Five Questions for Author Deborah Harkness

Zoomer chats with the historian about her first novel, A Discovery of Witches, which draws from her vast knowledge of alchemy and witchcraft. It tells the tale of scholar and reluctant witch Diana Bishop, who is drawn into supernatural intrigue and romance when she goes looking for an ancient book.

Athena McKenzie: I heard that you were wondering what vampires would do for a living and that’s the spark that led to A Discovery of Witches. Can you talk about the process between that spark and sending off the manuscript?
Deborah Harkness: It took about a year between the spark and sending off the manuscript. I started thinking about it in September of 2008. I basically came home from a vacation where I bought a notebook and had been thinking about what vampires and witches and other creatures do for a living – like a creature-aptitude test. I started to write up a world in which those careers and those beings featured. Pretty soon I was writing a novel. Then I went off to see if anyone was interested in publishing it and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover they would be.

AM:How much of this actually draws from your own academic research?
DH: A fair amount. People always ask how long it took me to do the research and I say “I’ve been kind of doing the research for this since the mid-1980’s, without even knowing it”. That was when I started as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College taking courses on the history of science and magic. Writing fiction was not something I planned. I was supposed to be doing something else entirely. But many of the most wonderful things that happen in life are things that happen unexpectedly or accidentally; sometimes they turn out to be the very best things of all.

AM: What was the biggest challenge in writing fiction compared to your academic writing?
I think I was under the illusion that when you wrote fiction you really call the shots and make up the rules and make characters do what you think they should do. But my experience with writing fiction was not exactly like that. I think that if you’re writing a good well-rounded character, sometimes they can have a mind of their own. So my characters would start walking off and doing things that I never had any idea they were going to do.

When I’ve talked to other fiction writers, they’d say “Oh, yes, that always happens when you’re working on a really strong character.” But I had no experience with it, so it was a surprise to me. It’s been a real treat to talk with other people who can really understand what it’s like to imagine a world and to populate it with beings that are straight out of your own head and have them be talking and walking around – I don’t think its like anything else.

AM:Your love for libraries and books shines through the text and I understand that Ashmole 782 is an actual text. When did you know you wanted to use it?
It’s an actual manuscript at the Bodleian Library and last I checked, it was still missing. I think that being a historian and having the privilege of working in that wonderful library and being able to have almost an infinite amount of material at your fingertips, you always remember the one you couldn’t see. When I realized I was going to be writing not just about witches or vampires but also about a lost book that might hold the secrets to all of our origins and our evolution, I thought I’m going to make that an actual lost alchemical book.

That happened quite early in the process. I’m fascinated with the ideas about creation and destruction that are in alchemical philosophy. It was around the Darwin anniversary, so there was a lot of talk about Darwin and I thought “wouldn’t it be neat if there was a book that didn’t just explain the origin of human species but these other creatures as well.” So it all came very quickly on the heels of that first ‘aha’ moment, “What will they do for a living?” that kick-started it all.

AM:My last question – one you’re probably sick of getting – when can we expect the next book?
(laughs)I have heard this a lot actually over the last week. We are working very hard to get it out as soon as possible; and we are aiming for next year.

I am working on it now and have been for a while. When I thought of this and began writing it, I realized really quickly that I could imagine telling Diana and Matthew’s story in three distinct movements. I wrote the first chapter of the first book and then what I imagined to be the last chapter of the last book of three.

Now I feel like we are on a journey with them. I know the destination and I know it must be frustrating for readers to not know exactly where they are headed – but I do know. They (the readers) are just going to have to power on for the ride.