Born Elizabeth Johnson in 1964 in New London, CT; daughter of David (a professor of urban planning) and Eleanor (a university employee) Johnson; married Gyorgi Kostov (a computer systems administrator), 1990. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1988; did post-graduate work in Slavonic music; University of Michigan, M.F.A.
Worked as a writing teacher, and landscaper; writing teacher, University of Michigan; author, 1995—.
Elizabeth Kostova's vampire-lore bestseller, The Historian, earned a fair share of publishing-world attention and media buzz even before it appeared in bookstores in the summer of 2005. Kostova's eerie, elegant, and intricately plotted tale takes its reader on a journey across Europe's capitals and delves deep into folklore and the historical record, and for it she earned a stunning $2 million advance when the manuscript was accepted—an enormous sum for a first-time novelist. She was pleasantly surprised by the bidding war that ensued among publishing houses, as she told Guardian interviewer Gary Younge. "I thought maybe in six months, " she admitted, "someone would write back and say, 'Sorry, but this is such a strange book we don't know how we would market it but good luck in sending it somewhere else.'"
Kostova was born in Connecticut but lived in various college towns and spent time in Europe during her formative years, thanks to her father's academic career. She graduated from Yale University in 1988, and began post-graduate work in Slavonic music, which took her to Bulgaria just days after its long-time Communist dictatorship fell in 1989. There she met her future husband, Gyorgi Kostov, who became one of the first hundred citizens to be granted a passport to travel abroad in Bulgaria's first days of democratic freedom. They wed in 1990, and settled in the Philadelphia area. There, Kostova held a series of jobs, which included landscaping and teaching business writing.
During this period of her life, Kostova and her husband took a hike through the Appalachians, which made her recall the stories her father used to tell her during their own trips when she was a youngster. They were often creepy vampire tales, steeped in Old-World lore, and as Kostova recalled in an interview with Anne Sanow of Publishers Weekly, "I thought: what if the daughter realizes that Dracula is somehow listening? I think every novel has its moment of genesis, and that was it for me." On that same hike, Kostova wrote down seven pages of notes for a possible novel, and spent the next ten years working on her book.
The Historian begins in 1972, and is narrated by the quiet, studious 16-year-old daughter of an esteemed diplomat. Her mother died when she was young, and she and her father are now living in Amsterdam. One day, she discovers an odd book and packet of letters tucked away in his study; the book is blank except for a center spread that depicts a dragon, and the letters dated back to 1930 and hinted of a tantalizing mystery. "I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil, " one of the letters reads. They appear to be from her father's graduate-school days at Oxford University, and when she summons up the courage to ask him about the story, he reluctantly begins to share the tale.
The mystery of The Historian reaches back to the graduate-school advisor of the narrator's father—a man who, her father relates, one day vanished entirely, leaving only bloodstains on the ceiling—and also to her Romanian-born mother. It also stretches back even further to Vlad III Dracul, an actual prince of Wallachia who lived from 1431 to 1476. A ruthless tyrant, Vlad was later dubbed Vlad Tepes ("Vlad the Impaler") after his death because of his favorite method of dealing with his hostile Bulgarian and Turkish neighbors—impaling entire villages on stakes, a practice already common to the area during that time and place. Vlad was the inspiration for the bloodthirsty immortal count created by Bram Stoker in the 1897 novel Dracula, a monster who feeds off human blood, which was the basis for a number of 1930s-era horror movies that starred Bela Lugosi.
Kostova's plot wends its way back to the story of Vlad and his descendants, to whom the narrator may possibly be linked by birth. "No one knows what happened to his body after his death, " Kostova pointed out to Julie Wheelwright in an interview that appeared in the London daily, the Independent. "It's a question that's been examined by archaeologists and historians for centuries, so I took this as the starting point of my speculation." In a Newsweek review of the novel, Malcolm Jones found that "Kostova's vampire is no campy [Bela] Lugosi knockoff but a blend of the cunning, powerful count who debuts in Bram Stoker's 1897 classic novel and the actual Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. Blending history and myth, Kostova has fashioned a version so fresh that when a stake is finally driven through a heart, it inspires the tragic shock of something happening for the very first time."
Kostova was the beneficiary of an immense advance from the Little, Brown publishing house for The Historian. Prior to publication, her book earned comparisons to Dan Brown's 2003 bestseller The DaVinci Code as the next blockbuster historical thriller for its well-crafted tale of an American caught up in a centuries-old mystery. But Kostova's debut went on to outsell The DaVinci Code 's first-day sales, and became the first debut novel to appear on the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list the same week it was published.
By then, Kostova had settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband, and earned a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan. Some of the proceeds from her $2-million advance check were used to buy a house, and some went back to Gyorgi's mother's house in Bulgaria for the installation of a hot-water heater. The film rights for The Historian were sold to Sony Pictures, which netted her another tidy sum, but Kostova conceded in some interviews that she found the subject of her newfound success a somewhat thorny one to discuss. "I do find it tiresome that people are more interested in the money than in the book, " she told Younge in the Guardian interview, "because I didn't write it angling for an advance. But I think it's a natural interest: it's just so unusual to get that kind of money for a first book. It's just such a freaky thing to have happened."
The Historian, Little, Brown (New York City), 2005.
Kostova, Elizabeth, The Historian, Little, Brown (New York City), 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 2005, p. 103; June 24, 2005, p. 166.
Guardian(London, England), July 18, 2005, p. 4.
Independent (London, England), August 5, 2005, p. 20.
Newsweek, June 13, 2005, p. 74.
New York Times, July 10, 2005, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, April 11, 2005, p. 32; May 23, 2005, p. 10; July 11, 2005, p. 5.
Times(London, England), July 16, 2005, p. 7.