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‘Historian’ hopes for ‘Da Vinci Code’ fame

Kostova's vampire tale shoots to the top of bestseller lists
/ Source: Reuters

Ever since Dan Brown’s book sold more than 10 million copies, the Holy Grail of publishing has been the next “Da Vinci Code.” A new book about Dracula is the latest contender but will readers bite?

“The Historian” was 10 years in the writing, weighs in at 642 pages and takes the reader on a spooky tour of crypts, libraries and castles from Istanbul to southern France.

It shot straight to the top of The New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists the week after its June launch and is already in its fifth printing, an achievement its publishers say they think is unprecedented for a first novel by an unknown author.

“I was very surprised,” author Elizabeth Kostova said. “I’m sure that was partly my naivete about the industry.”

While the “Da Vinci Code” factor has been crucial to the buzz about the book -- which earned her a $2 million advance after a frenzied auction, and has already been optioned for a Hollywood movie -- Kostova is a little hesitant about the comparison, and points out that she started writing some eight years before Brown’s blockbuster was published.

“My novel is really, I feel, quite different,” the American told Reuters. “It’s important to recognize that ’The Da Vinci Code’ opened up a vast new audience with an interest in historical detective stories and my novel certainly has that element. On the other hand it’s decidedly not commercial.”

Her publisher Little, Brown and Company, a division of Time Warner Books, might not agree. It has rushed 815,000 copies into print and marketed it aggressively with heavy discounts aimed at making it this summer’s must-read.

Publishers Weekly figures show only 10 fiction books sold more than 800,000 hard back copies in the U.S. market in 2004.

When Dad hunts Vlad
The novel starts when a 16-year-old American girl finds a mysterious book and a cache of old letters in her diplomat father’s library in Amsterdam. The letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor...” start the story of her father’s search for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure whose life inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

The truth is that Dracula is still walking the earth. The story of the mission to plunge a stake through his heart or shoot him with a silver bullet contains all the garlic and ghoulish figures one would expect, as well as a heavy dose of Eastern European history from medieval to modern.

Kostova describes it as a “bookish” book about libraries and scholars that draws on the traditions of Victorian novels, with concentric circles of narrative -- stories within stories told through letters and documents she and her father discover in Istanbul, Budapest, Bulgaria and Oxford.

“Except in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, it hasn’t been marketed as some kind of thriller. Anyone who is not somehow bookish enough for it will probably set it down,” said Kostova, the daughter of a professor and a librarian who has spent much of her 40 years in the world of academia.

“I really wanted to convey some of that world and my sense that for me, scholars and writers are heroes,” she said. “I see my book as a literary novel, not primarily a genre novel.”

Though the book’s length has frustrated some reviewers, opinions have been broadly positive: “Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty: it’s hard to imagine that readers won’t be bitten,” Publishers Weekly said in its review.

The story covers three generations and Kostova does not shy away from issues such as the looming specter of Hitler in the 1930s and Stalin’s atrocities in the 1950s.

“I wanted to convey how important it is for us to study history, that human history is tragically full of evil as well as great creations,” she said. “It’s much more horrible than anything we could dream up in fiction.”