A CONVERSATION WITH DEBORAH HARKNESS
Q. How did you become interested in the intersection of alchemy, magic, and science? Historically, what do you see as the relationship between science and religion or mysticism?
In college, I had a wonderful professor who taught a class on these subjects. To kick off the class, he asked us, “How do you know what you think you know?” I’ve spent the last quarter century trying to answer that question. Because the world is a mysterious place and our relationship to it is not always clear, people have often turned to science, faith, and magic for answers. They help people find responses to the questions of Who am I and Why am I here?
Q. You’ve written two well-received scholarly books. What inspired you to write a novel?
It’s pretty hard not to notice the popular preoccupation with witches, vampires, and things that go bump in the night. But we aren’t the first to be fascinated with these creatures. Today, we often imagine them into fantastic otherworlds, but the people I study believed that such magical beings were living alongside them in this world. So I started thinking, if there are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living—and what strange stories do humans tell to explain away the evidence of their presence? A Discovery of Witches began with the answers to those questions as I essentially reimagined our modern world through the eyes of medieval and Renaissance people.
Q. On page 72 of A Discovery of Witches, Matthew observes that Diana sees her work as a historian as similar to that of a detective. Is this how you approach your own research? Is a novelist also a type of detective?
I definitely see my historical work as a process of detection. Historians fit pieces of evidence together and hope that they eventually form a coherent picture. Often, a historian’s most compelling questions—and the most difficult to answer—concern personal motivations and why something happened the way it did. These are questions we have in common with detectives. Fiction is more like alchemy, though. You take a little of this, a little of that, combine it, and hope that something wonderful occurs so that your creation is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Novelists, like the alchemists of old, know that true creation takes time and patience, and that it’s likely you will have many disasters and failures before you achieve success.
Q. What prompted you to include both first-person and omniscient narration? What does each method of storytelling contribute to the book?
Early in the process of writing the book I realized that vampires must be secretive and protective creatures. For Matthew, this means he has both a strong instinct to hide from Diana’s questions and a need to protect her from threats. The only way to show that dynamic in Matthew (without making the reader very impatient with him) was to take Diana out of the picture temporarily and show him interacting with others who knew him in other ways. Since Diana is the first-person narrator, this caused some problems that omniscient narration solved. I think the combination of the two narratives works surprisingly well and gives the reader the immediacy of Diana’s experience along with some answers to their questions about Matthew.
Q. Elias Ashmole and Ashmole 782 are taken from real life. Who was Elias Ashmole? Why did you base your novel on this particular manuscript?
Elias Ashmole was a seventeenth-century English antiquarian and scholar. He gave major bequests to Oxford University, including the collection of books and objects that provided the foundation for the Ashmolean Museum (which is still in operation today). Ashmole’s books and manuscripts were first kept at the museum and then moved to the university’s Bodleian Library in the nineteenth century. The Ashmole manuscripts include numerous rare alchemical texts. One of the manuscripts, Ashmole 782, is currently missing. As a scholar, I’ve done a lot of research in the Ashmole alchemical manuscripts and always wondered what Ashmole 782 might contain.
Q. There are many references in the novel to literary works and authors throughout history; for example, pages 148 – 149 of A Discovery of Witches include an exchange of quotes about the passage of time from writers Ben Jonson and John Milton. Do the references and quotes you’ve incorporated have any personal significance for you?
These are two authors I admire and enjoy, but the passages had no special meaning for me until I wrote A Discovery of Witches. A good romance needs a combination of tension and common ground, however, and I wanted books and literature to provide that for Diana and Matthew. A little homework in the literature of Diana’s period of specialization provided the perfect sentiments for that scene.
Q. In A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, Diana is an appealing heroine, determined, accomplished, and yet aware of her own weaknesses. In what ways, if any, does Diana reflect your own experience or personality?
There are some similarities—Diana is also a historian of science, also interested in the history of alchemy, and shares some of my passions (including television cooking programs, tea, and rowing). Really, all the characters have some element of me in them. I think that’s how authors create imaginary people who nevertheless feel real. The rest of Diana’s character comes from a combination of qualities I admire in others, wish fulfillment, and my completion of the following statement: “Wouldn’t it be great if a heroine in a book was…”
Q. What was your inspiration for the concept of the Congregation and its trinity of daemons, witches, and vampires?
Both came from my desire to imagine extraordinary creatures into our modern world. I reviewed ancient and medieval ideas about the organization and creation of the universe and was struck by how many of them use organizing principles based on the numbers 3, 4, and 7. Four species of creatures—daemon, human, vampire, and witch—were soon central to the novel. But I was still troubled by the problem of how humans could be surrounded by such beings and not know it. The Congregation was useful in resolving that issue because it’s an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting daemons, vampires, and witches from the majority of the population—which is human.
Q. When writing a novel that involves the supernatural, it’s necessary to create a framework for that invented world, a set of rules to maintain consistency and credibility. How difficult is it to establish that kind of structure and to faithfully work within it?
As a historian of science, I study the changing ideas that past generations have had about the world and how it works. Throughout history, most educated people believed in a theory of creation that was essentially alchemical; for example: some combination of opposing elements resulted in new life if subjected to the right celestial and terrestrial influences. This was entirely logical, given their understanding of the world and how it worked. A number of ancient and medieval worldviews helped me create the logic and structure of the world of A Discovery of Witches. Once those were in place, I found them very helpful in imagining what could (and could not) happen in it.
Q: SHADOW OF NIGHT opens on a scene in 1590s Elizabethan England featuring the famous School of Night, a group of historical figures believed to be friends, including Sir Walter Raleigh and playwright Christopher Marlowe. Why did you choose to feature these individuals, and can we expect Diana and Matthew to meet other famous figures from the past?
A. I wrote my master’s thesis on the imagery surrounding Elizabeth I during the last two decades of her reign. One of my main sources was the poem The Shadow of Night by George Chapman—a member of this circle of fascinating men—and that work is dedicated to a mysterious poet named Matthew Roydon about whom we know very little. When I was first thinking about how vampires moved in the world (and this was way back in the autumn of 2008 when I was just beginning A Discovery of Witches) I remembered Roydon and thought “that is the kind of identity a vampire would have, surrounded by interesting people but not the center of the action.” From that moment on I knew the second part of Diana and Matthew’s story would take place among the School of Night. And from a character standpoint, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, and the other men associated with the group are irresistible. They were such significant, colorful presences in Elizabethan England.
Q: In SHADOW OF NIGHT, we learn more about the alchemical bonds between Diana and Matthew. In your day job, you are a professor of history and science at the University of Southern California and have focused on alchemy in your research. What aspects of this intersection between science and magic do you hope readers will pick up on while reading SHADOW OF NIGHT?
A. Whereas A Discovery of Witches focused on the literature and symbolism of alchemy, in Shadow of Night I’m able to explore some of the hands-on aspects of this ancient tradition. There is still plenty of symbolism for Diana to think about, but in this volume we go from abstractions and ideals to real transformation and change—which was always my intention with the series. Just as we get to know more about how Elizabethan men and women undertook alchemical experiments, we also get to see Matthew and Diana’s relationship undergo the metamorphosis from new love to something more.
Q: SHADOW OF NIGHT spans the globe, with London, France, and Prague as some of the locales. Did you travel to these destinations for your research?
A. I did. My historical research has been based in London for some time now, so I’ve spent long stretches of time living in the City of London—the oldest part of the metropolis—but I had never been to the Auvergne or Prague. I visited both places while writing the book, and in both cases it was a bit like traveling in time to walk village lanes, old pilgrim roads, and twisting city streets while imagining Diana and Matthew at my side.
Q: Did you have an idea or an outline for SHADOW OF NIGHT when you were writing A Discovery of Witches? Did the direction change once you sat down to write it?
A. I didn’t outline either book in the traditional sense. In both cases I knew what some of the high points were and how the plot moved towards the conclusion, but there were some significant changes during the revision process. This was especially true for Shadow of Night, although most of those changes involved moving specific pieces of the plot forward or back to improve the momentum and flow.
Taken from the Penguin’s Reading Guide to A Discovery of Witches and the Viking Q&A for Shadow of Night
A CONVERSATION WITH DEBORAH HARKNESS about The Book of Life
**Warning: Contains some mild spoilers!**
Q. When you first began the All Souls series, you were also writing about wine for your award-winning wine blog and teaching at USC. How did you find the time to write a novel? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Every novel that has ever been written was written one word at a time, one page at a time. That’s how I wroteA Discovery of Witches—and indeed all of the books in the All Souls Trilogy. As time went on, and my life became a bit more complicated, something had to go. I haven’t blogged about wine in years, though I’d like to get back to it one day. My advice to writers is simply to make writing a daily practice, like breathing. Don’t psych yourself out, and don’t take on a whole novel at once. One word at a time. One sentence at a time. One page at a time. That’s how it’s done.
Q. In THE BOOK OF LIFE you elegantly wrap up all the mysteries you introduced in A Discovery of Witches, including why creatures weren’t allowed to intermarry, what was hidden within Ashmole 782, and who committed London’s “vampire” murders. Did you have the entire arc of your fifteen-hundred-plus page saga sketched out from the very beginning?
Roughly speaking, I did. Some of the characters surprised me here and there, appearing and disappearing when they felt like it, so I had to jiggle some details but I did always know those features of the arc. The hard part was not giving too much away too soon.
Q. You preface each section of THE BOOK OF LIFE with astrological information taken from an “Anonymous English Commonplace Book, c. 1590.” Did you write these yourself, or are they drawn from an actual text?
They are drawn from several early modern astrological texts printed in England in the sixteenth century, including a translation of French astrologer Claude Dariot’s A Briefe and Most Easie Introduction to the Stars (1583). A man like Matthew would have owned such a book, and astrological information was often copied into commonplace books. I was always amazed at how closely the astrological information in these texts related to the plot of the book.
Q. Your field of study, the Elizabethan Era, predates the mapping of the human genome by more than four hundred years. What inspired you to make Matthew a geneticist and to bury the secret of blood rage in the vampire’s noncoding DNA?
I wanted Matthew to be a geneticist because of his theological difficulties. The questions of who Matthew was, and what his purpose was, unified his faith and his science in important ways. In my period of study, science and religion were not oppositional—they were complementary. As for the noncoding DNA, that was simply the best “mysterious” option back in 2008. Since then, noncoding DNA has become more important to geneticists, but I couldn’t have predicted that then.
Q. Was researching genetics more or less difficult than researching alchemical texts?
For me? Much more difficult. I’m a historian of alchemy, so I’ve been researching those texts since 1982. But I’m not a scientist, don’t work in a laboratory, and (until recently) didn’t keep up on the scientific literature on topics near and dear to Matthew’s heart. Now, I read so many scholarly articles on the subject that I get emails with subject lines like “Problems running your agarose gels?”
Q. Your storytelling prowess testifies to your skill as a weaver witch, but if you could choose another identity, would you want to be a vampire, daemon, or another type of witch? What is the one creature power that you wish you could have?
You know, I think I’m happy being human. Witches bear too much responsibility, vampire lives are long and challenging, and daemons are chronically misunderstood. I would like a vampire’s private jet, though. Does that count as a superpower?
Q. Who—besides Matthew and Diana—are your favorite characters from the series? Do you still think about your characters and what they might be up to now?
Philippe is my favorite character. In many ways he is the central character of the entire All Souls Trilogy. But I truly do love all of my characters, with the exception of Benjamin Fox.
Q. J. K. Rowling has famously expressed regret over the fact that Hermione marries Ron instead of Harry. In retrospect, is there any part of the series that you wish you had resolved differently?
Really? I think Hermione and Ron are perfect for each other! I wish Emily didn’t have to die, but there was no other way and I wouldn’t change it now, even if I could.
Q. In the academic realm, a print run of 5,000 is considered substantial. Did you ever dream that you would become a #1 New York Times bestselling novelist with millions of copies in print around the world? How has your success affected your academic career?
Um, no. By the way, I believe my first academic book had a print run of 750. Seriously, who could imagine such a thing? I hoped—hoped, mind you—that someone would publish it so that I would have an excuse to write the rest of the story. But I never imagined that people would read it in Croatia and Japan. The hardest thing to reconcile between my academic career and my career as a novelist are the schedules. Academic schedules are made up well in advance, while publishing schedules change at a very different rate. So the hardest thing for me is saying no to things I would love to do—both academic and in terms of meeting readers—because I can’t be in two places at one time.
Q. Has writing fiction changed the way you approach your academic work?
Absolutely. I’m struck all the time by the ways that the available historical evidence won’t permit me to demonstrate what I believe to be true. I can only argue what I can prove to be true, with the evidence. This is entirely right and proper, but I’m glad that I have fiction so that I can expand the limits of “truth” slightly.
Q. What is the most surprising comment you’ve ever received from a fan?
“Your book made me a reader.” What courage, to take on a book longer than 500 pages when you don’t love reading! But I’m glad that they took the risk.
Q. Do you have any details to share about the planned BBC adaptations?
At the moment, I’m afraid it’s all very much happening behind the wizard’s screen. So much happens in terms of production and development before we get to things like casting and filming: long discussions, frank conversations, planning. As soon as we have anything fit for public consumption, we’ll be sure to let you know!
Q. What are you working on now? Do you plan to continue writing fiction? (Please say yes!)
Yes, I will continue to write fiction. I have lots of stories to tell. No, I’m not going to tell you what I’m working on now—but I am working on something, and I hope that readers will find it exciting.
Taken from the Penguin Random House Readers’ Guide to THE BOOK OF LIFE.