DEBORAH CROMBIE: If you've been in a bookstore since February, looked at books online or read reviews, it will come as no surprise that Deborah Harkness's A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is one of the publishing sensations of the year, if not the decade. It debuted at #2 on the New York Times list--a buzz indeed for a first novel. And now both A Discovery of Witches and its upcoming sequel have been optioned by Warner Brothers for films.
The surprise? Deborah Harkness is an academic, an historian who teaches European history and the history of science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her previous books were non-fiction and include John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. She also writes a popular wine blog, Good Wine Under $2o.
I read A Discovery of Witches on the recommendation of my editor, and was . . . bewitched. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar, an American on an extended stay in Oxford studying ancient manuscripts on the history of science. She is also a witch, descended from one of the preeminent families of Salem witches, who has refused to use her powers. But her life takes an unexpected twist when she encounters an enchanted manuscript in the Bodleian Library, along with the interest of a very sexy vampire named Matthew Clairmont who also happens to be a geneticist.
PEOPLE MAGAZINE calls A Discovery of Witches ". . . a wonderfully imaginative grown-up fantasy with all the magic of Harry Potter or Twilight. . . An irresistible tale of wizardry, science and forbidden love, Discovery will leave you longing for the sequel. . . . A first novel that casts a singular spell.”
As indeed it does. Magic, science, Oxford, France, enchanted books, a gripping love story, and the highest stakes--the balance of the world as we know it. I barely put the book down from beginning to end, and when I finished it I picked it up and started over. Deborah Harkness--DEB from this point on--has created literary magic, a world the reader won't want to leave.
DEBS (DEBORAH CROMBIE): I had the oddest feeling of parallelism when I read A Discovery of Witches. (And the parallel names were a nice touch, too. For consistency's sake we're using the British version of my nickname and the American version of Deb's, although we both answer to either.)
It was as if you'd taken all the books and places and things that I most loved, and stirred them into something entirely new and unique. Oxford was my Mecca for a good twenty years of my formative imaginative life. I wanted to be an Inkling, drinking pints and having fascinating conversations in The Bird and Baby (officially The Eagle and Child) in Oxford with Tolkien, Lewis, and the poet Charles Williams. The souvenir I brought home from my very first trip to England, and to Oxford? A poster of the Radcliffe Camera (home to the additional reading rooms of the Bodleian Library.) It still hangs in my office.
Who did you read that sparked your imagination?
DEB (DEBORAH HARKNESS): I think I bought the same poster--but it's long gone now!
It's so hard to isolate a single source of inspiration for the book. The immediate spark was being in an airport bookstore, where I was struck by how our modern interest in vampires, ghosts, daemons, and witches seemed so similar to the interest my research subjects had in these subjects--way back in 1558. But there was certainly an element of pulling together ingredients from many areas of my life into a kind of stew: places like Oxford or upstate New York that I loved, activities I engage in like yoga or research, passions like wine, and the history and mythology that has made my imagination hum since I was a child.
And, as a teacher, I am fascinated with the way women struggle with their own power. I see it in my classroom all the time, but less so in popular culture (except in ugly caricatures).
Because I'm a professional non-fiction reader, my last extended forays into fiction were in the late 1980s. If I had to pick the two novels that probably influenced A Discovery of Witches the most they would be A. S. Byatt's Possession and Anne Rice's The Witching Hour. Both were published in 1990, just as began my dissertation research. I still remember staying up all night to read them.
DEBS: Ah, Possession. I should have known. That book is on my lifetime Top Ten list. . . Then there is tea . . . You discovered an interest in wine (which I also share) when you were living in northern California and teaching at Davis, but what prompted your passion for tea? Was it spending time teaching and studying in England?
DEB: My passion for tea has childhood roots. My mother is British, so there was always tea in the house and wonderful teapots. I love the ritual of afternoon tea, too (and morning tea, and evening tea...)
DEBS: And rowing! My latest book, out in February, is set in Henley-on-Thames and revolves around rowing. This was an entirely new thing for me--I'd never been near a scull until I started the research for this book, but I found it beautiful, brutal, and addictive. I loved the fact that your heroine, Diana, is a rower--are you?
DEB: I'm looking forward to reading the latest Gemma and Duncan adventure even more if there's rowing in it! I *was* a rower. My roommate at Mt. Holyoke College was a serious athlete and member of the crew team, and she introduced me to the Concept 2 rowing machine and the basic aspects of the stroke, but I never had the commitment or time to do the sport there. At Oxford, however, I became a member of the Keble College Boat Club and rowed and coached for several happy years while doing dissertation research at the Bodleian. I guess books and boats go together for me. I'm a terrible sculler, though. I like the big boats!
DEBS: You've constructed a very logical world in which the supernatural may have scientific, and particularly genetic, grounding. I'm a biologist by education and have for years been fascinated by Darwin and his theories. You've said that the first glimmer of the idea for A Discovery of Witches was wondering "If there were vampires,what did they do for a living?" What led you to the idea that genetics might be involved in the differentiation between the witches,vampires, daemons, and humans in your story?
DEB: As a historian of science, I study how people build up plausible accounts of the world and how it works. I know the kinds of questions scientists have asked about nature over the past several thousand years, and the various avenues they've taken to answer those questions. It was a logical process for me to start with a straightforward proposition (there ARE supernatural creatures living alongside humans) then proceed to questions about habitat (where they'd live and what they'd do), then dig deeper into questions of similarity and difference. The next step is to wonder if these differences result from nature or nurture? Plus, I should point out that I started writing the book in the fall of 2008, which is when historians of science began to gear up for the Darwin anniversary, so my mailbox was stuffed with conference invitations and other information about evolution. There's another spark of inspiration for the story.
DEBS: There are writers who set out to write best sellers, drawn by the idea of fame and fortune. But there's very little of either for most of us--not to mention the fact that writing is bloody hard work. Most writers put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, in their equivalent of JK Rowling's Edinburgh coffee house, because they have the germ of an idea for a story and they want to see if they can tell it. Was this true for you, and were you at all prepared for the success of A Discovery of Witches?
DEB: I was not prepared for it AT ALL--either for the writing process or the success that came after. Who could be--least of all a middle-aged college professor? I never dreamed I'd do such a thing. With respect to the writing, the last creative writing I did before A Discovery of Witches was in 10th-grade English. Though I've published two books of academic non-fiction, writing fiction turned out to be very different. It was at once more exhilarating and more exhausting. When the manuscript went out to publishers for consideration, I just hoped someone would agree to publish it. That way, I could justify continuing to write fiction while returning to my long-planned academic book on the culture of experiment in the early Royal Society! And contrary to popular opinion, the fact that there was a vampire in the book did NOT make it easier to find a publisher. There were editors who said "no more vampires," and that was that.
As for the success itself, thinking about it can be overwhelming and more than a little surreal. I prefer instead to focus on the happy reader who writes a note on Twitter to say "I loved your book, I'm planning a vacation to Oxford, and learning more about wine." That's a measure of success I can grasp. While there is a lot of advice out there to keep people writing through difficult times, there isn't a lot of guidance for those of us lucky enough to be published. Thankfully I had excellent support from my editor and her colleagues at Viking, who steered me through what can be a complicated and mysterious process. I've also been so grateful when established authors have reached out and offered me the wisdom of their experience and a shoulder to lean on--whether its been about how to pack for a book tour or how hard it is to write a second novel. (Answers: as much black knit clothing as you can fit into a suitcase and much harder than the first!)
DEBS: I have to agree on both the answers. I've never learned to pack properly, and, now working on book #15 (yikes!), I have to say they have never gotten easier. But I hope that won't deter you, as I can't wait for the next book!