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Interview: 'Shadow of Night' Author Deborah Harkness

Vania Stoyanova

Deborah Harkness isn’t as well known as J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. But with the publication of “Shadow of Night,” the second tome in her supernatural “All Souls” trilogy, that may be about to change.

“Shadow of Night” picks up right where her last book, “A Discovery of Witches,” left off, with heroine Diana Bishop and her vampire lover, Matthew Roydon, pulling off a daring escape. But she soon learns her escape – which sends her through time to 16th century England – poses additional threats.

Set in a supernatural world where demons, vampires and witches intermingle and overlap with the  historical figures Harkness studies as a professor, the “All Souls” trilogy has alreadybeen acquired by Hollywood. KUT News recently spoke with Harkness on her work, its reception, and what’s next.

KUT News: They say write what you know. I don’t know how many interactions you’ve had with vampires, witches and demons, but you do have a deep background in history. How did that play into developing the series?

Deborah Harkness: Well I am a historian. I’m a history professor at the University of Southern California. So for me the past and books and ideas and myths and legends are a really big part of my life. So while I haven’t met a vampire – at least not to my knowledge – I certainly enjoy playing around in the world of fact and fiction and history that I’ve created here, and hopefully my readers will too.

KUT News: One of the pleasures of the books is the way they weave the fictional characters you’ve created in “Shadow of Night” – Diana and Matthew – with historical figures, like Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. What was it about those historical figures that made them good characters for your novel?

Harkness:  The period that we go back to in “Shadow of Night”, the late 16th century, is the period of my research specialty. So I hang out a lot with those folks in the archives and in my work. And from the very beginning, one of the things that was irresistible to me as a historian when I turned to writing about this fictional vampire, was the that fact that vampires really were kind of walking history. So imagining the places they’d been, the things they’d seen, the people they’d met was really fuel for the imagination. And in the case of “Shadow of Night,” the second book in the trilogy, I knew from the very beginning that my vampire would be in the 16th century, a man named Matthew Royden, who was one of the most shadowy figures that was associated with this group that included Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, a mathematician named Thomas Harriot. And because I knew a little bit about Matthew Roydon, I used what I knew about Matthew Roydon’s character in the 16th century to shape the fictional character of Matthew Clairmont in the 21st century. So it was actually a case where a real person, about whom we know very little, actually helped shape an imaginary character’s life and interests and style.

KUT News: We see more of that in the books as well – the precipitating incident for the whole story is Diana’s discovery of this mysterious manuscript, and that happens to be in the same library where I believe you did a lot of your research, right?  

Harkness: That’s correct, and the manuscript is actually a real manuscript at that library and it’s really missing. So as a historian I had the frustrating experience of going and asking for a library book. I’m sure a lot of your listeners can relate to this – it’s not on the shelves where it’s supposed to be and the library staff says “We’re sorry, it’s missing.” And I took that experience and that manuscript number and rolled that into my fictional account of these creatures.

KUT News: It is funny because it’s a sort of relatable, or pedestrian, type of concern. I think I saw another interview with you where I think you credited the idea of this series with the fact that there have been lots of books with fantastic creatures like vampires and you said to yourself , ‘Well, what do they do for a day job?’

Harkness: Right, exactly. This was really what got me started – thinking about these very mundane, practical concerns and blending the fantastic with the real in the same way that I try to blend the present with the past. So for me it’s all about that blending process, to the point where you think maybe the guy next door to me with all those strange habits, maybe he could really be a vampire and I just wasn’t thinking about it that way. So that’s part of the fun I have as a writer.

KUT News: There’s been resurgence in fantastic tales featuring supernatural characters. Given your background as a scholar, did you purposely want to create an intelligent female lead within this genre, as opposed to a cocktail waitress or a teenage girl, as in other books?

Harkness: I think it’s about writing what you know.  But it’s also about the fact that I know, as a historian, that interest in these creatures goes way back into the past. So there’ve been long traditions of literature about witches and about demons. Vampires have come kind of late to the party here in the western world but they’ve certainly taken center stage lately. So part of it was again just really exploring and playing with this really big collection of tales and legends. And to do that it just seemed to me to make more sense and be more interesting if the lead characters themselves were somehow involved or somehow knowledgeable about these past traditions in some ways, whether it was the science part of it – how could such creatures exist – or whether it was the history part of it, in terms of knowing. In the case of Diana, what she tries to study is the moment when science made magic go away. So that just added a couple of extra dimensions to the puzzle for me.

KUT News: Going from the past to the present, one of the themes in the books appears to be persecution of witches like Diana. Are there any parallels between the themes of witchly persecution in the books, and our modern era, possibly with regard to women?

Harkness:  I definitely think as a historian that the past can tell us something about the present. But I am struck as I talk about the book with people and I describe what is going on, many readers that I meet on the road say things like “It sounds like today.” And it’s true that we often have a sad tendency as human beings to focus on what divides us instead of what we have in common. And when we do that we tend to have people that we identify as the ‘other’ or the enemy and we tend not to treat them very well – whether it’s rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps, or genocide, or marginalizing them in society, diminishing their place in the world. So sometimes we think we don’t do that anymore and sadly we do. And it would be wonderful if we could think about what we have in common a little bit more, and what makes us not like that guy across the street a little bit less.

KUT News: Here we are with “Shadow of Night” being in the middle of this three novel series. How much progress have you made on the conclusion of the series and how far out was the whole story plotted in your mind before you started working on it?

Harkness: Well I am working on the third book – it is not finished yet but it’s well under way. When I began the whole process, I really had in mind a single book in three parts. So I was pretty clear on what the beginning, middle and end were about. As I got writing it got longer and longer and I think that was partly due to my inexperience as a writer – that I thought I could accomplish so much in a single volume. So instead of a single book in three parts, it’s three parts in three books. But I do know where we’re going, and I know how it wraps up, and that’s an enormous help throughout the whole process of writing – to have a really clear sense of what the finish line is.

KUT News: The film rights have been sold to the “All Souls” trilogy. How does that feel as a writer when your work is being translated into another medium? Do you see it as a continuation of your own work, or branching off of that? What are your feelings about that?

Harkness: I think a movie is really a translation of a book into another language, from the written word into the visual language of film. And you have to let it go and be willing to let people make that translation. It won’t be word for word what I have down, but it will hopefully be faithful to the spirit and the content of the first book. It’s a little bit like what happens when I hand my students a book and a paper assignment, and I say to them ‘OK here’s the book, here’s the question, go off and write your paper.’ I can’t stand over them and point my finger and say ‘Nope, don’t do that. Well, you shouldn’t have written that down.’ I have to let them get on with what they need to do and we go from there. So it’s a little nerve wracking but it’s terribly exciting to have the book have the possibility of being translated in that fashion.    

KUT News: Well my last question here - I see you have written a lot about wine, so I was wondering what kind of wine do you like to drink when you’re writing?

Harkness: Well I tend not to drink very much when I’m writing because I need a clear head. I like to relax with a glass of wine after I’m done writing for the day. And one of the things that’s great about wine is that every single bottle is different. So I have to say I’m a little bit of a curious wine consumer. I’m always on the hunt for a new grape, a new label, a new maker. And part of what I love about drinking wine is the shear adventure of it. So I don’t go back to the same thing over and over again. If it’s new and I haven’t had it before, it’s my favorite for that moment.

KUT News: That sounds like good rules to live by as a writer as well.

Harkness:  That’s right!

KUT News: My final last question – Are you going to be coming to Austin for a book tour?

Harkness: I was at Austin for “A Discovery of Witches.” I’m not out in Austin for this leg of the “Shadow of Night” tour. But hopefully I’ll catch you guys for the paperback edition and see you down the road.

This interview was transcribed by Era Sundar, and has been edited for clarity. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.