gamut (2006-45)

Sometime in the middle of last year, a novel The Historian materialized on the fiction best-seller lists. Almost 650 pages long, it’s an exploration of some of the darker corners of European history, a lush travelogue that spans several nations and eras, a good multi-layered mystery, written in an elegant style you thought died sometime around World War I.

Among the book’s many oddities, the most surprising is not necessarily the fact that it happens to concern a character named Dracula. The action begins when a teenaged girl in Amsterdam finds a hidden letter that begins, “My dear and unfortunate successor….”

Published by Little, Brown, and Co. in June, 2005, the book has been translated into three dozen languages, and has sold in the millions, around the world; it’s now out in paperback, and a major motion picture is in the works.

The author, Elizabeth Kostova, seems poised for whatever stardom the world still sees fit to allow authors. In photographs, she’s slender and intelligently gorgeous. If cast in a vampire movie, she wouldn’t be the luscious victim, but the levelheaded scholar who turns out to be handy with a wooden stake.

To judge by the usual sources, though, the author is content to remain a cipher. Her book-jacket blurb seems almost deliberately minimal, and she’s not yet even listed in some of the major published reference sources, like Contemporary Authors . Online sources, like Wikipedia, are skeletal. Much of what you do find seems contradictory. She was born in Connecticut and now lives in Ann Arbor. But in between, she lived in Slovenia, perhaps Russia, and is married to a Bulgarian.

Author Elizabeth Kostova is coming to town this coming Tuesday night, Nov. 14, to give a talk at the East Tennessee History Center, downtown.

Kostova has never been to Knoxville for a book signing, but for her, this visit has a little of the character of a homecoming. Some of her family and several old friends will be there. Between all those other far-flung places, she once lived here, too. It was only a couple of years, a long time ago—but when they’re teenage years, they can be important ones.

In The Historian , the nameless protagonist, the girl who’s fascinated and appalled by her professorial father’s uncomfortable associations with a historical figure named Dracula, is the same age as Elizabeth Kostova was when she lived in Knoxville. We knew her as Elizabeth Johnson.

Piecing her complicated life together from one patchy cell-phone conversation from a Los Angeles airport, combined with a couple of long memories, is kind of a challenge, but it’s worth a try.

Considering her dark, baroque prose and the dearth of biographical information, it’s a little surprising that the author doesn’t have a Romanian accent or an evasive manner. She seems friendly, cheerful, American. Asked where she considers her home, she says, “I really never know how to answer that. I was born in New London, Conn….” she begins, and tells the story a little quicker than her characters tend to. Her parents were both academics, at one time both students of urban design, and they moved from place to place, teaching, working, and studying. In her earliest childhood, they lived in New York, where her father, David Johnson, was a senior planner for a regional planning association. He eventually wrote a book called Planning the Great Metropolis: The 1929 Regional Plan of New York .

In the early ’70s, when Elizabeth was just seven, they moved to Eastern Europe, where her father had a teaching fellowship in the former Yugoslavia. Elizabeth went to school in Slovenia. Later, her father spent time in the Soviet Union, in a scholars’ exchange. Over there, he told his daughters strange stories of a perverse Balkan leader of the 15th century, one Vlad the Impaler, sometimes known as Drakulya, a name resurrected for a peculiar character centuries later by an Irish author named Bram Stoker.

Back in sunny America, academic opportunities bounced her parents from Syracuse, N.Y.; to Muncie, Ind.; and, finally, in 1980, to Knoxville.

It wasn’t a freakish new world to the Johnsons. Even in Slovenia, they always had Southern Appalachian roots. Elizabeth’s mother was from Asheville, where her grandfather, George Stephens, had been a prominent publisher who put out some of the pamphlets of Horace Kephart, the legendary early chronicler and champion of the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Elizabeth was 15 when they came to town; her father took a job teaching at UT’s Graduate School of Planning. She and her two younger sisters enrolled at Webb School.

Her mother found work at the reference desk at Lawson McGhee Library, the county’s public library downtown. “Mom started as a reference librarian at Lawson McGhee. We were just so lucky to grow up with a librarian.”

Some librarians remember the day in 1980 when Eleanor Johnson came in, suggested she was interested in a job, but wanted to watch first, to see how things were done. She and her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, surveyed the reference desk at work. Librarians remarked on the girl’s unusual maturity. She was, one recalls, a 15-year-old adult.

She impressed her teachers at Webb, too. When asked about her two years at Webb, Kostova mentions one teacher in particular.

Her junior year, she took AP English in Ginna McMillan’s class. That teacher, now Ginna Mashburn, taught literature at Webb for a quarter century, and saved a file for only one of her students, one from the 1981-82 year, the one marked “Elizabeth Johnson.” Elizabeth won the Creative Writing Award that year, and was also president of Webb’s Literary Club, which Mashburn sponsored. She was, at the time, an aspiring poet, and a very good one. “I really though she would become a poet, that her first book would be of poetry, and she could have gone in that direction,” Mashburn says. (It’s interesting that the same Webb class of ’83 spawned another fiction writer of some national repute, Inman Majors, whose two novels have earned critical praise.)

Mashburn is modest about her influence. “Truthfully, I didn’t teach her much,” Mashburn says. “We really just shared a classroom.”

But she recalls how much Elizabeth loved 19th-century novels, especially those of the British novelist Thomas Hardy. They read The Mayor of Casterbridge in class, but she thinks the Johnson girl then proceeded to read all of Hardy’s other books.

“We lived in North Knoxville, just outside of town. It’s a beautiful place,” Kostova says of their home on McCampbell Road, between Tazewell Pike and Washington Pike just northeast of Fountain City. “The setting of Knoxville is so beautiful.” It may be the family urban-planning instinct that prompts her to emphasize setting—or it may be her perspective as a dealer in settings, herself, but you wonder if she’s being polite, thinking of something nice to say. The year the Johnsons arrived in town was the year the Wall Street Journal dismissed Knoxville as a “scruffy little city,” and that was one of the more polite descriptions journalists applied to Knoxville in the early ’80s.

There’s at least a little more to her association with Knoxville than that. During a brief conversation, she mentions only two other authors, and they’re both Knoxvillians. “I remember reading James Agee for the first time” when she lived here, she says. She doesn’t mention it, but Greenwood Cemetery, a destination in Agee’s most-read book, A Death In the Family , and the burial place of the author’s father, was within walking distance of the Johnsons’ house.

It sounds as if she made a second home of the downtown library. “I would go to Lawson McGhee after school and do my homework, and made friends with the librarians.” That library would play a role in her later career.

She mentions Nelda Hill, in particular, her good friend who still works at Lawson McGhee.

“She was one of those timeless people who never seemed like a child,” Hill says.

“Eleanor and Dave were the first parents I knew who encouraged their children to do anything they wanted to do.” Over the next few years, Hill and Elizabeth Johnson went hiking together, and to readings and author lectures. 

Several librarians remember the precocious teenager, even 25 years later, as the one who was always interested in writing—which, for the best writers, is usually just an expression of broader interests. “She was really interested in everything,” Hill says, mentioning her special passion for hiking and music.

“It was a very important time for me as a young writer,” Kostova says. “I remember going to readings in Knoxville, seeing that there was a living literary world, and meeting real live writers.” Examples don’t spring to mind, but she does remember one detail of the early-’80s literary scene here. “I remember reading The Hard Knoxville Review .” The irregular literary journal, published in Fort Sanders by future recording artist R.B. Morris and artist Eric Sublett, had punk and beat influences. The publishers sometimes sponsored readings; Hill remembers going to one reading in a room at the Bijou Theatre, a favorite Hard Knoxville venue.

Elizabeth attended Webb School through her junior year; then with more credits than she needed to require another full year at Webb, she left to attend a credit program at Warren Wilson College, near Asheville. Though she didn’t graduate with her class, she says, “I did get a Webb School diploma.”

She went to Yale, her father’s alma mater. The first time she returned to Knoxville to draw a crowd, it was as a singer in the Yale Slavic Chorus, when it performed at Laurel Theater in the mid-’80s. Several of her librarian pals attended.

On a Fullbright scholarship, she went to study in Eastern Europe, and there met a Bulgarian, Gyorgi Kostov, who became her husband in 1990. They eventually had three children, and Kostov became an American citizen.

Her parents remained in Knoxville, where her father developed a reputation as the star of the Graduate School for Planning. His students remember Prof. Johnson as demanding but inspiring. In the early ’90s, he began working with some of his colleagues on the master plan for Nashville’s Bicentennial Park. He does some writing himself. Just last year, he edited a book by his friend A.J. “Flash” Gray, the colorful and uncompromising TVA planner, who was in later years a sharp critic of the agency’s abandonment of its original mission to plan communities to maximize both urban amenities and countryside.

Eleanor Johnson was in charge of automating the library’s system. When they retired, in the late ’90s, the Johnsons moved to Eleanor Johnson’s family home, Asheville, where they live today.

Kostova speaks reverently of the library. “The reference department at Lawson McGhee is amazing,” Kostova says, “one of the best I’ve ever utilized. I’d call and give my name, so they’d know who it was—I didn’t want to take advantage of them—and give them the question I couldn’t get anyone else to solve. I used it when I wrote my first book.” She’s referring to one you may not be able to find at Border’s. It’s called Nineteen Twenty-Seven.

She mentions it as “the book I did with my friend Tony Lord” without elaborating that her collaborator was 64 years older than she was. Tony Lord was an architect well known in Asheville who, near the end of his life, was talked into publishing a book of watercolors he made of a trip to Europe in 1927, embellished with narrative of his travels. After he died at 93 before the book came out, Kostova knitted together his pictures and notes with her own prose.

A well-known Asheville rare-book shop called The Captain’s Bookshelf, where Kostova worked some summers during her college years, released the book only in a tiny limited printing of 310 copies. Published in 1995, it sold out the day it was offered. Kostova’s “first book” is already very hard to find, and single copies have recently sold for as much as $750. (Last year, the unusual bookstore got permission to put out its own limited-edition 150-copy printing of The Historian , called Historiographus; illustrated with a medieval map of the Balkans and bound in mock vellum, it sounds like one of the unsettling artifacts that keep turning up in the novel.)

Though she hadn’t lived in Knoxville in more than a decade, her mother still worked at Lawson McGhee, and she relied on the reference desk. “I even used it some when I first began working on The Historian ,” she says. 

That was a long time ago; the book took 10 years to research and write, while raising three children.

To her, the book was partly just an expression of her early fascination with Europe and its history. Several reviewers have noted the richness of description that makes it something like a travelogue.

Mashburn remembers the journal Elizabeth Johnson kept of a family trip to the British Isles in 1981. “It was filled with splendid descriptions of places and things she saw, especially the British Museum and its manuscripts,” the teacher says. “I imagine she’s continued to keep a travel journal, and I suspect many passages of The Historian came right out of those recorded observations.”

Many readers wonder what’s real and what’s made up in the book. “For me, there’s a very clear demarcation,” Kostova says, between the real and the unreal. “It might not be clear for the reader, but it is to me, as accuracy is very important to me.” She clearly spent more time in libraries fact-checking than most authors do. She doesn’t know what happened to Dracula’s remains, but says the story in the book offers a historically plausible conclusion.

Critics have compared The Historian to the works of Dickens, the Brontes, and Jane Austen, but more than any other precedent, the style may resemble that of the novelist Kostova studied as a teenager, Thomas Hardy.

“It’s a little old-fashioned,” Kostova admits. “I’m very much obsessed with 19th-century novels. I like the indirectness, and the elegance of the prose.”

That style, and attitude, is rare in American fiction today. “We’re a very direct culture in many ways. In America, there’s always a great admiration among American readers for candor,” she says, then brings up a startling counterexample.

“But some, like Cormac McCarthy, write very traditionally rough-and-tumble American scenes, but does it in very elaborate prose—which is beloved.”

She says a key character in the book, the professor father, is “only partly” based on her own father . “He does have elements of my father and also of other academic people I’ve admired,” she says. “He has certain characteristics, turns of mind, that remind me of my father: inquisitiveness, logic, and thoroughness.”

For her, it turned out to be worth the trouble. Little, Brown reportedly paid the author $2 million for the book, a very unusual advance for a first novel. Sony’s Red Wagon Pictures, which put out Memoirs of a Geisha a year or two ago, paid $1.5 million for movie rights. David Magee, who wrote the screenplay to Finding Neverland , another story that combined historical biography with fantasy, is already at work on a screenplay. “He has a great sense of history and literature, very well read,” Kostova says. “Also of magic.”

Sony reports they’re hoping for a late 2007 release of the film version of The Historian , which Kostova thinks sounds optimistic.

This sort of thing is all very encouraging to a first-time novelist, so naturally, she’s been working on a second novel. It’s going “very slowly,” she says. “It’s very different. It’s not a gothic novel. But it’s about history, in a different way, the way we modern people are obsessed with it.” She doesn’t want to say much more.

She used to visit Knoxville frequently when her parents lived there, but she says she hasn’t been back in a while. “It’s been four or five years now, it’s hard to believe,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to being there, and seeing the library. I hear it’s changed.

Librarians at Lawson McGhee say they appreciate the credit given to librarians in The Historian . For years, they have kept a color photo of Elizabeth Kostova, her husband Gyorgi, and their first two children, taped to the back of the reference-room door, among photos of other friends of the library. It was there long before she was famous. Now that they have multiple copies of her novel that are typically gone from the shelves around the corner, it’s not going anywhere.

Friends of the Knox County Public Library is sponsoring Elizabeth Kostova’s appearance at a “Book and Author Evening” at the East Tennessee History Center, Tuesday, November 14, at 8 p.m. Tickets, available at library locations, are $25 ($20 for FOL members). Call 215-8775 for more information.