Best-selling author Elizabeth Kostova headlines CityLit Festival

Historical fiction writer will read from her latest, ‘The Swan Thieves’

April 16, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Sun

Novelist Elizabeth Kostova is fascinated by the way a poem, a musical score and, especially, a painting, swiftly and neatly sever the past from the present.

"I've always been struck by what a glimpse of the past every painting is," she says. "Even contemporary paintings already are historical artifacts. There's something eerie about standing in front of a painting and looking at a portrayal of human life. This really happened; there is only one interpretation of it, and it's caught forever."

Kostova, who is scheduled to appear at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library as part of the seventh annual CityLit Festival, has written two books about the peculiar window that art opens into our yesterdays. Her first novel, "The Historian," which was sold at auction for $2 million, re-examined the legend of Dracula and was the first time a debut novel had launched at the top of the New York Times' best-seller list.

Her second novel, "The Swan Thieves," which was released this year, goes back and forth between 19th-century France and the present. In the novel, a psychiatrist tries to learn why his patient, a painter on the brink of greatness, attacked a masterpiece in the National Gallery of Art.

"Art can provoke a variety of strange reactions," says Kostova, 45, who lives in North Carolina.

"There's a weird phenomenon that causes some people to faint in front of a great artwork, usually in big places like the Louvre or the Prado. Occasionally, they fall flat on the floor; there's actually a medical term for that condition.

"Then there are those people who attack paintings, either because the subject matter is upsetting to them, or they're jealous, or they're insane, or sometimes for reasons that are very particular and personal. And that doesn't even take into account the people who steal artworks or the artists who destroy their own work.

"It's strange to think that an artificial object, a flat surface, can provoke so many strong emotions and weird human behaviors."

But then, the scribes at this year's CityLit Festival are decidedly comfortable with bizarre goings-on. This year's slate includes an appearance by novelist Sam Lipsyte, whose newest book, "The Ask," a black comedy about a man on the brink of abject failure, is causing a stir in publishing circles; Lipsyte will appear at 1:30 p.m. as part of the panel on new fiction. In addition, author Tim Wendel, a regular contributor to USA Today, will talk about that oddest of group rituals — sporting events — at noon with teenage author Quinn Cotter, who recently published a book he began writing at age 15 about what kids really think about youth sports.

But it's Kostova's well-documented rise from obscurity to publishing stardom that might give a psychological boost to the less-famous writers in the festival's audience.

After earning a bachelor's degree in British literature and history at Yale University, she spent eight years writing the first half of "The Historian" while juggling such part-time jobs as waitressing, mowing lawns and teaching college.

In 2002, she secured a scholarship to enter the creative writing graduate program at the University of Michigan. She polished off the second half of her 652-page tome in the next two years. When "The Historian" picked up the Hopwood Award for a novel in progress, the literary world began paying attention.

Kostova finished her novel at a time when publishing companies were looking for the next blockbuster on the order of "The Da Vinci Code." Like Dan Brown's behemoth, "The Historian" mixed detective work, an artistic masterpiece and history — and it didn't hurt that Kostova's novel happened to star a vampire.

When the gold dust from the bidding war finally settled, Kostova found herself in the enviable position of being able to write full time for the rest of her life.

"That time was thrilling and wonderful and unsettling and unnerving," she says.

"These things are in many ways a fluke: partly a matter of timing, partly of great PR. So many of these ‘big books' are just a flash in the pan. How many of us can name the big literary best-sellers of 1993?

"I've really tried to keep this in perspective. The important thing is to go on writing and to hold my work up against standards I can never meet."

Still, she allows that it's nice that, for the first time, she could travel to France to conduct on-site research for "The Swan Thieves." It's nice to be able to give back, in the form of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (, which she created to promote Bulgarian writing. (Kostova has a long-standing fascination with the Balkan nation. Her husband is Bulgarian, and she has visited his country many times over the past two decades.)

And it's nice to finally have the freedom to write in long, uninterrupted stretches of time.

"For years, I wrote in short bursts of 15 minutes or 20 minutes," she says.

"I wrote on airplanes, and in cafes. I learned how to concentrate when there's a lot going on around me. Sometimes, I would really get going, and suddenly have to stop — and sure, that could be irritating. But I was so busy. I was going to school and teaching and working all the time. It would have been a lot more irritating if I'd let years go by without finishing my novel."

If you go
The CityLit Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-274-5691 or go to

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