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March 19, 2011 / Dian Kurnia

Interview With ELIZABETH KOSTOVA (Author The Historian)

Elizabeth KostovaElizabeth Kostova is the author of The Historian (June 2005), a chilling historical mystery that 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. In The Historian, Kostova’s characters hunt the immortal Prince Vlad across twentieth century Europe, from ancient village to dank crypt in a quest to destroy the vampire. Kostova, a graduate from Yale and The University of Michigan’s MFA program, spoke with me about her novel which is quickly topping the bestseller lists.

Mark Flanagan: I know you’ve been asked numerous times why you wrote about Dracula. Would you like to describe for our readers how your fascination with the character began and how it has evolved since its inception?

Elizabeth Kostova: When I was a little girl, my father–a professor–took his young family to Eastern Europe on a fellowship. We traveled in Eastern and Western Europe, and along the way he amused me with a series of pleasantly creepy tales about Dracula. His stories were based on the classic Dracula films he’d grown up on. I loved these stories, and because of them Dracula has always been associated for me with travel and with beautiful historic places in the Old World.

the historian

About eleven years ago I suddenly wondered if that scene–a father telling a young daughter tales about Dracula as they travel through Europe–might make a good structure for a novel. Once I started working with this idea, I decided to use the historical Dracula as well, and the book evolved into a historical novel with a lot of research along the way.

MF: While writing The Historian you decided to pursue an MFA. Why was that?

Elizabeth Kostova: After I’d worked on the novel for eight years, I decided to go into an MFA program, not so much for the novel itself as to have a writing community. I attended the University of Michigan MFA from 2002 to 2004 and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It gave me time to finish the book and also tremendous encouragement. The critiques and help I got there pushed me to rewrite the book thoroughly, too, after I’d finished it.

MF: With it’s attention to historical accuracy, The Historian sets its gaze more upon the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler rather than his mythical alter-ego, Dracula the Vampire. Where does the history stop and the mythology begin?

Elizabeth Kostova: I took a real historical mystery, the question of where Vlad the Impaler is buried–or what became of his remains–and spun out a fictional speculation from there. The other historical events in the book are real ones, carefully researched, although the twentieth-century characters are fictional.

MF: On another level, this is a novel about the power of books. Could you elaborate on this motif?

Elizabeth Kostova: I feel that books are the real keepers of history. I find it wonderful and eerie that language lasts so much longer than people, and that a book can transmit history from one generation to another, whether or not it’s actually a work of history.

MF: The narrator of The Historian remains unnamed. Why is that?

Elizabeth Kostova: I left her unnamed as a literary experiment. I wanted to see if I could give her a full personality without the handle of a name.

MF: The Historian is a tale told largely through letters. What made you choose to write this as an epistolary narrative?

Elizabeth Kostova: I’ve always loved letters, real and fictional. There’s a great intimacy about writing or receiving a letter, and in a novel that translates to some kind of closeness between character and reader.

MF: I’d love to hear about your writing practice. I imagine you sequestered in a large room with books, historical volumes, notes, and maps strewn and pinned up all about.

Elizabeth Kostova: Dusty old volumes on the wall… a skull with a candle dripped on it… if only! (laughs) No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was so busy trying to make a living, I just wrote whenever I could. Each day, I looked at the next day’s schedule and tried to figure out where I could find time to write. Sometimes that was 20 minutes in a day, and I wrote what I could get done in 20 minutes. Sometimes that was four hours, and that was blissful. I really had to learn to be very flexible.

I think in a way that was a great lesson for me. Sometimes I had to get up very early in the morning. One summer, I was working hard and I wrote from 5 to 7:30 every morning. Often I wrote late at night. For instance, if I was on a trip I took a notebook and wrote a scene or two long hand. I wrote in waiting rooms, doctors offices, red lights… wherever I could.

MF: A main character in the novel expresses derision towards the English language, calling it “an exercise in grammar.” Clearly, you’re a devotee of language. Do any foreign languages fascinate you more so than English?

Elizabeth Kostova: English is my favorite language because it’s my native language and because it’s such a rich, complex composite I don’t feel as my character does about it – she was trying to learn English as a third language. But I love Slavic languages and French and am constantly trying to improve my language skills.

MF: With its detailed descriptions of the countries and cultures through which the characters pass, The Historian has the pacing of a classic. Are you more influenced by classic authors than contemporary?

Elizabeth Kostova: Yes. I admire a lot of contemporary literary writers very much, but for this work I turned to the Victorians.

MF: What kind of a reader are you? Avid? Sporadic?

Elizabeth Kostova: I’m always reading something. I’m kind of an undisciplined reader in that I’m always reading three or four things. I read rather slowly. I tend to read for craft and for the pleasure of language as much story. Of course I’m very busy with this book tour so this is sort of an extreme example, but I brought with me a novel by A.S. Byatt so that I could read something completely unrelated to Bram Stoker and company. I thought this would be a modest ambition, to read a little bit each night, and I’ve been on tour for weeks now and have read about eight pages (laughs).

MF: I understand you’re planning another historical novel. Any hints at the subject?

Elizabeth Kostova: I actually haven’t been talking about the exact subject because it seems so raw still, and I’m a little afraid of jinxing it. It does involve both history, a very different topic by the way, and a couple of contemporary stories again.

When I sold The Historian and wanted to jump right away into a new novel, I promised myself that I would write a novel that didn’t involve any research, since I had spent so much time in libraries writing the last one. I thought I would write a novel about people’s relationships and places I knew well. Yet here I find myself writing this novel that’s going to take so much research I can hardly stand it. I must find something in it, however. It’s just so enjoyable poking around in the past.

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