Despite its quirky origins, publisher Little, Brown and Co. is hoping "The Historian" will grab readers' imaginations in much the same way as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," another historical adventure-mystery that has sold more than 17 million copies around the world and been translated into 44 languages.
"The Historian," which hits stores June 14, spans five decades and nearly a dozen countries, following its characters on a life-and-death quest for the truth about the medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler and the Dracula myth he inspired. The manuscript sold at an auction last year for $2,050,000 — a rare windfall for a first-time novelist, for whom an advance of $25,000 to $200,000 would be more typical.
"It was really a shock to make some money writing a book," Kostova says during an interview in her Ann Arbor home — a yellow bungalow with pansies out front and a blue yard sign urging "Peace."
"When you're a literary writer, you don't write to make money, and you understand that probably there will be very little money ever in it," says the 40-year-old author, who speaks in a gentle voice and chooses her words deliberately.
Reagan Arthur, Kostova's editor at Little, Brown, said bidding was fierce for "The Historian."
"It was that rare combination of real excitement about the book and excitement about its commercial appeal," she said.
The book has already been translated into 28 languages, and Sony Pictures Entertainment recently bought the movie rights.
Mike Spinozzi, chief product officer at bookseller Borders Group Inc., predicted "The Historian" would be one of the summer's strongest titles.
"It has the potential to have very good legs through the holidays," he said.
Spinozzi said the novel's appeal lies in the enduring power of the Dracula legend, the dynamic relationships among the characters and Kostova's vivid descriptions of European locales.
It took Kostova 10 years to craft the meticulously researched "Historian." But elements of the 642-page novel date back even further — to her childhood as the oldest of three daughters of an urban planning professor and a librarian.
In 1972 — the year in which the novel opens — Kostova's father won a grant to teach in Slovenia in what was then Yugoslavia. He took the family with him, and they spent much of those five months traveling around the region. Against backdrops overflowing with history and ancient beauty, he told his girls Dracula stories loosely based on Bram Stoker's classic novel and Hollywood depictions.
"These tales weren't at all horrible. They were pleasantly creepy, watered-down for children," Kostova says. "Once I heard one, I wanted to hear more."
Fast-forward 20 years, and Kostova — at that point a published author of short fiction, essays and poetry — is standing on top of a mountain in North Carolina on a hike with her husband and their dog. Suddenly, she has a vision of a father telling Dracula stories to his daughter.
"And then I thought, but what if at the end of each of those tales, she suddenly realizes that Dracula is listening as well," Kostova recalls. "I was creeped out and ran to my knapsack and got my notebook and started writing notes."
The plot soon evolves into multiple stories within stories, following the daughter, father and previous generations on their own pieces of a single quest that spans from the 1930s through the 1970s. The novel jumps around in place as well as time, taking readers from an American university town to Istanbul to remote villages in Hungary and Romania. Nearly all the international settings in the book are places Kostova knows well. The novel offers rich description of many of them, down to linguistic mannerisms and cuisine.
Beyond Dracula and international travel, the book features another important element of the author's childhood — libraries. The characters' quest finds them exploring university stacks, musty national archives and personal collections.
Growing up in upstate New York, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina, Kostova made frequent trips to public libraries with her sisters. Her mother would let each child take out 30 books at a time, and they lugged them home in paper bags and baskets.
The girls had a special shelf in the house for library books. "I just remember pulling a book a day off that shelf and what a joy it was," Kostova says.
In the years between her first encounters with Dracula tales and the genesis of "The Historian," Eastern Europe remained a constant theme in her life. She grew up listening to LPs of Balkan village music that her parents acquired during their sojourn in Slovenia. She pursued that interest further as an undergraduate at Yale University, where she sang in and later directed a Slavic chorus.
That involvement led her and some friends to spend a year after graduation in Eastern Europe recording the music of local singers in villages in Bulgaria and Bosnia. Their collection is to be transferred to the Library of Congress, Kostova says.
The 1989-1990 trip coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That timing afforded Kostova a glimpse of the communist era, during which most of the novel takes place. It was also the trip on which she met her Bulgarian husband, Georgi Kostov, now a computer systems administrator at the University of Michigan. Perhaps not coincidentally, "The Historian" features several cross-cultural romances.
Kostova wrote most of "The Historian" while teaching English as a second language, creative writing and composition at various Philadelphia universities. She completed the last two years of work on the book in Ann Arbor, where she earned a masters of fine arts in creative writing at Michigan.
Writer Eileen Pollack, one of Kostova's teachers at Michigan, said she immediately saw the potential in Kostova's manuscript, but knew it would require painstaking revisions.
"She was trying to do something so complicated in terms of content, style and form. Nobody, least of all a novice, was going to get it right the first time," Pollack said.
But Kostova never flinched when she told her how much more work was still required, Pollack said. "A much younger writer would just have given up at that point," she said.
Kostova says her book's large advance will allow her to devote more time to writing than she had expected. Though the editing process and publicity for "The Historian" have taken up most of her time over the past year, she has made a point of starting a new book. It, too, involves history, but that's all she will say.
By Sarah Karush