Elizabeth Kostova: Writing is like a carpenter craft

Interview by Bistra Velichkova

Елизабет Костова. Снимка: Дебора Фейнголд

Elizabeth Kostova. Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

Elizabeth Kostova is a writer who publishes fiction, poetry, and essays. She holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Michigan. Her first novel, “The Historian” (Little, Brown, U.S./ Ciela, Bulgaria), set partly in Bulgaria, has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold nearly five million copies worldwide. Her second novel, “The Swan Thieves” (Little, Brown, U.S./ Ciela, Bulgaria), was published in January 2010. Elizabeth Kostova is married to a Bulgarian scientist. She has a strong interest in Bulgarian history, literature, and culture. In 2007, together with Svetoslav Zhelev, she becomes co-founder of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing in Bulgaria. Each year, the Foundation organizes the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, based in the city of Sozopol, on the Black sea coast, in Bulgaria. The seminars are opened for participants from all over the world who write in English or in Bulgarian language. At the moment, Elizabeth Kostova lives in the U.S. She has taught fiction writing at the University of Michigan, as well as, in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). At the moment Kostova is working on her new novel, which is expected to be published in 2015, both in USA and Bulgaria.

– This year was the sixth edition of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Could you please tell us what is your impression of it and how does this seminar differs from the previous years? 

– It’s funny that you asked that, because, today I told to somebody in the group that this was the best group so far. They laughed and said, you say this every year! I know, I am enthusiastic, but this was a very, very strong group, both the Bulgarian and the English writing fellows. They were an older group. Especially the English writing fellows were older than those we had in the past. On both sides, there were many people who had already some awards, published very well, very good professionals as writers. Of course, that’s not a criteria when we choose the fellows, because we have had writers in the seminars before, who did not have a published book, but we value them as much as the others. But really, the groups this year were professionally remarkable set of people. I have to say that, this year we have received a lot of applications and it was very difficult to take the decisions and to make the choices. We could have taken many more people in each group, because there were a lot of very good participants.

– Could you please tell, for future candidates who would like to apply for some of the next editions of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, what are you looking for in the applicants’ documents?

– First of all, we are looking at the quality of writing. The committees always include people who are invited to teach in the seminar or they have some choice of people with whom they can work well. That’s because, sometimes you feel like – I can help this writer more than this one, because of my particular knowledge. So, there is a little bit of that, but we try to be as objective as possible. Usually, I look at people’s writing samples. I do not even look at resumes until I really thought how I liked the writing.

– What is the most important things that you are telling your students about the writing process?

– If we are talking about the workshops in Sozopol, they are really like conversations between writers. So, I do not think of myself as a teacher in the traditional sense. The Bulgarian group follows the same model. So, we really have two groups, where we do conversations about particular text, submitted to be looked at the workshops. One of the things, we always talk about and look at, is how to learn to edit your own work well; how to learn to revise your own work and to be your best critique. We do this, quite technically sometimes, because we are looking at particular text. We are not just having philosophical conversations about writing.

– What is more important in the writing process – the inspiration or the hard work and the rational order of what you are planning to say?

– In my experience, you can not really have only one of those things. Piece of writing becomes excellent, because of both of those things. Inspiration by itself certainly does not go very far, because writing is ultimately the work of writing and revising. But, you can work as hard as you want, but if you do not have some passion in what you are doing, this certainly shows in the final piece of writing.

Тазгодишната писателска група на Семинара по творческо писане в Созопол. Елизабет Костова е в средата. Снимка: Джеремая Чембърлейн

The Bulgarian and the American writers at the Sozopol Fiction Seminar 2013. Mrs. Elizabeth Kostova is in the middle. Photo credit: Jeremiah Chamberlin

– Since you speak both English and Bulgarian, you have the opportunity to read all the contemporary literature in those languages in original, could you please tell us, according to you are there any differences in the nowadays literature of those two languages?

– That’s a very hard question to answer. I think, there are writers who are doing the same experiments in the two countries. I think American writers are grappling more with history, in fiction and poetry. But it is also becoming true for Bulgaria. I am very happy to see this. There are different styles and traditions in some ways, but there is such a variety of voices in both countries, so it is really hard to generalize.

– Do you think that writing can be learned at the university? Can one learn how to be a writer there?

– There are many things about writing that clearly can not be taught. At the same time there are many aspects of the process of writing that can be taught. I will give you metaphor for this. For example, if you want to build pine furniture as a master carpenter, you would not do this unless you have some desire and enthusiasm, and some natural skill. But you also, would never become a carpenter without looking at what other people build, looking at their beautiful tables and cabinets and learning from them.

– What inspires you to write and do some of your fictional characters exist in the reality?

– I am inspired to write by the desire to explain the world to myself. I usually make up my characters. May be they contain some elements of real people, but I do not usually write autobiographically, they are more like creations.

– At the moment, you are working on your new novel, could you tell us more about it? When should we expect it to be published?

– Well, I am still working on the title of the novel. It is very hard to decide what it would be. The story happens mainly in Bulgaria, but over a long period of time. Not the whole story happens there, but a big part of it. Some of it is connected with contemporary historical events. There is a lot of 20th century history in it, but also some from the 21st century. I will include some of my own impression of the country, but I am also doing a lot of research – interviewing people, reading about Bulgaria in the different periods. Much of it will be things that I can not learn by myself, only by observing. I think the book will come out in the year of 2015. I am still writing it now and it will take a year to publish it. I hope it will come out in Bulgaria in the same time as in the USA, or soon after.

* The interview was published in Bulgarian in the cultural magazine Kultur Bench, 3 June, 2013.

bulgarian_flagThe interview is available in Bulgarian language HERE


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