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Elizabeth Kostova is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Shadow Land, The Swan Thieves, and The Historian. She graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award for Novel-in-Progress. She is also co-founder of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing in Bulgaria.
I got to read an advance copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s newest book, The Shadow Land, a few months ago, and it’s been hard to keep my knowledge of the book to myself until its publication date. Now that the book is out in the United States, other people are getting to enjoy the quest tale of Alexandra, who goes to Bulgaria, grieving over her missing brother. On her first day there, Alexandra bumps into an elderly couple while they are all waiting in the hotel lobby for a taxi. In the commotion, Alexandra picks up an extra bag, and, in the back of the taxi, she opens it thinking that she can just run it to the home of the address she is sure she will find inside. Instead, what she finds is a box of human cremains and that the couple she bumped into were on their way to a memorial service to bury their friend.
Thus begins a story that takes readers all over Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, as well as the Bulgarian countryside. As the thread of the plot spins out, readers are also taken back into Bulgaria’s history, to World War II and to the takeover of Bulgaria as a Soviet satellite nation during the Cold War.
For Elizabeth Kostova, this may be her most personal book yet. She has been traveling to Bulgaria for twenty-five years and has created a foundation there whose mission is to translate Bulgarian writers into English in order to bring them to the attention of English-speaking audiences. Each summer, the Sozopol Fiction Seminar hosts students from America and Bulgaria in order to promote cross-cultural understanding.
Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, entered the history books in 2005 when it became the first debut novel in U.S. publishing history to land at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List. The book has been translated into forty languages, and in February 2017, the BBC purchased the rights to make a television series based on it. Her second novel, The Swan Thieves, was also a bestseller.
In a recent telephone conversation with Kostova, we spoke about the once-in-a-lifetime genesis of the novel, Bulgaria and the reasons why Americans should pay attention to it, and whose voices get heard in history.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:One of the things that sets the plot in motion is the accidental exchange of the cremains. In novels in which there is a quest, there are lots of different objects that can be chosen that need to be returned or to be found. What made you choose cremains? How did you choose ashes?
ELIZABETH KOSTOVA: Well, this is sort of an odd story but I got the idea for this novel as a dream and I don’t expect that to ever happen again to me. It was sort of a wholesale gift, really. About eight years ago, I woke up early from a dream, remembering it whole, and I had been trying for a few years before that to think of what kind of book I might be able to write out of all the materials I had collected about Bulgaria, from a quarter century of traveling and visiting there, knowing people there and having family there. And I really had not been able to figure out what story to put that material into. I wanted it to be a real story that found its way into another country, that took a point of view, that obviously takes a point of view that a western reader and that I could embrace as a western writer. I’m not Bulgarian. I can sort of pretend to write from the inside there.
But I woke up from this dream in the early morning about eight years ago, in which I found that opening scene: a young American woman has come to this chaotic, post-communist world in Bulgaria and she finds herself having a mix-up with baggage and ending up with cremains. I knew, even in my dream, that this was for a novel. And I saw in the dream the middle, the arc of the journey – not the chapter separation or anything like that. Then I dreamed the middle arc of the journey and then I dreamed the climax scene. And then I saw that this was a book. I saw the final book lying on a shelf, actually.
So it was a very, very powerful dream, and the image was in the dream – I saw a young woman receiving a box of ashes. As soon as I woke up I knew that I would be working on that for a long time. I jumped up and started writing pages of notes, everything I could remember. It came to me as a whole story, rather unexpectedly. And I knew even while I was asleep that it was a quest to return a life, and to excavate a history was the angle I needed to work on.
PRH:Wow. That is a fantastic story.
EK: I was very surprised by that whole experience. You dream things and they seem like a wonderful thing while you’re dreaming or when you first wake up but then you find that it’s not really that great an idea or it’s too odd to translate into a regular story or to even explain to another person. But in this case it was very coherent. And I think it was the power of that original situation that propelled the writing from it for years.
PRH:So this would have been while you were still writing the second novel that you had this dream?
EK: I was just finishing it up. I was doing the edits to get it to press. And I was pretty sure that I wanted my next book to be focused on Bulgaria. I had even been thinking of writing a nonfiction book about Bulgaria in order to use all this great material but that didn’t feel quite right either. But it’s daunting to try to write a novel in which you capture a country even in a small way if that country is not yours. But it really was an incredibly lucky break.
PRH:It really is a fantastic story. Obviously, your subconscious had been doing a lot of work.
EK: Yeah. (laughing) I was grateful to it.
PRH:I did read some of the interviews with you available on the internet, and in the Words Without Borders interview you mentioned that one of the ways that you did the research for The Shadow Land was by listening to oral histories.
EK: Or read them on paper or listened to them in documentaries.
PRH:First, was this the first time that you had listened to oral histories, and do you think that the information we get from oral histories is different from what we might get from a written archive?
EK: Those are really, really interesting questions to me, too. And I’m glad to hear that you have a background in history. It wasn’t my first experience with oral history; I’ve always been interested in that. I’ve always found myself picking up oral histories on different topics just to read in the interest of doing close-to-real human stories. And obviously history is many, many things. Ultimately, I think history is a set of individual human stories that we put together in a common mosaic and try to make generalizations from as accurately as possible. But really, all we have in them is individual perspectives.
So I’ve always felt that oral history is right at the source of human history. And for me, it’s a very powerful way to learn about it. For example, I’ve always loved Studs Terkel’s work. I’ve always found his books fascinating, all his collections: oral histories about people’s work, about World War II, and all these other important topics. People’s points of view and just the intimacy from hearing someone’s individual story.
I also worked on an oral history in my twenties. An elderly friend, had traveled as an artist in Europe and North Africa in the 1920s, so I collected a lot of oral history from him, and recorded them and transcribed them. And this became a published, limited-edition book, which is full of beautiful artwork. So I had some oral history experience for myself, plus I had also done a lot of interviewing for my own project. I knew I wanted to look at oral histories, and I did a lot of reading about the Soviet Gulag system. There’s not a whole lot of writing, especially in English, but not even in Bulgarian, about the camps in Bulgaria, and they were administered by and inspired by the Soviet gulags. They were also different from it and I wanted to write about Bulgarian experience. At the same time, one thing that became really important to me in this project with oral history – and I want to mention it – even reading these really intimate, detailed accounts of time in Bulgarian camps, I worked really hard not to co-opt people’s individual experiences and details. Those were real people’s real sufferings. Some of those people are still alive. Their children or their younger friends are. To me, that’s kind of sacred material and I didn’t want to take it and turn it into thinly disguised fiction. So I did a lot of research basically, but I tried to make certain I wrote new stories that absolutely couldn’t have happened, but fit with what was happening in the camps. So our fictional characters had fictional situations with their details, and that was very important to me. I didn’t want anyone to ever pick up this book and say, “She stole my uncle’s tragedy.” I wanted it to be very insightful as well.
PRH: I’m really glad to hear you say that. I think that’s one of the reasons that I ultimately left my program. I had a lot of problems with the power relationships between the historian and the material. I realized that there was a lot of me that really wanted to redeem lives from the fifteenth century that I was studying, and I couldn’t. And I recognized that one of the things that had driven me into history was that I wanted to tell stories. But what I really needed to focus on was being a writer.
EK: I think you and I are very much in agreement about that.
PRH:So did you start out as a historian? Was that your discipline?
EK: Not really. I kind of majored in history in college but it wasn’t history. It was a British Studies major, which was an interdisciplinary major with literature, history, and art history. I’ve always been really, really interested especially in social history and women’s history. History from the grassroots level rather than world history. It’s just been a lifelong obsession. I had a lot of projects in college about research, but a lot of what I’ve learned about research, I learned on my own.
PRH: One of the subplots in The Shadow Land involves Alexandra’s brother, Jack, who goes missing on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When you started writing were you aware that as many as 1600 people have disappeared from public lands? I had no idea that so many people go missing in national parks.
EK: We’re very aware of that where we live. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, and people disappear every year. Some of them are eventually found. Every year, at least a couple people disappear who are never found. The mountains are vast; people don’t realize often when they come to them as tourists how enormous they are. They get lost. A lot of people hike alone. It’s so easy to have an accident that nobody knows about. So when you live in a city that’s right up against the national park here, you hear these legends about the things that have happened to people. They’re more than just legends, but there are historical legends as well.
PRH: That makes sense. I lived up in Ithaca, New York, for twenty-three years, and every year, every summer without fail, people would go hiking in the gorges and they would fall to their deaths. Because there is this perception that somehow we’ve conquered Mother Nature, and if you have the right equipment, nothing bad’s going to happen to you. And yet, people still fall all the time.
EK: Especially in places like that where there’s a lot to slip on. You’re going to slip and fall down.
PRH: Right. You can’t sink your climbing equipment in shale. It’s not going to hold.
I don’t know if this is a question that’s going to make you all that comfortable. This is all coincidental. But what’s interesting is that The Shadow Land is dealing with difficult political times and that feels very timely given our current political situation. You obviously started this book a long time before this election, but when you were writing about Bulgaria, were you thinking about the United States at all? Did you imagine that those things could happen here? Some of the issues that you were writing about in Bulgaria are creeping issues here. I am not trying to draw you into a political discussion, but just wondering if you have thoughts about similarities.
EK: No, no. That’s fine. I appreciate that you haven’t made any assumptions. I totally agree. It took me a long time to write this book but I’m so glad to be out right now because I think these issues are so frightening and pressing for us. And I think it is the right time to talk about whether we are giving up, as a society, to ignorantly and willfully give up freedoms that we really can’t do without. These are terrifying times politically. I also think that we forget that totalitarianism doesn’t have to come in with an invasion in a single day. It happened very dramatically in Eastern Europe, but it can also creep up on you. I think fiction is a great place to talk about that. I am trying to use this book in whatever way I can in readings and in interviews to talk about these rights and these issues, drawing a historical picture, because our rights are pretty fragile. And it’s underway every night, and we’re talking about some pretty dangerous stuff. … I was writing the book during the years of the Obama administration, and I thought a lot about what was happening during that administration. It was hopeful and encouraging and very progressive obviously, and I think we’re seeing the intensity of that backlash now against actual progress. But even during the Obama administration, the surveillance we were willing to have our government do was huge. So I’ve struggled. We have been involved now, for a couple of decades, in officially sanctioned torture, which is what my story is about. Surveillance and torture were there in an administration that was otherwise extremely encouraging. So these are longer-term issues in ways than we sometimes like to think. I think this is really timely. I think the use of fear and the surveillance, persuading people internally to go around and surveil other people. Yeah. This is a pretty timely discussion.
PRH:I think for a long time, Americans have always said about totalitarian states, “It couldn’t happen here – but if it would happen here, here’s what we would do.” And then there are times when you want to point out that there are things happening here, and as you said, it isn’t something that happens all in one day. The signs are certainly there.
EK: I think that one thing that’s really encouraging is that we are looking at things now as a society, but we are also looking toward history a lot. For example, there’s been a huge number of articles in the press about parallels with Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany in the 1930s was not looking to history without a nationalist point of view. There were a few intellectuals saying that even in the media; there wasn’t this massive awareness of history. So we have some tools on our side. And looking back in history is one of them. So I am really encouraged.
PRH:I would agree with you. In terms of education, I know that your foundation in Bulgaria works with a lot of Bulgarian writers. You’re bringing Bulgarian literature into English translation. You run a summer program where English-speaking writers can work with Bulgarian writers.
I’m wondering if there are readers who read The Shadow Land and then want to read more about Bulgaria. Are there recommendations for readers that you can offer? Histories of Bulgaria, for example?
EK: There are some really good books about Bulgaria. There’s a wonderful history of Bulgaria called A Concise History of Bulgaria, which is part of the Cambridge History Series from the UK, and that’s a good, basic history of Bulgaria. I also really like the work of a friend and journalist who lives in the UK now but she was raised in Bulgaria. Her name is Kapka Kassabova and she has a really nice new travel book about Bulgaria coming out called Border. It’s about the traveling the borderlands. She also wrote a memoir about growing up under communism called Street Without a Name, which is a very interesting book. So there are some books in English, and then what I really love is how many Bulgarian writers are getting translated into English. The foundation that I helped found – I’m a very small part of it now – but one of our big pushes every year is to get contemporary Bulgarian work translated into English for all kinds of different competitions. On my website, I’ve put a couple of links to a whole series of writers. Translations. Samples. Things to read. And that list is of people who’ve had work published in English. Ten of twelve really wonderful works of fiction – either short stories or novels – that have been translated into English that are in print now. And I recommend that because then you’re hearing Bulgarian experience directly. Some of them are younger, and they describe a mostly post-communist world, which is different from those who grew up under communism. There’s a lot of good work.
PRH:In the novel itself, you narrate parts of the novel in the third person through Alexandra’s point of view, and then sometimes you’re narrating Alexandra’s point of view in the first person. And then, when you go back into the past, the narration is in the voice of the first person. Sometimes you’re even speaking in a man’s voice. Can you talk about the reasons that you switch back and forth from first and third person? What was your reasoning as a writer for that?
EK: Honestly, it was partly just an experiment. (laughs) And it was partly that I’ve always written in the first person, and I really wanted for several years to try writing in the third person. Third person is natural for a lot of novelists and short story writers. And I’ve never felt as comfortable in it. And to get into that, to hear a voice in third person, I think I needed to trick myself a little bit. To have some first-person writing, and to have some characters step in and tell stories in first person. I’d always heard those stories that Alexandra tells about the mountain and the hike with Jack, I heard those in a very intimate way. After writing a first draft, I decided to keep those in first person even though I was using third person for the general story.
PRH: Did you find as a writer, in terms of emotional resonance when you were writing, that first person or third person provided you with more emotional connection to your characters? My own experience is that when I write in the third person I feel more emotionally distant from the writing.
EK: I think most writers probably do feel that distinction. I think that third person lends itself to a lot of observation and reflection and outside detail that can be very useful for getting to know the character. What I found from experimenting with third person was that you give up this automatic, intense intimacy of a character that you get from first person, but you also get away from some of the limitations of first person. You can’t describe people beyond the way that they describe what they see themselves. That was very freeing and exciting for me. I think it works better for me to write mixed person but mostly in third person because it is a travel book, and I wanted to be able to pan around a little bit, and that requires third person to look at the landscape, and be able to observe Alexandra in those landscapes. So I ended up feeling that it was the right choice for the book but I had to sort of edge myself toward it.
PRH:Is there a character who has started speaking to you about a fourth book? Or is that something you are not even thinking of yet?
EK: I actually started writing a fourth book in October. I had been doing so much editing on this book that I got hungry to work on something new. I’m working on a new novel already. It’s kind of an experiment so far. I’m really enjoying hanging out with the new content.
PRH:One of the endearing things about your work with your characters is that you have this way of giving them these distinguishing bits that are unique. I’m thinking of Bobby’s ambition that he wants to, as a runner, run every street in Sofia before he dies. I’m wondering if there was something in Sofia that suggested to you that this was a good way to see the city. Is there something about Sofia that says to you, “Somebody should see this city by running it”?
EK: That’s such an interesting question. I hadn’t thought of it consciously. It’s a great walking city like so many European cities, and certain American cities, too. You see a lot more traffic these days; it’s gotten really hectic. You don’t really want to be in a car. It’s a city that through western eyes is a really interesting mix. Past and present. Cosmopolitan. Global city. But at the same time, all these little details that are so much less privileged than western Europe. All of that makes it really great to see on foot. It would be a big enough city that it would be hard to run all of it in a lifetime. That was a little bit wistful on my part – that it would be amazing to see all these streets in a city like that.
PRH: I don’t know enough about Bulgaria’s history during World War II. Was Sofia bombed? Did it lose some of its historical buildings?
EK: All of the history in the book is very accurate. Sofia was bombed terribly, terribly heavily. We forget that our air corps did bomb civilian areas. We did try to target military targets like air fields, and the trains, but we did bomb cities that were full of civilians. The most famous examples are cities like Dresden in Germany, but there were a lot of cities in Eastern Europe that we bombed pretty hard, too, because some of these places sided with Hitler and Sofia was one of the hardest hit. And I’ve talked with people who remember those air raids and remember how terrifying it was. And it’s still a painful memory in Bulgaria for the older generation.
PRH: Americans have experience with 9/11, but they really don’t know what it’s like to have a city fire-bombed out of existence. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but it really changes your perspective.
EK: Bulgaria suffered a lot in the war.
PRH:Is there anything I haven’t asked you about the book that you want to make certain that readers know about?
EK: I would love for readers to get from this book is a sense of a country that we don’t care about a lot. It’s so spectacular. It’s a small country, both population and area, about the size of Virginia, actually. It’s one of these places we don’t end up hearing about or traveling to necessarily. They are sort of hidden from the west. But it is spectacular and beautiful. So, if readers get any sense of that, that I’ve taken them to a country that they never would have experienced otherwise, I would feel satisfaction. It has a very troubled history. But I am hoping that it does increase travel to the country a little bit.
PRH:Well, it made me want to visit! I know there’s a troubled history there, but it made me want to explore.
EG: I’m glad to hear that.
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