, she says, "Well, I finished my sock, and that's the story of Wuthering Heights." It doesn't happen in real time.
That structure is so fascinating. There's something about storytelling, about a story that's actually told by a person, that goes well with the Gothic. The Gothic is always about things we never can quite believe, and hearing them told by an actual person sort of helps us believe.
Dave: In The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby holds up Charles Dickens—specifically, David Copperfield—as a foil to minimalism. There's something to be said for stuffing lots of story between front and back covers, he argues. A certain type of writer—and a certain type of reader—isn't particularly interested in getting to the end quickly.
It's hard to talk about your novel without addressing its length. You clearly weren't aiming for a quick, 250-page read.
Kostova: I don't know whether I'm just very long-winded, but Dickens is also one of my favorite writers. I very consciously had the long Victorian novel in mind when I was working on The Historian.
For one thing, I wanted to see if it would be possible to blend suspense with that sense of We have all the time in the world for story. Dickens does that. When you read Great Expectations, you really want to know what is going to happen in the next chapter. And yet it's so, so long. I was interested in tinkering with that.
Dave: What are some other favorite long books?
Kostova: This is so geeky, but I love Middlemarch. I'm a great fan of Henry James, whose books tend to be somewhat shorter than Dickens and [George] Eliot, and of course have a much later sensibility, but I love their length and indirectness and the elegance of the prose; also, the sharp, indirect portrait of the characters' psychology. I love Hardy, too—another set of long books.
Especially for this book, I really enjoyed reading Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone and The Woman in White. Those are some of the first great mysteries in the English language. I was very interested in the fact that they're mysteries. The Moonstone is a complete page-turner, and yet it's extremely long; it has many stories within stories.
Many of those writers, especially Collins, experiment with false documents. I think that's a fascinating form.
Dave: Hornby writes about Wilkie Collins in The Polysyllabic Spree, too.
Kostova: I have to read that.
Dave: The Historian being your debut, and being such a great success, does it feel at all odd that suddenly, and who knows for how long, you are known to millions as "the Dracula writer"?
Kostova: It does. I think of myself as a literary writer. I worked on this book for a long time, as well as several shorter works, in a very private, literary way. It is odd. Some of it is about Dracula, not me; Dracula has eternal cachet. I wasn't trying to cash in on that; I'm really fascinated by the Dracula legend—but it is kind of startling, you're right, to see my name linked up with Dracula now.
My next novel, which I started last summer, is very different. It's not Gothic. That's not in response to this; it's just that this was one experiment, and now I'd like to learn something completely different.
Dave: For some amount of time, at least, you'll continue writing fiction?
Kostova: For as long as I can put my fingers on a keyboard. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a fiction writer.
Dave: What about nonfiction?
Kostova: I'm very interested. I've actually written and published essays. I don't feel quite as comfortable in that form, but I'm fascinated by it.
Dave: What subjects interest you?
Kostova: I published a book ten years ago, in a small edition, that I co-authored with a North Carolina artist. It's called 1927. It's an oral history and travel memoir about his travels in the nineteen twenties.
I'm very interested in travel, in oral history and documentary writing, and in art history, especially painting.
As a reader and a writer, I like essays that mingle some kind of learning or erudition with humorous or reflective writing about daily life. I know that sounds really vague, but you know it when you read an essay where the author pulls it off—reflective, personal essays that aren't too personal.
Dave: What magazines do you read?
Kostova: My favorite is National Geographic.
Dave: So far, what has been the most surprising response to your book?
Kostova: Most surprising? In a lovely independent bookstore where I read and signed, there was a long line, and about halfway through the line, a woman approached me with her book. She said, "I saw you on Good Morning America this morning. I thought you might be tired and hungry on your tour, so I made you a lemon pound cake." And she put this cake on the counter in front of me.
I was so surprised. For a minute, I thought I was going to burst into tears. It was just so touching. I didn't know what to say. Then of course I thanked her profusely. In her kitchen that morning, she had made me this cake from scratch! I thought it was so great, partly because it's so un-Gothic. She didn't come up and say, "I thought you'd like this rubber knife." No, a pound cake.
Dave: Wow. Good answer.
Kostova: Thank you.
Dave: When Ian McEwan was here, he said, "If I was commanded by the government to exchange whatever writing ability I had with someone else's other ability, I'd say to Ry Cooder, 'You can have my writing ability; I want your playing ability.'"
If you could have someone else's ability, whose would it be?
Kostova: That's so tempting. It's like a whole candy shop. Does it have to be someone alive?
Dave: Have it your way. Make your own rules.
Kostova: I think I would want for five minutes to play the cello with Pablo Casals's hands. But it's so hard to choose.
Dave: If the opportunity arises and you change your mind, I won't be offended.
Kostova: What if I change my mind twenty times before dinner tonight?
Dave: Take the night to think it over. Call me tomorrow.
What was your favorite class at Yale?
Kostova: I had a lot of great classes, but I think my favorite was an Art History lecture that was taught over and over for decades by Professor Vincent Scully, who was one of the great professors of the twentieth century there, maybe anywhere.
The class I took was a famous Western Art History survey, with slides. The auditorium seated five hundred people. He taught it year after year after year, and every time he got so excited that he enflamed whole generations of art historians. Every semester.
He got so excited that he would occasionally poke a hole through the screen with his pointer. You'd be looking at the doors of the Duomo in Florence, and he'd rap the pointer right through; he ruined a lot of screens over the years. There also was a legend that one day he was so carried away with his topic that he fell off the front of the stage. I don't know if that's true, but it was a beloved campus legend.
His ardor up on the stage about some of the great architectural and art sights of Western Europe made me go to those places as soon as I could save money from my bookstore job or mowing lawns or whatever I was doing. Eventually I went to this wonderful monastery in the Pyrenees of Southern France, the first still-existing example of Romanesque architecture, built in the year 1000.
I'm only one of thousands and thousands of students he inspired. That was certainly the best class I took in college.
Dave: I'm assuming you write on a word processor. If that's the case, what font do you work in?
Kostova: Times. I used to work in New York, which is closely related to Times. It was sort of a watershed in my life when I moved over.
Dave: Why did you change?
Kostova: I was starting to feel that New York, although it's beautiful, looked very dated to me. That's usually not a problem with my aesthetic, but it had started to become somehow hard to read. I think it was because it looked like typewriter typing, but it wasn't on a typewriter and that looks kitschy. If it had really been a typewriter, that wouldn't have been a problem.
I moved over to Times about twelve years ago and I've been happier ever since.
Dave: Is Zingerman's in Ann Arbor all that it's cracked up to be?
Kostova: It is. It's the best.
Dave: What's your favorite dish?
Kostova: Macaroni and cheese, which is very different at Zingerman's than anywhere else in the world.
Elizabeth Kostova spoke from Laramie, Wyoming, on July 15, 2005, several days before her visit to Powell's. In case you're wondering—she was— about Zingerman's, well, Kevin Smokler, another Michigan native (Kostova hails from Ann Arbor), told me to ask.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State