ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: Prof Deborah Harkness turned study of 16th-century science, magic into popular “All Souls Trilogy”

Q&A: Prof Deborah Harkness turned study of 16th-century science, magic into popular “All Souls Trilogy”

deborah harknessTo describe Deborah Harkness’ books as novels about vampires and witches is short-sighted. Yes, the All Souls Trilogy explores the supernatural and follows witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont through their romance and pursuit of truth. But her books are also rich tapestries of complicated characters and multilayered plot lines, and they contemplate the interactions of science, magic, religion, racism, discrimination, hate and love.

The Book of Life, the trilogy’s final book, closes the story with triumph. Diana and Matthew will discover the ways in which difference can often belie sameness and how the search for understanding is perhaps the most important one of all.

The epic popularity of the All Souls Trilogy has been a pleasant surprise for Harkness, a history professor at the University of Southern California, who never expected to be a fiction writer.

Harkness will speak at the Decatur Library at 7:15 p.m. on July 21, presented by Georgia Center for the Book.

ArtsATL: Where did you get the idea for your books?

Deborah Harkness: I got the idea on a family vacation in Mexico. As I went through the airport, I saw a bookstore that had an entire wall of books about vampires, witches, demons, fairies, shapeshifters, you name it. I looked at it, and I stopped. I had recently finished a nonfiction book about science and magic in the 16th century. I had been very busy with my work and don’t have children, so the paranormal literature boom (Twilight, Harry Potter) passed over me, but I was struck by how much these titles would have appealed to my early-modern research subjects. We don’t normally think we have a lot in common with people from the 16th century, but … these books would have been best sellers then just as they are now.

I walked away from this bookstore wondering why we love these characters so much. How can we still be interested in them when we have a worldview that denies their existence? Then I started thinking about practical questions. If you were a vampire or witch, and you were living next to me, why don’t I know about you? What do you do for a living? How do you date? That’s where the story came from.

ArtsATL: Which book was the most challenging to write?

Harkness: The third one, primarily because I had to be very committed to wrapping it up. I didn’t want a “trilogy” that was actually ten books. In the first two books, I set down a plot line, introduced a lot of characters, but I realized that there is only so much that I could deal with if I planned to finish. What I love most is generating new characters and new plot lines, but I couldn’t do that in the third book. I had to be disciplined in ways that I didn’t have to be in the other books.

ArtsATL: Where did you get the idea of Diana Bishop? Like you, she is a history professor. Is there a lot of you in her?

bookoflifeHarkness: There’s a lot of me in all the characters. Matthew, like me, loves wine. Emily, like me, loves cooking. What Diana shares with me is literally just her profession. In other ways, we’re not that much alike. Diana is an enormously gifted witch, but she wants nothing to do with her magical heritage. In this regard, I was reminded of my female students, many of whom are enormously talented, but they go through a period where they want to tamp down their abilities and blend in.

ArtsATL: You are also the author of a scholarly book, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. Did you always think you would write fiction, too?

Harkness: No. The only fiction I wrote before Discovery was a short story in the 10th grade. Writing fiction was never my dream, never part of the plan. I never thought I could do it because I thought it would be impossible to write realistic dialogue.

When I started writing Discovery, I didn’t tell anyone for almost four months because I kept thinking that it was crazy that I was writing up the lives of imaginary characters. I didn’t think it was going to last. Pretty soon, though, I was like: I’m writing a novel, and people just said, “That’s nice,” and then I said, no, seriously, I have 180 pages. If you’re going to have a midlife crisis, I highly recommend writing a novel.

ArtsATL: What’s it like being a New York Times best-selling novelist and teaching college? 

Harkness: Everything has changed, but nothing has. I still teach at USC. I still eat lunch with my students. The books have provided this huge audience, and I think of it as having a very big classroom. I have a lot more people who want to talk to me about history, magic and science than my normal classroom would hold. It’s just been so unexpected that I think it will take me a couple of years to process it all.

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