The novelist tells us about how her love of Bulgaria inspired a dark journey to unearth the painful secrets of its Communist past
The Shadow Land author Elizabeth Kostova on the role Bulgaria plays in her writing
Elizabeth Kostova is a novelist whose own life rivals the enigmatic twists she creates in her art. Take The Historian, Kostova’s debut novel. Ten years in the writing, it was the subject of one of the fiercest bidding wars in recent publishing history. While the US$2 million (Dh7.34 million) advance threatened to overshadow the book itself, it proved money well spent when Kostova’s artful recasting of the Dracula myth became the first ‘first novel’ to go straight in at number one on the New York Times bestseller lists.
Twelve years after her seemingly overnight breakthrough, 52-year-old Kostova still sounds bewildered about what happened. “It was a huge surprise,” she tells me, in London. “I didn’t expect that The Historian would actually ever be published. I knew it was very hard to categorise. And I knew just enough about publishing that booksellers like to know what bookshelf a novel will be on.”
When The Historian began flying off those same bookshelves in vast numbers, Kostova managed to enjoy her success without being overwhelmed by it. This, I suspect, owes much to the fundamental equanimity of Kostova’s character.
Although she confesses that, “I have never been totally comfortable being the centre of attention,” Kostova comes across as impressively level-headed. Her unmistakable passion for her art tends to be balanced by a flash of humour, or awareness of broader, becalming perspectives.
When I ask why all three of her books have taken so long to finish (10 years for The Historian, five-and-a-half for second novel The Swan Thieves, eight for her most recent work The Shadow Land), she says: “I procrastinate by having a life. I have a very full family life and a life of service to the literary community. I have taught a lot as well. But I have realised over the years that [writing slowly] helps me mentally to chew on material.”
Back in 2005 when The Historian was published, the American writer’s own life helped her to navigate the notoriously perilous path between obscurity and fame, the struggle to make ends meet and sudden wealth. “If something like the startling, overnight publication of a book on a big scale happened to a younger person, that can be really a very difficult thing to metabolise and recover from,” she says.
In 2005, during The Historian’s startling publication, Kostova was 40, married and the mother of three children: then nine, six and five respectively.
Her success was years in the making. During the writing of her debut, Kostova worked teaching jobs to support her family and studied for two postgraduate degrees. “When I look back on The Historian, I often feel like I didn’t sleep for 10 years,” she says, laughing. In such conditions, the novel became an act of self-expression, survival and a near-addiction. “I had already made writing an endless bad habit. I knew I was going to keep doing that. It was really my escape. It was what I did just for myself.”
Kostova grew skilled at grabbing whatever time was available to write. “I learned to take 20 minutes instead of wishing that I had more time. There’s a lot you can do in 20 minutes if you are obsessed enough. You can read a bit of research, rewrite a couple of paragraphs, or you can write a rough draft of a new page. I learned to use time with gusto.”
Perhaps the vividness of her own creative struggles explains her efforts to give back. In 2007, she created the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation that helps writers in Bulgaria. “I realised that Bulgarian writers faced problems that those in the West did not share. There were only two literary prizes and they were riddled with nepotism. Bulgarian writers were also having a really hard time publishing in their own language. Thanks to translation, everybody on a train would be reading James Patterson.” And, a shamefaced Kostova noted, The Historian. “I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution.”
Having pledged a significant portion of The Historian’s royalties to creating her foundation, she teamed up with Bulgarian publishers to organise competitions, workshops and outlets for home-grown talent. In addition, several high-profile authors visited, including Orhan Pamuk, Richard Russo and Claire Messud.
Kostova’s relationship with Bulgaria is a profound one. Although she has no actual heritage, it is the birthplace of her husband, Georgi. Her love affair with the region as a whole began in childhood: her father won a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Slovenia. Kostova was seven. “It is an age of awakening for a lot of children. You suddenly realise the world is big.”
The family returned to the United States, accompanied by a vast record collection of Balkan folk music which was to the young Kostova what The Beatles were to most of her friends. It was her love of these traditional works that inspired her first trip to Bulgaria in 1989, seven days after the Berlin Wall fell, on a quest to find and record the Bulgarian folk songs she had sung with a women’s Slavic choir at Yale. “We found a lot. But much of it had been co-opted as nationalist propaganda under Communism.”
Kostova says her husband would always switch the radio off whenever these songs came on, preferring to listen to Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.
Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria runs throughout Kostova’s fiction. In The Historian, Helen Rossi’s search for the tomb of Vlad Tepes (better known as The Impaler, even better known as Dracula) takes her to the mysterious Bulgarian Sveti Georgi monastery.
The country’s more recent, but no less violent, history plays a prominent role in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land. The story begins with a young American, Alexandra Boyd, arriving in Sofia to teach English. A portrait of Kostova as a young innocent abroad, Alexandra picks up a bag belonging to three elderly strangers. Inside she finds a box containing the ashes of one Stoyan Lazarov, who Alexandra slowly learns was a brilliant violinist whose promising career was shattered in 1949 when he was sent to a Communist labour camp. His testimony, brilliantly evoked by Kostova, narrates the brutal erosion of the human mind, body and spirit, and haunts you long after the book reaches its dramatic conclusion.
As with her previous works, The Shadow Land was built on painstaking research, into both Bulgaria’s recent and wartime past. Estimates vary, but anything from 15,000 to up to 200,000 prisoners were sent to Bulgaria’s 100 camps, from a population of eight million.
The material “has some really controversial, dark history at the core,” Kostova says. “The trauma [of the concentration camps] is so inherited, and hasn’t been dealt with very openly. There hasn’t been a truth and reconciliation process.”
In contrast to the public memorials for the Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria’s prisons have fallen into ruin – a visual incarnation, perhaps, of a broader political cover-up. When Kostova herself visited the notorious Belene labour camp on a remote island in the Danube, she needed police permission. “It is open to the public only one day a year, for families of people who went through the camp or perished there. The rest of the year it’s closed,” she says.
In The Shadow Land, the subject of the camps is contentious enough to land Alexandra Boyd in deep trouble with Bulgaria’s modern-day authorities. Did Kostova experience anything similar on her research? “I didn’t encounter any resistance,” she says. “I didn’t start out to write an exposé, although it became one in many ways. I couldn’t just sit still in the face of this story.”
Kostova says any possibility of political progress looks slim. Too many vested interests – from ordinary Bulgarians to former Communist officials who have since come into power – have conspired to distract public attention from the camps. Their history is not taught in schools, Kostova says. A commission charged with opening the state security files after 28 years was blocked in its work. “It is very relevant to life there, and hard for politics to move forward. These things are still being covered up by people who would not benefit from a good airing of them in public.”
The impasse is a tragedy for a nation that deserves far better. “It is such a beautiful, fascinating country, with so many creative people. It is really sad,” says Kostova.
Today, she describes The Shadow Land as “a radicalising journey”. On her recent book tour through Bulgaria she discussed the history that inspired it with some of the people who lived through it. “Reading there and talking with people about it was really touching. I wasn’t sure how it would be received. A lot of older people came to my readings and said, ‘My grandfather was imprisoned under the Communist regime and never came back. We didn’t know what happened to him.’ This is a generation or two on. They would still tell these stories with tears in their eyes.”
Kostova is now working on a project set in a “new world” far from Bulgaria. Given her usual pace, I suggest, can we can expect it around 2025? “I keep hoping I will get a little faster,” she says, laughing. “My life is still pretty full, but not so frantic as those years. I am older and more tired. It is all relative.”