Author Interview with Deborah Harkness

Hello Avid Readers,

I haven’t re-blogged one of these interview for ages and I thought it was high time I started again. I watched the Sky production of Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches when it on telly last year and really enjoyed it. I’m waiting with bated breath for the follow-up series. I still haven’t read the final book in the All Souls Trilogy – The Book of Life – although it is on my Amazon wish list. Why are our TBR piles so mountainous?! Lol! Reading this interview has definitely put it back on my radar though. She mentions a possible book all about one of my favourite Souls characters, Callowglass. I’d be very interested in his book – yummy!

Have you read the whole trilogy? What did you think of it? As always, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, enjoy this interview.

 

(The following interview with Ms Harkness was originally posted on the Goodreads website on 1st September 2018)

 

Deborah Harkness is a history professor and author of the bestselling All Souls Trilogy (A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life), which centres on the forbidden love of Diana Bishop, an Oxford scholar and witch, and Matthew Clairmont, a scientist and vampire.

As their worlds collide, the reader is taken back and forth in time and into the underground world of vampires, witches, and daemons.

Time’s Convert follows those same characters but focuses on Marcus Whitmore and his human love, Phoebe Taylor, as she embarks on her chosen new life as a vampire, while also diving into Marcus’ human past and earliest years as a vampire in the de Clairmont family.

Harkness talked to Goodreads contributor Janet Potter about coming up with thousands of years of backstory for her characters, not letting the historical details overwhelm her stories, and the surprising book she read for research.

Goodreads: The British television adaptation of A Discovery of Witches is airing soon on Sky One, correct?

Deborah Harkness: It starts on Friday, the 14th of September, at 9 p.m.—but who’s counting? I was actually watching the final sound mix for episode six when you called. I’m reviewing the penultimate version before all the special effects  get tweaked and perfected.

GR: Do you get to give notes, or are you just a viewer?

DH: I’m an executive producer, so I do get to give notes. There’s a lot of talented people in the process, though, so I’m by no means in control, but I do get to give input.

GR: Will it air in the United States as well?

DH: Not at exactly the same time. It’s going to be on the new AMC family of networks’ streaming platform, Sundance Now. It will also be on Shudder in Canada, and I’m told once it’s been on the streaming platform, it will also be on the Sundance Channel.

[Editor’s Note: The show will première on Shudder and Sundance Now in 2019, and will be available in the United States and in Canada on both services.]

GR: What should fans of the original book be excited to see in the television series?

DH: The cast is absolutely superb. I’m so overjoyed by the quality of the cast and the strength of the performances and how much they took these characters to their hearts. I can’t wait for people to see the actors at work. The whole crew was so careful and so thoughtful, it’s so beautiful.

GR: Time’s Convert isn’t part of the All Souls Trilogy, but it’s not a standalone, either. How do you describe its relationship to the trilogy?

DH: I call it a sequely-prequely thing, which is not really very helpful, but it’s accurate. I don’t tend to write with a fixed notion of a genre or particular form in mind. I have a story to tell, and I figure out what is the best way to tell it. I am fascinated as both a novelist and a historian with the way time operates. I can’t seem to stop playing with that. So we’ve got a sequely forward narrative thrust, but we’ve also got a memory-driven retrospective in terms of Marcus’ experience. It picks up with all of our characters a year after the events of The Book of Life have finished. The prequely part is that it gives us a chance to look a little bit more closely at Marcus Whitmore’s backstory, the story of how he became a vampire and his earliest decades as a vampire.

GR: That must be a benefit of having characters who are centuries, if not millennia, old. You always have more stories to tell about them.

DH: I have file cabinets full of backstories, because I had to know everybody’s backstory in order to write one sentence about them. I had to have a whole timeline for every character. I’ve got a timeline for Philippe, Ysabeau, Gallowglass, Baldwin, and characters who are literally only mentioned, like Freyja. I couldn’t invoke her without having a pretty good grasp of who she was and what her life involved.

GR: Are you ever hesitant to introduce a new secondary character, knowing you’ll have to create ten lifetimes for them?

DH: I love generating characters. So much so that it makes my editor kind of crazy. It was a big problem in The Book of Life. I really wanted Freyja and a few other new characters in The Book of Life. But it was true they were just bending the story out of shape. The more I got excited about delving into them, the more it took away from Matthew and Diana. It’s what I love to do, I do it while I’m in the drive-through, while I’m waiting for the spin cycle, I’m constantly creating little subplots and backstories. The two people who I’m most guilty of doing this for are happily the oldest, Philippe and Ysabeau. I have to know where they are all the time.

GR: Of all the characters from the All Souls Trilogy and their long lives, why did you choose to focus on Marcus in this book?

DH: I was always struck writing the trilogy how very different Matthew was from Marcus. Matthew was born in the early Middle Ages. He was born at a time when there was a lot of instability in Western Europe, where the Christian faith was very strong in some areas and not very strong in others. Marcus was born in the Age of the Enlightenment, the age of revolutions. I just kept thinking, Those two are really different, their hard wiring is really different. If you go from someone who came from colonial Massachusetts with a strong congregational religious background, you cannot have something more different than 6th-century France with a Catholic background. Literally the cosmologies they grew up with were completely different, just in terms of the position of the sun. The more I thought about that, the more I wanted to explore what would have led Marcus to become a vampire, what would have led Matthew to think he had the right stuff to become a vampire, and what the challenges were along the way. Somebody who believes in Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité [the slogan of the French Revolution] is not necessarily going to fit well within the existing framework of the de Clairmont family. It was a super-duper generational conflict. Frankly, I always find family conflict more interesting than just plain old romance.

GR: One of the major threads of the book is Phoebe Taylor’s transformation from human to vampire. When there are so many different versions of the rules of being a vampire, the dos and don’ts, how someone becomes a vampire and what it feels like, how do you balance between relying on vampire folklore and coming up with your own rules?

DH: Here’s the honest to God truth: I don’t read vampire books. I have never read Dracula. I don’t know if that will get me kicked out of the club, but I’ve never read Dracula. I only found Anne Rice‘s vampires because of The Witching Hour. I was a huge Buffy fan, I’ll admit that. As a result, I don’t actually know much of [the lore]. I don’t triangulate off of anything. What I was interested in was thinking about the gestational period, or young child development, of a vampire. For that I actually read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I read that and lots of child-rearing books. I read all the things about developmental stages of children and what they go through, when they start acting out, and I applied that. It’s one of the reasons why it’s a 90-day period. I thought it would be about three months before this newly powerful person was trustworthy, but they’d still be a little fledgling who would have to be watched and monitored. Then I thought, OK, what would the teething stage of a vampire be? When would the learning-to-walk phase happen? When would the teenage years happen, what would that be like? What would day 18 in a vampire’s life be like?

GR: Your books cut back and forth between the past and present day, and you do a lot of research about the historical settings. As a historian, is it difficult to keep the historical details at bay?

DH: All the time. As a history professor, if I can find out about it, I do, and then I want to share it. But it’s like I tell my own students: I don’t want to go on your intellectual journey, I want the payoff at the end. I also have to say to myself, If this was set in modern times, and there was a male protagonist, would he actually describe every inch of a woman’s clothing? There are going to be readers who are disappointed that there isn’t more luscious attention to clothing. I just don’t think that an 18-year-old man would say: “and then there were three tiers of flounces.” It wouldn’t happen. Would this person describe the table? And the answer is unfortunately no, because I could describe the table for four pages for you. A little history goes a long way; it’s like cilantro. You only need a little bit of it to give something texture and life.

GR: Do you feel more pressure to get the period details right, with your academic reputation as a historian on the line?

DH: It’s not the historical details that matter to me; it’s the interpretations. So what would matter to me is if the leading historian of the French Revolution would read it and say: You actually didn’t take into account Suzanne Desan‘s interpretation of family structures and how they were impacted by the French Revolution. That’s what I would be upset about. All of us are all going to get the details wrong. None of us really knows how underwear was constructed in the 16th century because, like, three pieces of it survive, and we generalize based on that.

G R: What historical times or places have you not yet been able to write about that you’re excited to?

DH: I was just in Ireland sniffing around, and I can’t wait to write about Gallowglass’ time in Ireland. And I’m dying to get to Portugal so I can write about Fernando. I have a problem in that it’s much easier for me to write about a place if I’ve spent some time there. In the first books I was writing about places I knew really intimately, and it was really evident when I was writing about a place I didn’t know very well. I think I might end up going to Denmark because I kind of like Freyja; I might end up having to write more about Freyja.

GR: Then you’ve sort of already answered this, but are you working on more books in this series?

DH: I’m working on a couple of follow-ups. One of them is The Serpent’s Mirror, which I’ve been working on for a while, which is about Matthew’s life in the 16th century. His life under Henry VII, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, before the events that we’re familiar with. I am starting to work on the Gallowglass book, and then I’ve got this other thing that just started up that I’m excited about but I’m not quite ready to talk about yet. It was a total surprise. I love this period of writing, when it’s all about open-ended possibilities.

GR: What is your writing process?

DH: I get up and write longhand for the first hour of every day, before I do anything else other than make coffee. If I can do that, the whole day goes well. If I skip it, it’s almost like a ballerina who has to go and do their warm-up. It’s my warm-up. As long as I do that, the rest of the day kind of clicks along.

GR: What were your favorite books growing up?

DH: I love Little Women, I loved Anne of Green Gables, I loved Little House on the Prairie. Not surprisingly, what I really loved was family and community stories with strong female characters. And I also loved The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

GR: What’s a book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

DH: Oh my gosh, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I was blown away by this book. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be, and I read it, and I found it absolutely gripping, so life-affirming. It was dark and light and funny and touching and challenging and hard. It was just like life. I thought it was just an amazing book.


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