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A chat with Elizabeth Kostova

October 6, 2009

Elizabeth Kostova

When I found out that I had the opportunity to meet and interview Elizabeth Kostova while I was at SIBA, I was extremely excited, but also somewhat nervous.  I mean, this is the woman who wrote The Historian, the fastest-selling hardback debut novel and the first debut novel to make it to number one on The New York Times bestseller list.  What could I possibly have to say to an author like that?  (I immediately asked for assistance, and Candace helped me come up with some great questions.)  When I met Elizabeth and her mother, I discovered that I worried for nothing – they are gracious and warm and put me at ease immediately.  By the way, I was thrilled to meet Elizabeth’s mother since her new book is dedicated to her.

Elizabeth is the oldest of three girls, and each of them are accomplished in their own rights.  One has even written an academic book, Backstage at the Revolution.  When Elizabeth was seven years old, her family lived in Slovenia for five months and it had a great impact on her life.  She thinks seven was the perfect age for her to be exposed to so much history.  Elizabeth was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, went to Yale for her undergraduate degree and earned her MFA at the University of Michigan.

Elizabeth has a interest in Balkan folk music and even participated in a Slavic chorus in college.  She and some friends studied local musical customs in Bulgaria and Bosnia and some of their recordings from that time can be found in the Library of Congress.  (She is no longer involved in Balkan music.)  Since she’s traveled so much, I asked Elizabeth how many languages she speaks and she told me that she speaks English and some Bulgarian (her husband is Bulgarian).  She took eight years of French and has also had the opportunity to study Slovenian and Croatian.

As a graduate student, Elizabeth was allowed to take one class outside of her major.  She took a  history course, and while she didn’t get the knack of research in that class, the exposure to research techniques helped her a lot.  Later, that same history professor gave her a tutorial on research, and interviewing him helped Elizabeth learn how historians live and how their minds work.  As part of her research process, Elizabeth travels, listens to music, cooks dishes that her characters might eat, reads books and interviews, watches films and uses the internet.  When using the internet, she tries to find three sources that agree.  (For The Swan Thieves, she also looked at many paintings and museums.)

The HistorianIt took Elizabeth ten years to write The Historian and the book was written in the order that you read it.  To keep up with the story lines, Elizabeth kept a huge flow chart above her desk.  She decided not to name the main character as an experiment, which obviously worked. Sony Pictures is producing a movie version of The Historian.  Elizabeth is a consultant on the film, but she is not writing the screenplay.  They’ve been writing the screenplay for three years and can’t hire a director and the actors until it is complete.

I asked Elizabeth if she felt a lot of pressure as she was writing The Swan Thieves since The Historian was so successful.  She replied that she didn’t until she was on the book tour for The Historian and people kept asking her that question.  I’ve heard that The Swan Thieves is even better than The Historian.

The Swan ThievesIn writing The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth used a totally different process than she did for The Historian.  The book was not written in the order that you read it.  Elizabeth wrote the compelling parts as they came to her and later re-organized the whole work.  It took five years to complete the book and half of that time was for the re-organization process.  The Swan Thieves is about art and art history.  It crosses legal and ethical boundaries and there are five love stories in the book.  The main character of The Swan Thieves does have a name – Andrew Marlow – and he is a psychiatrist in Washington, D. C. with the case of a lifetime.

Elizabeth loves to read novels, history, biographies, poetry and essays.  She told me that she feels like we’re in the midst of a renaissance of novelists and she does enjoy reading their work, but her favorites are the 19th century masters and early modernist, like Henry James, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Harding, and Leo Tolstoy, just to name a few.  She recently read and loved The Long Afternoon by Giles Waterfield.  Elizabeth said she doesn’t write just before bed, but uses that time to read instead.

In 2007, Elizabeth has established The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation – the goal of which is to assist, support and encourage Bulgarian authors and foster friendships between Bulgarian writers and English and American writers.  The Foundation holds an International Fiction Seminar in Bulgaria and presents a Translation Award for work translated from Bulgarian to English.

It was such a delight to get to chat with Elizabeth and her mother and I was thrilled to learn that Elizabeth believes that bloggers are an important part of today’s literary world.  Her latest book, The Swan Thieves, will be released on January 12, 2010.

52 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2009 6:53 am

    I hope you were able to get a copy of the new book 🙂

    I read The Historian, and though it was just a so-so read for me, I definitely think Elizabeth has talent so I am looking forward to her future work.

  2. October 6, 2009 7:08 am

    Great article, Kathy. I love to meet authors!

  3. October 6, 2009 7:09 am

    She sounds like an amazing woman, I shall keep my eyes peeled for The Historian now. I love that she reads at bedtime just like the rest of us.

  4. October 6, 2009 7:35 am

    I really enjoyed reading this – thanks so much for an interesting post. I didn’t know they’re making a movie of The Historian! Wow. She sounds like an interesting person (Balkan music?!?). Wouldn’t you love to get a peek at those Historian flow charts?

  5. October 6, 2009 7:43 am

    Oh, I would have been so nervous, at least at first! The Historian is an amazing book. I can totally believe it took 10 years to write. And I am seriously in agony waiting to read The Swan Thieves. The suspense!!!!

    You know, one of the things that I will always remember about Kostova is a little article about her in EW. They often will ask authors to recommend a favorite, must-read book. Kostova recommended The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and I immediately got it from the library. It obviously is an amazing book, and I have Kostova to thank for that.

  6. October 6, 2009 8:12 am

    You are one lucky duck! I am so glad you had the amazing opportunity! Thanks for sharing with us — it was almost as good as being there!

  7. October 6, 2009 8:25 am

    Kathy, what a fantastic article! How lucky you were to meet and talk with Elizabeth; she sounds fascinating. And now I really, really can’t wait to read The Swan Thieves!

  8. October 6, 2009 8:34 am

    She sounds like an interesting woman! I’m always amazed by writers who spend years on a single book. I’d be bored out of my mind and never make it though. I need variety! 🙂


  9. October 6, 2009 8:46 am

    I liked The Historian, really great writing, the ending was too rushed for me and kind of a disapointment after the like 10,000 pages that came before it. However, I’m definitely looking forward to reading her new book and seeing what she does with it. Also I love that the main character is from DC! That’s my city!

  10. October 6, 2009 8:46 am

    I don’t think I would ever have the confidence to interview an author – so I am in awe of your ability to overcome those fears. You did a GREAT job!

    I have had The Historian on my bookshelf for about two years. I know I have to read it (and I want to read it), but somehow I never make the time. Her second book sounds fascinating – so now my goal is to read the Historian before January so that I can pick up the new one when it is released.

  11. October 6, 2009 9:03 am

    Awesome job! A good friend persuaded me to read The Historian, and the book is sitting on my shelf, and I’ll be starting it soon.

    I marvel at the ability of authors who work on a single book for so long. It’s a labour of love, and it usually shows in the finished piece.

  12. October 6, 2009 9:06 am

    I love learning more about authors and certainly want to read her new book. I like The Historian. Thanks for the interview.

  13. October 6, 2009 9:30 am

    You did an amazing job of interviewing to have learned all that you did. Elizabeth sounds like a fascinating person. Now I’m going to read The Historian before The Swan Thieves comes out. I will take my time reading it, however. If it took her ten years to write it I should take my time and enjoy it. Thanks for a great post.

  14. October 6, 2009 9:34 am

    Wonderful! I am looking forward to reading my copy of The Historian (despite its many pages.)
    and this makes me feel good that I mailed a book to Bulgaria thru bookmooch. I am still hoping it arrives – it’s only been 3 weeks tho.

  15. October 6, 2009 9:45 am

    I agree with Margot: another great job on interviewing an author! Maybe you have a new career cut out for you!

  16. October 6, 2009 10:04 am

    I saved your post for last in my morning reads because I wanted to savor it. Excellent write-up and I’m so happy to know the answers to my questions. She seems like an amazing person, who has done so much. I loved The Historian and will be reading the Swan Thieves sometime in the next month.

    This was really interesting too: “As part of her research process, Elizabeth travels, listens to music, cooks dishes that her characters might eat, reads books and interviews, watches films and uses the internet.” No wonder I feel such a realism to her work, even when she’s dealing with the (perhaps) unreal.

  17. October 6, 2009 10:13 am

    Kathy, it sounds like you had a great time talking with her and her mother. I love all the detail you provided about the conversation, and I’m sure you kept a handy notebook or recording device with you. I may have forgotten most of what she told me due to nerves!

    I cannot wait to get my hands on her latest book.

  18. October 6, 2009 10:31 am

    What a great post. I really enjoy reading about how authors actually compose their works, whether in order or not. I have The Historian on my shelf, and I guess I bet get to reading it before the movie comes out.


  19. October 6, 2009 10:47 am

    I like how you summarized your interview, it made it very interesting to read. I haven’t read The Historian and The Swan Thieves sounds very interesting. You had some wonderful experiences at SIBA and got to meet some amazing authors.

  20. Carol permalink
    October 6, 2009 10:51 am

    Great article. She sounds like a fascinating person. I haven’t read The Historian yet, even though it’s been on my list forever.

  21. October 6, 2009 11:05 am

    Wow, that such a great post! I have The Historian on my TBR pile, which I started reading a little while ago but stopped when I was writing my term papers. I should really get back to it. Kostova is a really interesting author, I want to see her new book too!

  22. October 6, 2009 11:28 am

    A great bit of insight into an author who has maintained her humility despite so much success.

  23. October 6, 2009 12:29 pm

    What a wonderful write up! I’m even more excited now to read The Historian this month (I’m hoping) for the R.I.P. Challenge. This is going to be great. I just love reading your interviews with authors. What a treat!

  24. October 6, 2009 12:33 pm

    I loved this post! Great recap of your discussion, Kathy. I especially enjoyed the details about the writing process.

  25. October 6, 2009 12:40 pm

    How interesting to learn about Elizabeth Kosto and get a little “history” about The Historian! Her books sound intriguing and I’d love to read either of them. Thanks for a great post!

  26. October 6, 2009 12:42 pm

    What a wonderful post! Thank you! I always love reading about great authors- getting the inside scoop! I’m planning on reading (and reviewing) The Historian, but had no idea a new book was in the wings… now I’ll have to put that on my wish list!


  27. October 6, 2009 1:14 pm

    Great post! I’m so jealous you had a chance to meet her! I LOVED the HISTORIAN (one of the many books I “hand-sell”) and can’t wait to read THE SWAN THIEVES!

  28. October 6, 2009 2:07 pm

    Great job Kathy! She is so interesting and accomplished. I still have not yet read The Historian, but like everything else it is on my shelf.

  29. October 6, 2009 2:08 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful introduction to the woman behind The Historian. I will keep The Swan Thieves on the radar…intriguing synopsis.

  30. October 6, 2009 3:00 pm

    What am amzing opportunity Kathy! I can’t wait to read The Swan Thieves. I love finding bits of info about the writing process, thanks for sharing 🙂

  31. October 6, 2009 3:12 pm

    You have been getting to meet some fantastic authors! I think this one is my favorite of the bunch, probably because I loved The Historian. It must have been fun to interview Elizabeth! I can’t wait to read The Swan Thieves…thanks for some behind the scenes info!

  32. October 6, 2009 3:21 pm

    Kathy, I really love your interviews – you have a real knack for writing them.

    I haven’t read The Historian yet – I should dig it out of the TBR pile. The Swan Thieves sounds good!

  33. October 6, 2009 4:25 pm

    Great interview. Well presented. I enjoyed it.

  34. October 6, 2009 4:35 pm

    How exciting that you got to meet her! I enjoyed The Historian and look forward to The Swan Thieves. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  35. October 6, 2009 5:01 pm

    Wonderful interview/article. It’s getting harder and harder to be patient and put aside my Swan Thieves ARC because there are so many books I need to read before its release date!

  36. October 6, 2009 6:24 pm

    Great interview! I really liked The Historian when I read it a couple of years ago, and I am also anxious to read The Swan Thieves. I think she writes with an incredible lushness. I will be interested in hearing what you think of The Swan Thieves when you get to it.

  37. October 6, 2009 8:15 pm

    Go Blue!

  38. October 6, 2009 8:26 pm

    What an excellent opportunity! I can only imagine the thrill you must have felt. It was fun to learn more about Elizabeth and her books. I can’t wait to read the Swan Thief because I loved The Historian.

  39. October 6, 2009 9:16 pm

    GREAT chat! This was totally fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading it. I haven’t yet read The Historian, but now I have even more motivation to do so. And The Swan Thieves sounds great!

  40. October 6, 2009 10:09 pm

    What a wonderful post about the author! Thanks, Kathy. You’ve just made me want to pull out my copy of The Historian and read it. I’d love to see the flow as how the author wrote it.

  41. October 6, 2009 10:12 pm

    What a fantastic interview! Now I’m even more excited to read her next book, especially if what you wrote about it being even better than The Historian is true!

  42. October 6, 2009 10:46 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. Elizabeth sounds very interesting with the languages she has learned, her opportunity to live in Slovenia along with the areas that interest her in life. How fun for you that you were able to meet her in person.

  43. October 6, 2009 11:58 pm

    It’s fantastic you were able to meet Elizabeth Kostova! I think you do a fantastic interview with her. What an interesting life she has had so far! I’m really looking forward to reading The Historian and The swan Thieves. Thank you for sharing what you learned about Elizabeth from her when you met Kathy. I really appreciate it.

  44. stacybuckeye permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:19 am

    What a wonderful post, Cathy! You were able to learn a lot about her in a short amount of time. Thanks so much for sharing!

  45. stacybuckeye permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:20 am

    Did I just spell your name with a C? Don’t know where that came from, sorry 🙂

  46. October 7, 2009 7:09 am

    I love the way you write an interview session. It is so good to not see the boring Q&A format for once.

    That’s seriously good! I am real sad that I hadn’t heard about The Historian at all. I need to read this one, because I saw LOVE the Blurb… wow! And I am glad the 2nd book is good, but sadly that subject doesn’t interst me at all.

    But really good interview! And i love the way author discusses about the writing process!

  47. October 7, 2009 8:16 pm

    Great post, Kathy! Now you’ve made me move The Historian up on my TBR list! 😉

  48. October 7, 2009 11:46 pm

    Wow, what fun! I love to learn about the writing process and I think it’s really interesting that she’s done her books two different ways.

  49. October 8, 2009 5:27 pm

    What a great post, Kathy! I loved The Historian and am so excited about Elizabeth Kostova’s upcoming book. I can’t wait to read it. She sounds like such a lovely person.

  50. October 8, 2009 7:20 pm

    I loved reading The Historian and can’t wait for her new novel to be released as I am in two different art history reading challenges at the moment. I can see why it took her ten years to write The Historian – it was such a long story. So, so much research to put in and such a complex plot that she created. Fascinating interview – thank you so much for pushing through your nerves and sharing with us your great interview opportunity.

  51. October 10, 2009 12:15 pm

    Wow, wow, wow. You are so lucky to get to meet and interview her! Great interview – I so enjoy ‘meeting’ the person behind th name on the book. Thanks Kathy

  52. October 12, 2009 1:41 pm

    I’m insanely jealous that you got to talk with Elizabeth Kostova, although it couldn’t have happened to a nicer blogger. Fantastic recap of your conversation, if it had been me, my portion of the conversation would probably have been limited to “um, I, um, loved your, um, your book. The History, I mean The Historian. Hi.”

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