Bulgaria, as Seen Through the Eyes of an American, in 'The Shadow Land'

A young American woman arrives at Sofia Airport, thousands of miles away from home. She breathes the unfamiliar air of this distant land, marveling at a city “cradled in mountains and flanked by towering apartment buildings, like tombstones.” Little does she know this small Balkan country will change her life forever.

This is the beginning of Elizabeth Kostova’s latest novel “The Shadow Land,” though it could well describe the author’s own first arrival in Bulgaria. But while Alexandra Boyd, the book’s protagonist, sets out on her journey on a spring day in 2008, Kostova’s relationship with the country started in the revolutionary fall of 1989, when she arrived here with her friends to study music.

Elizabeth Kostova at Panitza Library. Photo: Steliyana Yordanova for AUBG Daily

“We were 24 and we didn’t know the Berlin wall was going to fall seven days before we arrived in Bulgaria,” she said while presenting “The Shadow Land” at AUBG’s Panitza Library. “It was a very exciting time to be here, for young Americans it was an amazing demonstration of political change.”

The parallels in the Bulgarian experience of the author and the character end at the airport. After observing the protests in the center of Sofia in the final days of the 80s, she and her friends moved on to remote villages in the Rhodopes to continue their research of local folklore. Boyd, on the other hand, about an hour into her journey, ends up with an urn of human ashes with just a name in Cyrillic on the outside. The elderly couple she accidentally took it from has already disappeared into the city.

Kostova, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Historian,” had been thinking about writing a novel about Bulgaria for a long time, but found it intimidating to write about a country and a culture that, while dear to her, are not her own.

“I needed to find a way into this that would be authentic and not presumptuous, and somehow work imaginatively for me as a writer,” she said.

“The Shadow Land” came to her in a dream. In it she saw Alexandra arrive in Sofia, she saw her finding the urn, and then she saw her embark on a journey. The author then intertwined the American girl’s story with tales of Bulgaria’s dramatic past and the painful experiences some had during the Communist regime.

“The book contains the story of someone who’s not a political person, but gets caught in the political machine,” Kostova said. “I tried to be very sensitive in writing about real people’s real stories because [of the] many people who went through the labor camps of the communist system here, some are still alive, many of their children are still alive, and I didn’t want to take any real person’s particular story and use it in a novel.”

Elizabeth Kostova at Panitza Library. Photo: Krasimir Spasov

Although she literally found the story in her sleep, writing the novel was a long and hard process for Kostova. She did extensive research and returned to Bulgaria multiple times, where she revisited many of the places she already knew well enough. But it was her conversations with people, especially her husband (born and raised in Burgas), that helped her find the smaller details she was looking for.

“When you write a novel, you’re not writing about a political abstraction, usually, you’re writing about what somebody had for dessert in a particular place,” she said.

About eight years after that dream she finally finished “The Shadow Land.” The book was released in April and immediately received praise from other authors, as well as major media organizations like The New York Times and NPR.

“[This novel] is very important for us Bulgarians as a high-quality literature document of the shadow land Bulgaria was in communist times and remains in post-communist times, to some extent,” said Vladimir Levchev, writer and Professor of Literature at AUBG.

The Bulgarian translation of the book came out in September and Kostova visited AUBG, where she serves on the University Council, as a part of her promotional tour.

Story by Martin Georgiev

Photos by Krasimir Spasov, and Steliyana Yordanova for AUBG Daily

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