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."