Interview with Deborah Harkness

Posted by Goodreads on September 1, 2018
Deborah Harkness is a history professor and author of the bestselling All Souls Trilogy (A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life), which centers on the forbidden love of Diana Bishop, an Oxford scholar and witch, and Matthew Clairmont, a scientist and vampire. As their worlds collide, the reader is taken back and forth in time and into the underground world of vampires, witches, and daemons. Time's Convert follows those same characters but focuses on Marcus Whitmore and his human love, Phoebe Taylor, as she embarks on her chosen new life as a vampire, while also diving into Marcus' human past and earliest years as a vampire in the de Clairmont family.

Harkness talked to Goodreads contributor Janet Potter about coming up with thousands of years of backstory for her characters, not letting the historical details overwhelm her stories, and the surprising book she read for research.

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Goodreads: The British television adaptation of A Discovery of Witches is airing soon on Sky One, correct?

Deborah Harkness: It starts on Friday, the 14th of September, at 9 p.m.—but who's counting? I was actually watching the final sound mix for episode six when you called. I'm reviewing the penultimate version before all the special effects get tweaked and perfected.

GR: Do you get to give notes, or are you just a viewer?

DH: I'm an executive producer, so I do get to give notes. There's a lot of talented people in the process, though, so I'm by no means in control, but I do get to give input.

GR: Will it air in the United States as well?

DH: Not at exactly the same time. It's going to be on the new AMC family of networks' streaming platform, Sundance Now. It will also be on Shudder in Canada, and I'm told once it's been on the streaming platform, it will also be on the Sundance Channel. [Editor’s Note: The show will premiere on Shudder and Sundance Now in 2019, and will be available in the United States and in Canada on both services.]

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GR: What should fans of the original book be excited to see in the television series?

DH: The cast is absolutely superb. I'm so overjoyed by the quality of the cast and the strength of the performances and how much they took these characters to their hearts. I can't wait for people to see the actors at work. The whole crew was so careful and so thoughtful, it's so beautiful.

GR: Time's Convert isn't part of the All Souls Trilogy, but it's not a standalone, either. How do you describe its relationship to the trilogy?

DH: I call it a sequely-prequely thing, which is not really very helpful, but it's accurate. I don't tend to write with a fixed notion of a genre or particular form in mind. I have a story to tell, and I figure out what is the best way to tell it. I am fascinated as both a novelist and a historian with the way time operates. I can't seem to stop playing with that. So we've got a sequely forward narrative thrust, but we've also got a memory-driven retrospective in terms of Marcus' experience. It picks up with all of our characters a year after the events of The Book of Life have finished. The prequely part is that it gives us a chance to look a little bit more closely at Marcus Whitmore's backstory, the story of how he became a vampire and his earliest decades as a vampire.

GR: That must be a benefit of having characters who are centuries, if not millennia, old. You always have more stories to tell about them.

DH: I have file cabinets full of backstories, because I had to know everybody's backstory in order to write one sentence about them. I had to have a whole timeline for every character. I've got a timeline for Philippe, Ysabeau, Gallowglass, Baldwin, and characters who are literally only mentioned, like Freyja. I couldn't invoke her without having a pretty good grasp of who she was and what her life involved.

GR: Are you ever hesitant to introduce a new secondary character, knowing you'll have to create ten lifetimes for them?

DH: I love generating characters. So much so that it makes my editor kind of crazy. It was a big problem in The Book of Life. I really wanted Freyja and a few other new characters in The Book of Life. But it was true they were just bending the story out of shape. The more I got excited about delving into them, the more it took away from Matthew and Diana. It's what I love to do, I do it while I'm in the drive-through, while I'm waiting for the spin cycle, I'm constantly creating little subplots and backstories. The two people who I'm most guilty of doing this for are happily the oldest, Philippe and Ysabeau. I have to know where they are all the time.

GR: Of all the characters from the All Souls Trilogy and their long lives, why did you choose to focus on Marcus in this book?

DH: I was always struck writing the trilogy how very different Matthew was from Marcus. Matthew was born in the early Middle Ages. He was born at a time when there was a lot of instability in Western Europe, where the Christian faith was very strong in some areas and not very strong in others. Marcus was born in the Age of the Enlightenment, the age of revolutions. I just kept thinking, Those two are really different, their hard wiring is really different. If you go from someone who came from colonial Massachusetts with a strong congregational religious background, you cannot have something more different than 6th-century France with a Catholic background. Literally the cosmologies they grew up with were completely different, just in terms of the position of the sun. The more I thought about that, the more I wanted to explore what would have led Marcus to become a vampire, what would have led Matthew to think he had the right stuff to become a vampire, and what the challenges were along the way. Somebody who believes in Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité [the slogan of the French Revolution] is not necessarily going to fit well within the existing framework of the de Clairmont family. It was a super-duper generational conflict. Frankly, I always find family conflict more interesting than just plain old romance.

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GR: One of the major threads of the book is Phoebe Taylor's transformation from human to vampire. When there are so many different versions of the rules of being a vampire, the dos and don'ts, how someone becomes a vampire and what it feels like, how do you balance between relying on vampire folklore and coming up with your own rules?

DH: Here's the honest to God truth: I don't read vampire books. I have never read Dracula. I don't know if that will get me kicked out of the club, but I've never read Dracula. I only found Anne Rice's vampires because of The Witching Hour. I was a huge Buffy fan, I'll admit that. As a result, I don't actually know much of [the lore]. I don't triangulate off of anything. What I was interested in was thinking about the gestational period, or young child development, of a vampire. For that I actually read What to Expect When You're Expecting. I read that and lots of child-rearing books. I read all the things about developmental stages of children and what they go through, when they start acting out, and I applied that. It's one of the reasons why it's a 90-day period. I thought it would be about three months before this newly powerful person was trustworthy, but they'd still be a little fledgling who would have to be watched and monitored. Then I thought, OK, what would the teething stage of a vampire be? When would the learning-to-walk phase happen? When would the teenage years happen, what would that be like? What would day 18 in a vampire's life be like?

GR: Your books cut back and forth between the past and present day, and you do a lot of research about the historical settings. As a historian, is it difficult to keep the historical details at bay?

DH: All the time. As a history professor, if I can find out about it, I do, and then I want to share it. But it's like I tell my own students: I don't want to go on your intellectual journey, I want the payoff at the end. I also have to say to myself, If this was set in modern times, and there was a male protagonist, would he actually describe every inch of a woman's clothing? There are going to be readers who are disappointed that there isn't more luscious attention to clothing. I just don't think that an 18-year-old man would say: "and then there were three tiers of flounces." It wouldn't happen. Would this person describe the table? And the answer is unfortunately no, because I could describe the table for four pages for you. A little history goes a long way; it's like cilantro. You only need a little bit of it to give something texture and life.

GR: Do you feel more pressure to get the period details right, with your academic reputation as a historian on the line?

DH: It's not the historical details that matter to me; it's the interpretations. So what would matter to me is if the leading historian of the French Revolution would read it and say: You actually didn't take into account Suzanne Desan's interpretation of family structures and how they were impacted by the French Revolution. That's what I would be upset about. All of us are all going to get the details wrong. None of us really knows how underwear was constructed in the 16th century because, like, three pieces of it survive, and we generalize based on that.

GR: What historical times or places have you not yet been able to write about that you're excited to?

DH: I was just in Ireland sniffing around, and I can't wait to write about Gallowglass' time in Ireland. And I'm dying to get to Portugal so I can write about Fernando. I have a problem in that it's much easier for me to write about a place if I've spent some time there. In the first books I was writing about places I knew really intimately, and it was really evident when I was writing about a place I didn't know very well. I think I might end up going to Denmark because I kind of like Freyja; I might end up having to write more about Freyja.

GR: Then you've sort of already answered this, but are you working on more books in this series?

DH: I'm working on a couple of follow-ups. One of them is The Serpent's Mirror, which I've been working on for a while, which is about Matthew's life in the 16th century. His life under Henry VII, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, before the events that we're familiar with. I am starting to work on the Gallowglass book, and then I've got this other thing that just started up that I'm excited about but I'm not quite ready to talk about yet. It was a total surprise. I love this period of writing, when it's all about open-ended possibilities.

GR: What is your writing process?

DH: I get up and write longhand for the first hour of every day, before I do anything else other than make coffee. If I can do that, the whole day goes well. If I skip it, it's almost like a ballerina who has to go and do their warm-up. It's my warm-up. As long as I do that, the rest of the day kind of clicks along.

GR: What were your favorite books growing up?

DH: I love Little Women, I loved Anne of Green Gables, I loved Little House on the Prairie. Not surprisingly, what I really loved was family and community stories with strong female characters. And I also loved The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

GR: What's a book you've read recently that you'd recommend?

DH: Oh my gosh, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I was blown away by this book. I don't know what I thought it was going to be, and I read it, and I found it absolutely gripping, so life-affirming. It was dark and light and funny and touching and challenging and hard. It was just like life. I thought it was just an amazing book.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 56 (56 new)

message 1: by Terry (new)

Terry Lair I can't wait for my hard copy to arrive!

message 2: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about her process! I love the trilogy so much that I do not leave the house without one of the books, be it on my Kindle or one of my paper copies!

message 3: by J.E. (new)

J.E. Having loved the books, I am most excited to see them brought to life on the screen. So sad that I won't be able to watch along with the UK crowd! I'm crossing my fingers that I'll be able to get one of the AMC network channels it will be on.

message 4: by Bethany (new)

Bethany Shephard Thank you for this fantastic interview! It’s amazing to get her insight on this process. I’ll definitely be tuning in for the tv adaption and will pre order the book now!

message 5: by Julianne (new)

Julianne I am so excited!!! I'm also not one to have ever read a vampire book. This is just so much more..the history..the relationships..(I'm also a major time travel fan)..just everything. The characters became just so real to me that I felt lost when I finished the last. I was very intrigued with Marcus and his relationships. I'm not one to read a book twice with so much out there...but these are about the only books that I go back to revisit old friends and treasured books that I'll never part with.

My fingers are crossed that NetFlix or Amazon picks up the US rights... I'll just crumble if I can't watch.

On a side note....I would LOVE to have coffee with Ms. Harkness!

message 6: by Heather (new)

Heather I did a re-read this year in anticipation of the TV series. I'm so excited to read more on Marcus and Phoebe. I have hoped that Gallowglass would be another book too! I'm super excited about that!!!

message 7: by Marsha (new)

Marsha Loved the books. Can't wait for the new one & the tv adaptation.

message 8: by Samantha (new)

Samantha I would love to read more about Gallowglass and Fernando. I just re-read the trilogy and got my husband hooked as well! Waiting with great anticipation the TV series.

message 9: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Norris I read all 3 books back to back earlier this summer and loved then. So excited for the new series and more books. Gallowglass is intriguing and loveable. Impatiently waiting for Times Convert for more of this fantastic world you’ve created.

message 10: by Tracey (new)

Tracey Great interview! Can’t wait for my book to arrive 😁

message 11: by Diane (last edited Sep 05, 2018 02:56PM) (new)

Diane I can not WAIT to read this!!! This was a super interview.

message 12: by Claire (new)

Claire Stevenson I hope the TV series going to be aired in Australia. It wasn't mentioned.

message 13: by Angie (new)

Angie Can't wait to read the new book!!

message 14: by Cathy (new)

Cathy G I have read the series 3 times, bought a set for my best friend, and another set for my daughter. I also bought a set for my Kindle. Can you tell I love this series? I pre-ordered Times Convert and am eagerly awaiting it's arrival for my Kindle.

message 15: by Morgan (new)

Morgan Thank you for the wonderful interview! I'm excited for the tv show and the new book! I love the way that Deborah Harkness blends supernatural fantasy with history and academic culture!

message 16: by Martha (new)

Martha I
Am so glad it’s marcus and phoebe. I am excited to read more about them.

message 17: by Susan (new)

Susan Morgan I read the series a few years ago and I’m so excited to see it continued! From paranormal to time-travel, I was all-in from the beginning and fell in love with the characters and their love and respect for each other. Can’t wait to load the new read on n my Kindle!! ❤️

message 18: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Omstead Thank you so much for taking the time to give this interview. Looking forward to many more stories!

message 19: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I am so excited! I definitely need to order the hard copy when available. Eek!

message 20: by Sophie (new)

Sophie Can’t wait 😍

message 21: by Doris (new)

Doris Nash I’ve been listening to the audiobooks this summer. The narrator, Jennifer Ikeda, is really good, and I have gained some new insights while listening!

Can’t wait for the US premiere of the series! I’ll be subscribing to Sundance for sure!

message 22: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Sounds like this will be a great addition to/follow up to the last series. Can’t wait to read the entire thing. This is historical fiction with a twist-like chocolate ice cream with sprinkles & a cherry…yummy.

message 23: by David (new)

David McCarthy I really can't wait to get the new book, but I just wonder if the tv version of A Discovery of Witches will remain true to the books. Great interview btw.

message 24: by Courtenay (new)

Courtenay SO excited about the coming TV series!!! I've read the All Souls Trilogy twice and am about to read it again. Pre-ordered Time's Convert as well... Incredible interview Ms. Potter!

message 25: by Theresa (new)

Theresa This is by far one of my favorite trilogies... looking forward to Marcus' story... so excited to see that Gallowglass gets his own book as well; he was my favorite character... thank you for sharing this interview!

message 26: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Great interview! This is one of my most favorite book series', and I'm thrilled to see there will be more about Matthew! I absolutely love DH and her writing. It's intelligent and entertaining! Can't wait to read more about these characters! (As I anxiously await to release of the show here in the US!)

message 27: by Kristie (new)

Kristie Gallowglass is one of my favorite characters! I am sooooo thrilled that we will get to spend more time with him. Thank you Deborah for sharing your writing process and giving us a peek into how complex these characters are for you.

message 28: by Doreen (new)

Doreen I have just found these books and author. But I am looking forward to reading them and about the author herself

☼♎ Carmen the Bootyshaker Temptress ☼♎ After reading the first three books which I so loved them. I’ve been reading them every so often. I can’t wait for the tv version to see how it goes. I’m so excited

message 30: by Danielle (new)

Danielle What a fabulous interview Ms. Harkness. I loved your books and plan to re-read them again before I delve into Time's Convert. Thank you for sharing your talents in words. I am a huge fan.

Kaleidoscope Eyes I loved these books so much that I bought my mom a set for Christmas and lent mine out ... and ... they never came back. This just goes to show how amazing they are. I'm going to buy this set in hardback, because I see myself reading these over and over, which is something I've only done as a child and with Harry Potter, so this is the best kind of praise from me. Harkness has opened a whole new world of characters, timelines, relationships and time travel to me, and she intersected genres together that have opened my eyes to reading books I never would have picked up. Also, I very much enjoyed reading about her writing process, and hope to have the dedication to apply some of that to myself one day. Cheers to strong female leads and to Harkness's upcoming books and TV series. (Please come to the US soon.)

message 32: by Lynnmarie (new)

Lynnmarie Kelso So happy to hear that Gallowglass' story is in the pipeline!

I have mixed feelings about the TV series--I do not usually love onscreen adaptations of my favorites. Both Outlander and GoT lost me very quickly, and I love both series of books. Outlander is another series I have re-read many times. No matter who the talent is--it cannot match the vividness of your own interior images of the story, and is almost always a disappointment, I find. BTW. like one of the above posters, I gave my set of the trilogy to my mom and it hasn't come back--I keep asking for it, to no avail--going to have to buy myself another set!

message 33: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Maloney I absolutely am going to get this new book! And I can’t wait for the show to air in the US!

message 34: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Great interview!! Thank you!! I have re-read the books and loved them all over again. Very excited for the new one.

message 35: by Jean (new)

Jean Another Frankweiler fan. Another reason to love you!

message 36: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl I loved this interview and I am so excited for my copy to arrive. I’m not one to ever reread a book but have often said if I did the All Souls Trilogy would be it. I have never read anything that compares to that series.

message 37: by Joanna (new)

Joanna I read the trilogy out of sequence and went back a couple years later, re-reading parts I missed. Deborah is a historian describing the most complex depictions of a time period I have personally had an amorous love affair with. The Medievalist will tell you that. I hope the Brits aren't making the TV adaptation salacious. I look forward to this new book! Will look for AMC Sundance Now too.

message 38: by Myri (new)

Myri Have no idea why I haven’t finished the series, but will do so now! The first book was awesome - 5 stars! Can’t wait to watch the new tv series! So glad it’s coming to Canada! Great interview!

message 39: by Natacha (new)

Natacha Silveira Great interview! Fantastic trilogy, and hoping to see tv series soon and getting the new book.

message 40: by Melanie (new)

Melanie I loved reading this interview. I am excited for the TV show. Nothing can really every beat a book, but seeing it come to life in some version is wonderful. I am looking forward to addtional travels into this world, particularly for Gallowglass.
Listening to the trilogy by audiobook has become a great way to re-read this series for me. The narrator is fantastic! I hope she is used for future audiobooks in this world.

message 41: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Wearmouth Thanks for this great interview with one of my favorite authors! Anxiously awaiting Time's Convert.

message 42: by Kim (new)

Kim What is Sky One and when will it be available in the U.S. ? Also excited for the new books...

message 43: by Zveni (new)

Zveni Dana I will say in the beginning thank you for your books. I read them and listen them many times and I do have lot and lot of question, but, I will be patience and wait for the next book and for the next and so on.
Of course I will buy all of them, you are a kind of writer who deserve to be in my library. ( I confessed I read a lot in past 2 years - like 500 books or so but few of them rest on my shelf).
Waiting anxiously to read/listen the new book.

message 44: by Ginger (new)

Ginger I have listened to this story, and have to say I enjoyed it immensely, but I have so many questions. About Phillip, Baldwin, Eric, Fernando, I need history’s, how did Phillip get so much power, why is Baldwin so bitter, what happened to Eric, does he ever find his mate. Hugh and Fernando what was their story?
I am happy that we know Marcus’s story and he found peace, with Phoebe.

message 45: by Riccarda (last edited Sep 24, 2018 03:53AM) (new)

Riccarda One of my favorite books and I cannot wait to see the series ... I am so happy it's finally happening

Hannah (Sakurahan or ForeverBooks18) Currently reading ADOW! Can’t wait to get to the others 😀.

message 47: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Necastro I loved the book! I wish I could have my own interview with Deborah! Hugh and Ysabeau are the characters I’m most curious about!

message 48: by Oscar (new)

Oscar Garcia For those of you that can't wait to see the televised version of "A Discovery of Witchs" I've just finished the first three episodes on Youtube!

message 49: by Joy (new)

Joy Greenway Love the books and hope the tv series screens in Australia next year. Can't wait for Gallowglass's story, he has intrigued me from the first.

message 50: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Dragičević I have read trilogy and have to admit:TV series is really really good!
Ofcourse there is no way to put everything from books in it but it's made very good and I'm looking forward to see season 2. Love the choice of Matthew and Diana actors! And can't wait to get my hands on "Time's convert" :-)

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