Alum got her start in 'U' writing program

BY ANNE VANDERMEY

Published April 16, 2006

Correction Appended: This story misspelled the name of film producer Douglas Wick.

When Elizabeth Kostova came to the University in 2002, she didn't tell anyone about the "little project" she had been working on for nearly eight years.

After finishing the University's two-year master's in fine arts program in creative writing, she received both her degree and something even more valuable: a $2-million book deal.

But a decade's work doesn't seem that long considering the epic feat that is "The Historian." More than 600 pages long, it is a hybrid between a vampire thriller and a Victorian travelogue. Shortly after the copyright was sold to Little Brown and Co. at an auction between eight publishing companies, Sony swept up the movie rights for an additional $1.5 million.

The film is slated to be produced by Douglas Wick, who also produced "Gladiator."

In the past year, Kostova has toured the world to promote her novel, which has been published in 37 languages. It was also number one on the New York Times bestseller's list.

When Kostova came to the University, she uprooted from a comfortable home in Philadelphia and moved her family into a small one-bedroom apartment not far from campus.

She and her husband, whom she met while traveling in Bulgaria with folk-singing anthropologists from Yale University, sacrificed stable, well-paying jobs to make the move to the University.

Kostova didn't come to the University in hopes of someday securing a multimillion-dollar book deal. She came because the program offered her the best financial aid and the people in it seemed "to like each other, and that's not always true in writing programs," she said. The aid package let her to focus her energy on her writing.

In 2003, Kostova won a $7,000 Hopwood Award for a novel in progress, which turned into "The Historian."

The cash from her Hopwood award allowed her to work on the novel almost full-time in the summer months and was instrumental to her finishing the book.

"For the first time, I had a lot of time to write," she said.

Kostova worked closely with professors at the University during the writing process. She rewrote it twice before she actually submitted it to an agent.

English Prof. Nick Delbanco, the director of the Hopwood program, said his involvement was chiefly to "reduce the book from 1,100 pages to the mere 900 pages it is."

Today, Kostova, who is lives in Ann Arbor, is working on another long travelogue, part of which is set in the town.

At a reading in the Rackham Auditorium in January, she said the book was sure to involve "a lot of bodily fluids." And true to her word, in a short reading, she incorporated blood, sweat, vomit and saliva into a few short passages.

Kostova is hesitant to expound on details of the new novel for fear of "jinxing it," but she said it also involves a lot of travel and research, though not as much as "The Historian."

With her busy schedule, it's a marvel she has any time for writing novels. She estimates she's given over 100 interviews in the past year, not counting book signings and readings.

English Prof. Jeremy Chamberlin said Kostova has always had a gift for multi-tasking. Kostova herself says she writes whenever she can, including in the car at stoplights.

"I try to only do it at the red ones," she said.

"She once told me she works in five-minute increments, while the rest of us, myself included, think we need to sit down for hours to be inspired," Chamberlin said.

The recurring theme from friends and coworkers was Kostova's lack of pretentiousness, even after her fame.

Friends and coworkers say they're impressed by Kostova's "ordinariness."

Even after her hefty book deal, she lives in a modest two-bedroom house in Ann Arbor. Her colleagues like her, despite her success, which is sometimes grounds for disfavor in the back-biting and heavily competitive world of creative writing MFA programs.

"The thing about Elizabeth is that everyone loved her so much that there wasn't even that usual jealously," said Andrea Beauchamp, program associate for the Hopwood awards program.

"Everyone was just so thrilled for her, and I've never seen that before," she said.

Petar Stoichev is a character in "The Historian" whom Kostova included as a tribute to the University, which Kostova says made a monumental impact on her life and played a significant role in her success.

"I don't know where I would be without the University of Michigan, " she said.