Life Goes On
Bestselling author and historian Deborah Harkness says good-bye to the All Souls Trilogy with her final installment, The Book of Life, and gears up to teach a new seminar on public history.By Michelle Boston
July 2, 2014
Deborah Harkness' #1 New York Times bestselling All Souls Trilogy ends with the publication of The Book of Life (Viking Adult) on July 15. The series, including A Discovery of Witches (2011) and Shadow of Night (2013), follows the adventures of historian Diana Bishop, a witch with deep ties to Salem, and Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist and vampire. Their love story takes them around the globe — even through time — to uncover the mystery of an enchanted manuscript that may hold the secrets to the existence of all supernatural creatures. Speaking with USC Dornsife’s Michelle Boston, Harkness, professor of history, continues to captivate.
M.B.: Can you give us a teaser of the final installment of the All Souls Trilogy?
D.H.: Readers can look forward to revisiting the characters and places they’ve loved in the series, as well as some surprises and the tying up of the plot.
M.B.: How did you feel about concluding the story? Did you worry about angering your fans if you ended it ‘wrong’?
D.H.: It was strange finishing the trilogy. Suddenly, my house seemed very quiet! I’ve been living with the characters for five years, after all. As for the fans, I hope they enjoy it, of course. But I can’t write the story they want. I can only write the story that has to be written.
M.B.: You have a very devoted fan base. What have been some of the creative ways that your most fervent fans have shared their appreciation for your books? What kind of reactions have you received from your students at USC Dornsife about the books?
D.H.: Fans have made up Pinterest boards, spun yarn, made quilts, crafted soaps and perfumes, fashioned jewelry — you name it. They are indeed a creative bunch! My students are very respectful of the fact that they’re in my classroom to learn history. But I have more traffic in office hours from students who want to talk about writing fiction, adapting fiction to film and get books signed for their mom!
M.B.: Have you brought any aspect of your trilogy to your teaching?
D.H.: No, but there is a lot of my teaching in the trilogy! Students who do read the books tell me they laugh when they read about something in the book that was a subject of a lecture or discussion, like what life was like at the court of Elizabeth I, how science was practiced in Elizabethan London, or John Dee’s interest in alchemy.
M.B.: Readers have been enchanted by the love story between main characters Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont. What did you enjoy most about devising their adventures and their romance? What will you miss most writing about them?
D.H.: I enjoyed trying to make their relationship real. Both of them are crabby, opinionated academics. It’s not always smooth sailing when two smart people get together, but in fiction it often seems like it. As for what I will miss — everything!
M.B.: What do you bring that is different to the craft of writing fiction as a historian, specifically of Early Modern Europe?
D.H.: I’m not sure, because I’ve never written fiction as anything but a historian. I do have a new appreciation for the difference between careful research of a subject and deep immersion. As a historian, I am deeply immersed in the early modern period. I know how early modern people thought and behaved. In writing the final book, I needed to do research on more modern subjects. As a historian, I know how to research. I was careful. But I don’t have a feeling for the period, and I got things wrong. Happily, I have very generous colleagues who helped to sort me out. I came away with an even greater appreciation for just how hard it is to be a good historian, and how lucky our students are to learn from the very best here at USC.
M.B.: Is there a broader message in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
D.H.: Yes. That empathy is the most important power there is. Without it, we are doomed. With it, we can truly change the world.
M.B.: Are any aspects of the storyline or characters autobiographical in any way?
D.H.: Of course. You have to write what you know. So Matthew has my love of wine, and Marcus my love of sports cars, Diana is a historian, and Emily makes dishes from my recipe box. The Bishop house is based on a house I owned and another one I wished I owned. The list is long!
M.B.: You spent time abroad researching the settings for your books. Can you tell us some of the places you visited and how they helped you to convey their atmosphere in your novels?
D.H.: I visited Prague and Venice specifically for the trilogy. I’d studied both cities, but I knew that I couldn’t bring them to life like I had Oxford or London without visiting them. I also spent time in New Orleans. The most important place I visited, however, was the small village of St.-Arcons-d’Allier in the Auvergne region of south-central France, which became my model for the village of St.-Lucien, Matthew’s hometown.
M.B.: Previously there was talk of developing your books into movies. What is the status of that plan? Any other venues for the series?
D.H.: As often happens, the film option with Warner Brothers lapsed before they went into production. A team of talented, committed people worked very hard to bring the series to cinematic life, but it is a complicated story.
M.B.: Did you books sell more in ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books? Which way do you prefer reading?
D.H.: I honestly have no idea! I suppose I should distinguish between them, but to me a book is a book. Maybe that’s because I study the history of books and reading, and know that format revolutions happen all the time and they are the way of the world. I read hardbacks, paperbacks, online, tablets — you name it. The one thing I can’t do is read on my phone. When I see my students do it, I’m amazed.
M.B.: With the All Souls Trilogy completed, what is your next big project?
D.H.: Spring semester 2015! I’ll be teaching a new seminar on public history and I can’t wait.
(Public history takes students outside traditional academic settings and teaches history through institutions such as archives, historical houses or societies, museums, consulting firms, history libraries and other public venues.)
Read an excerpt from The Book of Life due out on July 15, 2014. Harkness will be touring the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe with The Book of Life. Visit deborahharkness.com for a full list of cities and dates from her book tour.