Q&A with Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Swan Thieves --
by Mark Medley --
February 15, 2010 --
Elizabeth Kostova foreshadowed the current vampire craze when her debut novel, The Historian, was released in 2005. While on the surface the book was a modern reinterpretation of the legend of Vlad the Impaler mixed with a dose of eastern European history, at its root the novel was simply a well-written detective story. The book sold an estimated four million copies and was translated into 40 languages, and a film adaptation is in development. If nothing else, Kostova will always be the question to a Jeopardy answer: She wrote the first debut novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Her latest novel, The Swan Thieves, tells the story of a psychiatrist trying to figure out why his patient, a painter named Robert Oliver, attacked a priceless canvas hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Kostova recently spoke to the National Post’s Mark Medley about vampires, obsessions, and French Impressionist painting.
Q: The Historian came out in 2005. What’s been going on in your life since then?
A: Since The Historian came out in 2005, I have mostly been working on my new book, which was released a few weeks ago, The Swan Thieves. The research for that was also extensive - it’s taken most of these four years.
You spent ten years researching and writing The Historian, this one took five. Did you feel rushed?
I felt as if it left skid marks on my desk, honestly ... (With) The Historian I wrote sometimes 10, 20 minutes a day, around the edges, doing a lot of other jobs.
The first novel was obviously a massive success. How did it affect your life?
I still keep a pretty big disconnect between my public life and my personal, private, writing life. And I think that’s important for authors, just for peace of mind. But I also have been really thrilled to have (a) readership. I’ve loved being on tour, reading in public, and getting to meet some of my readers.
Do you have a sense of who your readers are?
I have a strong sense of who my readers are, I think. They tend to be people who are very interested in literature. Many of them are great readers. They’re sometimes particularly interested in a subject matter - Dracula with The Historian, east European history, travel - and with The Swan Thieves I’ve had a lot of people come to readings on this tour who are avid painters, or they love art history, or they love museums, so there’s kind of a connection with art for a lot of readers who show up.
Let’s talk about that. Your first book dealt with the mythology of Vlad the Impaler, and now you’ve transitioned to Impressionist painting. How’d that happen?
I know it seems like kind of a strange jump to make a transition from a first novel about Dracula and the legends and history of Vlad the Impaler to French Impressionist painting, but I really wanted to learn something new with each book, and have a chance to do research that’s completely new to me. Also, in a way, they’re not that different. They’re both books about obsession: obsession with history and the way we’re haunted by history in contemporary life.
What are some of your obsessions apart from writing?
I’m not sure I have any! I think I’m a little bit like some of my characters in The Swan Thieves, who really eat, live, drink, dream, and breath their art form. But I love to travel when I have the opportunity to do that. I also love to read. I’m a great reader and I think that’s something that always fills the well for writers.
I remember when I read The Historian it felt like a throwback to another era of literature. This feels a bit more introspective. Was that a conscious decision?
I think The Swan Thieves feels a little bit more introspective as a book partly because of the subject matter. It’s really a book about people’s internal lives. Their love of their artwork. In the case of the narrator, his knowledge of human psychology. It’s also about people’s personal lives in a very intimate way. There are several rather unusual love stories in the novel. So I think that an introspective tone worked for me with his novel, although there is, again, a mystery that has to be solved by the end of the story. Often a book’s subject matter will determine its tone for an author.
How did you research this novel?
I researched The Swan Thieves in a very similar way to The Historian. I did a lot of traditional research, reading any primary sources I could find, in this case a lot of letters written by 19th century French artists, journals, and certainly other sources like biographies. And for The Swan Thieves I did a lot of looking at paintings in-person. In a way it was a great excuse to go to all the museums I love and not only look at artwork there again but actually set scenes in particular rooms and galleries.
Much like The Historian, The Swan Thieves is, in part, an epistolary book. Why, as a novelist, do you like using letters to tell a story?
I think we all have a secret wish that we could read other people’s letters. And, of course, now the letter is kind of a dying art form. And I really wanted to give that sense of intimacy you get with character and knowledge of the character’s voice, and especially the character’s self-perception, which you can get very directly from a letter.
I find writing about art very difficult to do; there’s a disconnect between images and the words used to describe them. As an author, how do you tackle that problem?
I think it’s very hard. I completely understand what you’re saying. I think, as writers, we always have a loop of words going in our heads - I’m sure you experience this. You’re always thinking ‘How could I describe that in words?’ There is this sort of gap, or as you say disconnect, and it makes you feel, well, there’s the visual and then there’s something that goes in black and white on the page in letters and words, and then somehow through that we get a window again on the visual. I invented a lot of paintings for [the book]. As you know, a lot of the paintings are fictional, actually, although they’re based on particular artist’s work or styles. And I tried really hard to write the way you would sketch without looking at the page, if that makes sense. I’d try to look with my mind’s eye the painting that didn’t exist or one that does exist and to choose words for it that had as much to do with reactions as with descriptions. It’s very hard not to be cliched when you write about a painting. And you can also end up doing a pure description that’s just colour and form and ‘This is in the middle’ and ‘That’s in the left hand corner.’ And what I really wanted to convey was a character’s reaction to a painting, but still give some visual guide to it.
What do you hope people take away from the novel?
I really hope readers take away from The Swan Thieves some kind of renewed or freshly kindled love of painting. Paintings are so refreshing to me. Because they’re static, and we’re so used now to quick media imagery or the visual equivalent of a sound bite, there’s something incredibly restful about standing in front of a painting or looking at great reproductions of paintings on the page. Although I have to say the Impressionists don’t reproduce very well. It’s wonderful to see their brush work in the flesh.
Can I ask what you’re working on next?
I started work on a new novel in November. I had an idea very suddenly last summer and I’ve been making notes for it for awhile. I keep hoping that I’ll somehow write a novel that’s about 200 pages long and involves no historical research but I just don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m losing hope.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Interview with Elizabeth Kostova
From The National Post (Canada) --