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Writers on the Record - Elizabeth Kostova

Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Elizabeth Kostova

As a child, Elizabeth Kostova reveled in the stories of Dracula spun by her professorial father. After marinating the grimly titillating tales over a few decades, she decided to explore the subject of the legendary fictional vampire (and his real-life medieval prototype, Vlad the Impaler) for her first novel. It took ten years for Kostova to research and write The Historian, which caused a sensation when it débuted in June last year (the book will likely come out in paperback sometime this fall). Kostova’s career launched with an astounding $2-million advance and a sweet movie deal, thanks to her smart, creepy, and oh-so-literary tale, which stalks a bloodsucking fiend through the generations. Victoria Lautman caught up with Kostova, who spoke by phone from her home in Ann Arbor.

Q: I’d recognize your Dracula if he appeared on Michigan Avenue, he’s described so minutely. It’s as though you know him personally.
A: I drew a lot from medieval images of Prince Vlad, which gave me a strong idea for his face. And I also spent a lot of time in places like Bulgaria and eastern Europe, where I got a wonderful sense of the regional gene pool. So, to me, his face wasn’t just from history but one you might find accidentally on the street somewhere. I wanted him to be as real a person as possible, not just some vague supernatural image.

Q: I’m thinking of some favorite movie vampires: Bela Lugosi, Tom Cruise, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman. Not to mention Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, who sucked blood in The Hunger. Do you favor one of them in particular?
A: Oh, I just love Bela Lugosi, and his are the movies I grew up with, the ones my father based his stories on, so he’s sort of a family hero. He was a great Dracula not only because he was such a fine actor, but he was also eastern European. And, although it’s out of my control, when the film version of The Historian is made, it would be wonderful to have an eastern European playing the role. What a great opportunity!

Q: Spending ten years of your life immersed in the horrors of Vlad the Impaler makes me wonder how you kept motivated ’round about year eight.
A: You can get really sick of a project-sick of your writing, sick of your inabilities and limitations-but you can never get sick of history. I wasn’t re-creating my own life but delving into the infinite human story, and that was so powerful it kept me going. Also, in “year eight” I entered the MFA program at Ann Arbor to finish the book. I thought, If I don’t complete this by the time I graduate, I’m tying a stone around it and dropping it in the river!

Q: Considering your mother is a retired librarian, what does it mean that most of the librarians in The Historian wind up either as the Undead or just really mangled? 
A: I actually told my mother when I finished the book that I was really sorry about what happened to those librarians, and she was very nice about it. Some of my favorite people are librarians. 

Q: Wasn’t it lucky your dad focused on Dracula instead of Little Red Riding Hood! 
A: Dracula just stuck with me, but now, thinking about it, Little Red Riding Hood would be a good idea for a novel, too: it has wolves, and forests, and feels Carpathian. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this.


Hear Elizabeth Kostova talk with Victoria Lautman, Sunday, March 26th, 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Free. Call 312-832-6788 for reservations or register online. WFMT (98.7 FM) will broadcast the event live at noon.

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