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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

At the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, there has been an incident.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. ELIZABETH KOSTOVA (Author, "The Swan Thieves"): I climbed the stairs to the tremendous marble rotunda at their summit and wandered among its gleaming variegated pillars for a few minutes, stood in the middle, taking a deep breath. Then a strange thing happened, the first of many times. I wondered if Robert had paused here and I felt his presence, or perhaps simply tried to guess what his experience must have been, here where he had preceded me. Had he known he was going to stab a painting, and known which painting?

KELLY: That's a scene early on in "The Swan Thieves," a new novel by Elizabeth Kostova. Ms. Kostova is the author of the previous bestseller "The Historian." In her new book, she moves us backward and forward in time, telling the contemporary story of a disturbed artist named Robert Oliver through the eyes of his psychiatrist. That's interwoven with the 19th century tale of the woman with whom Oliver is obsessed.

And Elizabeth Kostova has met up with his here in the National Gallery. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Thank you for having me here.

KELLY: And this is, of course, where one of the opening scenes of "The Swan Thieves" unfolds, in the French Impressionist section. Tell us a little bit about that opening scene, what happens.

Ms. KOSTOVA: The psychiatrist, who is the narrator-observer of this story, Andrew Marlow, is an artist himself and he loves art. And one day he gets the case of his career, a really great artist named Robert Oliver. Oliver has been arrested for stabbing a painting in the National Gallery. And Marlow comes to the gallery to see the painting as part of his investigation into Oliver's life and his attempt to find out why Oliver has done this.

KELLY: And this is a particular painting that we learn, spend much of the book learning, why Robert Oliver, this very talented but very troubled painter, why he's obsessed with it.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Yes. And I was very happy to hear from a reader the other day that she had looked everywhere for this painting and discovered that it actually isn't here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: So we should set our listeners straight from the beginning, to say fictional painting. Do not come to the National Gallery and look for it.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Fictional and do not stab it, please.

KELLY: But it would have been hanging, as you imagined it, with early works of French Impressionism.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Yes. It has very much a place in the galleries here. I chose a real gallery, although I invented several paintings actually to go with this story.

KELLY: Tell us a little bit more about this painter, the main character in your book. You spend much of the book, as a reader, trying to unravel his past and what brought him to that scene where he snaps here in the National Gallery.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Well, Robert Oliver is a landscape and portrait painter who's really reaching the peak of a great career. And when he is brought into Marlow's care, he refuses to speak. He refuses to tell his own story. Marlow, of course, wants to know how does he help him and who he is. And in the course of finding this out, he finds himself interviewing the women Robert Oliver has been closest to and also being drawn into Robert Oliver's obsession with a package of old letters that are from 19th century France, real letters.

KELLY: And because Robert Oliver himself won't speak, you tell the novel through different voices, through a couple of the women who he was close to, their voices, through his psychiatrist. So the story is unfolding simultaneously. You're hearing it from their prospective, you hear from everyone except Robert Oliver.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Very much so. I wanted this to be the portrait of an artist, but to have that artist kind of rise up in the midst of other people's voices.

KELLY: Your book, of course, as we've been talking about, is about art; it is also a love story or a collection of love stories. Robert Oliver has a number of loves that we learn about and get to know. There's also this 19th century story of a very young woman painter and a much older man.

Ms. KOSTOVA: That is a story of two artists as well. And it's a story of people who, I think, really would not be together, wouldn't be drawn together except through the power of art. And I wanted it to be much more than a story of just the clich´┐Ż of mentorship, of the older person mentoring the younger one, although mentorship is an important topic in the book, actually.

But I wanted it to be the story of two very talented people, talented in different ways.

KELLY: And one thing I loved about that 19th century story was you rarely hear stories about, you know, people in their twilight years, love stories. We always, in popular culture, it's always two teenagers or people - spectacularly gorgeous people in their 20s. You write so movingly about the young woman realizing she's not his first love, she wasn't going to be his only love, but she was his last love, that he would die with her name on his lips. It's beautiful.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Well, thank you. Because this is a love story between two artists, it's, in a way they really love each universally, almost in spite of these differences in age, and they understand each other because of it. It was also really important to me in this book to balance that story of the much older man, the mentor and the younger woman artist, with an inversion of that.

There is also a love story imbedded in the book between a much younger man and a dynamic older woman.

KELLY: The two stories in your book - 19th century France, 20th century East Coast U.S. - come together in a surprising way at the very end - and we certainly won't reveal that. But I wonder, do you know how it's all going to turn out when you sit down to write? How much do you make up as you go along?

Ms. KOSTOVA: With "The Swan Thieves," I really didn't know how it would turn out. I had...

KELLY: Really? It's a huge risk. You're several hundred pages in and you're still trying to figure out if there'll be a good surprise ending?

Ms. KOSTOVA: And it was a huge risk but it also was very exciting. My first novel was heavily plotted. And although it's a deeply felt novel for me, it's kind of an intricate puzzle that I had to work out well ahead of time. And this book I really wrote imagining scenes almost the way you would stand in front of a painting.

And it was a moving experience to be sort of there with the computer not knowing exactly how this would turn out. And, of course, at a certain point I did have to solve things and write those scenes...

KELLY: Start leaving little crumbs of clues along the way for the reader.

Ms. KOSTOVA: It made the process somehow very really and very intimate too, actually, the writing of it.

KELLY: Is it scary knowing how many people read your first novel, your debut novel, which came out five years ago? You're going to have a big audience for this book.

Ms. KOSTOVA: There is a difference in writing a second book. You write a first novel. If you write it in total privacy and not necessarily with the expectation even of publication, which was the case with "The Historian," you do write it in a kind of privacy and innocence and it's very much just for you.

And writing a second book, you have a feeling of audience, I think, inevitably. But I'm happy to say that whenever I was composing, and I think a lot of writers would say this, I do forget everything else, if it's going well. I don't remember that there's any reader. I don't remember who I am or what year I was born. I really am with those characters.

I think writing fiction is a very benign form of insanity and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KOSTOVA: ...and it's also a joy. It's a joy to be alone with those characters. And I think any serious writer writes not at all for market but for that pleasure.

KELLY: Elizabeth Kostova, thank you so much for sitting down with us here at the National Gallery in Washington. And we've been talking, of course, about your new novel out next week, "The Swan Thieves." Thank you.

Ms. KOSTOVA: Thank you.

Pushing out through the doors, I experienced that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum. Relief at being returned to the familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world's lack of mystery.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: And you can read about psychiatrist Andrew Marlow's first impression of the painter Robert Oliver at our Web site, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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