Since 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 Night, the sequel to her bestseller A Discovery of Witches. During her book tour, she came through Danville, California for a reading and signing event at Rakestraw Books. It was a pleasure to catch up with Harkness, learn about the new book and its place in the All Souls trilogy, and to hear more of her thoughts on the writing life.
At Rakestraw, Harkness commented on how much she likes the idea of a “slow book” movement, like the slow food movement. She talked about the deliberate pacing of her novels—they were not written to be speed-reads. The hope is that readers will take as much enjoyment from the detailed descriptions as the writer did in giving the story time to unfold. Harkness pointed out that when Matthew and Diana go back in time in Shadow of Night, they end up in the era that Harkness has focused on as a scholar, not the period studied by Diana as an historian. The author’s knowledge combined with vivid, imaginative caricatures of famous historical figures makes for rich, mellifluous passages about the things that Diana and Matthew encounter in the 1590s as they continue their search for the manuscript known as Ashmole 782.
Q&A With Deborah Harkness
What has been your reaction to the outpouring of love for A Discovery of Witches?
“I was surprised by how quickly readers
embraced two central characters who challenge our
typical notion of what a heroine or hero should be.”
It has been amazing—and a bit overwhelming. I was surprised by how quickly readers embraced two central characters who challenge our typical notion of what a heroine or hero should be. And I continue to be amazed whenever a new reader pops up, whether one in the US or somewhere like Finland or Japan—to tell me how much they enjoyed being caught up in Diana’s world.
You are also 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?
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.
“In this volume we go from
abstractions and ideals to
real transformation and change.”
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?
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.
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?
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.
“It was a bit like traveling in time
to walk village lanes, old pilgrim roads,
and twisting city streets
while imagining Diana and Matthew.”
Did you have an idea or an outline for Shadow of Night when you were writing A Discovery of Witches?
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.
A Discovery of Witches begins with Diana Bishop stumbling across a lost, enchanted manuscript called Ashmole 782 in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Have you ever had a similar experience? How did it inspire the creation of these novels?
While working on my dissertation, I did discover a manuscript—not an enchanted one, alas—in the Bodleian Library. It was a manuscript owned by Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, the mathematician and alchemist John Dee. In the 1570s and 1580s he became interested in using a crystal ball to talk to angels. The angels gave him all kinds of instructions on how to manage his life at home, his work—they even told him to pack up his family and belongings and go to far-away Poland and Prague. In the conversations, Dee asked the angels about a mysterious book in his library called “the Book of Soyga” or “Aldaraia.” No one had ever been able to find it, even though many of Dee’s other books survive in libraries throughout the world. In the summer of 1994 I was spending time in Oxford between finishing my doctorate and starting my first job. It was a wonderfully creative time, since I had no deadlines to worry about and my dissertation on Dee’s angel conversations was complete. As with most discoveries, this discovery of a “lost” manuscript was entirely accidental. I was looking for something else in the Bodleian’s catalogue and in the upper corner of the page was a reference to a book called “Aldaraia.” I knew it couldn’t be Dee’s book, but I called it up anyway. And it turned out it WAS the book (or at least a copy of it). With the help of the Bodleian’s Keeper of Rare Books, I located another copy in the British Library.
Last summer, Warner Brothers acquired screen rights to the trilogy, and David Auburn, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Proof, has been tapped to pen the screenplay. Are you looking forward to your novels being portrayed on the big screen?
I was thrilled when Warner Brothers wanted to translate the All Souls trilogy from book to screen. At first I was reluctant about the whole idea of a movie, and it actually took me nearly two years to agree to let someone try. The team at Warner Brothers impressed me with their seriousness about the project and their commitment to the characters and story I was trying to tell. Their decision to go with David Auburn confirmed that my faith in them was not misplaced.
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. The bestseller A Discovery of Witches was her debut novel, and the first book in the All Souls trilogy. She also writes an award-winning wine blog, goodwineunder20.blogspot.com.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “What’s New With Writer Deborah Harkness.” Words With Writers (August 21, 2012), https://wordswithwriters.com/2012/08/21/deborah-harkness-2/.]