First-time novelist slakes thirst for horror

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One of the most anticipated books this summer is by a woman writer who labored in obscurity for many years, holding a variety of jobs while she created a fanciful world with inquisitive heroes and ghoulish creatures.

Yes, that describes J.K. Rowling, whose sixth Harry Potter is almost certain to be the summer's biggest hit. But it applies just as well to Elizabeth Kostova, first-time author and recent writing program grad, whose suspenseful saga The Historian should become a familiar sight at beaches and pools.

The Historian provides another twist on the Dracula myth, this one steeped in scholarly sleuthing. While researching his dissertation on 17th-century Dutch trade, a young American historian comes upon a mysterious book that initiates another quest: A search to find the grave of Vlad the Impaler, the historical inspiration of the legendary vampire.

Over the course of this hunt -- inherited from his mentor and continued by his daughter -- the historian encounters mysterious deaths, disappearances and other ominous signs suggesting that the 15th-century Vlad, who was widely feared for his cruel tortures, is still alive and indulging his regrettable tastes.

It took Kostova a decade to write the 642-page book -- but less than a week to sell it last summer to Little, Brown & Co. for $2 million. That coup, remarkable for a first novel by an unknown writer, was soon eclipsed by more riches: Sony Pictures Entertainment bought film rights for another $2 million.

Oh, and she also has sold foreign publishing rights in 28 languages.

On its first day in bookstores on June 14, The Historian sold more copies than the blockbusters The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four had on their first days, according to the Barnes & Noble's fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley.

"It's a shock, a wonderful shock," the 40-year-old author said recently over the phone from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I never expected this to happen. I felt such jubilance about actually getting to the end of it... then a sadness [of losing] this very intimate time of being quite alone with your book."

Gaining tens of thousands of readers should prove plenty therapeutic.

"What's most moving for me, after working on it for ten years, is to hear that people enjoy it," Kostova said, "It's seeing the characters, who've become friends because I've lived with them so long, make new friends."

Kostova and her husband Georgi Kostov, a Bulgarian computer scientist, have used some of the money from the book to purchase a home in Ann Arbor. The couple moved there three years ago so that Kostova could work toward her masters degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan. The program also provided her with the advice and resources she needed to finish the book before graduating last year.

Now, it's Georgi's turn for graduate school: He will study bioinformatics, "the numbers-crunching side of biology," she says.

Meanwhile, Kostova is immersed in the statistics of her first book tour: Twenty cities in America and Canada, as well as a trip to England next month for the British launch.

Where it all began

The Historian is a rich, complicated story that spans continents, cultures and historical periods. It visits many rare-book rooms and monasteries. And it's peopled with professors, scholars and librarians -- the sorts of characters Kostova grew quite fond of as the child of academics.

Kostova dedicates The Historian to her father, a former professor of urban and regional planning, who took the family to Eastern Europe when he won a Fulbright scholarship in 1972. It proved to be a momentous year for his would-be-writer daughter.

"During that trip, he started telling me Dracula stories, pleasantly eerie versions of Bram Stoker and the Hollywood film he had grown up with," Kostova says. "Once I heard one, I wanted more. For me, Dracula has always been associated with travel and beautiful historical places because my father told me a new story wherever we went."

Kostova's version of Dracula is neither lurid nor sensational. Although The Historian contains a healthy share of frightening moments and such traditional vampire-stalking accoutrements as garlic, crucifixes and silver bullets, it goes easy on the bloodshed.

"I really don't like gore for the sake of gore," the author says. "I never read horror novels, and I'm much too frightened to watch horror movies. To me, the horror of history is horrible enough. I'm much more interested in the realities of good and evil in history."

Kostova went to Yale, graduating with a degree in British studies, a love for Henry James and a desire to revisit the Eastern Europe that inspired her love of Balkan music and participation in the Yale Slavic Women's Chorus. After college, she spent a year in Bulgaria recording village music -- archival material that she hopes eventually will be housed in the Library of Congress. That's also when she met her future husband.

'I felt the creepiness'

After they married, the Kostovs lived in Philadelphia, where Elizabeth taught writing and English as a second language at three universities. Between classes, she embarked on her vampire saga. Often she would find herself submerged in a frightening passage at 1 p.m. at night -- not the most auspicious time to trail evil.

"I really am a very rational person," she says. "Despite that, there were times I felt the creepiness of the reality of history. When you touch the wall of a castle or walk on cobblestones in the old city, you feel the mysteries of life of all the people that have passed through there. There's an eerieness about that that doesn't have to be embellished with the Gothic or the supernatural."

Which is why she stuck stubbornly to her original title, even though it's not "gothic or sexy," as she puts it. Her title seems to be working just fine.

"I can't recall a debut book being this aggressively supported," says Michael Spinozzi, executive vice president and chief product officer at bookseller Borders Group Inc.

"This appeals on a number of dimensions: It's a great love story, a father-daughter relationship story, a wonderful tale of history and of exotic places in Europe, a neat blend of past and present in the Dracula myth."

Some have compared The Historian to The Da Vinci Code, the historical mystery thriller that has sold 17 million copies, but Kostova says the writing of her book follows literary, not commercial, traditions.

Now, she finds herself stalking the marketplace. For the past few months, promotion has become a full-time job. There are many time-consuming interviews -- such as one for Entertainment Weekly for which she also posed in an opulent outfit, holding a long brocade cloak.

"I tried to think of that as the best game of dress-up I've ever had," she says. "I'm really kind of a blue jeans person."

She says she longs to return to the second novel that she began last summer and will describe only as "about history again, but in a different way." For the near term, though, most of the writing that Kostova can expect to do will be signing her autograph for legions of new fans.

Elizabeth Kostova

Born: New London, Conn., 1964.

Education: Yale University, B.A. in British studies.; M.F.A. in creative writing, University of Michigan.

First book: The Historian, a vampire-chasing saga that spans several generations and visits many European countries.

Length of time to write it: Ten years.

Musical love: East European folk music.

Home: Ann Arbor, Mich. Married to Georgi Kostov, a computer scientist she met while traveling in Bulgaria. "We have a cross-cultural relationship that's a lot like some of the characters in my book."

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