A dis­cov­ery of fan­tasy

Deb­o­rah Harkness reads from her new novel, The Book of Life, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema


Deb­o­rah Harkness’ best­selling All Souls tril­ogy, witches, demons, vam­pires, and other fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures live among us as friends and neigh­bors. In the first book, A Dis­cov­ery of Witches, Diana, an aca­demic his­to­rian, en­coun­ters an al­chem­i­cal manuscript that ush­ers magic into her life. In Shadow of Night, Diana trav­els through time with a sci­en­tist vam­pire named Matthew. And in the fi­nal in­stall­ment, The Book of Life (pub­lished last year by Pen­guin) Diana and Matthew re­turn to the present, their re­la­tion­ship now far more se­ri­ous, just as their quest for the truth about the past be­comes more ur­gent.

Be­fore the tril­ogy, Harkness wrote two schol­arly books, John Dee’s Con­ver­sa­tions With An­gels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Na­ture and The Jewel House: El­iz­a­bethan Lon­don and the Sci­en­tific Revo­lu­tion. She has done re­search in nu­mer­ous schol­arly li­braries, in­clud­ing Ox­ford’s Bodleian Li­brary, the All Souls Col­lege Li­brary at Ox­ford, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Fol­ger Shake­speare Li­brary. She also wrote a wine blog for a while, be­fore the suc­cess of her fic­tion made her too busy to main­tain it. She cur­rently teaches Euro­pean his­tory and the his­tory of science at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Harkness reads from The Book of

Life at the Jean Cocteau Cinema on Mon­day, June 8.

Pasatiempo: Which came first, your in­ter­est in fan­tasy or your in­ter­est in his­tory and science?

Deb­o­rah Harkness: I read a lot of fan­tasy when I was a teenager and in col­lege, but I cer­tainly never ex­pected to be writ­ing any of it my­self. I was train­ing to be a his­to­rian in col­lege and grad­u­ate school, and have been a pro­fes­sor since 1994. It wasn’t un­til 2008, kind of out of nowhere, that I started writ­ing fic­tion. Pasa: How long was the tril­ogy brew­ing?

Harkness: Prob­a­bly my whole life, but I didn’t know it. It pulls on a lot of things that I study as a his­to­rian, and things that I love, like travel, horse­back rid­ing, wine, and yoga, and it weaves them all to­gether.

Pasa: Did you ex­pect to write three such lengthy books to com­plete this story?

Harkness: No. I ex­pected to write one book that had a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle, and an end. When I got to page 422 of the “be­gin­ning,” I re­al­ized it was prob­a­bly not all go­ing to fit in one book, and I was prob­a­bly go­ing to end up writ­ing three books. I’d never done this be­fore; I didn’t have a pub­lisher. As far as I knew, I was just writ­ing and thought maybe my mother would read it. Pasa: How did you wind up sell­ing the first book?

Harkness: I have an agent for my aca­demic, non­fic­tion work. He asked what I was work­ing on, and I said I seemed to be writ­ing a book about a vam­pire and a witch. I asked him if he wanted to read it and he agreed. He told me later he was sure it wasn’t go­ing to be very good, be­cause I’d never done this be­fore. But he did think it was pretty good, and told me to keep work­ing on it. When it was fin­ished, he sent it around.

Pasa: If fan­tasy is an oth­er­worldly way to ad­dress is­sues of con­cern in our world, what do vam­pires rep­re­sent?

Harkness: I think the key thing for all of th­ese myth­i­cal be­ings is that they don’t ad­dress just one thing. They’re flex­i­ble enough that they can rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent things at dif­fer­ent times. The vam­pire came into West­ern Euro­pean thought in the 18th cen­tury, and was dif­fer­ent then than it was for Stoker, and dif­fer­ent from how it was from the early vam­pire movies, and dif­fer­ent than it was for Anne Rice. Th­ese crea­tures are mon­sters to think with. They’re crea­tures upon whom we can project our cur­rent anx­i­eties. I can re­ally only speak for my vam­pire, but my vam­pire is about the ten­sion be­tween magic and science. Can you fit th­ese two things to­gether? My vam­pire says ab­so­lutely, yes. He also rep­re­sents how we face up to who we are and what we’ve done. We’ve all done things, said things, treated peo­ple in ways we’re not proud of. Can you imag­ine the scale on which this would be true if you’d lived for 1,500 years? What would hap­pen to you if you were still car­ry­ing around all that emo­tional bag­gage? Pasa: What about witches?

Harkness: Leg­ends about witches go back way longer than vam­pires. Vam­pires are re­ally pretty late to the party. I think what’s in­ter­est­ing about witches, and is some­thing that would have fas­ci­nated peo­ple in a lot of dif­fer­ent time pe­ri­ods, is this is­sue of women and power. What do you think of a pow­er­ful woman? A pow­er­ful woman must get her power from some­where, so where did she get it? Is she us­ing it for good or evil? I think we still ask those ques­tions, and we ask them about pow­er­ful women who have noth­ing to do with witches. Pasa: What real-life his­tory did you weave into the All Souls tril­ogy?

Harkness: There’s lots of his­tory in the books. One of the three main char­ac­ters in the book is a book,

Ash­mole 782. It’s a real manuscript, and it’s re­ally miss­ing. It was a manuscript that I tried to look at when I was do­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion re­search. It was a real schol­arly frus­tra­tion when I couldn’t look at it.

Pasa: You mix the fan­tas­tic with the mun­dane, with mon­sters and demons living among us in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. What led you to an­chor your sto­ries in this kind of re­al­ity?

Harkness: In the 15th and 16th cen­turies, which are my re­search spe­cialty, peo­ple be­lieved that the nat­u­ral and su­per­nat­u­ral worlds ex­isted side by side. Per­fectly or­di­nary peo­ple could have all th­ese amaz­ing pow­ers. My re­search sub­jects were smart, they went to uni­ver­sity, and this just hap­pens to be the way they viewed the world around them. There were man­u­als writ­ten about how you could dis­cover whether your neigh­bor had pow­ers. So I wanted to try to imag­ine that world in the present. If there re­ally were th­ese crea­tures, like my re­search sub­jects be­lieved — what if it’s not fic­tion? What if it’s fact? I wanted to make it feel like if you were stand­ing on line at the gro­cery store, you could look at the per­son in front of you and re­al­ize it would ex­plain a lot if this per­son were a de­mon.

I wanted to make it feel like if you were stand­ing on line at the gro­cery store, you could look at the per­son in front of you and re­al­ize it would ex­plain a lot if this per­son were a de­mon.

— Deb­o­rah Harkness

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