The cosmopolitan author William Henry Porter, famously known as O. Henry, who often visited Western North Carolina with his Asheville-born wife, complained “I could look at the mountains for a hundred years and not get an inspiration. They depress me.”
Asheville’s Elizabeth Kostova, author of the bestselling novel The Historian, would beg to differ.
Having lived in Asheville off and on for more than 20 years, it was during a hike on Yellow Mountain in Highlands that she first thought of the basic story for her blockbuster 2005 novel. “I love the Western North Carolina mountains, and find them restful and inspiring,” Elizabeth wrote by email while traveling on the national promotional tour for her new novel, The Swan Thieves, published in January. “I think I had that idea [for The Historian] because being in the mountains that particular day reminded me of the time I’ve spent in the Balkans, including five months my family spent in Slovenia when I was a little girl.”
She had been thinking of the Dracula legends her father told her as a child and imagined that the real Dracula had been listening along with her. After ten years of research and writing, her eerie tale of vampires told with her trademark lush prose and multi-generational plotting went to number one on The New York Times bestseller list after a record-breaking $2 million sale to Little, Brown. This year’s The Swan Thieves, another chronologically complex tale set in motion when a noted artist inexplicably attacks a famous painting of the legend of Leda and the Swan, took less than half the time to produce, “partly because I could teach less and spend more time writing after having sold The Historian,” Elizabeth explains, “and partly because I was on deadline for it and needed to finish it more quickly!”
Born in Connecticut, raised in Tennessee, and well-traveled in Eastern Europe thanks to her father’s peripatetic career as a professor of urban planning, the 45-year-old writer’s ties with Asheville include a long association with Chandler Gordon’s The Captain’s Bookshelf on Page Avenue, where Elizabeth once worked. The Captain’s Bookshelf Press published a limited edition of her first completed manuscript, a 1995 travel memoir co-written with Anthony Lord, just as Elizabeth began developing the story for The Historian. “Before The Historian came out, Elizabeth and I decided to make a specially bound, signed and numbered edition of the book,” Chandler recalls. “We’ve done the same with The Swan Thieves, which had a national publication party at the store on January 12th, the day it was released. Elizabeth is an extraordinary being and we’re fortunate that she’s moved back into our area.”
While The Historian and The Swan Thieves are enriched by Elizabeth’s meticulous research, attention to historical detail, interlocking time frames and enveloping atmosphere, the newer work differs from the earlier one in its more closely observed characters and its depiction of a mysterious obsession. “The Swan Thieves is a more intimate, psychological book,” Elizabeth notes. “It was wonderful to be able to write it in a more intense way, given the subject matter.”
The difference between the two has undermined the early comparisons with Dan Brown that greeted The Historian, as reviews of The Swan Thieves have generally paid more attention to Elizabeth’s literary, rather than commercial, talents. “Critics always like to find labels for books, but I’ve been surprised when this Dan Brown comparison has come up,” Elizabeth says. “Brown’s fiction is unapologetically commercial. I don’t read reviews, as a general rule, because they’re mainly distracting. A writer should get on with writing.”
With her writing career now firmly established, Elizabeth also devotes time to a foundation she created in 2007, after a tour that year for The Historian through Bulgaria, where part of the book’s plot unfolds.
“I met a lot of dedicated writers there and realized how few formal opportunities they had,” Elizabeth says. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (www.ekf.bg) offers workshops, awards and publication contracts for Bulgarian writers, as well as opportunities for American writers to attend English-language workshops there.
Elizabeth’s talents may even be contributing to the Balkans’ developing tourism industry. Earlier in her current tour for The Swan Thieves, a reader approached her with a battered paperback copy of The Historian and asked her to autograph its map of Eastern Europe. “He explained that he was in the process of walking across all seven continents and was planning the east European part of his journey according to the travels in the book,” Elizabeth says. Meanwhile, with the film rights for The Historian sold and a screenplay under development, a third novel began to take shape last fall, “one with plenty of historical research attached, I can already tell!” Elizabeth explains. “It’s so raw that I haven’t been discussing the subject matter, but I’m excited about it.”