Let's say you're schlepping your 7-year-old daughter around the great cities of Europe and you need to tell her some stories to keep her entertained. Bet your first choice wouldn't involve blood-sucking reanimated corpses who savage the necks of beautiful young women in their sleep.
Well, that's where you'd be wrong. Because without those thrilling tales to undeaden her imagination, your daughter won't grow up to be Elizabeth Kostova, author of "The Historian" -- a 642-page first novel about Dracula that sold at auction for $2 million, got translated into 30 languages and shot straight to the top of national bestseller lists.
In town recently for a reading at Politics and Prose, the novelist -- who is 40 and worked for 10 years on her book before she sold it -- reminisces about the trips to Venice and Vienna she took with her father as a child. An academic who taught urban and regional planning, he was big on the history of cities. A lover of "those great Hollywood classic films," he was big on Bela Lugosi, too.
"He told me one of those stories on the Piazza di San Marco," she says. "So when I see a picture of Venice, I think of Dracula."
The Hollywood version derives from Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic chiller, but Kostova's fascination didn't stop there. As a teenager, she also read about Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure at the root of the Dracula legend. "If somebody said Dracula, I had a tendency to pay attention," she says.
Kostova always knew she wanted to write. After graduating from Yale, she traveled in Eastern Europe and met the Bulgarian who would become her husband. Returning to the United States, she wrote short fiction, essays and poetry, "really working hard at it" but making the pittance that little-known writers normally make.
Enter Dracula, again.
Eleven years ago, while hiking in North Carolina, she suddenly remembered her father telling his little girl those stories. She thought: That might be a good structure for a novel. But why would the father be telling them? Then she thought: What if the girl listening realizes that Dracula, too, is listening?
"I got out my notebook and wrote down seven pages of notes," she says.
The historical Vlad the Impaler, who ruled the principality of Wallachia in what is now Romania, was a national hero who fought the encroaching forces of the Ottoman Empire. He was also a mass murderer whose execution methods -- suggested by his nickname -- make his undead fictional counterpart look saintly by comparison.
Kostova's novel blends the real and fictional villains. She had a "eureka moment," she says, when she realized that no one knows what happened to Vlad's remains.
This freed her to imagine the rest of the story.
Sympathy for the Devil
In his writing office in Bozeman, Mont. -- an 8-foot-by-6-foot former janitor's closet in a converted elementary school -- Michael Finkel keeps a battered copy of "The Journalist and the Murderer" by Janet Malcolm. "I've literally read it 20 times," he says.
Small wonder. For anyone familiar with Malcolm's work, Finkel's recently published "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa" can't help but bring her to mind.
Malcolm's book is a meditation on the relationship of journalists to their subjects. It takes off from a libel suit brought by convicted family killer Jeffrey MacDonald against writer Joe McGinniss, author of "Fatal Vision." MacDonald had been outraged to discover, when McGinniss's book came out, that the "friend" who'd seemed so sympathetic during years of correspondence and interviews had believed him guilty all along. Malcolm saw the episode as "a grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter."
Finkel's book, too, involves a journalist and a murderer -- but you could never call this relationship "normal." It's too impossibly weird.
The story begins with Finkel's humiliating dismissal as a contract writer for the New York Times Magazine in February 2002. He'd been sent to West Africa to investigate reports of "child slavery" on the cocoa bean plantations there. Finkel became suspicious of the slavery narrative. His reporting eventually convinced him it was false. What he could write instead, he figured, was a story about "the crushing cycle of poverty, and about the suffering that young people were willing to endure in order to eke out a living."
His editor wasn't enthusiastic. Maybe, she suggested, he could tell his poverty story through a detailed portrait of one boy?
Finkel didn't have such a portrait in his notebooks. Rather than admit this, he committed a journalistic felony, creating a composite character from a number of interviewees. "I wrote a fake story about a fake story," he says -- and he got caught. The Times prepared to run an editorial note that he assumed would end his writing career.
At this extreme low point, the real weirdness kicked in.
He got a phone call from a reporter who told him that a man named Christian Longo, wanted on charges of killing his wife and three children in Oregon, had been apprehended in Mexico. Longo had adopted a false identity while on the lam: He'd been posing as New York Times writer Michael Finkel.
The real Finkel sensed that "the beginnings of my redemption" were at hand. Two weeks later, he was on the case.
"Dear Mr. Longo," he wrote. "Yes, it is actually me -- Michael Finkel of The New York Times. Or, rather, formerly of The New York Times." He wrote that he didn't mind Longo using his name. He told Longo he'd like to talk to him, "because at the same time that you were using my name, I lost my own," meaning his reputation as a writer. He wrote that he would be "grateful and honored" if Longo would consider talking to him.
Janet Malcolm, call your office. "True Story" is another "grotesquely magnified version" of a journalistic encounter, complete with prison visits, phone calls, long letters and a developing "friendship" between writer and subject. But it's more than that as well.
The difference between Finkel and McGinniss is that Finkel acknowledges the writer-subject dance from the beginning and tries to record its steps as he goes along. "I wanted to subtly show the reader my manipulations," he says. He even wrote a paragraph listing the manipulative elements in that first letter to Longo, though his editor convinced him that readers could see these without his help.
So what does Finkel think of the most famous passage in Malcolm's book, in which she writes that "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse"?
"I think it's a brilliant line that I disagree with," he says. "My rebuttal is that you can be truly honest and still get the story."
Give him this: He's tried.
Its author got a $3,000 advance. Its initial print run was 5,000 copies. Its editor remembers smugly thinking it would sell 20,000.
He was off by only 310,000 copies. So far.
How did philosopher Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" turn into the year's most surprising bestseller? Originally published as a journal article in 1986, it circulated in philosophical circles for nearly two decades before it caught Princeton University Press Editor Ian Malcolm's eye. In book form, it is just 67 pages long.
Partly it was the novelty, Malcolm says, of a book with that title written by a "serious, eminent philosopher." Partly it was the "aha!" moment that comes when people take in Frankfurt's main point: The distinguishing characteristic of shoveling bull, as opposed to lying, is that the practitioner of the former doesn't care if what he's saying is true or not as long as it serves his purpose. Attention from the New York Times, "The Daily Show" and "Today" didn't hurt.
And then there are the book's attention-grabbing opening lines.
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this," Frankfurt writes. Read that and you may find yourself nodding vigorously and shelling out $9.95 just to feel better about the cultural manure pile we're all wading in. And maybe asking, at the same time: How did we get so deep in it?
Frankfurt is not a historian, so he can't really say. But he thinks it's a function of living in a democratic, marketing-oriented society.
"When you have to appeal to people as a source of power, you have to try to manipulate their opinions," he says, speaking from his Princeton home. Also, bull is less dangerous than the alternative: "If people get caught lying, then we have Senate investigations," but our response to bull is "to shrug and turn away in disgust."
What does the future hold for the 76-year-old Frankfurt? For one thing, his next book isn't going to the Princeton University Press. When a small-press author has this kind of success, the big guys sit up and take notice. The philosopher says he'll sign a contract with Knopf soon. Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards confirmed that the publisher would pay in the six figures for world rights.
This time, the topic is truth. No telling how that will sell.