An Interview With Deborah Harkness…

I love reading Amazon’s Daily Blog entitled Omnivoracious.  The post for today had an interview with Deborah Harkness that was conducted by Jeff Vandermeer.  If you plan to read this book…or are reading it now…this interview gave me valuable insight into the mind of this author.  It is mindboggling to think of how she came up with this premise and made it all so captivating.  Thank you, Jeff, for an awesome interview!!!
A Discovery of Witches: An Interview with Deborah Harkness

by Jeff VanderMeer on February 21, 2011

Deborah Harkness’ epic vampire-magic novel A Discovery of Witches is an Amazon best-of-the-month book for February. This is a first foray into fiction for Harkness, but the subject matter isn’t exactly foreign. She’s a Fullbright- and Guggenheim-honored historian whose previous books, under the name Deborah E. Harkness, have dealt with aspects of alchemy. A Discovery of Witches continues her fascination with magical systems, focused as it is on Oxford’s Bodleian Library and concerning the adventures of historian Diana Bishop, who happens to be a witch. Her discovery of a strange manuscript draws the attention of a powerful vampire. The mystery surrounding the manuscript leads Bishop on a strange journey of discovery and horror. Publishers Weekly wrote that “Harkness brings this world to vibrant life and makes the most of the growing popularity of gothic adventure with an ending that keeps the Old Lodge door wide open.”

Harkness answered the following questions about her book while on a plane, flying home to Los Angeles, availing herself of an entirely different sort of magical system. Was there a single spark or catalyst for writing this novel?

Deborah Harkness: I started wondering if there were vampires among us, then what on earth would they do for a living? The answers to that question, and the questions that arose subsequently, shape the world of A Discovery of Witches. What kinds of “discovery” and “aha!” moments did you go through while writing it?

Deborah Harkness: There were too many to count. One that stands out, however, is the first time it occurred to me to imagine that popular legends about vampires, witches, and daemons were intended to convince ordinary humans that these creatures didn’t exist. So, for example, the human myth is that vampires sleep in coffins but the reality might be that vampires are just deep sleepers and “sleep like the dead.” Your background is as a history professor, and you’ve written several nonfiction books. How did this translate to your fiction writing while writing the rough draft, in either a positive or negative way?

Deborah Harkness: I know lots of stories about the past—which comes in very handy when I am writing about a very old vampire and his family. I really can’t think of anything negative. I’ve loved writing fiction and nonfiction, and I believe those both forms have benefitted not just from being a historian, but a teacher. To what extent did you think about the constraints and consequences of magic generally while writing the book?

Deborah Harkness: I’ve been thinking about magic for a long time, because my scholarly research has focused on the topic. In A Discovery of Witches, I often simply transplanted what people believed about magic in the sixteenth century into the twenty-first century. In the sixteenth century magic was viewed as a secret knowledge, and as a tool for making life easier, more predictable, and more pleasant. Do you have a favorite scene, or a favorite moment from writing the novel?

Deborah Harkness: I am very fond of Diana and Matthew’s first date, when she makes dinner for him. Joy of Cooking doesn’t include menus for entertaining vampires, so she was on her own! What do you most hate about writing, if anything?

Deborah Harkness: The most difficult thing about writing is that I empathize with the characters so fully that when they are happy, I am ebullient, and when I am writing up difficult emotions and moments, I can end up weeping at the keyboard. I don’t hate that level of attachment to the book and its characters, but I certainly hadn’t experienced it writing non-fiction. Vampire fiction has had its share of high-concept moments in the past decade, as has magic and exploration of magical systems. For an example of the former, the recent The Passage and a host of urban fantasy novels. Of the latter, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one high-profile example. Through what alchemy is your novel different?

Deborah Harkness: I think the answer is in the question itself—I am interested in alchemy and in the relationship between magic and science. That intersection between magic and science is a major theme in the book and much of the plot is structured around alchemical imagery and ideas. I haven’t read much vampire fiction or magical fiction since Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and The Witching Hour, however, so I’m probably not the best person to respond. Has reaction to the novel been what you expected, and has your view of the novel changed as a result of that reaction?

Deborah Harkness: I’m surprised by how quickly people have embraced the book and its characters. It’s a long book, and it was intended to be something to experience and linger over, not bolt through quickly. It has been wonderful to hear from many readers who have enjoyed precisely this aspect of the book. What are some of your favorite reads of the past few years?

Deborah Harkness: The only bad thing about writing is that it seriously cuts into my reading time, so I’ve read lamentably few novels over the past few years. Recently, I have been enjoying modern fairy tales, like those in Kate Bernheimer’s brilliant collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Two other books that really stand out to me are Ivy Pochoda’s The Art of Disappearing, a bittersweet story about a magician whose stagecraft malfunctions (often with disastrous results), and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, which was the most brilliantly creepy book I have had the pleasure to read.

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