Finding magic in a science-obsessed world
Featuring an enchanted manuscript and a forbidden relationship between a witch and a vampire, Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, is sure to cast a spell over readers worldwide. BookPage got the scoop on what a history professor is doing writing fiction, the current craze for vampires and where her heroes are headed next.
A Discovery of Witches has been described as everything from “paranormal romance” to “a magical romp through academia.” How do you think of it?
I don’t think it’s easy to categorize this novel. In some ways, I think it’s a book mystery; it’s a book about books. I love books like Possession, Shadow of the Wind and The Club Dumas, so in my mind, A Discovery of Witches is really about this search for a book that might answer all of our questions—Ashmole 782. Everything else that happens is in some ways just orbiting around this very important book.
Between working as a professor of history and blogging about wine—how did you manage to find the time to write such a huge novel?
[laughing] When I think back on it, I can’t quite put all the pieces together! I was teaching full time, and I kept trying to blog, so honestly I just tried to write in the first couple of hours each day. You know, the time before the phone starts ringing and West Coast email starts leaking in. Somewhere in the back of my mind as I would go through the rest of the day I would think about it and sometimes I’d get a second wind in the evening, but really it was written just a few hours in the morning every day. For me it was a good day if I got two or three pages done. Sometimes if I was on vacation I would write 12 pages in a day, but I just pushed through it one page at a time and it got done! It took 20 months from the first idea to the delivery of the manuscript into the copyeditor’s hands.
You’ve stated that your jumping-off point for the novel was the question of what vampires would do for a living if they really existed. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
What was really behind the question was the notion that it really must be quite difficult to be someone who lives while everyone they love around them dies and while the world that they know changes over and over and over again. For me, my job gives me an enormous amount of joy—I love being a historian, I love teaching, I love the research—but to me, what I’d never seen was a vampire who had that kind of purpose to anchor themselves in. How would you think of something you could do not just for this one life, but conceivably for hundreds or thousands of years?
Did you feel that since vampires are in fact historians of world history that would be a bit of a cheat?
Yes, definitely. I knew that vampires would not want to be historians; it would be too close to home and would offer them no respite from what their whole lives were, which is remembering.
When I started to think about who vampires would spend their time with, I realized that human beings wouldn’t be very interesting to them, so that’s how I stumbled upon the idea of witches and daemons. I realized very quickly that it would be witches who would the historians and the anthropologists. They were the record keepers because of the traditions they have maintained and upheld.
In many ways your own research is very similar to Diana’s—have you also been interested in the supernatural?
I’ve been fascinated with it in terms of how, for so long, the supernatural was just part of the natural. Now we have a very strong divide where we think, there’s the world, and then there’s this supernatural stuff, but that has not been true for most of history. . . . I was really interested in the idea that for such a long time people would think “well, that happened because a witch made it happen,” because there really wasn’t a better explanation.
I always tell my students to try to imagine what people from the 16th century would think if they saw us walk over to a wall and flip a switch and a light on the other side of the room turned on. I couldn’t draw you an electric diagram of how that works, so on some level we take science on faith and that’s our explanation today. In some sense, science is the new magic, especially for those of us who aren’t actively involved in science.
Speaking of science, one of the things that is so refreshing about this novel is the way you create a genetic explanation for the paranormal.
For me, the world of this book really needed to be a world that would make sense. I tried to figure out a way for this world to exist in our world. I realized that modern genetic research would be a problem—for these different species, who we used to differentiate because they could make certain things happen or based on what they ate, suddenly the prospect of having a car accident and having your blood tested and having it revealed that it was different in some significant way, this struck me as being both enormously frightening as well as offering up the prospect of real understanding.
I did a ton of reading about genetics and different theories about chromosomal change and [read] the great studies of spontaneous chromosomal mutations due to pathogen bombardments. It seemed to me that there were all kinds of wonderful possible explanations in the scientific world, so that’s the explanation I went with.
As an aside, I think that alchemy is actually really helpful in terms of trying to marry the fantastical with the real world because alchemy is a scientific discipline where there is a belief that substances change fundamentally from one thing to another. Alchemy has a rich set of images and beliefs about how a seed can turn into a plant, or lead can turn into gold, or the mortal can change into the immortal. So I began to think well, how is neuroscience like magic, or neutron bombardment like alchemy? Those were really fun days when pieces like that began to fall into place.
Diana is such a compelling character. She’s so strong and independent, it was surprising to discover that she wasn’t the starting point for the novel.
Well, Diana was actually the first character name that I wrote down. So, while the questions about the book may have started with vampires—after all, the world was pretty obsessed with vampires in the Fall of 2008!—it all very quickly became about this world, and some of the very first things I wrote down about the book were about witches and daemons. Pretty much as soon as I figured out that witches were the historians, then I began focusing more on them and that element of the story.
Diana’s name came to me very quickly through a combination of thinking about vampires as hunters, since Diana is the goddess of the hunt, but also thinking about some of the first families that were victims of the witch hunts in Salem in 1692 here in America.
It was important to me that Diana be really smart and really independent, but also somebody who was ultimately appealing. I think that a lot of women that I’ve talked to really empathize with some of her struggles about being independent. I think it’s good for fiction to deal with those issues, not necessarily as one of the central things, but as something that gets worked out in the course of the plot.
It sounds like there are quite a few striking parallels between Diana and yourself.
Certainly the fact that she is a historian and working at the Bodleian was something I knew, though I must say what historians actually do in a day is not always how it seems in books. A lot of it just came from tracking situations and thinking what someone with her background and characteristics would do. From that perspective, she often does things that I would never do, because she is not me. In some ways it was almost wish fulfillment of what I’d like more heroines in literature to be, that appealing mix of vulnerable and intelligent that I think most women are in real life.
The sexual tension you develop between Diana and Matthew is incredibly intense. Sex scenes and convincing love stories may be the hardest things to write, so do you have a particular philosophy regarding these elements in writing?
I think the best sex scenes are the ones that leave a lot to the imagination. We’re very unique individuals, so when people are very good they can suggest in a word or a phrase what’s really going on.
I also think sex should be about joy; it shouldn’t be about pain or angst. It should be one of the most joyful things that happens! I wanted their romance to involve some tension, but also lots of laughter and lots of mutual respect and give and take, so that’s what I tried to put in those scenes.
I know there have been some people who have wanted to know where the real sex is, but it’s only been 40 days! These are people with PhDs, and they haven’t picked each other up at a bar for a one-night stand. I wanted it to be realistic about what these two characters would do in these incredibly fraught situations, so I just wouldn’t have bought it as a reader if they had been spending these long days in bed. They need to wait for the right moment, which will happen.
Given the current fervor for vampires, were you worried people would be burnt out?
When I started writing the story, I really started writing it for me. . . . I had spent six or eight weeks on it and had nine chapters completed before I even told anyone else that I was working on something. I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing, so the larger issue of how my writing would fit into the world wasn’t even something I was thinking about. I told the story that I wanted to tell and that I couldn’t keep from telling. Whether it had vampires or witches, whether it would be published or anyone would read it, that wasn’t the issue to me. What did motivate me is that there are so many books out there that draw on history, secret books and alchemy, so I wanted to see if I could put all those pieces together again in a way that seemed more plausible or possible to me as a historian.
Why do you think we just can’t quit vampires? What about them is so appealing?
Because I don’t have children of my own, I was largely oblivious to the more recent young-adult fervor over supernatural and paranormal romances. I mean, you can’t go through an airport or turn on the television without knowing about Twilight, but I hadn’t read those books.
However, I grew up with Anne Rice, so vampires are not a new thing! I am really fascinated with the cycles that these topics go through, because they are useful symbols for us to think about life through.
I think we have a very complicated relationship to creatures and people who aren’t like us. On the one hand, we are enormously attracted to them, we are fascinated by them and want to know more. There is also some fear and drawing back from people who aren’t like us. I think the vampire is an extreme example of that attraction and withdrawal mechanism. Witches serve similar but not identical purposes.
Throughout history there has been some kind of human sense of some people not being like us and struggling with how to explain that. Some of the most enduring ways [of explaining the unknown] in literature have been about people with paranormal abilities. Interestingly, in most western countries, vampires in their current form are rather late to the party!
Who are some of your favorite fictional vampires (or witches)?
I always go back to Anne Rice. Those are really the witch and vampire books that made the biggest impression on me as a young adult growing up. The Mayfair witches that she wrote about in The Witching Hour and the characters she created in The Vampire Chronicles really made a big impression [on me]. I was always a big fan of Louis in Interview with the Vampire, more so than Lestat.
I also have to say that I have an enormous fondness for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s vampires. I was an Angel girl for a very long time, but by the end I was with Spike all the way. I also really loved Drusilla, who was wonderful. I loved the humor in Joss Whedon’s vampires. They took themselves so seriously while they were in the moment but then realized their actions were huge clichés.
So far, the response to the book and the pre-publication buzz has been overwhelmingly positive. Did you ever expect your book would garner this kind of response?
No! I am a history professor so this was very unexpected! The first responses from foreign publishers were so wonderful because they knew very early on that they wanted to translate it and make it available to readers. I think that was my first sign that people would embrace the book, but you never know whether people are going to adopt your characters and bring them into their homes and have them become part of their imaginative lives.
I’ve really loved having readers write me and tell me that they love some of the more minor characters other than Matthew and Diana, because they all seem so real to me. In the end, I think getting that kind of response is really what it’s about for an author. I’m just so happy the book has been getting this kind of response as I hope it helps it find itself into the hands of other readers who will enjoy it. When you write non-fiction, you don’t have that same kind of emotional impact on your readers!
A Discovery of Witches will be published in more than 30 translated editions. Is there a particular version you’re especially excited to see?
Oh gosh! I think that I will have a very special place in my heart for the French edition because it will be in Matthew’s language. It’s also one of the languages I’m slightly more adept at . . . I’m not sure how I’ll fare with the Czech version!
Really, it’s just so astonishing it’s going to go into so many languages that on some level every single one is just such a kick. I’ve had the pleasure of being in contact with some of the translators and they’re all just so smart and the care that they’re taking with this book to get it right is amazing.
When you’re not busy writing, teaching and researching, what do you like to read? Are there any particular authors or works that inspire you as a writer?
Honestly, the thing I read most is nonfiction because of my work. I really read an eclectic blend of things when I’m not reading nonfiction. I love poetry. I certainly have a real soft spot for Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series. I think I’m drawn to big, thick chunky books regardless of the genre. I like being caught up in a story and getting lost in it for more than just a day or two. From there it can be straight fiction, romance, fantasy or mystery. I love Elizabeth George! For me it’s about loving the characters and being able to go visit friends again. When I go on trips I usually take a book that I already have read because I know I will love it so re-reading is a big treat for me.
With popular books it always seems like the next step is Hollywood. Do you have any plans or aspirations to turn your books into movies? Have you had any thoughts on who you’d like to play Diana or Matthew?
I think it would be an enormous treat to see what a really smart filmmaker would do with this book. Film is an adaptation of the book, not word-for-word, but so that it conveys the right meaning and tone. That said, if it doesn’t happen, I’m absolutely fine with having every reader make that movie in their own head, since that’s what we all do anyway.
I can say with all honesty that I can think of absolutely no one I have seen who can play Matthew! If a filmmaker can come up with that, more power to them, but I can’t say I can picture that individual.
The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Did you know from the outset that you’d be writing more than one book?
When I thought about the story, I always thought of it in three distinct movements and this was always the first movement. It was sold as a stand-alone book so it needed to stand on its own merits and there needed to be some kind of closure at the end, but for me the story has always been three. I actually wrote the first chapter of the first book and the last chapter of the last book, so these bookend chapters were the first two things I wrote.
Are all the books written then?
No. I know a lot more about how they get from point A to point B than I used to, and I am actively working on the second one right now, which presents new challenges and is proving to be a great learning experience. So that’s my focus right now, the next stage of the adventure.
Matthew and Diana’s relationship will continue to evolve and truly the best is yet to come. I think we often do not pay enough attention to sustaining relationships, so I think people often go into the world with some strange ideas and it’s no wonder so many people are disappointed all the time! The really challenge and the real beauty of a relationship is building something that can really last, so that’s what we’ll be seeing a little bit more of.
Stephenie Harrison writes from Nashville, where she studies science at Vanderbilt University and blogs about books at Steph & Tony Investigate!
Don't miss our review of A Discovery of Witches.