Category Archives: All Souls Trilogy

Q&A with Deborah Harkness on ‘A Discovery of Witches’

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, is (in her own words) “a book about books, a love of reading, and what books can do”, and is still receiving all sorts of praise and accolades months after its debut.  After finishing the book, I wanted to know more about Ms. Harkness and her creative process.  I found a few interviews and wanted to share them with you all.  The first is from her own website and the second is from wordswithwriters.com.  Click on the links to see the full Q&A sessions…

From deborahharkness.com:

Q. Diana is an appealing heroine, determined, accomplished, and yet aware of her own weaknesses. In what ways, if any, does Diana reflect your own experience or personality?

There are some similarities—Diana is also a historian of science, also interested in the history of alchemy, and shares some of my passions (including television cooking programs, tea, and rowing). Really, all the characters have some element of me in them. I think that’s how authors create imaginary people who nevertheless feel real. The rest of Diana’s character comes from a combination of qualities I admire in others, wish fulfillment, and my completion of the following statement: “Wouldn’t it be great if a heroine in a book was…”

Q. How did you become interested in the intersection of alchemy, magic, and science? Historically, what do you see as the relationship between science and religion or mysticism?

In college, I had a wonderful professor who taught a class on these subjects. To kick off the class, he asked us, “How do you know what you think you know?” I’ve spent the last quarter century trying to answer that question. Because the world is a mysterious place and our relationship to it is not always clear, people have often turned to science, faith, and magic for answers. They help people find responses to the questions of Who am I and why am I here?

Q. You’ve written two well-received scholarly books. What inspired you to write a novel?

It’s pretty hard not to notice the popular preoccupation with witches, vampires, and things that go bump in the night. But we aren’t the first to be fascinated with these creatures. Today, we often imagine them into fantastic otherworlds, but the people I study believed that such magical beings were living alongside them in this world. So I started thinking, if there are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living—and what strange stories do humans tell to explain away the evidence of their presence? A Discovery of Witches began with the answers to those questions as I essentially reimagined our modern world through the eyes of medieval and Renaissance people.

Q. What prompted you to include both first-person and omniscient narration? What does each method of storytelling contribute to the book?

Early in the process of writing the book I realized that vampires must be secretive and protective creatures. For Matthew, this means he has both a strong instinct to hide from Diana’s questions and a need to protect her from threats. The only way to show that dynamic in Matthew (without making the reader very impatient with him) was to take Diana out of the picture temporarily and show him interacting with others who knew him in other ways. Since Diana is the first-person narrator, this caused some problems that omniscient narration solved. I think the combination of the two narratives works surprisingly well and gives the reader the immediacy of Diana’s experience along with some answers to their questions about Matthew.

Q. Elias Ashmole and Ashmole 782 are taken from real life. Who was Elias Ashmole? Why did you base your novel on this particular manuscript?

Elias Ashmole was a seventeenth-century English antiquarian and scholar. He gave major bequests to Oxford University, including the collection of books and objects that provided the foundation for the Ashmolean Museum (which is still in operation today). Ashmole’s books and manuscripts were first kept at the museum and then moved to the university’s Bodleian Library in the nineteenth century. The Ashmole manuscripts include numerous rare alchemical texts. One of the manuscripts, Ashmole 782, is currently missing. As a scholar, I’ve done a lot of research in the Ashmole alchemical manuscripts and always wondered what Ashmole 782 might contain.

Q. From the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the nineteenth century to the current Twilight series, vampires have always fascinated the reading public. What is the appeal of the occult novel? What kind of freedom from the ordinary does it provide, both for readers and writers?

Vampires are relative newcomers among the supernatural creatures who have fascinated readers. The word “vampire” wasn’t even used in English-speaking countries until the early eighteenth century. Before that, readers were far more interested in ghosts, devils, witches, daemons (and demons), and exotic hybrid creatures like dragons and the basilisk. The appeal of all these creatures—and vampires, too—is that they help to explain the inexplicable. Readers and writers are given the opportunity to suspend belief and wonder How do I know there aren’t witches? and even more important What if there are?

Q. Diana and Matthew’s story ends on a mysterious note. What do you see as the next step in their adventure?

Diana and Matthew have known each other only for forty days. That’s not much time to get to know someone and fall in love. Besides, falling in love is rather easy compared with staying in love and growing into a relationship. The next step of their adventure will begin just where their last step left off—and the adventure will involve all kinds of new discoveries about themselves, each other, and the creatures who share their world.

From wordswithwriters.com:

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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Review: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls trilogy novel #1), by Deborah Harkness

TLDR recap:

Diana Bishop doesn’t want to be a witch and she tries very hard to avoid using her magic, but after she accidentally breaks a powerful protection spell and uncovers an ancient manuscript, her life will never be the same.  This is a smart, classy, heart-warming tale of witches, daemons, and vampires, and the ties that bind them.

    • Title: A Discovery of Witches
    • Series: The All Souls Trilogy – book #1
    • Author: Deborah Harkness
    • Prominent Characters: Diana Bishop, Matthew Clairmont
    • Recommended reader age: 15+
    • Sexual content level: Very light, nearly none

Thoughts:

Starting out, I expected not to like this book.  I’m not sure why – I just had a “bleh” feeling about reading it.  Maybe it was the length.  Maybe it was my fondness for smutty novels (which this absolutely is NOT).  Maybe because it was assigned to me as part of a book club (and I generally dislike authority *grin*).  Whatever the reason, I am SO GLAD I stuck this out and committed myself to reading it!  I was told this before I started, and I’m verifying it now by passing it on: unless you are the scholarly type who enjoys hanging out in libraries, the first quarter of the book is slow.  Very methodical.  Very Diana Bishop, actually, who is the first-person voice for the story.  I skimmed much of the pre-Matthew chapters, which I wouldn’t actually recommend because I missed out on some critical information and had to go back and re-read.  That said, once I realized there was a relationship blooming between Diana and Matthew (I went into this with as little information as possible), it was  much easier reading.  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for romances!  =)

‘A Discovery of Witches’ (ADoW) is The Da Vinci Code meets The Fellowship of the Ring (complete with three subnovels, albeit unlabelled as such), The Pillars of the Earth meets Angels and Demons.  If the Twilight Saga (TTS) weren’t obviously written and released first, I’d think *it* was a teenage adaptation of *this* book, minus the witches and daemons.  I know, *GASP!!*, but hear me out and think about it.  There are many similarities between ADoW and TTS: the forbidden relationship between a vampire and his human love & the war that ensues, the families closing ranks to protect them and wage that war, the evil council determined to pry them apart (for political gain & maneuvering) by any means possible, the slow pace of the sexuality in the relationship and the prospect of a child who is like neither and both parents, the frail heroine who grows into her own strength and power so she can protect her mate and family.

ADoW has a fairly deep cast of characters, in both the sheer number of them and the level of development given to some of the secondaries.  Many romance-centric novels focus on the hero and heroine to the detriment of most of the other players.  Ms. Harkness skillfully weaves in enough personality and details about many of the secondary characters to help the reader accept them as an integral part of the story.  As the book goes on, it becomes more of an ensemble cast (including the house itself!), providing a nice warm fuzzy family base for the primary couple.

Aside from the strange mix of first-person and omniscient narration (which is ideal for the characters’ individual personalities), the scientific talk of DNA and such was just understandable enough to be interesting without being offputting.  There were some thought-provoking passages during the DNA discussions and explanations, alluding to things like how our lifestyles and choices throughout our evolution directly affect our DNA mutations as a species across time.  That’s some high-brow stuff and should be discouraging to many people who aren’t schooled in that science, but I found Ms. Harkness expressed these ideas clearly & simply enough so that I could both follow along and still make my own leaps of thought.

Memorable quotes:

I love the allegory in this… on so many levels!

“There’s more to the game than protecting your queen,” Hamish said.  “Why do you find it so difficult to remember that it’s the king who’s not expendable?”

“The king just sits there, moving one square at a time.  The queen can move so freely.  I supposed I’d rather lose the game than forfeit her freedom.”

Aww, humans are special too!

“<Vampires> have strength and long life, you have supernatural abilities, daemons have awe-inspiring creativity.  Humans can convince themselves up is down and black is white.  It’s their special gift.”

Imagination, the spark of life…

Remember, Diana: ‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”


If you like A Discovery of Witches…

Ok, this is a tough one.  Most of the books I review really aren’t anything like this one.  It would be easy to fall back on my standard “Read Cassie Palmer!” (because she time travels and people are trying to kill her too), or mention one of my other traditional favorites (Cat & Bones, Black Dagger Brotherhood), but honestly, ADoW is not nearly as similar to those series as it is to others that are outside the genres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  I mentioned a few above, and since I thought of them while reading, I’m going to recommend those instead.  Now I know some purists may be offended at my comparing this book to any work of Tolkien.  Yes, I know, Tolkien is something special and rare and making offhand references to Fellowship is sacrilege… yeah yeah, whatever!  The truth (as I see it) is, if you liked Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, then you will appreciate the level of detail and thought that went into building the universe and storyline of this novel, and that is a pretty high compliment to Ms. Harkness.  Personally, I prefer the narrative style of ADoW to the  excruciatingly-specific-and-flowery Fellowship passages since it makes it easier to read.  Yep, I’m a blasphemer!  *grin*

ADoW also reminded me a little bit of the Dan Brown novels ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’.  Again, that’s probably a controversial comparison, but think about the depth of the mystery here and how rooted it is in existing history, science, art, and lore.  Ms. Harkness is a decorated scholar and historian, and that really shines through in this novel.

Finally, I referenced The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  This is another work of fiction (which does NOT focus on a primary couple romantically) that is rich in history and intrigue.  It is set in the middle ages, during the age of the great cathedral builders, and is a stimulating journey through the life struggles, politics, and construction of the majestic structures of the period.

Final thoughts:

‘A Discovery of Witches’ is cleverly compelling and affectionately engrossing.  It is a rediscovery of the senses and the intellect, a celebration of indulgence through science.  This is the kind of story that can inspire a new generation of aspiring scholars or speculative conspiracy theorists.  It tugs at the heart strings with a cast of characters and plotline that is rich in such diversity of race, nationality, sexuality, and culture that it’s nearly impossible not to enjoy.

I would like to give this novel 4.75 or 5 fangs, but the first quarter put me to sleep a few times until I finally got into it.  In light of that, I’ll give it a solid 4.5 fangs and two enthusiastic thumbs up.  With all the curveballs Ms. Harkness sent our way and with all the new possibilities that opened up in the final chapters, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Rating:
4.5 fangs: BITE IT!

Related links:

http://deborahharkness.com/

http://www.tolkien-online.com/

http://danbrown.com/

http://ken-follett.com/

http://www.karenchance.com/ (Cassie Palmer)

http://jeanienefrost.com/ (Cat & Bones)

http://www.jrward.com/bdb/ (Black Dagger Brotherhood)

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