Photo credit: Lynne Harty Photography
Describe your latest book.
The Shadow Land
is a novel about Bulgaria. Actually, its main character is a young American woman who travels to Bulgaria in 2008 without knowing much about the country, trying to escape a tragedy in her life back home. She’s been in the capital, Sofia, for about an hour when she ends up accidentally taking someone else’s bag — only to discover too late that it contains an urn of human ashes. The Shadow Land
is the story of her search for the family to whom she hopes to return this precious item, and her quest for the history of the man whose ashes she carries. I worked on it for nearly eight years, returning often to Bulgaria to conduct research and interviews, and to travel to the settings I wanted to use. I can hardly believe this labor of love has finally become a book. It gave me a whole new life as a writer, internally.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved Little Women
and read it so many times I all but memorized it. In the early 1970s, there still weren’t that many good novels for children that had a spirited female main character, so I turned to classics like that one. I loved the details of 19th-century life and cultures it taught me, and the actually rather erudite voice Louisa May Alcott brought to her writing.
When did you know you were a writer?
I knew I was a writer — or going to be one — when the principal at my elementary school called me into her office to discipline me for submitting a plagiarized poem to the school magazine, a poem I’d written myself.
What does your writing workspace look like?
My writing space varies with the day — sometimes I use a little home office that’s both cluttered and very neat, full of half-finished projects that have nothing to do with writing. While I was working on The Shadow Land
, I kept a big map of Bulgaria on the wall just above my desk, so I could look up and see my characters’ journey across the country. Some days I need to get out into the world, so I go to work at a noisy café.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I care more than most people around me about things that don’t exist; like all fiction writers, I spend a lot of time talking with people who aren’t really there.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A reader wrote me once that she blamed The Historian
for disruption of her sleep patterns. She said that after reading it, she no longer felt safe getting up in the night to use the bathroom.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I think anyone interested in travel, history, literature, or landscape, which means most serious readers, should read the travel books of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor
, particularly his trilogy about walking in the 1930s from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. The first of those, and possibly the best, is A Time of Gifts
. These are especially great books for anyone in his/her 20s, and anyone who loves European history.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I collect cats. I’m one cat short of the Crazy Cat Lady. They live exemplary lives of meditation, and they all have different personalities.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Like a lot of writers, I have four or five different résumés. In my 20s and 30s I worked a great range of odd jobs — housecleaning, editing, teaching, mowing lawns, assisting elderly friends, and so on. One of the strangest jobs I ever had was vacuuming the cellar of a 19th-century law firm that hadn’t been cleaned since before World War I. That took months.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Many. My favorite remains a visit when I was 17 to Dylan Thomas
’s beautiful little Boathouse in Laugharne, in Wales, with my family.
What scares you the most as a writer?
The shortness of life.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
I find this a rather embarrassing thought, but I think it might be fun to have a biography title that included a question mark. After all, we’re all partly trying to find out through writing who we are ourselves, even if we don’t write memoir.
Elizabeth Kostova: Writer, Housewife, or Bulgarian Spy?
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
It’s very, very hard for me to choose just one, but I especially love the famous lines from Henry James
“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
From The Shadow Land
“The strangest thing about Neven was that as soon as you saw him, you wanted him to like you, although he was only a little boy.”
Describe a particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
Oddly enough, my most memorable dream is the plot of The Shadow Land
. I woke up early about eight years ago realizing that I’d just dreamed the dramatic opening scene of a novel, complete with characters, and then a more general middle section of the same novel, and then the climax of the story. I learned the main characters’ names and even saw the published book lying on a shelf. I don’t expect that to happen to me again, but it was certainly a wonderful way to stumble into a new book.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
It’s hard for me to choose. Grammar is a religious experience, for me, as is usage. I deeply regret the current societal confusion over “lay” and “lie,” as well as the ubiquitous “hopefully.” Don’t get me started.
Do you have any phobias?
Snakes, flying, interviews, heights, fast-moving water — really, anything that demands physical courage — being inside in beautiful weather, sleeping late, okra.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I have a serious BBC Endeavor
problem. I’m getting help for it.
How old do you feel inside?
When one of my grandmothers was 89, I asked her what age she felt inside. She answered without hesitation: 35. I’ve been thinking about this ever since. I don’t know if this speaks well for my maturity level, but I feel 11. At 11, you’re wide-awake and your mind is old, but you’re not yet mired in the misery of adolescence. You sense the seriousness of life but (if you’re lucky) not the real depth of that seriousness or the inevitability of tragedy. The 11-year-old in me still loves nature in the same way, especially mountains and wild plants; she still loves pets, red shoes, hours of solitude, her family, Baroque music, long books, old houses, and daydreaming.
My Top Five Novels:
Loosely speaking, these are novels I read and reread most because I learn so much from them about writing and especially character development. As a group, they could be called “stories of the individual versus society,” which of course has always been one of the themes of the Anglophone novel, not just in the 19th century. As you can see, this list is rather heavy on portraits of women, although only one is by a female author (who felt she had to take a male nom-de-plume). Each also requires either a long summer holiday or a bout of the flu to complete; I first made it all the way through Middlemarch
thanks to a virus. Here they are:
by Leo Tolstoy
The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
by George Eliot
The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins
÷ ÷ ÷
is the #1 New York Times
bestselling author of The Historian
, for which she won the 2006 Book Sense Award for Best Adult Fiction and the 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year, and The Swan Thieves
. She graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for Novel-in-Progress. The Shadow Land
is her new book.