On August 1, 2012, I had the honor of attending a reading & signing by author Deborah Harkness. I walked on clouds for weeks afterward. She read two sections from Shadow of Night & answered some questions regarding the series. She was very kind and I wish I had more time to talk to her, but there was a line behind me.
Located below are the questions asked by those in attendance. Permission was granted by Harkness to post the q&a (thank you!). Some of the questions are phrased in a way that is meant for her to answer, but instead of “I” you’ll see them answered in third person. The reason for this is partly because of the way my notes were written. I was scribbling like crazy in the background while she spoke.
Please note: There is a spoiler at the end. I asked this question to her privately. I’ll make sure to remind you as you read that there is a spoiler before you get it to, so if you haven’t read Shadow of Night, you won’t hate me for spoiling it. Other than that the rest of the questions / answers are spoiler free.
How did you come up with the concept of A Discovery of Witches?
It was while she was on vacation, at the airport she saw a series of books on vampires living amongst us. She began to ask questions, such as, if vampires lived how did they keep their identity secret? What profession would they be in? She began to ask family members and friends these questions. She then began to write down ideas and from there began to write A Discovery of Witches.
Do you share any similarities with Diana?
She laughed when asked this question because she says she gets asked this a lot. They are both historians with an interest in Elizabethan England with regards to alchemy. She too like Diana has spent countless hours at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Diana comes across a long lost manuscript, Ashmole 782, and Harkness herself found an ancient once thought to be lost book of spells, Book of Soyga.
Which character is she more like?
Diana’s aunt Emily.
Why does Matthew know every famous historical figure?
Matthew knows everyone because he’s actually based in part on a real life person. George Chapman wrote a poem called “The Shadow of Night” (which book 2 gets its title from) and dedicated it to a fellow poet by the name of Matthew Roydon. There’s no known information about Roydon and Champan was familiar with group members that made up The School of Night. Harkness came across Roydon’s name while writing her master’s thesis. When she began to write A Discovery of Witches it made sense to use Matthew Roydon as part of Matthew Clairmont‘s past (readers know that he is Roydon) because there’s no information about him. What if Roydon was a vampire? Part of how she thinks and weaves pieces of the past in her books.
Why write about Diana’s life being difficult in the 16th century?
Life for a woman in the 16th century was more like a never ending family vacation. Add the mixture of being a witch, then you know life would be extremely difficult. As historians we think we know history and how to act, but put in that situation, in a time period we’re familiar with and we come realize we don’t know that much. She wanted to showcase that.
Was Philippe Clairmont based on a real person?
No he wasn’t.
How did the books come together?
Through various pieces. Mostly imagination, pulling threads of the past that were perhaps weird / quirky, and throw in a house with character and you get a recipe that just comes together.
What can you tell us about the locations in your books especially those in Shadow of Night?
Most of the places mentioned (Oxford, Prague, France) Harkness has lived in and spent years researching. She needs to visit a place in order for it to come alive and has to be there to relate to it.
Is there a difference in writing fiction vs. nonfiction?
Yes. When you write nonfiction and you get writers block you can go back to research and usually that will be help you, however; when you encounter writer’s block for fiction writing there is nothing you can do, but just wait. She said she had 3 ½ weeks of writers block during A Discovery of Witches and was afraid she wouldn’t be able to move past it.
Can you say anything about book 3?
No. It’s still being written. It took a year to write Shadow of Night. Finished it the second week of January 2012 and publisher pushed to get it in the hands of readers by June. With any luck hopefully once book 3 is complete with the edits, etc it will be in readers hands as quickly as possible.
Was there a different title for A Discovery of Witches?
No. It was always the title. It comes from witchhunter, Matthew Hawkin’s, 17th century book with the same title. When she submitted the manuscript, publisher thought of changing it, but never did. By the time promo and press release information had been released the name still hadn’t changed.
What is the relationship of alchemy to witches?
Alchemy is part of the Occult sciences in the 16th century and very important to it. It’s a combination of magic, religion, and science. It also is about power, describing things and how questions get answered. Alchemy is the beginning of lab science as we know it. It’s tied to the naturalist way of thinking of the way of the world and how it is connected with power to be had along with theology.
Who do you see as Matthew in the films?
Refused to answer the question, saying she doesn’t want to put the actor that gets the job on the spot by being told that she imagined / wanted someone else.
Will the books be made into three separate films?
As of right now that is the plan. The books are still in script development.
Will we find out what happens to Diana’s Aunt Emily in book 3?
Yes. One reason why Harkness left us in the dark regarding Emily is because at one point in our lives (before cell phones) we might not get the news of someone passing for days . In her case she didn’t know the passing of a close family member until the end of the day. In many ways she wanted to bring that type of memory back into our lives. Life before technology.