Past impressions

The bestselling author Elizabeth Kostova speaks to John O'Connell about the artistic inspiration of her second novel, The Swan Thieves.

Second novels are tricky things at the best of times, but trickier still when your first was a phenomenon. Elizabeth Kostova spent 10 years writing 2005's historical vampire thriller The Historian. She worked privately and obsessively, giving little thought to when and how it might be published. So she was amazed at the fuss that ensued when she finally sent the manuscript to her agent: a six-day auction which Little, Brown eventually won, paying $2 million (Dh7.4m). Sony subsequently paid another $2m for the film rights (Dh7.4m).
If The Historian had tanked as some hyped debuts do, that would have been the end of it. But it didn't tank: it hit No. 1 in The New York Times bestseller list and went on to sell three million copies. You could even say it catalysed the current wave of vampire books, films and TV shows - True Blood, Twilight, Let the Right One In, et al - although Kostova is too polite and modest to say anything of the sort.
"Vampire crazes come in waves," she says, sunny despite the rigours of the pan-global promotional tour all successful writers have to endure these days. "There was one in the late 18th century, then another in the 1820s and 1830s, then Bram Stoker's Dracula at the end of the 19th century. So I think vampires are with us culturally more than we realise." Kostova says she was "really floored" by the book's success "because when I was writing it I wasn't sure that it was even publishable. I knew I wanted to write it and had such a wonderful time trying. But it was uncategorisable and I knew enough to know that booksellers and publishers like to know which shelf a book will go on. I was surprised and delighted when it sold, then really astonished when it took off the way it did."
The Historian was narrated by the daughter of a US diplomat based in Amsterdam and recounted her quest, as a 16-year-old girl, for the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. Superficially, her new novel, The Swan Thieves, seems very different, but closer inspection reveals it to be cut from the same gothic cloth: it's about art and madness and obsession. An artist, Robert Oliver, has been arrested for attacking a painting in Washington DC's National Gallery, a rendition of the Leda myth according to which Zeus assumed the form of a swan to seduce Leda, the queen of Sparta.
Committed to a private institution called Goldengroves, Oliver becomes the patient of one Dr Marlow, a psychiatrist reputed to be able to "get a stone to talk". Marlow tries to coax an explanation from Robert, but fails: the artist refuses to talk at all. He still paints, though - portrait after portrait of a mysterious, curly haired woman in period costume. Is she a real person or a figment of his imagination? And what is her connection to the cache of antique-looking letters Oliver is carrying around with him?
"The Swan Thieves had a very different evolution to The Historian," explains Kostova. "That came to me in a flash. With this, I'd wanted for a long time to write a book about a painter and paintings. I studied a lot of art history in my college years and kind of wanted to go back to that. I began to imagine this character, Robert Oliver, and at the same I wanted to try the experiment of making one figure, who wouldn't speak himself, rise up three-dimensionally out of other voices. It's been done before, of course, but it's something I wanted to try as a writer. These two ideas converged and at that point I realised it was 19th-century art, specifically impressionism, that I wanted to write about."
It isn't long before the tables have been turned and Marlow is obsessed with Oliver. He strikes out on a quest for information about him, driving all the way from DC to North Carolina to interview his ex-wife, Kate, and befriending one of his students, Mary. What he learns isn't flattering. In fact, Robert is something of a study in artistic temperament. He represents the male creative ego and its assumed right to indulge itself. Physically, too, he's intimidating - a hulking, Byronic figure, "his forehead jutting in almost a ledge over his nose, his eyes predatory".
Oliver's art is more important to him than anything else - his wife and children are mere distractions. If only the female artists in the novel were so privileged. One is a 19th-century painter on the fringes of French impressionism called Beatrice de Clerval. She is frail, uncertain, withheld - unable to submit her paintings to the salon under her own name lest it damage her reputation. (She is partly based on the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, whose letters Kostova found invaluable when she was researching the novel: "They're full of directness and personality. There's nothing coy about them.")
Kostova says she is fascinated by the question of what people put up with in order to nurture genius. "History is full of examples. Anyone who's gifted - and I'm certainly not including myself here, I'm talking about someone like William Faulkner - is going to have a complicated life because those people are far less fit than the rest of us to live in the so-called real world. But what they give to the rest of us is so extraordinary that I think we have to be forgiving to them.
"In a way the mad artist is a classic figure, a bit like Dracula, and there's always a danger when you pick these archetypal characters that they end up being presented in a clichéd way. But I'm very interested in taking imaginary, legendary figures and giving them life and freshness. That was one of the challenges of this project." It isn't hard to imagine the pressure Kostova was under not just to finish The Swan Thieves, but to produce a book she was happy with. Luckily, she says, she has a "cheerful, stable disposition". She was careful, too, to allow herself lots of time: she told her publishers not to expect another book for four years.
"I had it written into my contract. It's an unusual amount of time to ask for, but I knew I would be travelling for a lot of that time promoting The Historian. It didn't really occur to me that I should be worried until about 10,000 people in Q&A sessions asked me, 'Do you realise there are readers waiting for your second book? Aren't you terribly anxious?' But as any dedicated writer of fiction will tell you, when you're actually writing, if it's going well, you're not aware of anything else. You don't necessarily know what your own name is. There were times, writing The Swan Thieves, when I forgot I had even published a first book. That absorption is a saving grace. I would never let myself be lured into writing for a market. That's the death knell for any kind of intellectual life."
Now 45, Kostova is a former teacher of creative writing at the University of Michigan. She read British studies at Yale University, after which her interest in Eastern European folk music took her to Bulgaria, where she met her husband, Georgi, a computer scientist. She is gentle and unflustered, and gives the impression of being slightly out of step (and sympathy) with the modern world. You can't imagine her writing an e-mail or surfing the internet. There's a moment in The Swan Thieves when Marlow, having asked a friend to translate Oliver's cache of letters for him (they are in French), insists they be sent to him by conventional post rather than electronically. You sense Kostova would make the same request.
Kostova loves Victorian literary forms - long, immersive novels by writers like Dickens and Thackeray and, especially, Wilkie Collins. "I don't think I'm ever going to recover from him," she says, as if the author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White once broke her heart. She also loves Victorian literary devices, such as characters keeping journals or writing implausibly long letters to each other. "It's a useful plot device, I confess," she laughs. "The challenge is making it seem as natural as possible."
Actually, the French correspondence, which turn out to be between Beatrice and her husband's uncle Olivier, are one of the novel's strongest sections. "They were my favourite thing to work on," she says. "It wasn't just about giving them an authentically 19th-century voice, but making them sound as if they'd been translated from French." If The Historian was ultimately a Jamesian romance in which a young American girl is seduced by the arcane mysteries of Old Europe, The Swan Thieves is about a different kind of romantic attachment: our belief that great artists, from Nabokov to Monet and Bob Dylan, are almost supernaturally different from "normal" people and should be allowed to behave as they please.
"The characters in the book who are close to Robert make various choices about how to deal with his instability and brilliance," says Kostova. "But I think in every case he brings vigour and joy to people as well as darkness and dissolution. Most of the people in his life turn away from him in some way. But they've all been made larger and more alive by his presence. It's a complicated business and a risky one to tackle in fiction. But I'm very glad I tried it."
The Swan Thieves is published by Little, Brown.

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales
​​​​​​​Najlaa Khoury, Archipelago Books

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