Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Deborah Harkness

In books, fiction, writing on February 14, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Deborah Harkness. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

Deborah Harkness. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Deborah Harkness, author of the novel A Discovery of Witches (Viking, 2011). A history professor at the University of Southern California, Harkness has previously published two nonfiction books. A Discovery of Witches is her first foray into fiction.

During a book reading and signing event at Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, Harkness mentioned that she had never taken a creative writing class, and never imagined she’d be a published novelist. Discussing the way her experiences and other interests influence her writing, Harkness described writing as “a kind of alchemy. Things you’re not even aware you’re tracking go into the writing.”

As to A Discovery of Witches, which Harkness wrote in one year after beginning in a small notebook while on vacation, she said simply, “It was a story that once I started telling it, I couldn’t stop.” In Harkness’s words, “It’s a book about books, a love of reading, and what books can do.” It’s also a testament to what a person can accomplish when an idea truly captures her attention.

Quick Facts on Deborah Harkness

  • Deborah Harkness’s website
  • Home: Los Angeles, California
  • Comfort food: macaroni and cheese
  • Top reads: Dorothy Dunnett, Diana Gabaldon, AS Byatt’s Possession, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women,
  • Current reads: Anna Beer’s Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter

What are you working on at the moment?

While I’m on book tour, I’m working on a sequel to A Discovery of Witches. It will be a trilogy.

Where did the idea for A Discovery of Witches come from?

I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico during the rainy season, which I did not know in advance, and I was trapped inside my hotel because of the rain. It was the fall of 2008, and the world was very much obsessed with vampires. I started thinking to myself, “You know, if there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?” I didn’t believe they could all be private investigators. That’s what led me into the book, and I started building a world around the answering of that question.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

It’s really a book about accepting who you are and not living in a way that closes off options or that is safe. Living in way that takes risks—the power that is in daring to do what it is that you are uniquely meant to do.

“The power that is in daring

to do what it is that you

are uniquely meant to do.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I like to write at home, in the morning before the West Coast wakes up. It’s been a little challenging now that I work with people on the East Coast because they’re up before I am. I wrote most of this book between the hours of 5am and 8am, when it’s very quiet. I can also write on airplanes, because no one can actually get in touch with me.

Where would you most want to live and write?

If I could somewhere live in a very quiet, remote village, in a house with good plumbing, and excellent restaurants and wine stores nearby, that would be the ideal place. I don’t think it exists. If I had to pick a real place, it would be wonderful to live in the place that you’re writing about, to write the part set in Oxford in Oxford, and the part in France from France.

What do you listen to when you work?

I actually have a playlist that I arrange and fiddle with, adding songs or taking songs off. I write to it basically all the time, and it’s in the order that the book is in. It really helped sort out the mood of the book in a lot of ways, so that was fun.

I had never written to music with words before until I wrote this novel. Whenever I write nonfiction, the music has to have no words. I listen to Bach or I listen to Mozart.

How long was your playlist?

145 songs. Some of them are on my website. [On the page titled “The Characters”] There are links to YouTube playlists for songs on Diana’s iPod and songs on Matthew’s iPod. And, largehearted boy published a playlist for A Discovery of Witches.

How do you balance content with form?

In a way, I’ve been researching this book without knowing it since 1985. I didn’t do any specific research really. The most important thing for me is that the content doesn’t overwhelm the story, to keep that in balance, to not share everything you know about a certain place or person. To let the story and the characters really carry it through and have the other aspects of the story be almost like flavorings that are added to it.

“Let the story and the characters

really carry it through.”

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

It’s not so much a quote as a concept. It’s Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” The idea that first drafts are just first drafts. You can’t write a third draft before you’ve written a first draft.

When I’m having a bad day, I think to myself, “It’s okay, it’s just a shitty first draft. It will get better. It doesn’t have to do it all right this minute.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I know that a lot of advice says to read, but I would say to write. What I see as a teacher a lot is people preparing to write, people doing research to write, people finding the right chair to write in, people thinking of the right time of day to write. You really just have to actually write. It’s scary and it’s awful, there’s a blank screen or blank page, but you really just need to write.

“Write about anything,

write about everything.”

Write about anything, write about everything, write blogs. At some point something will start clicking and snapping, and if you’re still trying to arrange your desk the way you want it, you’re going to waste it.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

I come from nonfiction writing, and what everybody always said was to make a commitment to yourself to write every day, really build it into your day. That has been the most valuable advice both for my nonfiction and fiction.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

I wish more people would ask, “Why did you choose to do blank?” People have an incredibly emotional response to fiction. You read it and think, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I don’t like him or her.” Usually, writers have a reason that they’ve decided to do something. If there’s something really bugging a reader about the book, it would be interesting to have a conversation about why I’d gone that way. Not because it may solve the problem for them, but they would know that it wasn’t a thoughtless decision. It would be fascinating to discuss the decision-making process for the book.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

The most challenging thing is letting the first person look at it. That is really scary. After that, it’s much easier.

Do you rely on a specific first-time reader?

I have a small group of first-time readers, about four or five people who read things very early on. That includes my mother who loves everything I write regardless, and it goes to very, very smart people who take it apart with a fine-tooth comb.

Can you talk about the different kinds of writing you do, and how you juggle those projects?

“I need escape hatches.”

Well, I started my wine blog accidentally, like most things I do in life. When I got stuck on my nonfiction I would switch over and work on the wine blog. I was teaching, wine-blogging, and writing A Discovery of Witches at the same time. For me, I need escape hatches. I need to be able to move around and have little changes of scenery. I only had writer’s block working on A Discovery of Witches once and I think it’s because I was doing different things.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to cook. I am slowly working my way through Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. When you cook something, immediately it’s there. It’s wonderful; you don’t edit it, you just eat it.

About Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness is a professor of history at the University of Southern California. She has received Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Humanities Center fellowships, and her most recent scholarly work is The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. She also writes an award-winning wine blog,

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Deborah Harkness.” Words With Writers (February 14, 2011),


A Discovery o fWitches cover

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Viking, 2011).

  1. […] it came out in 2011, the Words With Writers interview with Deborah Harkness has  been one of the most popular reads on the blog. In July 2012, Harkness published Shadow of […]

  2. ADOW is my favorite book to date and I’ve read many! Have just read it for the second time in anticipation of Shadow Of Night coming out soon. I live in Australia so I’m hoping it’s here as quickly as the US!!

  3. Wonderful book, I can’t wait for the next two!!

  4. Loved the book – read it twice! SEQUEL please!

  5. A Discovery of Witches was marvelous! It was a terrific story with likable, if scary, characters who were complex, finely drawn and had sincere motivations. I also liked the pacing of the story, which felt very appropriate and enabled me to relax and let myself be drawn into the academic/scholarly world Diana and Matthew inhabit. I mean, really, who doesn’t relax when they enter a wonderful old library and get their first whiff of paper and ink and leather? Best smell in the world, in my opinion, and the book allowed me to experience that and associate smells and tastes and memories of Europe while I read. It was a wonderful experience, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

  6. Debora.
    ‘A discovery of witches’ was a real plesure! I can’t wait for the sequel! You did a Really good job on this book, can’t wait to see what’s in store for Diana and Matthew! Btw, happy to hear that it’s a triology! Best of luck to you and your wonderfull imagination!

  7. Hello Deborah
    Have just finished your fantastic “Discovery of Witches” and was pleased to read that it’s the first of a trilogy. Counting the days/months until the second book reaches the bookshelves to buy then paintently wait for the third book.
    What a great read, well written.
    Betty Bath
    26 July @ 7.45p

  8. Deborah,
    I just finished “A Discovery of Witches” and I loved it. I have read a lot of books, but not one where the words and ideas flowed as easily as this one. Wonderful!

  9. dear Debora.
    I so loved A Discovery of Witches, and was woundering if theres going to be more. Please don’t let this great book end this way. I was so sad when it ended and there was no other book coming up. loved the book thanks.

  10. loved the book. when will the second 1 be out?

  11. […] Currently reading and enjoying The Discovery of Witches. Here’s an interview with Deborah Harkness. […]

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