Author Interviews
3:51 pm
Fri July 6, 2012

Science, The Supernatural Key To 'Night's' Alchemy

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 4:46 pm

Deborah Harkness is not only an enormously successful novelist who writes about trendy things like vampires. She's also a respected historian of science — a professor at the University of Southern California — and a wine expert.

In fact there's a lot of wine appreciation in Harkness' breakthrough novel, A Discovery of Witches. Her academic work involves the study of alchemy — the transformation of matter. She says wine is like alchemy, too.

And the way you taste flavor notes in a good glass of wine, Harkness says, is a little like how she tries to use history in her novels.

"I kept thinking of the historical information as spice or herbs. Like tarragon," she says. "A little history went a long way."

The heroine of A Discovery of Witches is a historian too, a Yale professor and reluctant witch, researching at the great Bodleian Library of Oxford University.

There, Diana Bishop runs across a mysterious book about magic, which turns out to be magical itself:

"Traces of gilt shone along its edges and caught my eye. But those faded touches of gold could not account for a faint iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages."

Then an evil cabal steps in and steals the book, so Diana hunts for it across Europe, with the help of a hunky vampire. If that sounds like an unholy mixture of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code, Harkness contends she was influenced by higher-brow literary works, including Anne Rice's The Witching Hour and A.S. Byatt's Possession.

"You can taste those underlying notes of those books," she says.

If anything, Harkness just wanted to unite her academic passions with the kind of fiction her students like to read. Her new novel, Shadow of Night, takes her first novel's characters back in time to the Renaissance, Harkness' area of specialty.

So she knows exactly what her heroine would wear to meet Queen Elizabeth. As Diana describes in Shadow of Night: "It took four women two hours to get me dressed. First I was laced into my clothes, which were padded and puffed to ridiculous proportions with thick quilting and a wide farthingale that was just as unwieldy as I had imagined. My ruff was suitably large and ostentatious — though not, Mary assured me, as large as the Queen's would be."

"Whew, she made Elizabeth as scary as she must have been," enthuses Constance Sublette, another historian who also writes fantasy and science fiction, under the name Constance Ash. Sublette says Harkness takes obvious delight in writing her heroine into Elizabethan history.

And she says it's clear that with the real-life supporting characters, such as William Shakespeare and the queen's alchemist, John Dee, that Harkness didn't need to do much extra research. After all, Sublette points out, "She had already written a book about John Dee."

Sublette says she loves that a story about a witch and a vampire's romance also takes on everything from palace intrigue and political fights in the 1500s to weighty questions of metaphysics and bioethics. Maybe it's Twilight for the intellectually restless.

"If you are tired of books in which the only question anybody asked is who is going to sleep with who and when, this is the book for you," Sublette says. "It asks other questions. But we do get to sleep with somebody really nice."

That would be Matthew Clairmont, vampire, aristocrat, more hot than nice — and he's a geneticist. Harkness says if you're going to have an immortal life, you would probably pick your career carefully, rather than having a stereotypical vampire job like mortuary worker or private detective.

"You'd be a research scientist, an investment banker, an art collector!"

Harkness also admits, vampire or no, that all authors of books with plucky enterprising heroines in love with dark brooding men have something in common.

"We're all writing Jane Eyre fan fiction."

Jane Eyre fan fiction — with bite.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the most successful beach books of last year was about a witch who falls in love with a vampire. Go ahead and roll your eyes, but the book, called "A Discovery of Witches," charmed many skeptical critics and readers. Among them was NPR's Neda Ulaby. She talked with the book's author about combining serious academic research with supernatural romance in "The Witches" sequel that's coming out next week.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Deborah Harkness is not only an enormously successful novelist who writes about trendy things like vampires. She's also a respected historian of science, a professor at the University of Southern California, and a wine expert.

Right now, at her favorite wine store in L.A., she's pouring a voluptuous glass of California red.

DEBORAH HARKNESS: And it's ciroc(ph), so it's really red and fruity.

ULABY: There's a lot of wine appreciation in Harkness' breakthrough novel, "A Discovery of Witches." Her academic work involves the study of alchemy, the transformation of matter. She says wine is like alchemy, too.

HARKNESS: I'm going to pour you some of this.

ULABY: It smells like olives.

HARKNESS: Olives and blackberries, something sort of herbal.

ULABY: The way you taste flavor notes in a good glass of wine, Harkness says, is a little like how she tried to use history in her novels.

HARKNESS: I kept thinking of the historical information as spice or herbs, like tarragon. A little history went a long way.

ULABY: The heroine of "A Discovery of Witches" is a historian, too - a Yale professor and a reluctant witch researching at the great Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (reading) Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up.

ULABY: In this reading from "A Discovery of Witches," Diana Bishop runs across a mysterious book about magic that's magical itself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (reading) Traces of guilt shown along its edges and caught my eye, but those faded touches of gold couldn't account for a faint iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages. I blinked.

ULABY: Then an evil cabal steps in and steals the book, so Diana hunts for it across Europe with the help of a hunky vampire. Now, if that sounds like an unholy mixture of "Twilight" meets "The Da Vinci Code," author Deborah Harkness says she was influenced by higher brow literary fare, including Anne Rice's "The Witching Hour" and A.S. Byatt's "Possession."

HARKNESS: You can taste those underlying notes of those books.

ULABY: If anything, Harkness just wanted to unite her academic passions with the kind of fiction her students read. Her new novel, "Shadow of Night," takes her first novel's characters back in time to the renaissance, Harkness' area of specialty, so she knows exactly what her heroine would wear to meet Queen Elizabeth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (reading) It took four women two hours to get me dressed. First, I was laced into my clothes, which were padded and puffed to ridiculous proportions with thick quilting and a wide farthingale that was just as unwieldy as I had imagined. My ruff was suitably large and ostentatious, though not, Mary assured me, as large as the Queen's would be.

CONSTANCE SUBLETTE: Oh, she made Elizabeth as scary as she must have been.

ULABY: That's Constance Sublette. Like Deborah Harkness, she's a historian who also writes fantasy and science fiction. She says Harkness takes obvious delight in writing her heroine into Elizabethan history and she says it's clear, with her real life supporting characters, such as William Shakespeare or the Queen's alchemist, John Dee, Harkness did not need to do much extra research.

SUBLETTE: She had already written a book about John Dee.

ULABY: Sublette says she loves that a story about a witch and a vampire's romance also takes on everything from palace intrigue and political fights in the 1500s to weighty questions of metaphysics and bioethics. Maybe it's "Twilight" for the intellectually restless.

SUBLETTE: If you are tired of books in which the only question anybody asked is who is going to sleep with who and when, this is a book for you. It asks other questions, but we do get to sleep with somebody really nice.

ULABY: That would be Matthew Clairmont, vampire, aristocrat, more hot than nice, and a geneticist. Author Deborah Harkness says, if you're going to have an immortal life, you'll probably pick your career carefully rather than having a stereotypical vampire job like mortuary worker or private detective.

HARKNESS: You'd be a research scientist, an investment banker, an art collector.

ULABY: And she says, vampire or no, all authors of books with plucky enterprising heroines in love with dark, brooding men have something in common.

HARKNESS: We're all writing "Jane Eyre" fan fiction.

ULABY: "Jane Eyre" fan fiction with bite. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.