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Witchcraft: A Halloween Talk with Deborah Harkness

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It’s nearly Halloween, so soon the streets will be thronged with superheroes and pirates and princesses and politicians.  And, of course, witches and vampires.

These supernatural beings also crowd the pages of popular literature, and have long been a staple of primetime television shows and feature films, from “Bewitched” to “True Blood,” “Dracula” to “Twilight.”

So if you’re a writer, and you’re going to enter this crowded field of spellbinders and fang-flashers, you’d better have something special going for you.  How about a history degree, and a practical knowledge of alchemy?

Deborah Harkness is the bestselling author of “A Discovery of Witches” and “Shadow of Night” and has a third book is in the works.  She joined me at the WNYC studios on a fittingly stormy day to talk about her books, in which science, politics, history, and myth intersect.

“I was a terrible science student and for a long time I thought I just didn’t understand science. It turned out that I didn’t understand post-Newtonian science. I could actually understand how people thought scientifically about the world in the past. I took a course on “Magic, Alchemy, and Astrology” at Mount Holyoke, and it was a whole new awakening for me, a way of thinking about the world primarily in terms of concepts and words rather than mathematical formulas.”

Harkness went on to an academic career—she teaches history at the University of Southern California—but sometime in 2008 she began to hear what she describes as “a hum” in her head, which turned out to be the incipient voices of her characters.

The leading figures in Harkness’s “All Souls Trilogy” are Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch, and Matthew Clairmont, a world-weary vampire. They are drawn together on a search for an ancient manuscript. Along the way, they fall in love (natch) but Harkness hoped to protect her creations from the stigma of cliché with some unusual tactics.  The first was a common-sense approach to the idea of the supernatural world.

“If they are out there, why don’t I see them? What do they do all day?” So in Harkness’s fictional world, supernatural creatures are fully assimilated, instead of lounging about in covens, nightclubs, or coffins.  They run research labs, and hedge funds, and teach yoga and crack genetic codes.

And then, there’s courtship: “All my friends who thought it would be romantic to have a vampire boyfriend—I thought, “what are you going to do for a date?  You can’t cook him dinner—are you going to go bowling?”

(An early scene in the first book has Diana inviting Matthew for a meal, and being utterly stymied about the menu—she winds up calling the local zoo for advice.)

Harkness’s other defense against the predictable was to make the stakes (you should forgive the expression) bigger.  The books’ major plot involves a crisis among the magical community of creatures (there are daemons, in addition to witches and vampires). The missing manuscript, Ashmole 782, may hold the key to their survival.

She says that as an historian she’s always been struck by the serendipity of long-lost sources suddenly coming to light and changing how we see the world.  “There are moments when it seems like the past reaches forward and grabs us by the throat, as if it’s saying, “Pay attention—there’s something I want to show you.”

In “Shadow of Night” Matthew and Diana travel back to the Elizabethan era in pursuit of Ashmole 782, and to find someone who can help Diana take control of her unpredictable magic.  The setting was inspired by a real-life historical figure, Matthew Roydon, whom Harkness encountered while writing her thesis on the poet George Chapman. 

Chapman dedicated a poem to him and he appears in a number of period sources but his life is tantalizingly obscure.    That, Harkness decided, is because he was really a vampire, so he becomes Matthew Clairmont’s Elizabethan nom de plume.  She comments, “He really shaped the narrative and the cast of characters.”  These include Elizabethan literary and political figures such as Chapman, Henry Cecil, Christopher Marlowe (an unflattering portrayal) and Mary Sidney, a practicing chemist ahead of her time.  (Harkness wisely left that “upstart crow” Will Shakespeare in the margins.)

She offered a few hints about book three: the setting will be the present, there will be a revelation about the elusive manuscript, and Diana will come fully into her powers.

“Often in books I find female power to be cartoonish—power is a process, an evolution; it has responsibilities; it’s not as simple as picking up your lightening bolt and throwing it at someone.”

The trilogy has been optioned by Warner Brothers. Harkness was delighted, but wary, until she heard that the playwright David Auburn, author of “Proof,” had been hired to write the screenplay. This seemed to signal that the studio was taking her seriously:

“This is story about big ideas—survival and extinction and love and change and acceptance and power—not just about candlelit dinners and passionate embraces.”

Listen to my interview with Deborah Harkness by clicking on the player above.