For a fatigued, drowning college student, you'd think I would want a break from reading. But for me, reading was a break. While I browsed the shelves of a Books-a-Million store, my fingers stopped on a thick novel entitled The Historian. I read the back cover and knew immediately this was the book for me.
That was 8 years ago. If you—a time-traveler, I presume—had told me 8 years ago that I'd have the honor of interviewing Elizabeth Kostova about her third novel, I would laugh and call you crazy. But this month, I did get to hear Elizabeth's thoughts on writing, publishing, and Bulgaria. I want to thank her for being kind enough to do this in the middle of a book tour.
To this day, The Historian is one of my all-time favorite novels and Elizabeth Kostova is still, without a doubt, one of the most talented authors I have ever seen. She's also inspired me in my own writing, as I hope she does for you during this interview. The lovely Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions about her third novel, The Shadow Land. If you're a die-hard Kostova fan like I am, then you probably raced to the bookstore to grab her book, since it's been 8 years since we last saw a Kostova novel on the shelves: The Swan Thieves.
Without further ado, meet Elizabeth Kostova:
1. The Shadow Land is your third novel. What have you learned since writing and publishing your first novel, The Historian? What’s different this time around?
EK: One of the biggest things I learned from writing my first two novels is to let a book take exactly the time it takes—The Shadow Land required eight years of research and writing, as you point out below, and it needed all the love I could give it along the way. I lived in it, in imagination, which was sometimes painful and sometimes a joyful experience.
2. For this novel, you spent time in Bulgaria for research. Are there any specific places that took your breath away?
EK: It’s hard for me to choose! Bulgaria is full of spectacular natural landscapes—as well as ancient monasteries and classical ruins. One of my favorite places was a village called Leshten, on the Western slopes of the Rhodope Mountains, looking out toward the Pirin Mountains (which often have snow on their peaks in summer). The village is very traditional architectural, all now available for tourists to stay in—really rustic but lovely rooms. You can cook in the old kitchens and hike all over the mountains from there. There’s a photo of it glowing at twilight on the homepage of my author website, elizabethkostova.com. But it’s only one of many fabulous places in Bulgaria.
3. You mentioned having to face some dark history in this novel. While in Bulgaria, you received permission to visit the ruins of a forced-labor camp. Can you tell us what that was like?
EK: The ruins I visited are of the labor camp at Belene, on an island in the Danube River. They’re closed except for one day a year, when the families of victims are allowed to visit. It should be a major memorial, and there’s a small monument there—but it’s still mostly a wreck, wooden buildings falling in and covered in vines. I’ve described a fictionalized camp ruin like it in The Shadow Land, although I placed my fictional camp, Zelenets, in another part of the country. I thought it would be a haunted place—and it is, but more than that, I found it frighteningly empty, as if all humanity and meaning had been drained out of that spot by the brutalities that occurred there.
4. This novel took eight years to complete, while The Historian took 10 years. How do you keep yourself motivated during that time to finish the story? Do you set deadlines?
EK: During the writing of a novel, I always set mini-deadlines for myself—for notes, for plot summaries if I’m using them, for a rough draft, for revisions. I also ask fellow writers who are excellent readers to set deadlines with me for turning in drafts to them. And of course, my wonderful editor, Jennifer Hershey, gave me a lot of encouragement and motivation along the way.
5. You had traveled to Bulgaria for the first time 27 years ago. Did you know you’d one day be writing this story?
EK: I knew right away, visiting Bulgaria for the first time in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall fell, that I wanted to write a book set there one day. What I didn’t know was that I would be returning there over and over and would learn so much about the country that way. I also didn’t know that the story I’d eventually write would grapple so much with Bulgaria’s Communist past.
6. What advice do you have for authors who want to take on an undertaking similar to yours—spending years researching and writing a novel?
EK: Pace yourself! While I was writing The Historian, I worked several part-time jobs at a time and had a lot of family responsibilities, so I was able to carve out just a little time every day, or every few days, to spend on my research and writing. I found there was a lot I could do on the project even if I had just twenty or thirty minutes. Above all, I learned to use any time I did have, rather than bemoan the fact that I didn’t have more.
7. What is the best piece of advice you can give to someone who is pitching to agents and publishers, especially after multiple rejections?
EK: I didn’t publish a book until I was forty, and I know I would have gone on writing for my own pleasure even if I hadn’t finally published one then. Make it a way of life and communicate your ongoing enthusiasm and confidence to agents, even if you get lots of rejections. If a particular book has been rejected more than five times, pull it back in, get expert reading help, and rewrite it—and resubmit only after that. Many novels are rejected because they’ve been rewritten (I wrote mine three times) but not rewritten, and are actually rough drafts even if there are no typos!
8. Is there any talk of film production for any of your novels?
EK: The Historian was recently taken by the BBC for a one-time mini-series.
9. What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing The Shadow Land?
EK: I learned that it was possible for me to put lighthearted or humorous moments into a book with so many dark ones.
10. What inspired you to start the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation?
EK: When I first went on tour in Bulgaria with the Bulgarian translation of The Historian, I realized that Bulgarian writers and translators had very few official opportunities to strive for—awards, writing programs, conferences—and yet were trying hard to get their writing recognized. I also realized that they were having trouble publishing in their own country because Western books translated into Bulgarian were edging them out! I wanted to become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. There are now almost twenty works of Bulgarian contemporary literature published in English, up from about two. Anyone writing in English or Bulgarian can apply for programs at www.ekf.bg. There are also a lot of great samples of current Bulgarian writing translated into English—and information about the writers themselves—at contemporarybulgarianwriters.com. It’s been very exciting for me to work on these projects.
Dig into Elizabeth Kostova's Novels:
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. Her blog posts have been featured on popular websites like The Book Designer and Positive Writer. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.