Deborah Harkness, author of New York Times Bestselling novels A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, emanates a warmth and poise that made me want to immediately sit down and chat with her about history, science, books and life all by a warm fire, with a glass of wine in hand for her and a cup of coffee for me, as if she was a long-lost friend. Of course that didn’t really happen even if she made me feel it could, but I did meet her on Sunday as part of a presentation she gave that was hosted by the Cuyahoga County Public Library. She spoke about her books, her writing, and her author/life balance.
Deborah Harkness and I together during her book signing on a hot day in Ohio. My glasses were sliding slowly down my face, while Deb looked radiant!
Harkness was an amazingly confident public speaker. I suppose that comes from all her years as a university professor. She’s also very witty and knowledgable and connects with readers and an audience in a very sincere way.
After patiently signing books from an extended line of people on a very hot Ohio day, while being so very kind, thoughtful, personable and accommodating to the many fans, she was introduced to a thundering of applause as the crowd cheered for the announcement that Shadow of Night had just hit the #1 spot on the NYT bestseller list. I smiled when I saw her discreetly do a “hand pump” as she waited in the wings behind the stage curtain. The amount of whirlwind international success must be very exciting indeed, even though she already has accomplished so many academic accolades.
She spoke about how her vision for the books came to her and I had to admit I chuckled. It reminds me of something that would happen to me. She had been in an airport with her family to head on vacation when she saw row after row of books that had to do with vampires, fallen angels, witches and the like. She thought in her head that if these entities were real, where would they be? She laughed to herself as she told us she started to follow her family around asking repeated questions because she wanted to figure out, basically, that if all these supernatural types are getting front page news, then where are they? What do they do for a living? Of course, I know myself that any person who loves education will most likely ask a million questions until they get the answer. Given my own personality, I could relate to her incessant need to understand where these entities come from and where they reside. Readers can be glad that she kept pursuing her questions and created her trilogy. Sometimes we just can’t find concrete answers and that is why fiction is so wonderful and important in our human lives. I was happy to see an academia-type person step outside the non-fiction “box” and take on novels.
In talking about her novels then, what makes them so overwhelmingly popular and successful? People are intrigued by the unknown and love to use their imaginations to vicariously live through these characters created by fiction writers. While these types of characters dominate the Young Adult reading genre, Harkness noted that many of these aren’t really for serious adult readers with adult characters. With her first book, A Discovery of Witches, she wrote it because she thought “Why should teenagers have all the fun?” With this mantra she created a fairy tale for grown-ups that included adults falling in love as well as a more detailed mystery that kept us wanting more. For the second book, Shadow of Night, she describes it as her characters delving beyond the initial stage of falling in love and that the book moved on to show how two people can stay in love and accept each other through major change and turmoil. ” That is true magic,” she stated. For the third book in the trilogy, she said she will take readers back to the present day, tracing what happens to her characters after no one is the same after Shadow of Night. Though she is still writing it, she tells us that by completion we will find out the real secrets of the magical book Ashmole 782.
When asked if the past will affect the future in book three, Harkness said, “We learn things from the past you can only learn in the past.” She certainly knows how to keep her readers guessing. However, the books and characters have kept Harkness herself guessing, such as Hamish appearing to her then knocking on the door in A Discovery of Witches. She said though he wasn’t planned, Hamish is one of her very favorite characters. In Shadow of Night, there are two such characters as well, but I don’t want to spoil who they are. She never fully knows for sure where her book will take her, stating that, “Books act like children, they don’t all behave the same way.”
And what about considering Ashmole 782 as a character? The alchemical manuscript is quite real in so many ways isn’t it? In academic libraries the books are cataloged by a person’s name and number. Ashmole 782 is actually the library call number for the book in the real Bodelian library at Oxford. In doing some of her research, it was an item Harkness really wanted to take a look at and honestly, she told the audience, it really is missing. Since she couldn’t find it, she thought, “Ok then, there is that annoying missing book. I’ll throw that in, too.” I’m sure readers are glad she took on the task of fictionalizing an answer to where this book might really be because it gave all the characters a purpose and kept us turning page after page. It has the answer we all are seeking, doesn’t it? Where do witches, vampires, and daemons come from?
Another question she addressed that many people seem to have is why does her character Matthew Clairmont have to know EVERYONE? She laughs at this thought and proceeds to explains that Matthew is actually based from a poem by George Chapman, circa 1594, that was dedicated to Matthew Roydon, who appears historically to be a man that everyone knew, but one not much is recorded on. Harkness tried to research him, coming up with references of him in relation to many other famous men of the late 1500s-early 1600s, but nothing directly about him. In fact, when he was called to testify in the trial of Christopher Marlowe’s death, he was never found. She said she thought “ummm….vampires would be like Matthew Roydon. Always adjacent to the spotlight, but never actually in it.”
Difficulties between Diana and Matthew in Shadow of Night come from their needed adjustments to the time period that they time walked to. They had to learn things about each other, while also dealing with all the changes that come from living in a time where there was no expectation of privacy. Harkness describes it humorously as a “never-ending family vacation.” Diana is dealing with being thrown into Matthew’s world in 1590 where Harkness says “it is difficult to not only be a witch, but also a woman.” They deal with Matthew reverting to old ways, not always grand in that time period, and his friends, dubbed in history books as members of the School of Night. Also, Diana doesn’t know the old magic, she barely was learning her new magic, and beyond that it is almost a death sentence to be public about being a witch. The pair emerge from the tight cocoon of new romance into chaos. In the end, they must learn to value each other and find acceptance while staying alive and fighting for their future.
There are so many discussion facets that make this trilogy such a success. Harkness’ background to the books and her outline of all the different threads running through them makes the books even more interesting.
Not only do we get a wonderful book series, but the rights to the All Souls Trilogy have sold to Warner Brothers Pictures. The Pulitzer and Tony Award winning playwright David Auburn (Proof) has written the screenplay. I can only imagine how amazing these movies are going to be. But Harkness won’t given any indication of who she pictures playing Matthew or Diana, though those are frequently asked questions. A testament to her kind heart, she doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if they cast someone else. “If you were an actor how would you feel if someone said to you, ‘do you know Deborah Harkness really wanted so and so to play your part?'” she stated.
Harkness said that she never really had much intent to write fiction and that the last she remembers of writing fiction was a piece from her sophomore year of high school. Although she thought of writing an Elizabethan mystery many years ago, she really couldn’t get into it. She has, of course, written numerous scholarly articles and two non-fiction works. She’s worked in numerous libraries all over the world and currently teaches European history and the history of science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. With her historical researching, teaching and writing behind her, she is right when she states, “I am a historian, and what are historians if not story tellers.” Of course, historians are the most natural of story tellers and the most inquisitive of people as well.
So when asked what she’ll write when the All Souls trilogy is done, she states that she is not entirely sure. She has lots of ideas always running around her head, including some non-fiction ideas such as a book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII.
Pictured above: This photo shows Shadow of Night on NYT Bestseller List this week. I stole the photo from Deborah’s fan page…so she gets photo credit. I hope she doesn’t mind.
She attributes her fiction success to what she calls quite simply, “pixie dust.” She said, “What happened to me wasn’t supposed to happen but it did.” Her advice to other writers is “write the book that speaks to you and then take one day at a time.”
Most aspiring authors want to know how other authors get it all done. What is Harkness’ writing routine? While writing A Discovery of Witches, she wrote two hours each morning and about two pages a day. I was writing, teaching and living, she said. “Write 2 pages a day for a year and you have A Discovery of Witches,” she continued. But balance can be hard. This Fall, she is taking a leave from teaching because she had to throw in a fourth component, which is book promotion. She didn’t feel it fair to her students to come in “looking like her hair was on fire and try to teach the italian renaissance” after a summer of major book touring all across the U.S.
From my view point up close her hair is certainly is not on fire yet, even if her books are. Her warm heart is certainly something that will keep heating up her success as she tours around the country. If you haven’t read A Discovery of Witches yet, or Shadow of Night, I urge you to do so just for the sheer fun of a good magical adult read full of romance, mystery, history, supernatural elements, and intrigue. You can’t go wrong when you put all those details together with excellent writing.
To read my previous review of Shadow of Night, click HERE. To read an interview with Deborah Harkness, click HERE. Please note the giveaway is now closed, though the information on the books is always relevant.
To keep up on news about Deborah Harkness and her books, go to www.deborahharkness.com. And talk more to Deborah on her Facebook Fan Page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Deborah-Harkness/163048101811.
It began with a discovery of witches…..
how will it end?
And THANK YOU to the Cuyahoga County Public Library and the Berea Branch for hosting Deborah and for moving the location to accomodate more of her fans. THANK YOU to Deborah for coming to Ohio!