Imagine spending years toiling in school, studying hard, inching up from bachelor’s degree, to master’s degree, to doctorate, and then, maybe, to a second doctorate, becoming an expert in your field. And then imagine the world coming to admire and love you not for all of that, but for writing a novel about vampires.
Deborah Harkness — like Diana Gabaldon, Kathy Reichs, Mary Bly and others — is a serious academic, a professor and a scholar, and also a very successful bestselling author of fantastic fiction. It’s a fascinating new breed, these scientists and historians who have turned their keen minds to making up stories that spring somehow from their field of expertise.
Reichs, for example, is a forensic anthropologist and a full professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and also the author of a string of bestselling mysteries (starring a forensic anthropologist). Bly is a professor of Shakespeare at Fordham University with degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, and the author (under the pen name Eloisa James) of a string of historically-accurate-down-to-the-buttonhole-and-petticoat historical romances. Bodice rippers, if you will, but accurate bodice rippers.
Gabaldon is a scientist and former professor with advanced degrees in marine biology and quantitative behavioral ecology but is world-famous for her time-traveling “Outlander” series, in which a nurse in 1946 Scotland walks into a ring of stones and ends up in the year 1743 (No. 8 in the series, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” was published in June).
And Harkness has lived on the New York Times bestseller list for three years with her All Souls trilogy, which is about time travel, vampires, alchemy, a missing manuscript and forbidden passion. She is also a Fulbright and Guggenheim fellow and a professor of history at the University of Southern California.
These writers have all used their professional expertise — how to read bones, how people lived in Shakespearean England — to bring authenticity and accuracy to their novels. (Yes, even when writing about vampires.)
Harkness will be in the Twin Cities at 7 p.m. Tuesday to launch “The Book of Life,” last of the All Souls Trilogy. The series follows the story of historian Diana Bishop, who discovers a mysterious rare manuscript and falls in love with a vampire. She will be at Macalester College’s Weyerhaeuser Chapel at an event sponsored by Common Good Books.
Here, she talks about how a lost manuscript inspired her first book, and what vampires do all day.
Q: You’re a history professor, and a Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow. What made you decide to start writing about vampires, witches, time travel and magic?
A: There was no decision. I wondered: If there were vampires, what did they do for a living? And pretty soon I was writing a novel. It was a wonderful, unforeseen accident.
Q: Like Kathy Reichs’ Bones series, your trilogy is populated with extremely intelligent academics and scientists. Is smart the new sexy?
A: Smart is, and has always been, sexy.
Q: When you began the trilogy, was there ever a concern that it would affect your standing in the academic world?
A: I wasn’t concerned. Nobody told Montesquieu that he had to decide between writing political philosophy and satire.
Q: I’ve heard that the genesis for the series — your protagonist, Diana Bishop, stumbling across a lost manuscript in the Bodleian Library — mirrors something that happened to you. Can you tell me about this?
A: I found a “lost” manuscript called the Book of Soyga that had once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, John Dee, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Everybody thought it was the missing key to Dee’s interest in magic. Of course, it wasn’t really lost. It was there, in the catalog. But it was cataloged a bit strangely and nobody had bothered doing a full search. I didn’t do a full search, either. I found it by accident, though the former Keeper of Rare Books made up a very generous story about me tracking incipits. What actually happened is that I was looking for an Arabic optical treatise and found the “lost” Book of Soyga (or Aldaraia) instead. And from a research standpoint, it didn’t solve a single mystery about John Dee, so it was a bit anticlimactic, really.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: It’s a spare bedroom on the front corner of our house. Right now it looks as though a bomb hit it.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: I am so thrilled to carve out a few minutes to write that I grab it whenever I can. I usually have music playing. That’s about it for rituals!
Q: How do you get past writers’ block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A: I either keep writing or I take a walk. Both work. As for the Internet, there’s no point fighting it. Get on the Web or e-mail, check in with the world, and then get off. That’s far better than being distracted.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” “Little Women” or any of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Take your pick!
Q: What books do you re-read?
A: I re-read the books I assign to my students. Each time I do, I learn something new.
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: Two phones. Two boxes of pens. A copy of “The Book of Life.” Unopened mail. Stacks of Xeroxed articles from last semester’s teaching. A broken stapler. Some British money. Kleenex. An iPad. A glass of wine. (It is 5:23 p.m. on a Friday, in my defense.)
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: I did a candlelight reading in the parish church in Woodstock — Matthew and Diana’s parish church — for the Blenheim Literary Festival. That was magical.
Q; Which authors have inspired you?
A: How long can this be? I’m a historian. Do you want me to start with Plautus and go forward, or Ruth Ozeki and Liz Gilbert and go backward?
Q: Do you have more novels planned? Can you tell us about them?
A: “Planned”? No. Then again, I never planned on writing “A Discovery of Witches,” either. I have lots of ideas. We’ll have to wait and see where they lead.