Thursday, February 11, 2010

Elizabeth Kostova and her book The Swan Thieves

From Metro (UK) --

Elizabeth Kostova paints an impression of 1870s Paris --

By: Siobhan Murphy --
01/27/2010 --

Best-sellerdom seems to have come as something of a surprise to American novelist Elizabeth Kostova.

Her first book, The Historian, became the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in US history. The blood-tingling, 642-page Gothic reimagining of the Dracula myth hit all the right commercial buttons: it was a historical thriller involving a dash across Europe and plenty of clues in old documents (ticking the Da Vinci Code box); and it came along just as the current bout of neck- rophilia was kicking off.

But Kostova, now 45, was blissfully unaware of all those spheres lining up: she’s not a popular fiction fan, it transpires.

‘It sounds crazy now but I wasn’t particularly aware of the whole Da Vinci Code phenomenon when The Historian came out,’ she admits. ‘I’d been working on my book for ten years and I don’t really read too much commercial fiction; I like fiction that has a very high standard of prose. For an adventure story, for instance, I like Robert Louis Stevenson.’

Bloodsuckers fare little better. ‘I’d never read much in the vampire genre – in fact, I was surprised to find myself writing anything to do with vampires,’ she says. ‘It’s myth and legend that interest me. I don’t really feel I have time to read genre fiction – that sounds snobby and I don’t mean it that way. But if I have the choice between reading some genre fiction and settling down with Bleak House… life is short, you know.’

Kostova’s follow-up novel The Swan Thieves, therefore, may rival The Historian for length at 564 pages but there’s nary a fang-tastic frolic in sight. This time, for our dose of history haunting the present, we’re transported back to France at the birth of Impressionism, framed by the linked modern-day story of a psychiatrist determined to discover why a famous artist has been committed to his care – even though said artist refuses to speak and just obsessively recreates the portrait of a mysterious dark-haired woman.

‘I wanted to write about a painter as I’ve always been fascinated by the way they work and how they see the world,’ Kostova explains. ‘I also had this idea, which is more of a literary experiment, of wanting to write a character built entirely out of other people’s voices, who in a way wouldn’t be allowed to speak for himself.’

Kostova acknowledges a debt to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim for this second aspect – the psychiatrist, our narrator, even calls himself Marlow. To write convincingly about painting, however, was a challenge for which there are few successful examples to draw upon: the intensity and absorption of the creative moment is evocatively rendered here.

‘I worked very hard at that,’ she says. ‘I know a lot of painters and they were very generous in allowing me to watch over their shoulder and pester them with questions. And I did paint a little bit until I was about 15 or 16 – a long time ago but I still remember the smell of the oils and the feel of the brushes.’

Kostova summons up 1870s Paris partly through a series of letters threaded through the narrative, an increasingly intimate correspondence between two artists on the edges of the Impressionist movement. The epistolary element is an echo of The Historian.

‘Letters are such a wonderful lost art – I think it’s a great way to experience voices,’ Kostova says. And why Impressionism? ‘I found myself, like Marlow in the book, burning out on the Impressionists. We’ve had so many big exhibitions over the past 20 years and you see those images reproduced endlessly on tote bags, greetings cards, umbrellas… But I went back to them and had the experience Marlow has when he realises what remarkable views of nature these paintings are and how radical they were in their own era.’ Another chance, then – as with the Dracula legend – to reimagine what many take for granted.

‘I do keep kind of hoping I’ll write a novel that doesn’t involve so much research,’ laughs Kostova but you know she doesn’t mean it: she’s happy to admit that it’s important for her ‘to learn something new for myself with every book I write’.

And she has no intention of scaling down to short-story collections any time soon. ‘I think the long novel is, for many people, an antidote to the rush that we’re all in. It’s a comfort and a haven. For me it’s a very natural form because I grew up reading Victorian novels. And I think I’m just naturally long-winded.’

The Swan Thieves, published by Little, Brown, is out now, priced £16.99.

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