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Bite me! Elizabeth Kostova brings Dracula to life in “The Historian”

By Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Inkandescent PR + Publishing Co., for the Costco Connection — You may want to tuck a few bulbs of garlic into your pockets when you read Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian.

This novel about the life and afterlife of Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476) is a wonderful creepfest, especially when read late at night. Even before its release, The Historian was predicted to be as popular as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. And that is what the book’s publisher, Time Elizabeth Warner’s Little, Brown, is banking on.

After a heated auction last summer, Little, Brown paid Kostova $2 million to publish her 656-page book.

The windfall was a welcome surprise to the author, a Yale grad and literature professor.

Kostova worked late into many nights typing her manuscript and admits writing about the diabolical Dracula at 2 a.m. did make her reach to dose the curtains. But then, she was equally spooked the day the idea for the novel first popped into her head.

“I suddenly remembered the Dracula tales my professor father told me when I was a little girl, and we were traveling in Europe, and I thought this might be a good beginning for a novel,” she shares. “Then I thought, ‘What if it turned out Dracula himself was listening to each story?”’

The more she thought about it, the more the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She knew she was on to something.

About midway through the writing process, Kostova needed creative mentoring and entered the University of Michigan’s master of fine arts program.

“It was the best thing I could have done,” Kostova tells The Connection, noting her supportive professors encouraged her to enter the novel-in-

progress in the school’s prestigious Hopwood Award competition. She won that prize in 2004.

It is easy to see why. Not only is The Historian a captivating tale, but Kostova’s prose is sophisticated and elegant, her character development rich and deep, and her image vivid. The detailing of European cities is as interesting as a travelogue, and her descriptions of foreign fare are so delectable that reading the book on an empty stomach is sure to have you longing for a bowl of steaming gulyas or a goblet of palinka

To give readers the feeling they are traveling to foreign lands, Kostova knew she needed to romp through many of the European cities in which the novel is set. “How else would I have known the sound of the screams that seagulls make as they soar over Istanbul?” she asks.

Luckily a trip to Bulgaria wasn’t too difficult, for Kostova’s husband is a native. The couple met there in the mid-‘80s while she was on a foreign exchange program and married when she was 25.

“Although none of the Bulgarian characters is specifically based on my in-laws,” she says, “I was able to observe them intimately, and that helped me include wonderful details about their beautiful faces and particular mannerisms.”

The quantity of research exhausted her, and Kostova vowed that she’d never again undertake such an arduous project. Now that she’s rested a bit, the 40-year-old has begun another historical novel but refuses to hint at the topic.

For the next year, Kostova will be working to promote The Historian. As to whether she believes Dracula still walks the earth, the author chuckles, “I don’t think I should answer that question. But suffice it to say that I am a very rational person. Usually.”