A Night of Magic with Dr. Deborah Harkness
By Kurt Bali
The Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Library experienced an evening of witchy fun July 25 when Dr. Deborah Harkness, best-selling author of A Discovery of Witches, visited here as part of the promotional tour for her new book, Shadow of Night. Her latest work is a sequel to Discovery and the second book of the All Souls trilogy.
The event was presented by Left Bank Books as part of their annual Reading Group Appreciation Night, featuring a number of recommended books (at ten percent off) perfect for group discussion on sale in the library’s lobby. Kicking off the evening were Penguin Books’ Midwest Rep Gerry Flavin, Eric Heidemann, a commission rep with Fuji Associates, and Left Bank Books Events Coordinator Danielle Borsch. All were on hand to provide their respective well-researched suggestions for books to be read and discussed.
Flavin opened the show with a comment that had the assembled literary fans nodding like a field of bobbleheads in a strong breeze. “I’m glad to be here with people who read,” he said. “With all the online distractions we have today, it’s nice to be around readers.” A true statement if there ever was one. I’m not against tablets and e-readers (I have a Kindle and iBooks on my phone), but there is, in my opinion, nothing better than holding a book in a comfy chair, surrounded by silence, and absorbing the knowledge within like a sponge.
Up next, Heidemann provided some insight on just how many books flood the market each year and why Left Bank Books is so valuable to members of the St. Louis reading community. “There are a staggering amount of books published each year, approximately 270 thousand,” he said. “You’re lucky to have a place like Left Bank Books that is able to get the top tenth of one percent of books out there. They carry good books. To me, a good book is one that sticks, one that you can’t get out of your head.”
Wrapping up the book recommendation portion of the evening was Rorsch, performing double duty as both a book reviewer and the event’s emcee. The bubbly bibliophile represented, both during this event as well as others I’ve attended in addition to her daily duties at the store, why Flavin is correct in his assessment regarding readers. Joy is infectious, especially when that joy emanates from a place of passion. It is evident at every Left Bank Books event Rorsch attends, she is passionate about her job and the books she helps promote.
The main event of the night was University of Southern California history professor Dr. Deborah Harkness, who created within A Discovery of Witches what People called a mixture of Harry Potter and Twilight, but for grownups. (As a “grownup” who has read the entire Harry Potter series at least seven times, I would argue that point, but I digress.)
“I would just like to thank the fire witches who provided tonight’s weather,” Harkness said, referencing the Hades-esque heat St. Louis has endured since March to a laughing audience. “I’m thankful to the libraries that host events like this and for the people who attend them. Seeing people here shows me books are not dead.”
Harkness, whose specialty is 15th-18th century history, specifically in the areas of magic and historical fiction, came seemingly out of nowhere with Discovery. Her initial foray into the world of fiction (she has penned non-fiction books as well as an award-winning wine blog) debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and was a bestseller in countries all over the world. It is the story of a woman who learns she is a witch and inadvertently calls up a group of demons, witches, and a 1,500-year-old vampire with whom she eventually falls in love.
Her latest novel follows protagonist Diana Bishop and her blood-sucking beau, Matthew Clairmont, as they travel through time to Elizabethan London in search of a mystical manuscript. Harkness’ in-depth research into this era and place shines as she is able to link Clairmont with some of the biggest historical names of the day, including Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. Harkness went on to read a couple of passages from the new book to the delight of the audience.
“Living in the 1500s is like a big family vacation, in that you’re never left alone,” she said of the book’s primary setting. “It’s like being in that early phase of being in love and the other partner says ‘Let’s meet my family.’ Now, you have to deal with their history and their back stories as well your partner’s.”
According to Harkness, much of Shadow of Night focuses on the relationship between Diana and Matthew. “The first book took place over 40 days,” she said. “Falling in love is easy, staying in love is the trick.”
Harkness invited the audience to ask questions, asking only that they be considerate of new readers and not divulge any information that would spoil either of the books for them. The first question was regarding the accuracy of the descriptions of the witches and their magic during that time frame. As a Ph.D who has studied that specific era and its magic, it’s pretty safe to say she got it right. “I took a lot of the folklore from that time, so it’s mostly historical. It was an agriculture-based culture so most of the fears surrounded elemental magic, such as witches who made storms. They feared the weather witches. I wanted to stay true to that era; I didn’t want to incorporate pieces of modern Wiccan or neo-pagan magic.”
The mostly-female fans (I was one of maybe six men in an audience of at least 100) were given an unexpected surprise when a member of the audience asked if the books would someday be made into a movie. To the mass’s delight, she responded affirmatively.
“Last year, I signed the rights of the entire trilogy to Warner Brothers,” she said to applause. “I’m working with the same producers who put together the Michael Keaton Batman movies, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, and others. Later this week, the finished script will be read and the decision as to whether they will move forward with the project will be made.” (NOTE: At the time of this writing, no new information regarding the movie has been made available.)
The next question, the No. 1 question at any author panel, focused on her writing influences. Anne Rice topped her list, but not for the obvious Vampire Chronicles. Harkness is now forever one of my all-time favorites because of her love for The Witching Hour, one of Rice’s lesser-known, but truly brilliant novels. Later in the evening as I talked to her, she expressed her mild surprise that, with all the movies being made exploring the supernatural, the book had not been optioned for the silver screen. (Anne, if you’re reading this, I’d like to go to bed tonight knowing there is a fourth Mayfair Witches book in the works.)
When a series of books such as the All Souls trilogy is created, an entire universe comes into existence, filled with several interesting characters and story lines in addition to those directly involved with the primary heroes/villains. Harkness said while there are currently no plans to work on any side projects focusing on said characters. She’s not out of stories, but for the moment her primary goal is to begin work on the final book.
As the evening began to wind down, Harkness talked about the reaction of her colleagues concerning her success as a fiction writer. Once they stopped being dismayed by the fact she used her real name when publishing the book, they were supportive. In fact, many would-be scribes have since approached her for advice.
“I’ve had fellow teachers coming up to me and saying, ‘I write cowboy-era bodice rippers,’ and the like. “A lot of possible novelists are coming out of the closet to me” she remarked.
She also mentioned that her students have something to say about her writing – “My students, though, take an unholy delight in my career, specifically my reviews. Especially the reviews that use the letter grade system. When I get a B+ or lower, I have students who enjoy pointing that out to me, especially if I’ve given them a low grade in the past.”
She finished by thanking the audience as well as the literally hundreds of people who have touched her books to get them to bookstores like Left Bank Books. Harkness focused on everyone from her agent and editors to the marketing staff and even the reader of the audio books.
Shadow of Night has received mostly glowing reviews and for anyone who enjoys medieval settings and supernatural love stories, the first two books of the trilogy should definitely be given a chance. While Harkness’ fan base is predominantly female, I can tell you, having perused the first book, male fans of fantasy will enjoy the series as well.
For more information on Left Bank Books, visit them on the Web at Left-Bank.com. Deborah Harkness’ personal Web site is located at DeborahHarkness.com and fans can follow her on Twitter at @DebHarkness.