Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Interview with Elizabeth Kostova

From Dallas Morning News --

'Swan Thieves' author Elizabeth Kostova brings her flair for the artistic to Dallas Museum of Art --

By Joy Tipping --
April 14, 2010 --

Her gift, it turned out, was writing. She found a way to combine the two interests in her latest novel, the best-selling The Swan Thieves, which came out in January. It deals with a mystery involving both a contemporary painter and a group of 19th-century Impressionist artists.

Kostova wraps up her book tour with an appearance Friday at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of its Arts & Letters Live series.

In a recent phone conversation, Kostova, 45, said that although she's done other things to support herself, she's been a passionate writer since she was 8 or 9.

"My first things were just imitations of books I'd read as a child. I'd tinker around with them."

By the time she was 14 or 15, she had decided on writing as a career. That was, coincidentally, about the same time she quit painting.

"I loved it, and I had moved up into oil painting. ... I realized I never had the real gift for it. But I love color, I loved the smell of the oil paints, I had colors I liked best. And I had some memory of the feel of painting."

All that came in handy when she started writing The Swan Thieves. The book tells the story of a modern-day painter named Robert Oliver who attacks a painting depicting the mythical encounter of Leda and the swan (Zeus in disguise). Oliver is committed to a mental institution, where he refuses to tell anyone why he struck at the painting. The book's narrator, a psychiatrist charged with solving the mystery, begins to unweave the threads by talking to the various women in Oliver's life – although he finds that the most important one may have been dead for more than a century.

For both technical and emotional insight, Kostova says, she drew on information from artistically talented family members and friends who were professional visual artists.

"I pestered them with questions, followed them on landscaping expeditions, learned how they make the decisions that go into a painting," she says.

Although she didn't want the book to center around anything supernatural, she says, it nevertheless evolved into something with "a strong feeling of haunting by the past, someone caught between two worlds in something almost like possession."

As the daughter of a professor, Kostova grew up mostly in Connecticut but also spent time in other U.S. states and in the former Yugoslavia. Her first book, The Historian, is an updated Dracula tale set partially in Eastern Europe, and she clearly has a fondness for the region. That affection, and her desire to help fellow authors, led to the formation of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing (, where you can read about it in English or Bulgarian). The foundation supports seminars and competitions, public readings and lectures, and opportunities for writers to work in Bulgaria.

As for what's next in her own writing career, Kostova says she's started a new novel that's still in its infancy. She demurs when asked about the subject matter: "Part of it is that it's really raw right now, and things change a lot as you work on them. But I also feel like if you talk about it too much, it loses its energy."

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