by Christopher Buxton; photography by Dr David Johnsons, Eleanor Johnson

The best-selling American author treads the unchartered territory between Henry James and Dan Brown. Her connection to Bulgaria, however, is a lot stronger than meets the eye

Elizabeth Kostova

“My first impression of Bulgaria – and my memory of it ever after – was of mountains seen from the air, mountains high and deep, darkly verdant and mainly untouched by roads, although here and there a brown ribbon ran between villages or along sudden sheer cliffs.” Like Elizabeth Kostova, Paul and Helen, the heroes of The Historian first arrive in Bulgaria during Communist rule. But from then on the two visits, one fact and one fiction, diverge into very different, yet parallel tales.

When Paul and Helen land at Sofia Airport, it is just one year since the death of Stalin and the State Security agents still proudly imitate his moustache and facial expressions. Kostova, known at that time by her maiden name of Johnson, arrived in Bulgaria by train in 1989 – just in time to attend the first democratic public gathering, called seven days after the fall of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov on 10 November. “For me, one of the most startling scenes was the sight of demonstrators walking in off the streets of Sofia to watch themselves on CNN at the American Embassy. They did that because they knew they were heroes in their battle with the past and the transformation of this into news made them part of history, witnessed instantly by the world,” she says.The heroes of her first novel, the best-seller published two years ago, also wage war with forces from the past that refuse to die. They follow clues left by the Romanian Prince Dracula, which lead them on a journey to the Rhodope Mountains in the south of Bulgaria. In 1989 the 24-year-old American also visited the Rhodopes, but in search of something else. She and her fellow students were enthusiastic collectors of Bulgarian folk songs; her passion for folk songs continues to this day.

“I like best the solo ballads and the sound of the Rhodope kaba gayda, or low-pitched bagpipes. After all these years, they still raise the hair on the back of my neck when I hear them.” In contrast to Paul and Helen, who have to endure a hair-raising encounter of another sort with Dracula, Elizabeth had a far more pleasant experience with the locals.

In Bulgaria she met a young computer specialist named Georgi Kostov and very soon the couple married and started a family. They now live in Michigan, but often travel to Bulgaria. Johnson no more, Elizabeth Kostova achieved worldwide fame with her Bulgarian married name. Before The Historian, Bulgaria had already gained international notoriety in another best seller. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling introduced Bulgarian Victor Krum as the star of the Quidditch pitch. But Kostova's relationship with Bulgaria is much more in-depth. One third of the book takes place in Bulgaria, where the reader finds it hard to decide which is the more frightening: the spectre of Dracula or the repressive forces of Communism.

But while Stalin's followers really existed, what about the historical truth behind Dracula? In Kostova's book, the prince who fully deserved his nickname of “The Impaler” has cheated death and returned as a powerful vampire with an interest in history.

“When I retold the life of Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, I tried to use only what is actually known about his biography, and not to invent anything. It's only after his death, in the historical parts of the book, that I invent a supernatural destiny for his remains and his afterlife,” she says.

Kostova's first novel took 10 years to write. “I had a lot of other things to do all the time: making a living as an instructor, caring for other people, buying groceries and cooking dinner and cleaning floors and all the rest of it. My approach to writing is that it's a part of life, an expression of the life I lead out in the world, along with work and friends and family and social issues and volunteering. I write whenever I can, wherever I can.” As much as she tries to avoidadopting writing habits, she does have certain preferences: “I do like to write in public, and I often take my notebook or laptop to a café and sit alone in a crowd. I enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by sociable people but lost in my private world.”

In Bulgaria, however, she hardly has time to write undisturbed for long. Her engagements range from creating the new family home in Sozopol, through tours around the country to meet readers and local writers, to the foundation set up in her name. Yet despite this whirlwind schedule, she is still making progress. In September 2007, Kostova presented excerpts from her new novel at the Apollonia Festival of Arts in Sozopol.

What changes has she noticed in her visits over the last 18 years? “Since my first stay in Bulgaria, I've seen a lot of different Bulgarias, including a country in rapid and constant flux. The constants for me have been in people and social occasions: the moment when a group of old and new friends end up around a table for hours talking about olitics, literature, traditions, telling stories and those very keen jokes that characterise Bulgarian wit. We somehow don't leave much time for those pleasures in our frantic American lives – we may get a lot of work done, but life there lacks warmth for me after each of my returns from Bulgaria.”

Upon arrival in her husband's homeland Kostova becomes another person: “Sometimes I think that's why I love being there. I'm more relaxed, readier to laugh at mishaps, more tolerant of delay and changes of plan, more flexible.” The list of things she loves in Bulgaria is long. It begins with Rhodope songs and kaba bagpipes, includes tomatoes in August, pancakes for breakfast, local dishes at any time – “I cook some dishes fairly well myself!” – and, last but not least, Kamenitsa beer and rakiya in moderation. Of course high on the list are Bulgarians themselves, their love of long conversations into theearly hours, their hospitality and “the way music and even dancing sometimes slip into a gathering”.

Yet despite its many charms, Bulgaria is no paradise, and Kostova is the last person to stifle inconvenient truths. She hates being forcefed and made “to go to bed too late one night too many” and she's not too keen on “Kamenitsa for breakfast”. She tried eating popche, or little priests, as Bulgarians affectionately call their beloved fried goby served with the head intact, at a dinner in Sozopol this summer, “but it's no use”. She is strongly sensitive to a “lack of privacy and quiet” and the way pleasant table talk can turn into tiring discussions of Bulgarian history based on the same old sentimental legends that get people needlessly riled up. She reserves a special anger for Bulgarian attitudes towards the environment. “We need to get about a million people together to clean up just the rubbish and do a massive education project, with enforceable laws behind it. Bulgaria has a natural landscape that is beautiful almost beyond belief and it deserves much better treatment. The Communist environmental disaster has given way to a new threat – the lack of vision about how land will be responsibly used, or protected. The unplanned overdevelopment and destruction of the Black Sea coast at the hands of both Bulgarians and foreigners should have us all out protesting, and of course it has now spread to the Rhodope Mountains.”

Kostova well understands that with fame comes responsibility linked to “the ability to help other people, including aspiring writers, and to give – presence, voice, money, support of every kind – to the urgent causes that surround us”. Her foundation encourages the work of young Bulgarian writers through workshops, translation of their work into English and creative writing seminars. As early as 2006 Kostova announced that 10 percent of the profits from The Historian would go to support Bulgarian writers. “We don't simply hand out money to writers – that would be a disaster – but rather set up projects for which writers can apply. My husband and I hope to make this foundation a major force in Bulgarian literature over our lifetimes. We want to promote the teaching and professionalisation of creative writing in Bulgaria; to create connections among Bulgarian, American and British writers; and to nurture readership of Bulgarian writers in Bulgaria and abroad.”

With such a busy schedule it's amazing that Kostova is not planning to spend another 10 years on her next novel. While the title and content remain a closely guarded secret, rumour has it that the novel will build on key themes from The Historian, such as the inescapable past, psychological subtlety, forces of evil, pursuit, all-encompassing global connections and the meeting of different cultures. “Yes!” is the only answer that Kostova is inclined to give in response to my probing queries. On the question of her current interests, she is more specific. “I'd like to study 19th Century Bulgarian history. I'd like to learn more about Norway, which was the home of many of my ancestors. I went to southern Norway for the first time this summer to read at a book festival in the town from which all my great-grandparents on my father's side of our family had emigrated. I had a great sense of belonging there, as I do – strangely, perhaps – in Bulgaria.”

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Monthly, are starting to cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporaryBulgarian writers. Through 2008 we will give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them will be translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at Vagabond are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages in 2008!


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