Interview: Author Deborah Harkness, All Souls Trilogy

Interviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

[caption id="attachment_14296" align="alignright" width="362"]Deborah Harness will be reading from and discussing her final book in the All Souls Trilogy, “The Book of Life,” at Warwick’s in La Jolla on Friday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seating requires advance purchase of “The Book of Life” from Warwick’s, which can be reached at 858-454-0347. Deborah Harness will be reading from and discussing her final book in the All Souls Trilogy, The Book of Life, at Warwick’s in La Jolla on Friday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seating requires advance purchase of the book from Warwick’s, which can be reached at 858-454-0347.[/caption]

On July 15, the New York Times bestselling All Souls Trilogy concludes with the release of the final novel in the fantasy series by historian and scholar Deborah Harkness: The Book of Life (Viking, July 15, 2014). The Book of Life offers a conclusion likely to be as auspicious as the series’ 2011 birth with A Discovery of Witches, which received such early and eager praise, it launched directly onto the bestseller list.

A Discovery of Witches introduced the trilogy’s reluctant protagonist, contemporary witch and scholar Diana Bishop, and her forbidden “cross-species” love interest, vampire and geneticist Matthew Clairmont. While circumstances compelled Diana to acknowledge and embrace her inherent nature, she and Matthew pursued an exploration of the prejudices, prohibitions, and threats within their world, while in the company of a cast of vivid characters, including some gays and lesbians, all nicely mirroring themes of current polemics.

Shadow of Night swiftly followed A Discovery of Witches in 2012 and garnered comparable praise. Harkness’ adept writing—rich in historical detail, supernatural mythology, romance and humor—and her diverse and complex characters created a celebrated trilogy for adult fantasy devotees, a trilogy with a bold social conscience.

Now, after devouring The Book of Life, Harkness fans will mourn the series’ end. But the conclusion calls for a bit of retrospection, a look at the context of the trilogy's launch and the implicit lessons Harkness has intended to convey. She shared her thoughts in a recent telephone interview.

“Part of what I was interested in doing when I started writing this trilogy was to see … can I make the past seem relevant and fun and sexy, but also get it true and right, and not distort it?”

Harkness was worried about honoring her characters, just as she worried that her students at University of Southern California might not see, for example, the human behind Henry VIII’s dastardly behavior.

“History should not be about judgment; it should be about understanding. And that really does feed my work as a teacher and as a writer. How can we use history not to judge but to understand?

“When I started writing these books in 2008, it was Prop. 8 [California’s anti-same-sex marriage ballot measure, which was eventually ruled unconstitutional] and the year before the [200th] Darwin anniversary. There was this sort of bizarre confluence of circumstances, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to inflict restrictions on one part of the population?’ We have a culture that says one thing and does another.”

Harkness says the relationships in her books are intentional metaphors for today’s prejudices—and enlightenments—and she uses readers’ fascination with witches and vampires deliberately.

“We can employ them to talk about and think about today’s issues. It’s about empathy. That is the number one thing I try to teach students, and it is the number one thing in the world.”

From Harkness’ heart to her characters’. In the author’s inscription of The Book of Life, she cheekily appropriates a quotation often misattributed to Charles Darwin, and ascribes it to her character Philippe de Clermont, the vampire patriarch: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Diana reiterates the message as she describes the love she shares with Matthew: “It grew because our bond was strong enough to withstand the hatred and fear of others. And it would endure because we had discovered, like the witches so many centuries ago, that a willingness to change was the secret of survival.”

And isn’t art—be it literary, visual or performance—an invitation to change?

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Click here for a guide to the characters in the All Souls Trilogy.

Also published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.